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HD Radio Makes Gains In Home, Car

HD Radio is making further inroads into the mainstream here at International CES, where prices on car HD-Radio products are dropping dramatically and the selection of tabletop HD Radios, including the first iPod-docking models, is growing dramatically.

Some of the new iPod-docking tabletop radios, along with select new iPod-controlling car stereo systems, are among the first HD-Radio products to incorporate iTunes Tagging technology, which is designed to make it easier for consumers to buy songs from Apple’s iTunes store after they hear it on an FM HD-Radio station.

HD Radio is an In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) standard that lets existing AM and FM stations use their existing transmitters, antennas and dial positions to deliver high-quality interference-free digital audio alongside their analog signal. HD-Radio technology also enables FM broadcasters to simulcast two to three digital programs simultaneously on their assigned frequency to increase programming diversity.

As of early December, more than 1,500 AM and FM stations out of about 13,500 in the U.S. were broadcasting HD Radio signals, and more than 700 offered subscription-free HD2 multicast channels on the FM dial.

In the autosound aftermarket booths at CES, dealers will find:

  • A proliferation of integrated HD-Radio head units at prices down to an everyday $119. HD Radio has been largely relegated to outboard add-on tuners and high-end integrated head units, with the exception of a $159 JVC head unit with integrated HD Radio. Dual and Jensen will lead the price pack in integrated head units, and JVC will expand its selection.
  • The entry of autosound market-share leader Pioneer into the HD-Radio market. The company is launching an outboard tuner module at an unspecified price.
  • The first outboard HD-Radio tuners from JVC and Panasonic. They can be controlled from same-brand HD-Radio-ready head units and will join models from Kenwood, Sony and others.
  • Falling prices on outboard HD-Radio tuners. JVC’s first outboard tuner will retail for a suggested $99, matching the price of a Sony model launched last summer. Alpine’s new outboard tuner is targeted to retail for a suggested $149, down $100 from the previous version.
  • Brands with spotty HD-Radio offerings in 2007 will offer it consistently throughout their lines.

For the home, most of the HD-Radio action is in tabletop radios, with limited introductions here in custom multiroom-audio components. At least two more suppliers, Sony and Coby, are offering a component tuner that can be connected to any existing stereo system. That model joins component tuners from Sangean and Day Sequerra and transportable home-to-car tuners from JVC and Radiosophy.

For now, few A/V receivers but a handful of $2,000+ models incorporate HD Radio. A/V receiver suppliers admit they’ve left the feature out of most of their models because they’ve focused on adding other features, such as HDMI and internal decoders to decode all surround-sound formats approved for use on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.

Said Pioneer marketing and planning manager David Bales, “Receivers are extremely feature-competitive and running on very slim profit margins … It’s all anybody can do to keep up with the rapid introductions of HDMI and HD-Audio decoders at the new price points.” As for consumer demand, he said, “There is a little bit of buzz out there, but nothing is coming from our key retailers or consumers to make this technology an urgent matter yet.”

Likewise, said Yamaha marketing director Alex Sadeghian, “Implementation of HD Radio is still expensive compared to other attractive features that can be integrated into components. We think that adding other features along with HD Radio is required to justify the higher costs to consumers.”

As a result, the home HD-Radio action here at CES will be in tabletop radios and custom-installed multiroom audio products. Dealers will find:

  • New brands in the tabletop HD Radio market. They include Audiovox’s Acoustic Research brand, Coby, iLive, LG and the Spectra-licensed Jensen brand.
  • An expanded tabletop selection from Dice and Sony.
  • The first component HD-Radio tuners from Sony and Coby on display, with Coby’s model is a palm-sized, tube-shaped model.
  • The first portable HD-Radio product is a AC/DC tabletop radio from Coby.
  • An HD-Radio tuner-module option for Denon’s six-zone component tuner will debut and it’s designed for multiroom-audio installations.
  • MacIntosh is introducing its first HD-Radio tuner, which is in module form. It slides into a new high-end integrated amp and new surround processor. The technology, which encrypts a program for playback only by authorized radios, could be used for pay-per-listen programming such as live concerts or special sports events, or it could be used for copyright protection of radio reading services, one company said.
  • More iPod-docking HD Radios with iTunes tagging. The first tabletop models, previously announced by Polk and JBL, will be joined by models from Dice, Sony, Spectra’s licensed Jensen brand and possibly the Audiovox-owned Acoustics Research brand. They in turn will be joined by their first car audio counterparts from Alpine and Dual.

The iTunes tagging feature, which lets consumers “tag” songs broadcast by a digital FM station, works like this: At the touch of a button, an iPod-docking HD Radio will store song metadata broadcast by the digital FM station. The metadata transfers automatically to an iPod when an iPod is docked to the HD Radio. When the iPod is later synced with a PC, the PC’s iTunes software automatically displays the tagged song’s metadata in a “tagged” playlist for previewing, buying and downloading.

The $499-suggested Polk I-Sonic Entertainment System 2 has been available since late last year, and the JBL iHD tabletop radio was expected to be available late last year.

Six major radio station groups have said they are installing iTunes tagging technology but at press time still hadn’t announced a launch date. The six groups are CBS Radio, Clear Channel, Cumulus, Cox, Entercom and Greater Media.