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Shootouts 2.0

August 2016: It has been 10 years since Jim Rivers wrapped up his renowned Shootouts series. While no one is going to attempt to duplicate Jim's effort any time soon (81 side-by-side tuner shootouts? Are you kidding me?!), we thought we'd open up a forum to encourage members of our FMtuners group and others to perform and write up their own mini-shootouts in whatever format they like (within reason!). Contact our Editor/Webmaster at ericATfmtunerinfo.com (replace the "AT" with an @) for some basic guidance and approval of your proposed test subjects and methodology.

McIntosh MR500 vs. Onkyo T-9090 vs. Yamaha T-85 vs. modified Sony XDR-F1HD (8/13/16, photo)
Here's Owen R. to kick off the page:

I am a total newb to the tuner world and I apologize if I use some technical terms incorrectly or am ignorant of certain basics. I fell down the rabbit hole while trying to get one station in my local area to come in cleanly and with as little noise as possible. I found the fmtunerinfo.com website and I got hooked on tuners.

My McIntosh MR500 was compared and contrasted to an Onkyo T-9090, a Yamaha T-85, and a Sony XDR-F1HD modified by The XDR Guy. All tuners went through both a Marantz PM7000 with Boston Acoustics A60s and a Denon DRA-685 with Advent Prodigy Tower IIs. All tuners used the same basic folded dipole antenna mounted on my second-floor bedroom wall. My wife and I did blind interchanges with the tuners and made notes to determine which one simply sounded better in comparison. We compared using four FM stations with about four songs on each station. The stations were chosen based on signal strength, ranging from high to low. The comparison focused on sound quality since the XDR was head and shoulders above all my other tuners for sensitivity and selectivity.

Side Note: I first acquired my XDR unmodified, so I was able to compare it against this tuner lineup prior to mods. It was total crap with regard to sound quality when compared to all of them, basically awful. I had serious buyer's remorse after about two minutes. I sold the XDR to the "XDR Guy" with only a slight loss that I chalked up to a trial/rental fee. The FM and AM sensitivity, though, were incredible. Selectivity is not much of an issue where I live due to the low number of high-power stations nearby. I sold some stuff on eBay so I took the proceeds and contacted the XDR Guy and asked for the tuner back with his full complement of mods. I was very happy with what I received back -- a major improvement to sound quality. I was also able to pick up 13 more stations on FM and 10 more on AM, but I'm not sure whether this was due to the XDR Guy's alignment for FM or possible weather/atmospheric changes.

Best Overall Sound Quality

1) McIntosh MR500
2) (TIE) Modified Sony XDR-F1HD and Onkyo T-9090
4) Yamaha T-85

The Sony and Onkyo were very close, basically indistinguishable from one another for sound quality when there was high signal strength. Once the signal strength went below "3 bars" on the XDR, sound quality fell off to below even the Yamaha, but at least there was no noticeable noise. The Onkyo's form factor is awesome, whereas the Sony looks so cheesy and unimpressive. I was expecting more from the Yamaha with regard to sound quality, but perhaps the problem is with this particular example since I strongly believe the AM is way out of alignment on the T-85. I can't pick up anything out of the area whereas the Sony is picking up stations over hundreds if not thousands of miles away every single night.

In my humble and inexperienced opinion and with modest equipment, my wife and I agree that for any FM station with at least moderate signal strength (which according to the T-9090 seems to be about 35-40 dBf and above, and on the MR500 about 4 or 5 LEDs up the signal-strength meter), the MR500 is without a doubt the best-sounding of the four. I don't want to use too many pretentious-sounding adjectives, but it was just overall fuller, deeper, richer, and just plain more enjoyable. So much more enjoyable that I truly find myself audibly exploring songs to see how many instruments and sounds I can identify. I have not even come close to wanting to do this with any other tuner. It is a true pleasure to listen to.

Once the signal strength goes below a certain point the noise really becomes an issue with this tuner, but I can at least tune the MR500 to what I believe is mono by not tuning it to the point that it locks onto the station, but rather staying off the center frequency by about 0.1 MHz. This works well with talk stations like NPR. It's a digital readout, but doesn't tune like the XDR -- as I adjust the MR500's tuning knob I get continuous tuning, much like an older analog-style tuner.

I like the MR500 very much. It's my go-to tuner for local FM. I will be selling the Onkyo and Yamaha now that this comparison is complete. I only use the XDR for pulling in distant FM stations, HD stations, and AM DXing.

Modded Denon TU-800 vs. modded Yamaha T-85 vs. modded McIntosh MR 74 vs. stock Sony ST-S333ESXII (7/1/18)

Our contributor Tim joins the fun:
"I've spent the last several months extensively comparing a modded Denon TU-800 vs. a modded Yamaha T-85 vs. a stock, unmodded Sony ST-S333ESXII (the export version of Sony's ST-S730ES tuner) vs. my McIntosh MR 74 that Terry DeWick updated. The results were surprising to me.

"The Denon TU-800 was gone through and modded by Bill Ammons and the Yamaha T-85 was gone through and updated by Mike Williams. I believe both Bill and Mike did superlative work on the respective tuners, and the audible differences boil down to what can you achieve when you max out two well-regarded tuners? I believe the Denon and the Yamaha are performing at their maximum capability, and I attribute the differences I hear to the design and engineering differences between the two tuners."

Tim made some comments on our writeup on the Denon TU-800. Don Scott and our panelist Bob had both observed that the TU-800's MPX filter does not seem to do anything, and Tim said, "The MPX button is wasted space on the TU-800's front panel." Our panelist Ray's TU-800 finished fourth in a DXing shootout that you can read about in our Technics ST-S8 writeup, and Tim said, "My experience was somewhat similar to Ray's experience, which I shall get into below." Tim also noted that all of the features described in Denon's sales brochure on the TU-800 "seemed to work well except for the MPX-NR switch. However, I am not an engineer so when Denon talks about the technical wizardry of these features I don't know if what they're claiming is fact or fiction."

