Most of us today remember the golden age of TV and radio. When streaming was not an option, or if there were problems with the stations of the frequency, everything could be fixed by adjusting the antenna or turning tiny dials around the unit.
Most kids today don’t even remember the FM mode button or tuning knobs. But even the younger generation who doesn’t remember these “retro” items is surrounded by these technologies. From car radio to clock radios, to this day almost all devices include an FM (frequency modulation) radio transmitter or receiver. And while most people don’t care about using FM radio, and fewer young adults listen actively to radio stations, FM is still a big part of modern technology.
Many people still rely on the active use of FM. Some people still use a clock radio, listen to radio stations in their car, and even use under cabinet/kitchen cabinet radios. And those who still use this technology regularly sometimes struggle with reception problems that might occur.
By knowing the basics of radio mechanics, and how FM radios work, anyone can easily improve their FM radio reception resulting in easy access to quality programs. This article will go over everything you need to know about good reception, and hopefully, after reading the article, you’ll be able to improve your radio on your own.
What is FM Radio
FM broadcasting uses frequency modulation. It’s used worldwide as one of the most reliable technologies to provide high-fidelity sound over radio. Higher fidelity means that it can more accurately reproduce audio, making this technology much better than its predecessor, AM (amplitude modulation) broadcasting.
Because the signals used by FM are on a larger bandwidth than AM signals, this form of modulation is also commonly used with higher frequencies used by TV, land mobile radio systems, and more.
FM stations operate in the 88-108 MHz band (also called the FM dial). Frequency modulation varies the frequency of a carrier wave, while AM radio only modulates the amplitude, leaving the frequency untouched.
FM radio also introduced stereo sound technology to radio communication. The basic mono signal only uses one channel when converting a signal into sound, even if there are multiple speakers. Therefore the same signal goes through all speakers attached to the device, giving the impression of sound coming from a single position. In this day and age, most signals are compatible with stereo sound instead of the mono signal.
Stereo sound uses more than one channel when converting a signal to sound, so each signal that’s sent out is unique. Ultimately, this gives the effect of sound coming from different positions and sources which is most common in today’s technology, especially in speakers that include the well-known “surround sound” effect.
The Basics of Radio Reception
All radios, whether home, portable or work site radios are based on transmitting and receiving electromagnetic waves (radio waves). The radio’s signal is an electric current that moves back and forth rapidly. Using an antenna, the FM transmitter radiates this field outward, then a receiver picks up the field and translates it to the audio heard through the radio speakers. In this process, a radio tuner is used which receives radio frequency transmissions and converts the carrier frequency and its bandwidth into a fixed frequency.
Radio reception entails the process of receiving radio signals. The quality of the received and produced sound is a direct result of the signal strength and the presence of various interferences.
To get the highest possible reception, you’ll need a good radio, a good antenna, and a good location. Most people, by default, only have one or two of these, but if you have all three, you’ll potentially be able to receive an FM station from up to 100 miles away.
How to Improve FM Radio Reception
There are many factors that go into the perfecting of radio reception. A radio signal, FM antenna, antenna connections, radio tuners, just to name a few, all play a huge part in the radio’s quality. For the best reception, radios need good selectivity. Selectivity is the device’s ability to separate weak stations nearby. Other than this, a radio must have good sensitivity, meaning the ability to receive weak and distant stations as well.
For instance, car radios have to provide strong reception in a moving vehicle, in varying terrain, and with constant interference, the engine. This is why FM radio reception is usually better in a car than in a house.
In contrast, most home radios have poorer selectivity and sensitivity. Typical radios have analog tuning (as opposed to digital tuning), which only works near the stations’ transmitter. This is because homes are in fixed locations, therefore it doesn’t need the capability to read transmissions from varying places. Clock radios, under-cabinet radios, “boom boxes”, home radio, etc. don’t work very well compared to a car radio.
When considering altering a car radio, building a bigger voltage power supply, constructing a cabinet, and better quality external speakers are recommended by most experts. When talking about the clock or table radios, the best thing to do is invest in higher quality devices. A mono radio that people recommend is the Boston Acoustic “Horizon Solo”, or if you want to invest in a stereo device, there’s the Horizon Duo. For retro lovers, there’s Tivoli or Sangean.
But if you have a stereo system with a separate signal amplifier and tuner and separate speaker, you probably already have a decent device. If this is the case, connecting a better FM antenna should improve the reception.
But the most important thing to do is secure the best location and antenna possible. You can get great reception in a bad area using the right antenna, and you can get great reception in the right location but with a subpar antenna.
One of the most influential factors in reception is the device’s distance from the transmitter. Place your receptor as near to the station’s transmitter as possible. Furthermore, the higher the antenna is located, the better. So if your radio has a built-in antenna, you might notice that it gets better reception in the attic than in your basement. If you have an external antenna, the best place to put it is on the roof of the house.
The same goes for the location of the home. You’ll get better reception on a hill, than in the valley. An outdoor antenna placed on a high spot can receive signals much better than other radio antennas (indoor or internal ones). But if you must stick to indoor antennas, you might want to opt for placing it near or in a window for better signal reception.
