In Santa Clara, Good Luck Trying to Find Receivers, Much Less Antennas
In late February, FM stations KFOG/KFFG, which serve San Francisco, Los Altos and San Jose, Calif., began a rotation of HD Radio promotions on their analog signals. So I decided to see how well our local and national audio chains were up to speed on HD Radio.
Having kept tabs on the radio industry over 30 years, I might be expected to have a bit more knowledge than the store personnel, so I went in as "Joe Six Pack," an everyday guy, checking out the mobile section, if one was available, and then the home section.
I rated stores from A for excellent to F for failure. My criteria for ratings took several factors into account, including:
- Home and mobile units in stock and able to demonstrate HD Radio;
- The salesperson's knowledge of HD-R and
- Whether the store had promotional displays on HD-R.
As this article was prepared for press, the HD Radio Alliance announced that Tweeter and ABC Warehouse/Detroit will begin carrying HD Radios and Crutchfield would increase its inventory. Radio Shack also said in April it intends to carry the Boston Acoustics Recepter HD in some stores, perhaps by May. So consider this a first-semester report card. Perhaps the grades will improve next time.
Circuit City Stevens Creek, Santa Clara
Car Stereo: I found one Fujistu Eclipse unit "HD Ready," without the HD module available; the salesperson informed me to check back in May. The individual did not know what the module looked like or that it was even a module, however he was able to go the unit on the display panel. But without the HD module, he could not demonstrate the unit.
Home Stereo: When asked, the sales associate said he had heard of HD Radio, but that was the extent of his knowledge, and he did not know when they would be in. There was no offer to find out.
Promotional Material: None for HD, but very nice displays for XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, and the home stereo section had the Polk Audio XM unit up and running.
Overall score: D
Best Buy Stevens Creek, San Jose
Car Stereo: This store had one Kenwood unit "HD Ready," without the module or one available. The salesperson did not know the unit, or anything about HD Radio, so she went to ask her supervisor. When she returned, I was informed that HD Radio required a subscription to activate! I informed her that XM and Sirius required subscription, but that HD Radio was provided by an "over the air" signal, and was not a subscription service. She shrugged and told me that was what the supervisor had told her. I thanked her for her time.
Home Stereo: I checked out each unit that was on display, but after 10-15 minutes of waiting, I never got to talk to an actual salesperson. None of the home theater receivers was hooked up, and none of the point-of-sale information mentioned HD Radio.
Promotional Material: None on HD Radio, very little on XM/Sirius.
Overall score: F
Magnolia Hi-Fi Winchester Blvd., San Jose
They don't carry car stereo, and only had the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD table unit. The unit was hooked up, but analog FM reception was poor in a concrete and steel building.
I unraveled the antenna, and got a little better reception, but the HD signal of a local San Jose Class B FM was intermittent. The transmitter site is "line of site" with the store, less than 10 miles as the crow flies.
Although the price had changed from $499 to $299 two weeks prior to my visit, the store had yet to change the price. Only because I mentioned it, they removed the old tag to update it.
The Boston Acoustics unit is a pricey table radio, without a CD player, using a factory-attached FM wire. The 3-inch speakers on the unit cannot be expected to provide HD Radio quality. [Boston Acoustics now plans to include a dipole FM antenna. Story, page 26]
Promotional Material: No POS information on the unit. The salesperson had limited product knowledge of the BA unit.
Overall score: C
CompUSA/ Good Guys Stevens Creek, San Jose
They merged the two companies, and the store is overstuffed for its size. They do not carry car stereo, but they carry the Yamaha Home Theater model RXV4600 that retails at $1,800 and has the HD Radio logo. On my first visit, the unit was hooked up to demonstrate Home Theater Surround sound, but there was no hookup for the receiver section and therefore FM or AM HD-R couldn't be demonstrated.
The first salesperson didn't know anything about HD-R, but to his credit, he got someone who did. That salesperson was able to take me directly to the unit, and said the store would work on having the antenna inputs hooked up so that HD-R could be demonstrated to the public.
On my return in early March, the Yamaha RXV4600 was the only Home Theater receiver that I could find in my search. The unit's antenna terminals were not hooked up. The unit was part of a wall display of home theater receivers such as Pioneer Elite and Denon. It was not hooked up as a demonstration unit and ran on only AC power.
Upon my request, the store was able to find an AM loop antenna, but no FM dipole antenna. None of the "active" home theater receivers had attached FM antennas, since surround sound is the primary reason for a system demonstration, and radio broadcast reception is an afterthought, if it is thought of at all.
I MacGyver'ed an FM antenna, and was able to tune in KUFX 98.5 MHz, and KFFG 97.7 MHz.
Upon tuning, the station moved from monaural, to stereo, and after a brief pause, to digital, displaying the call letters, then HD1. The stereo light switched off and was replaced with an HD-R readout.
Since the receiver was not connected to the switchbox, and all the speakers connect to the switchbox, I used a pair of Sennheiser headphones to listen. The KFFG HD-R signal was very clean, and provided a greater clarity than the analog signal.
