The new aether

When I decided that Stereophile should review the McIntosh MAC7200 receiver (see the review in the January 2021 issue), I had several reasons for doing so. First, McIntosh is known for the quality of its radio tuners and amplifiers, so I was confident it would be an impressive product. (It was.) Second, a review of a terrestrial radio receiver in 2021 had a certain retro appeal that I thought Stereophile readers might appreciate. Third, as Larry Greenhill wrote in the introduction to that review, I like terrestrial radio.

I like it despite having lived most of my life in places where the radio offerings were limited. All the jazz I ever heard on the radio was smooth. When punk was happening in New York and London, and then on the West Coast, I was in southern Florida obliviously listening to album rock on some now-defunct station.

In New York City, where I live today, radio may be a shadow of its former self, but even so it offers stations, in and near the city, that are far better than any I remember growing up with.

I can't get WXPN from here in New York, but when I drive to eastern Pennsylvania, as I often do, I can't get enough of it. This excellent station is nonprofit and affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania—but it's not, as you might assume, a formulaic NPR/ Sunday-brunch classical station. "Vinyl at heart" is its tagline, and it specializes in classic American music: roots rock, soul, early rap, country. If you listen, you'll also hear other earthy, nutritious genres; you may know XPN as the station that produces the syndicated program "World Cafe."

Among much eclectic programming at WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University, is Phil Schaap's every-weekday program on Charlie Parker, "Birdflight." This is not a great time to explore WKCR; its programming has been interrupted by Columbia University's COVID-related closures (although maybe it will have opened up by the time you read this). "Birdflight" is on repeat because Schaap is seriously ill (footnote 1). But even with the studios closed, WKCR remains an outstanding, idiosyncratic station (footnote 2). (Many will enjoy knowing that KCR's attempts to "go remote" to sit out the pandemic were complicated by the station's old-school, analog approach. Vinyl is harder to stream.)

And then there's New Jersey's WFMU, which broadcasts from just across the Hudson. Rolling Stone once called this "freeform" station "the best radio station in the country." Listeners can tune in to "New York Underground" at 9pm on Fridays, "Sinner's Crossroads" Thursdays at 8, and "Put the Needle on the Record" every Friday evening at 7. Lou Reed was a fan.

Lately I've realized that my enthusiasm for terrestrial radio is more in principle than practice. The main reason: reception issues. I can step out my door and in about six minutes, walking, be at the front door of WKCR's studios—yet I cannot receive their broadcasts clearly.

Is it just me, or has in-car radio reception deteriorated? Maybe it's those stubby antennas that replaced the whips of yore. Whatever it is, even on strong signals, I hear noise and distortion that's surely in the 10% range or higher, often in the highs where it's most annoying. Then, I pull up to a stoplight and am swamped by RF interference.

Which is why, these days, I do most of my radio listening via the internet. All three of the stations listed above can be heard from anywhere via streaming. But with internet radio, I'm not limited to a handful of local stations. In Roon, I maintain links to WWOZ from New Orleans, TSF Jazz from Paris, Radio Paradise from nowhere but the internet (but with studios in Paradise, California), and several others.

Of course, internet radio has its own sound-quality issues. One (hyphenated) word: Bit-rate. Radio Paradise is lossless and CD-rez, and it sounds very good, but that's rare. XPN and WWOZ stream in MP3 at 128kbps. WFMU's 256kbps AAC stream is better, even adequate. WKCR? Roon indicates it's playing right now at a pitiful 92kbps. The programming is superb, but the sound is poor.

What put me in mind of all this was a recent conversation with Rob Schryer about what to call Cambridge Audio's new EVO 150; see Rob's review on p.125. The EVO includes a very good streaming DAC, a volume control, and a class-D amp. Is it a streamer with amplifier or an integrated amp with streamer? It's either; it's both. But what it really is is the 21st-century equivalent of that Yamaha or Marantz receiver you owned back in the day. Streaming—not just internet radio but also streaming services—is the new radio. Streaming appliances are the new tuners. The internet is the new aether.

That's hardly a new idea, but it's timely, with some key implications. First, radio stations should care what they sound like, and that should extend to their online streams. So the quality of those streams must improve. 92 or 128kbps is not sufficient for a serious, high-profile station.

