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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro
Ah, the Sound, but Oh, the Bumps on the Road to Digital Radio


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The downside of this surfaced on the trip back, when I tried tuning into WETA's digital broadcasts. Because its digital and analog signals were a few seconds out of sync, the evening news broadcasts kept skipping forward and back each time the radio jumped from digital to analog and back.

That's the paradox of digital FM: In general, it functions only where analog broadcasts already work fine.

Digital AM, on the other hand, was a revelation. Hearing an old swing band tune on Philadelphia's WPEN (950 AM) had me rolling down the window to crank up the volume, something I can't remember ever doing before with AM.

But digital AM's reception was even shakier than digital FM's. Driving underneath a cluster of electrical wires or a sufficiently long overpass -- or simply going through some intersections in the center of Philadelphia -- routinely cut out the crisp stereo sound and dumped me back into scratchy old AM.

I couldn't help wondering how much better HD Radio might sound at home, where none of those factors applies. But the only digital-radio receiver on the market is a $1,000 Panasonic car stereo. Other car and home receivers are due later this year; iBiquity says that HD Radio compatibility should add $100 to $150 to a radio's manufacturing costs, a sum that it expects to drop by half every year in the years to come.

Like a lot of new consumer-electronics technologies, HD Radio feels like a project more than a product. Many of its capabilities have yet to be deployed -- for instance, I didn't find any stations that sent out song-title data. It may take years for stations to upgrade their transmissions (an expense iBiquity spokesman Gil Chorbajian estimated at $75,000 to $100,000 a pop), and some may never bother. HD Radio's basic workings are still being tweaked; next year's receivers may perform significantly better than this year's models.

Then again, they might not: The Recording Industry Association of America is making a belated, misguided attempt to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to mandate copy controls in HD Radio receivers.

That's a lot of uncertainty to hang on HD Radio. But if things go right, this could well earn a spot on non-audiophiles' shopping lists -- next year.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at

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