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First day with HD Radio – not impressed

I spent the better part of this afternoon listening to my new HD Radio receiver, the Sony XDRF1 HD, tuning through the Chicago FM dial. There are 33 FM stations broadcasting HD in Chicago according to iBiquity, which owns the technology. I was able to tune in the HD signal for 19 of them. After several hours of listening I remain rather unimpressed by HD Radio.

My Sony XDRF1-HD tuner in its habitat.

Primary HD Channels

First off I will address the question of sound quality and fidelity. iBiquity claims “drastically improved sound quality” for HD Radio over its analog counterpart. I do not agree with this claim. Tuning between the analog and primary HD channel for each station I could perceive slight differences in sound quality between them. The biggest difference is the loss of background noise and hiss in the HD channel. Now, this is a very subtle difference, primarily perceptible during quiet music passages (which are rare on commercial FM) and voice breaks. This leads to the perception that there’s a bit more dynamic range on the HD channel, but it requires fairly high listening volume to clearly detect.

While I welcome the lower noise floor of HD, I otherwise don’t perceive any other significant increase in fidelity. On nearly every station I listened to the primary HD channel sounded nearly identical to the analog FM. Much of commercial FM is overcompressed, and I found that if a station’s analog signal was so overprocessed, so was the primary HD channel.

Sometimes I would lose the HD signal–since it’s broadcast at a much lower power level than the analog signal–and I never noticed just by listening. I had to look at the tuner’s display to know for sure. The shift between the HD and analog signals is pretty smooth sounding on the Sony tuner. I can tell when it happens, but it’s quite unobtrusive. If I’m not paying close attention to the radio it can happen without me noticing.

All of the 19 HD FM stations I received are stations that come in reasonably well in analog in my apartment in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago. The Sony XDRF1 turns out to have very good analog FM performance, bringing in the analog FM signals of these stations better than any other radio in my house except my Tivoli Model One, which is another room. Of the 10 stations where I couldn’t tune in an HD signal, 8 of them don’t come in clearly in my house in analog, either. For two stations my tuner did not indicate there was an HD signal present. More details listening notes by station are at the end of this post.

Secondary HD Channels

The other big advantage touted for HD Radio are the additional subchannels a station can have. Each HD station I listened to broadcast one or two additional channels. By and large the second HD channel had decent sound quality, but that nevertheless never matched the quality of the primary analog or HD channel. This should be expected because there is only so much digital bandwidth for each station to exploit, and the FCC requires that the primary HD channel–which must have the same programming as the analog signal–have the biggest share of the bandwidth.

The second HD channels typically sound like a good webcast station. That is, they sound like medium-quality MP3s with bitrates of 128 kbps or lower. I hear more compression and less dynamic range than the analog side, and some rolling off at the high end. Right now I’m listening to WXRT’s commercial-free HD channel 2 called “Channel X” and it’s pleasant to listen to, no more fatiguing than most web stations.

The stations broadcasting only on additional HD channel had slightly better fidelity on their HD-2 channels than those broadcasting three digital channels. Chicago Public Radio WBEZ broadcasts its Vocalo service on HD-2 and has no HD-3 channel. It sounds a little fuller than WXRT’s HD-2, with better stereo separation, a little more high end, and a little more dynamic range.

WXRT also broadcasts an HD-3 music channel which is branded as, owned by the station’s parent company CBS. The fidelity on HD-3 is greatly compromised, sounding like a webcast from the late 90s. The highs are heavily rolled off, with lots of shimmery distortion on high pitched instruments like cymbals. I find it pretty unlistenable and think it’s a waste to try and cram music on the HD-3 channel.

The stations that air talk programming on their HD-3 channels are much more listenable, mostly because voice-only programming just doesn’t require as much bandwidth and fidelity as music. WUSN airs a motorsports talk station on its HD-3 channel, and while the programming isn’t my cup of tea, I could imagine listening to it if it aired something of interest to me.

The HD Experience

Listening to HD Radio is not necessarily the most user-friendly experience. The digital HD signal is broadcast at much lower power than the analog signal–in order to lessen interference with adjoining stations. Therefore I had to adjust my antenna carefully to pull in HD signals. The Sony tuner provides a nice signal strength indicator which aids in this task, flashing an HD indicator when a digital signal is detected. You know you’ve got a HD signal tuned in when the HD indicator stops flashing, and more data–like song titles and station name–is displayed.

