It’s Time to Get an HD Radio

Until a few months ago, I knew next to nothing about HD radio. I’m not sure I even knew the technology existed — which is surprising considering that HD radio has been around for several years. If I am at all typical (and I believe I am), HD radio clearly has had a tough time penetrating into the marketplace and into consumers’ consciousness. But this is beginning to change — especially for those devices located where the majority of (non-Internet) radio listening takes place: car radios.

The advantages of HD radio, especially for car receivers, are numerous. A Crutchfield Web page offers a good summary of the benefits. At the top of the list is the increased quality of reception. You get “FM radio with near CD-quality sound and AM radio that sounds as good as traditional FM.”

I recently decided to take the plunge and upgrade my old factory-installed “premium” radio/CD/tape player to a new HD receiver. I chose the Sony CDX-GT700HD. It’s certainly not top-of-the-line (and it has some user-interface irritations, as I will detail later). But it’s a great value and includes all the features that make an HD radio (and, in some cases, almost any new car radio) so attractive.

• Sound quality. HD radio lived up to its reputation for superior sound quality. The FM signals are incredibly crystal clear. There is absolutely no hiss, static or distortion of any type. Not only can HD equal the sound quality of a CD but, depending upon what CD you are playing and where you are listening to it, the HD radio can often sound even better. And it’s free. There is no subscription fee.

One caveat: HD radio is a digital signal. As with the lack of “snow” in a digital television’s picture, there is no such thing as “poor” HD radio reception. You either get the HD signal or you don’t. When you can get an HD signal, this works to your advantage. When you don’t get one, the radio automatically reverts back to the analog version of the broadcast. Depending upon where you are located, this can be quite often. For example, here in the East Bay of San Francisco, when I travel East across the hills from Berkeley to Lafayette, all HD radio is lost. I only get an HD signal on the Bay side of the hills. [Note: HD radio stations are at the same frequency as their analog counterparts. This means that switching back and forth between analog and HD equivalents is handled automatically by the device with no need for any user interaction.]

If you’re upgrading from a much older radio (as was the case for me), you’re likely to have a pleasant sound quality surprise that goes beyond the benefits of HD. My Sony radio touts “52 Watts x 4 peak power.” I’m not sure what the specs were on my now discarded radio, but I am sure they were much inferior. Everything now sounds significantly better with the new receiver. I had no idea how much improvement was possible from an upgraded radio. 

• Multicast. There’s a bonus to HD radio has nothing to do with sound quality. Radio stations broadcasting in HD can use their allotted bandwidth to offer multiple programs. As one example, the local country music station here in the Bay Area offers two programs: one plays current country hits; the other plays country classics from decades gone by. With a standard analog radio, you only have access to the first of these programs. HD radio opens the door to a whole new collection of radio channels!

Exactly how conveniently you can access these extra “channels” varies depending upon the exact radio model you own. My Sony HD radio handles the matter less conveniently that I would like. When you select a particular station, the Sony always defaults to the primary channel. Further, it takes a few seconds before the Sony becomes aware that additional multicast channels exist. This means that there is no way that you can assign one of the radio’s buttons to take you directly to a secondary multicast channel. On the plus side, after pressing the button assigned to a desired station and waiting a few seconds, repeatedly pressing the same button cycles you through all the multicast channels offered by that station. Back to the minus side, if you switch to another station and then return to the original station, you again revert to the primary channel, even if you were listening to a secondary channel at the time you switched. In the end, accessing the secondary channels takes a bit more effort than I would like. But it’s manageable.

iTunes Tagging• iTunes Tagging. If you have an iPod and use iTunes (which is pretty much everyone, right?), HD radio offers a special treat: iTunes tagging. The way it works is this: When listening to music on an HD broadcast (tagging won’t work with an analog signal), press the Tag button on the radio. This stores information about the song. With my Sony, you can store information for up to 50 songs this way. When you next connect your iPod to the receiver, the stored information is automatically transferred to the iPod. Finally, when you next connect and sync your iPod to iTunes, the song information appears in a special Tagged section of the iTunes Store listings (Figure). You can now directly purchase the songs from the iTunes Store. This tagging pretty much eliminates the need for iPhone apps such as Shazam, at least for HD stations while in your car.

