Nothing is free except what is freely given.
For a moment, let's ignore the ridiculous amount of money audiophiles spend on gear. Instead, let's pick on the music lovers who constantly shell out more and more money for new music. Classical
CD prices in the US, under the guise of fair pricing, have increased. New vinyl releases can cost as much as their respective CDs, sometimes more. Those dubious downloads now cost a dollar a song (or a day in court if you're a 12- year old girl with a single mom). Some music lovers are so desperate that they are willing to pay subscription fees for satellite radio. Ticket prices for The Absolutely-fabulous Sound of live music go up every time the Stones go on another world tour. Even the price of gas to drive to the free classical concert in the park has gone up. And some of us still want more!

So when I was weighing my personal interest in acquiring today's review subject, I kept coming back to the concept of "free" music. AM/FM Tuners allow you to access programs that don't require the purchase of any software or subscription fees, hence free music. However, free and easy is another matter. The airwaves are now ruled by corporate entities and listener loyalty isn't part of their business decisions. Also, these 'greed channel' stations usually have the most powerful signals. Luckily they can be easily identified by their moronic use of compression. Basically, the audio signal is compressed to make it sound louder and in America, louder is always better. Thanks to compression, all of your favorite overplayed songs can now sound like they were recorded in an iron lung. All of this is fine for passive listeners who prefer thump to thought. Music lovers, on the other hand, have to search for stations with acceptable levels of compression. After all, even classical stations have to use a certain amount of compression. How else would you be able to hear every melodious clang of the anvil chorus during the morning commute?

Remember the late night DJ who not only played music but could also share a mind-blowing listening experience in an hour-long program? Well, depending on where you live, those charismatic DJs are pretty scarce. The corporate stations prefer cookie cutter DJs or those silly shock DJs without any personality behind their sneering voices. Greed channel stations also constantly tell listeners how they offer "less talk" while resorting to excruciatingly loud five minute commercial breaks. Personally, I hold these stations responsible for the dwindling market for tuners in the US. End of rant.

We want the airwaves, baby! (The Ramones)
Because my listening room can get a little stuffy in the summer heat, I set it up the Creek T50 downstairs connected to the Audio Refinement Complete integrated amplifier. I also do this for second and third opinions. My wife and daughter expressed interest in the T50 when they got a chance to look and listen.

My family listens to music in the background, but good background music will always lure the listener to pay closer attention. The T50 made music while my daughter painted, played with the dog or played cards. It made music while my wife graded papers and planned her classes. My daughter loved to (carefully) tune in the local jazz station. And my wife really enjoyed having a high fidelity tuner downstairs. The T50 also made the music memorable. My daughter loved hearing Johnny Cash for the first time, and my wife thought the classical station sounded wonderful through the T50. Comments like, "I really want this tuner!" and "I love this tuner!" were expressed by both.

Enter the critic. How did the T50 sound to my ears? For a start, background noise was significantly quieter than I expected after years of listening to the tuner in our aging receiver. The T50 eschewed the usual airwave interferences that are the aural equivalent of black dog hair on light khaki trousers. Background hissing was missing, hum from other equipment was out-shipment, and station interference was disappearance. Sorry about the Cab Calloway moment.

If the T50 was playing music from one of the stronger stations, I really had to concentrate to tell that I was listening to a radio broadcast and not a CD (at least until the station identification scared me out of my seat). On Sundays, the UNC college station played an eclectic mix of world music with an emphasis on polished pop rhythms. I really enjoyed the way the T50 added shape and heft to the beat that our old tuner couldn't muster. The T50 made it easier to distinguish live percussion from the canned beats of synthesizers. Even when tuned into greed channel 105, the T50 let the beat boogie, instead of leaving the boogie beaten to death by compression. The song "Liar" by JoJo (whoever that is) had enough rhythmic pulse to allow me to ignore the vapid lyrics. Switching back to some serious Reggae and dance hall style music (with only a few smatterings of puerile Gangsta rap) left no doubt about the rhythmic abilities of the T50. Did you know that good rhythm exists on FM radio - for free? The Creek T50 does.

The T50 offered a fair amount of air and detail but it wasn't as open and airy as my digital source. I noticed this particularly when I tuned in to classical music. Massed strings in orchestral music sounded less mushed together than with my regular old tuner, but were
still mushy. I know it isn't fair to compare a tuner with a CD player because radio has a Pandora's Box of listening challenges; nearby stations, atmospheric influences, and even audio reviewers who are constantly walking around and rearranging equipment. I wonder if there are any properly shielded reviewers out there? However, the Creek tuner made radio broadcasts sound good enough to beg comparison with CD. In fact, the T50 brought me closer to the stage than my CD player and DAC. Time to upgrade my digital source (yet again).

To listen to music played back through any type of recorded media requires a suspension of disbelief. The best equipment I have heard makes it very easy to ignore the equipment and get lost in the music. The Creek T50 did such a great job of presenting the music that it was easier to get lost and enjoy what I was hearing. What broke the spell for me was not the T50, but compression. The effect of compression was like having another couch potato sitting next to me, constantly using the remote control to adjust the volume. The compression was most noticeable when the music shifted from soft to loud, or when the perspective shifted from soloist to full chorus. The extra noise apparent during quiet
passages indicated increased volume. When a loud crescendo occurred, the backgrounds were quieter, but the impact was lessened by the compressed signal. The T50 was able to convey the music every bit as good as the other components in my system. It was the compression that limited the experience (pun intended).

The main flaw of the T50 itself was that it had a tendency to sound glaring at times. I believe the added glare was a trade off for the T50's ability to make all of the music sound exceptionally loud and clear. This is a bold tuner that makes a definite sonic statement. Like Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai, it commands respect. For some listeners and in some systems, the presentation will be too forward and the glare will be unacceptable.