Second: Every component that presumes to deliver an internet radio station or streaming service should deliver all of themevery internet radio station and every streaming service. That's not the model that's out there now. It will require some work, and cooperation from all sides—the stations, the services, the developers of streaming platforms such as Roon and BluOS—but it's essential. Imagine if, back in the day, your new McIntosh tuner or Yamaha receiver got WKCR but not WFMU. You'd send it back, wouldn't you?

Even 25 years after the internet's widespread adoption, it's still early days for the new radio, but it's not too soon to think about the big picture.

Footnote 1: Sadly, Phil Schaap died on September 7, as this issue hit newsstands and mailboxes; see

Footnote 2: Kurt Gottschalk, who writes about music for Stereophile, hosts "Afternoon New Music" on WKCR, Tuesdays at 3pm.

MatthewT's picture

For the station recommendations. I had forgotten about Radio Paradise, and all of them are available on Radio Garden.

mrounds's picture

Have been streaming for long enough that some of my favorites have gone away (the Audiophile streams out of Greece). OTA still works with a good antenna, though I have perhaps one good NPR station (classical/jazz) in the area and yes, the newer the car the poorer the reception. Otherwise, I tend to stream from a computer connected to an amp and some fair-to-middling speakers. VLC is a wonderful tool for that. My standard playlist includes BBC3, RTE Lyric FM (a misnomer because I get it online), several pipe organ outlets that offer 320k MP3 (Organlive, Baroque, ATOS), Linn Radio/Jazz/Classical, and of course Radio Paradise (both standard and "Mellow Mix"). When using Android Auto in the car that has it, I can also bring those up in VLC on my phone and listen for a while. So yes, it is the "new aether" given the difficulty getting clear reception of traditional FM (even assuming decent stations still exist) in the modern high-RF-noise environment.

Jack L's picture


Yea, it was such good old times when I taped classical music into stereo compact cassettes off BBC Radio 3 decades back. I still keep some of those then nice music reocordings on my CD/cassettes wall shelf, including my very favorites: Beethoven Choral Fantasia & Haydn Trumpet Concertos.

That said, home music trend changes with time. I've done with FM music though my friend donated me his very mint Luxman T115 AM/FM tuner many many years back, which I hid in my basement part box, completely forgotten.

Why, being an vinyl music addict, I'd not be bothered to listen to FM music like I did decades back, being much less in sonic quality than vinyl today & requiring really effective (& costly) rooftop reception antenna !!

We have other bettter alternatives todate, e.g. streaming.

I seldom miss BBC Radio 3 sponsored annual classical music PROMS in the Royal Albert Hall London. I watch the PROMS by streaming them to my 4KUHF TV, & sound direct to my 24bit/192KHz DAC feeding my tube phono-preamp: so HD picture+HD digital sound. I mean HD digital sound which sounds soo much better than CDs/DVDs to my ears.

So why bother any old timer FM music anymore ??? Time changes, my friends.

Listening is believing

Jack L

monetschemist's picture

My Linn Pekin FM tuner is "in the shop" - it stopped working back in May or so and I have every reason to believe I will see it again in the next week or so. Meanwhile I have excavated my ancient Kenwood KT-5500 from its basement resting place and it is kind of filling the gap...

Living in Vancouver, my main source of great FM music is our wonderful national broadcaster, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ou Radio Canada selon les canadien(ne)s français(es)). For those of you in the USA or of course elsewhere you can tune it in via the internet as Jim suggests, at and I highly recommend it. There is a jazz show broadcast over the weekend... but what I really enjoy is the After Dark show created by Odario Williams, which is an awesomely eclectic program of pop + other stuff. Lots of other gems hidden in there as well, including good choral music on Saturday morning.

