Digital World Insider: Radio Head

I love satellite radio. It's the perfect companion on long car trips and during annoying rush-hour commutes, and for entertaining guests in my home. I won't go so far as to say that satellite radio has changed my life (not the way TiVo has), but it's gone a long way toward helping me rediscover my love of music.

And it keeps getting better: Sirius and XM are constantly adding new content; more car manufacturers include satellite radio tuners as standard equipment; and satellite radio products keep becoming more advanced. For instance, the most recent crop of XM products let you listen to radio on the go--not just in your car or at home.

Satellite radio may offer commercial-free paradise, but there's another option that promises a different kind of bliss: regular radio that actually sounds good. HD Radio is a new technology that allows AM and FM stations to broadcast digitally. And because it's digital, it promises crystal-clear sound that's free from the static and other aural ugliness that comes with regular radio broadcasting. What's more, it can deliver artist and song information, which is one of the best perks of satellite radio.

In order to receive HD Radio, you need two things: an HD Radio-compatible unit and proximity to radio stations that are broadcasting digitally. You can get a list of HD Radio-licensed stations from Ibiquity, the company that created the HD Radio technology. After that, you're home free: Unlike satellite radio, there are no monthly or yearly subscription fees.

To get a taste of this newfangled technology, I hooked myself up with Clay Freinwald, corporate engineer for Entercom Seattle, which owns a number of radio stations that are already broadcasting digitally. Freinwald has worked in radio for 44 years and is helping Entercom install digital transmitters all over the country. For his own enjoyment, Freinwald has a Kenwood HD Radio in his car, which he had installed last year. Using that as a demo unit, Freinwald took me on a test drive to show me how the technology works--and sounds.

To listen to HD Radio, you scan channels just as you would with an AM or FM radio receiver. If you stop on a station that is broadcasting digitally, your HD Radio automatically switches to the digital signal--after a delay of several seconds. The delay is the time required to initially process the digital signal. That's part of the technology, and it can't be helped; the same thing happens when you tune into digital TV. But because HD Radio switches you from a regular analog FM feed to the digital signal, you can actually hear the sound-quality difference between FM and HD Radio. And I have to say, the difference was quite amazing. Suddenly all of the static and distortion associated with FM radio disappeared, and the sound was crystal clear. Even I--a nonaudiophile--could hear the improvement.

According to Ibiquity, HD Radio on the FM band is comparable to CD-quality audio. And with an AM station, says Freinwald, "[HD Radio] transforms it into something that will sound at least as good as today's FM."

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