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Sonic Sensations To surround yourself with a high-def sound, you need a real HD digital radio

Think $599 is a lot of money for a table-top radio?

I did, for sure, and still do, but when I got the chance to try out Polk Audio's I-Sonic I found that there is a lot more to it than that.

Just as telephones are no longer just telephones, this table radio is not just a radio, but a digital entertainment system in a very small package.

Polk Audio is well known for its high-end sound systems and home theater components. When the company decided to invade the table-top radio market, it was entering a field occupied by some well-known competitors, including Bose and Boston Acoustics.

Polk brought this unit to market this fall. The company loaded it with every feature they could pack into it. At $599, the I-Sonic is $100 more than the well-advertised Bose Wave radio, which has been around for more than a dozen years.

First off, it is a really excellent room-filling sound system. With four amps and matching speakers, it offers clean AM, and superior FM stereo sound. It plays audio CDs with close to home theater quality. Polk claims its sound quality is superior to a number of table models on the market today.

XM digital satellite radio is available, with an extra-cost antenna and XM subscription. XM offers 170 channels of music, talk news and sports, with many channels commercial free.

To use this service a consumer has to buy a separate antenna and pay a subscription fee. Details are available at xmradio.com.

XM Satellite Radio Holdings and its main competitor, Sirius Satellite Radio, have recently had to cut back their projections of subscribers. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that XM is now projecting 7.7 to 7.9 million subscribers by year's end, down from the 9 million it expected at the start of the year. Sirius estimates it will have 5.9 to 6.1 million by the same time, down from a guess of 6.3 million a few months ago.

Polk's radio offers High Definition Radio in both AM and FM. There are eight stations in Western New York broadcasting various formats, and even more in the Rochester area. A list of HD stations nationwide and their offerings is available at morefreeradio.com, or from iBiquity.com.

High definition radio is digital, which means clearer reception. Broadcasters claim AM sounds like FM and FM sounds like a CD.It lets stations "multicast" more than one signal on the same frequency, meaning more choices for the listener. It is free, with no subscription fee like XM or Sirius charge. But you will have lots of commercials. There's no such thing as a totally free lunch.

HD stations in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area are:

* 1230 WECK-HD AM.

* 92.9 WBUF-HD1 FM, 92.9-2 WBUF-HD2 FM.

* 93.7 WBLK-HD1 FM, Urban AC.; 93.7-2 WBLK-HD2 FM.

* 96.1 WJYE-HD1 FM, 96.1-2 WJYE-HD2 FM.

* 98.5 WKSE-HD1 FM.

* 99.5 WDCX-HD1 FM, NY 99.5-2 WDCX-HD2 FM.

* 106.5 WYRK-HD1 FM, 106.5-2 WYRK-HD2 FM.

* 107.7 WLKK-HD1 FM.

The I-Sonic is capable of 30 station presets in three banks of 10 each -- any combination of AM, FM or XM.

A four-speaker "surround sound" system in a compact black-and-silver case (4 3/4 inches by 14 1/2 inches by 9 3/4 onches) is just the beginning. The I-Sonic plays CDs and video DVDs through a TV set.

Full bass and treble adjustments are possible, and there is a stereo headphone jack.

It's an alarm clock too, with two separate settings.

You can connect an iPod or other MP3 player or video game through one of the AUX inputs, although the audio hookup cable is not included. I thought MP3 music sounded as good as could be expected, considering the limitations of the format.

The system has no dials, just a few buttons on the unit itself and a credit card-sized remote, controlling everything. But be warned, getting the most out of the I-Sonic requires some study. This is not for your average non-technical grandmother. The unit can be operated without the remote if that is misplaced.

To play video DVDs -- or even view your own JPEG digital photos, it can be connected to a TV through Composite or S-video inputs, though no S-video cable is included. The hookup to my Sony TV was easy. It played a movie DVD with excellent quality, but I thought the color rendering for my JPEG photos of the "October surprise" storm was a bit too vivid.

I had a real learning experience while setting up a few preset stations -- there are 30 slots available. The thing froze up on me. Totally unresponsive.

I called Polk for help, and was asked "Did you try pulling the plug on it?" That's how you reboot it. This radio is also half a computer, meaning that if you "push the wrong button" or try to make it do something it can't do, it can go catatonic, just like a personal computer. The fix is the same, too.

The manual now shipping with the I-Sonic is decribed as "basic." The company says a more detailed one and an instructional CD is being prepared and will be available online at polkaudio.com. Polk claims the designers' goal was to make all the media alternatives available without ever opening a manual. They failed in my case, but maybe I'm being unfair. Twice I had to call on our neighborhood techie for help. She's 16 and doesn't do manuals at all.

Bottom line, the I-Sonic is a great-sounding system that opens a lot of possibilities for entertainment. It could be a fine second sound system for the home, say in a bedroom, in combination with a television set. But bear in mind that it is complicated.

Not everyone is going to use everything this clever little box can do, but the choices are there, and they work surprisingly well.

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