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You have already convinced yourself and concluded it can't possibly ever sound good, when it appears that you actually have never heard an excellent tuner properly setup. So our words may not mean much. I suggest you go out and listen; and discover for yourself.
I recently gave a decent mid-fi tuner to a professional musician friend who always used his old worn out 1970s receiver as a tuner through the tape-out, because he assumed like you did. He is now shocked at what he has been missing all these years. He hardly listened to the radio before. Now he has it on all the time, when a CD or LP is not playing.
While rare, there are some good quality broadcasts available. A good tuner can avail you to a multitude of quality music you might other wise never know about. While I would love to own a really top notch tuner for the above reason, there are some bargains out there. Don't completely cheap out here. If your tuner sounds bad, you won't use it.
Think of all you might miss. Antenas are as important as tuners, especially re: tweaking for best results. Unfortunately a little bit of luck as far as your location, goes a long way re: both available broadcasts and reception quality.
I can say that until I got a Day Sequerra I was content to use the tuner for background music. Once I heard what a great tuner could do, I got a top notch outdoor antenna with a rotor and have been listening a lot more seriously since. A great tuner can certainly help you in finding sonically good CDs (even taking into account the dynamic compression on the big orchestral stuff, you can hear the sonic merits of a recording), and when you get the occasional live broadcast (on WQXR here in NY, you get the Met Opera broadcasts, NY Philharmonic and, best of all, small ensembles in QXR's studios) it is really something special and can outperform a recording (Drubin, that's where in my view it can outperform a CDP or TT; or, of course, if the station uses a Burmester or similar CDP and a Rockport TT, then maybe it can outperform a listener's system, but that's not really likely, and I do feel that the dynamic compression the stations use can limit the material that would sound better). Plus you get a lot of great music, of all types, for free!
I certainly agree about the live broadcasts, I forgot about that. And I imagine these are often digitized and whatnot before being broadcast, so why is it that they sound so excellent?
But I remain skeptical about the rest. What's the frequency response of broadcast FM anyway? Isn't it something narrower than 20-20?
Yes it's "narrower than 20-20" but so are most analog and in practice many digital sources. Most of us don't really hear beyond 15k anyway. Very little music exists beyond 15k either. A major slice of otherwise unavailable music is better than none. Go ahead, audition a good tuner, you might be in for a pleasent surprise.
Drubin: With respect to digitization, you may be thinking of taped concerts, like the Detroit Symphony concerts and others (which I'm assuming are digitally taped). Quite frankly, I can live with that to hear live performances of top-notch orchestras. But I believe the WQXR studio broadcasts are a direct feed from the mike! They certainly sound much more visceral, to the point that you can recognize them easily even over a car radio. On smaller ensembles with chamber pieces, these live broadcasts can sound stunningly real on a good tuner. The NYPO live broadcasts vary--unfortunately they often make the soloists in a concerto sound far larger than life, but the full orchestra pieces sound quite good, until the compression sets in on the major climaxes. The Met broadcasts are excellent, to the point that I often listen to them even though I'm not a big opera fan; you can follow the performers around the stage, hear the footsteps, etc.--very close to being there in some respects. Maybe I'll yet learn to appreciate opera through these broadcasts.
The frequency range on FM cuts off below 35 hz, I believe, and above 15khz, but I can hear very little above 12khz these days and 35hz gives you very good bass extension (if your tuner is a good one, it will do a very good job reproducing those notes), if not the last octave. More than enough to give a good illusion and convey the music well.
The one fly in the ointment against buying a top tuner I see is the impending onset of digital broadcasting. Who knows when it will start to replace what we have, if at all, and what it will mean for traditional FM broadcasts. I imagine there will still be a large number of FM stations anyway, as not all can afford to re-equip to do digital broadcasting. Maybe a tuner can be adjusted by the manufacturer to receive, if not decode, the digital broaadcast signal. And I've been wondering about this for a lot of years, so maybe there's still a lot more time till digital takes hold. But while I guess it is something to keep in the back of your mind, I don't think it necessarily should keep you from maximizing your enjoyment of what comes free over the airwaves now.
I have heard broadcasts on my system that sounded better than any recorded source that I have heard anywhere, apart from a live performance. Of course this depends on the quality of stations broadcasting in your area. In my case it was CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.), or while living in Boston, any one of the many university Stations, or N.P.R. I don't know what kind of equipment most of these studios use but I know that CBC has vast experience with making high quality recordings in their 'Glen Gould Studios' for example, and they follow in the tradition of the BBC - who have very high standards.
The best sounding broadcasts tend to be in the evening when stations are permitted to boost their signals after hours(pun intended). My Linn Kudos has a signal strength indicator - which basicaly confirms what my ears are telling me - but it is also very helpful in arranging the aerial.
As an aside, I have often wondered whether the process of broadcasting actually 'warms up' the signal in much the same way that tubes do for example. There is sometimes a magic quality to a radio broadcasts - live or not - that simply cannot be duplicated by a home source.
Drubin, with respect to the frequency bandwidth limitations etc. of FM, a good tuner can come pretty close to the limits of hearing and at least with my Linn Kudos tuner, virtually eliminate background noise, static, etc. On a good night it's every bit as good as an excellent CD player - and vastly better than my back-up sony player.
If your not convinced, think of some of the recordings of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong done well over 40 years ago - these certainly won't measure well by digital standards but you will be hard pressed to find many modern recordings that can hold a candle to the presence and musicality of these classic recordings.
I couldn't live without my tuner. The radio is where I learn about music, get exposed to new music, and enjoy an enourmous variety of music that I could never possibly afford to own.
One last thing, my tuner has never, and will never have the commercial pap of corporate radio pulsing through it's circuits.