Entry-Level HD Radio Portable Debuts - Radio World

Entry-Level HD Radio Portable Debuts

Insignia NS-HD01 armband unit supports multicast channels at a low price point
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The industry has been waiting patiently for a portable HD Radio receiver; Best Buy has delivered with the new Insignia NS-HD01. At $49.99, this is an attractive product that should be a great entry-level radio for consumers to start experiencing HD Radio.

I was on the Best Buy Web site on July 12 when the company quietly launched the product, and I bought one for the "In Store" pickup. Insignia is an in-house Best Buy brand and the units are exclusive to Best Buy.

The player has a built-in rechargeable Lithium-ion battery that can be charged through a computer USB, wall or car charger. The radio features a 1.5-inch color LCD screen, 10 presets and 3.5 mm jack output. An armband, computer USB cable and earbuds are included.

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The author is shown in front of the Citadel Syracuse stations. 'This radio has the best reception of any HD non-automotive radio I've used.' The unit is small and lightweight at 3.07 x 2.06 x 0.63 inches. The user interface, display and controls are user-friendly and intuitive. Battery life between charges is great, coming in just over the stated 10 hours. They did a great job, in my opinion. Those looking for an AM radio will be disappointed, though; it doesn't do AM.

The radio does not come charged, so you'll need to leave it on the charger at first. I went to my car, and immediately plugged the power cable to start charging my new radio to get started. I hooked it up to my car's Auxiliary input and started driving around.

If you read Radio World, you know that many in the industry are concerned about the performance of HD Radio receivers. Many of the tabletop models, even those with longer dipole antennas, have had performance issues. How will a portable receiver work?

This radio has the best reception of any HD non-automotive radio I've used. It also has better reception than many analog radios. In my car, I was easily able to tune into every HD signal that I would expect to receive in Syracuse.

Performance

I also heard things I did not expect to hear. In the parking lot of the Best Buy in Liverpool, N.Y., a Syracuse suburb, I was able to receive the analog signal with RDS of WPXY(FM), a Class B station in Rochester, N.Y., over 70 miles away, as well as other stations in adjacent markets. I was not expecting the ability to do that on a portable radio that uses the headphone cable as its antenna!

I drove 20 minutes home, listening to various HD Radio broadcasts in the market, and the radio performed perfectly.

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The radio features a 1.5-inch color LCD screen, 10 presets and 3.5 mm jack output. An armband, computer USB cable and earbuds are included. When I got home, I went down to the basement and throughout the house. I had flawless HD Radio reception. The next day, I went into the work and decided to give my HD Radio more of a challenge.

Our office building is a standard, one-story brick and steel constructed building located in Syracuse. We often have problems with the various tabletop HD Radios in our building. At my desk, I have two tabletop HD Radios that sometimes go in and out of HD.

I listened to an HD2 stream on my NS-HD01 for an entire workday at my desk with no problems. During this time my other HD Radios sitting at my desk, with wire antennas stretched up to the ceiling tiles, occasionally lose HD lock.

Walking around the interior of the building yielded great results for the "in-town" HD stations. We're all aware of the HD penetration issue, and unfortunately, this receiver cannot perform miracles. If the station doesn't have a predicted 70 dBu FCC contour over your area, you're likely going to have indoor HD reception issues.

In my tests, the stations in the market that have a predicted 60–70 dBu at this location work fine outdoors or at my nearby home, but do not perform well in an indoor office environment. The radio does a great job at receiving the analog portion of these signals indoors, but the HD is not to be found.

I went on a trip to Carousel Center, a large multi-story regional mall in Syracuse. I found the receiver did well on the "in town" signals as I walked the common corridors of the mall. However, if I went into a store, particularly on the lower levels, I often lost HD lock, and by the time I got to the middle of these stores, I often had no analog reception either. I think this is more of a function of the massive attenuation that the building has at FM frequencies. The more distant HD signals were okay in analog, but never really went into HD in the mall.

Mobile coverage

I had a quick business trip to New York City right after getting the unit. Most of my trip was in midtown Manhattan, where the digital portion of the radio performed far better than analog. Most of the signals in New York are transmitted from the Empire State Building, and I wasn't more than a mile away, so one might expect the performance to be great, and it was.

Most striking to me was how well the Insignia performed receiving digital signals in interior office buildings as compared to analog.

The analog signal really gets battered by multipath distortion in midtown Manhattan, and is scratchy on the NS-HD01.

However, as soon as it goes into HD, the station becomes clear, and HD reception was surprisingly good in my limited tests of the interior of some tough office buildings.

