First Listen: Radio Shack’s $99 HD Radio

I’d been ready to buy an HDRadio receiver about six months ago–shortly after an industry-wide offer went out making a Boston Acoustics radio available for about $200. I decided to wait after a friend familiar with the receiver warned me off. In Somerville, N.J.–50 miles from New York and 60 from Philadelphia–I wouldn’t be able to pick up the HD signals of FM stations in either market or their multicast channels. Wait for a radio with improved reception, I was told.

So I waited. When word went out that Radio Shack was going to be selling its Accurian Table Top HD Radio for $99 on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I e-mailed my contact again. This time, I was told, I could count on receiving at least the New York stations with the antenna that was provided with the radio. (Boston Acoustics owners had complained of having to string their own.)

The day after Thanksgiving, I went to to see if the Accurian was indeed on sale for $99. There was no mention of it on the homepage. There was no obvious place to click to on the homepage, for that matter, since the pulldown for “portable music” offered you CD players, MP3 players, boomboxes, portable radios (smaller ones), satellite radios, and accessories. I found the Accurian sale ($125 with a $25 mail-in rebate) through a Google search, although I later found out that using the site search would have worked, too.

At the Radio Shack I went to, the salesman was indeed aware of the special–an improvement, by the way, over the early days of satellite radio when the first Circuit City salesperson I spoke to was barely conversant about it. But he had to walk around the store with me to find the display unit; still an improvement, the Circuit City salesperson had only been able to hand me a brochure. But the Radio Shack salesman couldn’t play me the Accurian–it wasn’t plugged in and, he told me, didn’t get any reception inside the store.

I bought the Accurian anyway–the last one in stock, he told me. Had he sold any others today? “Somebody must have bought one. It’s the last one,” said the salesman. (HD Alliance CEO Peter Ferrara tells Inside Radio this morning that Radio Shack was “overwhelmed with the sales” of the Accurian over the weekend.)

The first place I tried the radio was at home in Northern New Jersey, 23 miles from the Empire State Building. I started with the smaller of two antennas that came with the radio–the second one recommended for “more remote areas.” I used the station lists at to guide my tuning. (There are two different station lists–by state and alphabetical by market–neither listing every station on the other.)

* With the first antenna, I could get only 10 of the at least 16 stations HD-2 multicast channels listed for my area.

* Of those multicast stations that I could pick up, at least three signals could be described as in-and-out, including WKTU New York’s Country HD-2 channel, which, had I been a non-industry person, would probably have been my primary motivation for buying the radio. When the digital signal on an HD-1 channel goes away, it defaults to the analog signal. When the digital signal on HD-2 disappears, so does the station.

* At least four multicast stations, advertised on the HDRadio homepage, appeared not to exist. I got the primary signal in HD, but no option for a second station. I have since confirmed with the stations that at least three of those stations are not yet up and running. One other station’s multicasters were off the air over the weekend but are now back on.

So I tried the second antenna. Now WKTU-2 came in a little better–still not consistently, but I lost at least two other stations–WNYC New York’s HD-2 and HD-3 channels. Eventually, I let the antenna go slack instead of stringing it up and WKTU-2 finally came in consistently. Just as well, since I could never have actually gotten away with stringing the antenna across the living room like that.
On the other hand, just using the Accurian’s basic FM antenna gave me much improved FM reception than what I was used to at home. Ironically, I was able to pick up other Country FMs, including some that were two hours from me.

Then I brought the radio to work. At my desk, I was unable to pick up the New York or Philadelphia stations with either antenna. Two stations from closer markets turned out to be not broadcasting in HD yet, after all. That left me with only one choice in HD, nearby WAWZ (Star 99.1) Zarepath, N.J., a few miles away, and its HD-2 channel. The experience was not unlike an earlier test drive of the Boston Acoustics model from Central New Jersey that had failed to pick up New York, Philly, or much of anything.

