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HD Radio: Ready for prime time?

HD Radio sounds better than AM or FM, it's a free service, and offers programming not available over analog broadcasts. Too bad it's a secret.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

HD Radio is the best way to listen to broadcast radio. AM and FM HD Radio stations simultaneously broadcast analog and digital signals, and these stations can display the song title, artist, and other data. The first HD Radio stations went on the air in 2003. Too bad HD Radio is a secret.

Based in Columbia, Maryland,iBiquity Digital is the developer behind HD Radio. I recently spoke with Bob Struble, HD Radio's president and CEO, to catch up on what's new. Struble told me there are 2,000 stations broadcasting HD Radio in the U.S., and over three million HD Radio tuners have been sold. HD Radios are available in cars, portable devices, and home tuners from a variety of manufacturers, including Alpine, Audio Design Associates, Audiovox, Coby, DaySequerra, Denon, RadioShack, Insignia (Best Buy), Integra, JBL, Jensen Mobile, Jensen (Spectra), JVC Mobile, Kenwood, Marantz, McIntosh, Metra, Microsoft, Niles, Onkyo, Panasonic, Pioneer, Polk Audio, Radiosophy, Roadmaster, Rotel, Sangean, Sony, Teac and Yamaha. Price points vary and start at $50.

Of course most people listen to radio in their cars and BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Mercedes, Mercury, Scion, Rolls Royce, Volkswagen and Volvo all offer HD Radios.

That's great, but I'm still far from convinced that most people even know what HD Radio is. Very few stations broadcasting HD Radio ever mention it, so how would their listeners know of its existence, or that they can listen to up to three additional HD Radio-only FM channels some stations broadcast. HD Radio is one of radio's best kept secrets, even though HD Radio stations signals are available to 90 percent of U.S. radio listeners.

Sony XDR-F1HD HD Radio Sony

I have a Sony XDR-F1HD HD Radio in my high-end system, and I think it's pretty terrific. Analog FM stations come in like gangbusters, clean as a whistle, and HD stations like my favorite jazz station, WBGO, have "CD quality" sound. That phrase gets tossed around a lot, but this time it's for real. HD Radio is night and day better than what I get from Sirius satellite radio, which is almost unlistenable over my Magnepan speakers. Internet radio? Over cheesy computer speakers, sure, but it's too harsh to enjoy over the Magnepans or any decent speakers.

But HD Radio sound quality varies from one station to the next. Here in NYC, WXRK is truly dreadful, sounding not much different than WXRK's standard analog FM signal. Broadcasting in HD Radio doesn't automatically make the signal sound better; the station has to make an effort to get it right. Most do not and iBiquity Digital should at least try to enforce minimum quality standards.

Some Yamaha receivers have built-in HD Radio tuners. Yamaha

Bob Struble told me the technology is still evolving, and some new HD Radio models will feature local traffic data; the "Artist Experience," which will display album art and other images on the screen; "Live Pause" that allows you to start and stop the music; and iTunes tagging for future purchases.

Nice, but I suggested for real growth HD Radio should snag Howard Stern, he's been hinting he won't renew his Sirius contract, which expires in a few months. Struble mentioned he used to work with Sirius' CEO chairman Mel Karmazin at CBS, and he doubted that Karmazin would let Stern walk.

Do you have a HD Radio? Tell us all about it in the Comments section.