Reviews
Gramophone
FM tuner
Roksan Caspian FM tuner

Roksan's new range of keenly priced audio separates includes the Caspian FM tuner. John Borwick is suitably impressed

Beginning with stylish high-performance turntables designed and manufactured in the UK more than a decade ago, Roksan later began to diversify and followers of the brand can now put together complete Roksan audio systems including loudspeakers. The latest venture, notable for a move to lower prices than earlier models, began about 18 months ago and comprises a clutch of four newly designed slimline audio separates each simply called Caspian. First up were the Caspian integrated amplifier and Caspian CD player which we reviewed in December 1997. Then came the Caspian power amplifier and finally the Caspian FM tuner which is the subject of this review.

The tuner precisely matches the other units in appearance; indeed I wouldn't be surprised if the 5mm thick aluminium alloy front panels for the integrated amplifier and the tuner are produced on a single line because all their controls appear in the same positions. In the case of the tuner, these consist of just two rotary knobs for tuning and channel selection, two push buttons for channel store and stereo/mono, and a cigar-shaped display window at the centre.

The right-hand knob operates manual tuning in 1OkHz steps, which might be termed 'fine tuning' since station frequencies on the VHF band are actually allocated at 50kHz intervals. I dare say that this fine tuning to either side of the set frequency may prove useful in some cases of adjacent channel interference and the whole thing is made specially easy by the provision of a very clever form of signal strength indicator forming part of the display. This consists of a Dot Matrix grid of seven vertical rows of five LED dots. The optimum tuning corresponds to illumination of all five centre row dots. Off centre tuning moves the row, to right or left, and an understrength signal causes fewer LEDs to light up.

An automatic tuning facility is effected by spinning the tuning knob clockwise or anti clockwise. This causes the tuner to scan rapidly up and or down the band and stop at the first station of acceptable signal strength. The station is then centralized and locked on tune, while the frequency and signal strength are displayed. Storing each station is simply a matter of pressing Store, selecting the required channel number, from 1 to 50, and pressing Store again. The memory store is non-volatile which means that the tuner can be left switched off at the mains indefinitely without losing the information.

A third method for combined Tune and Store is called Auto Store. This involves switching the tuner off at the power on/off switch located on the rear panel, holding down the Store button while switching back on, and then releasing the Store button. The tuner then scans the band upwards, from 87.5 to 108kHz, and stores the first 25 acceptable station frequencies it meets in turn to channel numbers from 50 downwards to 26. This leaves channels 1-25 free for individual storing in one of the ways already described.

At the end of Auto Store, the tuner enters the Standby mode, which is also the mode recommended when the timer is not in use. Entering the Standby mode at any other time is performed by holding in the Mode (stereo/ mono) button for a couple of seconds. Switching the unit back on is achieved by pressing the Mode button briefly or clicking the Channel knob one position to right or left. When reactivated in this way, the tuner auto-selects the channel last in use: reactivating after switching on at the rear panel causes the unit to perform a self-diagnosis routine to check that all is well and auto-select Channel 1.

The threshold level for usable signal strength in the Auto Tuning and Auto Store modes has been set to correspond to two dots on the signal indicator. Weaker stations should be tuned manually and, if this gives noisy reception in stereo, more comfortable listening may be possible by switching to mono. Stations may be stored in both stereo and mono modes.

That's about it from the operational point of view: there is no medium or long waveband,(pity about the cricket on Radio 4), no headphones socket and no RDS functions. The rear pinel is therefore almost bare except for a standard coaxial aerial socket and pair of gold-plated phono audio output sockets at one end, with all IEC, mains socket and integral on/off switch at the other.

The wrap-round casework is of 1.6mm thick solid steel with angled corners to accord with those of the front panel, and given a luxuriously smooth black paint finish. Clearly the novel styling (even the Allen bolts at each corner of the fascia seem to make a designer statement) will be seen at its harmonious best when several Caspian units are grouped together. However, there is no reason other than this styling march why any of the Caspian units should not be coupled to hifi separates from Roksan's earlier ROK series or any other high quality products.

Remote control operation is an optional extra. The Caspian System Commander provides all the functions described above, as well as those for the Caspian integrated amplifier and CD player (both of which come with their own dedicated remotes).

Performance

Although this Caspian series of separates represents a move down the price scale for the elitist Roksan marque, there is still a touch of class about each feature. The tuner is relatively heavy-weight and rigidly constructed, yet the styling adds a degree of opulence and the control knobs have a luxury feel to them. The user manual is a model of clarity and deserves to be read carefully before putting the tuner into use since some features are non-standard. For example, who would expect that switching in and out of the Standby mode would rely on long and short pushes on the stereo/mono Mode button?

The choice of manual, auto scan and auto store tuning procedures is a great convenience, but needs a short period of quiet practice before one can load the preset channels with an optimum selection of one's favourite programmes. Once done, the stations can of course be accessed with confidence, helped by the simultaneous display of frequency and channel number, plus that reassuring stack of five centralized signal strength dots.

Sensitivity is excellent, though I would stress the desirability of using an adequate aerial for the given reception area. It is worth remarking that Roksan does not supply an indoor wire antenna as an accessory (as most tuner manufacturers do) and suggests a 'multi-element FM aerial installed outdoors (or loft mounted) by a professional'. I found that I could initiate the Auto Store function and load all 25 channels from 50 down to 26 with receivable stations before the turner had scanned upwards to only 100MHz. This was an amusing exercise if only to make the acquaintance of the myriad local radio transmitters in and around London and the South East. For serious listening, however, I tuned manually to the BBC networks via the Wrotham transmitters, Classic FM, jazz FM and a couple of others, and stored them in my preferred order front Channel 1 upwards.

Sound quality was lively and airy with a true feeling of wide-band fidelity. I know that we tend to lower our expectations of FM radio programmes, being mindful of the 15kHz cut-off dictated by the FM stereo multiplex standard (and the less than enthusiastic attitude taken to frequencies below about 50Hz by many broadcasters). Yet here I got the feeling on the best BBC Radio 3 live relays that every available hertz of the permitted bandwidth was reaching me and that dynamics were being given their full whack. Programmes subjected to tiresome compression at source, now in the majority, seemed all the more annoying - with that 'crushed ceiling' and step-up in the noise floor between sentences or musical phrases - when this toner reproduced uncompressed signals so handsomely.
Extracted from Gramophone April 1999
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