What Is HD radio in a Car?


There are many radios you heard about, and one of them is the HD radio. But, what exactly is an HD radio, and how it works in the car? Let’s find out.

In general, HD Radio is used for the transmission of a high-quality digital signal when compared to standard analog radios. It also transfers detailed information about the station, artist, title, and more.

As an Amazon Associate, ImproveCarAudio will receive a small commission from qualifying purchases made through the links in this article.

Tip: If you want to enjoy an HD radio, but your stereo does not support it, you may need to replace it with the new radio.

The stereo that I have been using for years with built-in HD radio is a Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX.

Below in the article, you will find more information about this fantastic stereo, but if you do not have time to go through the details and want something quickly with excellent quality, check its latest price on Amazon.

In the article below, I will explain the other benefits of using an HD radio, how to activate it, and how it works.

What Is the Difference Between HD Radio and Regular Radio?

The standard car radio transfers two-channel stereo AM / FM signals, and that is it.

HD Radio technology is the digital broadcast of your local AM/FM stations. Many stations broadcast a digital signal that allows you additional features that wouldn’t exist on an Analog signal.

An HD Radio transfers not only a quality stereo signal, but in addition to that, it transmits additional information needed to decode the digital stream.

How does it work?

Like your smartphone, HD Radios receive the data sent through the airwaves via antennas installed on towers. These specific frequencies called HD1, HD2, or HD3 can be used for other services, so not all stations use them.

The receiver can interpret this data, which means you hear no hiccups skipping between channels, and song titles appear on the screen like on the satellite radio.

This is from the technical jargon, but what is the actual user experience?

  • First of all, HD radios do not lose signal quality. If the digital station is broadcasting with stable audio quality, you will hear good sound from the speakers. The signal is also unaffected by natural obstructions, like mountains or large buildings.
  • A secondary benefit of an HD radio is that you can also receive text messages directly from the radio station directly on the radio screen. This usually happens during news broadcasts, severe weather, or accident alerts.

Do Cars Come With HD Radio?

In new cars, HD radio became standard in premium models, and it became available as an optional feature for lower-class models.

This transition from analog to digital in car radios has been ongoing for several years now, but already in 2018, more than half of new cars were equipped with HD radios.

By then, over 4,300 stations were broadcasting digital channels in the US with the following breakdown:

  • 2,224 total HD Radio stations on-air
  • 1,495 HD2 channels on-air
  • 503 HD3 channels
  • 78 HD4 channels

If you have a factory-installed head unit and your car is relatively new, there is no extra cost for an HD radio tuner because it is already installed inside your dashboard.

If you have an aftermarket stereo system in your vehicle or car that is older, then you may need to buy an HD tuner separately, depending on the model you have.

How Do I Know if I Have HD Radio in My Car?

The simplest way is to turn the radio and go to your station. If it shows an HD logo, your radio already supports digital radio stations.

Because still not all stations have an HD version, you may need to check the radio manual or car manual if you have a factory head unit.

In many cases, you already have an HD radio without knowing it. Start enjoying the high-quality streaming without any modifications or spending money on the HD stereo if you do. Otherwise, keep reading.

How Do I Get HD Radio in My Car?

If your car stereo does not support the HD radio, the only option for you to get it is to buy an aftermarket car stereo that is compatible with HD radio technology.

You can find plenty of head units on the internet to choose from, even good ones like the Pioneer or Alpine, but my favorite by far over all others is the Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX.

Regardless of which radio you will use, one thing is worth remembering. If the signal gets weaker, your radio may not be able to decode any of the digital radio stations, and in effect, the signal goes back to the back to the analog quality.

Is HD Radio the Same as DAB?

HD radio works in a similar way to the DAB, but they are not the same.

Even though both DAB and HD Radio receive the exact digital signals, you cannot use HD radio to receive these stations when sold or moved overseas, except for a few HD stations, for example, in Thailand, Taiwan, or Japan.

And vice versa, the DAB radios cannot receive HD signals in the US.

This is because HD radios that work with AM and FM stations upgraded to digital quality, work in different digital broadcasting standards.

Is HD Radio Better Than Sirius?

HD Radio receives a signal from local AM & FM stations with excellent quality and with all needed information for free.

