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Archive for August, 2013

Radio Silence
(Gnokii / openclipart.org)

(Pssst. This way. Over here. That’s it.)

Our daytime classical music hasn’t gone away – it’s just moved to a different neighborhood. We’re now on the digital side of town. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a computer expert to listen. Let’s see how.

First up: HD radio.

For about the last decade, American radio has been cautiously dipping its toes into the digital stream (so to speak). We’re not like television, belly-smacking the icy digital lake and leaving the analog laggards unplugged on the beach. None of that for us; Grandma’s Atwater Kent still picks up stations, thank you very much, and I don’t see that ending any time soon.

The downside of that strategy is that because you don’t have to get a digital radio, chances are pretty good that you haven’t yet. Right now, digital radio is in about the same state that FM was in, say, 1964.

Make no mistake about it, though; digital radio is here. The FCC approved it over a decade ago. In July of 2008, WKSU signed on with a digital transmitter. By the following summer, all of our stations except the Ashland repeater were broadcasting digitally.

Generically, our digital system is called In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) digital radio. HD Radio is a type of IBOC, but the two terms might as well be interchangeable – so far HD is the only IBOC flavor that’s made the scene. (That’s probably a good thing. Remember the Betamax and VHS wars?)

HD Radio is a proprietary system from Ibiquity Digital Corporation. If you’re interested in the details, you can read more about HD radio here in Wikipedia.

This isn’t television, and the letters "HD," Ibiquity reminds us, don’t mean "high definition." What do they mean? Ibiqity isn’t saying. However, I like to think of HD as meaning "hidden digital," because hidden inside WKSU’s radio signal are four extra digital signals. One of those signals plays classical music 24 hours a day. Another is 24-hour folk music, and one is 24-hour news and information. The last one is a digital version of what you hear on an ordinary analog radio.

If you’re just after WKSU’s classical music, an HD radio receiving that 24-hour classical signal is hands down the easiest way to get it, and possibly the most economical. A few HD radios sell for $50, a couple for even less than that. Unlike satellite radio, you don’t need a subscription, and there are no ongoing fees.

If you have a high-end component audio or home theatre system, you may want to consider an HD radio tuner.

I’ve seen one very inexpensive model – well under $100 – but can’t recommend it. The good stuff is assuredly not under $100. HD tuners are aimed at audiophiles, with price tags to match. A Denon TU-604ci with an HD radio card will run you between $800 and $1300, depending on how sharp your bargain-fu is this week. The Macintosh MR88 is, well, the Mac of HD radio component tuners, with a price about what you’d expect for a Mac.

If you don’t mind used gear, you might look for a Sony XDR-F1HD. They’re no longer made and have a strong audiophile following – strong enough that used ones now sell for 2-3 times what they cost new! Another discontinued HD radio tuner to watch for on Craigslist and Ebay is the Sangean HDT-1X.

Given the cost and availability of component HD radio tuners, I recommend that you think about an Internet radio tuner instead. We’ll talk about that a bit more later.

What if you want to listen in your car? In the last few years, the major automakers have been gradually adding HD radios to their lines. They’re starting with the most expensive and sophisticated cars and working down the range, which is the way they handled FM radio vs AM radio about 4 decades ago. But it’s a pretty good bet that the next car you buy will have an HD radio.

If you don’t want to wait, you can get an HD radio installed in place of your factory car radio. See below for some Yelp reviews of Akron-area car audio installers.

Something new has shown up on my radar recently – a HD radio adapter for the factory radios in many cars. I have to admit I don’t know how well these work, so if you try one, please post a comment below.

They remind me a little of the FM adapter I had for my ’65 Dodge Dart (yes, I actually drove one, back in the day). However, these don’t hang under the instrument panel like the FM adapters did. According to the manufacturer, your car looks the same, but the radio gives you HD radio reception. The cost depends on what car you have, but typically it’s around $200 plus installation.

