HD Radio Effort Undermined by Weak Tuners in Expensive Radios

By Richard Menta 3/24/07

Central New Jersey is an ideal location for receiving broadcast radio and television. The state is perfectly sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia and with a population of nearly nine million residents it is heavily targeted by the stations that serve these two major cities. This is the most densley populated state in the country and the one with the second highest per capita income, making it an advertiser's dream.

The FM dial is so crowded, in fact, that there are only a few relatively open frequencies where I can effectively utilize the FM transmitter that allows me to listen to my iPod in the car. What better market is there to sample the burgeoning HD radio offerings, all provided by the same stations that presently serve this region?


From left to right we have the Accurian HD Radio, Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio,the Polk I-Sonic Entertainment System, and a circa 1941 Zenith model 520.

The tighter AM band has quite a few stations too and in the evening it offers stations that normally don’t reach this area. That’s because of an effect called skywave, where the ionosphere bends back night-time radio waves, allowing them to travel much farther distances. One of the few music stations available here on the AM band is the oldies oriented AM740 in Toronto. On winter nights when my commute home is in the dark my car radio can pick it up, sometimes perfectly clear. Other nights the signal comes in anywhere from rough to fairly good, depending on the atmospheric conditions.

My point is, a good radio tuner in New Jersey should and does pick up a significant number of stations. Despite the plethora of stations, tightly targeted playlists and the increase of talk radio have significantly limited the variety of music on even a crowded dial.

HD radio promises higher quality sound, but what excites me most is that it gives broadcasters on the FM band the ability to multicast or broadcast multiple channels on the single frequency they are allotted. This is important because with only one channel, stations gravitate to programming that brings the highest return. Called HD2 (HD1 refers to the digital rebroadcast of the main analog channel) multiple channels give broadcasters room to experiment. This can include eclectic modern music that is mostly ignored by today’s radio or it can include programming underrepresented in a region, like Country and Bluegrass are in the Northeast.

Looking at the HD Radio Station finder online one already finds a healthy number of interesting HD2 channels. In my area this includes WDHA-HD2 , which plays only live recordings of popular rock tunes.

When I contacted the HD Radio Alliance my primary focus was on these new added channels so I can follow its evolution in an informed manner. I wanted to sample the fare with the knowledge that eventually every FM station will add HD2. I also wanted to see what programming was available now to get an idea how compelling the concept of multiple channels is in practice today.

It started out as a review of content, but it became something else. That’s because I discovered something was wrong and it had nothing to do with the content or the underlying HD technology.

Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD

The HD Radio Alliance is a joint initiative by radio broadcasters to promote the new technology. The purpose is to allow traditional terrestrial radio to better compete with the relatively recent introductions of satellite and Internet radio. The alliance is committing over a hundred million dollars just to market the new radio technology, which shows how critical it is to their future. I contacted the Alliance and they generously lent me a Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio for my review. Retailing for $299.00, this radio was the first HD radio to hit the market.

I set up the Recepter Radio and attached the simple wire AM and FM antennas that were included in the box. I then placed the radio in my second floor study. This is where I do much of my writing and where I could use a good radio for background atmosphere. For best reception I placed the radio on my desk next to the window. My house is on the top of a hill, which also helps reception.


Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD

The way an HD radio works is that it locks into the analog signal first and then seeks out the HD signal riding on the frequency. Within 5 seconds the HD logo will appear to indicate a signal is found, at which point the analog signal will blend into the superior HD signal. Under properly working conditions the HD signal takes over. I fired it up the radio and began to tune in.

Let us start by saying that when I locked into a very strong analog signal on the FM band the analog sound sounded great. But, this led to my first clue something was amiss. Signals that come in strong on my other radios were picked up rather weakly by the Receptor Radio HD. More important, I had a very troubling time locking into any HD1 or HD2 signals. Locking into an HD signal on the AM band likewise proved vexing. That’s when I new something wasn’t right

Every morning I listen to WCBS AM as I take my shower. I listen to it on a model ICF-S70 Sony AM/FM shower radio. It’s an inexpensive radio with an old style manual tuner – no digital display here, just a plastic pointer that rides up the dial. I have had it for several years now and I certainly don’t expect to it compete with a $300 radio like the Recepter.

WCBS AM is 880 on the dial, of which the dial painted on the Sony is more of a suggestion than an exact mark of the proper location. The station is located in New York City - about 45 miles as the crow flies – and reception is strong.

The Boston Acoustic radio has a digital dial for exact tuning. I turned to 880 AM, but oddly the reception sounded considerably weaker. The second speaker with its superior base reproduction made it sound better, but there was a noticeable hiss in the signal. I moved the external wire around that serves as the AM antenna, but there was no change. I removed the external antenna and reconnected the internal antenna. It was worse. I reconnected the external antenna. The signal strength indicator on the display of the radio only showed one out of three bars.


Sony ICF-S70 Shower Radio

“It must be where the radio is located” I thought to myself, so I brought the Sony radio into the room placed it in the same position. At first the Sony picked up distortion, but I discovered that the Boston Acoustics radio wasn’t well shielded and was emmiting a frequency that interfered with the Sony. When I unplugged the Boston Acoustics Recepter and movied it away, the Sony's reception was fine. In fact, after several tests it became apparent that the sensitivity of this inexpensive little radio was superior to the $300 Boston Acoustics.

Reception from the Boston Acoustics radio was never good enough to tap into WCBS AM’s HD signal. As I rode up and down the AM dial that first day I could not lock into any HD signals. The HD Radio Alliance gave me a list of 13 HD stations
in my area, but they were all on the FM band. I did manage to pick up HD on the AM dial on another day, but the results were less than compelling.

