Technology

Directed Electronics' Misdirected Radio


Hd_tabletop_radio
Editor's Rating: star rating

The HD Tabletop Radio comes up short for the audio equipment maker that's trying to do it all

The proliferation of players in the consumer audio market—satellite radio, Internet radio, digital downloads, and HD (hybrid digital) radio—has left many hardware makers entrenched in one camp or another. Apple (AAPL) steers clear of anything that isn't iTunes-compatible. Roku makes only Internet radios. Even a longtime producer of traditional radios, Sangean, caved late last year, jumping on the HD bandwagon (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/25/07, "Sangean HDR-1's Vintage Look—and Sound").

Vista (Calif.)-based Directed Electronics (DEIX) defies such affiliation. It's the main manufacturer of Sirius (SIRI) radios for the home and post-factory installation in cars.

But last year, it acquired Polk Audio—a partner with satellite rival XM (XMSR)—and launched its own line of HD radios. Directed is betting an HD line will complement its satellite radios, rather than persuade satellite subscribers to give up their monthly subscriptions.

The company doesn't have to worry. The Directed HD Tabletop Radio isn't likely to win any satellite diehards over to HD radio.

Despite a midlevel price (now $249, after a $50 drop), its sound and function are comparable to the worst in the class, Radio Shack's $199 Accurian (see BusinessWeek.com 4/9/07, "RadioShack's Inadequate Accurian"). As with Accurian, the Directed radio's sound is high and tinny, with almost no audible bass and no equalizer to make adjustments.

Two Feet Long

I like the Directed radio's three-piece design, which saves a lot of space on the desk. The retro look of the three cubes—a console and two speakers—offers a nice change of pace from the sleek, futuristic look of most competing radios. The speaker cords are only two feet long and don't add much of a stereo quality to the sound, but if you want to use your own stereo speakers, there are traditional speaker outputs on the back.

The biggest design flaw may be the controls. There's one large dial that controls the volume, encircled by six tiny buttons for various functions. Annoyingly, the buttons for "tuning up" and "tuning down" aren't set apart or sized differently from from the other four: "band," "menu," "preset," and "memo."

This makes navigation awkward at best, and likely impossible in a dark room. The product description on Directed Electronics' Web site promises a remote control, which might have alleviated this problem. But it turns out this accessory was "pulled by iBiquity at the last minute to get the cost down," a Directed spokesperson writes in an e-mail.

The Tabletop Radio's reception was slightly better than the Accurian's, picking up 18 HD channels as opposed to 15. Like many HD radios, this device relies on the tangled mess of a dipole wire FM antennae rather than a traditional telescoping antenna, which gets superior reception. Surprisingly, Directed's manual provides no instructions for properly setting up the antennae—which, it turns out, involves taping wires on the wall near a window.

One Smart Innovation

On all but a few strong-signal stations, the hiss and fuzz reminiscent of traditional radio was still present, albeit slightly diminished. It may not be fair to blame this on the Tabletop. In the month-and-a-half since I embarked on this series of HD radio reviews, there's been no indication that New York-area broadcasters are striving to improve their ability to produce an analog-digital hybrid signal that might deliver on the promise of "near-CD quality" pledged by the technology's creator, iBiquity Digital.

The Directed radio introduces one smart innovation that, with a little luck, will be incorporated into better-sounding and better-functioning devices in the future. When you tune into a station with HD, the radio goes into "program guide" mode, where each subchannel is displayed along with the artist and song that it's currently playing.

While grooving to Santana's Black Magic Woman on classic rock station Q104.3, I noticed that The Doors' L.A. Woman was playing on the sister channel, 104.3-2. Jim Morrison fan that I am, I made the switch. As HD radio makers try to carve out a corner of the consumer audio market, it's friendly navigation features like this that stand the best chance of enticing devotees of satellite radio.

Aside from that plus, the Tabletop doesn't measure up to its big stepbrother, the Polk Audio iSonic (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/9/07, "Polk Audio's Radio Goes Overboard,"), which has enjoyed the blare of a big marketing push and blog buzz. And as long as Directed keeps it priced in the same range as Boston Acoustics' great-sounding $299 Receptor HD (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/13/07, "The Big Noise in Digital Radio"), the flawed HD Tabletop Radio is likely to languish on store shelves.

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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