HD Radio Power Issue Really a Receiver Issue

By Richard Menta 5/28/08

Recently, I was sent this article where the proponents of HD Radio are hoping to successfully petition the government to increase the amount of power by which they broadcast HD-Radio signals. That signal presently uses far less power than analog signals, because of concerns the digital signals will interfere with each other.

On the surface the desire of the HD Radio community appears to be a valid one. Indeed, juicing up the signal some will probably not cause any disruption.

But there is a bigger problem that needs to be corrected first. As we discovered in our review of three HD-radio units last year, the tuners that manufacturers put in these HD receivers are so poor they couldn't lock into a signal if the tower was located in your backyard.

We know, because to tap into the HD signal the radios must first grab the analog signal and then extract the HD signal embedded within it. All of tested units; the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio, the I-Sonic Entertainment System from Polk Audio, and the Radio Shack Accurian HD Radio were compared against a cheap Sony shower radio, the radio in a 2006 Honda, and a nearly 70 year-old Zenith kitchen radio I restored a few years ago. When it came to pulling in analog signals, the HD-radio units all proved woefully inferior to their analog brethren. Without good analog reception there is no HD signal reception.

Needless to say, it explained why consumer indifference is so high with regards to the technology. Few people ever tap into more than a couple of HD signals (we could only hold one on a consistant basis despite being in a radio-rich area) and the analog signals we received supplied more hiss than a leaky tire.

Here is the bad news, it does not look like these tuners are going to get better anytime soon.

In the article NPR Labs rep John Kean "predicted little near-term improvement in HD-R receiver performance and said performance actually may decrease thanks to pressure on designs due to price competition".

I don't buy Kean's assertion. If Sony can place a superior analog tuner in a $20 radio, certainly Polk Audio can do the same. The Polk HD unit radio we reviewed retailed for $599. For that much money they can put extremely sensitive tube technology in the damn thing. They don't need to spend that much. Improved signal amplification costs pennies, nothing more. It's technology so old the patents have long since run out.

An engineer was quoted in the article saying that "his company believes the HD Radio rollout “is dead” without the [power] increase". Increasing HD signal power will certainly improve reception - for digital signals. The standard analog stations will still sound terrible (though you can invest added money and effort to install a quality outdoor radio antenna; a device banished long ago from the roofs of most housholds and one the analog radios we tested didn't require).

So then, what's the point? Until receiver quality improves dramatically any investment in HD-Radio remains a dubious value. But consumers have already figured that out and that is the real bad news for the HD-radio initative.

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