Radio Waves: 1/20/17

New HD Radios from Sangean

HD Radio has been available to the consumer in the United States since 2002 when it was selected by the FCC as the standard for digital in-band on-channel broadcasts on the AM and FM bands

Unlike some parts of the world which decided to go with an entirely separate digital broadcasting band with the ultimate goal of shutting down traditional AM and FM stations, the FCC in the United States decided to select a system that allowed traditional broadcasts on AM and FM. This under an assumption that someday — perhaps — digital broadcasts would take over and analog shut off, though no mandate was given and no timetable ever suggested.

HD Radio — the HD is a marketing term and has no meaning — was developed by iBiquity Digital Corporation. In its current form, a station tuned in on an HD Radio is first heard in analog, and after a few seconds to allow for buffering, switches to digital.

On AM stations, the change in sound quality is dramatic. Hearing AM with no background noise and increased fidelity is somewhat startling the first time you hear it, though between limitations of the system and poor encoding by some stations, digital artifacts can make the signal sound unpleasant to some listeners. When done right as with KNX (1070 AM) the results are stunning.

On FM the change is less dramatic due to FM’s natural high fidelity, but done right the station will sound fuller and with more high frequencies than analog FM. HD FM stations can also receive sub-channels, meaning that a station can broadcast more than one channel of programming on the same frequency much like digital television stations.

For listeners, the main problem with HD has been the availability of radios capable of receiving HD signals. In the early years, Sangean, Sony and a few others had home tuners, there were no portables, and radios for cars were hit and miss.

More recently, automakers have been adding HD radio to their offerings, aftermarket stereos with HD tuners have improved and become more readily available … but home tuners became almost nonexistent as Sangean, Sony and the others discontinued all of their HD radio offerings. And portables? Few and far between.

Well Sangean is back in the game with three models introduced in the second half of 2016, and all available by late year. And while I have not reviewed or tested — or even seen in person — any of these models, the release of the models may mean that HD Radio is on the upswing.

The HDR-16 is a portable radio that can be used as a clock radio as well. It runs on four C-size batteries or an AC adapter. Sound quality is said to be good, and reception for both analog and digital is said to be excellent. Street price: $100.

The HDR-18 is a table radio/clock radio that runs on AC power only. It features dual alarms, a nice acoustically-tuned wood cabinet, and a manual dimmer for the display. Sound quality and reception are said to be excellent; the one drawback this radio seems to have is the lack of any type of backup for the clock or alarm settings. Sangean dropped the ball on that. Street price: $170.

The HDT-20 is a component tuner to be added to a home stereo system, the replacement for the long discontinued but excellent HDT-1 series. As with the HDT-1 and 1X, the HDT-20 features an optical output for direct digital connection to a receiver or similar. Street price: $200.

My understanding is that the current chipsets for HD radios are even more selective than even the best of the old, so my hunch is that digital reception on any of these tuners is impressive. Sangean tends to make excellent analog tuners as well … my HDT-1 and 1X can pick up stations clearly that some tuners can barely receive.

My only problem … I already own more than my share of HD Radios, so I’ll have to leave it to you for any real reviews. If you happen to own one of these radios or the tuner, please drop me a line and tell me what you think.

And together we can pressure KFI (640 AM) and KABC (790 AM) to bring their HD signals back to the AM band. The HD FM simulcast is just not the same magical experience as when they broadcast HD on AM.