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Cambridge SoundWorks offers superior sound at a price

Story Highlights

• Cambridge SoundWorks 735i offers superior sound
• No CD player, HD radio or satellite radio capability
• Controls arranged poorly
• The 735i sells for about $300
By John P. Falcone
CNET.com
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(CNET.comexternal link) -- 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 (Read reviewexternal link) and Radio CD 740 (Read reviewexternal link)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 ($300, reviewed here) and the Radio CD 745i (which adds CD playback for an additional $100).

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.

Unfortunately, there are a few features you won't find on the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i. The need for CD playback is somewhat ameliorated by the iPod compatibility, but if the need to spin discs is important to you, you'll need to plug in a portable CD player to the auxiliary port--or consider upgrading to the otherwise-identical Radio CD 745i ($400).

Satellite and HD Radio reception is also absent from the 735i. Those looking for the latter should consider the $300 Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 820HD; it lacks an iPod dock, but the auxiliary input will suffice for quick and easy iPod hookups. And there are always plenty of other alternatives, as well as larger but cheaper shelf systems, many of which offer DVD playback in lieu of alarm clock functionality.

Those shortcomings aside, the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i is really designed for critical listeners willing to pay a premium for superior sound quality from radio programming and iPod-based music--and that's exactly what we put to the test. Using the included external FM wire antenna, the Radio 735i's sound quality on FM was above par on easy-to-receive stations, and it successfully pulled in most of the low-power college radio stations in our area.

AM reception was less impressive, and even after we experimented with a bunch of different placement spots for the included antenna, AM sound was nothing special.

We next checked out Arcade Fire's Neon Bible album (ripped from CD to our iPod). We noted that the mighty organ that opens the title track was a tad less clear and the bass was slightly less defined than when listening on CD--but we'd ascribe those shortcomings to the compressed digital music on the iPod, not the Cambridge. That said, Neon Bible's densely orchestrated sound highlighted the limitations of the Cambridge Radio 735i's abilities. In other words, it sounded like a table radio, albeit one with better than average bass and volume capabilities. Don't expect sound comparable with home-theater-in-a-box or separates-based systems.

Moving on to less sonically challenging music highlighted the Radio 735i's strengths. Acoustic jazz from Miles Davis delivered an impressively direct sound: vocals had plenty of weight, and that's where the Cambridge really came into its own, sounding far better than average. Listening with our Sennheiser HD 580 headphones also delivered surprisingly impressive sound, especially when we boosted the bass.

The Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i's volume control raises and lowers the volume in discrete steps, and we sometimes wished for finer gradations between them. That said, we were happy to see Cambridge's designers provided variable bass and treble controls (plus or minus 4dB), and a loudness control that boosts the bass even more. Even after we pumped up the bass, the 735i's speakers didn't buzz or rattle. You can listen in mono, stereo or "wide," which we preferred because it opened up the sound--just a little--beyond the 14-inch spread of the speakers.

So, when the rubber meets the road, is the Cambridge SoundWorks Radio 735i worth its $300 asking price? We would've preferred another upgrade or two besides just the iPod dock--but stepping up to the Polk Audio I-Sonic (with HD Radio, XM-ready satellite functionality, and a CD/DVD player) costs twice as much.

As it is, we'd probably bite the bullet and pay the extra $100 for the Radio CD 745i (Read reviewexternal link) and still feel happy that we're beating the price of the competing models from Bose, Boston, and Tivoli.

But if you're really just looking for an iPod clock radio, there are plenty of other choices--everything from $100 iHome models to the Tivoli Audio iYiYi, which offers many of the same features of the Cambridge (alarm, radio, RDS support, iPod dock) in a more unconventional form factor--but for the exact same $300 price. Just don't expect them to sound as good as the Cambridge.

Freelancer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.


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