What is HD Radio?

hd radio
HD Radio isn't available everywhere, but it might be hiding just out of reach on your radio dial. : Andry Gunawan / EyeEm / Getty

HD Radio is a digital radio technology that exists alongside traditional analog radio broadcasts in the United States. The technology is used by both AM and FM radio stations, and it allows them to broadcast their original analog signals alongside additional digital content. The most common format includes the original analog signal, a simulcast digital signal, and one or more additional digital stations.

The digital signals offer higher audio fidelity, and the additional digital stations can be used to provide specialty content.

Although there has been some consumer confusion between satellite radio and HD radio, the main differences are that HD Radio has no associated subscription fee, while satellite radio offers content you can't get from terrestrial radio.

How Does HD Radio Work?

Since HD Radio technology allows radio stations to continue broadcasting their original analog signals, there is no need to update your radio hardware. Unlike the highly visible switch from analog television broadcasts to a digital standard, there are no plans to eradicate analog radio broadcasts. That’s largely due to the fact that a cessation of analog broadcasts wouldn’t reclaim any bandwidth that could subsequently be resold.

The HD Radio standard is based on technology owned by iBiquity. In 2002, the FCC approved iBiquity’s HD Radio technology for use in the United States.

HD Radio is the only FCC-approved digital radio technology at the point. However, technologies like FMeXtra and Compatible AM-Digital have seen limited uptake in certain markets.

Radio stations are required to upgrade their broadcasting equipment and pay a licensing fee to iBiquity in order to utilize the HD Radio format.

Existing radio tuners are capable of receiving the old analog signals, but new hardware is required in order to receive digital content.

How Do I Get HD Radio?

The only way to access HD Radio content is to use a radio that has a compatible tuner. Although the install base has increased somewhat since the technology was introduced, only about 5 percent of new vehicles built in 2011 came with built-in HD Radio tuners, and adoption has been spotty since then, so most people have to turn to the aftermarket.

HD Radio tuners are available from most of the prominent aftermarket manufacturers, but the inclusion of this feature isn’t a given. Since HD Radio isn’t available in all markets, there are still a number of head units that don’t include the additional tuner. The good news is that if you buy an aftermarket head unit with a digital tuner, you won't have to buy a special HD Radio antenna.

It’s also worth noting that HD Radio is only available in the United States and a handful of other world markets. That means it’s vital to purchase a head unit that’s specifically intended for use in the United States. The digital standards used elsewhere in the world, such as digital audio broadcasting in Europe, are not compatible with HD Radio.

Who Can Benefit From HD Radio?

Before you go out and buy a head unit that has a built-in HD Radio tuner, you might want to check into the stations that are actually available in your area. There are over 2,000 HD Radio stations available, which amounts to over 80 percent of the United States. That means you’ll probably have access to at least one station in your area, but there is a small chance that a HD Radio head unit won’t be of any use.

If there are HD Radio stations in your area, then a head unit that includes the technology might be a smart investment. HD Radio offers more content and higher quality than standard radio, and there is no monthly fee like you have to pay for satellite radio.

Some of the potential features offered by HD Radio stations include:

  • CD quality audio on FM channels and FM quality audio on AM channels.
  • Up to two additional FM channels for each traditional FM channel.
  • iTunes tagging that allows you to create playlists from songs you hear on the radio.
  • Song titles and artist names displayed on the head unit.
  • The ability to pause live radio streams for up to 15 minutes.

You can probably live without HD Radio, and the technology isn't without its problems, but the additional content and higher audio quality might help ease your daily commute a little bit. If you live in an area with good digital coverage, you might even be able to ditch your monthly satellite radio subscription.

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