Sangean HDT-20 AM/FM/HD Tuner
The HDT-20 is one of very few component HD tuners currently available, selling for about $154 at Amazon. With the popular Sony XDR-F1HD (which seems to be more highly regarded for its reception than its sound quality) discontinued, Day Sequerra is the primary alternative and their models begin at more than ten times the price of the HDT-20.
Every HD radio I have tested previously has been either a portable or table model and although most of these can feed an audio output to an external amplifier, none were created as true components designed to be used as an audio source for an external audio system. While there have been a few other component HD tuners, they are either discontinued or much more expensive. The HDT-20 is the only current production HD component tuner I am aware of anywhere near this price.
Design Concept: The HDT-20 is designed to easily interface with any home audio or audio/video setup with standard analog RCA Line Out jacks along with SPDIF Optical and Digital outputs. There is also an 1/8” Headphone jack on the front panel which is controlled by the Volume Control. The rear panel outputs are at a fixed standard level. Since most HD radios these days are complete receivers (meaning they include a tuner, amp and speakers), are there any advantages to a component tuner without amp and speakers in the same manner as traditional audio components? I’ll address that as we go along.
The internal views show a compact power supply/input/output circuit board and a front panel logic/DSP/display board which is well-populated and of standard component size which allows a very clear and uncluttered front panel layout. Even so, some functions are only accessible via the remote control which has the standard numeric keypad not present on the front of the tuner. Some will argue that this tuner could be half the size but sometimes such downsized components (my Sony Blu-ray DVD players come to mind) are less convenient than full sized components simply because they have limited front panel features and they move when you try to use them. This is a highly subjective issue and I won’t take a side because there are valid aspects pro and con. But I do like the overall design and ergonomics of the HDT-20 and I will also say is that Sangean units are generally well made and stand up well over time…in today’s cost-conscious market Sangean makes quality equipment for the price.
Getting Started: Setup was as simple as it could be. The biggest choice to be made is which type of output you want for your system. With both digital and optical outputs, you are all set for a direct digital connection, or for a more standard setup use the standard RCA Line Outs (I did not test the optical or digital outputs). Connect the supplied AM loop antenna to its corresponding inputs (and try to place that loop a few feet away from the receiver to minimize noise pickup). Connect the supplied twin-lead FM dipole to the 75-ohm F connector input, plug in the AC cord and you’re ready to go. With standard external antenna inputs for both AM and FM you are free to experiment with better antennas if needed.
A Word About Those Much-Maligned Wire Dipole Antennas: As far back as I can remember, home FM tuners and table radios usually were supplied with the once-familiar twin-lead folded dipole antenna. These are 300 ohms and we used to connect them directly to the typical 300 ohm antenna terminals on FM equipment. Today however, 75 ohms is the norm so Sangean supplies a 300 to 75 ohm inline transformer. FM enthusiasts often sneer at the wire dipole as a cheap way to get some signals into your equipment, but hardly something a “serious” FM user would use. The fact is however, that if you stretch that antenna out to its intended “T” configuration it is a fairly efficient FM antenna. Most of the time however, people just let them curl up on the floor behind the equipment and that is why the results are often so disappointing. What I did back in the day (and still do to this day when I’m not using an external FM antenna), is to mount that wire on a strip of wood to keep it stretched out. Then I fashion some way to aim it. If wall hanging happens to put it in the proper orientation for best reception, you’re lucky…I usually lay it on the floor or rig it to a tripod to make aiming easier. In my location aiming is critical for most signals as I have them coming from all directions. My best advice is to find a way to keep the antenna straight and if you can aim it to maximize reception you will usually find it worth the effort.
In Use: I found the HDT-20 very easy to get used to. I do wish the remote control (which by the way is the same one used for the HDR-18 HD Table radio) was easier to read in low lighting but I imagine that younger, keener eyes won’t find this an issue. My first tests were for FM reception and HD threshold. The biggest problem with HD reception is that broadcasters are currently only allowed to use 10% of their analog power for their digital signal to prevent interference to the analog signal. This means broadcast stations cover a considerably larger listening area in analog mode than in HD Digital mode. If you have weak signals, they may come in OK in analog mode but not be able to trigger HD. To check this, I compared the HDT-20 with my HDR-18 HD table radio and HDR-16 portable HD radio. The HDT-20 was using the supplied twin-lead dipole while the other two radios were using their whip antennas and this gave a slight edge to the HDT-20…not a huge difference but on a handful of marginal signals the HDT-20/Dipole combo was just slightly more sensitive to the HD signals. Interestingly, there was less difference in FM analog mode. The station info displayed quickly and easily in both analog RDS and HD modes.
I did have the loan of a discontinued Sony HD radio and found the Sony was slightly superior in both HD sensitivity and FM selectivity but that unit has no line outputs and is no longer available. These early Sony HD radios are also reputed to have less good audio quality but I didn’t have a chance to verify that. I will say that, in addition to adding HD capability, the overall FM performance of the HDT-20 is slightly better than the FM tuner in my home theater setup, and adding the HD2, 3 (and sometimes 4) programs to that system are an undeniable advantage.
AM Tests: I have never been a big fan of the small untuned air core loops such as the one provided with the HDT-20 but I have to say that this tuner performed fairly well with it. Initially it didn’t seem that sensitive but when I re-read the manual’s advice to keep it at least 20 inches away from the tuner I found that it made a huge difference. Overall AM sensitivity, while not up there with the very best AM portables was nevertheless very good and better than the AM tuner in my home theatre receiver (which also uses one of these air core loops). The HD Threshold seemed very similar to the other Sangean HD radios I had on hand to compare with it. One complaint I have with all the HD radios I’ve tried so far is that none lets you defeat HD mode and that can cause your signal to flip between HD and analog which is annoying. I’ve noticed this particularly on AM and have experienced this same issue in vehicles with HD radios. In my area my favorite AM station is just strong enough to trigger HD so it pops in and out as I drive. Manufacturers have to add an HD Defeat mode to prevent this or make the switching less intrusive. For home listening a work-around is to slightly re-orient the radio or antenna to kill the HD signal…this in inelegant but it works. In my suburban location I don’t have this problem with FM HD but I do on AM HD.
The only real issue I had is that the Auto Clock Set never seemed to work. I have a dial full of signals with both FM RDS and HD which should be sending the proper time signal but my tuner never set it’s time by itself over many days of use. I finally set it to manual time set mode and had forgotten about it until a friend of mine told me his does the same thing so it seems there is a bug somewhere. I do have other FM RDS radios that set their time automatically without any intervention from me as, like the HDT-20, they all default to Auto Set mode when first received.
Other than that minor quibble, the HDT-20 appears to follow Sangean’s tradition of good build quality. At a time when many consumer electronics seem to be slapped together as cheaply as possible this tuner feels like it is well-made…it has a nice, solid feel. It is also easy to set up and use and the remote is a definite advantage. Using it as a source in my A/V system it performed flawlessly providing excellent reception and sound quality and, of course, the HD streams with their extra channels are interesting to explore. You could spend well into four figures for a Day Sequerra and I suspect it would probably be better in some ways, but other than those the HDT-20 is a solid, very good performer and, in fact, is the only game in town.