Table radios can be great audio solutions for smaller rooms such as a bedroom or kitchen. These all-in one units put a radio receiver and speakers in one compact package that doesn't take up too much space on a night table or kitchen countertop. Some have added features, such as a CD player, music player input and the ability to add an external speaker for true stereo sound.
We only considered table radios that incorporate an FM tuner for this report. Some table radios also incorporate an AM tuner -good for news, weather, talk and sports, but not-so-hot for music. A handful of table radios have a tuner for HD Radio -- a technology that broadcasts content in digital format to deliver better sound quality and increased content.
Table radios aren't the same thing as portable radios, such as boom boxes, which are designed to run off batteries. While some of the table radios covered in this report can run on battery power in a pinch, they're mainly designed to sit in one spot, plugged into the wall, and pump out sound.
While cheap, and cheap-sounding, table radios are still plentiful, the sound quality of better models can be terrific. One listen to any of the radios highlighted in this report and you'll realize that these aren't your parents' clock radios.
The Sangean WR-2 (Est. $110) is the best all-around table radio, reviews say: Good sound, handy features and timeless style. "My 'crown jewel' bedside table radio," radio enthusiast Jeff McMahon calls the WR-2 on his blog, Herculodge. At New York's North Country Public Radio, chief engineer "Radio Bob" Sauter recommends the WR-2 as one of the "few great radios out there."
Reviewers love the WR-2's handsome, hefty wood-and-metal build (available in walnut, black or white). Lunchbox-sized, it's small enough for a nightstand. The WR-2 brushed-metal face houses a single 3-inch round mono speaker (which actually makes perfect sense for a radio this size, since there's no way to get meaningful stereo separation from two speakers that are only a few inches apart), a dimmable digital display and the radio's controls.
The WR-2 looks a little retro at first glance, but is chock full of modern features. The radio uses digital rather than analog tuning, making it possible to add five AM and five FM presets. The large LCD screen displays Radio Data System (RDS) information from station broadcasts, such as song or artist titles. There's also a clock (and clock radio function), a remote control, bass and treble controls and an auxiliary input for your phone or MP3 player.
Experts and owners say the WR-2 produces high-quality sound, with warm, full bass and crisp, clear treble — though it's a little bass-heavy for some users' tastes. It also gets generally high marks for its AM and FM reception. However, a few owners on Amazon.com say that the WR-2's reception can be a bit persnickety and it works much better with the addition of an external antenna. The other feature owners complain about is the alarm clock, which several find frustrating to set (there are five steps, McMahon points out) and ridiculously difficult to snooze (four steps).
Sangean's main rival, the Tivoli Audio Model One (Est. $135), was once the darling of reviewers -- but lately, owners complain that their Model Ones started sounding terrible or experiencing "tuner drift" (the old-fashioned analog tuner won't stay on the station) within a few years.
It's too bad, some unhappy owners say, because the Tivoli Model One absolutely nails it other ways. With its handmade wood cabinet and analog tuning, it looks like it dropped straight through a time warp from the 1960s. The only modern feature is an auxiliary input through which you can plug in your MP3 player or phone. Otherwise, it's pretty bare-bones: one knob to change the frequency, one to adjust the volume, and one to switch from AM to FM or "aux."
Reviewers rave about the sound quality -- at least at first. Listeners consistently describe the Model One's out-of-the-box sound as warm, rich, and room-filling, with clear treble and full bass (though a little too much bass for some owners, and there's no knob to adjust the bass/treble balance). But after a few years, several owners complain that the Model One's sound disintegrates, in some cases with a recurring thumping noise.
Some owners also like the fact that the tuning is analog rather than digital, saying any small sacrifice of convenience is more than balanced out by the ability to fine-tune the knob and pinpoint the exact station you want. However, several say the numbering on the dial doesn't quite match the actual frequency; for instance, they have to tune to 106 to pick up a station on 105. Bottom line: The Tivoli takes a back seat to the more reliable Sangean based on the most recent owner feedback.
