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Digital AM/FM challenges satellite radio

Here comes HD radio.  It's digital — but not satellite.  MSNBC's Gary Krakow reports that one of the first receivers to hit the market — Boston Aocustics' Recepter HD makes a great case for the new system.
The world's first HD-capable table radio. It receives digital broadcasts, not satellite. It also sounds a lot bigger than it looks.
The world's first HD-capable table radio. It receives digital broadcasts, not satellite. It also sounds a lot bigger than it looks.Boston Acoustics

Howard Stern might be leaving terrestrial radio at the wrong time. With the release of the first real digital AM/FM radio receiver, satellite radio may have some real competition to worry about.

HD is the digital system that the U.S. government has approved for broadcasts of local AM and FM radio stations. That's broadcast, not satellite — no subscription fee is required. You may not be aware of it, but a number of your local stations have already begun to broadcast a HD signal, in addition to the analog signal you’ve been listening to for years.

For the past few days I have been testing the first digital, terrestrial, table/clock radio to hit the market — Boston Acoustics’ Recepter Radio HD. My immediate first impression is that satellite radio broadcasters better start worrying.

Like its analog version, the Recepter Radio HD is in the mold of high-quality table radios made famous by the legendary Henry Kloss and his line of Tivoli receivers. But this radio has circuitry inside that not only receives regular AM and FM stations, but also the new digital versions of those stations.

The Recepter HD uses the digital broadcasting system created by iBiquity. It’s a system only approved in the United States. Other countries around the world (including Canada) use different digital radio broadcast technologies.

The iBiquity system allows U.S. radio stations to broadcast one or more digital feeds on the exact same frequency they use for their regular (analog) signal. Your new HD radio receiver sorts the different signals and lets you listen to the best one you can receive. The idea here is to set the radio dial to your favorite radio stations, wait 5 seconds or so and then begin listening to the radio station in full-blown digital splendor.

I’m happy to say that’s exactly what the Recepter HD radio does. I wasn’t impressed hearing iBiquity’s early attempts at digital broadcasts at the last few Consumer Electronics Shows, but the sound quality of HD on the Recepter HD has won me over.

For those of you who need to see numbers, here are some: The main Recepter HD box is 4.4 by 7.6 by 6.75 inches, with an extension speaker that is 4.4 by 4.4 by 6.0 inches. The whole thing weighs 1.6 pounds. There's also a tiny little sliver of a remote control that runs on one CR2025 button battery.

Setup is very straightforward. You plug in the wire FM antenna (or your preferred external antenna), plug in the external stereo speaker, attach the AC adapter and you’re all set. Included in the box are an external AM loop antenna and a long extension cord for the second speaker.

Turn on the radio and tune to a station in your area.  If the station is broadcasting in HD, you’ll see a little logo flashing on the radio’s screen. Within seconds, as soon as the radio locks onto the digital signal, the flashing stops and you’re listening in digital. That works for both FM and local AM stations.

But that’s not all. IBiquity’s HD system also allows for multicasting. That means in addition to an analog and digital version of your favorite station, there might also be other digital programming channels available on your newfangled radio.

For instance, here in New York, Infinity Broadcasting switched their top-10 rated oldies station WCBS-FM to their new "Jack" format.  To stop complaints, Infinity started a feed of oldies music on the Jack Web site.  On my Recepter HD radio, WCBS-1 plays Jack and WCBS-2 plays that oldies feed.  Imagine the possibilities.

Back to the radio itself. I found that aligning the supplied FM wire antenna to receive a good HD signal can be tricky. The further away you are from the broadcast tower the more problems you might encounter.

As with other quality radio receivers, a good separate antenna might make all the difference in the world.  That means C. Crane's terrific FM Reflect model for indoors - or a well-designed outdoor antenna.

That said, I was able to receive most AM and FM stations listed on iBiquity’s Web site for the New York broadcast area. Where the signal was weak, the radio stayed in the analog mode for both AM and FM stations.

But what you want to hear are the digital broadcasts. On the Boston Acoustics radio the difference ranges from subtle to wow! The actual sound of the station, whether you’re listening in analog or digital, is very good.

What changes in FM digital is the background noise — it totally disappears in HD. The difference is subtle. Analog FM sounds really good on the Recepter HD. But when it automatically switches to digital you become aware that any traces of noise or hiss have disappeared.

The effect is less subtle during AM reception. The one AM station I could receive in HD nearly knocked me off my chair. When I first tuned in, I heard the familiar AM sound. But within 5 seconds the HD signal kicked in and AM was transformed. I was listening to a talk radio station and the voices just popped from the speakers. I can’t wait to hear what digital AM music sounds like.

As for general sound quality, the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD is quite amazing. I can’t believe the amount of bass coming from this radio. Mids (voices and most music) are terrific.  Highs (cymbals, etc.) sounds fine via the radio’s speakers. Overall, the sound from this table radio is great.

When I plugged the Recepter HD into my stereo system I was amazed at how good it sounded. The major difference was the treble coming from the HD radio’s highs was not as accurate as that coming from any of my beloved analog FM tuners. Then again, the Recepter HD was not designed as a component tuner.

The Recepter HD is bleeding-edge technology. Currently, it’s available from a number of select online and local brick-and-mortar retailers and comes with a suggested retail price of $500.

Before you roll your eyes at the hefty price, remember that satellite receivers were very expensive when they first came to market. And the big difference: you currently have to pay $13 a month to listen to XM or Sirius. Once you have the receiver, HD radio is free.

While it’s not cheap, the Recepter HD might just be worth the price — more than some not-so-great sounding radios from certain other nationally advertised manufacturers.  You could plug an MP3 player, CD or any other device into the AUX outlet on the back and have a terrific music system that fits on a shelf.

One last confession: When I first got the radio I set it up near my expensive music system.  The Recepter HD filled the very large room with glorious sound. At one point I had to remind myself that all this music was coming from a table radio.

More HD radios will be released soon, but for now, the Receptor HD is a winner on both analog and digital broadcasts. It is highly recommended.