Tim sent his TU-800 to Bill Ammons, whose comments follow:
"Tim, I have done an incoming test on the TU-800. Here are the numbers that I took (this was before anything was done to the tuner):

Distortion @ 1 kHz
Wide 0.15%, Narrow 0.7%, Super Narrow 2.8%

Stereo Separation @ 1 kHz
Wide 37 dB, Narrow 26 dB, Super Narrow 23 dB

65 dBf RF input quieting (no weighting)
Mono -75 dB, Stereo -70 dB

50 dB quieting points (unweighted)
Mono 0.7 µV, Stereo 23 µV

I can get the distortion down in the narrow IF mode by using some 220 kHz low GDT filters. That should keep the selectivity good, and increase the stereo separation. The 800 uses a good MPX chip, however the way the stereo separation control is done, stereo separation can only be optimized for one IF band. I might be able to add a second separation control for the narrow IF band.

As far as audio mods go, the output IC can be replaced with an OPA2134AP. There are only a few capacitors in the audio circuit.

Now for the Super Narrow IF band. I think adding an IF Filter Adder PCB and experimenting with a mix of 220 kHz low GDT and some standard 150 kHz filters to get the distortion down would be the best way to go. That would increase the filter count to 5 and should give you excellent 200 kHz selectivity.

As for power supply mods, other than recapping there is little to nothing that can be done to improve a small linear power supply. With a -75 dB noise floor and no AC contribution showing up on the analyzer, it is doing its job well.

I think this tuner will do an excellent job in weak-signal locations. I have not hooked it up to the antenna yet. I am 5 miles away from the transmitter farm and often very sensitive tuners get RF overload.

I can replace the power supply caps with new 105C rated parts. I am not sure what audio op-amp(s) are in the unit, but I can replace them with adapter PCBs if they are SIP parts. I use OPA134 and OPA 2134 (dual channel). With this age of tuner there are probably only one or two caps in the audio path, which also could be replaced.

I was hoping to add a stereo control PCB to increase separation. However, the way Denon configured the audio path, this idea will not work. The distortion in the Wide mode is very low. I did add an IF Filter Adder PCB in the Super Narrow path. The IF gain stages in that path are not that strong,so I had to back off to a lower loss filter. In the Super Narrow IF mode I have no problem getting a 90.5 from 100 miles away next to a local on 90.3.

I replaced the two op-amps in the stereo/audio path with bi-FET parts. The stereo (or composite) driver IC is now a TLO-72CP. The output amp is a OPA2134. The 0.47 µF output caps have been replaced by 47 µF parts, so the bass should be much fuller. I got a little more stereo separation by replacing the composite/stereo coupling capacitor with a 100 µF part bypassed by a 0.082 µF poly.

As for station-grabbing power, this tuner would do better in a lower signal environment than in an urban setting. What is odd is this tuner can pick up a distant 99.5 that is usually not able to be picked up due to RF overloading the front end. The TU-800 picks this one up perfectly while the Kenwood 600T just spits out intermod.

The stereo noise filter is simply a small value capacitor that is switched in circuit between the left and right channels. It narrows the soundfield of the difference (stereo) signal above 2 kHz or so, masking out some background noise.

I will take some final numbers late today and it will be ready to go."

And here's Bill's follow-up report:
"The TU-800 is done. The test numbers in the Wide mode are excellent. In both the Narrow and Super Narrow mode I have been able to get very good distortion numbers. The Narrow mode does not have as much stereo separation as Wide, but still sounds excellent on the distant 90.5 classical station I use. Here are the test numbers I got:

Distortion @ 1 kHz - 100% modulation
Wide IF 0.065%, Narrow 0.10%, Super Narrow 0.13%

Stereo Separation @ 1 kHz - 100% modulation
Wide IF 60 dB, Narrow 35 dB, Super Narrow 30 dB

65 dBf RF input quieting (unweighted)
Mono -77 dB, Stereo -71 dB

50 dB quieting points (unweighted)
Mono 0.3 µV, Stereo 13 µV

I have been switching back and forth with a Sansui TU-919 that was just rebuilt and the Denon. The TU-800 sounds better and can pick up more out-of-market stations."

Here are Tim's preliminary comments to the T-85. In our main writeup on the tuner, our contributor Ryan noted that it is an underrated audiophile tuner: "Yamaha used a true analog multiplier in the multiplex. The technical description of the multiplex is complex, but suffice to say this is one of the very best ways to decode a stereo signal, but because it costs more than using just one simple chip, it wasn't done frequently." Tim said, "I wonder if this is why I greatly preferred the sound of my modded T-85 over the other tuners in my test. Perhaps someone with more technical knowledge than me can chime in here." Ryan said, "Even in stock form, the T-85 is very good, and I suspect that with carefully matched filters and a few component changes almost nothing could touch it," and Tim agreed with Ryan on this.

In our main T-85 writeup, our contributor Charles said, "One thing I don't like about the T-85's 'auto-mode' IF band selection is that it always seems to go to a narrower bandwidth than I would select. Also, once it goes down to a narrower bandwidth (say, if there's some temporary interference), it never bothers to go back up again, so there's an annoying 'downward ratcheting' effect. On my favorite presets, I defeat the auto-bandwidth." Tim said, "Charles is correct about this peculiarity. I suspect it was a deliberate decision so a 'quieter' signal would be heard."

Our main writeup also quotes our contributor Eli: "The T-85 is one of my favorite tuners, maybe even my all-around #1, all things considered. But I just don't want people to go out and buy one expecting super selectivity in stock form." Tim said, "The mods made to my T-85 put it on an almost equal footing with my Mike Williams 'modded to the max' Sony HD tuner when the T-85 is in its Super Narrow IF mode. However, I have not yet done a long-term comparison on weak stations between my maxed-out T-85 and my maxed-out Sony HD tuner." Eli also praised the T-85's AM performance, and Tim concurred: "I believe the T-85 is equal in AM performance to my beloved McIntosh MR 74 and the MR 75 AM tuner residing in my McIntosh MX 117. The Sony HD's AM section also does quite well, but we're so far off the grid there are no AM stations broadcasting in HD that I can get."

