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Let’s Go Shopping: HD Radio in Cincy

I made the rounds of stores that sell electronics in the Cincinnati area. What I found was some improvement; but a lot is yet needed.

There has been any number of stories in the trades about the lack of HD Radios at retailers and retail people who know little or nothing about the technology.

Radio World suggested that I see if that had changed any recently.

So I made the rounds of stores that sell electronics in the Cincinnati area. What I found was some improvement; but a lot is yet needed.

First stop: a store of the regional H.H. Gregg chain. I was met practically at the door by “Dan,” who asked how he might direct me. I told him I had heard about this HD Radio and was interested in auditioning one.

He knew a bit about the technology — and mentioned that “you hear about it on the radio all the time.” He turned me over to one of Gregg’s “specialists” (their term) who bluntly stated, “We don’t carry them” and suggested I try RadioShack or Best Buy.

(click thumbnail)One retailer sent me to Best Buy but I left a bit disappointed that the person in an HD Radio Alliance-featured retailer knew less about HD-R than I do. At a Best Buy store just across the way, I made my way to the car stereo department in a back corner of the showroom and sure enough, there were two on display: the house-brand Insignia NS-C5112 and the JVC KD-HDR1.

The lone salesperson was tied up with a couple intent on deafening themselves, so I walked over and found the micro sound systems mixed in with clock radios and boomboxes neatly hidden in the middle of the store.

External antenna

On display, next to one another, were the Sony XDR-53HD table unit and another house-brand Insignia product, their NS-HD2114 HD radio/DVD player with matching speakers. Even though both were connected to an external antenna, neither unit received enough RF input to lock onto the HD-R stream.

Another problem was, I never did figure out how to tune the Insignia unit, and a Best Buy employee who wandered by and offered to help was just as puzzled as I. Another disappointment was the Insignia was tuned to 107.1, home of Class B1 WKFS(FM).

That should have been fine, as the station’s antenna is less than 10 miles from the store. But the radio wasn’t receiving any signal at all. That’s not a strong recommendation of the unit.

When I returned to the car stereo display area, the salesperson was alone so I asked him about which units had HD Radio. At first he had a puzzled look on his face, but he quickly recovered and said, “Oh, yes — HD Radio,” and pointed to the JVC KD-HDR1, which was surrounded by a sign that said, “Hear the difference of HD Radio!”

He also located without too much trouble the Insignia unit, which he attempted to demonstrate. He said, “That’s HD Radio,” even though the radio obviously couldn’t link to the HD signal; the “HD” symbol on the radio’s readout just blinked.

When I mentioned that to him, he sounded surprised and suggested we try the JVC. Finally, there was a radio in the store that could link to the digital stream and I could hear the difference — not well (brother, are Best Buy stores noisy!) but well enough.

I walked away a bit disappointed that the person in an HD Radio Alliance-featured retailer knew less about HD-R than I do.

(click thumbnail)Thom MoonGold star

I decided to take a break in the chain action to visit a local audio/video store, Alamo Electronics. They specialize in flat-screen TV but have enough interest in audio to carry some very fine lines.

I was pleased to find located centrally in the modestly sized store a display of high-end home radios: a complete selection of the Kloss radios from Tivoli and three HD-R units: the Sony I first encountered at Best Buy, the recently discontinued Boston Acoustics Receptor HD and the relatively new Denon S-52 networked unit.

The sales associate was moderately knowledgeable about the process. He knew that HD-R was digital but he didn’t know how the digital stream was inserted into the signal.

At a store such as Alamo, I expect their people to know more than the folks at Best Buy. He did, and the store gets a gold star because I could actually audition an HD Radio without several other audio sources blasting at me.

Next stop: Circuit City.

It’s a good thing they have a suspended sign that says “Home Audio” over the section because otherwise I don’t think I would have found it, hidden in a far back corner behind a barricade of portable audio gimcracks. As I expected, their selection of home HD Radios was underwhelming: just the Sony XDR-53HD.

