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High-definition radio gets a boost from automakers

 You may have noticed that HD radio reception stinks.  That’s if you've noticed HD radio at all.  But proponents say they are fixing the problems, so maybe by the time most people buy cars with HD radios in them, the issues will be solved.

In case you don’t remember, HD radio is broadcast by ground-based radio stations, but it's a bit like Sirius XM satellite radio in a few ways.

Although it comes over the airwaves like regular AM and FM radio, the signal is digital, like that of satellite radio.  That means that FM HD stations have the sound quality of a compact disc, and AM HD stations sound as good as regular analog FM stations instead of sounding like the tin-cans-and-a-string telephone you made in second grade.

Because digital data don’t take up as much of a broadcast signal’s bandwidth as an analog broadcast does, radio stations can pack several channels into their frequency, giving them the chance to offer unusual programming of the sort that you might sometimes find on some Sirius XM stations.

Finally, because it is still a bit of an experiment, many of these stations are commercial-free, at least for the time being.  Which means not having to hear the same screaming ads for car dealers’ “sale-a-ramas.” 

Finally, the best part is that HD radio is free!  Satellite radio requires a subscription of at least $174 a year.  Ouch.

So why isn’t HD radio the hottest new technology not sold by Apple?  Because until now, the free system had largely given us what we paid for it: not much.

The Federal Communications Commission, fearful that these new multiple digital stations would interfere with existing analog stations, limited their signal strength to a mere 1 percent of that of the analog station, according to Stephen Baldacci, spokesman for iBiquity Digital Corporation, the company that promotes HD radio.  One percent!

It is a wonder we could pick up the stations at all.  Fortunately, after a few years of experience showing that the HD stations did not knock out the analog ones, the FCC has boldly upped HD power to a whopping 10 percent of the analog signal.

While this still sounds pathetically weak, digital stations don’t require as much power, so at 10 percent the signal could be as strong as an analog broadcast.  “At full strength, you’d be able to hear an HD signal in Moscow,” Baldacci joked.

The receivers are improving too.  The Sony radio in the Ford Focus has a tuner that is optimized for HD reception and it showed solid reception of many HD stations in the Washington, D.C., area.

Many current models’ radios have two annoying problems that make HD radio difficult-to-impossible to listen to.  On the station’s main channel, as the radio picks up the HD signal it switches to that, and then when it loses it, it switches back to analog.  This is good for demonstrating the superiority of HD sound, but bad for listening when the signal switches constantly, because it sounds like someone alternately stuffing socks into the speakers and then removing them.

New radios, Baldacci explained, are designed so that they switch between the two less abruptly, so the change isn’t annoyingly noticeable. 

That’s on the main channel where there is an analog backup signal.  The extra HD-only stations just drop out and pop back in.  On most radios, with poorly optimized HD tuners and antennae, these channels are useless.

On the new Focus, and presumably, other new cars with the latest HD radio hardware, these problems are addressed.  In combination with the stronger signal that is now permitted, whenever stations start using the extra power, HD radio is finally beginning to fulfill its promise.

That’s good news for listeners, maybe less good for Sirius XM satellite radio.

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