What exactly is HD radio and how does it compare to Satellite Radio?
You have probably noticed an increasing amount of advertisements promoting this new thing you’ve never heard of before: HD Radio. They say you can hear “undiscovered content” and digital quality audio. You probably even heard the best part of the entire advertisement, “No subscription fee!”
Let me help you learn a little bit about HD Radio. I will try to keep it simple so as to giving you all the information you need with as little technical lingo as possible.
HD is NOT High Definition
First off, you probably have heard of HDTV and if you haven’t heard of it, I’m guessing you live in a cave. HD Radio is not the same thing as HDTV. The HD in HDTV stands for High Definition. Do not mistake this as the same in HD Radio because HD in this context means Hybrid Digital.
However, it delivers much better radio transmission than standard radio signals. Some HD radio stations transmit 5.1 Surround Sound digital audio signals, allowing you to enjoy true concert-like experience. You can be sure that more stations will opt for this mode of transmission in the future.
Digital and Sub-Channels
HD Radio allows various radio stations to broadcast digital information through the FM or AM frequencies. Additionally, these digital transmissions could be sent on numerous sub-channels, allowing about three stations per frequency. This would triple the amount of stations you could potentially listen to on HD Radio. What would it look like on the display, you ask?
Generally, standard AM/FM radios would display the following: FM 104.7
On HD Radios, it would display as: FM 104.7 HD-1 or 104.7 HD-2 (with each HD-X indicating a sub-channel)
As of 2007, the signal quality is reported to be close to CD-quality audio on the FM channels, which is a huge leap in the radio industry. However, it is highly unlikely for AM frequencies to experience this improvement since the AM operates on a much smaller band. Think of it as a hose. A smaller garden hose could not deliver as much water as the fire department’s hose; and unfortunately, AM is that smaller garden hose.
Advancements in Digital Technology
There were reports and complaints in the early stages of HD Radio (2006) of static and interference when tuning in to these HD channels. However, the technology has advanced significantly within the last two years and has improved signal quality and isolation. Don’t worry about quality-loss so much unless you’re on the AM channels.
You may also have heard that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) begun the process of making obsolete analog radio and television transmissions. What does this mean to you? Well, you can be sure that only improvements will be made. Unfortunately this would mean that most standard AM/FM radios would become obsolete within the next couple of years, possibly forcing you to purchasing a new HD Radio for your vehicle or home.
Comparison to Satellite Radio
Satellite requires a monthly subscription fee ($10-$15/month), activation fee, and cancellation fees if you cancel before your contract is over (if you sign up for the “reduced” contract subscription). To receive Satellite Radio signal (whether Sirius or XM), you would need a special antenna and a satellite-radio that either has a built-in satellite tuner or just plain satellite ready without the built-in tuner (tuner still required and sold separately). Expect to spend anywhere between $150-$300 on equipment alone, depending on what you need (additional tuner or antenna, etc.)*
HD Radio is completely free. You only need to spend money on the receiver itself. Just like Satellite Radio, you could either get a built-in HD Tuner in the in-dash receiver or you could get them separately (in the case where you already own an HD Ready head unit). They’re much more affordable, either way, costing you anywhere between $100-$200 total*.
*Note that these are generalizations of the bare minimum and does not take into consideration additional features you may want with your radio (i.e. Bluetooth, USB support, 3.5mm Aux input, navigation, etc.). They also do not take into consideration labor and parts as each vehicle varies.
Quality and Coverage
The advantage of Satellite Radio is the coverage. You could drive from Los Angeles to New York City listening to the same exact station the whole entire length of the trip. Satellite Radio tends to also specialize in their stations more than HD stations. For instance, there are specific channels for comedy or sports. Satellite Radio is also commercial free since you are after all paying for it.
HD Radio is locally-focused. You tune-in on local metropolitan stations and would not have the same coverage as Satellite as exemplified above. Though HD stations are much more like any typical non-specialized radio stations, it is possible that they may do something similar to Satellite Radio in the future.
Both HD and Satellite Radio do broadcast in digital quality audio. At this point, one does not hold a significant advantage over the other because as with radio-type transmission and reception, it is susceptible to interference and static. Don’t be fooled with the word ‘Satellite’ because of this fact.
If you’re trying to keep up with the current technology but also want to save money, then upgrading to HD Radio isn’t so bad. Most of the well known brands out there like JVC, Eclipse, and Kenwood are producing HD Radio Ready in-dash receivers, forcing you to get additional accessories. Only a handful of companies like Dual and JVC (again) are marketing built-in HD radio tuners.
If you’re pickier with your listening selection, and not too concern about the fees associated with the Satellite Radio, then perhaps you should opt for Sirius or XM Radios. Plenty of popular brands such as Sony, Alpine and Pioneer sell both SAT Ready and built-in Satellite tuner receivers, so you shouldn’t have a problem looking for these.
The choice is yours to make of course. One thing is for certain, however. Digital technology is rapidly advancing and becoming the standard for both audio and video entertainment. Analog (or non-digital) technology will be obsolete. You will have to upgrade to digital eventually. Find out what you like and test them both out. Sometimes the best in the market may not be the best for you. Good luck on your digital revolution!