Boldly exploring the HD Radio universe

I like to think of myself as a technology pioneer. In real life, more often I am a technology laggard. Take my television. It’s so 20th century. It still runs in analog mode with its mediocre 480 lines of resolution. I know in about a year I will either have to buy a high definition television or a converter box. I do not seem to be rushing to buy a HD TV, although I do plan purchase a set by the end of the year. I did spend the better part of a week last year replacing a door in our entertainment room with drywall. We intend eventually to mount a HD TV in its place. Of course, if like me, you do not watch much TV then there is hardly a compelling reason to go HD TV.

On the other hand, I listen to a lot of radio. Principally I listen to public radio. I am a news junkie, and in the Washington D.C. area where I live, there are excellent public radio stations. Consequently when I heard that my favorite public radio stations were now broadcasting in HD Radio (the HD stands for “Hybrid Digital”, not “High Definition”), and I could get two or three times the number of public radio stations by going HD, my only question was how to get a HD radio. I decided to let my wife do the shopping, and told her to add one to my Christmas wish list.

She succeeded, but finding HD Radios was quite challenging. The local Best Buy had exactly one model, which also came with a host of other features that I did not need like a DVD/CD player. Christmas morning though had me excitedly assembling it and placing it in the windowsill above our kitchen sink. I removed our venerable twenty-year-old G.E. portable radio. I was prepared to be overwhelmed. Instead, I was underwhelmed.

She must have bought a dud. It was not that we could not get a HD radio signal; it was just hard to bring it in any HD signals. When they came in, they quickly dropped off. It also suffered from a number of poor design decisions. The speakers were poorly constructed: high on the bass, low on the treble. It also came with a remote control you had to use to access just about everything. After a couple weeks, I had had enough. I returned it.

I still wanted the promised thrill of HD Radio. I ended up going online and reading reviews for HD radios. I ended up with a Radiosophy HD100 receiver, which with shipping came to about $125. I had never heard of the brand before, so I was a bit suspicious, but it got a decent review. Moreover, unlike the first HD radio this one was light and compact. It fit on a windowsill and did not have separate speakers. To adjust the volume, I turned a knob instead of pressing buttons on a remote. The sound quality was quite good for speakers that were perhaps four inches in diameter. In addition, it was reasonably portable, assuming you did not connect its AM antenna.

One of the surprising things I learned about HD Radio is that it is not just for FM. AM can play in the HD Radio universe too. Four AM radio stations in our area have taken the HD Radio plunge. During daylight hours, they are allowed to broadcast HD Radio signals. Unfortunately, AM HD Radio sounds like FM analog radio. Considering the low fidelity we have come to expect on AM, it is a huge improvement. Still, it does not quite sound high fidelity. This is because its signal tops out at 15,000 Hz. Moreover, when the sun goes down it reverts to the 10 kilohertz telephone quality sound that now seems hopelessly dated.

On FM, it can take 5-10 seconds for my radio to detect and lock into a station’s HD radio signals. In the meantime, you hear the regular FM analog signal on the default Channel 1. If your HD Radio is tuned to Channel 2 or 3, there is a period of silence before you can hear the channel.

We live about 15 miles from the center of Washington D.C. You would think that I would be plenty close enough to get high quality HD Radio signals. Yet that does not seem to be the case. Perhaps HD Radio cannot broadcast digital signals as far. All I know is that sometimes just walking around my kitchen will make the signal will disappear; I must be causing signal interference. After a time it will pick up the signal again. I think this will be disconcerting to many radio listeners.

What HD Radio needs are compliant radios that fit into a shirt pocket or snap onto your belt. Apparently, some models are in the works but they are experimental. HD Radios so far have much higher power requirements than regular radios. Considering the signal problems I have, I am dubious as to how well these radios will work in places that I frequent, like the health club or when riding on the W&OD bike trail.

We have three principle public radio stations: WAMU, WETA and WCSP. WAMU and WSCP have three channels each. WETA, which broadcasts classical music, has just the one channel, but it is HD. This is good because when I am in a classical music mood, the fidelity of HD Radio compared with FM radio is both quite noticeable and much appreciated. WCSP is C-SPAN radio, which means it broadcasts three times as much public affairs radio as before. Much of it though is not terribly interesting. Channel 2 is just the audio portion of C-SPAN television, and Channel 3 is the audio portion of C-SPAN 2. WAMU offers Bluegrass on Channel 2. Since I am not a Bluegrass fan, I do not listen. Channel 3 tends to be shows that are broadcast on Channel 1, but at different times. This means there is not much original content on Channel 3 as you might assume. However, Channel 3 also has a fair amount of BBC radio programming. It is nice to be able to pick up the BBC on the FM frequencies.

HD Radio is a large improvement over what we have become accustomed to hearing, but it cannot begin to offer the degree of listening experiences available on satellite radio. Of course, unlike Sirius and XM satellite radio, you do not have to subscribe to listen.

I will keep listening to HD Radio but I suspect over time I will migrate to satellite radio. With prices as low as $10 a month and with so many more channels, most of them commercial free, satellite radio probably offers a better overall value.