Editors' Note: The rating on this review has been lowered from due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
It's taken a few years, but HD Radio is finally starting to take off. More than 1,200 stations in the U.S. now broadcast digital HD Radio streams, and the number of HD-compatible radios capable of receiving those digital broadcasts is slowly starting to expand. One of the latest HD Radio options for the home is the $179 Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD. As with similarly equipped units, the 820HD can receive those digital broadcasts, which offer the promise of better sound quality, no static, and digital-only stations that aren't available on analog-only radios.
Unlike the 735i and 745i--which are just refreshed versions of older Cambridge models--the 820HD has an all-new chassis, a slick one at that. Available in onyx (black) or arctic white, the 820HD's gently rounded body measures out at 4.5x13.25x7.5 inches, and the 8.2-pound weight hints at the radio's solid build quality. Two stereo speakers flank the center-mounted screen and controls. We knocked the myriad buttons on the 735i/745i models, and Cambridge seems to have listened.
The bulk of interaction with the 820HD can be achieved with just two knobs--they're primarily for tuning and volume, but an adjoining jog button on the latter knob toggles it between two sets of customization functions, including bass and treble levels, loudness control, screen contrast, and snooze length. The remaining few buttons cover the everyday functionality of switching bands, seeking stations up and down the dial, and activating the two alarms. Even if you're not a major gadget-head, it's a safe bet that you'll be able to hit all the main operation points--tuning stations, setting favorites, setting the alarm--without ever having to consult the manual (that shouldn't be a distinguishing feature in a radio, but given some needlessly complex products we've seen, it's worth mentioning). A 27-button, credit card-style remote is also available for controlling the radio from afar.
The 3-inch-diagonal backlit LCD screen gives plenty of feedback for the various controls and settings, and it automatically adjusts its brightness depending on the ambient light in the room, so it's bright enough to see in the day but won't blind you at night. In addition to the basics such as the station frequency, the time, the date, and the alarm indicators, the screen offers additional data when tuned to digital HD Radio stations, including signal strength, song and artist info, and station and program listings (such as the DJ's name).
In addition to receiving analog and digital ("HD") AM and FM broadcasts, the Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD can double as a speaker system for your iPod or other devices. Just attach a patch cord to one of the two minijack auxiliary line inputs on the Cambridge radio (there's one on the right side and one on the rear, but they're both feeding the same single line-in jack). In addition to the headphone jack, there's an optical digital output (on the rear) that you can use to pump audio to AV receivers that are so equipped. A 2.5mm, 12-volt power output for use with "special accessories" is also present on the rear panel. Sure enough, it worked perfectly when paired with the iPod dock that's included with the 735i.