Saturday, July 12, 2008

VR3's Add-On Car HD Radio Hits Target with a Miss

Wandering through Target recently I spotted a big “HD Radio” logo on a box in the auto section. This was the first I’d seen of HD Radio in Target, a store that’s known for attracting shoppers that are younger and have higher median household incomes...qualities many stations like in listeners, too! Perhaps the VR3 VRHDUA100 could be a real boon. Sadly, while I found it to be a decent tuner, the radio itself has a clunky user interface and is limited in features as to be problematic.

The VR3 is an “add-on” tuner, designed to be used through your existing car stereo. There’s three parts: a main unit that you tuck away behind the dashboard, a control unit that you attach somewhere in the interior, and a power supply/cord.

The power supply
Unlike most car radios, the VR3 provides a power plug that mates with any 12VDC “cigarette lighter” power jack in a car. There is no other way to provide power unless you cut off the cigarette lighter jack and strip the wires a bit. Perhaps this is no big deal for a radio engineer, but I can't see Joe Average doing it.

However, this does make installation a lot easier. But for me, it also hogs a power source you might need for an iPod or cellphone charger. And in my case, my 2001 Honda Accord also has a lot of engine electrical noise on that jack, and it came through the radio very audibly with a high-frequency whine that would increase in pitch and loudness as the engine RPM's did.

Hmmm…strike one.

The main unit
The main unit is the size of a small paperback book (6.5” W x 3.75” D x 1.2” H) and easily fit behind my existing car radio. However, as with most add-on tuners it’s designed to go in-line of your car’s antenna. The problem here is that the main unit’s cord, designed to go to the existing car radio, is just 18 inches. So the main unit pretty much has to be installed right where your existing car radio is. Not every car has a lot of room back there.

The main unit also has two RCA line-level outputs for the audio, which work fine. But this revealed a glaring omission: there’s no RF modulator in the VR3. So if your existing car radio doesn’t have RCA line-level inputs, you’re outta luck. Or you have to buy a separate add-on FM RF modulator.

Yeesh…strike two.

For the hell of it, I did open up the case and took a look inside. The interior appears pretty densely packed. Although I never noticed an excessive amount of heat being generated during operation. I didn't take any pictures of the underside of the interior - it's just a blank PCB.

The control unit
The control unit is discreetly small (only 5” W x 1.25” H x 0.6” D) and the package includes a handy snap-in cradle that can suction-mount to your windshield. There’s a two-line LCD display (blue-white letters on backlit blue) and eight buttons: POWER, BAND, SCAN and MENU on the left of the display…TUNE UP, TUNE DOWN, ENTER and PRESET on the right. Enter also doubles as a “change display” button, which can be set to show the song title, artist, call letters, frequency, a signal strength bargraph meter, or scrolling text.

The radio will show PAD from RDS/RBDS or, if HD carriers are present, the PSD from the HD station. If neither are present, it just shows the frequency. Usually the top line is reserved for call letters and “FM”, “AM”, “HD FM” or “HD AM”. The bottom line is what’s controlled by the ENTER button, and it’s erratic to say the least. This is more the fault of HD stations not standardizing on what information they’re displaying using the artist/title/etc fields. But it’s frustrating because the VR3 only shows one at a time, and must be manually cycled. The signal strength meter seems to have little usefulness, especially with FM multicast stations; you already know you’ve lost the signal because the HD audio disappears before the meter drops at all.

There’s no brightness or contrast control on the VR3, and it is exceedingly bright for night driving. I “solved” that problem simply by stuffing the control unit in an out-of-direct-sight location…inelegant but I suppose it worked. This also kinda highlights another shortcoming: while the cradle is pretty well designed in terms of holding the control unit, it's not so great for actually attaching to anything. The click-lock suction cup works reasonably well for attaching to a windshield, but unless you want your car to have a giant "steal me" sign on it, you don't want to leave something like that out when you're parked. So it suddenly becomes a real pain in the neck to remove/setup the cradle every time you go out.

The lack of contrast control was also a problem because I usually wear polarized sunglasses during daytime driving, and LCD displays are inherently polarized themselves. Unfortunately, the VR3's display is oriented so that when viewed normally while wearing polarized glasses...the display turns solid black. D'oh! I had to turn it 90 degrees to see anything on the display. Grrr…

And while we're piling on with the annoying quirks: when you shut off your car, the radio doesn’t stay on the last station it was playing. Instead, when you start up the car, the radio goes to whatever the station was when you last turned on the VR3 itself. This isn’t really a big deal, but it’s one more vaguely annoying thing in a radio that has a lot of vaguely annoying things.

Somewhat more seriously, the radio has an annoying tendency to just tune to "static" when you tune up or down. Especially, and inexplicably, if you tune past 87.5 or 107.9 to "loop around" to the other end of the radio dial. Even if you know darn well there's a clear station on a given frequency, sometimes all you hear is static. Tuning one notch away and then back usually clears the problem, but it's disconcerting nonetheless.

However, something that truly is rather damning: the presets are incredibly difficult to use. You must hit PRESET first, then scroll up and down amongst the 20 presets (10 each for AM & FM) using the TUNE UP or TUNE DOWN buttons then hit ENTER to switch to that frequency. This effectively requires you to take your eyes of the road for several seconds at a time to use any one present.

Hoo-boy…that’s strike three.

