HD Radio has been desperately trying for years to become important in a world where most Americans are perfectly fine with tinny, 96kbps MP3s, and by and large, it's been unsuccessful. More vehicles today arrive with compatibility for a single shining portable media player (Apple's iPod, if you had to ask) than HD Radio, and up until this month, there was no way to easily strap an HD Radio player on your arm when heading out to the gym. One could argue that getting the technology into this segment is crucial for being ubiquitous, and while we aren't so sure we're in that camp just yet, we're still willing to give Insignia's NS-HD01 a fighting chance. Head on past the break for our take, and feel free to peruse the gallery for an up close and personal look at the hardware.
Insignia NS-HD01 portable HD radio hands-onSee all photos
For $49.99, you get the player itself, a few instruction manuals, a bundled set of lackluster earbuds and a decent enough black armband. As you could probably guess from the brand name, the unit is being sold exclusively in Best Buy stores and through BestBuy.com. We've had the device in our possession for a few days now, and we have to say -- unless you're a huge, huge fan of listening to FM radio over your own library of tracks, we're not exactly sure why you should take interest.
As for build quality, we'd say the definitely-plastic device is just fine for what it is, though the glossy black coating attracts fingerprints in the worst way. Also, the player is "small" compared to the alternative of slinging an HD Radio boombox over your left shoulder like it's 1989, but it's definitely not diminutive compared to other portable FM players (and especially not portable DAPs). Placed beside Sony's newest E-series Walkman, the unit looks ginormous. And incredibly enough, there seems to be an expanse of wasted space; sure, there are few tiny buttons, a couple of rocker switches on the side and a 1.5-inch color LCD, but there's certainly a lot of free space on the exterior as well. The top-mounted 3.5 millimeter headphone jack was nicely placed, and the microUSB charging port is definitely welcome.
We must say, however, that the buttons and display were somewhat lacking. For a $50 device, we can't say we'd expect much more, but seriously -- this LCD is one of the poorest ones our eyes have seen on a portable device. The panel looks remarkably washed out, with its only saving grace being that it's fairly readable even in direct sunlight. In practice, the "Seek" function worked stupendously well, skipping over stations with an annoying amount of hiss and locking into stations that had a decent enough signal to warrant a listen. The reception signal indicator was also rather accurate, and in our testing, the device did a respectable job of holding tight to the HD Radio signal or the FM signal instead of switching in and out.
As for the sound quality? Not bad, not bad at all. HD Radio channels sounded markedly better than standard FM stations, and the radio information text was always on-screen just moments after we locked in. We definitely missed the inclusion of AM radio (hey, we love the local sports talk guys -- what can we say?), but those who know of a few solid HD Radio stations in the area will definitely enjoy the sound. We won't go so far as to say that HD Radio jams matched "CD quality," but it was certainly close enough for a $50 device that you can strap onto your arm whilst running.
If you're asking us if we'd recommend this over, say, an even cheaper MP3 player, we'd have to say no. Who wants to deal with Ryan Seacrest and endless commercials when you can carry a smaller, cheaper device loaded up with tracks you actually care about? If you're really into HD Radio and just have to have it in a portable form, this is absolutely your only option -- and a fine one, at that -- but we can't honestly see this thing doubling up the amount of folks in America who tune in HD Radio (or radio at all, really) on a daily basis.