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Tech Rap: Tricking-out Your FM

Posted on September 28 2018

 
By Peter Skiera

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 first Tech Rap article should focus on FM reception.

 

Autographs from veteran broadcasters Tom Snyder, Charles Laquidara, and Salty Brine.


With all that Como Audio music systems have to offer, it’s easy for the FM tuner to be overlooked or underused, especially since most FM stations today can be accessed via Internet radio. However, terrestrial FM still remains relevant to millions of people all around the world. A clear analog FM stereo broadcast can be very satisfying, and a good music host (something most streaming services don’t 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 smart speaker? While the existing telescoping antenna does a good job of pulling in FM stations, here are some suggestions if you’re 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 be 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, 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 eliminate any of the broadcast content. Rather, it sums the signal’s left and right channels together to reduce 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!

 

The Audio setting in the menu in FM mode: Select “Yes” to reduce noise.

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 new antenna to your Como Audio system isn’t 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 it and then manually unscrew the 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 probably won’t fit inside the round recess in the back panel. Save the original telescoping antenna in case you ever need to re-attach it.

 

This wrench has a through hole allowing it to slide over the antenna.

INDOOR ANTENNA OPTIONS
Indoor antennas typically don’t 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 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.

The FM dipole (above): Big and ugly, but cheap and effective.

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.

The Musica connected to an indoor amplified antenna (above).

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, omnidirectional, 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 omnidirectional outdoor FM whip antenna from Gam Electronics, a Maine-based company, as recommended to me by an RF Engineer friend. 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, with a total material cost of about $135 (FM antenna, adapter, bracket, and 100’ of RG6 coax cable). Depending on the antenna and the installation, you may also need to ground the antenna to protect against a lightning strike. You might consider consulting a professional to assess your particular situation.

 

The GAM FM outdoor antenna (above).

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’s possible an outdoor antenna may not provide any tangible reception benefit over an indoor antenna.

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’s new. Stations change format every now and again, so one is bound to encounter something new at some point. If you hardly ever use the FM on your Como Audio model, I would encourage you to take a tour when you have the time. If you’re a regular FM user and you’re not afraid to experiment, give one of the aforementioned external antennae options a try. You just might be surprised at what you hear.

Next Month: A look back at vinyl records and how to connect a turntable.

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. Peter can be reached at pskiera@comoaudio.com. 

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