Of course, it wasn’t connected to an antenna, so it wouldn’t link with HD-R, even though I was only about six miles from the WKRC(TV) tower, home to all of Clear Channel’s local FM’s and Entercom’s WKRQ(FM).

Over in the Car Electronics department in the opposite back corner, the selection was equally slim — just the JVC KD-HDR1.

The kid keeping an eye on the section knew all about XM and Sirius but next to nothing about HD-R. He demonstrated the JVC unit and it was receiving enough signal for it to link, but one couldn’t tell much about the sound because it was being played so loudly to compete with the boom-bam-bang of big-screen TVs.

A Target is just across the street, so I sauntered over and looked around their home electronics section, located about as far as possible from the front door and against an outside wall. HD Radio? Nada. Zero. Zip.

Talked to the gentleman who appeared to be in charge and he said, “Nope, we don’t sell those.” When I said I had found Target mentioned on the HD Radio Web site, he just said, “Oh — it must be Internet only.” And, indeed, the Target Web site lists three HD units: the Sony, the Sangean HDT-1 tuner and Sangean’s HDR-1 radio. All are available now.

Then it was onto Wal-Mart. I checked the home electronics department from top to bottom and nothing. No one was around except in the photo department next door, but the guys there knew nothing about HD Radio.

I asked if HD Radios might just be Web site items and they both said that could be. On the Wal-Mart Web site, after looking at clock radios, mini-systems and receivers, I gave up and searched on “HD Radio.”

No tag

There I realized I hadn’t checked the auto accessories section of the store, because all three HD units that appeared are car units: the JVC KD-HDW10 (which looks like a re-labeled version of the KD-HDR1) and the Visteon HDZ300 in-car and Visteon “Jump” portable tuners.

My final stops were at the local mall. I went because that’s where my local RadioShack is located — on the lower level, below ground.

When I got there, all that was displayed was a lonely-looking Boston Acoustics Recepter HD. It wasn’t plugged in and had no price tag.

I asked the attendant if they had any others. He looked at me with his mouth half-opened and said he didn’t even know they had that one. Recognizing I would get no farther there, I backtracked to a discovery I had made entering the mall: a Sony Style store.

The gentleman there was fairly knowledgeable but when I tried the XDR-53HD, it wouldn’t even show a blinking HD-R symbol. I asked if they could put an antenna on it. He said it had one attached but they couldn’t even pick up HD-R with it.

He then mentioned they had a 30-day money-back return policy so if I wanted to take one home and try it, I could. He was the best person I’d encountered in all of my search. But even he couldn’t demonstrate the radio to me.

My .02

The problem with getting HD Radios into the hands of consumers strikes me as not that retail people know nothing about HD Radio; it’s that the few HD Radios displayed aren’t able to receive an HD signal.

It’s bad when you’re trying to sell an expensive unit and the prospect can’t hear the main selling points of the technology: better sound and the “stations between the stations.”

As it looks to me, broadcasters have been insistent in trying to create demand for HD Radio, and despite the naysayers, I know people who are intrigued enough at least to ask me about it. But brick-and-mortar retailers make it difficult (if not impossible) for consumers to make an informed decision. Right now, the consumer’s smart move is to troll the Internet.

It occurs to me that the radio industry’s best bet is to encourage local audio retailers to play up HD Radio — and to help them make sure the radios they have on display can lock onto the HD signals.

Stations might even tag HD Radio spots with “Hear HD Radio now at (local retailer’s name and address).” Do it as a trade of sorts; the store gets the plug if you know its HD Radios work properly.

We’re in a critical period. For too long, there were stations transmitting an IBOC signal alongside their analog but no HD Radios. Now the radios are in the marketplace, but they require a bit of extra effort — effort a big-box store probably can’t give them.

Retailers want to move merchandise and won’t stock it if it doesn’t move, but with HD Radio, they may need some help. Goodness knows, radio can move merchandise.

The industry already has made huge investments in capital equipment, programming and promotion. But people won’t buy it if they can’t hear the differences. Let’s go that extra step and make certain they know where they can hear HD Radio.

Radio World welcomes other points of view.