I picked up the el cheapo HD Radio that Radio Shack is selling this weekend- with a ten dollar coupon from the Entertainment Book and a twenty five dollar rebate, it came out to about a hundred bucks with tax, which is expensive for a table radio, but what the hell. The verdict so far: meh.
It's not a horrible little radio- it's plasticy, kinda like one of those cheap iPod docks, with small speakers on either side of a blue screen. Using the radio's less than intuitive, but once I figured everything out, it wasn't too bad. All of that's fine, but the real question is whether HD's worth it, and whether it has any chance in the marketplace. And for that, my response is, sadly, it isn't and it might not.
The problem is this: unless you have a rock-solid, city-grade, right-near-the-tower signal, the HD either drops in and out or isn't there at all. Heaven forbid that, like me, you live at the fringe of FM signals- we're blocked from L.A. signals and the San Diego-Tijuana signals are spotty today. But even with a listenable signal on some San Diego stations, there wasn't a hint of HD on FM. That's with an external antenna, too. Nothing. Can't tell you what it sounds like, because there isn't anything to hear. Sell this to regular consumers who aren't in the business and aren't going to resort to extraordinary measures to pull in a signal and you're going to anger a lot of people- assuming, that is, that a lot of people will buy this thing, which isn't the case.
But I do get some AM HD, and that's another problem. Rock-solid, city-grade signal strength apparently isn't enough to hold the HD signal. The closest big AM signal to me is KNX, about 10 miles away, 50,000 watts nondirectional, strong enough to blot out several channels on either side, its HD sideband hash also heard several channels away. The signal, in other words, is as strong as possible. And I do get HD from KNX, but it doesn't come up right away and doesn't stay solid- the signal bounces back and forth between digital and analog fairly often, and there are long stretches of analog even with the nearly perfect reception. Same for KBRT, a station on Catalina that throws its entire signal right at us- there's nothing between the KBRT transmitter site and us except 26 miles of salt water, and the analog signal is loud and clear. KBRT's digital signal? Cuts in and out. KLAC- 5,000 watts at 570- is a clean signal here, and its HD signal can't hold for more than a minute at a time, which is especially problematic because, alone among the stations I get, they haven't put the analog signal on delay to coordinate with the HD signal. When HD kicks in, you hear a repeat of the last several seconds of what you just heard on analog. When it cuts out, you lose a few seconds of material. Some of the stations that are listed as having HD signals, like KFWB, just aren't coming in that way, even with decent analog coverage. KOGO in San Diego- forget it, no hint of HD.
Contrast that with satellite. Sirius? I have to stretch the antenna across a small alleyway behind the house to pick up the signal, but it's there. XM, I get with the cheap clip antenna that came with the radio, flipped up by the window, no problem. Sirius has occasional and short dropouts, XM has none in the house, and both are generally good in the car. You turn it on, it works. HD Radio is not like that. Yeah, it's free and you have to pay for satellite, but what good is free if you can't get anything with it, or it drops in and out all the time?
And the sound of HD on AM is not music quality. It's clear, yes, better than AM, but tinny, and not close to even FM. I don't know what the FM version sounds like yet, but when conditions improve and I get the San Diego HD signals, I'll let you know. Satellite? Not perfect sound, not at all, but perfectly listenable. I'm not an audiophile, but I do want a clean signal without obvious digital artifacts, and satellite is good enough.
I'll reserve final judgement once I get to hear the FM stations in action, but here's the thing: if HD doesn't work beyond a certain distance from the antenna, it won't succeed. They're selling the idea of the "HD2" and "HD3" subchannels for additional programming, but if you can't be assured of getting them without regular annoying dropouts, they're useless. If I wasn't in the business and in need of checking out the technology, I'd return the radio and I wouldn't bother with HD anymore. If the radio industry thinks this is its weapon against satellite and streaming, it has to make the technology work better. Right now, it's not ready.