Monday, November 24, 2008

Why 'HD' Radio Isn't HD

Those of us experiencing the new USA HDTV, the over-the-air TV technology standard, have discovered one fundamental thing: If your reception before HDTV was lousy, it will still be lousy with HDTV. Sure, you get a far superior picture when it works. There's no more snow or image flipping etc. But what you get instead is DIGITAL BREAKUP. Is that preferable to the image and audio noise from before? No it is not. It is in fact extremely annoying and frustrating. With digital media streams you either have the data, or you don't. It's either on or off. I live near the center of a city, down hill from the TV towers. My over-the-air TV reception has always been crummy. I bought a well reviewed Philips amplifier antenna to help, and it does. But I still get intermittent Digital Breakup. With certain local TV stations I wish I could simply turn off the digital signal and go back to analog. What I typically do instead is watch them via my cable TV connection, which is often a lot better.

Despite the same-old-stuff of bad reception, I am pleased that at long last the USA has moved to digital TV. The standard we are using in the USA is very good and, when it works, it is a nice improvement in picture and sound quality over analog TV. I like the technology.

Meanwhile, however, to accompany HDTV in the USA is something called
"HD Radio." It uses either AM or FM radio bands to transmit digital audio to specially updated digital radio receivers. Good golly. It's digital, so it has to be an improvement over analog radio, right? Well, you're still going to get the usual prime problem: Digital Breakup. But it has to sound better than analog radio, right? It does away with radio reception noise! Unfortunately, 'HD' Radio has one gigantic problem, one that in my opinion, completely nullifies any point in bothering with the technology: 'HD' Radio is SEVERELY COMPRESSED, resulting in a remarkably worse sound quality than the analog radio audio it replaces. This is a big letdown. You can stop chanting the mantra 'If it's digital it's better.' In this case it most definitely is not.

So what is this meagre technology, and how was it allowed to happen?

You can thank the
FCC, the US Federal Communications Commission. If you've followed the work of the FCC over the last 8 years you know they have developed a terrible reputation. That is, unless you're a corporate lobbyist. Then you're probably happy as can be. Wikipedia has good coverage of the story:

HD Radio

The short history is that the FCC accepted a proprietary technology invented by iBiquity to be the standard for US digital radio. The 'HD' moniker is actually meaningless. It is NOT by any stretch of the imagination 'High Definition.' How these two letters were tacked onto the name of this atrocity is beyond comprehension. I consider it a marketing scam that should be persecuted under false advertising laws. The FCC doesn't care. The compression used within this digital standard is so drastic that the resulting audio quality is seriously worse than what we are currently used to with AM and FM radio. If you have listened to MP3 audio, 'HD' Radio on the FM band sounds about as good as 128 Kilobit per second MP3 audio. It's fine if you're listening to talking. It's terrible if you're listening to music.

One sick thing going on where I live is that our
National Public Radio station, who play classical music most of the day, are pushing for listeners to move to 'HD' Radio. Serious classical music fans, such as myself, are appalled.

And there's another downer: 'HD Radio' is being allowed to ride on top of current AM and FM band radio. It takes away 1% of the signal strength of the analog bandwidth, resulting in poorer analog reception. So no matter how you look at it, 'HD' Radio has lowered the quality of modern radio.

Thankfully, at the moment, the FCC has no plans to replace analog AM and FM radio with this digital dopiness. Let's hope it stays that way until such time as the FCC pulls its head out, dumps the iBiquity format, catches up with modern technology and approves a digital audio format that is either as good as or better than CD quality, no kidding, no false advertising, no scam required.

Digital Progress: I'd personally like to see the CD audio standard tossed on the garbage heap of history. It should go the way of 8 track tapes. It compromises high frequency sound quality far too much to satisfy audio purists. The free, Open Source, cross platform program Audacity is able to save 96000 samples per second audio, over twice the current sampling rate for standard CDs. The improvement in treble quality is dramatic. There is essentially no more sawtooth or square wave distortion of high frequency sound. Anyone can record this quality digital audio on any computer equipped with an audio card. 96000 samples per second should be the new digital audio quality standard. CDs will be replaced by DVDs for playback.

Considering the state of the art of audio quality available to anyone with a computer, over-the-air digital audio should have enough bandwidth to keep up. Having a worse than retrograde digital radio standard foisted upon us, in the form of the fraudulently named "HD Radio," is a sad and stupid joke. Shame on the FCC.

The best way to kill off the iBiquity 'HD' Radio scam is to vote with your dollars and completely
ignore it. Stick to purchasing analog-only AM and FM receivers. Another step to take is to write to your federal representatives and ask for a superior technology that reflects modern digital quality. You can also write directly to the FCC and kindly tell them to catch up with the computer world. Replacing an analog technology with a lower quality digital technology is not acceptable.

BTW: Even lower quality digital radio standards have been foisted upon the citizens of Europe. The public response has been a resounding yawn. Receivers have been gathering dust in the shops. I hope the same dust gathers here.