Thursday, September 27, 2007

HD Radio: Bat Out Of Hell

Like with many people, it was a new technology I had heard quite a bit about, but thought it was all just a myth. A rather elaborate and expensive hoax.

Sure, the broadcasters bragged about improved sound quality that made AM sound like FM and FM sound like CDs. And there were those subchannels, a station within a station that allowed an alternate channel playing obscure programming like blues, 80s new wave or bluegrass to be heard. They told us that it would basically double the number of station choices in town. And there would be no static. And we could hear it in cars or in our Walkmans, which is where roughly 70% of radio listening occurs.

Well, that's fine and dandy, and being the tech geek that I am, I even talked about this new technology, dubbed HD Radio, a few months back. Sure, satellite radio is still there, but it costs a monthly fee, and gets a bit tiring after awhile. iPods in the car are cool, but do we really want to be fiddling with that little dial thingy while driving? And it looks like widespread WiFi, which could realistically mean the ability to listen to online radio on the go, itself has a long way to go, particularly with so many metropolitan areas backing out of citywide wireless access deals. Other wireless options are basically the domain of the small crowd of dedicated geeks, though it is possible via cell phones and the like. In short, this stuff hasn't made it big in Peoria yet. With all of this working in their favor, HD Radio seemed to have at least some potential. Because after all, we still have a love/hate affair with radio, no matter how irritating it can be.

A while back, I did a little investigating. I checked out a few of the big electronics retailers in town, particularly since I was in the market for a new in-dash receiver for the car (the factory unit is not satisfactory for me). I checked out the JVC KD-HDR1, priced between $170-199. Not a bad unit, though it lacked the iPod adapter in the front, which is a must-have for me. Sad to say, it was one of the very few mobile HD Radio units available in the marketplace. I decided to check it out. I went to Wal-Mart to see theirs. To my utter astonishment, they had it hooked up, but there was one problem - the antenna wasn't plugged in (this is necessary for digital signals, otherwise all you get is silence). And in the big cinder block and metal warehouse that housed this Wal-Mart, good luck with pulling in anything. And I was sure the $6/hr. clerks working there would be no help. If I mentioned "HD" they would likely direct me to TVs. So I went to Best Buy., thinking they would have their act together. After all, I had bought other car receivers there, and had good results. Their unit wasn't even plugged in. At all.

Regardless, I soldiered on. Next on the agenda was Radio Shack, since I had to go there for something anyways. Now, they don't do car audio, but at least I'd be able to check out one of those ubiquitous overpriced tabletop radios, the type that the HD Radio folks were trying to push on the masses that had no use for such an appliance. Not surprisingly, Radio Shack's tabletop demo wasn't even working. That certainly didn't stop the middle-aged sales clerk (and those guys at Radio Shack are persistent) from trying to sell me the damned thing in the most half-assed way possible:

Clerk: Are you familiar with HD Radio?
Me: Hey, is this thing even working?
Clerk: Uhh, no. It's broken. But with HD Radio, uhh... you can pull in alternate channels like classical music. Are you thinking about buying an HD Radio?
Me: I've done some research on it. I was kinda curious to see it first hand. But it seems like nobody has a display unit that works. Besides, I'm not an early adapter of new technology. I let others pay to do the beta testing.
Clerk: It's only $200. Uhh... wanna buy it?

Now, I basically stopped this guy, particularly since I probably knew more about HD Radio than he did. But at the same time, I was scratching my head at all of this. Is iBiquity shitting me? Is this really the way to roll out a product? I remembered back in 1997 when DVD came out, and it exploded on the marketplace. At Best Buy, they had a huge setup playing "GoldenEye" and it looked and sounded freaking amazing, much better than the crappy VHS tape version I had at home! Needless to say, DVD players and discs flew out of stores and became one of the biggest tech rollouts in history, especially years later when the price dropped down to virtually nothing.

As for product variety for receiving HD Radio, there's hardly any. It was mostly tabletop radios, a high-tech version of the kind of unit your grandparents had in their living room. Let's face it, in order to take off as an audio medium, HD Radio has to be portable. Nobody wants tabletop radios these days. People want their radio on the go. And that mostly means car audio. Unfortunately, the HD Radio folks must be living in the past, because many of the car listening options available were add-on units, similar to those old FM converters (that plug in to the factory AM unit) your dad probably had in his '76 Plymouth Volare. And some of us remember what a pain in the ass those were. What about stuff for the current generation, like boomboxes and pocket units? Or even fully-contained in-dash units like the JVC model? Initially, portable units weren't feasible, allegedly the power draw of the first generation of HD Radio chips was too staggering. Supposedly, this is close to being remedied and they promise an actual HD boombox in the coming year. As for why there aren't more in-dash units, who knows?