Tim also noted that all of the T-85's features "seem to work well. However, I am not an engineer, so when Yamaha talks about the technical wizardry of these features I don't know if what they're claiming is fact or fiction." Tim specifically points out that the T-85's "digital fine-tuning control works quite well when the station you are trying to catch has strong stations on either side of it."

Tim sent his T-85 to Mike Williams, whose comments follow:
"Got your tuner unpacked and checked out the T-85 yesterday. As is, she is pretty poor, the alignment (CLS) is way off and having issues tuning to the signal generator. Also it is clipping the negative portion of the sine wave. Got a bad amp or power supply. [Tim notes that this was an eBay purchase that the seller described as 'working fine,' but he wasn't upset that its performance was bad because it was a 9/10 cosmetically, he paid only $75 for it, and he had planned to send it off for mods, anyway.] After inspection and refreshing myself with the manual, here are my [Mike's] recommendations:

Recap the power supply and repair if needed; super tuned with 5 matched filters, 280 kHz x 3 Wide and Super Narrow, 150 kHz x 2 for Narrow; Black Gate output coupling caps. There are three amplifiers in the audio circuit. I recommend adapter boards and modern audiophile type op-amps. For the best sound quality I would recommend all three amps upgraded."

And here is a list of what Mike actually did:
"Initial check out found it would not tune, alignment needed. Also clipping negative portion of signal. Rebuilt power supply. Troubleshot clipping to leaking muting transistors, replaced all four muting transistors. Super alignment/sockets/matched filters, 280 kHz x 3, 150 kHZ x 2. Black Gate output coupling caps 006% THD. Upgraded three audio op-amps, with adapter board, LME 49860NA."

On the Sony ST-S333ESXII, Tim said, "I really, really like the ergonomics of this Sony. I think all tuners should have a tuning knob like the Sony, but alas, most digital tuners do not." Read more of Tim's comments on this tuner in our main writeup on the Sony page. And on the McIntosh MR 74, he said, "There is not much I can add here. My MR 74 has been, until now, my best-sounding tuner." Read more of Tim's comments on the MR 74 in our main writeup on the tuner.

So, FINALLY, here are the results of Tim's shootout!
"A few years back, I shared with the FMtuners group some issues I had with a Yamaha CT-1010 that the dealer I bought it from could not resolve. In retrospect, I guess I had one that was built on a Monday, and in retrospect, my issues with the CT-1010 were atypical. I loved the looks of the CT-1010, and when it was working, I thought it sounded slightly better than the Marantz 125 it replaced. So it was a leap of faith for me to buy another Yamaha and then invest $$$ to update it and mod it, but the sow's ear I got on eBay was transformed into a silk purse and the queen of the ball. Please note this is not a comparison between Bill Ammons and Mike Williams; rather it is a comparison of the original design and engineering expertise between the Denon and the Yamaha.

The Yamaha has gently nudged aside my MR 74 as my best-sounding tuner. The modded T-85 is more selective and it is quieter than the MR 74, and it actually sounds a bit better. The acid test for me is classical music (particularly piano) on WDAV (Davidson College) and live studio broadcasts on WETS (East Tennessee State University). The sound of piano music is more dynamic and live-sounding than on the other tuners. The modded TU-800, the ST-S333ESXII, and the MR 74 are excellent, mind you, but the modded T-85 surpasses them by a not-inconsiderable margin. I have to agree with Ryan's comments that the T-85 is very good, and I suspect with carefully matched filters and a few component changes that almost nothing could touch it.

Another strength of the modded T-85 is its ability to present a natural soundstage with excellent depth and width (the MR 74 comes close, but it is bettered by the modded T-85). And the modded T-85 possesses phenomenal bass response that is simply unmatched by the other three tuners. Organ music sometimes shakes the house, which I have never experienced with any other tuner in my system.

So what about the other tuners? Well after countless hours comparing the modded Denon TU-800 and the stock Sony ST-S333ESXII, I was unable to discern ANY difference in performance or sound quality between them. Classical music and piano in particular did not sound quite as good as the modded Yamaha T-85. The 'attack' of piano music on the modded TU-800 and the ST-S333ESXII was slightly less dynamic, and there was a slight 'edge' or 'glare' that I did not hear on the T-85 (the MR 74 was slightly better here than the modded TU-800 and the ST-S333ESXII, but not quite as good as the modded T-85).

As for sensitivity, the modded T-85 is slightly more quiet on weak signals in the Super Narrow IF mode than the modded Denon TU-800, stock Sony ST-S333ESXII and modded McIntosh MR 74. My modded Sony HD tuner is slightly more selective, but it doesn't sound as good as the modded T-85.

So, I really, really like the modded Yamaha T-85 for both its sound quality and sensitivity. Now I'm wondering if I will see any significant improvement in the stock Sony ST-S333ESXII if I send it off to be updated and modded? As always, YMMV."

SAE T102 versus Carver TX-11a (9/22/20)

Our contributor Rick D.'s shootout is below, but first, we thought his intro was of interest:

"I've listened to a range of analog solid-state tuners, ranging from a cheap Kenwood KT-5300 that I bought new in 1977 to my current best tuner, a Carver TX-11a (also not expensive). I'm sure that will not qualify me for golden ears. The quality of the experience seems to me most affected by, in order of importance: 1) Programming. Nothing sounds good if the music is annoying. 2) Reception quality. 14) tuner audio section (tied for 14th with 12 other things, which I'm sure I could think up if challenged). Where I live, even the large external antenna on a tower, pointed right at the stations, is not getting "anything" in absolute full quieting, and so the quality of the sound depends more on the noise reduction strategies used in the tuner than on the base quality of the audio section.

