Radio holds a very special place in my heart. During my junior year in college I was a Jazz DJ on Emerson College station WERS-FM, one of the first college radio stations in the country and the first non-commercial station in New England, with a history stretching back nearly 70 years. I also interned at Boston rock station WBCN-FM, where I got to bump shoulders with legendary morning drive host Charles Laquidara among others. Regrettably, WERS stopped airing “The Jazz Oasis” many years ago and WBCN doesn’t exist on FM anymore (but can be found on the Internet).
After I graduated with a degree in Mass Communication, I worked at AM & FM stations all over New England as an FCC-licensed broadcast console operator, talk show producer, DJ, news reader, Promotion Director, and Operations Manager. At WPRO-AM in Providence, RI, I got to work with morning host Salty Brine (whom I grew up listening to as a kid), and RI’s Dean of Talk Radio, Sherm Strickhouser. It was also at WPRO where I hosted my own short-lived program, “One-on-One”, interviewing the likes of singer Doris Troy (“Just One Look”), the two surviving members of the rock group Badfinger, the legendary Billy Preston, Beatles publicist Derek Taylor (who later sent me a hand-written “thank you” note), and B-horror movie mogul Sam Arkoff (“I Was A Teenage Werewolf”) just to name a few. With such a history, I thought it appropriate my very first Tech Rap article should focus on FM reception.
Although the FM tuner was included in our models primarily as a backup source in case your Wi-Fi network became unavailable you would still have something to listen to, it is easy for FM to be overlooked or underused, especially since most FM stations today can be accessed via Internet radio. In fact, my most popular Tech Rap posts are my Recommended Stations articles. However, terrestrial FM still remains relevant to millions of people all around the world and not all stations stream on the Internet. Internet radio can sound excellent, yet a clear analog FM stereo broadcast can sound very satisfying, and a good music host (something most streaming services do not have) can enhance the listening experience that much more.
So, how do you get the most out of the FM source on your Como Audio music system? While the existing telescoping antenna does a good job of pulling in FM stations, our models (unlike standard FM radios) contain competing wireless receiver technology (Wi-Fi, FM, Bluetooth, NFC, etc.) all housed together within a single, metal shielded module, buried within a 1/2″ thick wood cabinet. This creates some reception challenges to say the least. Also, most vintage radios used custom-engineered tuners designed from scratch since there were no off-the-shelf tuners back in those days. That said, there are some easy and inexpensive things you can do to squeeze the most out of FM. The following are some of my suggestions if you are trying to receive a particular FM station with a weak signal or just want to take full advantage of all the FM “dial” has to offer.
“…a clear analog FM stereo broadcast can sound very satisfying, and a good music host (something most streaming services don’t have) can enhance the listening experience that much more.”
STOP THE NOISE!
FM stereo is more susceptible to noise than FM mono, especially if it’s a weak signal. If you’re receiving a noisy broadcast, go into the “Audio setting” in the FM menu. Changing this setting to “Yes” will convert the FM stereo signal to mono and make noisy stereo stations more listenable. To access this setting in FM mode, press and hold the Como Audio remote’s round Play/Pause key, select “Audio setting,” then select ”Yes.” This setting doesn’t affect the non-FM sources and doesn’t remove any of the broadcast music content. Rather, it sums the signal’s left and right channels together and reduces noise. If you have a Solo or Amico and don’t have the Ambiente or Amica dedicated right channel speaker, keep the FM Audio setting in Mono. Otherwise, if you change Solo or Amico’s setting to “No” without the separate speaker connected you will only get the left channel!
REPLACING THE ANTENNA
Experimenting with a different antenna is the most effective option for trying to tune in in more or cleaner-sounding FM stations. Connecting a different antenna to your Como Audio system is not a big job. You’ll need a plastic wrench tool (obtained from Como Audio) like the one pictured below which slide’s over the antenna’s shaft, allowing you to loosen and then manually unscrew the existing antenna. Once the stock antenna is removed, screw the coax cable from the replacement antenna over the F connector. You may need to use needle nose pliers to tighten the cable over the Como Audio system’s F connector since your fingers might not fit inside the round recess in the back panel. Save the original telescoping antenna in case you ever need to re-attach it.
Our wrench also comes with a simple push-on FM wire antenna which may or may not provide better reception over the telescoping antenna. Some customers do not have the space to expand and angle the telescoping antenna as needed, so the wire antenna is an inexpensive alternative.
