Satellite Radio Blog

Thursday, January 13, 2011

HD Radio's big advantage over satellite

The huge Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is about all things digital, and increasingly applications best enjoyed from an armchair (including TV and Web access) have gone mobile with auto-based versions. One of the new frontiers is high-end car audio — not from a CD but from the radio.
There are cars everywhere at CES, from Aston-Martins to classic Camaros. The electric vehicle is being acknowledged at CES with a special Electric Vehicle TechZone from Audi, and EVs on display from Ford and General Motors.
One of the big sellers this year is likely to be aftermarket stereos that incorporate navigation and mimic the original equipment in new cars, but for half the price. Increasingly, these devices also incorporate features like satellite radio and a service I’m fascinated by, HD Radio.
According to Stephen Baldacci, a spokesman for HD Radio owner Ibiquity Digital (owned by a consortium of big-league radio owners such as Clear Channel), some 2,000 AM and FM radio stations now broadcast HD radio signals, which are transmitted digitally on frequencies between regular broadcast radio. Baldacci claims these local broadcasts reach 95 percent of all radio listeners in the U.S., but the rate of new stations going HD has slowed, largely because of cost issues in a radio recession.
At the CES show, Ashruf El-Dinary, a vice president of commercial applications at Ibiquity, sat with me in a HD-equipped Volkswagen. He said it costs stations $60,000 to $200,000 to go HD, depending on whether they need a new transmitter and other enhancements. Ibiquity has sold three million HD radios so far, and 17 auto brands now offer HD, and 37 models include it as standard equipment.
HD Radio sounds really good. Ibiquity’s claim is that FM sounds like CD, and AM like FM. On the VW, I listened to a country station playing Kenny Chesney and Joe Nichols, and the bass was really deep. Added features include a visual display of the artist playing with a photo, and tagging, which allows you to push a button and retain information on a song in an iPod playlist. Of course, you have to buy the songs for 99 cents each.
HD is a bit complicated for the novice. Tune into your standard station on an HD radio and you’ll hear it with enhanced sound and graphics. But the same station may also have an HD2 or HD3 channel with unique programming. As El-Dinary demonstrated, a station playing the Jack format on their main channel might offer an HD2 with smooth jazz and an HD3 with talk. NPR’s WAMU offers bluegrass on its HD2.
“HD is always local, and it’s always free,” said Baldacci. That last point is important when you compare HD to satellite radio. Consumers who are getting tired of paying for their SiriusXM subscription might want to investigate what they can get over the air, free. There are reportedly 1,000 channels of unique HD2 and HD3 programming, though it’s all local — only available within the range of the broadcast signal.
As I said, cars and audio are merging as digital products, and your next automobile purchase may be at a big-box store, with HD Radio and a built-in Web browser as part of the deal.

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