One of the ironies of having reception issues in Somerville is that it’s not a town where one wants for radio reception. Roughly 80% of both New York and Philly stations are available–the only issue is those that are short-spaced to each other–and there are also stations from nearby Trenton, N.J., Allentown, Pa., and the Monmouth/Ocean, N.J., market as well as a few locals. And while I’m waiting for the e-mail that explains that I’m not in the primary service contour for most of these stations, their reception on a regular radio at my desk is more than acceptable.

As a non-engineer, I would not try to write authoritatively about the Accurian’s sound quality, except to say that I was somehow expecting the head-rush of loudness of, say, the THX “the audience is listening” movie trailer. What I heard lacked the fullness of even the average FM station–as if the primary goal was to demonstrate CD-style clarity. I even managed to stumble across Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ “A Taste Of Honey” on WCBS-FM-2–a swinging ’60s instrumental that should have been a great audio showcase. But that didn’t have any particular punch here. And one multicast channel, WQHT-2, was roughly half the volume of its HD-1 sister.

Okay, in case any of HD’s regular critics or satellite radio competitors are gloating now, I should point out that I still put up with a certain amount of signal drop-outs and futzing around with the antenna to listen to my Sirius Satellite Radio as well. If I’d felt like I were getting a lot of station options, or even one must-have station, it wouldn’t have mattered. But in a market with multiple choices, there were frustratingly few new ones.

Of course, much of what I did hear on HD-2 was content that I’d heard before from stations that also stream on the Web. But hearing the programming over a radio instead of computer speakers brought home a few points, and allows me to end with some advice for targeting anybody who did buy a HDradio this month.

1. If you were given Sirius a year ago, you had the countdown to Howard Stern to build excitement. If the industry indeed believes that the greater availability of receivers at an attractive price point is finally putting HDRadio under more chimneys this holiday season, it’s time to gear more programming to those people. Of the multicast stations I encountered over Thanksgiving weekend, only WCBS-FM-2’s Oldies format was offering any sort of special countdown or anything that differed from what one might have heard a week (or month) earlier.

2. For the same reason, stations should devote more promo inventory to explaining the advantages of HD-2, welcoming listeners to the club, and congratulating them on being early adopters. HD-1 stations that promote HDRadio should mention that listeners are getting the radios for the holiday. And there should be some way for listeners to interact with the new stations and each other; what fun is joining the club if you can’t talk to somebody about it?

3. Just as stations run the audio of their TV spots as an on-air promo, more HD-2 multicast channels should try to reflect the “secret stations” marketing heard in some of the institutional advertisements for HDRadio, and try to capitalize on the mystique that those promos hope to create.

4. Stations should also try to show off HD-2 with more audiophile programming. Early FM had music that was worth hearing in FM stereo. I’m guessing that in 2006, that’s more likely to be Tool than Herb Alpert for many consumers.

The multicast channels should be high-concept and deliver on it. As with satellite radio, I’m not in favor of stations so narrow that they’re claustrophobic, or so obscure that they’re of interest only to a collector, but I’ve encountered deep cuts stations that weren’t so deep and new music channels that weren’t so new. As we found out after the first year of satellite radio, wide variety by itself is not enough. But first there has to be tangible variety.
This spring’s optimism among many programmers about the capabilities of HD-2 multicast stations seemed a little unrealistic. A lot of the programming time and on-air inventory that broadcasters devoted to their HD-2s might then have been better devoted to stations that were being widely heard. With budget and personnel cuts now taking place across the industry, it seems unrealistic that more resources are now going to be devoted to multicast stations. But $99 pricing suggests that HDRadio finally has its driver–and that gives any station broadcasting in HD a renewed responsibility to put on a show for those listeners who do show up.

28 replies
  1. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    If HD Radios Are Finally In The Market, Now What?

