Insignia: A Glimpse of Artist Experience
     

When you visit Best Buy’s Web page looking for “Boomboxes, CD Players & Radios,” you’ll see the category Portables Radios represented by an image of the Insignia NS-HD02 HD Radio receiver. So how well does the unit perform?

Promotional image of the radio shows the concept.

A review of the NS-HD02 may seem tardy at first; after all, it is an updated version of an earlier portable HD Radio receiver and has been around a while.

Yes, it’s better than the original; for one thing, with a 2.4-inch touchscreen display, it has a larger area to control most of radio’s functions than the first model, the NS-HD01 (RW, Sept. 1, 2009).

But more importantly, this also is one of the first iterations of a portable product that can display HD Radio’s newest feature, Artist Experience — the ability to display images that are synched with the digital audio.

The unit became available in late 2010 but it was difficult at that time to find stations transmitting Artist Experience data along with their HD signals. Radio World and I wanted to try AE as part of this review so we waited. I bought two units in the months after its introduction, and tested them in several cities.

User interface

It takes a little time getting used to the touchscreen interface. I was frustrated for the first few minutes until I read the manual and learned how to control the device.

(Hint, slide your finger at the bottom of the radio where the tuning controls are, like you would to unlock an iPhone or Android phone, in order to access the menus.)

There are only three physical buttons: the Power/“Unlock” button, Volume Up and Volume Down. However, there’s a lot to be said about physical buttons for efficiency. If you want to change the station when the radio is in your pocket, you have to press the unlock button and then touch the screen properly to unlock it. Then you have to press the correct button on the screen scan/seek or tune. In the case of using the presets, you have to navigate to a secondary menu, go into presets and then select your station. While the touch screen is trendy,some aspects of using this radio are not as convenient as they would be if there were physical buttons.

The unit has an issue when you are seeking FM stations; it stops on the first adjacent channel on most HD stations. Broadcast engineers are quick to figure out what’s going on in this case; the radio is seeing the HD digital carriers and stopping one channel short.

But this is not desirable, because all you hear is noise. A typical listener will think the radio is defective. There have been complaints about this problem on the Insignia consumer forums (community.insigniaproducts.com).

Customers on the forums also complain that the Preset system is cumbersome and that the auto lock of the screen is difficult to work with; I agree.

The Insignia NS-HD02 displays images and text; it also features Live Pause.

Sensitivity

Like the older model, the new NS-HD02 seems to have excellent sensitivity on analog FM broadcasts. However, I have noticed on several units that its sensitivity on HD broadcasts is not as good as the older model. This concerns me, because it seems that this radio does not perform as well on HD broadcasts as it should. While I can use a set of earbuds and pick up analog FM broadcasts from far away stations in adjacent markets like the older model, this one seems to have a tougher time decoding HD broadcasts of local stations.

I have even gone so far as taking this radio, alongside the older unit, and putting one in my left pant pocket and the other in the right. Then, feeding the earbuds into the ear on that side, I tuned to an HD2 broadcast. I walked around an interior office. While the older NS-HD01 model didn’t glitch at all, I had multiple audio glitches and even periods of silence on the NS-HD02.

While this test isn’t scientific, other colleagues have noticed this trend as well. Unfortunately, it seems like we’ve taken a step backwards in HD Radio reception performance with this model, which is not only unfortunate but creates a big problem with Artist Experience.

The Artist Experience

The Insignia NS-HD02 is one of the first new radios that support the Artist Experience feature developed by iBiquity. This technology allows radio stations to send images via HD radio broadcasts.

For now, most implementations are focused on sending album art on music stations. This, coupled with the Title/Artist/Album text data being transmitted by HD Radio stations, gives over-the-air radio broadcasts that “MP3 player” feel, and allows listeners to see album the art of the current song that’s on the air.

While the radio supports the Artist Experience, finding an HD Radio station that is transmitting the Artist Experience is rather difficult.

I did a lot of travelling across the country in early 2011 and could never find an HD station that was encoding with Artist Experience. It took until late March for me to finally come across two FM stations in New York that were encoding (WHTZ and WLTW). Shortly thereafter, I came across KWNR in Las Vegas while I was at the spring NAB.

Earbuds, USB cable and arm band come with the unit, which Best Buy lists for $69.99.

