Digital World Insider: Radio Head

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.

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