Even if you have no intention of purchasing tagged songs, tagging is a great way to find out the song’s title and artist — and store that information for later checking — all with a single “non-distracting” press of a button. More generally, the dashboard display of HD radios shows song title and artist information, for when you want instant feedback.

I’m not sure how often I will wind up using iTunes tagging. But I like knowing it’s available.

• iPod Controls. There’s a feature that comes with most HD radios now on the market, but is not restricted to HD radios: iPod controls. With my Sony, it works like this: There is a USB port on the front panel of the receiver. Using an iPod dock connector cable, you can attach any iPod or iPhone to the radio. This both charges the iPod/iPhone and allows playing the iPod/iPhone through the receiver. This is a great convenience, eliminating the need to purchase a separate charger that connects via the car’s DC port and/or a device (such as Griffin’s iTrip) that plays your iPod over an unused radio frequency (with quality far inferior to and less reliable than what you get via a direct USB connection).

But it gets better. Once your iPod is connected via the USB port, you can control the device via buttons on the radio, freeing you from having to fumble with the controls on the iPod itself — which can be dangerous to attempt while driving. One button pauses the music, another button skips to the next song. And so on. It’s as easy as changing radio stations. You can even use buttons on the radio to search for a specific song or playlist, although for this task using the iPod itself will probably be simpler and quicker. [An aside: iTunes Tagging and iPod Controls are an incredible marketing coup for Apple; no other MP3 player offers this level of integration with car receivers!]

• User interface hassles. This final point is on the minus side of the ledger. It is not specific to HD radio and may not even be a general attribute of current car radios. But it is certainly true of the particular Sony I purchased. I am left wondering if the people who designed the radio’s user interface ever tried to use the device. There are so many hassles that could have been easily avoided, I seriously doubt that they did. Here are just a few examples:

There is an Off button for the device, but it is a small button in a corner that is easy to overlook. Adding to the confusion, this button does not also serve as the On button. There is no On button. Instead, you turn on the device by pressing the Source button (primarily used to rotate the radio through its various sources: iPod, tuner, CD). I did not find any of this at all intuitive.

Further, if you connect an iPod to the USB port, the radio automatically shifts to the iPod as its “source” and begins playing music from your iPod. There is no way to prevent this. If your were listening to NPR at the time, and only connected your iPod because you wanted to charge it, this enforced shift can be really annoying.

If you press the volume knob, the radio shifts to a settings mode (for adjusting balance, fade, etc.). It is very easy to unintentionally press the button when you are turning the knob to adjust the volume. If you do, you wind up changing some settings value instead of the volume.

There is a row of 8 identical buttons along the bottom of the radio. The middle six buttons are numbered 1 through 6 and are the ones you use to assign radio stations. The two on either end have entirely different functions. This means that, when you want to press a button to select a station while driving, you have to remember things like “The second button in the row is the one with a 1 on it.” This is especially so because the labels are hard to read during the day. To make things simpler, why couldn’t Sony have at least made the two end buttons different in size or shape from the middle six?

There are no Stop or Play buttons, which you typically expect with a CD player or an iPod. Play is always automatic as soon as you select the CD or iPod as a source. The only way to stop play, other than turning the device off, is via the Pause button — which is the far-from-obvious seventh button (with a 6 on it) along the 8 button row. If you are listening to music and need to turn it off in a hurry, don’t count on success.

Eventually, you get used to these oddities. But “getting used to it” should not be necessary.

The Bottom Line. If you are at all in the market to upgrade your car radio, and if you get HD reception anywhere near where you live, and certainly if you have an older radio that lacks features such as iPod controls, get an HD radio today. You won’t regret it.

[Update: Glenn Fleishman tweeted some messages to me, pointing out the troubles HD radio has had over the years. It’s all documented in his now largely abandoned blog on the topic. I understand his pessimism. At the same time, I am hopeful that, at least for car radios, the market may yet survive and grow. There are some signs this is the case. After all, they managed to get me to buy one. :)]

[Update: Another point worth noting: Not only is HD reception free, but the cost of the receivers are now about the same as for non-HD receivers. So if you are in the market for a new radio, you can’t go wrong by getting HD. Even if you almost never use it, it didn’t cost you anything.]