For other parts of my system, I've always been a solid-state fan, but that may be simply because I'm unwilling to fight the hollow-state battle. I do use vacuum tuba ham radio amplifiers, but it's funny: In ham radio, the amps that use tubes do so because it's cheaper. My Ten-Tec 600-watt transmitting amp uses three 811A triodes and cost half of what a similarly equipped solid-state amp would have cost when both were new. But in amateur radio, most are concerned with clarity rather than realism, and music isn't in the program mix.

As to what stations play these days, one reason I built the antenna was to hear "over the ridge" to the DC broadcast FM stations. It's car radio that keeps FM alive, for now, and that explains why talk radio is so strong. Talk radio here covers the gamut from right to left, so it isn't about politics. I listen to a bit of all of it, often in the evenings when the music stations are boring. Which the classical station often is, but then that's part of why I like it. If I only listen to what I KNOW I like, I'll never get to like anything else. And I'm subject to new discoveries in a range of classical-music directions and periods - it doesn't have to be recent to be new to me. I've read of people bored with the audio systems they've built at high cost, simply because they are tired of the music they own. FM radio is a great solution to that problem, even now, if one lives near a large enough city. And it keeps me from having to browse through hundreds of CDs and LPs when all I want to do is sit with a glass of Scotch and hear something I might never have heard before (even if it's just a different performer or conductor).

But I do not live close enough to get those stations without a lot of noise reduction technology, and I suspect the systems created in the late '80s, up through the SDR-based systems of the last decade, will be superior to tuners that may have better audio but worse reception noise management.

I've been told that new shootouts don't have to follow the same high standard set by Jim Rivers with his comprehensive review of 80 tuners. But I have to say that I admire the style and approach, and will do something similar here, though with precisely two (2) tuners. :) My test setup is: Tuner under test, fed by a Winegard HD8200U TV/FM antenna at 28 feet. It's 28 feet up from the low corner of my house, which means it still isn't taller than the house, but it's on the side of the house that allows it to be pointed to the desirable transmitter towers. The antenna installation is still being finished up as of this writing.

The tuner is fed into an Adcom GFP565 preamplifier, which I listened to using headphones. For regular listening, I use two B&K 125-watt MOSFET amplifiers, each driving a pair of Advent New Loudspeakers. Here's the setup. What follows is a tour around the dial, generally from weaker to stronger stations, to see how the tuners would do.

WBHB 101.5 broadcasts from 42 miles away at 6 degrees, which is 124 degrees away from antenna direction (off the back corner of the cardioid lobe). WWDC, which is very loud, is nearby on the band at 101.1, and its tower is 35 miles away and right in the center of the antenna pattern. WBHB was hearable on the Carver but barely through noise with no noise reduction on this night. Mono was no help. WWDC presented a wall of noise, and the Carver struggled to lock on the weaker station. The narrow filter fixed that, though, and made the gaps in the modulated signal quiet, but the modulated signal was still somewhat noticeably distorted. Noise reduction invokes the Carver Assymetric Charge--whatever--whatever circuit and reduced but did not eliminate the noise, Adding the Multipath Reduction circuit eliminated more, making the signal almost listenable while preserving at least some stereo separation. Auto tuning, which is Carver's muting circuit, had no effect once the noise reduction and narrow mode was invoked, but eliminated any reception at all when those features were defeated. The SAE was nearly nothing but noise from the adjacent channel, but the weaker station could just be detected through the noise. The narrow filter ("IF" on the front panel) put the signal right at the mute margin, and the station intermittently cut out on the SAE, but the mute defeat button opened it back up at the expense of stereo separation and noise. Blend had no effect. Mono had no effect either at tuner or preamp. Wide mode restored the stereo image, but it also restored overpowering noise from the adjacent channel. The Carver made the signal listenable for a person who isn't too demanding, but even that person might give up on the SAE for this station on this night.

Next up is the torture test: WARK FM 98.9 is really a low-power translator site for WARK AM in Hagerstown, MD. The distance is only 25 miles, but it radiates only 250 watts and the tower is only 340 feet tall. FM Fool thinks it's below the bottom of its list for my site, which goes down to -87 dBm. It's slightly west of north, off the back of the antenna, so in addition to being weak I'm retrieving it on the minor rear lobe. So it's a tough sensitivity test. And it's a tough selectivity test - WMZQ is a very loud 50 kilowatt station at 98.7, 33 miles away and right in the center of the antenna pattern. And WIHT is at 99.5 at 22 kilowatts, also in the center of the beam, but higher on its tower. The WARK signal is monaural, so I can't test for preservation of the stereo image. In wide, all I hear on the Carver is multipath noise from adjacent channels, with a barely discernible signal that is utterly unlistenable. It's a bit better at 99.0 in wide, being a touch further away from the offending adjacent WMZQ, but still too noisy for listening. With noise reduction, multipath reduction, and in Narrow, the talk radio is adequate for those who can listen through noise, which has been reduced to a background of random static. Those tools add sufficient selectivity to make listening possible because it's a talk station, but music would be no good at all. On the SAE, mute must be defeated to hear anything at all. In Wide, I hear 98.7. At 99.0, I still hear 98.7, but overlaid by a hint of the target. Narrow does not cancel 98.7, though now I can hear that 98.9 exists, but not well enough to listen to it. No setting lets me hear what's being said on the talk station.

Okay, let's start getting easier. WMAL 105.9, also a monaural talk station is in the center of the pattern, but over two ridges and my Stellar Labs antenna in the attic couldn't clean it up on most nights. But I get this station pretty well in the car, so I should get it at home. This was a target station for my new antenna. I started with the SAE this time, and it pulled the station at nearly full quieting in Wide. Just a bit of modulation noise ("sh"instead of "s") and a bit of background noise that disappears in mono. Narrow had no effect, but the 280 kHz narrow filter really isn't that narrow. Mute defeat and Blend were likewise without effect. Only switching to mono cleans up the background noise completely. For this station, that's a good enough strategy. The Carver was just the same in Wide. Narrow also had no effect. Multipath reduction eliminated the background noise, but a bit of modulation noise remained. The Carver noise reduction is more effective, but still leaves just a touch of modulation noise. With both, however, the signal is clean, and I didn't have to put the preamp into mono.