Now, I certainly didn't expect HD Radio to come out of the gate like DVD did. Hey, it's radio. That's old school compared to HDTV, TiVo, XBox, iPods, HD-DVD, BluRay, Nintendo Wii, Dolby Digital Surround home theater systems and all the rest. Radio just isn't as sexy to most people. But I at least expected there to be a little bit of hype. Or even some salespeople who knew what it was, aside from the iBiquity training manuals. Or even working demo units. This HD Radio thing was starting to resemble other dismal product rollouts of the past, like the Edsel, Betamax, DIVX, and the Arch Deluxe. Too bad, since with all its flaws, HD Radio wasn't an altogether bad idea, though it needed some serious refining to make it ready for prime time.

But just when everyone thought HD Radio was dead in the water, it is now showing signs of life as it rises kicking and screaming from the ashes. The HD Radio Alliance has been on a roll as of late. More stations are adding sidechannels with original programming. And retailers actually have working displays now. I was in Best Buy last week picking up "Death Proof" and saw an endcap display with not one, but two working units. And they actually pulled in stations! Sound wasn't too bad either, and I acutally dialed in a few of those ballyhooed subchannels quite easily. I was shocked I tell ya, shocked!

In addition, home shopping channel QVC is currently shilling HD Radio. Smart move for the Alliance. Speaking as one who actually worked for a home shopping channel many years past, people who watch channels like QVC will buy any kind of shit they see on TV, whether it be gaudy jewelry, porcelain dolls and even mattress sets. Once they hawk it, the stuff flies out of warehouses! Utterly jaw-dropping. They do HUGE business! Convicted infomercial huckster Kevin Trudeau still sells tons of bogus self-help books, snake oil remedies and other garbage thanks to TV, and that's with most of the population knowing he's a complete fraud! Ron Popeil sold spray-on hair in a can! People will buy anything they see on TV. And this bodes well for the HD Radio people.

And just yesterday, the Alliance has reeled in its biggest whale yet. Enter the Ford Motor Company, which this week announced that they will offer HD Radio as a dealer-installed option in many of their 2008 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models. They'll also do a huge promotion of it, via POP displays and a big media blitz. Now, this is pretty big news for the Alliance. Sure, BMW added it to their audio options a few years ago. But that's BMW. This is meat-and-potatoes Ford we're talking about. Now, the hype can be heard in an F-150 or the ubiquitous Mustang. The dealers are also able to install it in 2005-07 models as well. Quite a coup for the HD gang.

I predicted last time that some day, the people behind HD Radio would get their act together and make it work. With so much money tied up in it by iBiquity and the radio station owners who have partnered in promoting it, they have little choice. Sure, HD Radio has a long way to go. The technology is still a bit crude, with signal strength issues, erratic sound quality at times and that whole controversy about HD on the AM band and the associated interference issues. But technology has to start somewhere. Hey, it took Edison hundreds of tries before he made a working light bulb. With the world of technology moving so fast, in a day and age when I can cram my whole album collection in a little device half the size of a Hershey bar, it will be interesting if this whole HD Radio thing succeeds, and what it will be like years from now, once they iron out the kinks.

And make radios that people would actually want.


ltr said...

Just a little update, that I'll add here as a postscript. Several new HD Radio aftermarket car units are set to hit the market very soon. One group of HD units is from Sony, and range from $100-140. The drawback is that these units are merely HD Radio-compatible, meaning that in order to receive HD Radio signals, a separate clunky $100 tuner module is required. To their advantage, they are both satellite radio compatible and also have a 3.5mm jack for mp3 players. Even though it is Sony, if I were seeking out HD, I'd take a pass, since the requirement of yet another add-on unit is a dealbreaker. If HD isn't a must-have, Sony still makes nice stuff.

Budget brand Dual is going all-out with two new units that are shipping this week. The XHD6425 and XHD6420 are both full HD Radio units, and as an added bonus, they both feature 3.5mm inputs. The upgrade model features a USB input, which allows for plugging in thumb drives and the like. Now that's a cool feature! The USB jack can also be used for charging mp3 players. The price on both will be around $150 or less. Granted, Dual isn't top of the line, but for all those features and 200 watts of power, it can't be all bad.

hashfanatic said...

I have the Radio Shack Accurian set and it's okay, but I don't go out of my way to turn it on over anything else, but it's okay...

I always go into these stores knowing in advance what I need to know...knowledgeable sales staff do exist in chain retailers but they are rare...

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