The move toward CD-quality car radios gained momentum last week, as Kenwood Corp. delivered the first HD Radio tuner and Philips Semiconductors said it will roll out a new chip that could help cut the cost of entry into the fledgling market.
The separate rollouts of the chip and tuner"a "black box" that plugs into an existing car radio"follow on the heels of Texas Instruments Inc.'s introduction of an HD Radio chip earlier this month. Analysts believe that the rollouts could be a sign that automakers are preparing to launch the HD Radio technology in their 2005 vehicles, which debut less than a year from now. HD Radio technology sends digital signals over the current radio spectrum.
Kenwood said last week that it has delivered the first production run of 1,000 of its HD Radio tuners. iBiquity Digital Corp., Columbia, Md., the licenser of the HD Radio technology, said that it will add its own software and take pre-orders on Kenwood tuners from broadcasters at this week's NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Philips said it will deliver its new chip in volume during the first quarter of 2004.
"Now that the silicon makers are coming up to speed, we can finally expect to see this technology leave the gate on the consumer side," said Frank Viquez, director of automotive electronics for Allied Business Intelligence Inc., Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Philips hopes that the $25 price tag of its SAF3550 chip will attract automakers, enabling them to put the technology into their high-end vehicles. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company said it is working to integrate the chip into products made by a number of radio receiver makers.
"This is the first chip available to radio assemblers that offers a cost-effective solution for HD Radio," said Jack Morgan, director of automotive in North America for Philips Semiconductors. Morgan noted that the cost of the chip is significantly less than that of predecessors, which ranged from $30 to $50.
No price was available for Kenwood's tuner at press time.
Philips engineers said they have been careful to develop their HD Radio chips in a way that would make it possible for automakers to add HD capabilities to existing radio designs, sparing them the cost of having to re-design their products from scratch.
HD Radio technology adds "side bands" to existing AM and FM radio frequencies. The
side bands carry additional signals that enable conventional AM radios to produce "FM-type" sound, and enable FM radios to produce "CD-type" sound, iBiquity said. To accomplish that, however, HD Radio receivers must be endowed with specialized digital signal processors, which allow radios to capture signals from the side bands.
Philips engineers said they hope to simplify the process of building HD Radios by providing DSP-based plug-in modules that could be easily added to existing DSP-based radios. The SAF3550 accomplishes that by working with an existing Philips chipset, the SAF7730 IF-CarDSP and the TEF6721 companion tuner.
Manufacturers of next-generation car radios said last week they are building products based on the Philips SAF3550 and on TI's DRI250 baseband IC, introduced three weeks ago. TI is sampling the chip for $30, and expects to be in production early in 2004. Most radio makers said they plan to roll out their first HD Radio-based receivers in first-quarter 2004.
Industry analysts said last week that the HD Radio scheme has enormous economic potential because it requires little investment on the part of radio broadcasters, and because it requires no subscription fees to be paid by users. In addition to supplying higher-quality audio, the technology provides a data signal that broadcasters find appealing because they can potentially use it as an advertising vehicle.
Still, many local broadcasters that have implemented the technology have been frustrated by the lack of available receivers. Receivers were supposed to have been ready during the summer, but manufacturers had to push back their introductions after a last-minute switch in the audio codec that serves as the heart of the HD system.
"Broadcasters can't even get working receivers to take around to show the concept to their advertisers," said Laura Behrens, senior analyst for GartnerG2, Stamford, Conn.
Behrens added, however, that those who have seen the technology during the past month or so have described the sound as "stunning."