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HD Radio Picks Up Car Makers; Will Listeners Follow?

LAS VEGAS -- For the past several years, my CES itinerary has included a visit to the booth of Columbia-based iBiquity Digital Corp., the developer of the HD Radio system behind digital AM and FM broadcasts. And each year, I've received about the same message when I ask when this promising but oft-ignored technology will start to gain some mass-market relevance: We've got a lot of new receivers coming on the market, plenty of stations are on the air, and customers are starting to get into this.

(See, for instance, my post from last year's CES.)

This year's visit didn't depart that much from the pattern. IBiquity can point to some major advances in support from car manufacturers; Volvo includes HD Radio as standard equipment in its 2009 models, while Ford, Mercedes, Toyota's Scion division, Hyundai and Kia have recently moved to offer it as an option. The company's exhibit also includes a significantly wider variety of tabletop radios, alarm clocks and iPod docks, starting at $79.99; the latter category of devices support HD Radio's "iTunes tagging" feature, in which you can bookmark a favorite song for purchase on the iTunes Store later on.

There's also a display showing how future GPS receivers can use HD Radio to pull down traffic updates off the air; one such device by Dual Electronicsshould ship this spring for perhaps $200 or so. And portable HD Radio receivers should be on sale sometime this year, once iBiquity lines up manufacturers for the reference design it's showing here. "You'll see these this year, for sure," said iBiquity chief executive Bob Struble.

But the selection of home-theater audio/video receivers with HD Radio capability seems no broader or cheaper than a year ago; the cheapest model still seems to be a $1,000 Yamaha model.

Likewise, the selection of stations offering HD Radio broadcasts hasn't seen a big increase in a while, with support particularly poor among AM stations. Struble estimated that among HD Radio stations, only about 20 percent are AM. He said that about 1,400 FM stations broadcast in HD, out of about 5,500 FM stations total (if I'm reading my notes right). Not all of these HD FM stations offer digital-only "HD2" channels, and not all make effective use of that feature -- which, when it's done right, constitutes the single best argument for getting an HD Radio receiver.

Struble said it costs a station about $100,000 to convert to HD broadcasts, after which the added operating costs should be negligible. But if the market for radio advertising is doing as bad as, say, the market for newspaper advertising, few stations are likely to pile up that much cash anytime soon.

Finally, there's the issue of HD Radio's presence in stores -- in my experience, it has little to none. Struble said the company wants to help retailers spotlight products with this feature: "We're working on that and we need to get better at that." But I have heard this line before.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 9, 2009; 7:00 PM ET
Categories:  CES 2009 , Gadgets , Music  
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Comments

There are plenty of HD radios in stores. The teen punks who work at Wal Mart, Best Buy, and Radio Shack don't hook them up so you can test them.

Posted by: bs2004 | January 9, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

HD radio is a product looking for a market, not a item that has created interest. HD radios aren't inexpensive; they're limited in choice. The stations aren't generally offering anything that's not otherwise available. A frequent advertisement (which used to be both frequent and obnoxious but which now seems to have disappeared) used to say that they give you what you can't otherwise get, music and shows you really want, that the public is demanding but which isn't being provided. Well, if the public is "demanding" it, non-HD radio would be broadcasting it to their audience. However, most stories about HD radio programming seems to indicate that what's being broadcast is what's already available, more top 40, top 10, etc.; that is, HD seems to be repackaging what's already available. Why then should I buy another radio? I have AM, I have FM, I still have cassettes and I have numerous CDs; I have a computer from which I can download music to my MP3 player and listen to at my convenience.

While I realize that HD radio may, that is "may" offer some alternatives, I can also subscribe to satellite radio which provides me alternative choices. I'm sorry, but I live in DC where I have a lot of AM, FM, cassette, and CD options for my car; I have even more options, such as an FM modulator from which I can play my MP3, I can get satellite if I really run out of choices to listen to on my 45 minute commute each way; I don't really need another option with limited benefit.

Posted by: Dungarees | January 9, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

How interesting, I wonder if my comments will get published? Is iBiquity reviewing the comments, now?

Posted by: sidwellfriends | January 9, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

Since my comments aren't getting published, read about the HD Radio automaker farce, here:

http://hdradiofarce.blogspot.com

Posted by: sidwellfriends | January 9, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

In DC WAMU offers an excellent HD2 channel which is also available as bluegrasscountry.org. Some of the shows are what used to be available on the regular WAMU channel before they went for the maximum buck mass-market stuff they now feature. If you think HD radios are in short supply, try to find a Wi-Fi radio!! Regular radio is dead, but HD at least provides hope for the future.

Posted by: george11 | January 9, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

There have been suggestions lately that HD Radio is quietly being phased out. Can you please do investigation to discover what's really going on?

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | January 9, 2009 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Just a few words for those who may be contemplating buying an HD receiver: Don't, the range is terrible, they don't really sound much different than analog and the reduced range and frequent drop outs more than ruin any of the supposed dubious benefits that ibiquity claims for these receivers. I own one, a good one, in fact it is supposed to be one of the best. I live 40 miles from Boston and 5 miles from Worcester, MA and am lucky if I can get from 2- 5 FM HD's, and only one reliably, a 100 KW NPR station (complete with frequent drop outs and artifacts), the rest sometimes. I can get one AM HD station which is a 50 KW AMer and it only comes in during the day time and even then it is barely listenable because of the drop outs and artificial highs IBOC creates and this is with a hundred dollar AM antenna. My HD receiver is gathering dust on top of my daily receiver which it is plugged into; a Marantz which is thirty years old and performs much better. You can expect to find HD receivers next to VHS players in your local Salvation army in 5 years for five dollars,..... well maybe you could get them down to three.

Posted by: youngbob53 | January 9, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

I bought a Sangean HD radio from Smarthome for a couple hundred, it has the RCA connections so I can use my Sony 120W reciever. Then I went on the internet to find out local HD channels in my area. I had to raise the cheap antenna high to get good reception though, and some of you are right, competition is tough, my DirecTV has good free channels too.

Posted by: gmastry | January 9, 2009 10:40 PM | Report abuse

HD is a deceptive name. It seems to imply "High Definition" when it is anything but. It is High Compression, which degrades sounds quality. It should have been named "HC."

Posted by: comments99 | January 9, 2009 11:00 PM | Report abuse

I am looking to buy a Jensen JIM-525. Do you think HD Radio is really worth the higher price? I read conflicting things. This site http://www.hdradioreview.com seems to say yes, but looking for more advice. Thanks

Posted by: joncmac | January 10, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

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