The price of HD Radio technology has been dwindling over the past few years, with digital-capable car stereos and clock radios priced south of $100. But Insignia's new NS-HD01 adds two new wrinkles to the HD Radio equation. The iPod-size unit is the first truly portable (battery powered) HD Radio, and its $50 price tag makes it the most affordable HD model to date. The NS-HD01 is scheduled to hit shelves at Best Buy on June 12, but we got an early look at the unit.
While it may look like an old MP3 player, the NS-HD01 is strictly a radio tuner that can pull in analog and HD (Hybrid Digital) stations on the FM band. There are 10 user-programmable presets.
The radio is powered by a sealed (not user-replaceable) rechargeable lithium-ion battery. What's good is that the recharging port is a standard mini-USB connection (USB cable included). That means you can juice up the battery from any PC or USB charger. Like the iPod, a wall charger isn't included, but any USB-compatible iPod charger should work. The battery is rated for 10 hours of playback, and the screen auto-dims to save energy.
In addition to the charging cable and requisite pair of subpar earbuds, joggers will appreciate that Insignia includes a Velcro armband in the box. There's no belt clip, but the NS-HD01 will fit into any pocket, and the hold switch on the unit's side will prevent inadvertent button pushes.
The body of the HD01 is a tapered wedge. At 3.07 x 2.06 x 0.63 inches, the radio is larger than many of today's flash-based music players, but it's smaller than an iPod Classic. The unit's front face is dominated by the 1.5-inch color LCD screen that's ringed by nine basic control buttons. That's a lot for such a one-note device, but it allows you to tune frequencies manually, seek available stations up and down the dial, or toggle up or down through your presets. A rocker switch on the right side controls volume and mute.
Using the NS-HD01 is pretty straightforward, though you might need to consult the manual to figure out how to lock in the presets. Tune to any HD-enabled station and the radio should switch from the analog to digital signal within a couple of seconds. The HD version of the primary station is identical, but because it's broadcast digitally (1s and 0s), it's free of analog static. (The downside: like digital TV broadcasts, audio channels are either on or off--signals don't fade out, they'll just drop as soon as you go out of range.) The display includes a cell-phone-style signal meter, and you'll need at least 2-3 bars before the radio can lock into a digital signal.
HD Radio has two big selling points. The first is that it's free--unlike satellite radio, there's no subscription fee. The other is multicasting--access to digital subchannels that aren't available on the analog band. On stations with multicast channels, you can toggle to the HD2 and/or HD3 subchannels. (The HD Radio Web site has a full city-by-city listing of available stations.) HD2 options here in New York City, for instance, include hip-hop, gospel, classical, oldies, '80s, country, and salsa. In New York and elsewhere, you'll also find simulcasts of several AM stations, which gives this the Insignia radio access to crystal-clear versions of many (but not all) local news, talk, and sports stations that would otherwise be unavailable on this FM-only radio.
Like other HD Radios we've heard, sound quality on the Insignia NS-HD01 was good but not spectacular. As always, it's a garbage-in/garbage-out situation, so stations that overly compress their digital signal will sound more like a tinny Internet radio stream than a CD. But the good stations sound great: WBGO's classic jazz sounded rich and full.
In addition to the quality of the transmission, there's also the matter of the quality of the programming. If you don't like radio as it is, a handful of additional HD2 stations probably isn't going to sway you. As one colleague joked: "Now I can hear an endless stream of commercials in crystal clear digital sound."
As for the device itself, we wish that Insignia had gone with a simpler control layout--perhaps consolidating four or five of the buttons on the front face into a 5-way d-pad. And tossing in a gigabyte or two of memory for a rudimentary MP3 player would've been a nice addition here as well, for those times when you can't get a clear signal (on the subway, in a basement apartment, and so forth). Of course, those looking for a more full-featured HD Radio-enabled portable should probably hold out for the Zune HD, coming later this year (albeit at a price that'll probably be at least three times that of the Insignia).
We'll have our final thoughts after spending a couple of more days for the Insignia NS-HD01. In the meantime, does this $50 portable pique your interest in HD Radio?