In the late 1950s, several systems to add stereo to FM radio were considered by the FCC. Included were systems from 14 proponents including Crosley, Halstead, Electrical and Musical Industries, Ltd (EMI), Zenith Electronics Corporation and General Electric. The individual systems were evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses during field tests in town, Pennsylvania using KDKA-FM in Pittsburgh as the originating station. The Crosley system was rejected by the FCC because it degraded the signal-to-noise ratio of the main channel and did not perform well under multipath RF conditions. In addition, it did not allow for SCA services because of its wide FM sub-carrier bandwidth.
The Halstead system was rejected due to lack of high frequency stereo separation and reduction in the main channel signal-to-noise ratio. The GE and Zenith systems, so similar that they were considered theoretically identical, were formally approved by the FCC in April 1961 as the standard stereo FM broadcasting method in the USA and later adopted by most other countries.
It is important that stereo broadcasts should be compatible with mono receivers. For this reason, the left (L) and right (R) channels are algebraically encoded into sum (L+R) and difference (L−R) signals. A mono receiver will use just the L+R signal so the listener will hear both channels in the single loudspeaker. A stereo receiver will add the difference signal to the sum signal to recover the left channel, and subtract the difference signal from the sum to recover the right channel.
The (L+R) Main channel signal is transmitted as baseband audio in the range of 30 Hz to 15 kHz. The (L−R) Sub-channel signal is modulated onto a 38 kHz double-sideband suppressed carrier (DSBSC) signal occupying the baseband range of 23 to 53 kHz.
A 19 kHz pilot tone, at exactly half the 38 kHz sub-carrier frequency and with a precisely defined phase relationship to it, is also generated. This is transmitted at 8–10% of overall modulation level and used by the receiver to regenerate the 38 kHz sub-carrier with the correct phase.
The final multiplex signal from the stereo generator contains the Main Channel (L+R), the pilot tone, and the sub-channel (L−R). This composite signal, along with any other sub-carriers (SCA), modulates the FM transmitter.
Converting the multiplex signal back into left and right audio signals is performed by a stereo decoder, which is built into stereo receivers.
In order to preserve stereo separation and signal-to-noise parameters, it is normal practice to apply pre-emphasis to the left and right channels before encoding, and to apply de-emphasis at the receiver after decoding.
Stereo FM signals are more susceptible to noise and multipath distortion than are mono FM signals.In addition, for a given RF level at the receiver, the signal-to-noise ratio for the stereo signal will be worse than for the mono receiver.
For this reason many FM stereo receivers include a stereo/mono switch to allow listening in mono when reception conditions are less than ideal, and most car radios are arranged to reduce the separation as the signal-to-noise ratio worsens, eventually going to mono while still indicating a stereo signal is being received.
The subcarrier system has been further extended to add other services. Initially these were private analog audio channels which could be used internally or rented out. Radio reading services for the blind are also still common, and there were experiments with quadraphonic sound. If stereo is not on a station, everything from 23 kHz on up can be used for other services. The guard band around 19 kHz (±4 kHz) must still be maintained, so as not to trigger stereo decoders on receivers. If there is stereo, there will typically be a guard band between the upper limit of the DSBSC stereo signal (53 kHz) and the lower limit of any other subcarrier.
Digital services are now also available. A 57 kHz subcarrier (phase locked to the third harmonic of the stereo pilot tone) is used to carry a low-bandwidth digital Radio Data System signal, providing extra features such as Alternative Frequency (AF) and Network (NN). This narrowband signal runs at only 1187.5 bits per second, thus is only suitable for text. A few proprietary systems are used for private communications. A variant of RDS is the North American RBDS or “smart radio” system. In Germany the analog ARI system was used prior to RDS for broadcasting traffic announcements to motorists (without disturbing other listeners). Plans to use ARI for other European countries led to the development of RDS as a more powerful system. RDS is designed to be capable of being used alongside ARI despite using identical subcarrier frequencies.
In the United States, digital radio services are being deployed within the FM band rather than using Eureka 147 or the Japanese standard ISDB. This in-band on-channel approach, as do all digital radio techniques, makes use of advanced compressed audio. The proprietary iBiquity system, branded as “HD Radio”, currently is authorized for “hybrid” mode operation, wherein both the conventional analog FM carrier and digital sideband subcarriers are transmitted. Eventually, presuming widespread deployment of HD Radio receivers, the analog services could theoretically be discontinued and the FM band become all digital.
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