Arguing with the ump
Now that I’ve kicked the VR3 while it’s down, I should point out some of the positives. The radio is not the most-ever sensitive tuner I’ve ever used, but it’s not bad. I’ve used the Kenwood HR-100 and the JVC KD-HDW10 in this same car, and both are slightly better, but only slightly. You can feel comfortable recommending this tuner to the non-radiophile for signal selectivity.

I was particularly impressed with the AM sensitivity (listed at -87dBm in the manual) which was markedly better than most stock car radios. I couldn’t find a spec on it, but my ears told me the VR3 dynamically adjusts the AM bandwidth to adjust for signal conditions…and when it had a solid signal it must’ve been very wideband because it sounded fabulous. The only catch, if you can call it that, is that often the bandwidth narrowing was VERY audible. On both AM and FM you’d often hear the sound get tinny or rich very quickly as the filter constantly adapted. Ah well, at least when the signal was good, the sound was good, too.

In all fairness, the VR3 seems designed to focus heavily on the “easy to install” part (the box even touts it) and for the non-technical, it does mostly achieve that goal. Even the simple manual does a good job tackling a universal installation concept. The problem comes when you want to actually use it – it’s just not that user-friendly. Worse, there are better options out there that are cheaper: the VR3 retails for $150.

UPDATE July 13th 2008:
a visit to Target today revealed they have lowered the price from $150 to $105. Looks like a recent change. I admit this makes the VR3 more competitive with comparable models like the Visteon HD Zoom or Directed Electronics "Car Connect" (see my review of the Directed) both of which retail for about $200. Although the Directed, and the similar-looking Visteon, both seem to offer far better performance and features.

UPDATE July 27th, 2008: another visit to Target and another price cut, this time to just $38 (!!!!!) Either Target or VR3 must be discontinuing selling this model to let 'em go at that price. I grabbed the remaining three radios on the shelf at the Henrietta, NY Target to use as giveaways for WEOS. I also noticed that in the home electronics aisle they now have the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio ($180) a tabletop model that has an iPod dock and supports iTunes tagging.

What about for in-house monitoring?
Thinking outside the box, what about for radio engineers wanting in-house monitoring? It's tempting...the radio's design that makes it automatically go to whatever frequency it was set to when you turned the power off via the POWER button on the control unit. And if it was powered on when you cut the power, it'll come back on automatically when power is restored. Quirky, but it means you can be assured that'll come back to a specific frequency in the event of a power loss.

Catch is, you can’t force it to power-on to a HD-2 or HD-3 (or HD-n) multicast channel. Alert reader Tom noticed that this is not true on his VR3; when you tune it to a multicast channel, press POWER to power off, then press POWER again to power on...the VR3 will return to the multicast channel every time after a power outage. When I re-tested my VR3 I discovered that mine did that, too...I don't know why it wouldn't during the original testing. Very weird. So it's got some potential as an in-house monitor. Unfortunately, when the carrier signal is lost, the radio switches back to the main frequency quite quickly...10 to 15 seconds. So unfortunately, it's not quite perfect for monitoring since you can't use it with a silence sensor, nor can you force it to tune to digital only. Still, not bad for $38, though.

In conclusion...
Target’s website offers a few other HD Radio options (although, oddly, the website doesn't list the VRHDUA100), but as of June 2008 I haven’t seen any alternatives in the actual stores as of July 27, 2008, Target is now selling the Sony XDR-S10HDiP HD Radio in the home electronics aisle. So for the time being, if your listeners want to walk into a store and walk out with an HD Radio for their car I’d have to recommend you send them elsewhere. If they just want a tabletop model, the Sony is a good one. While the VR3 is indeed fairly easy to set up, it's just too lacking in features and too difficult to use for your non-technical listener that it's not worth it.

The one place I could possibly recommend the VR3 is in a "company car" if your station has one. It's not a bad tuner and, presumably, your company car is mostly going to be listening to your station alone...thus you don't have to worry about changing the channel.

Thumbs Up
  • Decent tuner selectivity.
  • Small size.
  • Fairly easy/simple installation.
Thumbs Down
  • Very poor user interface.
  • Lack of FM RF Modulator.
  • Lack of options for power.
  • Cheap price reflects few features.


Tom Wilson said...

FYI: I have the VR3. I bought it for $37.50 at Target.

I CAN make it power up to a multicast after a power faiulre. The trick is that it powers up to whatever you were listening to the last time you turned it off with the power button. So tune a -2 station, then press the power button. Then turn it back on.

Now pull the plug. When you plug it back in, it'll sync to the -2 station and start playing audio after a few seconds.

Aaron Read said...

That's odd...mine will not do that; I tried.

Tom Wilson said...

Weird. Maybe I have newer firmware.

Either way, I think it was worth the $37.50. I bought the last 2 in the store; I'm using one at my desk with some powered speakers, and it's nice to have just the little control head on the desk instead of a big ol' radio sitting there.

Aaron Read said...

I just retested mine, and now it does exactly as you describe. Go figure.

It still won't hold a multicast channel during loss of signal, so it's not really ideal for monitoring purposes.

Anonymous said...

bought my vr3 at a flea market (of course no manual). did extensive on-line searches. found the manual in pdf form 1 time.- should've saved to file 'cause wife used puter & bye-bye file. almost impossible to find on-line.