Shopping for a new in-dash car stereo and want some sweet sounding music? Satellite radio is an option, but if “free” sounds better, you should consider HD Radio. HD Radio allows any AM or FM station to broadcast their programming (and for FM, up to 2 alternate channels), in a pristine digital format. AM HD sounds as good as regular FM, and FM HD is CD-quality. HD Radio was years in the making, and today you can buy HD-Radio models for no more than mid-priced non-HD units. After listening for a few weeks now, I can attest that it does sound great. The only question is whether you can receive it.
Dual, Jensen and JVC make one-piece car CD receivers with HD Radio built-in. A few manufacturers (such as Sony) offer it as an “option,” which means that after paying $100 for the main unit, you need to shell out another $100 or more for an attached HD Radio module that resides under the dash. That seemed like a lot of cost and hassle, so I researched the one-piece units, eventually buying the Dual XHD6425 (I couldn’t resist the USB input). The two Dual units (XHD6420, $100; and XHD6425, $130), as well as the Jensen units (HD-5212, $160; and KD-AHD39, $180) all had excellent, and identical, tuner specifications. Apparently the Dual units (from Korean company Namsung), and the Jensen units (from Audiovox) use the same Samsung HD Radio chip.
JVC makes 3 units with built-in HD Radio (KD-HDW10, $100; KD-HDR1, $130; and KD-HDR30, $160). These were also solid, well-designed units, but their tuner specifications weren’t quite as good as the Dual/Jensen models. Also, after reading dozens of user comments found on the web, it seemed that people were slightly happier with the Dual models (some people replaced a JVC with a Dual). The Dual XHD-6425 and JVC KD-HDR1 appeared to be the most popular models.
Although none of these units provide an “on/off” button for HD, I was able to compare the regular and HD signals for a number of stations. HD AM did sound very close to FM quality, and the difference compared to “normal” AM was very pronounced.
On FM, the difference was more nuanced. The HD signal was quieter, and sounded slightly better, but you may need a cranked up, pimped-out system to hear a striking improvement. The real win on FM is that each station offers one or two additional HD channels along with the simulcast of their regular station, and these extra stations are usually commercial-free. For example, our local soft-rock station offered commercial-free jazz on an alternate channel, a local rock station offered an “all-live rock” alternate channel, and a classic-rock channel had an alternate blues channel. HD Radios also display the title and artist of every song.
So what’s the catch? Well, it may be hard to receive a solid HD signal if you are more than 20 miles from the broadcast tower. Flatter terrain might help, but here in New England I was hard pressed to keep a solid signal while driving Boston’s outer suburbs. You can blame automobile antennas which are designed for appearance, not performance. Most aren’t much better than a coat hanger. Another reason is the HD Radio design, where a strong signal is required for it to work properly. I tried various signal amplifiers and amplified antennas, all recommended by retailers or installers, but nothing really helped. I suspect a well-designed, passive (i.e., non-amplified) replacement antenna would help, but I couldn’t find one that would fit my car.
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Jeff Winston has been writing about home electronics since 1998. An electrical engineer, Jeff has contributed to the development of products in the computer, consumer electronics, and wireless industries. He spends his spare time with his wife, kids, and many PCs, sometimes in that order.