Since then I have found a few more stations transmitting album art, but the number of stations encoding it appears limited, the adoption rate among broadcasters extremely slow. This has been a topic of discussion on the Insignia product forum as well from consumers. The radio is advertised with the Artist Experience being one of its main features, yet very few stations support it, and people are frustrated that Artist Experience “isn’t available in their market” yet.

Further, your local HD Radio station may be airing Artist Experience images but you may not notice them immediately.

That’s because, according to iBiquity, the album art is only sent once or twice shortly before the next song starts. So, if you tune to a radio station in the middle of the song,you will not see any album art.You will get the Title/Artist/Album text display, but no image until the next song.

After the next song starts, assuming no HD signal impairments, I started receiving the album art within 15–20 seconds. After a few seconds, the album art goes to a larger screen. I like how the album art gets larger; however, I dislike that the radio now doesn’t show you the frequency you are tuned to, station call sign nor album title. These are all important, and they should be accommodated in the larger album art view.

You may have noticed I said “assuming no HD signal impairments,” and that’s important. If the receiver has any data errors during the limited time when the image is being transmitted, the image will not display.

In my opinion, this is a big problem, especially with this radio. As I mentioned, this radio’s HD performance is not as good as the older Insignia model, and I’ve noticed more digital reception issues with this newer model. This directly affects the display of the image.

For example, when I was using the radio in an interior office environment in midtown Manhattan, I rarely saw images until I relocated to an office with a window. Likewise, taking the radio on an outdoor stroll on the Las Vegas strip, I also rarely saw images. If I remained stationary, eventually I would see an image. To be clear however, there were few HD audio dropouts in these cases.

Sending images via HD Radio is a great idea, but as implemented here, it needs work thanks to two major issues: the Insignia NS-HD02’s apparent sensitivity issues decoding HD radio transmissions, and the design, in which album art images are only being sent once or twice. It appears that if there are any interruptions in the reception of the image’s data stream, you will not see the image for that song.

This receiver was my first experience with Artist Experience. I have since used other models on display at NAB in Las Vegas to compare.

In the HD Radio booth at NAB there were two mobile (car) radios that supported the Artist Experience on display: a Volvo OEM model, and a JVC KW-NT3HDT. These two perform much better and were much more consistent with displaying the album art. They had better antennas and generally better reception conditions than the portable Insignia.However, these radios experience the same issue in which an image is only received when you are tuned to the station before the next song starts. Songs that are in progress when you tune in will not display album art because you’ve essentially tuned in after they were transmitted.

The author’s device displays album art and song title and lets him know he’s listening to a main HD channel. Photo by Alan Jurison

One thing I noticed using these two automotive receivers was that when commercial or non-music elements were playing, I would see the radio station’s logo. I never saw that on the Insignia NS-HD02. I heard some speculation that the NS-HD02 has limited memory for image storage and will only store the current image, and not the default station image. On this topic, Insignia notes: “Decisions not to render station logos were made based on broadcaster implementation expectations.” That’s unfortunate, because station branding via the Artist Experience is something I think is a really important development.

Of note, the JVC KW-NT3HDT stood out of the three radios I’ve evaluated so far; it’s use of image caching and storage gives the listener the best experience yet.

RDS support on analog FM

The NS-HD02 also supports analog RDS/RBDS on stations that are not running HD broadcasts, and I applaud Insignia for supporting RDS in this product. However, I have noticed some software-related bugs related to how the NS-HD02 processes RDS. It appears that the radio glitches the RDS display in and out of RDS mode if a data error occurs when it receives the Program Service RDS field.

Since most stations in the United States employ a dynamic PS, this field is changing values every two to five seconds. Since the radio constantly is getting new data, if there’s a data error it briefly switches out of RDS mode and comes back in.

Some stations scroll the RDS PS field faster (in two seconds or less), and I found that if you are using the NS-HD02 in an area with a weak signal or multipath, the RDS may never display properly on these stations.

An additional issue is trying to add an analog FM station that has RDS as a Preset. If you are in the Preset menu, every time the RDS PS field changes on the radio station, the unit kicks you out of the Preset menu. For those stations scrolling the PS fast, it’s a race to see how quickly you can follow the sequence of commands to add a preset. I think many listeners would just get frustrated and not use the Preset feature.

Unfortunately, I am not surprised at these RDS issues. Insignia had issues with the PS field on the older NS-HD01, which I brought to the company’s attentionbut have not seen addressed.