WFIL from Philadelphia would occasionally blink the HD signal logo, but it never caught. Furthermore, WFIL’s analog reception was mediocre with a lot of static. I did get HD reception from Sports network WFAN. The analog signal had a bit of static – static I don’t get on my car or shower radios – but when the HD signal kicked in it became crystal clear as the quality improved dramatically. I had the same experience with WOR 710AM. It started with a better analog signal than WFAN, but there was still noticeable static. Then the HD signal took over and the sound cleared markedly. This confirmed the technological claims of HD. When you do manage to get HD you get it perfect.

Unfortunately, WFAN and WOR were the only two AM stations where I captured and held the HD signal. Analog reception improves at night, but because of interference fears due to the skywave effect stations are presently restricted from broadcasting HD radio in the evenings.

FM reception likewise disappointed. I focused on the list of 13 HD stations the Alliance provided me. Unfortunately, throughout the entire time I tested the radio there was only one station where I could always grab and hold both HD1 and HD2. Two channels of religious programming from WAWZ 99.1, broadcast by the Pillar of Fire christian settlement, which is located in nearby Zaraphath. On a couple of occasions I could catch the HD2 signal offered by WCBS FM radio, but I could never hold it as the signal would frustratingly drop in and out. There were a couple of other stations were the radio was able to pick up the call letter information from the HD signal, but the HD logo never appeared and the sound never seemed to shift to aurally signify I had music in HD.

Overall, the sensitivity of the tuner in the Recepter Radio was weak. I contacted the folks at the HD Radio Alliance.

When I explained the issue to the contact person the HD Radio Alliance assigned me he suggested that the reception problem I was experiencing was simply because I was located in a fringe area. I told him that was incorrect and I backed up my reasoning. As I went into the details of my experience my contact realized that I indeed may have uncovered something significant. He sent me radios from two other manufacturers to test; the $199.00 Accurian HD Radio from Radio Shack and the $599.00 I-Sonic Entertainment System from Polk Audio. My comments were also forwarded to the Alliance.

Testing the Radios

Now I had three HD radios to test. To formalize the tests a little more I tested the tuner sensitivity of all three HD radios against three analog radios in my home. The first was the Sony ICF-S70. The second was the car radio in my 2006 Honda Accord. To have a little fun I chose for my third radio a 1941 model 520 Zenith kitchen radio, which I restored electrically two years ago. The Zenith is a tube model, which only tunes into the AM band and works very well just using its internal antenna.

The first test was set up outdoors. I wired an extension cord to a table I placed next to my car in the driveway and powered all the radios. Each of the HD radios had their external antennas leads connected and extended out, while my own radios worked off of their internal leads. I started with the FM band, so the Zenith was not part of this test

WCBS-FM came in clear as a bell on my car radio. Second best was the Sony shower radio, which picked the station up well. The results were less than stellar for the three HD radios. Not only were the results worse than the Sony, none of them could tap into an HD signal at ground level. Interestingly, it was the cheaper Accurian that had the more sensitive tuner among the HD units, followed by the $600 Polk and the Boston Acoustics.

I tried other stations and the results were mostly the same, though they got worse with weaker signals. During my morning commute to the office I tune into Jazz historian Phil Schaap’s show on 89.9 WKCR-FM from Columbia University in
Manhattan. The Honda’s radio pulls it in perfectly every morning. The station
was a challenge for the Sony, which only managed poor reception of the frequency. And the HD radios? None of them could even pick up the signal. I got no sound at all.

The results were consistent with AM band. Here I pitted the HD radios against the 1941 Zenith. To be blunt the sensitivity of this piece of 65 year-old technology blew the HD receivers away. You can’t get a more stark statement than that.

External Antennas

As I pointed out earlier, the HD radios all came with simple external antennas, essentially 9’ pieces of wire.The AM band utilized a straight length of copper while the FM band employed a T-shaped stretch. Attaching these radios to a outdoor aerial such as an old TV antenna will make a dramatic improvement in reception. Unfortunately, in the cable TV era not a lot of homes have outdoor aerials anymore. This means additional cost and effort. Most consumers who purchase one of these radios will never bother do that and, to be perfectly frank, they shouldn't have to.

Conclusion

Early adopters of HD Radio are only getting a fraction of the stations they should. This is a big problem, because word-of-mouth on HD Radio starts with them. Already there are signs of consumer indifference to HD Radio, suggesting the early adopters are not exactly singing the virtues of the technology. When you spend a few hundred dollars for an HD radio just to get one or two HD2 stations and mediocre analog reception you quickly question the value of your purchase. Outdoor aerials will correct this issue, but at added expense and effort.

The interesting part is it is not the fault of the HD technology itself. This flaw resides in the choice of tuners inserted into these radios by the companies building them, tuners which all have weak sensitivity. Sensitivity that is so weak their analog reception is inferior to that found in a cheap shower radio and a vintage tube radio. This is inexcusable considering the price point of these radios. Ultimately, this misstep is undermining the aggressive effort to launch this new technology.

The good news is that the solution is an easy one. Manufacturers just need to put more sensitive tuners into these radios.

For the three HD radios we only recommend them with the purchase and installation of an outdoor aerial or some other antenna set up that is superior to the few lengths of wire enclosed in the box. One HD radio owner I spoke with in my area installed an antenna that resides in his attic. He purchased the Boston Acoustics Recepter HD and he too was disappointed in the initial results. He told me the addition of a better antenna dramatically improved reception and he is now very happy with all the new content he is able to receive on the airwaves. He is quite pleased with the HD2 offerings, particularly WPLJ in New York, which is broadcasting two HD2 channels along side its HD1/analog offering. That he finds the new channels compelling is the best news for HD radio and why the Alliance needs to correct this issue immediately.

-- HD Radio Station Finder

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