WETA 90.9 broadcasts classical music and public radio, and it maintains a very clean signal. It broadcasts at 75 kilowatts and it's only 6 degrees from the center of the pattern, at 36 miles. But there are those two ridges. FM Fool says I'd need to be at 386 feet to get line of sight. The Carver presented a gorgeous wide stage and stereo image in wide. But there was a background hiss suggesting it was just missing full quieting. The multipath filter cleaned it and maintained a stereo image, but narrowed the stage noticeably. The Carver noise reduction maintained the wider image, but left a bit of noise. Both together rendered the signal dead quiet, but the "center channel" became noticeable again. The sound is excellent - smooth and pleasant. In Wide, the SAE produced more background noise than the Carver. The sound was good, but without the same stage spaciousness. Blend reduced the noise down a bit, still maintaining a good stereo image without the "center channel" effect. Adding the IF filter cleaned off the noise and stereo is preserved, but the sound still lacks the spaciousness of the Carver. The SAE still produced a bit of modulation noise on spoken sibilants. Both are fine and completely listenable on this station, but the Carver's tools are better for this well-engineered signal.

WBIG 100.3 plays Classic Rock. It's loud and clear, broadcast at high power and right in the pattern. But it processes the sound producing a terrible fakey stereo image. This station tests the tuner's ability to turn crappy processing into music. The SAE failed to make music here, and the image just became annoying. The Carver's bass is more present, and the separation is much smoother. Still big empty gaps between left channel, center channel, and right channel, but better-integrated and much more musical.

WWEG 106.9 is a closer station playing Classic Rock with compression to push the modulation hard. FM Fool claims this is the strongest signal I should receive, because it is line of sight, but it's 125 degrees around the beam from center. This station works best with the Carver noise reduction, which maintains the stereo image. The multipath reduction system noticeably loses separation. The Carver sounds great - smooth and loud with as much tight bass as the station's over-processing will allow. The SAE also sounds great on this station. Not as wide a stage as the Carver, and not as much smoothness in the bass. The IF filter drops the noise level. I could listen to this all day, if the station did less damage to the source with its foray into the Loudness War.

Overall, the Carver ends up being a bit better in every dimension. This should be the case - it was twice the price and the two tuners are contemporaries. But the SAE is nicely equipped for a tuner that never costs over a hundred bucks, and the Carver is still twice the price. Winner: Carver TX-11a."

Proton 440 vs. Carver TX-11a (1/3/21)

Our contributor Rick D. did this shootout as a companion piece to the one above:

"Proton was made by a company that also manufactured for NAD during one period, though that relationship did not last. Proton therefore produced a lot of products that are very similar to NAD products, and the 440 tuner seems to be closely associated with the NAD 4155, which which it shares the effective Schotz noise reduction system. But that similarity is skin-deep - a comparison of the circuit boards shows that the two tuners are not at all similar. The comments related to the 440 on TIC seem on point to me, so I see no need to add to them, except to state that those who wish to do mods will have an easy time of it, I suspect. Both the top and bottom of the main PCB are easily accessible just by removing covers.

As with the SAE T102 vs. TX-11a shootout, I'll take a tour through local stations, generally from those that are troublesome to those that are less so. My site isn't far from most of these, but only one station has line of sight and my antenna isn't pointed to it. I'm using a large Winegard HD8200U at 28 feet pointed at 130 degrees towards the center of the FM stations broadcasting from the DC area, which cluster between 123 and 136 degrees. The log-periodic antenna does not have that much directivity, and the beamwidth is more than wide enough for this spread. But there are two ridges that interfere with line of sight by hundreds of feet.

WBHB at 101.5 is a third of the way around from the antenna's direction, and gets interference from the high-power WWDC that's right in the beam at 101.1. Three nights ago, WWDC buried WBHB's frequency in noise, but tonight it did not, and both tuners struggled less than when I was comparing the Carver and the SAE. With noise reductions (the Carver Asymmetric-whatever and the multipath filter), the Carver demonstrated solid and quiet reception. No need for the narrow filter this night. As usual, the Carver provided a good stereo image, even with noise reductions. The Proton created a slightly more bassy sound on the heavy metal being played on 101.5 tonight, consistent with other reports of its deep bass response. The Proton's Schotz noise reduction decreases separation, but without it leaves a background hiss and scratchy sibilances. With it, the stage is narrower, but the hiss and scratch is only slightly reduced. The Schotz approach dynamically blends the signal the quieter it is, to eliminate stereo noise during unmodulated gaps, but to provide stereo imaging when the modulated content would be loud enough to cover the noise. It works pretty darn well, actually, especially on the distorted heavy metal being played by WBHB during the test. But it was not better than the similar strategy used by the Carver. The lower mids are more forward on the Carver, and for rock the Proton produces what I call a party sound, good for dance music and the sort of crowd now allowed during these pandemic days. Levels have to be matched, though. With the Proton's output pot at max, it's putting a bigger signal into the preamp than the Carver by about 8 dB. When the Carver is turned up to match it, it brings a bit of the party into the headphones, too. But the Carver produces cleaner sibilances, and a bit less hiss.

The most tortuous reception challenge on my dial is WARK-FM, a very low power translator for WARK-AM, a mono talk station. To make it an even bigger challenge, it's off the back of my (non-rotating) antenna. At 98.9, it is usually buried by the very loud WMZQ at 98.7, which is pumping 50 kW into the air that my antenna is aimed directly towards. There was just no hope for WARK using the Proton. Without a narrow filter, the Proton lacked the selectivity to protect the weak signal from nearby 98.7, which buried the talking on 98.9 in noisy country music. There's a talk radio station on this frequency? You wouldn't know it listening to the Proton. The Carver, as before, provides the selectivity to allow listening to this talk station, and this night controlled the noise rather better than during the SAE comparison. The Proton may be sensitive, according to reports, but it's wide as a barn. It's not as if the Carver narrow filter is all that narrow, but at least it has one.