    In this morning’s Inside Radio, the HD Alliance’s Peter Ferrara says that Radio Shack was “overwhelmed” by the sales of its Accurian HD Radio at a special post-Thanksgiving price of $99. But if potential new converts finally began bringing home…

  2. Rob Kelley
    Rob Kelley says:

    Reading your article takes me back to a conversation I had with my female insurance agent in Charleston SC. I was programming Country WNKT which has a marginal metro signal and she was listening to CHR WSSX. I asked her why 95SX. She replied “It’s one of the stations that comes in” Her boombox sat on the floor of the office with it’s antenna not extended. The expectation for radio a large number of consumers is that it is plug and play. We’ve got a extremely long way to go and no female I know is going to do the antenna stringing dance up on her office desk.
    rob kelley
    operations manager
    wmee/wqhk fort wayne, in

  3. Steve
    Steve says:

    One issue that I rarely read about is the crap job we are doing educating people about WHAT HD radio is. A non-radio friend of mine recently asked me about a local station that was broadcasting in HD. He said, “you know, I keep hearing them say they are broadcasting in HD, but I don’t hear a difference…” Of course the station he was listening to failed to mention that you need a special radio to receive HD radio. I think we need to remember that we need to educate people about this new technology. Look at the marketing both XM and Sirius do. Incredibly, terrestrial radio has done nothing to get HD in the public mind. It’s incomprehensible that the holiday season is upon us, and radio- as an industry, isn’t banging our message to holiday shoppers.
    As I like to say, it’s a good thing our clients don’t look at marketing the way we (radio industry) do!

  4. Jack Taddeo
    Jack Taddeo says:

    Excellent report from the field. In Chicago (and Milwaukee) we lose the HD signal about 40 minutes before the analog one goes away when headed in either direction away from the market in question. I wonder how much of that “pea shooter signal” effect the audience will put up with in order to hear the same content on HD-1 and what are mostly poorly produced programming stepchildren on HD-2? My receiver is a JVC in-dash unit that has a very sensitive front end. I bought that one for it’s reception quality rather than the bells and whistles available on some higher-end models which are often LESS sensitive than the ones without the huge amps and fancy faceplates. That’s my story.

  5. david simpson
    david simpson says:

    sean: the lack of punch you experienced in hd-2 is part of the technology. the analog and hd-1 channels are using normal audio processing…ie optimod or omnia. the hd-2 is basically an unprocessed digital sound. if the source level is hot, the song will sound louder. it sounds like wnyc broadcasting the opera…lots of dynamic range

  6. Tom Barnes
    Tom Barnes says:

    Remember AM Stereo? Sorry. HD is not a fix for anything. For most people, MP3’s sound good when properly encoded. Its a distinction without a difference.
    FM actually sounds good when processed properly. Most listeners like compression (your point on Tool well-taken). Anyone who doesn’t believe it should price an antique Fairchild compressor on an old LA2A — gear that was once stacked up like junk in the engineering closet.
    Talent, not technology is the fix for the malaise. We need Stars–not more streams. No station can sound better musically for a given listener than their own or Pandora channel.

  7. 700WLW
    700WLW says:

    Believe it, or not – let’s see, the final numbers, when they are released by RS ! I heartily suspect, this is more B.S. from Ferrara – I wonder, how many will end up being returned, and not reported !

  8. Fault Line
    Fault Line says:

    Radio stations that have gone and are going to digital will have learn and to tweak their delivery, in content, and in stereo spearation, bandwith, bass (too much or too little)to keep interst up. Locally, on the HD 2 channels, one station plays alll Beatles, another has chosen “Southern Rock” for theirs. There’s some branching out, but these coporate conglomerates just can’t let go of the over-played hits. They just don’t get it that SOME of us want the deeper cuts, WITHOUT the tired old hits included !!!

