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Back to Earth


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
March 14, 2011

I thought that I was done listening to terrestrial radio several years ago when I discovered Internet radio, first via computer and then, even more conveniently, through my Roku Soundbridge. Then there was XM radio, which came with my car and is now on my home network and my HTC Incredible Android phone. A little over a year ago, however, my interest turned back to terrestrial radio.

It started in Los Angeles. Being in LA means spending a lot of the time in a car. I am not complaining; autos and traffic nightmares are an essential part of the LA experience. Whenever I land in Burbank (the only LA airport that I will fly to anymore), I dash to the Hertz hut (just like OJ did before stuff happened) to get my car (I am a Gold #1 member, which speeds things along) and begin my temporary new life as a born-again Angelino. As green as I might want to be, the new light rail system just does not make it for me, coming about 30 years too late. Almost simultaneous with turning the rental car ignition key, my right hand goes for the car radio. I start by listening to whatever the bloke before me put on the presets, but Mariachi static  just isn't my thing. Sadly, KMET is long defunct and (World Famous) KROQ just is not the same ever since it was gobbled up by Big Radio even if I still tune into ROQ of the '80s over the 'net (which is not in my rental car because it's a digital station, more on that later). In the place of KMET, however, is KSWD, the "sound of Southern California."

Getting KSWD over the Internet is can be an ordeal because its stream is in AAC format and is designed to work with a proprietary player. The stream, which is lower quality than my usual favorites, frequently gives my Soundbridges severe sonic dyspepsia, although other AAC streams do not. Fortunately, KSWD comes in quite well over my phone, which means that much of the time I am walking around in virtual Southern California courtesy of my spiffy Motorola Bluetooth stereo headset. It is real trip getting the surf report while walking around when it is anything but hang-ten weather outside. Standing in the Hannaford checkout line is no hassle at all with "Over the Hills and Far Away" blasting into my head. Nonetheless, except for those rare occasions when I am personally located in LA, the cloud is the only way to go to get KSWD, which was ultimately another nail in terrestrial radio's coffin. At least that is what I thought until I discovered HD (which either stands for "hybrid digital" or nothing at all, but certainly not "high definition") radio earlier this year.

HD radio has been out for several years, but I ignored it because it was panned in the audiophile community as not only having poor sound quality (worse than over-the-air XM radio, which in turn is worse than the better FM radio stations), but was also noted for having serious reception problems because its signals were underpowered at first. My discovery of HD radio came as an indirect result of a brief foray into shortwave radio. Shortwave radio is one of those things, like numerous foreign languages and musical instruments, that has just never clicked for me. During a passing moment of prosperity in the early 1980s, I purchased the then state-of-the-air Sony ICF-2001 portable shortwave radio. It quickly developed a maddening intermittent reception problem that after several trips back to Sony for repair, Sony ultimately admitted was indeed problematic and they refunded my money. (There were no "refurbished" units back then to serve as replacements, so they actually attempted to repair my radio rather than send it to the refurb pool.)

On one of my increasingly occasional visits to Radio Shack I would often glance at their display of shortwave radios, which was as absurd as going to Radio Shack because the Internet had rendered shortwave largely obsolete. But after the string of wind and ice storms that swept through the Northeast in recent years, I have taken on a more survivalist cast of mind. I now have lots of flashlights and batteries and even considered getting a big-league backup generator until I learned about the hassle and heard the noise from the house across the street. What I didn't have (and still don't have) is a good shortwave radio to use to track the collapse of civilization.

Inspired by Radio Shack, I got the obviously price-fixed and very portable Grundig G8 from Amazon because Radio Shack did not have it in stock. Shortwave reception on it borders on nonexistent, but the AM is quite reasonable and its FM really rocks. The G8's secret, now shared by a few other radios, is that it uses a proprietary DSP chip to separate the radio signals from either other and from the underlying noise far better than physics would allow any analog circuit to do. Very interesting technology, but of no practical use to me because nothing that I can receive locally is an improvement over what I can get at home over the Internet or through my phone virtually everywhere else. Moreover, my phone even smaller than the Grundig radio and I already have it with me everywhere.

Googling around a bit, I found that there was a DSP-based wall-outlet tuner that was supposed to put the best classic analog tuners (Marantz, Magnum Dynalab, DaySequerra, etc.) to shame. It is the Sony XDR-F1HD, which costs around $85 though it now appears to be generally unavailable and likely discontinued. I would have gobbled one up except that I had no desire to listen to distant AM or FM radio stations and figured any station that I did want to listen to was available over the Net. Then I discovered Radio Shack's Auvio HD Tuner while surfing around for information about DACs, something I do more frequently than I should. The HD tuner was also seemingly discontinued, but unlike the Sony, it was broadly available for $30 (with coupon). For $30 it was worth a try and so I dropped into one of the several local Shacks and bought it out of curiosity.

