HD Radio delivers extra stations, song details
With all our options for listening to music today - satellite radio, Internet broadcasts and those ubiquitous iPods - you may have missed the makeover to plain old radio.
Here's why: You need new gadgetry to listen to what's called HD Radio.
Did you know that in the Chicago area there are 23 additional FM radio stations you could tune in to if you had HD Radio? These stations cover a gamut of genres: jazz, indie rock, disco, deep cuts from classic albums, classic oldies and old-school hip-hop.
The best part? After many hours of listening, I don't seem to get annoyed by the commercials. Granted, I space out when I'm working, so a product pitch may have been missed. But I never reach for the dial to change a station due to a commercial break.
That sounds a lot like why someone would spend $13 a month for satellite radio, yet HD Radio programming is free once you buy a new radio. The radios are starting to appear in new cars, usually as an option, and can be installed in older cars or bought for home use.
HD Radio combines analog and digital signals to provide a higher-quality broadcast and "multicast" programming, which means a station such as WXRT-93.1 or WNUA-95.5 can broadcast two channels over the same frequency, each with distinctive programming. Their multicast sister stations are WXRT-93.1-2 (or HD2), which plays new rock, and WNUA-95.5-2, which plays traditional jazz and not the "smooth jazz" of the standard station. (A list of HD Radio broadcasts can be found at Ibiquity.com.)
In a confusing marketing ploy, HD does not stand for high definition or, as some believe, hybrid digital. The patent holder of the technology, iBiquity Digital, calls it "branding language," and the initials don't stand for anything.
That gimmick aside, I've been thoroughly enjoying HD Radio at home through two devices: a typical clock radio and a more robust player that includes an iPod dock.
The iPod dock in the Polk Audio I-Sonic Entertainment System 2 offers a new feature unique to HD Radio, called iTunes tagging. Not all HD Radios offer this feature.
Here's how it works: If you hear a memorable song while listening to a station broadcasting an HD signal, hit the "tag" button on the $500 I-Sonic (or its remote control) and the song information is saved. This includes artist name and song title, which is information provided by broadcasters when a tune airs over HD Radio.
When your iPod is in the dock, that information is sent to the iPod so the next time you sync it with your computer, you will see a playlist of "tagged" songs. You can't play those songs from your iPod, but you are provided a link to buy them from Apple Inc.'s iTunes music store.
While I listened to WXRT's HD2 channel, I tagged several songs from artists I'm familiar with, such as Mark Knopfler and the Swell Season, as well as artists I was unfamiliar with, including Okkervil River and Robbers on High Street. This feature is great for people who like to discover new music. It also proves radio still has relevance as a medium for selling music because I would not have otherwise considered buying songs from those musicians.
The one drawback to iTunes tagging: It only works with the new iPod Nano (the "fatty") and the iPod Classic. Tagging won't work on the Touch or the iPhone. Most iPods, however, can be played in the I-Sonic's iPod dock.
The I-Sonic is a nice option for a table-top radio and would work well in a home office, kitchen or family room. It has four built-in speakers, so the music really fills a room. The sound is on par with the George from Chestnut Hill Sound, another $500 iPod dock and radio (but not HD Radio). The sound is not as fine as the $600 Zeppelin from Bowers & Wilkins, perhaps the finest and most stylish table-top iPod dock I've heard.
The I-Sonic includes an S-video port too, so you can play a video from the iPod dock and have it displayed on TV.
If you're in the market for a new clock radio, the $90 iLuv i168 is a worthy choice for two reasons: It plays HD Radio stations and it includes a headphone jack so you can listen to music, or a West Coast baseball game, without disturbing the spouse.
It comes with a bright screen to display the time or the radio station and all the extra information an HD Radio feed can display, including the weather and news. One useful example: In the winter, during a snow storm, stations can send school closing information scrolling across the radio screen.
The iLuv sounds a bit better than your average clock radio, so don't buy it for superior performance. But if you need a new clock radio, this one comes with 23 extra stations. That's worth a listen.
(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune.)