  9. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    (Your) Feedback On My New HD Radio

    When I posted yesterday’s column on my first listen to Radio Shack’s $99 Accurian HD Radio, I braced for a certain amount of negative feedback from advocates of HD, particularly given some of what I encountered: HD-2 channels that were…

  10. Tom Woody
    Tom Woody says:

    Having spent a considerable amount of my professional life either on the air here in Indy or in New York, as well as in the audio/video production industry, my take is, the more things change, the more they stay the same. To wit, the average radio listener has no clue whether he’s listening to “high definition audio” or a fine piece of vinyl played on an excellent turntable with a well maintained analogue audio chain and transmitter delivering it. The biggest technical blunder being committed at this point in HD evolution is the significant compromise that is affecting the largest percentage of the total audience. Why run your analogue audience off by trying to accommodate a less than discerning few?
    I just left a station that is doing just that. The major players in the industry are looking at these alleged advantages with a jaundiced eye. It might be interesting to note that, the number one station in this market right now is an all talk AM. So what’s wrong with this picture?

  11. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Does Sound Quality Matter?

    In the recent dialogue that has developed here on the Radio Shack Accurian HD Radio and what I saw as its surprising lack of dynamism, a reader makes an excellent point: “The average radio listener has no clue whether he’s…

  12. Dave Newton
    Dave Newton says:

    Not a pretty picture. Until stick radio people get their heads back into running stations as if listeners matter, HD is irrelevant. Read my lips: “radio” isn’t just AM-FM anymore. The operator who actually operates radio stations, instead of managing assets, will be the one who kicks the industry back to the future. It’ll happen in some small-medium market stand-alone, and it won’t be called “Jack” or “Movin'”

  13. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    This is a brand new baby and a lot of folks are whining about why it’s not up and winning the 60 yard dash yet. Fact is, for urban listening there are lots of new stations on the air, and once the infancy phase is past there will likely be some really appealing new programming. Some stations will get smart and get a group of young bright upstarts together and hook them up to the channel — and kids across the market will start tuning in. . . and for myself, I’m enjoying hearing the new multicast stations here in the DC area – WAMU, WHUR, WTOP, WARW and a couple of others are doing some really interesting, different programming on their multicast channels. For a while so was WWDC (Elliot on Demand – but that disappeared). Someone’s going to get something really compelling on and right now I vote for WHUR-World as the most innovative format – plus their sound quality is awesome. I hear that’s being programmed by some of the bright kids at Howard U — exactly the right approach.

  14. Brian Allen
    Brian Allen says:

    Part of the reason people are not as enthusiastic about HD Radio is so few available ways to recieve it. I shopped around recently for HD capable radios and found there is a limited number of table top radios and no component recievers that I know of that can recieve HR Radio. And a scant few HD car stereo units. Satellite radio has more accessability than this. How does the radio and electronics industry expect HD Radio to meet these lofty expectations if there is not enough (or low cost enough) HD capable recievers on the market? (Especially at a time when people are so wary of overly hyped technology.)

  15. JLG
    JLG says:

    As and imaging voice and producer for more than 90 domestic terrestrial stations we had an interesting conversation today in the course of an ISDN session with a production director. It is this. Radio seems to have lost it’s lustre. Take a look at a college campus..How many college students even care about radio at all. It’s not “cool” to listen to radio. It is “cool” to have an iPod filled with all the songs you want to hear, and completely on demand. And the college grads are the trendsetters. High schools are even more removed from the notion of radio. Even Sirius and XM have less appeal after a year or so of the same predictable playlists, less than stellar audio quality, and stale, overblown “personalities” The shock value of Stern is over..the shock value of hearing F*ck over a radio speaker is fading, and all-in-all it might just be too late to fix it. If terrestrial radio is finding listeners hate them SO much that they are willing to PAY to listen to satellite radio or anything else..that’s a problem. If those same broadcasters are waging their futures on the “cutting edge sound” of un-processed weak HD streams that (many times) contain formats that the same stations ditched because they weren’t deemed profitable (hello WCBS??) then there is an even BIGGER problem.
    Finally be real cautious about the future of high-quality internet streams. low bitrate AAC coding makes for a really punchy well processed sound..and these can soon be recieved over the new audio-friendly cellphones. That’s fun to listen to. And there are already 10’s of thousands of “stations” streaming who could care less about making money. THAT makes for compelling programming.
    The day will come soon that will see a wholesale sell-off of AM and FM broadcasting plants because stations will find that more listeners are available over the Internet..and that requires no antenna, no transmitter and NO real estate..all of which can be sold off for way more than what the radio station makes..
    Already I have three clients that have actually CHANGED their stations name (on air and on line) to thier URL address! So over the air listeners only hear the name of the station phrased as “younghitcom” or some such thing.
    The puffed up radio execs may soon have to compete with a kid in his bedroom running a Live365 internet stream..and there will be not a lot they can do about it..Unless (you-know-who) buys the Internet, and lets everyone go!

