Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Insignia Portable HD Radio from Best Buy

Have you heard about the new Insignia Portable HD Radio from Best Buy?

Nobody has, apparently, including the clerk at the Best Buy near where I live. Okay, he actually had heard of it, but he wasn't sure what it was, and he didn't know if they had any in stock. He typed a few keystrokes, and the computer told him there were three in the store, but it didn't say where, and he couldn't find them. Another clerk helped, and the radios eventually turned up on an unassuming endcap, hanging from a peg way down at the bottom. Let's just say that HD Radio hasn't exactly caught on, at Best Buy (or anyplace else, for that matter).

As esoteric as it is, HD Radio is a neat idea, with better sound than regular FM stereo, and the ability for broadcasters to offer "subchannels" with alternate programming in addition to their main terrestrial signal. The Seattle area is awash with subchannels, particularly via KING-FM, KPLU-FM and KUOW-FM. I'm not sure exactly how many people own HD Radios, but I'd venture a guess that it's a pretty small number.

My Best Buy expedition took place a week before Christmas, when I was inspired to buy a small HD Radio that I could easily plug into my home stereo, so that we could pipe KING-FM's commercial-free Evergreen Channel (KING-FM 98.1 HD-2 and also streaming via their website, if you want to get really specific) and its "all Classical Christmas" format all through the house. I already have an HD Radio in my kitchen that I bought two years ago (the Radiosophy HD100), but it's too unwieldy for this particular application and it doesn't travel well, even just around the house (it has a very LARGE power supply).

The Insignia is certainly affordable at $50, and it performed its "all Classical Christmas" task with flying colors throughout the holidays. The unit is compact (smaller than a pack of cigarettes, if it's still okay to use that as a comparison), and the built-in batteries charge up quickly via the provided USB cable, and the charge lasts at least 10 hours. It has 10 station presets, which is more than enough for most listening areas (I still have two empty presets), though the presets only register the main HD signal of any particular station (and NOT the subchannels). For example, I couldn't make the KING-FM HD-2 channel a preset, I was only able make the KING-FM HD-1 channel the preset and then have to click up the dial one step. The wire to the earbuds (provided) or, in my case, the cable to my stereo, functions as the antenna.

My only complaint with the Insignia is the responsiveness or sensitivity of the control buttons. It seems like you have to first "awaken" the radio by pressing any of the eight or so buttons, and then press the button again to activate whatever it is you're trying to do. Also, it seems like I always have to press the power button (and hold it down and wait several seconds) two or three or even four times to shut the radio off.

Now that Christmas has past, I've taken the Insignia with me on a few writing assignments where I've needed audio isolation, and it's been a snap to plug in my headphones and tune to KING-FM or to Jazz 24 (heard on KPLU 88.5 HD-2 around these parts). Next time I have to take a long drive I'll see what the reception is like between here and Portland (probably pretty good) or here and Spokane (probably non-existent in the Cascades and across most of Eastern Washington).

Meanwhile, I'll be waiting for "all Classical Christmas" to return (and hoping the HD format will still be around) so that the Insignia can get back to doing its real job.

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