Review of the Panasonic CQ-CB9900U HD Radio Receiver


Somebody has been doing his or her homework. When I first heard demonstrations of HD Radio technology a few years ago, I had serious doubts about it. All of the technical advantages, such as improved reception and elimination of static and multi-path interference, were overshadowed by the mediocre sound quality of the prototype radios. What good is static-free reception if your radio sounds like it has chipmunks living in it? Fortunately, some big changes were implemented, and the new sound quality of HD Radio technology is something to get excited about. When I powered up the Panasonic CQ-CB9900U, one of the first in-dash CD receivers with a built-in HD Radio tuner, I was seriously impressed with the sound.

Panasonic CQ-CB9900U
Panasonic CQ-CB9900UCD/MP3/WMA receiver with built-in HD Radio tuner

What? You?ve never heard of HD Radio?
Well, join the crowd — practically nobody else has either. Check out our article on What You Need to Know about HD Radio Technology for an introduction to HD Radio, or visit www.iBiquity.com, the company that is largely responsible for the technology. Briefly, HD Radio is a new technology that enables AM and FM radio stations to broadcast their programs digitally, while continuing to transmit the original analog signal on the same frequency. An HD Radio tuner can receive either version, the digital or the analog, of any given radio frequency. In most cases, the digital version will sound better.

For now, only a relatively few stations are using HD Radio technology — about 150 out of 13,000 radio stations nationwide — but 445 stations have been licensed and more will follow.

A new class of head unit
The Panasonic CQ-CB9900U is a single-DIN head unit with a built-in CD player, an AUX input, CD changer controls and an HD Radio tuner, along with a host of other features. It can play MP3 or WMA files from CD-R or CD-RW discs, and has full folder navigation. The CD player displays CD Text information, if available.

The CQ-CB9900U is a gorgeous head unit — not too flashy, but with an elegant mirror-finished fa?ade. A fold-down faceplate (with the CD slot opening behind it) gives the display and controls an uncluttered feel. The faceplate is simple enough, with a large rotary volume control that's easy to adjust on the road. The volume knob is pushed to access system setup menus, such as bass and treble boost, low-pass and high-pass filters, and fade/balance controls. Buttons for source select, mute, and sound quality are located around the top of the volume knob. The source and mute buttons have secondary functions (power and Super Bass Control, which lets your rear speakers act as subwoofers) if they?re held for over 2 seconds. Underneath the volume is a button labeled "D/A" — more on this later.

The center of the faceplate features a large dot-matrix display that is easy to read in all lighting situations and can be set in one of three brightness levels. Backgrounds are selectable from a variety of styles — I preferred the tropical fish. To the right of the display is a menu access button and a button to fold open the entire faceplate, so you can either remove it for security measures or access the CD slot opening. Disc, MP3/WMA navigation, and radio station navigation controls share a simple five-button circular array; a button that cycles through display options completes the faceplate.


Easy set up
Installing the CQ-CB9900U in my car was extremely simple. The HD Radio tuner is built into the head unit, so installation took about 10 minutes. Okay, 15, but who?s counting. There are preamp outputs if I wanted to use an external amplifier, but I hooked the amplified output directly to the JBL P652 speakers in my Acura Integra ? the built-in amplifier is rated at a healthy 25 watts (RMS) into four channels. The HD Radio signal is carried on the regular AM and FM bands, so no fancy antenna was necessary. Simplicity at its best.

screens
The receiver is equipped with a High Definition 3-D Dot Matrix Display with seven background graphic patterns.

Before I hit the road, I wanted to delve into the sound quality settings. The CQ-CB9900U has six preset EQ curves, as well as a seven-band graphic equalizer. The center frequencies are 60 Hz, 160 Hz, 400 Hz, 1,000 Hz, 3,000 Hz, 6,000 Hz, and 16,000 Hz, all variable up or down 12 dB in 2 dB increments. The standard bass adjustment is centered at 60 Hz and the treble controls 16,000 Hz. I added just a bit of bass at 160 Hz and was ready to hit the road.

