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Airwaves: April 8, 2011

Selecting an HD Radio

Emails have been arriving since last weekend, after station owner Saul Levine announced that pop oldies and adult standards Retro 1260 would be replaced by classical music on KGIL (1260 AM).

Generally, as I would have expected, the mail has been strongly negative ... standards have a big following, even if the ratings don’t always show it. And I’ve seen them -- they didn’t.

Regardless, one thing to remember is that the format isn’t going away completely. It’s just moving to the “HD band,” or one of the digital streams available once you buy an HD radio. What is HD radio? HD is the trademark name for a digital broadcasting system adopted in the United States. Formerly known as “In-Band, On-Channel” digital, it sends a digital signal along with the analog, to be decoded by a special tuner.

I personally believe that Levine has done more than almost any other single broadcaster in Los Angeles to advance HD radio, due to the fact that he has original content different than almost everyone else. In this case, Retro Radio -- which sounds fabulous in HD -- along with classical in HD and of course a well-processed country station that sounds great in analog and even better in HD.

But what to buy and where to buy? That is the question. Here are some choices.

Radio Shack has long been a great place to buy HD radios. The only problem you have with them is that the radios seem to be released and discontinued before you can even say Retro. But you can still find decent stock in many stores of the discontinued Auvio HD Tuner (#31-134), which at $39.97 is a decent deal. The analog AM tuner is a bust because it mutes too quickly and makes all but the strongest stations disappear, but it gets all the local AM HDs and does well with FM. This is a good choice if you have a stereo that lets you connect a separate tuner, similar to how you would connect a separate CD player; you cannot beat the price.

Radio Shack also has a couple tuners you can connect to an iPod Touch or iPhone and receive FM -- not AM -- HD signals. The Gigaware HD Dongle (#12-645, $39.99) or the Gigaware In Line Control (#12-646, $44.99) are both still in production; I have no experience with either.

Best Buy has a few models available as well, from two Insignia (their house brand) portable players (NS-HD01, $49.99; NS-HD-2, $59.99), a discontinued tuner that seems to be a cousin to the Radio Shack Auvio tuner (NS-HDTUNE, $79.99) -- all available online and in most stores -- and a clock radio from JBL (JBL On Time, #OT-400IHD) available online at BestBuy.Com for $200. Numerous car stereo models are also available.

Crutchfield.Com has far too many models to mention, from clock radios to car stereos to home receivers, with prices starting at about $100 and probably the best selection of HD-capable or HD-ready car stereos.

One of the best add-on tuners available, especially at it’s less than $100 price point, was the Sony XDR-F1HD. Excellent analog FM and AM reception, and absolutely fabulous on HD. Alas, it is discontinued, but you can still find them occasionally at stores like Amazon, Frys, and even Sony Factory Stores. Just don’t pay more than $100.

More than $100 and you might look at Sangean. The HDT-1 and HDT-1X set the standard for good HD home add-on tuners long before others joined in; you can find them for about $149 - $190 at stores like Amazon. Speaking of Amazon, they also feature numerous tabletop and clock radio models from Sangean, Coby, and Jensen, along with a small selection of car stereos.

If you keep an eye out at garage sales or auction sites, you cannot go wrong with the long discontinued Radio Shack Accurian table radio (#12-1686), or any number of other strong performers. eBay had many listings when I checked Monday evening, and since most radios don’t hold their value you could find a real bargain. Prices for sold units were as low as $10 plus shipping.

Because digital power levels are but a fraction of analog, you will most likely want to connect your HD radio or tuner to a good outdoor FM antenna (supplied AM antennas seem to work fine). But even the supplied dipole FM antenna works OK. If Retro Radio is your goal, you’re set if you have a clear shot of Mount Wilson. Retro’s home on Go Country’s digital stream means it is one of the easiest HD stations to pick up.

If you have any questions on specific models or how to use them, let me know. I don’t have firsthand experience on most, but I can probably point you in the right direction.


Copyright © 2011 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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