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HD Radio splits the difference

HD Radio splits the difference

HD Radio made a big splash at last year's CES, but the technology--which broadcasts high-quality digital signals in the same frequency range currently used by analog FM stations--remained largely under the radar throughout 2005. While plenty of HD Radio stations are on the air, the HD-compatible products necessary to hear them were delayed until the tail end of the year. But with the hardware finally available (the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD and Yamaha RX-V4600 A/V receiver are available now, and the Polk Audio I-Sonic is just one of many HD Radio-enabled devices to hit in 2006), the format looks set to flex its musical muscles.

iBiquity Digital, the company behind HD Radio, is highlighting some recent initiatives designed to boost digital radio's acceptance and adoption. Most exciting for average consumers is the directive to create a network of so-called multicast channels dubbed HD2. Unlike the 600-plus HD Radio stations that are currently just digital simulcasts of existing FM stations (that is, better-quality versions of the same middle-of-the-road, mass market, Clear Channel-style programming you can already hear on analog FM), the HD2 initiative promises to deliver new and unique programming that's produced locally: up to eight separate subchannels per each FM channel. Ideally, that would mean more of the niche programming that's currently found on satellite radio but without the annoying monthly fee. Even better, iBiquity is looking to hook customers by keeping HD2 channels commercial-free, if only for the short term. The potential for programming that's compelling, unique, and CD-quality--not to mention free--sounds great, and if the nascent industry can deliver on its promise of more affordable HD Radio-compatible receivers, especially as default factory-installed car radios, we think terrestrial radio may finally be coming back from the dead to challenge XM and Sirius. Look for CNET's hands-on review of the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD later this month.