I spoke of doing a tuner comparison previously when I acquired a Denon TU680NAB tuner, at one time considered by some as the holy grail of home component tuners. At least the National Association of Broadcasters thought so — they commissioned Denon to build it and take advantage of the latest technology and designs in order to showcase AM and FM broadcasts in all their glory.
That was back in 1993 or so. Since that time a lot has changed in radio itself, but in general, tuners have not changed all that much. Sure digital HD radio is available, and some HD tuners, namely those from Sangean and a long-discontinued Sony, do a spectacular job receiving stations clearly with the added benefit of decoding digital HD streams that are sent along with the analog stations.
But for pure sonic performance on analog signals, the Denon is a tremendous tuner. One of my favorites. I wanted to compare it against a couple of other tuners from around the same era, all of which are capable of receiving analog AM stereo, among other features. I finally got around to doing so.The contenders: the Denon, also known as “the Super Tuner,” a Carver TX11b, and a Modular Component System (MCS) 3050, a tuner once sold by JC Penny when it offered a line of component stereos under their house brand, much like Sears did with its LXI and Proformance brands.
I had previously compared the Denon and Carver head to head back in the early 1990s and decided to keep the Carver because at the time I felt it performed a bit better. Plus, I liked the rugged appearance that included a full aluminum front panel that reminded me in-quality of the early superb Harman Kardon Citation tube series we once owned.
The MCS tuner has a solid build quality … metal front panel like the Carver, though not as substantial. The tuner is one of the earlier designs and did not include the expanded AM band that was proposed in 1988 and added in 1995, those stations from 1620 to 1700 kHz.
Reception on both AM and FM was fine, but the fidelity of the AM side left a lot to be desired. It is better than a typical AM tuner from that era or now, but it just didn’t sparkle like the others in this comparison. FM sounded fine, though not remarkable. I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.
I tried the Denon for a few weeks to get a good feel, and it performed admirably. It wasn’t perfect: age took its toll on some internal components so the FM side needed some time to stabilize after being off for a while. But AM reminded me of why the NAB commissioned this tuner in the first place … it sounded amazing. Not in stereo, unfortunately, as there are no local AM stations broadcasting in stereo. But the nice open-sounding wideband circuitry made AM stations sound great. Noise-blanking, a system to minimize interference, worked, though not perfect. If all tuners sounded like this one on AM, KHJ would still be playing top-40.
FM reception was likewise excellent. Stations that my reference Marantz 2215B struggled with came in clean, and tightly-spaced stations including those from San Diego and Santa Barbara were able to be received when I made a few setting changes. Final rating: 8 out of 10.
But just like I remember, the true holy grail was the Carver. AM was even cleaner sounding, with a special sparkle in the high end that made stations on America’s oldest band sound better than any other tuner I have ever tried. KFI (640 AM), for example, sounded as good as if it were on FM … and I used the FM version of KNX (97.1) for comparison. I thought KFI sounded better.
Like the Denon, the Carver includes selectable bandwidth on both AM and FM (on both tuners the effect is different but definitely helpful with reception and sound quality), as well as special noise reduction circuitry that worked better for me than did the Denon. What I found interesting was that on FM, due to some special circuitry, very weak and close-spaced stations were able to be received even better than on the Denon. One station was clean and clear in stereo on the Carver, weak and mono on the Denon and MCS, and totally missing on the Marantz. Let’s call it 9.5 out of 10.
All the tuners used the same antennas, by the way.
For fun, I compared a Sangean HDT-1 … I’d put that toward the Denon and Carver overall. The reception was excellent on AM, though fidelity-wise no better than a typical modern tuner as this one focuses on receiving HD signals … and there are none in the area. FM was a little better, but the Sangean — when it receives weak FM analog signals — tends to sound a bit hollow, due to it tending to blend into mono fairly fast. They do sound clean, though.
So what did I do after all was said and done? Frankly, if I had the space, I’d use the Carver in my home. But it’s just too large to fit on the shelf I have set up, and the Denon currently needs a bit of work before it can be used daily. So my main tuner is another Sangean — an HDT-1X.
Yet all of this is somewhat moot, as my main home listening is on a smart speaker listening via apps over the internet. That, indeed, may be the future of radio.