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Have you heard HD Radio? April 29, 2006

Posted by Matsu in Random, Technology.

HD Radio LogoThe other day I was listening to NPR on WEKU radio while I drove to work. At one point, when they gave their station identification, they ended by saying, "Now broadcasting in high definition." I thought to myself, what is that?

Of course, we have all heard about high definition TV (HDTV) by now. But, did you know that radio broadcast technology was also changing to some type of higher quality broadcast? I didn't.

After poking around the Internet a little, I learned that HD radio technology improves on the age-old analog AM and FM signals with digital transmissions that are sent with the analog signals. The company that created the current standard approved by the FCC is iBiquity.

The advantages of HD radio include:

  • FM radio with near CD-quality sound
  • AM radio that sounds as good as traditional FM
  • No more static, pops, crackles or fades
  • Transmission of additional information, such as song titles and artists
  • Increased listening options with multicasting

(Source: Crutchfield Advisor)

HD Radio diagramHaving a digital radio signal makes a lot of sense. And, just like HDTV, to take advantage of the new higher quality you must purchase a new HD radio compatible radio receiver. And, if the digital signal is lost for any reason, the radio will drop back to the analog signal and you will still hear the station, but at a lower quality.

One of the distinct advantages of a digital radio signal is the ability to send data along with the audio stream or send multiple audio streams on the same frequency. They refer to this as ‘multicasting.’

According to iBiquity,

Multicasting is a big deal for radio stations and listeners alike. A radio station can now better serve its listeners. For instance, a public radio station can broadcast morning jazz music on one "channel" and morning talk programming on another "channel." Same radio station, same frequency on the dial, but multiple options for the listener. Commercial radio stations will be able to branch out into multiple formats, rock and country, for example. Now, consider the possibilities if all of the radio stations in an area have the ability to offer two or three channels for the listener to choose from.

For those of you who are not interested in replacing your portable radio players or car radio, you can still listen to FM and AM radio without digital radio receivers. Unlike HDTV, there is no mandate for the industry to change to all-digital technology. The FCC does not require radio stations to broadcast in digital and has not set any future date when analog signals will have to be shut down. Instead, they see the industry using the dual signal or co-broadcasting of analog and digital radio signals indefinitely.

In Kentucky, there are only about a dozen radio stations that use HD radio. I expect that will change dramatically as people begin to purchase HD radios. The same dynamic has been playing out in the HDTV market, and the FCC mandated that migration from analog to digital.

The only drawback that I see at this time is the cost of HD radio compatible receivers. Those radios are in fact a lot more expensive than the regular (analog) radios. They cost several hundred dollars, today. But, just like most new technologies, the price is expected to come down as components become more available and as competition increases. So, you might want to look at putting an HD radio on your Christmas list this year.



1. Pedro Pinheiro - May 1, 2006

In typical European fashion, we have DAB – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_audio_broadcasting – developed in the late 80s, completely (excuse me the pun) out of tune with the consumers/manufacturers reality, and it never caught on. What caught on was RDS – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Data_System – which provides a very few, very useful digital services on top of the analog FM carrier: Station ID – a 7 letter ID that can be show on the radio’s display; AF – Auto frequency – a radio station that broadcasts over a wide area over different frequencies will send that list to the radio, which will automatically tune itself to the clearest signal (very useful while driving); TP – traffic program – traffic news will interrupt other sources (your receiver will pause the CD player and automatically switch to the tuner, for instance, when the traffic news come up). There are other functions, but these are the most useful and used/implemented ones.

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