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Switched On: Mainstream music hits a mainstream price


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

JACK FM has been like those massive spaceships from the movie Independence Day, coming from a foreign land (Canada) to hover over American cities before deploying their beam of massive personality destruction. When it landed on WCBS -FM in New York two years ago, fans of the station's previous oldies format were aghast as their favorite station was unceremoniously tossed off the air. Today, though, while its once signature deejay, radio hall of fame inductee Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, has moved on to more Sirius pursuits, the old songs and familiar jingle of ye ole WCBS-FM can be heard better than ever at 101.1 FM on the New York radio dial -- if you have an HD Radio receiver, that is.

Approved by the FCC in October 2002 as the digital heir to terrestrial analog radio, HD Radio has seen slow growth up to this point. In contrast to XM and Sirius, which competed with each other to gain subscribers and subsidized receivers in a model torn from the playbook of cellular carriers, HD Radio has no terrestrial competition and it's free. As with satellite radio, much of HD Radio receiver growth will ultimately come by way of car manufacturers including it in vehicles. Yet today, even though 1,300 stations now broadcast in HD Radio, most HD Radio-capable products up to this point have been high-end aftermarket car stereos or tony table radios available from the likes of Boston Acoustics for hundreds of dollars.

However, with a big advertising push coming this spring, more affordable receivers are starting to appear. Sony has signed on to incorporate HD Radio in its products over the next few years. The Accurian Tabletop HD Radio, appropriately available at Radio Shack, sells for $159 before rebate. And now Silicon Prarie startup Radiosophy is offering the boombox-like HD100 receiver for merely $59 after rebate. This makes it the least expensive HD Radio on the market.

The lower priced units come at a time when HD Radio is about to shift its pitch from one of better quality to more choice, bringing it in line with the value propositions behind Internet radio and MP3. Satellite radio followed a similar evolution as did cable television (although satellite TV has arguably taken the reverse path to compete against cable). With HD Radio, stations can multicast, which is how both JACK FM and the oldies format can coexist at 101.1. Switching between the two is as simple as pressing the Seek button up or down on a receiver.

Stations with poor reception drop off rather than come in with static, and songs titles and artists are displayed more consistently than with the Radio Data Service available in many car receivers. Some may decry that HD Radio is still subject to the same inane commercials and tired formats of its analog predecessor, but HD Radio developer iBiquity says the potential is there for terrestrial radio stations to launch premium subscription channels using HD Radio technology that would be immune from FCC oversight; other future enhancements could include a "Buy" button to order tracks currently playing and 5.1 surround broadcasting.

Having tried Radiosophy's HD100, it has little chance of cannibalizing its more expensive sibling, the $270 Multistream HD. The retro-styled HD100 receives both digital and analog signals well, has straightforward controls including ten presets, a two-line backlit LCD and even an alarm clock feature with an undersized snooze button. However, its audio quality is clearly low-fi enough to mask most of the difference between an HD and FM radio station. Despite its light weight, it can't run on batteries; probably its best setting is at a desk where you can use some decent headphones instead of its bass-averse speakers. Unfortunately, I shorted out the review unit when I connected its S-Video-like power cable connector to the radio upside down. Radiosophy is aware of the issue and is looking at ways to address the vulnerability.

Many HD Radio stations are offering their second channel commercial-free to promote the service until there's a large enough listener base to attract advertisers -- a bit like Internet radio without the personalization or royalty extortion. If you're intrigued by the content of these hidden stations, HD Radio may rekindle your interest in a medium that once didn't know JACK.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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