Is there really any reason to own an HD Radio?
The timing of the email was perfect …
“I read your column each week and many thanks for the radio stations you have turned me on to, most recently KHUG (www.KHUG.rocks). I’ve been looking into replacing my home stereo with one that has HD digital reception. Do you have any recommendations?” — Rick Adams
I do have some recommendations, which I will get to in a minute. But I was already planning about talking about HD radios and tuners this week anyway … the planets much be aligning in some way.
What brought on my thinking is actually opposite of what Rick is thinking. I have had a stereo in my back yard for many years; the other day I was doing some work outside and thought I’d simplify a few thing … get rid of the broken cassette deck, for example. As I did it, I looked at my HD tuner, and wondered why I have it.
Don’t get me wrong … I am not against HD radio per se. I actually think it has the potential to be a good platform. Interference between stations aside, I think AM via HD sounds tremendously better than typical analog, and the extra channels on FM — when done right as with Saul Levine’s HD stations at 105.1 — add a great entertainment source.
But over the past few years, various smart phone apps and smart speakers have come on the scene, and many stations stream their programming there, making HD tuners duplicative and perhaps unnecessary. Of course if you have an HD tuner in your car or home it would be technically easier to use than having to make sure you’re connected to the internet and knowing how to run the app. Additionally, due to greed on the part of station owners who want to monetize their own apps, not all stations are available on any of the apps. I handle it by just not listening to those stations at home, but I digress.
But HD has a major problem … relatively few listeners still know about it, understand it, or know how to use it. Some don’t even know they have it. Add in that stations on the AM band are essentially abandoning it — even KNX (1070 AM) turned it off (supposedly temporarily) due to a corporate decree in April. And HD on FM has no buffer on the extra (not main) channels, making the HD FM versions of KFI (at 103.5 HD2) or KNX (at 101.1 HD2) unlistenable in most areas.
So the apps have an advantage. They work as long as you have good internet. They can tune in more than the local stations, and they sound great. In some cases, such as with the myTuner Radio app or smart speakers, turning a station is as easy as pushing a preset button or saying “hey Siri, play KNX-FM 93.”
So I took out the HD tuner. I can still hear radio outside, but rarely use the tuner. Instead I use an app. Inside the house I usually use the smart speaker. That is one of six HD tuners I own and rarely use for HD — the two in the cars being an exception; I am still in the process of deciding whether to just sell them or put them in storage for the time when all digital AM becomes common … if ever.
And that creates a problem. If I, a total radio geek who loves radio and just tuning around to find interesting stations, is doubting the use of HD radio, what is the typical consumer doing? I imagine not even thinking about it. That doesn’t bode well for the future of HD.
All that being said, if you want to try HD radio, for the car just look for a radio that has it. The cost is the same as all but the cheapest radios, and you really don’t want the cheapest radios. It was built in to the Alpine and Kenwood aftermarket radios I put in two of our cars, and the cost was basically the same as I expected to pay for non-HD units. Many factory systems have it, but you do need to confirm, as they are usually an upgrade.
For the home, it is more difficult, primarily because the old standard idea of a home stereo is outdated. People now buy small systems, if they buy one at all. Indeed, smart speakers and streaming services have become the new norm for audio listening in the home. So regular tuners and radios with HD are rare. Heck, it’s hard to buy a regular radio locally.
For currently-available models, I recommend Sangean. They have always been among the best available and the current crop are better than ever. Available models include the HDR-18 table/clock radio, the HDT-20 component tuner, and the HDR-16 portable radio. Older models can be found on eBay and similar sites, including the original HDT-1 and HDT-1X component tuners, both available at very reasonable prices.
There are other brands around including Sparc, but I have no experience with them.
If you are willing to search deeper into the auction sites, a few other models are definitely worth looking for. Sony once and one of the best HD tuners ever – the XDR-F1HD. Great sound, great reception. But it had issues … it tends to run hot, and doesn’t retain station presets or the clock when it loses power. In response there are plans and companies who will add components such as internal fans and backup capacitors to make up for the original design’s shortcomings. The problem is the tuner sells for $100+ used and the service to upgrade is about $150.
Radio Shack once sold a decent table radio under the Accurian house brand, and it is around the auction sites as well. Their Accurian component tuner, though, is awful on AM … decent for FM. And while HD on AM may not be anything right now, the problem with the component tuner is that it barely gets AM at all.