In contrast to the Sony's stellar reputation, the Auvio is a horridly mediocre conventional FM and AM tuner. While my Grundig radio sucks up signals from hither and yon, the Auvio can grab the major local stations but is marginal at best for distant stations and low-powered stations using a standard dipole antenna properly mounted indoors. It is good for one thing, listening to HD radio. It not only can receive local HD stations, it but can also output them in digital form, something the Sony tuner cannot do as it has only analog outs. Digital is digital and so the Auvio is better for that purpose than the Sony and at a fraction of the price. (The DAC that I use to convert the digital output back to listenable analog has to be better than the cheap DAC inside the Sony, so I end up ahead.) 

Just as with HDTV, a handful of the stations, all of them either NPR affiliates or Clear Channel Communications have "sidebands" that broadcast only in HD. These secondary feeds, designated as "HD-2" often provide nothing new, the same programs can be heard on other, lower-powered analog frequencies and/or over the Internet. Some HD-2 stations, however, are not only unavailable on analog terrestrial radio, they are not out there on the cloud in any form (as far as I know).

HD radio sounds much better on my equipment than I had been led to believe by both the subjective and the objective audiophiles.. While not as good WAV and MP3 rips from my CD collection, HD rivals high-bitrate Internet stations, such as Radio Paradise. It does take 5 to 10 seconds for the Auvio to lock on to an HD-2 station, but no routers, servers, or anything else is needed to get the station, it is just there vibrating through the ether waiting for me to listen to it. Proper antenna positioning, however, is critical to limit dropouts caused by the movement of people and various unseen apparitions in the vicinity of the tuner.

I have found HD-2 station, WPYX-FM HD-2, to be particularly intriguing and have been listening to it a few hours a day for the past several weeks. It is a "classic rock" station, something that Clear Channel does with a vengeance, but with a twist (and no commercials). The format is called the "Vinyl Vineyard" and Wikipedia indicates that it is offered in a few other second-tier radio markets (Rochester, Harrisburg, Indianapolis, etc.). Unlike typical classic rock stations, the Vinyl Vineyard does not stick to the old standards, something that is done to keep fickle listeners from tuning away when an unfamiliar song comes on (so that they will then miss the commercials). Unlike "deep tracks" stations on the Internet, it does not play mainly obscure tracks from major artists. The Vinyl Vineyard goes for the happy medium of a mixture of the big hits for albums with the lesser songs that were still good enough to receive some airplay when an album first hit the racks and then slumped into obscurity.

For example, the Vinyl Vineyard played Dave Edmund's version of "Crawling from the Wreckage" twice in the last week or so while I was listening. The song is a "classic," but is very unlikely to show up on your typical classic rock station; the song does not even have a Wikipedia entry. The Vinyl Vineyard has lots of Janis Joplin and such.  "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," a great Joplin song, is playing as I write this sentence. It is also not in Wikipedia and while it was on the radio in the heavy rotation back in the day, I don't expect to hear it in my dentist's office or the grocery store in this lifetime. (Even the super-eclectic Radio Paradise does not have "Try" on its expansive playlist.) True to its name, the Vinyl Vineyard does play some tunes that are available only on vinyl. For example, they play "Frozen Love" by Buckingham Nicks (the Palo Alto pair who made Fleetwood Mac what it is today), which I cannot recall having heard anywhere since their one and only album came out eons ago. The Vinyl Vineyard also seems to skew a little more male than the typical classic rock station, but not nearly as male as the aforementioned KSWD.

The signature artist of the Vinyl Vineyard appears to be Steely Dan. Any time of any day, Steely Dan appears about once an hour. Eric Clapton in his 1970s solo incarnation (sans Dominos) is also in heavy rotation; however, he gets a rest from time to time. For both the Dan and Slowhand, the Vineyard's goes much deeper into their catalog than with other artists. Despite logging at least forty hours with the station, I have yet to figure out its programming algorithm and just when I think I've heard everything, the stations throws me a curve ball, something that KSWD does only once in a great while. Neither station is very big on soul music and there are times when a little Al Green or Barry White would hit the spot. While KSWD goes for the Beatles in a big way, the Vinyl Vineyard doles them out in very measured doses. While the Vinyl Vineyard is, for lack of a better word, random, KSWD is the more interesting station and may rate its own commentary at some later date. The interesting thing about classic rock is that most of it is never heard anymore despite the preponderance of classic rock outlets. While a lot of it deserves never to be heard again, there is a lot of good stuff that for one reason or anything never caught on nationally when it was released and then just vanished.

The Vinyl Vineyard is far from perfect, but so far it seems to provide the best classic rock that I have found anywhere, including custom playlist services such as Pandora and Slacker. One obvious bad thing about the Vinyl Vineyard is that it is a Clear Channel station. The end of each song aggressively overlaps the beginning of the next, presumably to discourage "taping." The station itself is seriously on autopilot, meaning that no one at Clear Channel is paying attention to it, likely because it generates no ad revenue. The song display is frequently either stuck on the same song for hours or else stuck on the station id message.

I am still happily listening to my HD tuner, but I already have a new toy, and it will be the subject of next month's commentary.

Copyright 2011 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to