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Do I need a special antenna to receive HD radio?

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tv antenna

While you'll need an additional antenna to watch TV in your car, your existing antenna will do fine for HD Radio.

Image courtesy of Sean Su, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)
Question: Do I need a special antenna to receive HD radio?
My favorite radio station has an extra channel that’s only available in “HD radio.” What kind of antenna do I need to receive that signal?
Answer:

The good news is that you can receive HD Radio signals with the antenna that’s already in your car. Even if you drive a 40 year old hunk of Detroit steel, the antenna is going to be more than equal to the task of pulling in HD Radio broadcasts. The bad news is that unless you have a head unit that’s capable of pulling the digital HD Radio signal out of the standard analog broadcast of your favorite station, a potentially much more expensive upgrade is in order.

HD Radio isn’t HDTV

The transition from analog to digital in the radio world has worked a little differently from the way it did in the realm of television, which is why your existing head unit still works. When the proverbial digital television switch was flipped in the United States, the frequency that each station was broadcast on changed. The FCC was then able to “reclaim” the old frequencies for other usage, which is why old TVs don’t work without adapters and you can buy special “HDTV antennas.”

Digital HD Radio signals, on the other hand, are embedded in analog signals that are broadcast on the same frequencies that have been in use for decades. The iBiquity Digital Corporation developed a method that allows stations to send out their analog broadcasts in addition to one or more digital signals within the same bandwidth they used to use for just the analog programming. That’s accomplished by a special HD Radio tuner that’s built into some head units.

Since iBiquity’s method involved a digital signal embedded in an analog signal, and the analog frequencies have remained unchanged, you don’t need a special antenna to receive HD Radio.

Tuning in to HD Radio

Some OEM head units come with a built-in HD Radio tuner, but the feature is also available from the aftermarket. If your head unit can’t receive any HD Radio stations, and you’re sure that there are HD Radio broadcasts in your area, then you’ll need to upgrade. In that case, you have two options:

If you’re ready for an upgrade anyway, then there are a lot of great head units out there that come with built-in HD Radio tuners. The feature is far from universal, though, so you shouldn’t take it for granted that any given head unit will be able to play HD Radio channels. If you don’t see the iBiquity HD Radio logo on the box, then make sure to double check the feature list before you buy.

If you like your factory radio, or you just upgraded your head unit and it doesn’t have an HD Radio tuner, then an add-on unit will be a better option. Some add-on HD Radio tuners are universal, which means you can use them with virtually any head unit. These add-ons typically come with with a remote display since your existing head unit won’t be able to display the additional information that comes along with an HD Radio signal.

Other add-on tuners are designed to work with a specific type of head unit, which is typically a better and cheaper option if you own a compatible head unit. Certain Pioneer, Clarion, Sony, and other head units have add-on tuners that will allow you to listen to HD Radio stations. Since these add-ons are designed to interact with your head unit, they’re typically capable of displaying information like song titles and artist names directly on the head unit display.

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