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HD Radio (Hybrid Digital) vs Satellite Radio – Coverage, Price, and Technology

What exactly is HD radio and how does it compare to satellite radio?

You’ve probably noticed an increasing amount of ads promoting that new thing you’ve never heard of before: HD radio. They say you can hear “undiscovered content” and digital quality sound. You’ve probably even heard the best part of the whole ad, “No subscription fees!”

Let me help you learn a little more about HD radio. I’ll try to keep it simple in order to give you all the information you need with as little technical jargon as possible.

HD is NOT high definition

First of all, you’ve probably 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 as HDTV. The HD in HDTV stands for High Definition. Do not confuse this with the same in HD Radio as HD in this context stands for Hybrid Digital.

However, it offers much better radio transmission than standard radio signals. Some HD radio stations transmit digital 5.1 Surround Sound audio signals, allowing you to enjoy a true concert experience. You can be sure that more stations will opt for this mode of transmission in the future.

Digital and subchannels

HD radio allows various radio stations to broadcast digital information via FM or AM frequencies. Additionally, these digital transmissions could be sent on many subchannels, allowing about three stations per frequency. That would triple the number of stations you could potentially listen to on HD Radio. What would that look like on screen, you ask?

Typically, standard AM/FM radios display the following: FM 104.7

On HD radios it would display as: FM 104.7 HD-1 or 104.7 HD-2 (each HD-X indicating a sub-channel)

In 2007, the signal quality would be close to CD quality audio on FM channels, which is a huge leap forward in the radio industry. However, AM frequencies are very unlikely to experience this improvement since AM operates on a much smaller band. Think of it as a pipe. A smaller garden hose could not deliver as much water as the fire department hose; and unfortunately, AM is that little garden hose.

Advances in digital technology

There were reports and complaints in the early stages of HD radio (2006) of static and interference when tuning to these HD channels. However, technology has advanced significantly over the past couple of years and has improved signal quality and isolation. Don’t worry so much about losing quality unless you’re on AM channels.

You may have also heard that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has begun the process of making analog radio and television transmissions obsolete. 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 two years, possibly forcing you to purchase a new HD radio for your vehicle or home.

Comparison with satellite radio

Price

Satellite requires monthly subscription fees ($10-$15/month), activation fees and cancellation fees if you cancel before the end of your contract (if you subscribe to the “reduced contract” subscription “). To receive the satellite radio signal (be it Sirius or XM) you would need a special antenna and a satellite radio that has a built-in satellite tuner or just a ready satellite without the built-in tuner (tuner always required and sold separately). Expect to spend between $150 and $300 on the equipment alone, depending on what you need (tuner or extra antenna, etc.)*

HD Radio is completely free. You just have to spend money on the receiver itself. Much like satellite radio, you can either get an HD tuner built into the in-dash receiver or get them separately (in case you already have an HD Ready head unit). They’re much more affordable, anyway, costing you between $100 and $200 in total*.

*Note that these are generalizations of the bare minimum and do not take into account any additional features you might want with your radio (i.e. Bluetooth, USB support, 3.5mm Aux-in , navigation, etc.). They also don’t account for labor and parts, as each vehicle varies.

Quality and coverage

The advantage of satellite radio is coverage. You can drive from Los Angeles to New York listening to the exact same station for the duration of the trip. Satellite radio also tends to specialize more in its stations than in HD stations. For example, there are specific channels for comedy or sports. Satellite radio is also ad-free since you are paying after all.

HD Radio is focused on the local. You tune to local metro stations and wouldn’t have the same coverage as satellite, as pictured above. Although HD stations are much more like typical non-specialty radio stations, they may do something similar to satellite radio in the future.

HD Radio and Satellite Radio both broadcast in digital audio quality. At this point, one does not hold a significant advantage over the other because, as with radio-like transmission and reception, it is susceptible to interference and static electricity. Don’t be fooled by the word “Satellite” because of this fact.

If you’re trying to keep up with today’s technology but also want to save some money, upgrading to HD radio isn’t so bad. Most of the well-known brands like JVC, Eclipse, and Kenwood produce in-dash HD Radio Ready receivers, requiring you to purchase additional accessories. Only a handful of companies like Dual and JVC (again) market integrated HD radio tuners.

If you’re more picky with your listening selection and don’t care too much about the fees associated with satellite radio, you might want to opt for Sirius or XM radios. Many popular brands such as Sony, Alpine and Pioneer sell both SAT Ready receivers and built-in satellite tuner receivers, so you should have no problem looking for them.

The choice is of course yours. One thing is certain though. Digital technology is advancing rapidly and becoming the standard for audio and video entertainment. Analog (or non-digital) technology will be obsolete. Eventually you will need to go digital. Find out what you like and test them both. Sometimes the best on the market may not be the best for you. Good luck in your digital revolution!

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