If static-plagued reception made you give up on radio years ago, this may be the year you tune back in. That's because dozens of AM and FM stations are starting to transmit digital broadcasts that promise crisper, clearer sound. The first HD (high definition) radio tuner goes on sale this month. It will be unveiled at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, along with other models due this spring.
Digital broadcasts can produce better-quality audio because the tightly encoded ones and zeros that make up the signals are less susceptible to interference than are analog radio waves, which can bounce off buildings and get distorted by power lines.
HD radio isn't the first digital format. Satellite radio from Sirius and XM is transmitted digitally as well. The difference is that regular AM and FM stations broadcast HD radio, whereas satellite companies broadcast a separate stable of nationwide stations. You will need to buy a new radio or tuner to get HD radio, but you won't need to pay a monthly subscription fee or buy a new antenna, as you do with satellite radio. HD radio also lets you read song titles on your receiver's display. The first models are designed for automobiles.
To find out how the first generation of HD radio sounds, I took a ride in a Volkswagen Passat equipped with a Kenwood radio and a KTC-HR100, a $500 tuner about the size of a paperback book. The KTC-HR100, due out in January, will be the first HD-radio tuner. In March JVC and Panasonic plan to sell radios with the HD tuner built in.
There was noticeably less static on WNYC-FM, one of three New York City stations currently broadcasting HD. But I was surprised that the music didn't sound richer in digital than in analog. When I switched to WOR-AM, the difference was more distinct. In analog the host's voice sounded warm, almost soothing, while in digital, it sounded harsher and crackly. There was actually less static in analog than in digital mode.
Tom Ray, WOR's director of engineering, explained that the new digital technology is a double-edged sword. Since it transmits audio more accurately, it accentuates both intended sounds, such as a host's voice, and unwanted background noise, like papers being shuffled.
I chalk up HD radio's quirks to the kinks of a new technology. Quality will undoubtedly improve as the industry learns to make digital broadcasts sound their best. With fewer than 100 stations broadcasting HD radio, it doesn't make much sense to buy now. But once more stations get on board and prices for receivers fall, HD radio should be music to your ears.