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Two New Riffs on Radio Hit Flat Notes

For a commercial medium that dates to the early 20th century, radio is still going through a metamorphosis. This week, Best Buy started selling what it says is the first portable HD Radio receiver, the $50 Insignia HD Radio Portable Player I've been testing.

HD radio, which made its debut in 2005, is kind of the high-definition radio equivalent of HDTV. Think AM and FM without the snap, crackle and pop sounds that tarnish standard broadcasts.

I've also been testing the recently released Sirius XM Premium Online application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The app is free, but you'll have to pay for a Sirius XM satellite subscription.

Both offerings fall short, albeit in very different ways. The Sirius XM app is missing top draw Howard Stern, and play-by-play broadcasts of Major League Baseball, the National Football League and NASCAR races.

Meanwhile, HD coverage on the Insignia in the outskirts of New York City, where I tested, was poor. Tune in for details:

Insignia.@ If you want to sample HD radio, the Insignia radio is small, light and cheap. Just maintain modest expectations.

Until now, to listen to HD radio, you needed a special unit for your home, car or boat. None of the 100-odd receivers on the market was the type you'd carry in your pocket. That changes with the Insignia, the house brand of Best Buy. And Microsoft has said it's adding HD radio to the next Zune player, due in the fall.

There are more than 2,000 AM and FM stations around the USA broadcasting in HD. Broadcasters can "multicast" or compress a digital signal so that FM stations can offer one or more subchannels at the same frequency. For example, you can tune into 95.5, 95.5-2 or 95.5-3, and hear different content on each. AM stations can't be split into subchannels.

Alas, the Insignia radio doesn't include its own AM band, because producing a portable with good AM quality is difficult. Zune won't have it, either. For AM junkies, some stations broadcast a digital version of their AM channels on an FM subchannel.

For example, WXRK-HD (92.3) in New York is a Top 40 radio station owned by CBS Radio. A subchannel, WXRK-HD2 (92.3-2), plays newer rock, while WXRK-HD3 (92.3-3) plays WFAN-AM, an all-sports station.

My experience with HD was spotty. When you tune into a station, you'll first hear it broadcast for a few seconds in standard FM. You'll hear the sound improve when the HD kicks in, though the effect isn't that dramatic. Worse, in some of my test areas, I either couldn't get an HD signal or got one that faded intermittently. Song names are displayed on the Insignia screen, but you can't tag them to buy later on iTunes, as is possible with other HD radios.

The Insignia has 10 memory presets for storing favorite stations. It comes with an armband and so-so earbuds. There's no built-in speaker. You charge it on a computer via USB since there's no wall plug. The battery lasts 10 hours. You can connect the radio to your car stereo with an optional cable.

Sirius XM.@ I've been a satellite radio convert ever since XM Satellite Radio arrived in 2001. XM and Sirius Satellite Radio merged about a year ago. I've been eagerly waiting for an iPhone version.

But many subscribers are bound to be disappointed. While there's tons of good stuff among the 120 channels on the app - Sirius Sinatra, Classic Vinyl, Oprah Radio and Mad Dog Radio (sports talk), to name a few - you can't help notice what's missing, notably Stern and the ballgames.

It's not as if this comes cheap: $12.95 a month (which also lets you stream channels on a computer). And if you already pay $12.95 to listen on a dedicated Sirius XM radio, you have to pay an extra $2.99 a month to also listen on the iPhone or Touch.

Moreover, Sirius XM comes when there's already good Internet radio on the iPhone; free and fee-based apps I use include AOL Radio, Pandora, Slacker, iHeart Radio, Tuner, vTuner and WunderRadio.

On the Sirius XM app, it's easy to find stations by category and see what's playing on the channels you're not listening to. You can add channels to a favorites list and tap on a song you're listening to, to buy it (if available) in iTunes.

It takes a bit longer to switch channels than I'd like. And I occasionally lost a signal as I drove around, likely network hiccups. For the most part, the audio quality was good, though it can degrade under a cellular network as opposed to when you're using the app with Wi-Fi.

Having Sirius XM on the iPhone is really convenient. It's a shame that for what you pay, you can't get the complete Sirius XM lineup.

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