From eight-tracks through cassettes and on to CD players and changers I’ve driven with them all. I even remember my in-dash Delco AM radio with an FM converter beneath, though that was a long time ago. However, the one constant through all my years of driving or as a passenger, for that matter has been the car radio.
As much as car radios have changed over the years, they’ve remained remarkably similar. Sure, digital tuning has advanced user convenience dramatically, and digital signal-processing (DSP) circuitry can make your front seat sound like a church pew, but the radio has otherwise remained a decidedly analog animal. At least, it had until Blaupunkt introduced its DigiCeiver line of head units. The seven models come in different configurations, ranging from the $250 Florida CD receiver to the $570 Dallas MiniDisc receiver. I tried the $330 Alaska CD receiver, which has now been joined by the $370 Alaska II with an enhanced-visibility display.
The Alaska has a clean front panel with sensibly placed, easy-to-use buttons. Six station-preset buttons allow accesss to 12 FM or 6 AM stations, plus another 12 presets under the receiver’s Travelstore feature, which stores the six strongest stations in each band.
Another feature unfortunately, of dubious usefulness is the Alaska’s Radio Data System (RDS) capability. It’s not that RDS is a bad idea quite the contrary. In theory, it allows you to identify stations easily by the displayed call letters or nickname (say, Jammin’ 105) and to find tunable stations that are broadcasting a preferred program type (news, pop, or jazz, for example). But while the system has been very successful in Europe, North American broadcasters have yet to embrace it. In fact, only a handful of stations in my area, a suburb of New York City, were broadcasting RDS signals, and several that had been broadcasting RDS the last time I looked at a compatible receiver have apparently stopped doing so.
The volume control, on the left side of the front panel, allows for fingertip adjustment of volume, though I must admit it took me longer than expected to get used to it it’s more of a dial than a knob, and it doesn’t protrude far enough to grab onto. However, I did find the mute button centered in the control to be a welcome addition (it also doubles as the power button). It took only minutes to get used to the Thummer III infrared remote ($60), which I attached to my steering wheel.
All in all, the Alaska is pretty easy to use because most of the setup functions are invoked only when you press the Direct Software Control (DSC) key. Then you can use the up/down and left/right cursor keys to configure several one-time, set-and-forget parameters. For example, you can set the volume of button-press confirmation beeps, switch the clock from a 12- to a 24-hour display, adjust the turn-on and mute volume levels, change how long the auto scan waits before moving to the next station, and more. There’s also a two-band parametric equalizer accessed through the DSC menu, which makes sense you basically want to adjust the unit to your car’s acoustics and then leave the EQ alone.
To operate more commonly used audio functions treble, bass, balance, fader, and loudness compensation you must press the Aud key to choose the function and then use the cursors to adjust the parameters shown in the display. It’s sensible and easy to use.
The differentiating feature of any Blaupunkt DigiCeiver is its digital tuner. Unlike traditional digital radios, the Alaska’s is more than just a synthesized tuner and digital display. It basically converts the incoming radio signal to digital bits after the first IF (intermediate-frequency) stage, which allows for digital manipulation of the signal from there to the final output. It starts with the Alaska’s Sharx IF filter, an automatic, variable-bandwidth filter designed to adapt to reception conditions. In particular, the filter automatically narrows to reduce potential interference when adjacent signals are present. When there are no adjacent signals, it widens to improve fidelity. An equivalent analog filter would be prohibitively expensive if it could even be built.
In use, the Sharx filter did its job admirably, especially down at the bottom end of the FM band where you find weaker, noncommercial stations. Its adjacent-channel rejection was superb. I could receive a listenable though not necessarily hi-fi signal on virtually every FM frequency, including some I would never expect to hear. For example, I was able to receive WBJB (90.5 MHz) from Lincroft, NJ, while driving on Long Island in Suffolk County, NY. True, Lincroft was only about 50 miles away, but WBJB is a modestly powered station that I’d expect to be trampled by local stations at both 90.3 and 90.7 MHz. Heck, it was a little noisy, but there was none of that annoying picket-fencing! And this performance wasn’t an anomaly. Up and down the band, the Blaupunkt Alaska’s performance proved amazing.
Before I forget, the CD player worked just fine. Honestly, though, I was having too much fun discovering new stations and new music on the radio dial to find much time to listen to my old CDs.