The realm of high-end tabletop radios once seemed to be the sole domain of Bose. In past few years, however, the market has been crowded with competitors including Tivoli Audio, Polk Audio, and Boston Acoustics, not to mention upstarts such as Chestnut Hill Sound. Two of our favorites were from Cambridge SoundWorks--the company's Radio 730 and Radio CD 740 delivered some of the best sound quality we'd heard from a tabletop radio. Since the debut of those two Cambridge models, however, the need for iPod integration has become an even more critical feature for lifestyle-friendly audio products. So the company has added an iPod dock to both models, and updated the model numbers accordingly. Enter the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i ($199, reviewed here) and the Radio CD 745i (which adds CD playback for an additional $249).
Like most of the products in the rarefied tabletop radio world, the Radio 735i is pretty straightforward: It's an AM/FM radio with a dual-alarm clock radio and an outboard iPod dock thrown in to boot. Aside from that dock, the Radio 735i is basically a dead ringer for its predecessor, the Radio 730. Like that venerable model, the 735i is available in white or black and measures out at 5x14x10 inches--so make sure your nightstand or bedside table has enough real estate. It tips the scales at a hefty 11 pounds, but we're not complaining--it's a tabletop radio, not a portable you'll be moving from room to room.
Except for the snooze/mute button on the otherwise bare topside, all of the Radio 735i's controls are located on its front face. A 32-character LCD readout sits above two clusters of eight buttons each, separated by a jog dial that's 1 inch in diameter. The display is linked to a light sensor, so it dims in dark rooms--correcting an oversight of the always-bright display on the 730/740 model. The jog dial controls volume by default, but clicking the nearby "jog" key toggles it to a variety of other functions, including bass, treble, and loudness. The knob offers much more visceral control than a pair of up/down keys, but the rest of the controls aren't nearly as pleasing: the tiny circular buttons are identically sized and shaped, so they're hard to distinguish in low light or when you're groggy--not good for a radio that boasts alarm clock functionality. It's the same problem we had with the more downscale Lasonic MSU-2020--but the 735i's better-known brand doesn't make the poorly arrayed controls any more palatable.
The 735i crams a 2.1-speaker array into its comparatively tiny frame--two front drivers, and a downward-firing woofer for added bass. The speakers are magnetically shielded, so they can be placed near a TV or any other sensitive device with impunity. Using the jog dial, the audio output can be set to stereo, mono, or "wide," which attempts to simulate stereo separation beyond the 7 inches or so of space between the front speakers.
The left set of buttons are the radio presets--just depress one of them while on the station of your choice, and it's saved to one of the three "bands" (FM1, FM2, or AM). The right set of buttons offers a choice of source (AM, FM, iPod, or front auxiliary), as well as up/down radio tuning; there's a seek function for jumping from station to station as well. The Cambridge tuner supports RDS (Radio Data Service), so the readout offers call-letter and song information from stations that support it. (The display can be set to display the text as static, scrolling, or turned off altogether.)
Alarm functionality isn't usually notable, but the Cambridge 735i offers some subtle flexibility that's worthy of its luxurious price tag. Each of the two alarms can be set to wake to an alarm tone or to any one of the AM/FM radio presets (but you can't wake to the iPod). But this is one of the few alarm systems we've seen that also lets you lock in the volume setting of each alarm, so it can be as loud or subtle as you like in the morning, regardless of what the volume level was when you turned it off. So, you can have your iPod lull you to sleep with the volume set to 3 (the sleep timer can be set at intervals from 15 to 120 minutes), but be guaranteed to be awakened at a dream-ending 15. Snooze, meanwhile, can be preset to intervals of 5 to 22 minutes, depending on your personal level of morning procrastination. A standard 9-volt battery (inserted on the underside) sustains the clock, the alarm, and the radio presets during power disruptions of as long as 48 hours--we unplugged the 735i for 30 minutes without losing a thing.
If you're looking to pull in some distant radio stations, you can attach the included external AM (1/8-inch) and FM (RF screw-type) antennas to the rear panel, or fashion your own to boost the signals. The two-jack connector for the iPod dock is also nearby--one for power, one for audio. What's nice is that the iPod dock audio connector is a standard 1/8-inch stereo jack, so it will work with any audio source that has a headphone jack or a line output--a satellite radio, a computer, or a portable CD player, say--so long as you provide your own matching patch cable.
The iPod dock itself is a proprietary module designed to work only with the Radio 735i and the Radio CD 745i. Cambridge throws in some dock adapters to fit popular iPod sizes, and it will accept any first- or third-party standard adapter as well. In addition to the hard-wired cable that connects the dock to the main Cambridge radio, the dock offers composite and S-Video outputs for connecting to your TV--a nice option not always found on audio-centric iPod-compatible products. The dock also has its own remote sensor for picking up signals from the remote control (the remote can also sit in a dedicated slot in the dock when not in use). You get full access to the iPod's menu system from the remote, but it's a pretty unsatisfying experience. Not only does the remote use a series of buttons rather than the iPod's familiar scrollwheel, you have to be almost on top of it to actually see the onscreen menus. But the ability to skip, rewind, and pause songs can be done blind, so it's not a total loss.