INDOOR ANTENNA OPTIONS
Indoor antennas typically do not perform as well as outdoor antennas, but often offer improved reception over a standard antenna. If you want the easiest and most affordable option, try the trusty FM dipole antenna which has been around for decades. Get one that terminates with an F connector so it will screw on to your Como Audio model’s threaded F connector without requiring an adapter.
Frankly, this type of antenna is big and ugly. If you try to hide it, such as tucking it behind a bookshelf or a picture, you will reduce its reception ability. Positioning it in front of a window or an exterior wall will provide maximum reception.
JUICE ME UP
A better, though admittedly more expensive alternative, is an indoor amplified FM antenna. It can be difficult finding a really good indoor amplified antenna. Some of them have nice designs but don’t work as well as they look. I opted to dust off my vintage Parsec LS-3 amplified FM antenna and connect its coax cable to my Musica’s rear panel F connector (after having already removed the stock antenna). My old Parsec antenna still worked perfectly, though I needed to Gorilla Glue the plastic base which had broken away from the antenna tower. Some amplified antennas like my Parsec come with a tiny potentiometer to adjust the level of amplification. This is a nice feature to have as opposed to a fixed level of amplification that cannot be changed. As with the dipole, you’ll get the best reception if you position the antenna in front of a window or against an exterior wall. This type of antenna comes with an external adapter to power the internal amplifier, so be sure an electrical outlet is close by. Make certain you can return the antenna should it not perform to your expectations. As for those expectations, they should be reasonable. Understand that even the best antenna, indoor or out, cannot receive a station if that station’s signal doesn’t reach your area to start with or is just too weak.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Depending on its location, an outdoor antenna usually has the best chance of bringing in as many FM stations as possible, but the installation is more involved. There are numerous options when it comes to selecting an outdoor FM antenna (directional, omni-directional, amplified, passive, motorized rotor, etc.), with an equally broad price range. In the end, it really comes down to installing an antenna and evaluating the results. In my case, I bought a simple omni-directional outdoor FM whip antenna from GAM Electronics, a Maine-based company, as recommended to me by a close friend whom is also an audio Engineer and has worked on FM tuners. I also had to buy a $5 “L” mounting bracket and a $6 PL-259 to F connector adapter purchased from Amazon to connect the coax cable to the antenna. Not all antennas will require this adapter. I ran the coax cable from the antenna down into my basement and then up through a hole I drilled in the living room floor not far from my Musica. Usually the higher you mount the antenna, the better the reception. If there are tall objects around like buildings, trees, or mountains, they could block the antenna’s reception. Since I’m not good on a very tall ladder and even worse on a roof, I mounted the antenna to a PVC vent pipe coming out of my roof which I was able to access using just an 8-foot ladder. I could have placed the antenna in my attic and avoided the ladder experience altogether, but it would have meant snaking the coax cable through insulated walls from the attic down to the first floor. Obviously, if you’re going to get on a ladder or get on your roof, be very cautious. Be sure there are no power lines nearby and have another person standing by in case you find yourself in trouble. My install took me just under 2 hours to complete (I work slow), with a total material cost of about $135 (FM antenna, adapter, bracket, and 100’ of RG6 coax cable).
A note about DAB/DAB+: For those residing in countries using DAB/DAB+, generally speaking, the digital broadcast signals do not reach as far as analog FM signals and usually have different coverage patterns. Some DAB/DAB+ stations employ “repeaters” in certain areas to improve their signal coverage. In the case of DAB/DAB+, it is possible an outdoor antenna may not provide any tangible reception benefit over an indoor antenna. A special type of antenna designed specifically for DAB might also be required.
Music streaming services are unquestionably convenient, and Internet radio brings in stations from all over the world without noise, but analog FM radio remains a worthwhile source of information and entertainment. It becomes even more important if your Wi-Fi network goes down. Personally, every 8 months or so, I go through the entire FM band from one end to the other to see what is new. Stations change format every now and again, so one is bound to encounter something new at some point. If you are a regular FM listener and you are not afraid to experiment, give these options a try. One or more of them should help you enjoy the (FM) music.
Next Month: A look at vinyl records and how to connect a turntable to your Como Audio system.
Peter Skiera makes his home in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio as V.P. of Product Development in 2016. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached at email@example.com