But nothing beats tuning in CBC Vancouver at 2100 local time and listening to After Dark. Nothing.

volvic's picture

Perhaps I am a different demographic, but CBC's heyday was the late 70s and 80s with Bob Kerr and the live broadcast concerts they used to air from across the country, it was a magnificent station. I suppose times change and CBC has tried to move with the times, but to me the quality of music is not what it once was.

monetschemist's picture

With respect, I see the changes to CBC programming as generally quite positive. It reaches a much broader audience now than it did in what you refer to as its heyday, when it largely provided classical programming and news. I find this new CBC programming to be really exceptional as so much stuff shows up there that one would not hear on a more commercially oriented service, whether classical, pop, jazz or other. As well, the playlists now provide much more content via the internet than was possible before in the broadcast-only format. For example there are now 30 classical playlists.

volvic's picture

We appear to be of different demographic and musical tastes. The classical broadcasters are nowhere near as knowledgeable as the older generation once were. Julie Nasralla's show in the early afternoon is classical lite and the evenings are uninteresting for an old curmudgeon like me. They used to have great jazz broadcasts in the late hours; those too are gone. I will admit I enjoyed Laurie Brown's Signals from time to time but still long for the older programming. Even Radio Canada, which was always stellar with its live broadcasts, is but a pale shadow of itself. I suppose they must move with the times, as my friends now listen to "The Drive," but I do wish time had stood still.

Phil Schaap always used to say that Jazz was a dying art form; I would also add so is classical music on the radio

volvic's picture

First off, I was saddened to hear about Phil Schaap's passing. I loved him and his broadcasts, and if WKCR had a share price, its value plummeted the day Phil left us. I wish I had run into him more often on the subway; he was a gem, and I always learned something from him.
I read your article last week and couldn't wait to see it posted so I could comment. I have been a regular FM listener for many years, both in my old country Canada and my new home in the USA. I came down with my trusty Linn Kremlin, Meridian 504, and Tandberg receiver; all provide great FM reception and quality music from WKCR, WBGO, WXQR, and others, including the Fordham station. The reception issue is solved by installing an aerial on your balcony (if you have one) or outside your window. Just don't let the superintendent notice. I have tried the streaming route, but the quality is subpar, and I cannot see the situation improving anytime soon. However, FM is still an excellent source of music and entertainment, and we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss it. BTW it sounds just as good in my current car than it did with my now since sold clunker. Long live FM.

teched58's picture

We've sadly lost two important FM personalities in the past year. Along with the sad passing of Phil Schaap, Rita Houston of New York's WFUV died in December 2020 age 59, also of cancer. For those outside the city, WFUV (90.7) is a noncommercial station owned by Fordham University. Rita was almost as iconic at WFUV as Phil was at WKCR (89.9). (I say "almost," because WFUV, whose format is best described as hipster rock, has a full slate of D̶J̶s̶ hosts, including many refugees from NYC's groundbreaking free-form FM rock stations of the 1970s.)

As regards classical, sadly NYC's best classical station -- WNCN -- went off the air in 1993.

To flip Jim's description of NYC radio on its side (or to cast it in a Churchillian way), FM radio in NYC these days sucks, except when you compare it to radio everywhere else in the country. In which case, we are pretty lucky to (still) have what we have. I will miss listening to Phil on Saturday evenings.

volvic's picture

Traditions in Swing was a great show: I would hit the mono button on the Kairn and Kremlin and enjoy learning and listening to glorious music.

I did not know of Rita Houston, another sad passing. I agree, at first compared to past radio stations, one would say the NYC situation isn't that great, until you listen to the sad state elsewhere.

WNCN's demise preceded my arrival to NYC, but from what I was told, it had a very slow decline and became more 'classical lite'. The last classical station we have here in NYC WQXR still plays live performances, which makes owning the Kremlin well worth it, so hope it can stay afloat.

DH's picture

For giving me some new stations to stream.

jtshaw's picture

Here in Omaha, NE, we have two public FM stations. KVNO broadcasts classical music and KIOS is primarily NPR/BBC with some jazz and other musical genres in the evenings and weekends. The only time I listen to FM or AM commercial radio is an occasional Kansas City Royals game.

KVNO broadcasts two HD subchannels: one for a college radio station and the other for BBC and the WFMT (Chicago) Jazz Network overnight on the weekends. I'm a night owl (or maybe, insomniac) and the Jazz Network is wonderful! FM HD is not an especially good codec, but at modest volumes in the middle of the night it sounds quite good to me.

Indeed, I enjoy the evening jazz on KIOS and overnight jazz on KVNO so much that I invested in a T+A Electroakustik CALA Streaming CD-Receiver. Paired with Wharfedale Denton speakers, the CALA provides outstanding sound and flexibility in a small room system. All-in-one systems have been proliferating in recent years, but the CALA by a long measure exceeds any others in my experience.