Radio, radio!
Usually, the radio is the last thing I listen to when I?m checking out a new head unit ? it?s always the CD player that matters most to me. However, I couldn?t wait to hear what all the HD Radio hoopla was all about. Only 7 stations are currently broadcasting using HD Radio technology in my area (Atlanta, GA), although more are licensed. Luckily for me, the first station I tuned into was a dramatic example of what HD Radio technology can do.

The first station I stumbled onto was 90.1 (WABE), a local NPR affiliate. The radio tuned into the analog signal first, then displayed that it was receiving the HD Radio signal, and after a few seconds, switched to the digital feed. In this case, the difference was astounding. The static disappeared. The stereo image opened up, and the tonal quality was amazing. I was listening to a violin and piano duet. The D/A (digital/analog) button lets you switch between the digital and analog signals. With the analog signal, the violin sounded compressed with no definition. Switching to the digital signal, I could hear the bow on the strings, and the vibrato that was lost before. Later that evening, the program changed to new-age world music, and again, the amount of detail in the digital signal was stunning. The ring-out of cymbals was breathtaking — every resonance was heard.

Bumps in the road
Despite the marked improvement of sound quality on the local NPR station, I did run into a couple of glitches on the stations broadcasting with HD Radio technology. The NPR station (and a few of the others as well) has a delay between the digital and analog signals — in this case, well over five seconds. If you never switch from the digital to the analog signal, you might never know. But one of the features of HD Radio technology is that if the tuner loses the digital signal, it automatically switches to the analog signal. I was driving through the downtown area, where multipath interference is common, and I never once had a problem — with HD Radio, the "picket-fence" noises were gone. I had to manually switch between analog and digital because I never lost the digital signal.

Another quirk of the HD Radio technology is that some of my local stations have sound level differences between the two signals — sometimes the digital signal was louder than the analog (or regular) radio signal, sometimes it was softer. Some stations, like the NPR station, sounded dramatically better on the digital signal; others, like 99.7 (99X), sounded very similar switching between the digital and analog signals. One station, 96.1 (96Rock) actually sounded worse. They were broadcasting Genesis' "Carpet Crawlers" from a live recording of The Lamb Lies Down on Archive 1967-75 (Atlantic Records) and the digital signal was very bright and harsh. I?ve listened to the CD of this performance countless times, and I know that it does not sound like that. This is a new technology, and local broadcasters need to make sure that processing applied to an FM analog signal to improve sound quality is removed for the digital feed. Digital radio is still in its infancy, so things like this will be ironed out in the near future.

It?s also worth noting that HD is broadcast in both the FM and AM bands. Because the bandwidth of AM broadcasts is much smaller, AM HD Radio must operate at a lower bit rate. This means that AM HD Radio signals do not sound as good as FM HD Radio signals. The good news is that, as with FM, AM HD Radio signals are largely free of the interference that plagues analog radios.


More than just an HD Radio tuner
As much fun as it was to listen to the HD Radio tuner, I also needed to check out some other features of the CQ-CB9900U. The CD playback was very good. In fact, I checked out the CD of "Carpet Crawlers." Peter Gabriel's youthful voice had plenty of depth and warmth, particularly on the last somber vocal line. Phil Collin's snare drum, while unprocessed, sounded natural and sharp, and not at all harsh. The CD player also handled MP3 and WMA files without a glitch. I could select how to view files, and the folders were simple to navigate through.

HD Radio logo

Conclusion
There are claims that the FM HD Radio signal is "CD-Quality." If that means that HD Radio technology provides sound quality that is as good as CD, then the claims are unfortunately not true. On the other hand, can HD Radio technology sound better than analog FM? Absolutely. Moreover, AM HD Radio reception can be superior to the sound you hear on most analog AM stations. In both cases, the signal goes through some serious data compression to fit into the allotted bandwidth, and this compression, though better than it was when I first heard it, still has some digital artifacts. However, I would take those over static and signal fade any day. The Panasonic CQ-CB9900U is a terrific system that takes advantage of all that HD Radio technology has the potential to become. Even without digital radio, it?s a terrific head unit. Including an HD Radio tuner just makes it a better value.
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