Insignia NS-HDTUNE HD Radio Tuner Review

Insignia Products NS-HDTUNE
HD Radio is a relatively new broadcasting technology that delivers digital radio broadcasts utilizing the same frequency range for AM and FM as is currently in use for today's analog broadcasts. It's also the “standard” digital radio broadcast technology for use in the United States. And, if Wikipedia can be believed, HD Radio has seen more implementation than any other competing system. (Take that with a grain of salt – it practically sounds as though it is begging to be marked with a “this reads like an advertisement” tag, and I can't tell you how true it might or might not be.)

Of course, if you want to listen to HD Radio, you need a tuner that can decode such broadcasts. There are a few units to choose from. In particular, I'm aware of a unit from Sony and the Insignia NS-HDTUNE, which is distributed by Best Buy. You don't have to listen to HD Radio, as nobody is forcing your hand as with the over the air digital TV fiasco, but you can and may wish to do so.

This review examines the Insignia unit and aims to answer the question “is it any good”. Best Buy sells these units for $100 per, so one would certainly hope that it is. (Truth be told, anyone paying the full retail price for these units is being robbed. You can read more about that here, and gain a detailed view of the unit's internals.) The NS-HDTUNE is made by international mega-brand He Sheng Acoustics Equipment Process Factory, whose name is printed internally.

The former RadioShack Corporation sold a similar version of this tuner. While it seemed to address some of the issues, especially those relating to responsiveness of the front panel controls, it did nothing to improve reception capability or quality. I also noticed that analog reception appeared to be artificially limited in fidelity compared to HD Radio. Was this an attempt at making analog radio seem worse than it really is?

In all fairness I am reviewing a “scratch and dent” unit that was purchased from a liquidator. However, outside of some minor damage to the cabinet, the unit itself is fully functional and every bit as good as a new one.

The NS-HDTUNE is a hybrid tuner. It recieves conventional analog AM and FM broadcasts in the US, and it appears to be fixed to the “US” tuning steps for AM and FM. When it can, it will switch to the digital HD radio reception method. For what you pay, you get a remote control, analog audio outputs, and digital audio outputs (for coaxial and optical digital connections). Sixteen FM presets and eight AM presets may be stored in the tuner's memory.

I dutifully hooked up a Radio Shack powered antenna to the AM and FM connectors on the tuner, plugged it into the mighty little Realistic STA-19 stereo receiver's tape input. I then powered everything up and set in to looking for HD Radio stations.

Unfortunately, it seemed like I'd put the tuner into a bit of a “Bermuda Triangle” for radio reception. It could not find any stations except the area's public radio station, which broadcasts a very strong signal in both analog and HD. A little bit of tinkering with the antenna seemed to suggest that more reception would be possible, and cross checks with the tuner built into the Realistic receiver suggested that reception just wasn't going to be very good here.

What it did receive sounded very good, although I still noticed a hiss on analog FM stations that is also present on my other (analog only) tuners. I always thought this modulating, very high pitched hiss was perhaps the dreaded HD Radio “self noise” that I've heard about, but I'd not expect an HD Radio tuner to suffer from the problem of outputting such noise.

So I took the tuner upstairs and hooked its audio outputs up to a Panasonic boom box (hey, it was handy). Perhaps I could get better FM reception upstairs.

The sad fact of the matter is that I couldn't get better reception, and I don't think anything other than the NS-HDTUNE can be blamed for this poor performance. The thing was basically completely deaf on AM and FM alike. Reception improved only a little. In fact, the tuner in the boom box was doing a better job, as did the tuner in my nearby clock radio. If there was a sure indication that this tuner wasn't all that well engineered, I'm sure that would be it.

I finally tried taking the unit to another house (just to be sure) and hooking it up in an upstairs room. I connected it to a real stereo receiver this time, and I used the same Radio Shack amplified antenna as well as a simple piece of wire. It did no better. In fact, I happened to notice that the stereo's built in FM tuner was picking up some kind of hash noise from the NS-HDTUNE.

There are other niggling problems as well. Tuning is aggravatingly slow using the built in jog dial. If you turn it too fast, the microcontroller seems not to like this, and may interpret your actions erratically. I noticed that the numbers would occasionally run backwards for a time when turning the dial rapidly. In light of this, Best Buy should really have designed a set of “direct entry” buttons into this would only have required three more buttons at most, and it would save the end user from having to run through vast portions of dead air space. (Maybe the remote has them. I didn't get a remote with mine. I didn't care.)

HD Radio seeking is fairly slow, and so too is the detection of an HD Radio signal. Should you have any reason to not want to listen to the HD Radio version of a broadcast, there is no switch to force the unit back to analog reception mode.

The action of every button on the unit is loud, so you can forget about listening to the radio if for some reason you're not supposed to be doing so...or if you're using the tuner in an environment where quiet controls would be a plus.

Although the display panel is large and clear, it doesn't ever really say much. RDS (Radio Data Service) is supported for analog FM broadcasts and any HD Radio broadcast can also put information on the display. It may be that the stations broadcasting here don't choose to publish a lot of information, although it is curious as to why Best Buy didn't design the unit to make a little more use of the spacious display panel. All that's usually displayed is the currently tuned station, an HD signal strength meter, preset number identification and the band being tuned.

As a major plus, however, the unit does store its station presets in nonvolatile memory. If the tuner loses power, you don't have to reprogram the stations. Furthermore, the memory is truly nonvolatile—there are no batteries to worry about, supercaps to dry out or internal rechargeable batteries that later fail and leak all over the internals.

Another good point is the reliable switching between HD Radio and an analog broadcast. If for some reason your reception deteriorates to the point where the HD broadcast can no longer be satisfactorily received, the unit will switch back to the conventional analog broadcast signal. Nearly every time this happened, the transition was flawless. Only once did it mess up a little when switching into HD Radio mode from the analog broadcast. This produced a sound somewhat like a skipping noise on a music CD. Of course, if you are listening to a “subchannel” on the HD broadcast, you will notice the switch back to analog broadcasting because the program will change.

While writing the “teardown guide” page, I noticed something odd about this tuner. If you've gone and purchased one, you will have undoubtedly noticed the “hard” power switch at the back of the unit. There is a soft switch at the front, as well as a button on the remote to cycle the power. However, the soft power switch actually does very little. The entirety of the tuner remains fully powered at all times, even though the display is blanked out and operations are impossible. The HD radio decoder also remains fully powered, and it runs very warm, as do two power regulation transistors on the main board.

There's a lot of dead space in this tuner, but there's also no way for fresh air to get inside the casing. The two power regulation transistors on the board run with their heatsinks too hot to touch at all times, and this cannot be good for their reliability. I'd suggest putting a small cooling fan in the unit to move air around, otherwise I feel very strongly that it will die a heat related death.

Bottom Line

If Best Buy was selling this tuner for $50 (half of its current retail price) and if the sensitivity were better, it might not be a bad deal at all. As it is, the no-frills feature set, disappointing reception quality, somewhat shoddy design and the price make it impossible for me to recommend that you buy this tuner. If you simply must have one, don't pay the retail price. You won't be happy if you do.

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