/ Technology

Is DAB really the future of radio?

Audiowave

DAB radio is coming. It’s been coming for years and it’s still not here for everyone. It’s not in every room in every home and it’s in very few cars. So do we really want it?

I quite like DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) – I regularly tune in to digital–only radio stations. But unless I could get clear, uninterrupted digital radio in every room of my house, in my car and on my mobile phone, a national switchover from FM to DAB would feel more like punishment than progress.

Farewell to FM?

The previous government set a target date of 2015 for switching radio stations over from FM to DAB. After this point nothing but ultra-local and community radio stations would be available on FM. To receive national radio you’d need DAB or the internet.

But 2015 is nothing more than a target. Yesterday Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announced the Digital Radio Action Plan and confirmed, ‘We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital’.

How listening will be measured doesn’t appear to have been determined yet. Listeners in rural areas, cars, more vulnerable listeners and those on low incomes are unlikely to be part of the 50% of digital listeners that start the switchover process. Still, they’ll be the hardest people to convert.

Cost of switching

Which brings us neatly to cost. Who will foot the bill for the transmitters needed to improve coverage – and how much will it cost us to replace every FM radio? Not to mention the environmental cost of disposing of all the analogue radios after switchover.

It’s not like the government isn’t aware of the issues. Yesterday’s Digital Radio Action Plan announced key elements to investigate – and most of these were on the list.

This is all useful stuff and (aside from the fact that maybe we could have used some of this thinking earlier in the process) getting car manufacturers onboard will also be key.

Some are making encouraging noises but that only helps get DAB into new cars. What about the cars we already own? We’ll need retro-fit devices or in-car converters – another cost to consider.

With so far still to go to improve listening figures and coverage, it seems a switchover is still many years into the future. But what will happen if, after so much investment, digital listening never reaches 50%? Is ‘not switching’ an option?

Comments

DAB seems to be getting the slating that it rightly deserves on this thread: the sound quality is atrocious even on super-expensive High-end Hi-Fi DAB tuners, the sets cost stupidly large amounts of money (which is a bit of a rip-off as, despite all the extra components within, most are built around at most half a dozen integrated circuits which cost the radio manufacturers pennies each to buy), and there is the issue of the delayed signal (by the way, I’m not impressed by the suggestion further up this page that we delay the FM signal to match DAB – why would any sane person wish to deliberately break a working system to make it match a dysfunctional one?!?!?!).
And all these technical issues come before we consider that yes, DAB opens up dozens or even hundreds of extra stations to us, nut in reality will most listeners ever even try the majority of these?
Limited informal research that I have taken part in seems to suggest that most people will still listen to just one or two stations all the time. If it so happens that those stations are already available on FM then DAB will be of no advantage whatever to the listeners!
Speaking personally I listen to Radio 4 FM all day every day, switching to BBC Radio Sheffield for weather updates and school closures if it snows. BBC 7 is the only digital channel that I would consider but I can get that on the WWW anyway. Having all the extra stations is not going to have me reaching for the tuning know every 30 seconds to try another one: I simply won’t waste my time trying! TV is just the same – the number of times that I have watched a channel other than BBC1, BBC2 , ITV1 or C4 could be counted on the fingers and toes of a married couple with no kids, and I have had FreeView for almost a decade now. Unless your life revolves around channel-hopping I doubt many people really actually use most of the stations / channels available to them.

Alex Lyell says:
7 August 2010

Digital radio is Gordon Brown’s stealth tax.
Follow the money.
The government sells off part of the radio spectrum.
We have to pay for new (power hungry, expensive) receivers.

They are being coy about what they will do with fm; sometimes they talk about ultra-local stations – can’t see it myself! – web broadcasting is cheaper. At weekends the fm band has lots of pirate stations here in London, so with millions of fm radios still around the pirates will have it all to themselves. “Digital Britain” sounds a bit like “Cool Britannia” and will be as meaningless. I’d hoped that this government might have given digital radio the proper scrutiny it deserves, but that doesn’t seem likely.
On Sunday, Radio 4 was on only 80 Mbs and in MONO to make room for 5Live Sports Extra (old-fashioned fm was in STEREO) – does that sound like a system fit for the 21st century?

Oops! finger slipped – that’s 80 Kbs not Mbs,

rmgalley says:
17 August 2010

If a new technology is to be introduced it has to demonstrate significant benefits over the analogue systems (FM and Medium wave) it seeks to replace. In the case of BBC R5L I think it is fair to say this requirement has been satisfied.

