With the latest HD Radio, there's less shock to the wallet


November 11, 2008|By KEVIN HUNT | KEVIN HUNT,Hartford Courant

Welcome to the real world, HD Radio.

Extra programming and the no-hiss digital transmission haven't persuaded enough people to pay premium prices, sometimes $400 or more, for a new HD Radio receiver. But now HD Radio prices are starting to look like good old analog-radio prices.

Coby, whose low-cost MP3 players and portable DVD players dangle from drugstore displays, is the unlikely source of the first portable HD radio receiver, the shockingly good HDR-700 ($149), and the brushed-aluminum HDR-650 ($99), a little cold capsule of a receiver that connects to existing audio systems.

The HDR-700, which has accompanied me in recent days on a tree-pruning mission around the yard and my start-of-the-day stretching session on the hardwood hallway floor, has become my little AM-FM buddy. If HD Radio, a technology licensed to 1,750 stations by iBiquity Digital Corp. of Columbia, hopes to last longer than a two-year certificate of deposit, it needs this type of practical, all-purpose receiver.

It's about time HD Radio drops the snootiness, too. The high prices were a turnoff from the start. And consumers were confused by the HD, no doubt intentionally, in HD Radio. It does not mean high-definition. It's merely a branding that 99.9 percent of consumers associate with high-definition.

HD Radio, in fact, piggybacks AM/FM digital signals on existing analog airwaves. The digital delivery is similar to HDTV in that a single station can multicast additional channels. A local rock station in my area, for instance, played Styx's "Miss America" on its primary channel and Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" on a secondary "Deep Tracks & Live Rock" channel.

Without hiss, the digital delivery sounds cleaner, though certainly not CD quality. And, like HDTV reception with an antenna, it's all or nothing - either a station comes in cleanly or it dissolves, replaced by the analog signal.

The HDR-700 is a knockoff of the Revo Pico, a popular Wi-Fi/DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) radio in England. Coby, smartly, said, "Gimme one of these and make it an HD Radio."

Thus, a "co-branding initiative" was born. The radio, which carries a "Design by Revo" label, is about 6 1/2 inches tall, 4 inches wide and deep, with a splash-resistant coating and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that lasts about five hours.

The HDR-700 has a single 2-inch speaker situated below a set of controls flanking a manual tuning dial that goes round and round, endlessly, till you reach the desired station. An auto-search feature, activated by pressing the tuning dial, seeks HD Radio channels only, shown on the LCD display in this style: 102.9-1 and 102.9-2.

It still isn't worth buying an HD Radio strictly for supplemental programming, though certain niche channels - like Beethoven Radio, a morsel for neglected classical-music fans, and Pride Radio, a gay-oriented format - occasionally show up. The secondary channels were most attractive for their advertising ban, an HD Radio Alliance edict recently lifted after three years.

Of course, the HDR-700 gets all of the nonHD stations, AM and FM, too. The tuner couldn't quite match Tivoli Audio's $220 PAL portable AM-FM (no HD) radio at pulling in the weakest signals, but it sounded just as good. An "M-Port" on the Coby's front panel is an auxiliary input for an iPod or other device.

The HDR-700's only misstep: failing to include a built-in AM antenna. To get AM reception, you must insert a bulky AM loop antenna into the back panel.

The only way to buy an HD Radio receiver is to ask yourself if you'd still buy it even if it were only a basic AM-FM analog radio.

The answer, for the HDR-700, is an unhesitating yes.

The New Satellite Radio

Sirius XM, the merged satellite radio providers, recently announced new radios - including the $130 Starmate 5 - that allow subscribers to order a la carte programming at $6.99 month.

For pre-merger subscribers to either satellite service, your radios will still work, even though you cannot order the new a la carte services. A "Best of Both" package, however, gives XM subscribers Howard Stern and NFL broadcasts; Sirius subscribers get the Oprah channel and NBA- NHL broadcasts for $4 more a month.

Your basic monthly subscription fees will not increase.

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