Despite the enormous popularity of streaming services, radio keeps plugging along. According to a June 2023 report by Nielsen Audio, 91% of Americans 18 years and older use radio weekly, which is more than those who use audio apps on smartphones (87%), computers (79%), and tablets (57%). Radio is certainly not what it was in years past, but a lot of people are still tuning in. And while several home receivers are available on the market and many car receivers (nearly 70% of all radio use on weekdays occurs in cars), very few standalone tuners are still available for home use. Notable examples are those from NAD, Rotel, and Sangean. Some costlier offerings are from McIntosh and Magnum Dynalab.
Enter Pro-Ject’s Tuner Box S2 ($249 USD). Unlike most competing models, which come in a typical component size, the Box S2 is tiny: 1.5″H × 4.8″W × 4.1″D. It’s available in silver and black finishes. The diminutive front panel offers a small display and four pushbuttons: a standby/on button on the left; down, up, and function-select buttons on the right.
The back panel has (from left to right) a European (PAL) antenna connector, two stereo output jacks (RCA), and two 2.5mm jacks: an input jack, to allow other Box Design components to power the tuner, and an output jack, to power other units from the remote. On the right, there’s a small jack for the 5V wall-wart power supply, which comes with three different plug types.
Also included is a remote control, which like the tuner itself, is tiny. The remote offers quite a few functions: setting the power status (on/standby), storing channels in memory, selecting the tuning mode (manual/auto/memory), tuning up and down, scrolling up and down stored channels (up to 99), and accessing preset channels directly (eight direct presets are available). The remote can also be used to adjust the brightness and color of the display. Five levels of dimming are available, plus the option to turn the display off, and each of the red, blue, and green color components of the display can be increased or decreased independently.
Despite its small size, the display provides a lot of information. Across the top are a signal-strength indicator, a stereo/mono reception indicator, and a fine-tuning indicator that helps home in on a station. The middle of the display shows the tuned-to frequency, and at the bottom, the selected tuning mode is displayed.
A complete, though terse, owner’s manual covers the operation and functionality of the tuner and remote. The Tuner Box S2 carries a two-year limited warranty on parts and labor.
It’s curious that Pro-Ject designed the Tuner Box S2 tuner with 99 possible presets. The FM frequency band in North America stretches from 88.0MHz to 108.0MHz and is divided into 100 channels, each 200kHz wide. To avoid interference, stations in any one area are never assigned adjacent channels. A theoretical maximum of only 50 channels is therefore available for allocation to stations in any one area. Far fewer stations operate in most areas. The number of stations people typically listen to is also fairly small. I, for one, as much of a radio fan as I am, listen to no more than ten. Why, then, 99 presets?
Published specifications for the Tuner Box S2 are quite modest. Frequency response is listed as 20Hz–20kHz (±1dB), which is better than it has to be in the US, where the high-frequency limit of FM broadcasts is about 15kHz. Signal-to-noise ratio is 50dB, which is relatively low; most competing tuners are spec’d at 60dB and often higher. Stereo separation, on the other hand, at 30dB, is good (with a decent signal). Stereo sensitivity is listed as 17dB/µV, a unit of measurement that can’t be converted easily to the North American standard unit of dBf (decibels referenced to 1 femtowatt). I got a better idea of the reception capability of the tuner when I sat down to listen.
Connection was simple once I obtained a PAL male to F-connector female adapter from my local parts supplier ($1.49 from Parts-Express.com). The Tuner Box S2 comes with a hank of wire that serves as an antenna, but even from my location, six miles or less from eight high-power FM stations, the wire antenna did not provide satisfactory reception. Owners would do well to replace this antenna with one of the several fine antennas available now on the market.
I began with a local classical music station, which broadcasts a pure, unprocessed audio signal. This station isn’t very powerful, but it’s close by—I can see its transmission tower five miles from my residence. The signal was strong and less noisy than I had expected, considering the Tuner Box S2’s S/N ratio of 50dB. It sounded smooth and extended but seemed to have a small bump in the upper midrange, which gave the sound a nice sparkle, especially with heavily processed broadcasts.