However the audio quality that leaves the main FM transmitters on good live source material can be described as near to ‘excellent’, if not quite reaching ‘superb’. On the other hand the audio quality leaving the DAB transmitter, on the same source material, can occasionally reach a ‘good’ quality standard but mostly it can best be described as ‘mediocre’. The reason for this is the bit-rates are too low to give a better result. No matter how elaborate or costly the receiving equipment the audio quality is determined by the bit-rate chosen by the broadcaster.

The BBC’s own Research Department advocated 256kbps for stereo music but the highest bit-rate anywhere on DAB is 192 kbps used solely by BBC Radio 3. Even this is dropped to 160 kbps when R5LSX is broadcasting (and Radio 4 reverts to mono at 80kbps). The remainder of the BBC main stations, and most commercial broadcasters on DAB, use 128 kbps and sound dire – one even uses 112 kbps. (The German satellite radio stations use 320kbps and sound superb despite the 1980’s MPEG Layer 2 technology). There wasn’t enough radio spectrum available to introduce the new, ‘digital only’ radio stations AND maintain a semblance of good audio quality.

A solution does exist and has been adopted, or will be adopted, by most other broadcasters throughout the world. It goes by the name DAB+ but it uses a more modern codec that, with very few exceptions, our DAB radios cannot decode.

The new international digital radio standard uses two variants of the ‘Advanced Audio Coder’. They are and LowComplexity-AAC (referred to as AAC) and HighEfficiency-AAC (referred to as AAC+). The later gives amazing performance at bitrates a fraction of those needed by MPEG Layer2 (mp2) used by DAB. Together, these two codecs form the basis of the new international standard known as DAB+. DAB+ was developed because so many countries had recognised the inefficiency and poor performance of the mp2 codec. The higher efficiency of DAB+ also mean lower transmission costs and a better trade-off between the number of stations possible and the preservation of good audio quality.

Not withstanding the technicalities, the real proof is your ears. You have an excellent opportunity to directly compare the two systems. On the one hand listen to any of Radio’s 1, 2, 4, 6 Music or 1Xtra via DAB (all using 128kbps bitrates) with the BBC Radio live online streams using the AAC codec at exactly the same bitrate. Of course it is necessary, for the comparison, to ensure the signals from the two sources are matched for level and fed to some half decent hi-fi equipment. They are like chalk and cheese. I would even go as far as to say the online AAC streams offer the highest audio quality of any UK radio source, even surpassing FM. The downside of the online streams is 1. their reliability (broadband contention ratios and occasional re-buffering result in occasional breaks) and 2. my desktop PC is heavy and not exactly portable. It cannot be carried around.

Online stream link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/

I live 4 miles away from a main DAB transmitter and suffer none of the reception problems some here experience so the digital signal is not impaired in any way from there to my receiver. (Actually I wouldn’t touch DAB with a bargepole so I should have said ‘loaned DAB tuner’). I first became aware of the corrupted DAB audio quality way back in 2001 before the bitrates were reduced. Now DAB is even worse and FM, by comparison, considerably better. Being forced to adopt DAB will result in a major step backwards in the audio quality of radio broadcasts received via an aerial. Here ‘digital’ does not equate to better.

I object to an implementation of a now obsolete technology being foisted on us all and contend DAB, in its present form, does not demonstrate significant benefits and has clear disadvantages, to the extent that FM should become a graveyard band for local community stations.

rmgalley says:
20 August 2010

The online AAC stream link (above) may have been moderated. It is now incomplete and broken. The links I originally suggested are available at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_one/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_two/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_fourfm/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_6music/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_1xtra/

(Note from moderators: apologies, we were trying to reduce the number of links in the post!)

Can I also suggest a link to background information on the DAB debate @
http://www.digitalradiotech.co.uk/dab/incompetent_adoption_of_dab.htm

David says:
24 August 2010

DAB is a great replacement for Medium Wave radio. The quality compared to FM is poor but not really that noticeable unless you compare it to FM through a hi-fi. Car DAB seems a waste of time. Drop out, especially in cities, is terrible.
I loved my DAB when I first bought it in it’s early days: wide range of stations and better than a small tranny. Today, a lot of stations have stopped broadcasting and there are too many “pop” stations. Seems like it’s not profitable for the providers. I’ve now settled on Internet w-ifi radio for my music tastes at home and surely this is the way to go. Nothing beats FM for serious listening and music on the move though.

LDC says:
21 April 2011

Often in the past I have heard a ****** of classical music on the radio which I did not recognise. I bought a DAB radio largely because it would enable me to find out what I was listening to from the text it provides. The provision of text must imply that this is what it is provided for. However the BBC uses this provision as a means of advertisement not as a means of information. It will tell you the name of the programme you are listening to, often the name of the presenter, what is coming next, where you can get details from when you thought you were already at the place where details were available, all this again and again, often for minutes at a time, before telling you what you are actually listening to. Sometimes the information it gives is quite simply wrong. You are told that you are listening to a piece of music and it is isn’t that piece of music. It is clear that the BBC is not providing the service that the provision of text should imply. As such the BBC is mis-selling. I have taken this up with the BBC and have received no satisfactory response. I would welcome the support of Which? in having this put right.

