HD Radio: Going Digital On The Cheap

February 27, 2008

One of the most interesting features in BMW's 2008 lineup comes not under the hood of the new M3 coupe, nor the 128i Convertible, nor the 135i coupe. It's embedded in the dash--factory-installed HD Radio.

While the rest of the auto industry has installed satellite radio at a blazing pace, BMW took a slower path with Sirius satellite radio. But in terms of HD radio, it's the unqualified earliest adopter. For 2008, HD Radio is a $500 option across the lineup, and I listened to it for the first time while waiting for my M3 laps at California's Laguna Seca racetrack.

HD Radio is pretty simple: it takes the new digital signals sent out by AM and FM stations and feeds them through your car's audio system, making the old hissy analog signal obsolete. What's more, HD Radio enables stations to multicast. Your favorite soul station might keep a mainstream channel, while adding a new stream of '70s funk or a third feed of Stax-only tracks. Beyond that, the digital signal sends information to the radio's head unit, so you get a satellite-like display of song titles, artists, music categories, and more.

More than 1100 stations are broadcasting their signals in HD. And for fans of talk radio, hearing Laura Ingraham in clear tones is a treat. While I'm not one to pay $12.95 for a satellite radio subscription (I don't need to hear Stern every day to feel plugged into the global media outlet), I'd surely choose an HD option in my next car, or at least opt for the aftermarket add-on.

IBiquity, the company that developed HD Radio and is licensing it out, says it has big plans for the service, including real-time traffic reports (like those on XM); surround sound; and the most obvious thing I've been waiting for in radio since before TiVo--a time-shift feature that will record favorite programs for the next time you're driving. And while BMW's the first manufacturer to take HD Radio mainstream, iBiquity says 13 automakers are set to launch receivers in their cars soon.

Until then, you can get a complete list of HD-broadcasting stations at the HD Radio Web site, and you can find aftermarket HD Radio systems at major big-box retailers like Best Buy or Amazon.

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