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The text display for WNTQ(FM), Syracuse. One of the toughest tests I did was take an elevator in the center of the General Motors Building from the 45th floor to the lobby, listening to the HD2 channel of WPLJ(FM). Amazingly, the HD2 signal stayed intact for about 75 percent of the ride.

Outside of Manhattan, I was less impressed with HD coverage. My testing was limited to the car rides between JFK Airport and Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway and the Van Wyck Expressway. HD reception was spotty at best on all of the major stations in New York while in the car, especially when I got on the Van Wyck.

Also, HD reception at JFK inside the terminal wasn't that great. But the analog was scratchy in these cases. More testing will need to be done, but my initial theory is that the lower-power HD carriers from the FM stations transmitting from Empire aren't penetrating well outside of Manhattan.

As far as HD performance goes, a properly installed HD mobile receiver will perform better than the NS-HD01, and I simply think this is because the mobile receiver has a dedicated, fixed, solid antenna. If only the NS-HD01 had an antenna jack! However, in my testing I found the NS-HD01 better than most, if not all, HD tabletop radios.

The designers included RDS for analog-only broadcasts in the Insignia. This is an exciting feature to have, as most manufacturers of HD Radios have surprisingly ignored RDS. Most HD Radio receivers have beautiful LCD displays for PAD data that would also lend themselves to RDS, so I'm happy this radio has it.

Drawbacks

While the unit supports the Program Service name, it has a bug in it. If the station's PS has a space in the first character of the PS, the radio will not display a PS value. Many broadcasters use software to center the PS, so if it's not eight characters, they add spaces to the left and the right to make it look better on most receivers. The NS-HD01 will not display it.

Also, the radio displays the Radio Text and Program Service RDS data as it receives it, sometimes replacing text from right to left slowly. This can be confusing because the radio displays half of the old string and half of the new string for a few seconds while it receives more RDS data. Most receivers don't display the new RDS string until it has been fully received and been checked for errors.

I also found that when the unit loses HD lock, the "HD" light doesn't blink to show you that it lost its link. On HD1, it will blend to analog. For HD2, you hear nothing, and eventually the display changes to "Channel not available." Also, after several minutes of no lock, it goes back to the analog frequency, which I found annoying in a long tunnel while driving.

Insignia NS-HD01 HD Radio Portable Player Thumbs Up
Excellent performance
Great price
Supports RDS
Supports multicast channels

Thumbs Down
No AM tuner
No album information on HD broadcasts
No iTunes Tagging or RT+ tagging
Needs more than 10 presets
No "force analog" feature

Price
$49.99 MSRP sold only by Best Buy
Info: www.bestbuy.comI wish it had more presets. Ten is too limiting, given all the multicast channels you can hear. A "force analog" feature would also be helpful for users on the fringe areas that might get frustrated if the radio constantly goes back and forth between analog and digital.

I also wish it supported iTunes Tagging for HD broadcasts and RT+ tagging for analog RDS broadcasts. With the USB cord for charging, add another button and you're almost there.

It also doesn't display the album information on HD broadcasts as part of the program-associated-data. To accomplish that, I'd recommend including an additional display mode on an HD broadcast when you press the "Enter" button. Right now there are two displays, a large font one displaying data for the current channel and another smaller font display for the multicast channel information. I'd want to see a third display, for title, artist and album.

Hopefully Best Buy will be getting more inventory soon. I would recommend buying this radio and experiencing HD. [When RW checked in mid-August, the unit was backordered and due to ship again in early to mid-September.]

For those in radio, it's a great portable unit to monitor PAD and RDS data and your HD stations. But for listeners, it gives them a great way to experience HD Radio. Radio stations should be buying these in bulk and giving them away as prizes to promote HD. We're at a price point where that's possible.

If you decide to buy one, I would recommend buying it using the Best Buy Web site for in-store pickup. This will assure you that they have it on hand, and that you don't go to a store and leave empty-handed.

The only thing left to do? Make sure you're offering compelling programming on your HD2 stations, your PAD data is correct and your audio levels set properly and time-aligned. I think the industry should continue to pursue increasing the HD power level to help building penetration. That's something that's beyond the NS-HD01's ability to overcome. However, if you're in an area with strong FM signals, you'll love the NS-HD01, and you might be surprised at what it can do.

Alan Jurison is a regional IT manager/broadcast engineer for Citadel Broadcasting in Syracuse, N.Y. He holds several SBE certifications, including CSRE, AMD, DRB and CBNT.

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