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Tuned In: Specialty Radios Evolve

Manufacturers have eliminated HD Radio capability from table radios and banished AM/FM bands from most of their low-priced models, but the good news is that you can find Internet connectivity at all price ranges. Meanwhile, shortwave radio manufacturers have introduced software-defined radios, which connect to a computer and outperform conventional shortwave models.

Cambridge Soundworks

Six years ago, HD Radio was touted as the next big thing in radio broadcasting. The radio industry hoped that HD Radio would allow radio stations to transmit multiple digital channels of advertiser-supported free programming and, therefore, recapture the portions of their audience that had drifted over to the multiple channels of subscription-supported satellite radio. As a result, you could buy a table radio that had HD Radio functionality for less than $200.

Today, table radio manufacturers aren’t including HD Radio functionality in any of their new models. That’s because Federal Communications Commission still mandates that all stations must broadcast analog and digital signals simultaneously from the same tower, and the digital HD Radio portion is allowed to be only one-tenth as strong as a station’s analog signal is. In other words, HD Radio signals frequently are too weak for table radios to pick up unless you live close to a station’s transmitting tower.

FCC field tests have shown that granting HD Radio more transmission strength will interfere with adjacent stations’ analog signals. So, FCC won’t allow full power for HD Radio until a switch to digital radio from analog is mandated, the way that a switch to digital TV was mandated in 2009, and experts tell us that such a mandate is years away.

So HD Radio is stuck in a time warp. At least 2,000 FM stations (compared with 700 in 2007) broadcast weak HD Radio channels in nearly every market across the country, according to iBiquity Digital, which is the industry consortium that promotes HD Radio. HD Radio’s weak signal is a shame, because these stations broadcast music and other programming that aren’t played on non-HD Radio channels.

However, if you want to listen, you’ll have to buy a new HD Radio stereo receiver, which starts at $900, an automobile that has a radio in the dashboard that has HD Radio reception or an aftermarket car stereo system that can pick up HD Radio. Also, of course, you’ll have to live (or drive) within the range of these HD Radio signals.

NEW-WAVE TABLE RADIOS. Table radios no longer tune in HD Radio broadcasts, but the latest models include Wi-Fi connectivity, which allows you to pick up thousands of AM and FM stations through the Internet. For as little as $150, you can listen to Internet radio through a home router (starting at $30) without turning on your computer.

A surge in Internet stations and streaming services has left consumers spending less time listening to local AM and FM radio. We know that
manufacturers have noticed, because you now can’t find AM/FM bands
in Internet table radios that cost $200 or less.

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You might be asking yourself why you can’t find AM/FM in a $200 Internet table radio when clock radios that include AM/FM bands are widely available for as little as $10. Simple. Those alarm clocks use 1960s analog technology for their amplifiers, speakers and tuners. Consequently, manufacturers tell us that it’s cost-prohibitive (it costs about $150) to add AM/FM digital reception or an analog AM/FM receiver so the radio functions with AM/FM presets and AM/FM tuning.

You can listen to most AM and FM broadcast stations—even local ones—online by using an Internet radio. However, if your home router or your Internet connection isn’t working, obviously, you won’t be able to hear anything.

Another problem with Internet-only table radios is that all major professional sports leagues prohibit online streaming while games are in progress. That means that fans who want to listen to sports have to find a conventional AM/FM radio or sign up for satellite radio service. In other words, if you’re a sports fan, you shouldn’t settle for an Internet-only table radio. Because of the vast amounts of money that the sports leagues earn from selling their subscription-only listening packages, we don’t expect that this will change in at least the next 3 years.

DIGITAL SHORTWAVE. Computer connectivity is the biggest innovation in shortwave radios through the introduction of software-defined radios to the market.

Software-defined radios (SDRs) are black boxes, typically 3–7 pounds and smaller than a shoebox, that have no dials, knobs or switches. The radios connect to a computer through a USB port and display a virtual control panel on your computer’s screen. SDRs don’t use an Internet connection to pick up stations, but they use your computer to process the audio and record sound. Because of their computer interface, SDRs allow you to choose from thousands of station presets, use dozens of audio filters, have extreme selectivity—the capability to pick out individual signals despite adjacent channel interference—and have the capability to record hours of specific frequencies or entire bands of spectrum digitally.

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Although they have more features and better selectivity than conventional shortwave radios do, SDRs have drawbacks. They aren’t very portable, because they have to be connected to an external antenna. Even though they’re powered through a USB connection, they quickly will deplete the battery of a notebook computer. In other words, you’ll be able to listen for only an hour or two before you have to plug your notebook computer back in. SDRs also remain expensive. They start at $400 (and range as high as $3,500); most conventional shortwave radios cost less than $200.

Fred Osterman, who is the president of national shortwave radio retailer Universal Radio, tells us that he expects the prices of SDRs to decrease in the next 3 years. He says that 2 years ago you needed a $3,000 computer to run a $1,500 SDR properly. Now you can run an SDR on a computer that costs less than $1,000. He also believes that it’s only a matter of time before SDRs are designed to work with notebook computers and tablet computers. As of now, tablets don’t have the computing power that’s necessary to take full advantage of SDR capabilities.

As far as conventional shortwave radios go, it was hoped that Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), which is an open-source digital format that’s used mainly in Europe, would revitalize international shortwave broadcasting.

DRM corrects the problems that always plagued shortwave broadcasting, such as inconsistent audio quality that’s due to signal fading and interference that’s due to atmospheric static. However, the cost to upgrade shortwave transmitters to DRM begins at about $100,000 per transmitter, according to three of the shortwave station managers with whom we spoke. That means that financially struggling U.S. radio stations that broadcast on shortwave are unlikely to add DRM to current analog transmissions anytime soon.

Furthermore, extensive broadcast tests of DRM transmissions over the past 3 years have shown that DRM broadcasts are good only out to about 1,500 miles before the signal breaks up into unrecoverable noise. In other words, you would need an SDR to pick up DRM broadcasts in the United States. Unless you live on the East Coast and can pick up DRM signals from Europe, or you live in the Southeast and can pick up DRM from the Caribbean, or you live on the West Coast and can pick up DRM stations from Asia, you still won’t be able to hear any overseas DRM broadcast.

Consequently, just two non-SDR DRM-equipped receivers have been sold in the United States in the past 3 years. Both were discontinued.

Still, Osterman tells us, “I remain optimistic that some supplier will develop a listener-friendly, affordable, portable DRM radio with the performance level we need in North America.”

It isn’t clear to us when that might be, but stay tuned.

Ken Reitz is the managing editor of Monitoring Times magazine and has covered consumer electronics for 25 years.