  16. Cary Pall
    Cary Pall says:

    I also took advantage of the Radio Shack price drop, which I did note in a Radio Shack newspaper ad but did not exist on the Radio Shack website (they had a listing for the radio at $199.00).
    Here in Cincinnati, we have one AM HD station, WLW. This is the only station for whom I could say the difference in quality is noticeable, much less stunning. It sounds like you are listening to the feed off the output of the board, which isn’t always the best way to listen to talk radio, especially during Gary Burbank’s show when there are several people in the room. But it is a stunning change from their analog AM sound, which is particularly narrow in bandwidth even among the AM choices here.
    On FM, there are 5 stations from which I can receive a HD-2 channel: WKRQ (some sort of soft AC), WKFS (Hip-Hop), WVMX (Rhythmic AC), WEBN (active/alternative) and WOFX. Of those, the only one supplying music not readily available on analog FM is WOFX 92.5. Their HD-2 is formatted with “The Summit”, CCU’s generic AAA HD offering. The music mix is pretty good, but the quality of the audio is not as clean as the main channel’s analog signal. A good comparison might be the quality of some of the satellite-delivered background music services… more bandwidth than AM but not quite to the level of FM. I have the Accurian’s headset output feeding the console in the studio, so I am listening on a studio monitor as opposed to the table radio speakers.
    The only station I have heard running any promos for HD radio is Cumulus’ WFTK 96.5, a recent format flip with plenty of available units to fill between the hard breaks in their syndicated talk programming. Perhaps the HD spots will ramp up elsewhere after the holiday ad crush has passed. Strangely, if they have an HD-2 channel, I can’t pick it up. I guess Cumulus is at least planning to ramp up in the future.
    So, for $99, I have access to one unique product I might use, with marginally acceptable audio quality. For a radio junkie, I’m ok with that. I’d have bought one anyway, just to have the access. But the average listener would laugh at this.
    When Wi-Max rolls out and the internet is available in your car’s dashboard, HD, and satellite, will be as relevant as low-band FM is today.

  17. Murcury
    Murcury says:

    I think your article points toward the basic issue with ‘HD’ (nee in-band on-channel) aside from the lack of promotion: the technology itself.
    It seems that little faith exists in this technology, and with good reason.
    Instead of putting the digital signal on the available subcarrier space (I know, this eliminates a lot of services that would have to be supplimented elswhere) the great minds in charge of this system decide on a ‘saddlebag’ scheme, around the carrier frequency, and at lower power. Of course you can’t receive it outside the main contour!
    In a subcarrier setup, you can supress the digital subcarrier to prevent interference with the main transmission, and you could provide 96kbps compressed data quality. Not quite CD quality, but what is CD-quality when you can’t even pick up the signal?
    The current Satellite systems are as close as you’re going to get to HD without the feds allocating a seperate band for a true digital system. It seems that the English have the best idea (and don’t get me started on their cellular system versus ours!)
    This is a horrible system. It should be scuttled, and put on the heap with Quad FM, and the clusterf*ck that was AM stereo.

