HD Radio at an Introductory Price
Nov 5, 2008 (Updated Nov 8, 2008)
Review by Steven Mrak
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:a low-cost introduction to the HD Radio world
Cons:fairly unattractive, cheaply made, a little too "Bass-y"
The Bottom Line: Radio Shack's low-priced Accurian radio introduces HD Radio at a reasonable price, while offering good sound quality in a usable package.
If you're like me, over the past couple of years you've begun hearing your favorite broadcast radio stations nattering about "HiDef Radio" and informing you that, if you just went out and bought some more electronic equipment, you could hear a different - and, of course, better - version of their broadcasts. The boast has been that with HD radio (which many of them mistakenly call high-definition radio), AM stations would sound like FM stations and FM stations would sound like CDs. Essentially, they claim, you're getting satellite-quality transmissions over the airwaves, all without having to pay for a monthly subscription. Cool idea, eh? Well, I bought me one o' them there new-fangled HD radios. I didn't buy it because I wanted "FM-quality AM broadcasts and CD-quality FM broadcasts," I bought it because the stations I listen to most in the great radio wasteland known as Houston broadcast the good stuff on a second channel that's only available with HD.
Recommend this product?
So: just what is HD radio? Well, it's not high-definition; nor is it "hybrid digital." The HD stands for HD - the copyrighted name of a digital broadcast technology. Regardless of the confusion about the initials, the technology is a leap forward: broadcast stations that invest in the digital system can simultaneously broadcast two or more signals on the same frequency. The Houston public radio station, for instance, simultaneously broadcasts classical music on one channel and talk radio on a second; and to cap it off broadcasts Spanish-language talk radio on a third channel. My favorite all-time radio station, KBCO in Boulder, broadcasts nothing but performances recorded live in the station's "Studio C" on their second channel; Austin's KGSR (another favorite) broadcasts only local artists on their second channel. So if you're like me - meaning you have no intention of funding Howard's or Don's latest round of legal fees with a satellite subscription - then HD radio might just be for you.
If it is, will the Accurian HD Tabletop Radio do the trick for you? It does for me, but then my needs are fairly simple: all I wanted was a small desktop radio for the office. In consumer terms, Radio Shack's model 12-1686 is fairly simple as well. The compact package, about the size of a toaster, generates stereo sound from a single component with speakers on a spread of less than six inches. A center-mounted LCD panel displays a clock (with alarm) when the receiver is OFF, or the frequency and call letters when ON; and can be toggled back to clock display if desired. Like satellite radio, digital broadcast technology allows for broadcast and display of artist and title information, which scrolls across the bottom of the LCD panel. Volume is controlled by the single large knob beneath the panel. All other functions are controlled by pushbuttons arranged on the base - besides the large power button, this includes eight smaller buttons that perform the clock/radio toggle, source selector, mode selector, clock setting, memory setting (24 presets), and tuning. You can also toggle among several "music-type" settings, including jazz, news, classical, and rock.
Included in the deal are a tiny infrared remote the size of a business card, two FM antennae, an AM antenna, and a power supply. Though the unit has headphone output (1/8-inch plug) and an auxiliary IN plug (for MP3 players), it comes with no headphones or cables. There is no "dock" port for an ipod or other MP3 player. Setup was relatively easy: just plug in the power supply (a mini-transformer) and attach the antennas. Though there's a subtle black coax antenna for FM, the reception was poor enough that I needed to go to a classic T-shaped ribbon antenna that's now spread out on the window (hidden behind the blinds). Users who are in fringe areas (like my house, perhaps) may need a larger, powered antenna. I happen to have three; I'll let you know.
Now for the big questions: usability and quality of signal. The Accurian is fairly easy to use - when you tune to a frequency populated with digital signals, the tuner locks on. You can see it lock on, since the LCD panel displays the word "Locking" and shows a signal-strength meter. Where there are multiple signals on a single frequency, the tuning buttons let you toggle up and down the list, as long as the signal is strong enough for a lock. If the signal strength wanes, the tuner drops back to pick up the analog signal like a conventional radio (though only the non-digital "home" signal).
HD Radio claim that the signal is crystal clear and CD quality. I'm not an audiophile, and anyway, this is a tabletop radio (with a total of 16 watts of power) and minimal speaker separation. The signal is quite clear on FM and locks well on both AM and FM, though I get the impression that only people within a couple of miles of a transmitter can get away with the smaller FM antenna. The speaker quality is about what one would expect for a very plasticky-looking radio from Radio Shack: average (not to be confused with the quality of the signal, however). Personally, I find that the bass is much too heavy, but I use it mainly for listening to the spoken word and a fairly eclectic mix of music. As for usability, the labels on the buttons are small and somewhat tough to read, and the tiny little remote gets lost about every five seconds. Fortunately, there's a slot on the top rear where it can be stored, or I'd have already lost it. Truth be told, I think it's pretty ugly, but that doesn't affect its function. I don't use the alarm function (I have MS Outlook for that, so maybe I should?)
So, as far as a plain-vanilla tabletop radio is concerned, the Accurian 12-686 I'm using in my office meets my needs; and it would serve well for a bedside radio or something on the counter in the kitchen. It's worked for me as an introduction to the HD digital radio world, which is developing only slowly at the moment. Others like me who are curious about HD Radio, but just want to dip their toes in, will find it to be a good starting point. It's a product that will introduce users to the technology and to the broadcasts that are currently hidden from them, and without a subscription.
Recommended for HD-curious people who want to see what the Buzz is about; and for people who already know what HD broadcasts they want to hear and aren't particularly choosy about having the "best" of every new technology. At $80 (my price, at least), this is probably the least expensive HD radio on the market, and it looks like it - but, curiously, it doesn't sound like it.
For more information about the format, lists of available radios (including mobile audio and component receivers), and a directory of stations broadcasting in digital AM and FM, visit http://www.hdradio.com
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