One measure of an FM tuner’s audio quality is how well it handles the processing most stations apply to their audio signals. Two types of processing are typically employed. The more egregious of the two is dynamic compression, which increases the perceived volume at the cost of dynamic range. Volume level after such compression can vary by as little as 2dB—everything sounds loud. The other type of processing is equalization. Most US stations want to sound big on car radios, so they flatten the curve from the mid-bass to the mid-highs and chop off anything below about 100Hz and above about 7.5kHz.
With the Tuner Box S2, it was easy to identify stations broadcasting overly processed audio. High fidelity is clearly not a priority for those stations. Sadly, very few FM stations in the US still offer true high-fidelity broadcasts. Complicating this is that in many major markets, the premier broadcast data tracking company, Nielsen, has been using a process that embeds a continuous, coded subaudible tone in each subscribing station’s audio stream. This tone is picked up by a portable receiver, Personal People Meter (PPM), carried by thousands of paid “panelists”, which allows Nielsen to identify the stations these panelists are listening to. Some radio professionals believe the embedded signal degrades broadcast audio quality.
Generally, compared to my Denon TU-680NAB tuner, the Tuner Box S2 had a slightly crisper sound, albeit not as coherent.
To assess the Tuner Box S2’s ability to pull in stations, I compared it with my Denon TU-680 NAB tuner, using the same antenna, a classic BIC FM 10 Beam Box. This 1980s relic allows selection of bandwidth (narrow/wide), to help separate adjacent stations from one another, and selection of frequency, to match the tuner frequency and capture maximum signal strength. It also has a four-position beam-direction control that maximizes reception in the selected direction. I’ve used many different indoor FM antennas; the Beam Box is the best of them. I set the frequency control to roughly 98MHz, halfway up the FM band, and the bandwidth to Wide. I selected the beam direction that yielded maximum signal strength.
According to Radio-Locator.com, I should be able to pick up 48 FM stations in my location; most should come through in stereo but some, due to distance or tuner limitation, may not. My Denon tuner picked up 43 stations, 40 of which came in well enough to provide at least a listenable stereo signal—clear sound with minimal noise. The average signal strength, as sensed by the Denon, was good. The Tuner Box S2 received 39 stations, but only 25 were in stereo. This tuner’s reception and stereo thresholds are evidently higher than the Denon’s. The average signal strength was fair.
Given the Denon’s intended application—it was meant to serve as a broadcast air monitor for radio stations (retailing for about $600 USD in 1994)—which required above-average reception and sound, the Tuner Box S2 performed quite well.
The Tuner Box S2, in having lower tolerance to weak radio signals, seems to have been designed primarily with European buyers in mind. In Europe, most stations have limited coverage but often link to other stations to form a network. As you drive along, your radio automatically switches to the best signal. In North America, on the other hand, stations use higher-power transmitters and taller transmitting antennas to achieve as broad a coverage as possible.
In an area covered by several powerful stations broadcasting with small frequency separation, as in my case, the Tuner Box S2 can suffer from interchannel interference at times. But unless you are very close to a potentially interfering transmitter, this shouldn’t be a problem. Listeners living in densely populated areas or near clusters of transmitting towers should bear this in mind, though.
Light weight and compact, the Tuner Box S2 would be a good fit in a small urban living space that cannot accommodate typical full-size audio gear. Its remote control is conveniently small, too, and is simple to operate. Other tuners may have better reception and may offer more features, but the Tuner Box S2 covers all the basics and provides high-quality sound at a reasonable price.
. . . Thom Moon
- Tuner: Denon TU-680 NAB.
- Antenna: BIC FM 10 Beam Box with RG-6 cable.
- Preamplifier: Apt Holman.
- Power amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3; Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
- Interconnects: Dayton Audio on Denon; StraightWire Chorus (Box S2); Wireworld Luna 8 (preamp to amp).
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated in banana plugs.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems Tuner Box S2 FM Stereo Tuner
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
Pro-Ject Audio USA
11763 95th Ave N
Maple Grove, MN 55369
Phone: (510) 843-4500