  18. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    All The HD Stations, Not Just Some Of Them

    Once I bought an HD radio, it didn’t really matter to me how many HD multicast channels there were nationally. It didn’t matter to me how many HD stations were available on the Internet. (After all, I had three-fourths of…

  19. HD Crowther
    HD Crowther says:

    Who would have known about the $99 special?
    But I did find a NYT article that mentioned the
    $150 + rebate special which ended just before
    xmas. Here in (metro-west) Boston, there are a few HD classical fm stations with excellent signals (WCRB & WGBH) which the Accurian radio handles very well, much better than ordinary fm. Sound is superior to my Bose Wave radio, to my untrained ear. I’m very impressed. (The rebate continues till mid-Jan, I believe.)

  20. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Well the HD radio revolution is hamstrung by the lack of hardware and the cost. Good luck if you want something to integrate with your stereo as the few options do not really measure up to the standards of home audio, unless that means a table top radio and you can ignore your home theater rig. The integratable options I looked at were not very friendly or doing an aux from a unit with speaker. Radiosophy is an ugly bundle of connections and the Sangean HDT-1 is closer, but redundant. There seems to be a lot of content with few reasonable ways to access it. It seems like it will be a foot race to get relevant hardware to the market before it has become yesterdays news.

  21. Leonardo Menderes
    Leonardo Menderes says:

    A few months with my Accurian, N. of Boston:
    -Seems to take more signal. Attic discone for me.
    -The selectivity is extremely good on regular
    FM-S. This adds lots of distant channels,
    effectively. This is worth a lot for me.
    Tons of campus stations in MA, ME, NH.
    -The high-end and soundstage/phasing do improve
    on HD, if your ears are up to it.
    -Nuisance to use adaptors to plug this into a
    stereo, but well worth it.
    -Static-sensitive(sparks)..touching it in winter
    can kill display or audio: pwr reset needed.
    I keep a 10-Mohm resistor handy to pre-touch.
    Otherwise, stick to using the remote.
    -No detectable quirming or buzzing like Satellite
    radio. If your ears are hifi, forget satellite.
    Take good headphones to the store: it’s bad.
    HD actually improves the imaging a bit.
    -AM HD is cool, but it’s hard to get used to the
    real voices. The noise reduction does
    reduce the sresss of listening. AM sensitivity
    is so-so. The connection is unbalanced, so
    coupling to a tuned loop is not good. I need
    to figure out a scheme for that.
    -the speakers are awesome for a tabletop, but to
    get the full benefit you want nice hifi spkrs.
    Basically: sharp slectivity adds more stations
    than HD-2, fidelity is indeed a dite better,
    the digital doesn’t squirm like satellite,
    and watch out for winter static electricity.

  22. Dan
    Dan says:

    I live ~ 35 miles out of NYC on Long Island with a JVC HD radio in my car. I am constantly losing sync of the HD channels. Is anyone else in NY or LI having this problem ? I have a brand new truck. I’ve double checked the antenna connections on the radio. When it works it works nice. But it is guaranteed to lose sync with the digital signal.

  23. mike
    mike says:

    I also live approx. 35 miles out of NYC on Long Island with a JVC HD radio in my car. I am also having the same troubles as you. I will have a FM Antenna Booster installed tomorrow and will let you know if this helped. One thing I will say is that when HD radio works the sound is really good but when it fades in and out between HD and analog it really sucks.

  24. mike
    mike says:

    Just had the FM Antenna Booster installed. Don’t waste your money. It did not help at all. It even seems to have made it worse as some HD channels are not even switching back and forth between HD and regular stereo. It is staying on constant regular stereo. Will return unit today. If you find something that works please let me know.

  25. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    Reminds me of the attempt to introduce AM Stereo in Australia in the 1970s. After a couple of years it was quietly dropped and I don’t think anybody now remembers it ever existed.

  26. Carey
    Carey says:

    Radio Shack now has this receiver “closing out” at 80 bucks. I bought one, and have been having fun with it. The placement antenna is a bit ticklish, and the tuning controls a little “wonkish” i.e. counterintuitive and confusing, but I found that the sound is half again as good as any of the table-top radios in the house, approaching a budget mini-component. Again, I would say it is a fun little unit.


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