Sirius radio, on the other hand, offers selected stations across the US for a monthly subscription fee.

Most car radios can work with both HD radio and Sirius, so which one you will choose is a purely personal choice.

For me, well… I do not like monthly subscriptions.

What Are HD1, HD2, and HD3 Radio?

Having an HD radio in a car is better than having only FM or AM.

Because this signal is digital, it’s much more resistant to noise, so that radio stations rebroadcast their analog signal on HD1, which is the first available HD Radio station on a single carrier frequency.

Because of this rebroadcast, the HD1 stations have better quality and clarity than the analog signal, and broadcasters can divide their digital signals however they want but within the available frequencies.

If they want the clearest, most detailed digital option for their primary station, they may not broadcast anything other than HD1. For example, HD1 can be the digital equivalent of the leading FM radio station, while HD2 can be an AM station from the same broadcaster.

Talk or news radios, because they require less overall bandwidth compared to the music, are often broadcasted through HD2 and HD3.

You can visit the HD Radio website, then enter your ZIP code to find stations using HD Radio technology in your area. See the example below.

How Much Does an HD Radio Cost?

HD Radio broadcasts are free because these are signals sent by local AM & FM stations. The only requirement to listen to HD Radio is an HD receiver, but after that, it’s cost-free without any monthly subscriptions.

There are many options for aftermarket HD radios, including receivers that can also handle satellite radio.

With prices ranging from $100 to way over $1,000, it may be difficult to make the right choice. Also, not all radios are really worth overpaying.

When you purchase an HD radio, you have to be aware that it will be more expensive than regular FM/AM radios due to its digital nature. Higher-end aftermarket stereos are currently between $500-$1,500, but most basic models are much cheaper.

Which HD Car Radios Are the Best?

There are many aftermarket radios that support HD radios, but there are two brands that stand out from the rest: Pioneer and Kenwood. You want one of these radios in your car, but they are not the cheapest ones.

My favorite one that has worked without any single issue since around 2018 is Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX.

The HD radio that is factory built in the AVH-W4400NEX delivers crystal-clear FM and AM sound from all stations you can reach.

The head unit also supports SiriusXM if you decide to pay a monthly fee for the satellite radio. I did not, so I do not use it.

One of the excellent options I found handy is customizing the touchscreen by moving icons around to create shortcuts to my favorite apps. I really like this feature, and it saves me lots of time while searching through the applications.

If you travel with kids, you can connect this radio with the rear screens and let the kids enjoy the movies from the DVD.

Another great part about it is the sound quality. AVH-4400NEX has a built-in 13-band Equalizer that allows you to tune any tones you want. In addition, it offers a digital time alignment and Auto-EQ that will suggest the most optimal settings for any music type.

These settings do a great job of improving acoustics in my car, and I am sure you will also benefit from them.

AVH-W4400NEX has a 7″ resistive display, and before buying it, I was considering purchasing a top model AVIC-W8400NEX with the same 7″ size but a capacitive screen.

Capacitive screens have better quality and contrast and are more sensitive to even the slightest touch but more “fragile,” especially when traveling with kids.

Finally, I went for the lower model W4400NEX, and I do not regret it. The screen is amazing, easy to clean and to maintain without any scratches.

There are, however, some downsides I have found after using the radio for a long time. They are not critical to any functionality, but I needed some time to get used to these missing features.

One thing that was strange for me from day one was not adjustable sidelines in the rearview camera. For some reason, Pioneer did not make this active in this model, and I did not pay attention to this before purchasing it.

Another thing I have missed is the built-in GPS. Unlike in the AVIC-W8400NEX I was considering buying, W4400NEX is not equipped with navigation.

But is missing sat-nav a real issue? I do not think so, because maps on the radios have to be updated frequently, which is an additional cost.

Instead, I connect directly with Android Radio and have all the needed and most current routes on the screen.

One thing I had to add for the Android wired connection was the CDMU200 cable. It was not expensive, but I was expecting that a standard USB cable would work.

Unfortunately, the standard USB cable allows only to charge the phone without mirroring the Android phone.

Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX In Dash Multimedia Receiver with 7" WVGA Clear Resistive Touchscreen Display

The downside was that the installation was not too complicated but more time-consuming. So if you want to have a correctly connected factory camera, steering wheel controls with car data, and Bluetooth, be prepared for a couple of hours spent in the garage.

Although the factory list of the built-in features is really long for AVH-W4400NEX, and I listed below the most important ones:

  • DVD/CD receiver
  • detachable 7″ motorized touchscreen with multi-angle adjustments
  • wireless, wired Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay
  • built in-Wi-Fi and Bluetooth with hands-free calling
  • built-in HD Radio with AM/FM
  • playback of music files on Android devices
  • voice control compatible with iPhones and Android phones
  • Pandora and Spotify control with iPhone and Android
  • plays audio/video content from CDs, DVDs, SD cards, and through USB devices
  • plays lossless FLAC audio files (up to 192kHz/24-bit)
  • it has 13-band graphic equalizer with 7 preset EQ settings
  • high- and low-pass filters
  • dual-zone audio
  • works with SiriusXM tuner
  • equipped with rear A/V input, two rear USB inputs, HDMI input, dual rearview camera inputs
  • equipped in video output, 6-channel preamp outputs front, rear speakers, and subwoofer
  • internal amp with 14 watts RMS per channel (4x 50 Watts peak)
  • compatible with most factory steering wheel audio controls
  • compatible with iDatalink Maestro
  • displays engine performance data on touchscreen
  • it has remote control in package

If I were about to buy the radio again, I would definitely choose the same Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX.

I hope you have found this short review helpful, and if you are searching for a truly fantastic car stereo with an HD radio, you will not be disappointed.

Although it is not the latest model from Pioneer, you can find it on Amazon, so go and check it out.

How Can I Listen to HD Radio on a Factory Stereo?

The glorious thing about HD radio is that you can listen to it on a factory stereo, so the aftermarket doesn’t have to buy you out. But what to do if your stereo does not support the HD radio?

The best solution for you is connecting your phone to your car’s stereo and using an HD Radio app. I suggest using either a streaming app like one of these or the proprietary app from your most favorite station.

How Far Does HD Radio Signal Travel?

Unlike traditional analog FM/AM frequencies, HD radio uses computer technology to transmit audio data. Because of this, there is less interference from surrounding signals, which means better sound but at reduced distances.

The traditional radio signals can be transmitted at a max of 100 miles, but the range for a HD radio is shorter, approx. 10-15 miles. For distances longer than that, HD radio switches back to the analog.

How Do I Get HD Radio in My Car?

To install an HD radio in a car isn’t too hard. You first need to find a head unit that will fit into your car stereo system, and then you have to buy installation tools for it.

The installation is straightforward and usually involves connecting the wiring harness and an FM/AM radio antenna.

If you don’t want to install it yourself, you can find a local car audio service or electrician/mechanic to help you do it.

If however, you do not want to change the radio and it does not have an HD Radio tuner, you can install an add-on unit.

Some add-on HD Radio tuners are universal so that you can use them with virtually any head unit. Other add-on tuners work with a specific type of head unit, which is typically a better and cheaper option if you own a compatible head unit.

For example, PIONEER GEX-P20HD for Pioneer radios or Sony XT100HD for Sony stereos. Since these add-ons interact directly with the radios, they can display song titles and artist names on the radio’s screen.

How Can I Improve My Car Radio HD Reception?

You can install an aftermarket antenna that will improve your FM/AM radio reception. For the HD parts of the signal, it’s not necessary to have a better antenna since digital signals transmit everything without loss of quality.

Conclusion

HD radio is a free service that digitizes local AM/FM radio stations to high-quality signals for a better listening experience.

HD radios are available in most of today’s aftermarket stereos and are also popular in the new cars as a standard feature.

But this is not only about the sound quality. HD radio also transfers other data, allowing you to see artist information, song titles, and more on the screen.

It also allows for up to three additional digital radio signals, so one station can rebroadcast three different programs within the same frequency allocation.

Martin

Welcome to ImproveCarAudio! I am Martin, and I love to write about everything related to car sound systems. I strive to provide the most accurate and helpful information about car audio through extensive research, as well as my experience with car audio installations.

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