I have a fifteen-year-old Radio Shack amplified FM antenna that is tunable to frequency. I found with careful tuning I could successfully receive the HD channel for every available station. However, keeping that HD signal was sometimes difficult. Just walking across the room could cause the HD signal to drop out. The HD signal also seemed more susceptible to electrical interference than analog FM. For instance, my wife was shredding documents in the next room, and every time she shredded something the HD channel would drop out, then take 10 – 30 seconds to come back in after she stopped.

Now, it’s true that I live about 10 miles from downtown Chicago, where most major stations are located, on the second floor of an all-brick building. It’s not the ideal location to listen to radio, but not the worst, either. I’ll argue that at least 60% of the metro radio audience lives at least as far away as I do, so I think others’ experience would be similar to mine.

On some stations it was difficult to listen to the HD channels for any length of time. They just wouldn’t stay tuned in, no matter how carefully I adjusted the antenna and tried not to move around. It’s not a big deal if I’m listening to the primary HD channel, since the tuner smoothly falls back to analog, which sounds just as good. But it is frustrating if you’re listening to an HD2 or HD3 channel, since it goes away altogether. No slow degradation, no static–it’s either on or off.

Given the somewhat delicate nature of tuning in HD stations, I have real doubts how many average radio listeners are willing to devote the patience necessary to tune in HD channels. Sure, any radio listener is used to having to move an antenna or radio to get better reception. However, with analog a listener can hear the changes when reception degrades or improves. With HD it’s all or nothing, and therefore much more difficult to finely tune. Furthermore, hearing a crystal-clear analog signal does not necessarily mean you’ll get a clear digital signal. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to try and listen to a portable HD Radio, since just maintaining a clear FM signal with a portable can be a real challenge.

Finally, one of the great experiences of analog radio listening is scanning the dial looking for a good (or tolerable) song, or simply just trying to see what you’ll find. This is not a pleasure one will enjoy with HD radio. In my experience so far it really just isn’t practical to scan HD stations. It simply takes too long to get the HD signal locked in. Perhaps someone living downtown near the major stations might be able to do this, but I just don’t see it happening elsewhere.


I will continue to listen to HD Radio in order to see if the experience improves or I figure out some tricks to improving reception. But so far I find that the technology of cramming a digital signal in next to analog one has too many compromises to be successful. The bandwidth for the HD channels is not enough to offer significantly better fidelity for the primary HD channel, and the leftover bandwidth available for HD2 and HD3 provides sound quality that does not surpass what is available online or on satellite radio. Importantly, tuning in a clear HD signal can be a very finicky process that can try one’s patience. How many signal drop-outs will the average listener endure before giving up on an HD2 or HD3 channel?


As I mentioned I did my listening with a Sony XDRF1-HD tuner which is generally highly regarded for its fidelity and performance on both analog and digital FM. I amplified the audio with a harman/kardon AVR25II receiver, which is a very high quality unit from the mid-90s. The receiver is well maintained and provides quite nice sound quality in plain 2-channel stereo that well exceeds most receivers you’ll find for under $1000 in the electronics store. The speakers are RTR28 bookshelf speakers and an Audiosource 100 watt subwoofer. Laying this out is my way of saying that I believe the electronics were up to task of fairly evaluating the sound quality of HD Radio.

These are the HD stations I listened to, with some listening notes as relevant:

  • 91.5 WBEZ HD1 HD2 – HD2 had some of the best sound quality I heard on an HD2 channel.
  • 93.1 WXRT HD1 HD2 HD3 – HD3’s music quality was too compressed and nearly unlistenable.
  • 93.9 WLIT HD1 HD2 – HD2 is music, sounds OK.
  • 95.5 WNUA HD1 HD2 – HD2 is music, sounded above average.
  • 96.3 WBBM HD1 HD2 – HD2 is music, sounded average.
  • 97.1 WDRV HD1 HD2- HD2 is music, heard high end “shimmery” distortion on cymbals.
  • 97.9 WLUP HD1 HD2 – HD2 sounded average.
  • 98.7 WFMT HD1 – No HD2 or HD3. HD1 sound quality was the best I heard.
  • 99.5 WUSN HD1 HD2 HD3 – HD3 had talk which sounded adequate.
  • 100.3 WILV HD1 HD2 – HD2 was talk and sounded very good for that format.
  • 101.1 WKQX HD1 HD2 – HD2 was music and sounded decent, but somewhat compressed.
  • 101.9 WTMX HD1 HD2 – HD2 was 80s music, pretty highly compressed.
  • 102.7 WVAZ HD1 HD2 – HD2 is religious talk, sounds OK.
  • 103.5 WKSC HD1 HD2 – HD2 is music, sounds average for HD2.
  • 104.3 WJMK HD1 HD2 – HD2 is sports talk, sounds OK.
  • 105.1 WOJO HD1 HD2 – HD2 is music, sounded slightly above average. HD3 is music, sounds poor.
  • 105.9 WCFS HD1 HD2 – HD2 is simulcast of WBBM-AM. There was a lot of artifacting on HD2, not as clear as the station’s webcast.
  • 107.5 WGCI HD1 HD2 – HD2 is music, sounds average.