A reliable and high-quality antenna is a must for any radio user. Radios typically have built-in antennas, and their performance is typically subpar. Clock and table radios use a power cord as their antenna, while an iPod uses the headphone’s cord as the antenna. Because of this, the slightest movement of your unit, or other electronics in the house can affect the reception of your radio.
There are three different radio antenna types: internal, outdoor, and indoor antennas. What you use mostly depends on the radio you have, and what it’s compatible with. But all three types can be amplified and improved for better reception. Most people are used to seeing “rabbit ears”, also known as the telescoping antenna. Boom boxes and portable devices are usually equipped with one or two of these telescoping rods. This type is somewhat better than antenna wire (or dipoles), or twin-lead antennas, because moving them can help optimize reception. An indoor antenna performs better with telescoping antennas attached to them. Many experts recommend not even bothering with indoor antennas that don’t have a pair of “rabbit ears” (telescoping antennas) attached.
Indoor antennas can also be amplified, and some manufacturers (like Audiovox or Terk) have some amplified versions available for purchase, some even in places like home depot, these being a better investment than other indoor counterparts. These are mostly dipole antennas with added pre-amplifiers boosting the signal before it reaches the radio device.
But while pre-amplification is an admirable approach, there are still some problems with this structure. One of these being, that typically, all radios have a pre-amplifier built into their circuits. Therefore, a simple dipole antenna connected to any radio works just as well as its amplified counterpart.
Also, in some cases, the additional amplifier causes increased white noise, especially when trying to reach a weaker transmitter. This being said, there are some cases when an amplified indoor antenna actually performs better. For example, if you’re unable to have an outdoor external antenna, and you don’t like the “rabbit ear” devices, then this better-looking indoor antenna could be a good investment. The key in this case is the antenna’s location. As mentioned above, placing it near or in a window can grant you an advantage. Also, opt for high places if your home consists of more than one floor or high windows.
But if you have a chance to purchase an outdoor antenna, that is the best way to improve signal reception by far. This is mostly unavailable for those who live in an apartment, or in a rental property. The best way to improve reception for those who have an opportunity to do so using an outdoor antenna is utilizing the TV antennas usually already located on the roof. You can use a TV-FM “splitter” to use the same strong TV antenna for your radio. But if you live in an area where you don’t have access to the TV antenna, you might have to look for other alternatives.
Those who choose to install a new FM antenna outdoors have to choose whether they purchase an “omnidirectional” or a “directional” one. Omnidirectional antennas radiate the same radio power in all directions perpendicular to their axis, its power varying with the angle to that axis. In contrast, the directional antenna radiates and receives greater power in specific directions which as a result allows increased performance from that direction, and reduces interference from some unwanted sources.
Our atmosphere, especially today, is full of all kinds of signals, and some of them are bound to conflict with each other. The biggest issue when it comes to FM reception is the interference that comes from satellite radio, FM modulators, and so on. These all have small FM transmitters built into them designed to broadcast over a limited range.
When a unit isn’t designed properly, or if they’re reset, they start broadcasting over a wider area than they should. Most of these interfering factors can be noticed while on the go through car radios. You may even hear for a moment a totally different radio station that overrides what you’re tuned into because the two signals are affecting each other. This occasionally happens in homes too, if you live near heavy traffic. Sometimes even baby monitors can pick up conversations, or random broadcasts. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started testing these much more strictly in the past decade. Hopefully, these non-compliant devices will be replaced over time. Some people who repeatedly notice the same vehicle or person producing interference ask the owner to switch the output frequency of their devices and units.
Interference caused by other nearby stations can be improved by optimizing the radio’s selectivity. If you happen to hear another radio station while trying to listen to something, try listening to the same stations from other places (like from a car radio), and if it improves, the problem is with your radio. Another way to improve this is by a directional antenna, or by reorienting your existing antennas.
A third very common type of interference is called “multipath interference”. By definition, this is a propagation that results in FM radio signals reaching the same receiving antenna through more than one path. The same FM signal can be received by your radio’s antenna from several locations, but at slightly different times. Signals can also “bounce” off nearby buildings or cliffs. If your radio becomes noisy, or you notice harsh reception, this is usually the case. This can be improved by using a directional antenna, or by reorienting your antenna to lock out these types of factors.
Other than these, there are multiple different factors that might cause unwanted interference with your unit. Like amateur radio operators, computers, a TV, lights, and even electric fences. The best thing to do in these cases is try to determine which of these is causing the interference. If the source cannot be eliminated (for example talking to an amateur radio operator directly), you can try to improve your device by tweaking the antenna or fine-tuning the frequencies by turning your tuner back and forth to try and find the best spot and most reliable stations.
You can easily contact Ham radio operators via their ARRL (American Radio Relay League) email address. This email address is given to ARRL subscribers in order to ease communication. At the end of the day, the location of your antenna, and the placement of your antenna can make a huge difference on their own.
Overall, there are a lot of different ways to improve reception. The bottom line is to know what you’re looking for, pinpoint the issue, and figure out how to doctor the situation. And by remembering these main keys mentioned in the article (location, antenna, interference), you’ll be able to improve radio and TV reception without any help!