Next up is another mono talk station, WMAL at 105.9. This one is right in the antenna beam, and I usually receive it well with this antenna despite diffracting over two ridges. The Carver performed as before, producing a completely listenable and nearly spotless signal, but only with the noise reductions engaged. The noise reduction this night brings the mids a bit more forward. The Proton left a bit more modulation noise, hearable as a noisy S sound, which was not improved by its noise reduction circuit. The Carver gives the impression of full quieting, the Proton not quite.

WETA at 90.9 produces a high-quality classical music and NPR signal at high power, and my antenna is pointed nearly right at it. Despite 2-edge diffraction, if I can't get this station, I'm probably not going to get anything. The Proton sounded really very good, with a nice stage but a bit of background hiss that disappeared only in mono. The noise system did nothing I could hear on this station. The Carver presented a truly black background with no hiss at all using its multipath reduction filter. And it still has that gorgeous wide stage that it had when testing against the SAE. The Carver puts me in the audience, but with the Proton I was still listening to the radio - a subtle difference. But both had a warm bass and mid response that made me take off the headphones and crank up the amps and Advents for a few minutes. (The Advents do nothing to add brittleness to the highs, of course, but then I wouldn't be able to hear it if they did.) The Carver has the edge here, but both make really lovely smooth sound on a good station. For the $35 that I spent on the Proton, it really does have a nice sound.

One of the two stations I go to for testing how well a tuner overcomes crappy processing is WBIG at 100.3. The classic rock signal is strong and I'm aimed right at it, but they usually artificially separate the channels horribly. The Carver performed as before, doing a fairly good job of integrating the artificially "enhanced" separation into a single stage. The Proton is as good as the Carver at making music out of the signal. One still hears music all the way on the left, all the way on the right, and different stuff in the middle, but Billy Idol sounded like music. Pink Floyd was next, and the image became annoying on the Proton, with the guitar only in the left channel, the slide guitar only in the right channel, and the vocals only in the middle. It was distracting. The idiot station shortened the song before I could switch it back to the Carver, but the following song was much more integrated on that tuner. I had to go back and forth several more times to conclude that the Carver did just a bit better job of integrating the sound, but the Proton did very well, generally.

The other overprocessed station also plays classic rock, WWEG at 106.9. This station is off the back of the antenna, but it's the only station that FM Fool thinks I should get by line of sight. As with the SAE comparison, the Carver handled this station just fine using the Carver noise reduction, which maintained the stereo image, rather than the multipath filter, which narrowed it. The Proton also sounded good, but may have muddled the lower mids a bit compared to more clarity from the Carver. It seemed to me that the Proton pushed vocals back on the stage a bit in comparison, too. The Beach Boys lost the clarity, perhaps, but Stevie Nicks sounded great. The Carver's bottom octave had the edge on this station, too.

As in the SAE comparison, the Carver is just better all around. It has enough selectivity to handle quiet stations next to loud ones, and can really be musical on overprocessed Loudness War stations. On good stations that don't require protection from adjacent channels, the Proton also sounded very good - better than the SAE which isn't by any means a bad-sounding tuner. When I run another coax into the basement for my system down there, the Proton will be connected to it. And it will look good with the Kenwood C1 preamp, Adcom GFA-535 amp, and Cambridge Audio CD player on that system. But the Carver is still number one."

Pioneer F-90 vs. Pioneer F-9 vs. Hitachi FT-5500 MKII (12/31/21)

This one's not a formal shootout, but our contributor Radu compared these three tuners that were previously owned by our late contributor Ed Von Essen.

"Due to some sheer luck and alignment of the stars, I've been lucky (thank you so much, Ed! - and much affection and remembrance where you are) to add some tuners to my collection. Not sure what the status of alignment is, though given how well they work, I'm sure Ed opened the hood and took care of business. A few thoughts:

Pioneer F-90. Very clean reception and great sound, though the ergonomics, materials, and the lack of a signal meter turn me off pretty distinctly. Also, the way the controls work is a bit bare, especially when stacked against the other two tuners in the title. But with those impressions in mind (of an essentially simple, pretty bare-bones tuner), it shoots high and achieves much more than one would expect. Reception, again, I feel is on par with the F-9, if not a bit better with some stations and conditions, and where I live reception is a very, very tough cookie. I have a 300-ohm ribbon antenna suspended as high as I could in the atrium of this new home, on a fixed orientation. I could live with this tuner, and it's been currently relegated in the garage/workshop/office where I spend most of my time these days. So second system and probably there to stay.

Pioneer F-9. I like the looks and to a good extent, the electronics of this tunermuch more. I feel it's a pretty elegant unit, pretty high-end looking (which the F-90 is definitely not), and has boutique perks such as separate transformers for digital vs. analog modules - very nice and excellent attention to detail. It also operates a bit more refined, I feel, with this manual/auto tuning which I'm starting to get the hang of. Sound is great, though a bit muddier under some circumstances than the F-90. Reception is not bad at all, about on par with the F-90, though also it may fail at times when the F-90 is pretty well on its feet. That said, if I had to choose, I'd go for the F-9 over the F-90. It just talks to me more, it's far prettier, and other than those weird circumstances when it may not quite equal the F-90 in some metrics, it's a very competent, great-sounding, and good-performing tuner. It's now second duty in my main system.

Hitachi FT-5500 MKII. Now this one's a bit of a stunner. Five gangs as opposed to four for the two above, so maybe not surprising that it bests them both in reception capabilities by quite a good bit (the kind of bit that can be a deal-breaker when it comes to one's main tuner), and very sophisticated tuning abilities (due to the FCCS system, which seems to always be right and can be saved to memory, and BTW, manually also all selections work just right), but this tuner that I'd probably glaze over nine out of ten times at Goodwill is just a brilliant performer. Aside for acing my reception conditions from hell, it sounds fantastic, and is just uncannily dead quiet on relatively difficult signals (likely due to what seems to be an automatic, non-defeatable blend circuit, I think). So no, I'm not a big fan of its looks (at all), as it frankly feels plasticky and cheap to me, but boy, does it deliver! So reception in its bag, the sound is also, dunno, half a class above those other two? Sparkly rendition of cymbals and high notes on classical music - I forgot how good FM can sound in the right universe - good and accurate rendering of voice, very decent soundstage, I mean, it makes KUSC nudge up closer to the likes of WFMT in my home as I'm writing this. The digital readout meter in dB is just such a luxurious tuner detail that it makes up for any misgivings on materials quality in spades. I was aware of great and dedicated fans of this tuner, but had no idea. You know. . . . wow.

