Home Electronics: Radio Renaissance
Those who lament the dearth of great music and varied philosophical viewpoints on the radio can take heart. Digital radio technology has arrived, bringing diversity to our listening in much the same way that digital cable and satellite TV brought variety to our viewing. And digital radio is now available for the home, with some products created specifically for large homes and estates.
The most widespread digital radio technology is satellite radio, a subscriber service that is available from two companies, XM and Sirius, both of which launched a couple of years ago. Another digital radio technology, HD Radio, is just now becoming available.
Although satellite radio is most commonly heard on car audio systems, the technology migrated into high-end audio components in spring of this year. Some of these products include multiple tuners that enable them to play as many as four satellite radio programs at once.The most capable multiple-tuner satellite receivers are Audio Design Associates’ $2,850 Tune Suite Quadritune and Antex Electronics’ $1,999 SRX-3 TriplePlay. The Quadritune has four tuner modules, each of which can be either AM/FM or satellite. The TriplePlay includes three Sirius tuners or three XM tuners. ADA also builds XM capability into its flagship audio/video receiver, the $10,000 HTR-2400, which includes electronics for a full surround-sound system plus audio for as many as eight rooms.
Despite the digital nature of Sirius and XM, neither raises the bar for sound quality. Both make the most of their satellite broadcasting space by using audio compression, which compacts (and in some cases discards) digital audio data, so programmers can fit more channels into their available satellite transmission bandwidth. XM and Sirius both sound good, but not as pristine as a CD; their quality is more comparable to that of FM radio.
Sound quality is, however, the goal of HD Radio, which was invented by iBiquity Digital. Rather than introducing new services, HD Radio improves existing ones. It creates a digital audio signal that “rides along” with current analog radio signals. The digital audio signal carries the same content as the analog signal. You can still tune HD Radio–equipped analog radio stations just as you did before; if you have an HD Radio receiver, you can enjoy improved digital sound quality and static-free reception.
HD Radio holds still more promise. Already, hundreds of radio stations have upgraded, and industry giant Clear Channel plans to upgrade 1,000 of its stations to HD Radio. Many of the audio/video receivers introduced this fall include HD Radio capability, and the technology is certain to cross over into high-end and multiroom products in the coming year.
Although HD Radio is only as good as its content, perhaps the competition from satellite radio will spur traditional radio broadcasters to improve their offerings. We can only hope.