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."

Of course, there are downfalls to such a new technology. For one, there aren't very many HD Radio devices on the market, and the products that are available can be quite costly. For instance, Freinwald's system consists of an under-the-seat HD tuner box ($400) that is connected to a Kenwood Excelon KDC-X879 in-dash receiver. That receiver's since been discontinued; its replacement, the , costs $450. At $850, this setup is on the expensive side, but most other car units are still fairly pricey: For example, HD Radios from companies like Panasonic and JVC cost at least $500.

The pricing will likely change as the technology becomes more popular and new HD Radio products arrive on the market. Right now, HD Radio is confined to the car. But a number of home units are slated to hit the stores this summer, including Boston Acoustic's Receptor Radio HD and Radiosophy's MultiStream HD Radio. Our editors have been keeping up with HD Radio developments; read Anush Yegyazarian's and Alan Stafford's blogs for info.

But how does HD Radio compare to satellite? In addition to the fact that HD Radio is free, once you spring for the equipment, HD Radio has better audio quality, says Freinwald, thanks to its higher bit rate and better compression algorithm. And remember: Many people who listen to Sirius or XM in the car are doing so via an FM transmitter with their existing car stereos--which degrades the satellite's digital audio feed.

However, HD Radio still can't compete with satellite in terms of choice. At last check, my home city of Seattle was broadcasting nine HD Radio stations. Sirius and XM each offer more than 100 channels, including stations dedicated to news, conservative talk, liberal talk, comedy, sports, and music from every decade since the 1940s. If I want to listen to all-Elvis, I can. If I want to jive to swing music, a dedicated channel is available. If I get nostalgic, the eighties station is waiting to take me back to my childhood. When's the last time you heard 38 Special, Scandal, and Corey Hart on commercial radio?

And, of course, let's not forget the two other selling points of satellite radio: the lack of commercials; and the ability to get reception almost anywhere, even in the boonies.

Nevertheless, HD Radio is starting to gain some momentum. And there are a few interesting prospects for the future, too.

For one, says Freinwald, broadcasters should be able to take advantage of HD Radio's data services for more than displaying song titles. They can use it to communicate other useful information as well, such as local traffic and weather reports. Plus, says Freinwald, in the future stations may even be able to feed real-time traffic information to your in-car Global Positioning System software, enabling it to figure out the best route home at a certain time of day: Imagine a GPS system that's smart enough to route you around some heinous traffic accident or an annoying street fair.

Multicasting is another technology that might make HD Radio more competitive with satellite. Multicasting works by dividing a station's digital bandwidth so that it can stream multiple broadcasts. This allows stations to offer more variety in its programming, meaning that your favorite oldies station would be able to broadcast a second stream dedicated just to the Beach Boys (heaven forbid). At the forefront of this technology is National Public Radio, which announced that it will begin offering five new types of music programming to multicasting stations.

Obviously, HD Radio has a long way to go before it catches on in the mainstream--and catches up to satellite. But it provides an intriguing option, and possibly another reason to love radio again.

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