I found increased separation and greater definition with the HD Radio signal. The RXV4600 is a very nice 7.1 Surround Sound home theater receiver, but at $1,800 for the unit, what else would you expect?
The staff at CompUSA/Good Guys was friendly, knew about HD Radio and at least let me connect some form of antenna to receive the digital signal. The loop antenna did allow me to receive KCBS and HD-R was activated, but the reception was spotty at best in a concrete and steel building.
Yamaha has gone through the trouble of paying the license fee, include the HD Radio logo on the front of the RXV4600, and even included a paragraph describing HD-R on the point-of-sale information card under the receiver. The store did not include any data on HD Radio on the brief description next to the unit.
In a subsequent visit in April, the Yamaha was still in the same spot, with the AM antenna still attached. It had been over a month. Nothing else changed. It remained a static unit, without connection to the demonstrator switch box, with no FM antenna. I guess "out of sight, out of mind" does apply.
Without hooking up the receiver to the demonstration switchbox, or having an FM antenna attached, how can we expect a consumer to get interested or excited about HD radio? At the end of both of my previous visits, I had been assured by the salesperson and the store manager that the "hook-up" issues with the Yamaha - the antenna and connection to the demonstrator box - would be addressed and corrected. Over a month later, it had not happened. Yet another store committed to HD Radio.
Promotional Material: "Pull Out Information sheet" under the Yamaha unit, the only promo piece found in my search.
Overall score: C-
Fry's Electronics Campbell, Calif.
Car Stereo: They had five XM car stereo units hooked up for demonstration and demoed XM for me. "No, I requested HD Radio, not XM."
They did not know what HD was, nor did they care. The first salesperson had to ask a second; he too, did not know about HD Radio.
I noticed that a majority of the units did not have antennas on them, preventing them from demonstrating analog FM as well.
Home Stereo: No receivers with HD, and neither the salesperson nor his supervisor knew about HD Radio.
Promotional Material: Nice POS on XM and Sirius on the display units, a whole section devoted to those services.
Overall score: F
Radio Shack Bascom Ave., San Jose
They had nothing, no home receivers, nothing. They dropped mobile audio a number of years ago. [The company told Radio World in April it plans to carry the Boston Acoustics Recepter Radio HD in some locations soon.]
Overall score: F
Digital City El Camino Santa Clara
This is a good-size independent store carrying home theater receivers, televisions and mobile audio with installation.
Car Stereo: They had one Kenwood unit for special order only. No display unit was available for demonstration.
Home Stereo: No home units at this time.
Overall score: F
Century Stereo San Jose
Home Stereo: This is an old-line high-end retailer. They know of HD Radio and are listed as a dealer for Rotel. They have yet to be shipped an HD tuner, with the release date getting pushed back by the manufacturer. They too, have heard the promotions on Bay Area radio stations and are frustrated by their inability to get HD tuners or receivers.
Overall score: B-
The results were not encouraging.
I found four HD-R receivers - two mobile, one table and one home theater - in a total of eight stores. The two mobile units were missing the HD module and could not be demonstrated. The table radio worked, but the reception was poor. And the home theater receiver was not connected and could not be demonstrated.
Until retailers have product in the stores and knowledgeable people to demonstrate them, HD Radio will not be a factor in any market.
XM and Sirius have home, car units and now portable units available. They are recognized names to the consumer and have point-of-sale displays in a majority of the stores visited.
This problem, along with the popularity of iPods, may prevent HD Radio from reaching the "critical mass" needed to be an accepted form of entertainment.
I know that HD Radio and especially HD2 are in their "baby steps" mode. But unless stations improve the programming content, and receiver makers increase the number of available radios and provide them at a reasonable price, and unless retailers increase their sales staffs' awareness and understanding, HD Radio is doomed to fail.
Is it fair to place the onus on the stores and salespeople? Yes and no.
The pressure should have come from large retailers to the receiver manufacturers to have the receivers in the stores now. They missed the last Christmas season; will they miss the next one as well? Why are some of the big names like Sony or Pioneer still on the HD sidelines?
On the alliance Web site, HD in some mobile units is listed as available "now," but while a large retailer may have the head units, they don't have the HD modules, or any knowledge about them, making "now" meaningless.
And as far as promotional material, only the Yamaha RXV4600 had a placement card that was under the receiver, you pull it out to read the "selling points" about the receiver. No other store I visited had any printed information such as signs, banners, and handout literature for in home or mobile.
I walked around each store looking for anything with the HD Radio logo on it. If it was there, I could not find it. In-store HD-R promotion is a well-kept secret. At least three years ago the XM display at a Best Buy was up and running, with "tear-off' sheets to take with you.
Stations have been broadcasting HD Radio for at least a year, and manufacturers have been promising the receivers once stations started broadcasting in HD.
Well, the stations are broadcasting. Where are the radios?
Share your own experiences with shopping for HD Radios. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.