HD Radio: How It Works and How to Get It

classic car radio
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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.

Although there has been some consumer confusion between satellite radio and HD radio, the main differences are how the radio signal is delivered and that HD Radio has no associated subscription fee.

How HD Radio Works

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 a 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 to Receive HD Radio

The only way to receive HD Radio content is to use a radio that has a compatible tuner. HD Radio tuners are available from most of the prominent aftermarket manufacturers and some vehicles come equipped with HD Radio receivers.

HD Radio isn’t available in all markets, so 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. The digital standards used elsewhere in the world, such as digital audio broadcasting in Europe, are not compatible with HD Radio used in the U.S. That means it’s vital to purchase a head unit that’s specifically intended for use in the United States. 

The Benefits of 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 thousands of HD Radio stations available, so it is likely you'll have access to at least one station in your area, but there is a small chance that an HD Radio head unit won’t be of any use to you in your market.

If there are HD Radio stations in your area, then a head unit that includes the technology might be a worthwhile investment. HD Radio offers more content and higher audio quality than standard radio, and there is no monthly fee, unlike 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 enliven 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.