I am disappointed Insignia didn’t use more of the screen in analog RDS mode to display the entire RadioText (RT) field. There is enough real estate on the screen to display all 64 characters, yet the radio only shows about 22. The software code that they use to scroll RTs that are longer than the screen displays doesn’t work very well, it seems to reset the scrolling of the RT every time the PS is changed. On stations scrolling the PS, that reset makes it so you cannot see the other 42 characters of the RT. I would recommend that Insignia’s engineers compare how their unit handles RDS processing to the iPod Nano fifth and sixth generations, which handles this feature well.

I am also disappointed that Insignia didn’t implement more advanced RDS technology RT+ standard like other portables on themarket such asApple’s iPod Nano. The same look and feel on HD stations could be duplicated on RT+ enabled stations, which are growing. It’s a relatively simple standard to support and perhaps Insignia will consider supporting RT+ in future models.

PRODUCT CAPSULE

Insignia NS-HD02 HD Radio Portable Player

Thumbs Up:
+ Attractive design
+ AE (album art) via HD Radio
+ Live Pause
+ Analog FM RDS support

Thumbs Down:
- HD reception/sensitivity not as good as previous model
- Battery life not as good as previous model
- RDS display and implementation bugs
- Presets cumbersome to access
- AE (album art) not widely supported

Price: $69.99. Sold at Best Buy retail locations and online at BestBuy.com

Unfortunately, battery life is also an area where the older unit performs better than the newer one. Insignia rates the NS-HD02 of having a battery life of “up to seven hours” and the NS-HD01 as “up to 10 hours.” However, my tests on two NS-HD02 units lasted six hours 15 minutes, and six hours 27 minutes. The older NS-HD01 units lasted 10 hours 42 minutes, and 13 hours 21 minutes. My runtime tests only had the display active for the first 20 seconds of operation, to ensure that the larger display wasn’t necessarily the cause of the lower battery life on the newer unit.

Live Pause

Live Pause is another notable feature available on the HD-NS02 radio, and it works reasonably well. Whilethe radiostores the HD Title/Artist/Album data with the audio, it does not do this with the analog FM RDS data.

Many of the issues I’ve discussed have been brought to Insignia’s attention. I noticed that an HD-NS02 purchased later had a slightly newer software version, and the RDS PS Preset implementation issue mentioned above had been fixed in the newer software.

This radio does not have the ability to update its firmware. Insignia told me in an e-mail: “There are different software versions in play at this time as we have made some improvements as running changes. Unfortunately, the means does currently not exist to update players beyond the pre-installed firmware. We’re working on possible software upgrades for both existing and future new units.”

Summary

While the advanced features of this unit are promising and exciting for our industry, there are still a lot of areas that could be improved. I hope that Insignia learns from these issues and incorporates these into future software updates for newer NS-HD02 units. I also hope Insignia keeps these issues in mind when developing newer, future products and I encourage them to allow firmware updates on any newer models. As to Artist Experience it appears to be a work in progress.

Alan Jurison most recently was a regional IT manager/broadcast engineer for Cumulus Broadcasting in Syracuse, N.Y. He holds several SBE certifications including CSRE, AMD, DRB and CBNT. Opinions are his own. Reach Jurison at ajurison@gmail.com.


Rating People: 9   Average Rating:     
Comment List:

Have you tested the HD Zune? I thought people lliked it.
By Bruce E Arkwright, Jr on 1/5/2013
Both Best Buy and Amazon have puled the portable off their websites.
By Greg on 3/9/2012
I like HD Radio....it works great in Los Angeles
By Karl Dahlquist on 1/25/2012
Mr. Jurison why waste time reviewing a radio using technology the public does not care about? Ibiquity continues to attempt to resuscitate IBOC through ploys like Artist Experience but for naught. The failure of HD to gain traction is a great example of what happens when a company tries to force an unwanted unnecessary technology to market. I find it more than interesting that this radio is made by BestBuy. Have you read the report in Forbes that predicts they will go down the same path as Circuit City? Terrestrial radio no longer has relevance to people who can go to Pandora or MOG and build their own programming. I can’t get weather reports or local news? Sorry, these are pushed to my smartphone and desktop. Traffic alerts pop up on the GPS in my smartphone. Can your HD station do this? Pandora, MOG and others will kill what’s left of commercial radio. The last ones standing will be public and college stations.
By Tim Britt on 1/13/2012

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