DAB radio is far inferior (in quality of audio ) to FM. I bought a DAB radio in the late 1990s when we were assured that it would be “CD quality” – maybe it was then but now so many stations are crammed into the spectrum that audio quality is dreadful as compared to FM. I can prove this on 3 receivers with FM/DAB/AM; FM is far superior. Some DAB stations are mono and the bit rate can be as low as 80kb/s. DAB is suitable only for speech and NOT high quality music.Also when I am walking my dog in the woods I get a perfect signal from FM or AM. If I take a DAB portable into my garden (I live in a good DAB signal area) I get burbling and loss of signal.It is impossible to receive anything in a wooded area. May I suggest that nothing is done until we get DAB+ (then most existing sets will not work), and new ones will have to be bought. What will happen to my expensive STUDER FM only set? I will require compensation from the government. What a mess; only in the UK!

disquschester says:
27 April 2011

Am I the only one to query the ‘running costs’?

My wife bought me a DAB radio for the bathroom. Batteries lasted about two weeks, even using it for less than an hour a day on average.

Got fed up with that.

Bought a cheapo AM/FM in the supermarket, just replaced (like-for-like) after two YEARS.

Not very eco-friendly, these DAB radios

Tony says:
19 May 2011

I have eight FM/AM radios not counting one in the car. My partner has eleven. When the Govt says we can trade in any two for one top of the line DAB radio that works everywhere and all the time, I’ll consider moving over.

Till then, lets run both systems side by side till one or other falls by the wayside, like the VHS and (what was the competitor’s name) video recorders. This is just a another case of the Govt looking after commerce and industry at the expense of the people who voted them in.

Why don’t we boycott DAB. Just don’t buy it!

Tony.

I love FM radio, courtesy my 35 year old Yamaha tuner & a 37 year old Pioneer receiver, but I also enjoy 6Music & other digi stations but if I have the option of listening in FM it’s a no brainer. The sound quality is superb. What really bugs me is the digital delay, which ruins synchronised listening between devices. I have 3 (including the TV) & they are all different.

DAB is old fashioned technology with inferior audio quality. Many countries are closing it down (eg Singapore last week). It will be replaced with WiFi mobile imternet technology and FM will remain.

gwen langley says:
22 January 2012

why does my signal come through ok some time and others keeps squealing out and squeaking -drowning any listenability?

Either poor reception or a faulty radio are the likely causes.

My experience of DAB has been very poor, the audio quality suffers with low bitrates, the signal varies from room to room, I am supposed to be in a good reception area! DAB will not last much longer, 60 million (or is it 100 million, nobody knows) analouge radio sets aren’t going to be thrown away!! I say switch off this terrible waste of money now. Let sense prevail.

I find the signal varies from room to room too, both on DAB and FM. Poor reception is a problem with portable radios. Whatever sort of radio, an external or roof aerial is a great help and few would think of using a TV without an aerial.

FM and AM work fine without aerials, DAB doesn’t..so much for “progress”!!

It depends where you are. I have struggled with FM reception on portable radios for 35 years, though it’s great with a loft aerial. DAB works fine for me on the built in aerials in portables. I use both FM and DAB.

AM is history, particularly on Long Wave, because of the amount of interference from everyday electrical equipment.

G MACCLEAN says:
9 May 2012

Have solar panels fitted to roof quite close to dab outside antenna . when they are operating ie daylight no or miniscule amount of dab signal . When it gets dark and panels not producing dab returns . FM is not affected in any way .

Peter says:
6 September 2012

DAB as implemented in the UK is outdated technology and provides a really bad service. If Which? magazine wants to champion the interests of radio listeners, they would mention this fact every time they review DAB and internet radios.

Unfortunately the Which? September 2012 review of Internet Radios fails to make the point that providing you have an adequate internet service the sound quality of BBC internet radio is vastly superior to DAB.

There has been no improvement in DAB in our area and the choice of stations is very small.

Listening to DAB radio in my van is frustrating. The signal is very poor in some areas and when it goes off, the set switches to FM and hey presto there is always a station to listen to. I have two sets at home also and they are fine, but judging by some of the comments above, I guess i’m one of the lucky ones.
The government should not consider switching off FM until we get not just adequate but better performance from DAB, but in the end it will be about selling airwaves and not about radio quality.
If it wasnt for Planet Rock my DAB sets would all be scrapped. Please Planet Rock… go to FM.