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The price of HD Radio technology has been dwindling over the past few years, with digital-capable car stereos, home tuners, 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. It's now available exclusively at Best Buy (Insignia is one of the chain's in-house brands).
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. A sealed (not user-replaceable) rechargeable lithium ion battery powers the radio. 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.
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 that weighs a mere 2.24 ounces. At 3.07 inches by 2.06 inches by 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 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 lets you 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.
The battery is rated for 10 hours of playback, and the screen auto-dims to save energy. In our tests, we actually got closer to 11 hours, though that was with leaving the radio tuned to one station. The screen "wakes up" with any button touches, so if you often flip stations or change the volume, expect to get a bit less battery life.
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, 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 two-to-three bars before the radio can lock into a digital signal. But like all HD Radios we've tested to date, the tuner has its quirks. Even when stationary, reception would occasionally fluctuate from four bars (maximum strength) down to one and back again. It wasn't often, but it was just enough to be irritating, since the station would momentarily drop out.
HD Radio supports--and most stations now use--a data feed that displays artist and song information, or possibly the name of the show or DJ. Unlike some HD Radios, you can't tag these songs on the Insignia for later purchase, but at least you'll be able to note a catchy tune or artist to investigate later.
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 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, for instance.
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 aren't going to sway you. As one colleague joked: "Now I can hear an endless stream of commercials in crystal clear digital sound." True enough, but at least some of the HD2/HD3 stations seem to have a reduced ad rotation (at least for now).
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). Even rudimentary basics like a built-in clock are absent.
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). And anyone who just wants a more traditional "component" HD Radio tuner will still find the Sony XDR-F1 to be a great option. But despite the caveats detailed here--both for the device and for HD Radio as a whole--the Insignia NS-HD01 gets the job done. Its $50 price tag makes it worth picking up for anyone who wants a cheap, easy, and portable way to enjoy digital HD Radio stations.