Among budget table radios — models priced at $100 or less — the Sangean WR-11 (Est. $75) earns the highest ratings. This basic table radio is much like a stripped-down version of the pricier Sangean WR-2. It has the same wooden cabinet and retro styling, but the tuning is analog rather than digital, so there are no preset stations or RDS support. It also lacks the WR-2's LCD screen, alarm clock, and bass/treble control. What it does have is a stereo headphone jack, an auxiliary audio input jack for use with a portable device, and a connector for an external antenna.
In terms of sound quality, this bare-bones radio is rated almost, but not quite, as good as the WR-2. Reviewers describe the sound as crisp, clear, and rich, if perhaps a touch heavy on the bass. However, some reviews note that the sound tends to distort a bit at high volumes. Owners say the analog tuner makes it easy to fine-tune a station and get a clear, static-free signal.
What users like most about this inexpensive table radio, aside from the price, is its ease of use. In fact, several owners at Amazon.com say they bought the WR-11 as a gift for older, technophobic relatives, who were thrilled with its simple, intuitive dial controls. The only quirk reviewers complained about is that the volume control knob is a bit loose and has a tendency to slip slightly under its own weight, even when you're not touching it.
We also found positive feedback for the FM-only Insignia HD NS-HDRAD2 (Est. $50). Unlike most of the table radios in this report, the Insignia offers HD Radio reception, a technology that works by broadcasting a digital signal over the airwaves. In addition to delivering higher sound quality with less static and hiss, this method makes it possible for the same station to broadcast multiple programs at the same time over the same frequency, each using a different digital signal. The catch is that receive these HD Radio signals, you need an HD Radio tuner, and the Insignia is the only table radio we've seen in this price range that includes one.
The NS-HDRAD2 also includes a variety of other features not usually seen on a budget-priced radio. It has digital tuning, 20 station presets, and RDS support, so you can see title and artist information for the song you're listening to. Other features include an auxiliary audio input, a headphone jack, and a built-in extending antenna. Unlike most of the table radios covered in this report, it can run on 4 AA batteries as well as on AC power, so it doubles as a portable radio.
Reviewers at BestBuy.com (Insignia is Best Buy's house brand) say the Insignia radio's sound is good, but not exactly room-filling. Owners typically say the HD technology makes no real difference in sound quality, but it is helpful for finding the additional sub-channels broadcasting over their local airwaves. Owners are also impressed with the FM reception, which they describe as crystal clear, but some wish this radio could pick up AM signals as well.
For those who want the very best of everything -- including table radios -- the Bose Wave Music System IV (Est. $500) lives up to its luxury price tag, reviews say. "Its modus operandi: a one piece system to play your CDs, the radio and wake you up in the morning … for £600," writes Gordon Kelly in his review of the previous Bose Wave Music System III for Britain's TrustedReviews.com. (The System IV is identical to the System III, except for a slightly different-looking front panel; Bose says it "has the same acclaimed performance, now updated with a contemporary design.")
With the Bose, you'll suffer none of the annoyances of cheaper table radios. AM/FM reception is superb. And yes, the relatively compact Bose (about the size of a big dictionary) really can fill a whole room with sound. Even the alarm clock is fabulous, owners say: Independent dual alarms wake you gently, with rising volume, and you can snooze simply by touching the radio's top. We found similar comments for the Bose Wave Radio IV (Est. $350), which is basically just like the Wave Music System IV but without the CD player.
Auxiliary input for MP3 players, RDS capability, a built-in CD player -- all are included. For an extra $100, you can also add the optional Bluetooth music adapter to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet.
The main downside? The "eye watering" price tag, Kelly says. He points out several luxury phone/MP3 docks that sound better and cost less -- although none include a CD player or AM/FM radio receiver.
If you want AM/FM radio, and you want the best, Bose is the only game in town. Luckily, owners say, it doesn't disappoint.
Expert reviews -- at least current ones from credible sources -- are hard to come by when it comes to table radios. We did find hands-on reviews of a few popular models at the Herculodge blog (by radio enthusiast Jeff McMahon) and TrustedReviews.com. Public radio stations, including New York's North Country Public Radio and WKHR near Cleveland, sometimes recommend good table radios. But most table radio reviews are written by radio owners themselves: Popular radios get hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of reviews at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.