How HD Radio Works and How to Get It

HD Radio may have limited appeal, but for some it's well worth the investment

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HD Radio is a digital radio technology that exists alongside traditional analog radio broadcasts in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The technology is used by both AM and FM stations, and it allows broadcasters to air original analog signals alongside additional digital content. The audio quality on an HD Radio is also improved when compared to standard terrestrial systems.

Although there has been some confusion between satellite radio and HD radio, the two are different. HD Radio augments existing terrestrial broadcasts. Satellite radio relies on a different technology and content stream, and is only available with a subscription.

How HD Radio Works

Since HD Radio technology allows radio stations to continue broadcasting original analog signals, there's 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 mainly because a cessation of analog broadcasts won't reclaim 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.

Radio stations are required to upgrade their broadcasting equipment and pay a licensing fee to iBiquity to use the HD Radio format. Existing radio tuners are capable of receiving the old analog signals, but new hardware is required 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 many aftermarket manufacturers, and some vehicles come equipped with HD Radio receivers.

HD Radio isn't available in all markets, so there are a number of head units that don't include the additional tuner. If you buy an aftermarket head unit with a digital tuner, you won't have to buy a special HD Radio antenna.

Digital standards used elsewhere in the world, such as digital audio broadcasting in Europe, are not compatible with HD Radio in North America. That means it's vital to purchase a head unit that's specifically intended for use in the United States, Canada, or Mexico.

Features and Benefits of HD Radio

Before you buy a head unit with a built-in HD Radio tuner, you may want to check into the stations that are available in your area. There are thousands of HD Radio stations, so you likely have access to at least one in your area. However, there is a chance that an HD Radio head unit won't be of any use in your market.

If there are HD Radio stations in your area, then a head unit that includes the technology may be worth the 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.
  • Media 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. However, the additional content and higher audio quality may liven up your daily commute. If you live in an area with solid coverage, you may be able to cancel your monthly satellite radio subscription.