TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Radio Goes Digital

Radio Goes Digital

Lisa Minter (
Tue, 16 Nov 2004 14:04:25 -0500 (EST)

Patrick Norton - ExtremeTech

Radio hasn't changed much in the past couple of decades. Sure, there
was the big switch from mechanical pushbuttons, knobs and cable-driven
needles to electrical pushbuttons and digital LCD screens. Stereo AM
made its less-than-stunning debut. On the car audio front, a typical
head unit's gone from being a radio to being a radio with a built-in
cassette deck, to being a radio with a built-in CD player.

That said, AM and FM radio tuners have definitely gotten better, a
fact I realized when I drove an ancient Toyota with a genuine factory
radio from the late '70s, and no cassette or CD player, a few months

Radio stations, I noticed, haven't changed all that much, except that
more of them sound exactly the same.

What has changed for the better is that radio is finally going
digital, at least in part. First with the introduction of satellite
radio a couple of years ago and now, earlier this year, with the
introduction of HD Radio has started to make serious leaps and bounds
for the first time since the '70s.

The two systems are both digital, but that's about all they have in
common. The newest is HD Radio, developed by iBiquity Digital. It
promises to bring CD-quality FM and static-free AM to any station that
licenses (and implements) the technology. Along with crystal-clear
music or talk radio, it also can do things such as deliver data over
your car stereo's head unit, including the name of the band you're
listening to, news tidbits or even stock quotes.

Satellite radio offerings from XM and Sirius each distribute more than
a hundred channels of music, info and entertainment via satellite,
everywhere in the United States. The coverage even spills over into a
fair chunk of Mexico and Canada. Want to listen to one classical
station in your car when you drive from San Francisco to Long Beach
Island, N.J.? Satellite radio can do that, at least until you pass
through a good-sized tunnel; then it cuts out until you're out the
other side. Just want to enjoy commercial-free music while you're
commuting? Both satellite providers offer more than 60 different

Sound good? It does to me. These new digital radio formats have me
fired up about radio again. Just for fun, let's get a little deeper
and see if we can't dig up a few more diamonds in the world of digital
radio. We're bound to uncover a few lumps of coal, too.

Satellite Radio: Did We Mention the Monthly Fee?

Let's get the first gotcha of digital radio out of the way: Both XM
and Sirius charge a monthly subscription fee. Barring a bulk purchase
of multiple months (or years) at once, you'll be paying $9.99 per
month for XM or $12.95 per month for Sirius. You'll also need an
XM or Sirius tuner, most likely a satellite radio that plugs into your
car or home stereo, or some kind of box that brings satellite radio to
the XM- or Sirius-ready head unit that's already in your car.

While there are many car stereos that can add in a satellite radio
module, our favorite tuner forms are portable and lend themselves to
easy movement from the car to the house. Delphi's XM-compatible Delphi
XM Roady2 earned an Editors' Choice award from PC Magazine for its
iPod-like size and built-in FM modulator. That means no carrying
around extra cables or cassette adapters, since you can use your FM
radio to pick up the signal from the Roady2. Its modular build means
you can also use it in a portable, Walkman-style carrier, or in a home
base station.

The Roady2 is a touch smaller than its comparable Sirius tuner, the
Sirius Sportster. One advantage the Sportster offers: When you set it
for your favorite football team, it'll display its logo on the monitor
and automatically change the channel when your team starts playing a

Both of those satellite radio tuners can be had for less than $100 on
sale, plus the monthly fee. ($9.99 for XM or $12.95 for Sirius.) If
you're willing to spend about $200 more, you can get a boom box
complete with AM/FM tuner and CD player that you can pop your XM tuner
into. You can read more about it in PC Magazine.

On the new-car front, more manufacturers committed to putting
compatible head units into new cars (Daimler-Chrysler and Ford offer
Sirius, while Honda and GM favor XM). Sirius has some hi-fi
manufactures, such as AudioVox and Kenwood making radios for your home
stereo. But XM has the lead in portable hardware, with the
announcement of Delphi's MyFi, the first portable, self-powered
satellite radio. It's expected to ship this December for $349.

What Do You Get for the Monthly Fee?

In exchange for that monthly fee, you get an amazing array of
programming. XM offers 68 commercial-free music channels out of 130
total channels. Sirius, which started the commercial-free music craze,
offers 65 music channels from 120. Both offer similar music
programming (dedicated channels for just about everything from dance
music to bluegrass), along with a range of news and entertainment

We won't get into the other offerings too deeply here, except to say
that XM has exclusive rights to Major League Baseball and NASCAR
Radio, while Sirius holds the keys to NFL football, National Public
Radio and, in 2006, Howard Stern.

What Is HD Radio, Anyway?

While satellite radio's dedicated content channels and commercial-free
music are probably pulling people away from AM and FM radio (albeit
slowly, since XM and Sirius combined have roughly 3 million listeners,
and there are tens of millions of radio listeners in the United
States), HD Radio is designed to improve your experience with your
favorite local stations. It's a nationwide standard, chosen by the FCC
in 2002.

Your HD Radio will work anywhere in the United States. Assuming you
have HD Radio being broadcast in your area. (More on that in a

HD Radio is essentially iBiquity's IBOC (In-Band On-Channel) Digital
Audio Broadcasting technology. It essentially sandwiches the regular
analog transmission with a pair of sideband transmissions. These
digital transmissions don't interfere with stations nearby on the dial
but still manage to carry a high-quality audio copy of the regular
analog broadcast, and can carry additional information the station
wished to add in. (The ubiquitous example of stock quotes has been
mentioned, but things such as track titles and artists' names are most

Because the signals are split across two different frequencies,
intelligence in the tuner can work them against each other and work
around some of the traditional analog reception problems such as
multipath interference (when your tuner picks up the same signal at
different times after it's been bounced around, say, the buildings in
your downtown area) and other causes of distortion.

iBquity debuted the first HD Radio receiver back in January, and
they're still fairly rare. According to iBiquity's site, JVC, Kenwood,
Panasonic and Boston Acoustics all offer HD Radio receivers. We've had
to work to find them for sale in local electronics stores, and with
the suggested retail on a car head unit at $700 to $800, they're a bit
spendy. The Boston Acoustics Receptor will cost closer to $149.)

There are a fair number of HD Radio stations broadcasting, at least
according to iBiquity's map of HD Radio stations. Here in San
Francisco, there are a fair number of HD radio stations on the air in
a wide range of formats, from AM news to jazz stations to the lone
local classical and country stations.

Should you purchase an HD Radio? We'd start by checking iBiquity's map
to find out whether any of your favorite stations are already
broadcasting in HD. Then we'd try to find a local shop (or one of the
engineers at that radio station) to give us a demo of the HD sound. If
you like it and you can afford the tuner, it should be a nice upgrade.

But don't worry if you don't want to spend the money: Analog radio
isn't going away anytime soon.

Patrick Norton has written more than 500 product reviews for print and
online media and loves off-road racing. Patrick is best known for
answering the toughest tech questions, giving product-purchasing
advice and smashing dead PCs with a sledgehammer during a four-year
stint when he co-hosted "The Screen Savers" on TechTV (now G4techTV),
an hour-long, live TV show for geeks.

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