rethinking hd radio

I’ve been skeptical of HD radio for a long time. It strikes me as a solution in search of a problem; the technology is completely controlled by one company and has been a black box that no one could hack or otherwise improve on; what I heard of it sounded thin and…not good.

But I never heard HD in a car until we got our new Passat. Surprisingly, it’s not bad. Driving around today, I listened to WCNY-FM out of Syracuse, a well-engineered station that primarily plays classical music, and when the signal slipped from HD to regular FM, I didn’t hear much difference. That’s good, because HD is almost universally regarded as worse than FM. Bonus: the signal didn’t slip from HD often; WCNY has an FM translator in my little town, (a small ‘repeater’ station which takes the signal from the mothership and rebroadcasts it over a more distant territory) and it apparently is passing HD as well.

If problems didn’t show up on the main channel, I would certainly expect to hear HD’s weakness on the sub-channels (WCNY operates two – an oldies channel and a jazz channel) under the theory that bandwidth starts to run out, but listening to the jazz channel, it sounded decent. Caught Michael Feinstein’s public radio show, and I was struck by how the thing HD proponents have pushed – more channels, and sometimes those channels represent niche interests – is an actual, real advantage.  In my little town, you can now get classical music and jazz, sounding pretty good, for free.

By way of comparison, everything I heard today sounded far better than the SiriusXM service in my wife’s car, including Symphony Hall, which is the best sounding satellite channel.

I still have objections to HD: I really don’t like how closed the system is (one of radio’s greatest values lies in how well understood the technology is) and I’m still not sure why most people should care. I’m going to bring the little SONY (the semi-legendary XDR-F1) out of retirement to see if I can get the same channels in my family room. My guess is the sound will disappoint me; still, most people listen to radio in their cars, and now that I’ve heard HD that way – and enjoyed having extra channels – I’m willing to admit there may be a point to it after all.

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