Sunday, September 5, 2010

Recognizing the Value in HD Radio

To date, the consumer market's embrace of HD Radio has been underwhelming.  My anecdotal research suggests it's mostly the radio geeks who are following the technology presently, and their reviews for the most part haven't been positive.  The objections are technological in context.  In order for digital In-Band-On-Channel ('IBOC') broadcasting to work properly, digital channels are transmitted at a fraction of the power of their analog counterparts.  Transmitting at reduced power partially explains why HD Radio signals are more difficult to receive than analog signals -- all other factors remaining constant.

Paul Riismandel, in an op-ed at Radio Survivor, discusses whether HD Radio is worth the consumer's time, effort, and $.  Using the newest-latest in home HD Radio receivers, Riismandel conducted a series of (admittedly) unscientific, but nonetheless reasonable tests to assess HD Radio's value proposition for consumers.  What's interesting is Riismandel acknowledges HD Radio signals do sound clearer, if not better... when they're actually received.  His complaints are twofold: the 'cleaner' sound doesn't equate to superior sound quality vis-a-vis dynamic range, etc., and inconsistent reception  of HD Radio channels across the dial.

Riismandel makes some valid points, especially considering HD Radio as viewed through the eyes of an audiophile, broadcast engineer, or otherwise geek.  The thing is... geeks don't drive market tastes.  Joe and Judy Averageradiolistener have accepted spotty reception across their radio dial as a fact of life since the medium's inception.  Effectively, the reception issues with IBOC HD Radio are similar to those with FM stereo, but receivers can be set so that they'll pick up a station's less sensitive signal when its more sensitive signal isn't detected.  (This feature, however, means the receiver only plays the FM station's analog channel.)  Still, I don't believe this problem represents that great of a disincentive for consumers.

Regarding sound quality, it's quite apparent from the widespread market acceptance of streaming media, .mp3 and other digital audio formats, and mobile audio devices like the iPod, that consumers aren't really preoccupied with absolute sonic fidelity.  Satellite and Internet radio don't match the aural experience possible with a CD Audio recording, high-powered amplifier, and a good set of speakers.  Neither does mp3 audio.  To this point stations broadcasting in HD Radio need only demostrate the quality of their channels relative to their non-HD channels. 

I also believe Riismandel's observations don't consider how people listen to radio for attempting to answer why anyone would buy a HD radio receiver.  People don't listen to the radio for sound fidelity.  Rich, clear signals are important, but secondary to a station's content and brand image.  Unfortunately, radio broadcasters have been slow to identify the value HD Radio represents for their listeners.  I think once the resourceful broadcasters discover what listeners value about 'free' radio, they'll adjust their marketing plans accordingly.  Perhaps then will be the time when we'll see consumer demand for HD Radio receivers take off.