If video killed the radio star, as the Buggles famously sang in the song that introduced MTV to the world, 20 years later satellite radio tried to take on aging analog AM and FM by offering digital-quality sound, narrowly focused yet wide-ranging formatting and the absence of annoying commercials. But the radio old guard retaliated with its own high-tech weaponry: HD Radio.
Introduced in 2005, HD radio makes FM radio sound like CD and AM sound like FM, and offers what the HD Radio Web site calls "crystal-clear reception with no audio distortion." While you still have to endure motormouth deejays and more commercials than music, the big draw for HD Radio is that, unlike satellite radio, it's free. And like satellite radio, it offers alternative content that's largely commercial-free by allowing a station to "multicast" separate programming on an adjacent sub-frequency that only an HD Radio can tune in.
And as with satellite radio — and FM receivers with Radio Data System (RDS) capability — HD Radio supplies detailed artist and song title listings, as well as info on traffic, weather, sports, stocks, emergencies and more. Plus, several aftermarket HD Radios with iPod compatibility boast an additional feature called iTunes Tagging: When you hear a song you like on an HD station and an iPod is connected, simply hit a button and the next time your iPod is connected to your computer, the song pops up on iTunes, ready to purchase.
Getting HD in the Car
The mobile electronics aftermarket was first to offer HD Radio capability, and is still the only avenue for adding the technology to an existing car audio system. To get HD in your current ride you can either buy an aftermarket radio with it built in, add an HD Radio tuner to a compatible aftermarket radio, jack it into a stock stereo system with a universal add-on tuner or buy a portable unit that can send an HD Radio signal to a car stereo either through an aux jack or via an FM transmitter. (Click here for a list of aftermarket HD Radio options.)
Automakers are also beginning to jump on the HD Radio bandwagon in a big way. BMW was the first to back the service, introducing it as an option beginning with 2006-model 6 and 7 Series vehicles, and then adding it to 2007 5 Series and the 3 Series convertible with the premium audio system. Later, BMW became the first automaker to make HD Radio available as a factory-installed option across its entire model line, and the feature is now standard on 2009 6 and 7 Series models. Mini, meanwhile, joined its corporate cousin by adding it as an option on the 2007 Mini Cooper and Cooper S hardtops.
Hyundai included HD Radio as an option in its 2009 Genesis sedan equipped with navigation and will add it to additional 2010 vehicles, as will its corporate affiliate Kia on its sedans and SUVs. Jaguar offers HD Radio as standard in the 2009 XF and XK and will make it standard in all 2010 models, while Land Rover will offer it on all 2010 models. Ford and Lincoln get in on the HD Radio action with 2010 models, while Ford's Swedish sister Volvo offers it in almost all of its 2009 models. HD radio is also available in Mercedes E-, G-, GL-, M-, and R-Class vehicles, as well as in 2009 in CL-, CLS-, S-, SL-, and SLK-Class models and the E Coupe. Audi will introduce HD Radio on 2010 models, and Scion offers it on select models.
HD Radio Tech Specs
Ibiquity, the company behind HD Radio technology, is making it easy for radio stations to get onboard and consumers to tune in. In fact, HD Radio is transmitted in exactly the same way as good ol' analog, using a process called In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) broadcasting, and the digital signal is simply "piggybacked" on top of the analog one.
The upside is that the compressed digital signal offers much better sound. When radio signals waft through the air, they bounce off objects such as buildings, causing what's known as multipath distortion, which analog radio listeners hear as static, hiss, pops, fading and other audible annoyances.
HD Digital radio receivers, however, smooth out the sound of these mangled signals to deliver crystal-clear reception. Ibiquity claims that features built into HD Radio receivers even improve regular analog reception by using this "Hybrid Mode" broadcast method, in case an HD Radio owner is in an area without coverage.
The Ups and Downs of HD Radio
But perhaps one of the biggest downsides to HD Radio is that the service is not available everywhere, particularly in rural areas. While 1,800 radio stations have signed up so far, the signals from HD Radio stations in urban areas only extend about a maximum of 50 miles.
Another obstacle to widespread acceptance of HD Radio is that you also have to buy a new car or aftermarket hardware to get the benefits, such as access to "hidden" stations. Known as HD2 and HD3 content, these offer alternative, mostly commercial-free programming that's a click away on a sub-frequency from more familiar stations and can only be accessed with an HD Radio tuner.
In Los Angeles, for example, the influential modern-rock station KROQ at 106.7 FM broadcasts separate programming at 106.7-2 on the HD Radio dial that consists of the "ROQ of the '80s" that first made the station (and the format of the same name) famous, while oldies station KRTH 101.1 FM only plays "Pre-Beatles oldies" at 101.2 for those who prefer music that came before the Fab Four.
Perhaps HD Radio's biggest barrier to widespread acceptance is that the technology has met with about as much mainstream enthusiasm as, say, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks' second album. But with satellite radio ready to come crashing down to earth after a similar lack of pervasive appeal, a mismanaged merger and massive amounts of cash pumped into the ill-fated venture, HD Radio may benefit from the awareness that XM and Sirius created, ultimately filling the void and need for better radio.
The Future of Radio?
Thanks to its architecture, Ibiquity has more HD Radio features ready to roll out. BMW, for example, provides real-time traffic service in many of its models via the Total Traffic Network (TTN), and the info is delivered through the car's FM receiver. It makes sense that the company would leverage HD Radio's higher bandwidth to improve the service, and in March 2009 BMW began testing the delivery of its Real Time Traffic Information through HD.
It's safe to assume that Mini and possibly Volvo, which both use TTN to send traffic info to drivers, will follow suit. HD Radio also plans to add surround sound soon and may one day allow users to time-shift content à la Tivo — and maybe cut out all those commercials. Now that would almost be worth paying for.