You can also add one of our apps to your smartphone or tablet (see below), and plug it into your car’s auxiliary audio input jack. Our IT folks and engineers can walk you through the process, and help you get the proper cable. Just call us during business hours at 800 672-2132.

Another answer is to plug a portable HD radio into that same auxiliary jack. How well this works will probably depend on how close you are to our transmitters. Make sure you can return the radio if it doesn’t work for you.

How’s digital radio sound? Great! You’ll sometimes see it advertised as "CD quality." I don’t agree with that, but if you’re OK with YouTube sound, you’ll probably be OK with digital radio. Now and then choral voices and applause can sound a bit watery, but – glory be! – the hiss and crackle of analog radio are gone.

However, as with any appliance, you’ll want to make sure you get an HD radio that suits your needs. Although WKSU’s digital signal covers about 90% of the area our analog signal reaches, you may find you’re not too happy with a $50 set if you’re at the outer edges of that region. A digital radio that can’t get a strong enough signal will revert to ordinary analog reception. That means no classical channel, so what’s the point?

Before you lay down your cash, read the online reviews, and make sure you can return the set for a different model if it doesn’t work for you.

You might also want to consider a few other options.

If your home or office has wireless internet (WiFi), check out Internet radios. For about the same price as an HD radio, or maybe a bit more, you get a compact box that sits on your desk or counter, and reaches out to your WiFi access point or router. Unlike an HD radio, it doesn’t matter whether your Internet radio is 5 miles from our transmitter or 5000. Anywhere you have Internet service – even halfway round the world – you can have WKSU’s 24-hour classical music.

If you already have an audio or theatre system, you might want an Internet tuner instead. They don’t have built-in amplifiers or speakers, so you have to plug them into your existing system. They look like an HD radio tuner, but cost way less, and they’re available in a wider variety of models and prices. Most will work with WiFi Internet, or can be plugged into an Ethernet port. Sangean and Grace are two brands, but there are others.

An Internet radio or tuner has one somewhat fiddly requirement, which applies only if you use WiFi for it: you’ll probably have to enter your WiFi password to get it working. That usually means a couple of minutes to find it in your files, and a couple more to press the keypad or turn the knob. You’ll only have to do this once, though. And radios and tuners that connect to the net via Ethernet don’t need passwords at all.

Like most media gadgets these days, Internet radios are really single-purpose computers. (You could argue that, these days, that’s also true of almost everything, from cars to heating systems.) You can listen to WKSU’s 24 hour classical music on the computer you already have. So why would you want to buy an HD radio or Internet radio?

It depends on how and where you listen, and what kind of sound satisfies you. Let’s face it, the teeny-tiny-tinny speakers in the average laptop, netbook, or tablet probably aren’t quite what Franz Welser-Moest has in mind for his orchestra’s sound. That’s no problem if you’re listening on good headphones, but if you don’t want to be tethered to your computer – or if you want to share the music – the bigger speakers in an HD radio or Internet radio are probably going to make you happier.

You could add a better set of speakers to your computer, of course. Good quality speakers can make our mp3 and AAC streams sound remarkably clear. Of course, if you’re using a portable device – laptop, netbook, or tablet – it becomes rather less portable with wires and extra boxes hung on it.

And it’s hard to beat the little hand-held gadgets for convenience. If you want to go that route, with or without added speakers, we have apps for Android and Apple smartphones and tablets. More on these here.

Bottom line: our daytime classical music may be missing from your old analog radio, but it’s not gone. It’s just in those Hidden Digital signals. Check the links below for some ideas on HD and Internet radios that can uncover it.

Explore more:

HD Radio Reviews from CNET
HD Radio Reviews from HD Radio Home
Car HD Radio Reviews from CNET
Internet Radio Reviews from CNET
Internet Radio Reviews from Good Housekeeping
Mobile Device Apps from WKSU
Custom Auto Audio Installers in the Akron area from Yelp.com
HD Radio Adapters for Factory Car Radios from Axxess*

*Please note: I have no direct experience with these adapters and thus can’t endorse them. If you try one, please let us know how well it works for you.

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