Is HD Radio the next big thing for in-car audio? Well, it’s not like the transition from AM to FM (that was a big leap), but it’s an interesting improvement. And it has a big advantage over satellite radio — it doesn’t cost anything. As long as you have an HD-equipped radio (3 million have been sold by Ibiquity, which is owned by big-league radio chains) you can listen to the digital signal for free, without a subscription, and at the same frequencies, too.

HD’s claim to fame is that it just sounds better — existing FM stations sound like satellite radio or CDs, and AM sounds like FM. But it’s unclear if there are a lot of audiophiles around, given the popularity of the high-fidelity-challenged iPod for listening to music. There is also, as with satellite, supposed to be more diverse programming on new HD2 and HD3 stations, but there doesn’t seem to be much of that yet in my listening area. (Check out your own airwaves here.) Stations available in some markets offer dance/electronic, bluegrass, comedy and “chill/coffee shop,” which sounds like an endless loop of mellow Starbucks CDs.

I’m going to the big Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, and I’m sure I’ll learn more about HD (at the last one I went to, in Japan, 3-D television was the rage). Automakers are betting heavily on it — it’s available on a plethora of cars (again, here’s a list), and is featured on snazzy car audio such as the MyFord Touch system. Volkswagen said just before Christmas that HD would be part of its new touchscreen radio Premium VIII. It’s still not a hugely popular option — only 5 percent of new vehicles come with HD.

There are 13,000 AM and FM broadcast radio stations in the U.S., and just more than 2,000 of them have been converted to HD. According to the trades, the rate of conversion has slowed as radio hit the economic crunch (revenues down from $20 billion to $16 billion in recent years), and only 135 stations were converted in 2009, maybe about the same in 2010.

Carmakers like anything that might get customers in the door. The aforementioned Ford Sync is a selling point when cars are otherwise equal, and it’s been installed in 3 million cars. (It’s standard on Lincoln, optional on Fords, with three levels of service.) One of the coolest things about it is sophisticated voice controls.

Jim Buczkowski, director of Ford electronics and electrical systems engineering, told me that the system doesn’t need the new owner to read into it so it “gets” his or her pronunciation — it learns on the go, even absorbing your Bluetooth phone book. Just say “Call Jim Hanson,” and it will. HD Radio is part of a Sync package that also includes the ability to plug in an iPod USB hard drive and have the system ID and shuffle the songs.

The Sync system has arrived, in that it’s on 80 percent of the 2011 Fords sold, up 4 percentage points from 2010 models. It’s becoming “a key point of satisfaction,” says Ken Czubay, a Ford VP of marketing. I like the apps that allow control of sites like Pandora, Open Beak and Stitcher through owners’ cell phones — and with voice commands, too.

HD Radio adds the concept of “tagging." If you’re listening to a song you like, you can hit the tag button and metadata from the song will be stored, and turned into an iTunes playlist. Of course, you actually have to buy the songs if you want to hear them. This Ford video explains all:

I’m a huge music freak, but I also have a tin ear when it comes to high-end audio. Maybe being five feet from the speakers at a Who concert in 1969 left me, like Peter Townsend himself, with permanent hearing loss. What did you just say?

I’ve heard HD radio in test cars, and it sounds fine to me, but not, well, like the difference between AM and FM. I don’t think my life would change if I had it in my daily ride, but I’d like to do a more thorough road test. It’s either one more format that’s going to get orphaned (remember four-channel stereo?) or tomorrow’s next big thing.

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