Digital Radio Review
Why Buy a Digital Radio?
Radio as we know it is free public entertainment, news and information. In every corner of the world, you can likely find a talk show on AM radio and a variety of music genres broadcast over FM signals. Analog radio used to be all that you could tune into, but more recently, digital radio technology was created. The most basic definition of digital radio is that it is a device that receives or transmits radio signals using digital technology, which gives you the same stations you know and love, but with high-quality sound, along with more selection and more features. For more information on how digital radio, or HD radio, works, check out the articles on digital radios.
A tabletop or portable digital radio, or tuner capable of picking up HD radio, brings your favorite radio programs and music into your home or along with you on the road. Some radios also include alarm clocks, weather bands and presets.
The Differences Between Analog and Digital Radio
What we've always known as radio in our cars, boom boxes and clock radios is analog radio, or terrestrial radio. The built-in antennas receive radio signals broadcast from radio transmitters. These signals are sent as waves and those antennas help your radios receive and then play back whatever is being broadcast at different frequencies, which is where AM (amplitude modulation) and FM (frequency modulation) come from.
The bands of frequency determine whether a radio station is AM or FM. Most AM radio signals operate at low or medium frequencies, from 153kHz to 26.1MHz. An FM radio station can operate from 87.5 to 108MHz, generally. Regardless of whether you listen to AM or FM, both can be interrupted for various reasons. If you've ever lost a radio signal to static on a cloudy day, you're familiar with this.
Recently, many broadcasters and consumers made a switch to digital radio. Instead of transmitting and receiving waves the way analog radio does, digital radio transmits bits of data. What this means for you is that you get better quality broadcasts that are harder to disrupt, and you have more choice.
Unlike the switch television went through from analog to digital, radio is taking longer to switch over completely. Many radio stations are adopting HD radio, but they aren't retiring analog radio just yet. Keep in mind that if you stick with analog radio, you're missing out on better sound quality, extra features and more stations. If you switch over to digital radio, you can still pick up analog stations, along with the HD broadcasts.
How Digital Radio Is Better
If you own a digital radio, listening to your favorite music and programs is as easy as it was when you only received analog radio signals. If you often listened to 99.5 FM, you can still tune to that station and listen to it. On a digital radio, it will be the same programming as analog, but there may be a slight time delay as it can take longer for the digits, or data, to unscramble and play back on your device. Also, HD radio has a shorter range than analog radio, so your radio still may lose signal from time to time, or it could be difficult to pick up some stations if you live too far from a transmitter. But digital radio offers several benefits over analog radio.
It enables your radio to receive more stations in high-fidelity sound. The hiss or crackle that you hear on standard radios is gone when you listen to a digital radio. The FM stations you listen to broadcast clearer, crisper music and programming, with quality similar to that of a CD. And AM stations sound more like FM analog radio.
Many radio stations that made the switch to digital may offer more programming on substations or channels. A station can have up to eight subchannels, but it's usually three or four. So, say FM 96.5 broadcasts digital radio and its primary station plays top 40 hits – it may also have HD2 that plays hip-hop and HD3 that plays dance music. Those radio stations are likely still broadcasting in analog as well, but in the case of this so-called FM 96.5, analog radio users only have access to the top 40 station. If you have a radio capable of receiving digital broadcasts, you automatically tune in to the same station – you just have more choices in addition to the standard station.
In addition to the above benefits of digital radio, it also provides information on the programming you're listening to. If your digital radio has a digital display, you can see the name of the artist, the song playing, and the host of a program or name of a guest on a radio show. Some radios even let you bookmark songs you like and then see more information about them later via a scannable QR code.
Unlike internet radio and satellite radio, HD radio is completely free. You won't have to purchase a subscription to gain full access to HD radio channels. It's also still governed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), so digital radio programs must follow the same rules that analog AM/FM programs do.
Common Features of Digital Radios
Tabletop, portable and home receivers that can pick up HD radio aren't as readily available as they were when the switch to digital radio began. The few manufacturers that adopted the HD radio technology offer models with a variety of options.
All of them should include a display so you can see the name of the program, song or artist you're listening to. This is a convenient feature that offers you more than analog radio does. Auxiliary ports allow you to plug in other audio devices so you can listen to music from other sources. Some HD radios also serve as a digital clock radio with multiple alarms, a snooze function and a sleep option so you can set the radio to turn off after a certain amount of time.
Some home theater receivers that have HD radio tuners also come equipped with HDMI inputs, surround sound, equalizers and more for superior sound quality. Portable HD radios are battery operated, so you can take your digital radio wherever you go.
Most Affordable Digital Radios
Although you get more from a home theater receiver, such as one from the Denon AVR series, it's a pricey investment. If you're looking for an affordable HD radio, there are a few on the market that let you listen to high-definition radio for a fraction of the cost. Insignia offers a battery-operated HD radio for less than $50. Grace Digital offers a handful of SPARC tabletop radio models and portable digital radios for $200 and less.
Though digital radio has been around for several years, few people understand the options and capabilities of this technology. With more stations adding a digital signal, this is something that you will want to take advantage of, especially if you want more variety from stations you already love.