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HD Radio: Clear Potential, but Uncertain Future

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 30, 2006

HD Radio has spent most of this decade in the "huh?" category of customer awareness. In its early days, this technology for digital AM and FM broadcasts required $1,000 worth of hardware -- if you could find it -- and a search for a station that was actually serving up an HD radio signal.

Today, you can buy an HD radio for $300, take it home and start tuning into almost 20 FM and AM stations offering HD in the Washington area.

The only catch is, "an HD radio" means "a single model of HD radio." Two years after digital broadcasts went on the air, listeners who'd like to hear them at home without spending more than $1,000 have one choice, Boston Acoustics' Recepter Radio HD.

This stereo clock radio debuted last year for $500, but in January Boston ( http://www.bostonhdradio.com/ ) whacked the price down to $300, before a $20 mail-in rebate. The next-cheapest option for listening to HD radio at home is an $1,800 (!) home-theater receiver from Yamaha; several types of car stereos are also available at more reasonable prices.

If you're going to sample HD radio, this compact but big-sounding stereo is by far the easiest way to do so.

Why bother? At a minimum, HD radio can make FM sound close to a CD and make AM sound like a static-free version of FM. But it also lets FM broadcasters send out second or third digital-only signals on the same frequency (unlike digital television, digital radio uses the same airwaves as before, electronically layering the digital signal alongside the analog one).

In lieu of a breakup of radio conglomerates such as Clear Channel or a massive shift in programming philosophy at individual stations, those "HD2" channels may be radio's last, best hope to escape its playlist prison. They allow stations to broadcast genres that are either marginalized or missing outright from commercial FM and most National Public Radio stations, lending FM a little of the surprise and diversity of satellite and Internet radio -- but without any fees or required broadband hookup. They're HD radio's best selling point at the moment, assuming stations actually make use of this opportunity.

The Web site of HD radio's developer, Columbia-based iBiquity Digital Corp., lists 18 stations broadcasting digitally around the D.C. area -- 14 FM and four AM. Of the FM stations, seven provide HD2 channels.

When you tune into one of them, the Recepter indicates the alternate channel's availability with an arrow icon on its screen; twisting the tuning knob clockwise selects that second channel. Being able to flip over to these extras can make radio seem a lot less boring.

For example, the HD2 channel for the usually buttoned-down NPR affiliate WAMU (88.5 FM) is "Groove Salad," a fascinating mix of mostly instrumental electronic works put together by San Francisco's great Web station SomaFM. R&B-focused WPGC (95.5 FM) offers a full-time gospel channel, taken from its AM station. All-news WTOP-FM (103.5 FM) provides an all-classical channel. And all of these extras have come commercial-free, though you can expect that to change once a decent audience starts tuning in.

Because we are talking about commercial FM here, other stations blow the chance to do anything too original with HD radio: The HD2 channel of the relentlessly shallow WWDC's (101.1 FM) didn't seem much fresher than its usual rock fodder over a couple of hours of listening.

Also, almost all HD2 channels are DJ-free. If you don't recognize a song, too bad; although HD radio allows stations to send out text information such as titles and artists' names for display on receivers' screens, none of the HD stations I sampled did that.

The Recepter was able to tune in 11 of the 14 FM HD stations without much trouble at a house in Arlington, although in some cases I had to swap antennas. Boston first shipped this radio with a relatively short wire antenna that plugs into the back, then recently added a seven-foot-long wire that can be used as a backup. The company says buyers of earlier models can get the new antenna for free.

At times, tuning in digital radio reminded me of trying to lock in digital TV broadcasts. The signals were weaker than their analog counterparts, as mandated by Federal Communications Commission regulations, and could drop out, then resume for no apparent reason. The HD signals of classical WGMS (104.1 FM) and smooth-jazz WJZW (105.9 FM) never got past that shakiness -- and The Post's WTWP (107.7 FM) was complete static the whole time.

HD radio on AM delivers a much bigger improvement in sound -- but only if you can get the signal, something the Recepter had serious trouble doing. Whether I used its internal AM antenna or the external one included in the box, it pulled in only one HD AM signal, "SportsTalk" WTEM (980 AM). It detected an HD signal on two others, WKDL (730 AM) and WTWP (1500 AM), but never tuned it in; all-talk WTNT (570 AM) never even showed one.

On WTEM's signal, the improvement was astounding -- HD radio wiped away all of the usual hiss and static, leaving a clear, crisp signal sounding better than most FM broadcasts.

As much as I'd like to hear Georgetown basketball games in this clarity next year, however, I probably won't; FCC regulations prohibit AM HD broadcasts after dark, lest they interfere with the reception of distant AM signals.

The Recepter ought to be able to pick up and hold on to a digital signal better -- the HD car stereo I auditioned two years ago seemed considerably more reliable. But it's not as if you've got much of a choice right now at home. When will that change? Since 2004, iBiquity has had the same general answer: over the next year or two.

Seeing this technology inch its way into the market is getting to be as frustrating as trying to find some originality on your FM dial. If you value what HD radio can do for the public airwaves, you have to hope iBiquity's forecast comes true this time.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.

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