Editors' Note: The rating on this review has been lowered from due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
HD Radio technology has been around for years, but finding products that support it remains something of a challenge--even as an overwhelming majority of home and car audio products offer plug-and-play support for Sirius or (especially) XM satellite radios. By contrast, HD Radio is still largely limited to extreme high-end AV receivers (the $2,500 Denon AVR-4308CI or the $2,000 Onkyo TX-NR905) or pricey tabletop radios (the $300 Boston Acoustics Recepter HD or the $500 Polk Audio I-Sonic). Or at least that was the case: Sony's XDR-S3HD lowers entry-level price for a standalone HD Radio to just $200. The catch: It's just a radio. But for those looking to listen to all-digital radio broadcasts--including HD2 multicast stations that aren't available on analog bands--that may well be enough.
With dimensions of 5 by 11.88 by 6.75 inches (HWD), the XDR-S3HD is a standard boxy tabletop radio, but it's got a nice (albeit simulated) cherrywood finish and a speaker grille covering nearly the entire front face. The LCD readout is mounted dead center, and displays all the station information, menu options, and so forth. The controls are found on the top side--the nine buttons along the front edge are hedged in by volume and tuning knobs. Alternately, you can opt to use the wireless remote control. Unlike the flat credit-card remotes that ship with a lot of radios, this full-size clicker has 27 buttons including a full numeric keypad. The extra buttons make the remote a better choice for navigating the setup options (such as clock, alarm, and preset settings), but if you misplace it, the radio's built-in controls can access all of the same functions--you'll just need to dive deeper into one of the LCD menus.
In addition to a stereo auxiliary input and headphone jack, the radio's rear panel includes connectors for AM and FM antennas (both are included, or you can attach your own). While there's no built-in iPod dock, the line-in jack will let you connect the Apple player--or any other device--to the S3HD's speakers. One small annoyance: The XDR-S3HD has a nondetachable AC power cord. The 12-foot distance is ample enough, but it's got a power transformer awkwardly placed halfway down its length. That's countered by a nice design touch: The underside of the radio has a silent exhaust fan that keeps the innards cool.
Clock and alarm
With no built-in CD player, satellite radio, or dedicated iPod dock, the clock and alarm functionality represents fully half the value of the XDR-S3HD. On the plus side, the alarm can be set to wake to any station preset, the line-in source, or a buzzer, and the volume can be locked in as well. The latter point is a nice touch, since it lets you drift to sleep with the radio barely audible (the sleep timer can be set at 15 minute intervals up to an hour), but wake up at a suitably high volume to rouse you out of bed. On the downside, there's only a single alarm, not the standard dual alarms you'll find on most such units. Also, while the LCD can be set at one of three brightness levels, it has to be done so manually; by contrast, some competing radios have a built-in light sensor that automatically adjusts the brightness according to the room's ambient lighting. It's also notable that the S3HD is missing a snooze bar--once you turn off the alarm, it's reset until the next day.
The alarm functionality is all fine and good, but the big draw here is the radio itself. In addition to the standard analog AM and FM bands, the XDR-S3HD can tune into the new digital HD Radio stations. HD isn't a separate band--when you tune to an analog station that has a digital counterpart, the "HD" icon will flash, along with the cell-phone-like signal strength meter. After a couple of seconds, the radio will automatically switch from the analog to the digital signal, and the display should show additional data (usually the song and artist information, and station call letters) available on the digital stream.