These are some pretty preliminary impressions, but I thought I'd share a bit of a side-by-side between these impressive tuners. The Hitachi gets the cherry as it made my head spin and it's still orbiting a bit as I'm writing this."

Pioneer F-91 vs. McIntosh MR 74 vs. Modafferi-modded MR 78 vs. Sansui TU-919 vs. Sony ST-730ES (01/02/22)

Our contributors Tim and Ann posted this shootout in our FMtuners group in 2003 but it never appeared on TIC, and we figured it deserved a wider audience:

"We live in the boondocks (where the TN/NC/VA borders come together) and cannot get any TV stations with an outdoor antenna, rotor and antenna amp. So we're DISH Network people. However, we *can* get about 6 public radio stations, 4 of which are broadcast off translators/repeaters and 2 directly using a dedicated outdoor FM antenna, rotor, and antenna amp. When we moved here in 1995, we were using a Pioneer F-91 which worked fine, but about 18 months ago we got to wondering could we do better? So we did our own little 'shootout' and brought in a stock McIntosh MR 74, a Modafferi-modded MR 78, a stock Sansui TU-919, and a stock Sony ST-730ES.

The MR 74 won by a nose. The Sony ST-730ES was REALLY CLOSE to the MR 74, but the MR 74 was slightly more sensitive and had slightly more depth on live studio broadcasts by the NPR stations. This may have been because the MR 74 had been completely rebuilt and aligned by McIntosh Labs AND also by an acquaintance who owns one of the companies that rebuilds and refurbishes vintage McIntosh: We think he did it (at no charge to us) to see if he could improve on what McIntosh did, and he says he got 3 dB more separation and slightly lower stereo distortion, but it might have been a testostorone thing with him vis-à-vis McIntosh (he's also a really large McIntosh dealer). Also, interesting comments on the MR 71 as our friend likes the MR 71 as the 'best sounding' tuner of all time after it's been cleaned, aligned, and checked out with all leaky caps, etc., replaced. We didn't try a MR 71 as we didn't want to deal with tubes.

We were surprised at just how average the Sansui TU-919 was (sorry, Jim): It was very 'warm' sounding and it sounded like there was a 'loudness contour' control engaged when it was playing. It *was* more sensitive and selective and quiet on weak stations than our F-91 but it didn't sound as good as the F-91, at least to us. And we thought the MR 74 and Sony ST-730ES were better than the TU-919.

The MR 78 was borrowed from a friend and it was only six months old from the Modafferi Mod. It was more 'electronic' sounding than the MR 74 and the Sony, was no more sensitive than the MR 74 and the Sony, and didn't have as much bass response as the MR 74 and Sony. And the MR 78's highs seemed slightly rolled off. Adjacent channel selectivity *was* better than the MR 74 and Sony, but this is not an issue for us. Picking between the MR 78 and the F-91 would be a hard choice, but ultimately, we think we'd pick the F-91 for its sound quality unless we absolutely needed the superior sensitivity and selectivity of the MR 78.

Our F-91 replaced a stock Kenwood KT-815 and it was significantly better sounding and more sensitive, particularly in the public radio range, than the KT-815: The KT-815 was very 'electronic.''harsh,' and 'two-dimensional' sounding relative to the F-91, which seems consistent with Jim's findings. And we tried out a Magnum Dynalab (whatever their top model was) when we bought the F-91. The Magnum was a teensy bit better sounding, but the F-91 was much more sensitive and much more quiet on weak signals, so we bought the F-91."

McIntosh MR 74 vs. McIntosh MX 117 (01/22/22)

We have unearthed our contributors Tim and Ann's 2004 follow-up to the shootout just above. Below is an edited version of what was originally posted in our FMtuners group.

"We think highly of the McIntosh MR 74 tuner and chose it for our 'reference' tuner after holding a shootout several years ago. We have noticed a 'house sound,' if you will, in the McIntosh tuners we have listened to that we find beguiling and appealing: We call it the 'Magical McIntosh Midrange' (MMM). If it is a colouration, it is one 'we can happily live with, but whatever it is, we have difficulty describing it other than to say the midrange on the McIntosh tuners we have listened to sounds more 'real' than the midrange on any other tuner we've heard.

Since we liked the sound and the performance of the McIntosh MR 74 so much, several friends and acquaintances suggested that we also consider an MR 75 and/or an MR 80 as they thought we might like one or both of these better than our MR 74. We ruled out the MR 80 for several reasons: (1) It does not have AM - we get bad storms in the winter here in the mountains and the local AM station has the best weather reports; (2) The 4 FM presets have reliability problems and eventually have to be rebuilt; and (3) We think the MR 80 is butt-ugly (no offense to you MR 80 owners reading this).

So we began casually looking for an MR 75 (or the MX 117 tuner/preamp, which uses the MR 75 tuner). An MX 117 showed up on eBay and we sniped it for much less than they generally sell for. We had the seller ship it directly to McIntosh in Binghamton, NY for a cleaning, alignment and refurbishing, just like we did when we got our MR 74. So we felt this was a very fair comparison of two different McIntosh tuners, which were not modded but aligned and tweaked by the manufacturer's excellent service department.

OUR EQUIPMENT

For this shootout, we used an APS-13 antenna on a Channel Master rotor feeding a Winegard AP-8275 (their best 75 ohm antenna pre-amp). The AP-8275 drives a 150-foot run of RG-6 cable that is normally terminated into a single tuner. For testing purposes, we terminated the antenna feed into a 1 in/2 out 75 ohm splitter so we could feed both tuners simultaneously.