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11 Responses to First day with HD Radio – not impressed

  1. Greg August 8, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    Just wondering, if you will be returning the radio? I’ve often wondered at what point iBiquity gets their royalties – I know they do from chipset manufacturers, but I wonder at what point? When consumers buy these clunkers? What happens when consumers return the radios? Who eats the royalties? Did you notice the “legal” disclaimer on iBiquity’s website, when clicking on I have a whole post about iBiquity’s claims:

  2. Hal Kneller August 8, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    Old amplified antenna units do not work properly for HD Radio receivers. You see, the amplifiers are not linear, which doesn’t matter for analog reception, but the digital signals require complete linearity. My bet is if you bypassed the amplifier and ran the antenna straight down the coax to the Sony tuner, you would have better reception and actually pick up more of those “missing” HD Radio signals from the weaker stations in your area.

    Many HD Radio stations use 48 kb/s each on HD-1 and HD-2 (you can have up to 96 kb/s between the two) and therefore, in this mode, the audio should be identical in terms of quality. Some may elect to do 64/32 and this is where you might hear a slight advantage on the HD-1 signal.

    One other advantage of the HD is that the analog may be over processed to compete in the loudness war, but the HD signals are processed separately and could, in theory have more dynamic range. I am told that WFMT’s HD quality is excellent, for instance. Generally speaking, the high frequency response of the HD should be cleaner because the analog has pre-emphasis where the highs are boosted in transmission and cut at the receiver. This creates some issues in audio processing that we do not have to deal with for HD – making that a distinct advantage for HD.

  3. John Devor August 9, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Thank’s for the technical explanation Hal.

    In my experience, the big advantage of digital FM radio versus analog FM is in a moving vehicle. The lack of multipath in HD results in a much better listening experience. At home, the advantages are less obvious, as Paul Riismandel experienced.

    The claims of “CD-like” quality for digital radio are a bit over the top. In a vehicle with a relative low quality factory sound system, sound quality is limited by other components like the speakers and amplifier, and indeed you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a CD and HD Radio, while FM analog radio would be of significantly poorer quality because of interference.

    Since for many, if not most, people the only time they listen to the radio is in their vehicle, digital radio, whether it’s HD or something else, will eventually become a standard feature as you already have begun seeing in some vehicles. “Fee fatigue” will eventually kill satellite radio, and streaming services such as Pandora are being hurt by the end of unlimited data on cell phone plans such as we’ve seen with the iPhone on AT&T. That leaves HD radio if iBiquity can capitalize on it.

  4. John Anderson August 9, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    Excellent report, Paul. Remember, tho, HD engineers would call you a “set of golden ears” and pooh-pooh your complaints in this regard, even though they are valid.

    With the HD2s – welcome to Chicago, where you actually have some!

    I was gonna say (but you kind of already covered it) – move the unit around and try an expanded external antenna. You’re mediageek enough to do that – but how many “normal” listeners are?

    I would also like to know if the AM-HD experience is what it’s all (not) cracked up to be.

  5. Greg August 9, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    This whole thing is a huge scam and carney-shill. HD Radio suffers from dropouts, poor reception, interference, bland programming, picket-fencing, and digital artifacting. Analog is the vast surerior technology. How often do listeners experience experience multipath – LOL! Consumers are staying away from this carney-shill in droves. I really should create a Word document to cut-and-paste comments. God, I’m really getting sick of this after four years – good thing I have hdradiofarce to do the leg work – LOL!

  6. Paul Riismandel August 9, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    Thanks for all the constructive comments everyone!

    The AM HD experience has been very underwhelming. I’ll write that up in a separate post.

    I will try a different, non-amplified antenna and see what difference that makes. As I said, I was able to receive the HD channel of every station whose analog signal is receivable in my apartment. The reception just wasn’t always consistent or reliable.

    Thanks to Hal for some technical background. If you look at my listening notes you’ll see that I found WFMT’s HD1 signal to be the best of the lot. However, on all the other stations I was hard pressed to hear any real improvement in fidelity even on the high end. I’m certain that you can chalk this up to the fact that the audio sources tend not to be as high fidelity anymore, along with where the signal processing is in the airchain.

