/ Motoring

DAB radio in cars – high time it was standard

Music equaliser

The switchover to digital radio is fast approaching, so it’s essential the government and carmakers act now to avoid DAB becoming an expensive headache for car owners in the future.

I was delighted to hear last week that the BBC no longer plans to axe its excellent 6 Music digital radio station. It’s a personal favourite in the Headland house – and is greatly missed in my analogue-only car.

It’s also frustrating tuning into the football on 5 Live when I’m driving, with its patchy, scratchy AM quality (when I’ve grown accustomed to the noise-free DAB signal at home). I’m sure I’m not alone. Which raises the question – why haven’t more carmakers embraced DAB already?

DAB in cars by 2013?

Culture minister Ed Vaizey announced last week that the new government is still fully committed to digital radio, stressing that the switchover’s 2015 target date is not set in stone.

But that doesn’t mean the government and carmakers can dawdle. The sooner DAB radios are fitted as standard in new cars, the smaller the problem of converting radios on used cars will be when (or if) switchover finally happens.

Apparently only 1% of UK cars can currently receive digital radio – a tiny proportion, mainly limited to more expensive models (like the Audi A8 and Range Rover). But the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has indicated it would be ‘challenging but achievable’ for all new UK cars to have DAB radios by 2013.

It argues that designing new cars takes around four years (hence the ‘challenge’ of 2013). But fitting DAB isn’t about fundamental vehicle changes. It’s about getting a DAB receiver on board and fitting a suitable external aerial for the best reception.

Why DAB’s not a good option

When Pure can offer its ‘Highway’ DAB conversion kit for around £100, it suggests that DAB isn’t too costly for carmakers to build in. And there are plenty of new cars with a DAB tick-box option (usually for between £100 and £500) – so it’s achievable on current production lines.

But the problem is, most car buyers won’t tick the DAB box – it’s just a nice-to-have, rather than a must-have. Which is fair enough, but it’s storing up a massive problem for the used cars of tomorrow.

So I say the government and carmakers need to take this particular choice out of the hands of buyers and make DAB/DAB+ radios standard-fit as soon as possible. The prospect of converting all those old car radios (20-30m of them, the SMMT reckons) makes all of us twitchy, so it’s time for some decisive and swift action.

(And with any luck, we won’t have to put up with Sports Report on AM for too much longer…)


I put in a DAB radio in my car and found it similar to FM reception – often poor and not conducive to “easy listening” – the extra facilities meant it was more distracting – and more of a hazard to driving.

So I returned back to my superb MP3 player – far better – far cheaper. 200 tunes I really like – no interruptions for news. Set to “random” means I don’t know what song is coming up next – except I will always like it. Never fades or drops out in any conditions unlike radio.

Far superior.

I had been looking forward to DAB car radios reaching an affordable price, but when I bought my VW Golf in 2002 I suddenly became much happier with FM car radio. It’s not much use in the highlands of Scotland but elsewhere it works better than I had believed possible for an FM car radio.

I would like a DAB/FM radio in my next car so that I can have the best of both worlds.

Bill Shepherd says:
22 March 2011

the author of this article should stick to motoring comments an area where he may have some expertise

Richard says:
31 March 2011

I’m like FM, but am quite happy with DAB for speech. But how do I get acceptable reception in my car for 5Live? and worse still, my favourite World Service has now disappeared from AM. The reviews for Pure’s Highway as an intermediate fix are very mixed and although Which? promised a review when it came out, I can’t find one.

Dave says:
27 April 2011

I am led to believe that DAB is not the latest technology nor is it the favoured European standard. Can you confirm this? Is this why they are so expensive. Why are TV set top convertors so cheap?
The average portable am/fm radio can use as few as only about 9 transistors (ok I know there are lots of other passive components) and is most efficient compared with DAB and batteries last much longer I believe.
Also I have at least 14 am/fm radios around my home, cars, workshop and garage. All are tuned to Radio 4. I cannot imagine ever wanting to listen to the rubbish churned out on all the new digital channels. The day that Radio 4 dissapears from the bands that it now occupies on my current equipment, is the day that I no longer will be able to listen to the radio as I will not be replacing any of these receivers. Perhaps you can tell me where I can send them for others to enjoy. Alternatively, may I suggest that we take them all down to The Radiocommunications Agency and dump them in front of their office!
You must know that powerful forces have been at work in the industry lobbying for the commercial organisations who care little about all the people that are quite satisfied with existing radio and I am so dissapointed that WHICH? is not discouraging change to satisfy them. Lets face it all this technology will come from abroad and do little for our own people.

Roger says:
30 December 2011

Oh, what a lot of luddites emerge when this subject is raised. I have had DAB in my Vectra for 6 years and it’s wonderful. Clarity of signal all around the country ( I have travelled extensively in the past 3 years) listening to R2/3/4/4Extra/5/6 plus a host of other stations makes the long tedious journeys on our motorways far more enjoyable.
Yes – FM can be as good as DAB but its unacceptable that a major station such as R5Live is on AM with reception not much improved from Radio Luxembourg’s heyday in the ’50’s.
What is poor is the attitude of car manufacturers who have stymied consumer’s adoption of DAB by restricting the availability of cars with the necessary kit.
DAB is here to stay.

The anti-DAB contingent have probably never used a DAB car radio.

Don’t forget that many ignored FM for 30 years.

Dabhand says:
8 January 2012

Governments never take any notice of what the public want so DAB will be foisted upon us anyway, I have no objection to DAB personally but I feel that when it comes to getting a conversion done, the manufacturers will rip us off big time.

I think it is about time WHICH? did a market test on add-on DAB in-car units, clearly lots available out there but no telling which ones are the good ones, please help!

Hi Steve, thanks for your suggestion, I’ve passed this on to the Cars team. At the moment, there are no plans to test these. Are you looking for information on reception or sound quality?

It would be great if we could offer suggestions about which products should be tested in the near future. Having a Convo devoted to product testing would allow us to discuss which features are the most useful and common problems that the test labs should look out for during product testing. Steve’s comment prompted me to post this in the ‘Ideas’ section.

I have had a car with a DAB radio for nearly four years and it has surpassed my expectations. I did not know that DAB add-ons are available.

Call me superficial but I am in the market to buy a secondhand car and this feature does influence me way beyond the way it should perhaps.. I am a big listener. Maybe because the alternative bolt on remedies seem very… bolt on!