We alternate between a pair of Polk RT-2000p speakers and a pair of B&W DM3000s. Both are large floor-standing speakers. The RT-2000p's use a 1" tweeter (aluminum deposited on a plastic and fabric dome) and a 6.5" midrange, with two 8" powered woofers. We would call the Polks a little more neutral, and the B&Ws a little bit 'warmer' and more forgiving of poor recordings.

Front channel/stereo amp is a McIntosh MC 2205. Center channel amp, when used, is a McIntosh MC 2125 run in the mono mode. Rear channel amp, when used, is another McIntosh MC 2205. Now for the complicated part: For stereo listening, we alternate between a McIntosh C 28 pre-amp and a Marantz 3800 pre-amp. We have not yet tried the pre-amp of the MX 117. We like tone controls as we also listen to 78s, and besides, not all FM broadcasts, or recordings are perfect.

And we saved the most important component for last: The listening room. Our den is 12' x 24' with an 8-1/2' acoustical tile ceiling. The floor is pegged oak and there is a full basement underneath; however, instead of the usual 2 x 10s under the floor, the guy who built the house used steel beams. In the den, he paneled the walls with wormy chestnut 1' planks. We don't know if it's the wormy chestnut or what, but this room is the absolute best-sounding listening room we have ever had.

Our listening biases are, first and foremost, the midrange must be absolutely natural and uncoloured. We suppose this is our 'British Bias.' Next, the music must sound good at low levels as well as at high levels. Then we look for a 3-D sense of spatiality and depth as well as image height, which is generally best heard with full orchestral music and/or opera. Next, the system must be as comfortable reproducing macro-dynamics in the music as well as the all-important micro-dynamics. Finally, we are more interested in the music sounding 'real' as if it is actually being played in our room rather than the sound we hear being a 100% accurate reproduction of the source. We suppose this means we like a minimal amount of colouration in the sound, but we just cannot specify what this colouration is, nor can we define it.

This equipment and listening preference discussion may be a bit long, but we wanted to give you a sense of our listening tastes and how we evaluate what we hear when we compare tuners and other audio equipment.

WHAT WE HEARD

The selectivity setting of the MR 74 stayed in the Wide setting throughout the testing, except where noted, while the MX 117 has non-adjustable selectivity. Another significant design difference between these tuners is that the MR 74 has a 3-position noise filter (Off/10 dB/20 dB) that blends the high frequencies to reduce noise. The MX 117 has a non-defeatable auto-blend circuit that engages at low signal levels.

With the MR 74, we heard a slightly narrower soundstage than with the MX 117. However, without access to the original broadcast source material, it is impossible to say whether this is more or less accurate. We also noted slightly more front-to-back depth, and slightly higher image height (particularly on classical orchestral music and opera) with the MR 74. Another thing that surprised us was that the highs were much more extended. This was very audible on brushes hitting cymbals, for example. In the all-important midrange, we noted that strings sounded better, as though the instruments were actually in the room with us. The differences were slight, but we'd say all strings sounded like they had more rosin on them. And both high-level and low-level dynamics were slightly better.

With the MX 117, we experienced and heard a slightly wider soundstage compared to the MR 74, but slightly less front-to-back depth and slightly lower image height on classical orchestral music and opera. Again, without access to the original broadcast material it's impossible to say whether this is more or less accurate. We were surprised that the highs were not as extended as they are on the MR 74: The MX 117 is a much newer design that dropped use of the IF RIMO filters used in the MR 77, MR 78 and MR 74. The MX 117 uses piezoelectric filters in its IF section and the selectivity is fixed, unlike the Wide/Narrow selectivity available on the MR 74.

We did note that the MX 117 was a slightly hotter, slightly more sensitive tuner than the MR 74. This was very audible on the 99.7 Clear Channel rock station: With our antenna pointed towards Charlotte we got a very good listenable signal, while the MR 74 was not as quiet on this station and there was a bit of noise in the signal. However, we found we could clean up 99.7's signal on the MR 74 when we switched its selectivity to Narrow and engaged its noise filter. When we did this, 99.7 on the MR 74 was just about as quiet as it was on the MX 117, but the sound was a bit duller. We think it was duller because of the blending and possible roll-off of the highs by the MR 74's noise filter in the 20 dB setting. Other than on 99.7, we found both tuners to be equally quiet with no audible background noise.

FINAL NOTES

Adjacent and alternate channel selectivity specifications of the MR 75 are higher than the Wide setting specifications for the MR 74, so perhaps this accounted for the slightly better high-frequency response and slightly better dynamics we heard with the MR 74.

So how do these two tuners compare to the legendary McIntosh MR 78? Well, we no longer have the Modafferi-modded MR 78 we previously listened to (and borrowed) when we selected our MR 74, but we can distinctly recall more differences between the MR 74 and the Modafferi-modded MR 78 than we heard between the MR 74 and the MX 117.

To sum up, listening on the MR 74 sounded just a bit more 'real' than listening on the MX 117. All of these differences were slight - we could easily live with the MX 117 if we didn't have an MR 74 to compare it to. They are both superb tuners and there's just something about that McIntosh 'look' of their older tuners that's extremely compelling. But in the end, we thought the MR 74 just sounded a bit more 'real' and 'natural' when compared to the MX 117. That 'Magical McIntosh Midrange' was just a bit better on the MR 74. So, for us, at the present time, our mint, factory-refurbished MR 74 remains our 'reference' tuner. We have yet to hear anything better, but we've not listened to all of the top tuners."

Tim added: "Terry DeWick tells me he prefers the MR 75 to the MR 74. When I told him that we found the highs to be more extended on the MR 74 compared to the MX 117, he said he thought that the McIntosh factory setting for the non-defeatable high blend of the MR 75/ MX 117 setting was overly aggressive. He would always reduce the threshold of this feature for when the high blend kicked in, so the highs would be more extended and sound better on the MR 75s and MX 117s he worked on."

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