HD Radio: Not quite ready for prime time

 

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Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD- a great product, but HD Radio technology has a ways to go…

Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 26, 2007

Q: What do you recommend for a digital radio? The only one I could find was a Coby am/fm/digital table model for $69. (By digital I mean HD Radio.)

-Don Lehman, Northfield, MN

A) I could not find any Coby products offering HD Radio. (By digital, I believe they are referring to a digital tuner.) If a $69 HD Radio does indeed exist, at $69 the speakers and electronics behind it are likely to be of poor quality, which will compromise sound quality so much that any potential performance benefits from the HD Radio will be obscured or wiped out altogether.

One unit with HD Radio I can comfortably recommend is the $299 Cambridge SoundWorks 820HD. I have not heard it as of yet so I cannot comment on its sound quality or HD Radio performance, but my experience with other Cambridge SoundWorks products, particularly their table radios, has been very positive. The Polk i-Sonic has a laundry list of features such as HD Radio, XM Satellite Radio, a DVD player, and very fine sound quality. At $599 it commands a premium price, but is worth it.

That said, I don’t find HD Radio to be that compelling. The system is likely to get better, but for now I don’t think it is worth seeking out on its own. I have experienced it in automobiles and in table radios such as the Polk i-Sonic and have not found the sound quality to be dramatically better than regular FM. I have also experienced playability issues such as varying volume, which can be very distracting.

The difference from TV to HDTV is dramatic and plain to see. On a scale of 1-10, regular TV would rate a 4 and HDTV would rate a 10. With HD Radio vs. good quality FM, FM would rate a 6 and HD Radio would rate a 7.5… IF it is tuned in and working well. It would rate as a 4 if a drifting signal is causing the volume to go in and out.

If HD Radio is included as a feature on a product that is compelling without it, such as the i-Sonic) then sure, take it. If you are looking to upgrade your electronics or add something new there are many choices that are much better for the $300 and up that HD Radio is likely to cost you. Among these I would include an HD DVD player, a universal DVD player with SACD and DVD-Audio, a better quality table radio, a satellite radio tuner, a better monitor for your computer, better speakers, a universal remote with USB capability, or a turntable.

If it is better broadcast radio you are after, get a radio such as the one of the Cambridge Soundworks and add an external antenna. A good antenna will make a dramatic difference in sound quality and your radio’s tuning ability- you will be able to receive more stations and the ones you get now will come in more strongly and lock in easier. My favorite FM antenna is an ordinary, unpowered $10 set of TV rabbit ears, which are also designed for FM. If you are a radio fan and you can use an external antenna, it is the best $10 you will ever spend.

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