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Mixing MP3 and FM Radio: Maybe, Maybe Not!

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Although at first glance you can find plenty of portable digital music players with built-in FM radios, all is not as rosy at it seems. Many of the biggest or best digital music players don't include radios. Of those that do include them, far too many don't offer the best of radio listening experiences. Either careful shopping and auditioning, or multiple device purchases is necessary to get the best of all worlds involved.
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OK, I have a confession to make before I can relate the sometimes sad and always interesting facts of this story: I'm an NPR junkie (that's National Public Radio, for those of you not likewise addicted). For me, part of the ritual involved in traveling is figuring out where an NPR station falls at the low end of the FM dial when I get to my destination city. I have a hard time starting or ending my working day without a news fix from the likes of Bob Edwards, Scott Simon, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts, or any of the rest of that stellar crew of reporters and writers. And that, my friends, explains how I talked myself into researching this story.

I'm sorry to say that MP3 players and FM radio mix with varying degrees of success. Sadly, my own personal experience—and more important, ratings from audio and digital sound professionals of all kinds—often give the digital audio playback and music management characteristics of many MP3 players rave reviews, only to mention in passing that FM playback or reception is poor. Although it probably falls under the general heading of wanting to have your cake and eat it too, I started my odyssey hoping to find a great digital music player with removable Flash media, and great FM reception and playback to boot. In many cases, it's necessary to settle for 1 out of 3 (and, alas, to give up on both removable Flash media as well as great FM radio capabilities).

The Secret Life of Headphone Wires

For most personal radios, be they part of a combo unit with flash memory, CD, or hard disk-based audio playback or not, headphones do double duty. Not only do they carry signals to their owner's ears (one wire is typical for left and right auricles), but those same wires serve as the antenna for any built-in radios in such units. Although this design has the benefit of compactness and of making good use of local materials (which are necessary because the signals that turn into sounds have to travel to some kind of speakers, anyway), it's too bad that this approach doesn't always produce the best radio reception. This is further complicated by FM's tendency to fade and strengthen as the user and his headphones move around (which is, after all, the whole purpose behind personal, portable audio devices in the first place). It's also the case that lower-power FM radios often have more reception problems than do higher-powered units; again, it's harder to think of an application for which lower power is more desirable than for personal, portable audio applications.

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