    Yet, I have to still wonder, how many average radio listeners are willing to mess around to optimize their experience. How many are willing to try different antennas? Folks who buy the Sony tuner are probably a little more likely since it’s more of an enthusiast item. Otherwise I think HD is likely to go the way of Super Audio CD.

    I can’t comment on the car experience because I don’t have a car. I would certainly welcome a report from an average radio listener, outside the industry, who listens to HD in the car.

  7. Rich Rauch August 9, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Your findings mirror mine pretty well. The “HD” in HD Radio is nothing like the HD in HDTV. I tell people, “If you like listening to MP3s and Internet streams, you’ll like HD Radio. But, don’t believe the Ibiquity hype; unless you are either hard of hearing or listening in a noisy environment, FM HD Radio does not sound like CD nor does AM HD Radio sound like analog FM.”

    In addition to a mobile JVC HD Radio receiver, I, too, have the Sony XDR-F1HD and it is a FANTASTIC analog tuner! Even if HD Radio goes the way of AM stereo someday (as I expect it will), it will not have been a total loss for me, due to its having introduced me to the XDR-F1HD.

    By the way, I tried a number of indoor FM antennas, both amplified and not, and finally broke down and went to an outdoor antenna, the Antennacraft FMSS. That made all the difference in the world. No indoor antenna comes close. Someday, I might mount it outdoors but, for now, it’s hanging from the light fixture in the middle of my “recording studio” and pulling in stations never before heard in my (aluminum-clad) home.

    Thanks for your post.

  8. Hal Kneller August 10, 2010 at 8:32 am #

    One more comment on the multipath issue of analog versus HD Radio broadcasting. Obviously, multipath is more or less of an issue depending upon the market and where you are. Many downtown city areas have bad multipath even though the terrain is flat. Other cities like San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Denver, etc. have their own multipath issues due to the unfavorable terrain for broadcast.

    I was personally involved in the installation of the HD Radio transmitter at KVOD in Denver. This is a classical music station. The night we installed the new HD equipment, we drove to the transmitter site (about 20 miles distant) and heard considerable multipath from the front range reflections. On the way back at about 4 AM, listening in the car in HD — there was not a single blip or drop out.

    The industry recognizes that the coverage of HD has not been as good as the analog in many cases. That is why the FCC in January of this year approved an increase of 4 times for all stations, and some may go as much as 10 times the initial value. Remember, initially, we only have only 1% digital power compared to analog. Many stations have already increased power, and others are planning to do so.

    Don’t believe everything you read on radiofarce.

  9. Greg August 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm #

    Yet another “attack” from Hal Kneller, ex-iBiquity employee. As everyone will see on my blog, I just quote other reliable sources, and never give personal opinions. Many of these articles are from radio industry trades. Hal is running scared, as he works for the HD Radio transmitter manufacturer, Nautel, and sales are flatlined.

    An article from today from RW states that only 86FMs have increased their digital power and almost all are 14db, or less:

    At that power level, dropouts will still plague HD Radio, and I suspect at even 10db, there will still be significant dropouts. Very few FM HD stations have the funds, or headroom, for power increases. I’de like to see a show of hands from listeners who have complained to stations about multipath – LOL! Hal, a few months ago, was even so nice as to send me personal email through my hdradiofarce mail account. It is interesting that my blog has been flooded recently from people searching on “hdradiofarce”, after I published material from

  10. Greg August 10, 2010 at 8:08 pm #

    I’de like to give Bob Struble in Fulton, MD a big “hello”, as he just visited my blog from this post – LOL! Hey, Bob – did you see the latest RW article from Tommy Ray (WOR) on the failure of AM-HD? FM-HD is next!

  11. Bill Clark September 24, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    Never going back to HD Radio !

    I bought the Sony, and was impressed with the DX ability, and low noise floor. for 2 years I have been listening to compressed, but noiseless music.

    Then, a storm recently killed the radio. Rather than repair or replace, I brought out my stock Yamaha t-80 tuner, and got a new winegard antenna preamp. I am so pleased with the sound – no listening fatigue, and yes there is some hiss, but not much. No edge at all.

    A good analog tuner, fed the right signal, has always been a pleasure fro me, and I do not miss the HD radio at all. I welcome the uncompressed signal from WMHT, 75 miles away. I prefer the sound of the Yamaha to the HD SONY.

    Bill Clark
    Windham, VT

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