- DAB Radio
Digital Audio Broadcasting is a revolution in radio, bringing with it CD-like sound quality and far greater choice of radio stations – over 350 in the UK and counting. You won’t be able to receive every DAB broadcast where you live, but the selection of local and national digital stations is still likely to eclipse what is available on your old FM tranny.
However, only about 80% of the UK can receive a DAB radio signal as yet, so before you go digital you will need to check the signal in your area. The BBC, co-developer of the technology, has a postcode-based DAB checker on its website www.bbc.co.uk/digitalradio to give you an idea of official DAB coverage. This is a good place to start, but quite often areas this site says have ‘no coverage’ will have enough DAB signal for at least the BBC stations (BBC Radios 1 to 7) and some local radio.
Conversely the DAB signal is just as susceptible to outside interference as FM radio, meaning tall buildings, basement locations and DAB radios without a pull-up or external aerial may struggle even in ‘good’ DAB signal areas. Whereas FM radio may give a hissy or fuzzy reception in these situations, DAB will simply cut-out. The only sure-fire way to tell if you will receive DAB in your home is to try it out for yourself – preferably by borrowing a friend’s radio before you buy.
Not to be confused with FM radios that simply have a ‘digital’ display, proper digital radios will bear a DAB logo and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most popular is still the semi-portable radio that adorns kitchen windowsills and living-room furniture across the country. Although mostly mains-powered, so not truly portable, these DAB radios offer great value and neat design from as little as £40.
Even these DAB bargains will offer an on-board clock and alarm function, ideal for the bedroom, full automatic-tuning for simplicity and a text display that tells you the station you have tuned in to. Slightly more up-market models will have a larger display that shows the additional text-based information that is broadcast with the radio signal – just like teletext on your TV. On some broadcasts, the display will tell you the DJ’s name and even the artist and track title currently playing. Now when an annoyingly catchy tune is stuck in your mind all day, you will know exactly what it is called.
If you are prepared to spend up to £80 on a DAB radio the design and ease of are often improved over budget bargains and most will offer FM radio as well. Some manufacturers, particularly the big name Japanese brands, offer stereo models with two speakers at this level although DAB radios with a single large speaker often have a richer, deeper sound.
Most manufacturers offer a battery powered option at this price point too, but don’t plan to take your radio on a major expedition. DAB radios are notoriously power hungry so will need a large stack of batteries – 6 x ‘C’ cells is not uncommon. These add significantly to the carrying weight for a picnic and battery life is not great – only a few hours at most.
Extended Features of Dab
At around £100 and above digital radios really come into their own, offering a host of exciting features that are only available with DAB. Models with a ‘Pause’, ‘Review’ or ‘Rewind’ functions allow you to literally pause or rewind live radio broadcasts. If you have missed a competition question or phone number you can simply Rewind a few seconds, or if the doorbell rings through your favourite program you can press Pause and playback the show from that point later on.
Unfortunately the time available to record or pause live radio is rarely great and varies with each model’s internal memory. Most offer between just 10minutes and half-an-hour depending on the station you are listening too. (Some stations use a higher bit-rate digital broadcast for better sound quality and will therefore use more recording space than others). Internal recording capacity is usually given in MB as opposed to minutes for this reason but on average – 1MB equals approximately 1minute of recording time.
If you intend to use these pause/record features regularly, DAB radios from around £120 also allow you to record to a removable digital memory card – usually SD Card more typically found in digital cameras. These memory cards are relatively inexpensive at around £20-£30 for a 256MB SD Card, which will give you four to eight hours of digital radio recording depending on the station. You can wipe and re-use these memory cards as many times as you like and buy more or larger capacity cards if the need arises – making DAB models with SD card very flexible indeed.
The most recent development in DAB radio technology in an extension of this recording ability and top-of-the range digital radios (perhaps upwards of £150) now offer an electronic programming guide or EPG. Anyone with Freeview or Sky TV will be familiar with the simplicity of an electronic program guide and the DAB EPG is similarly easy to use. Using scrolling menus on the radio’s display you simply highlight the station and show you want to record up to seven days in advance. You can record as many shows as you like and the recording capacity is limited only to the capacity of the SD memory card you have chosen – up to 15 hours on 1GB SD card for example.
As the DAB EPG technology is very new it is currently only broadcast by the BBC and a handful of commercial radio stations. More DAB stations sign up to the service every week and will appear automatically in your radio’s EPG. As the service itself improves (14-day programming is planned) these advanced DAB radios have USB ports to connect to your PC so you can update it’s firmware to the very latest specification. This can all be a bit complicated of course but is more future-proofing than essential, so there is no need to be a PC-professional if you want programmable recording on your DAB radio.
As DAB radio has matured in the last few years, the range of digital radios available has expanded dramatically, the features list become ever more exciting and the cost fallen. With prices ranging from £40 – £200, moving up-market with DAB is more about features and style than dramatically improving sound quality. Although DAB is crackle and hiss free when the signal is good, the sound quality is limited by the broadcast, which is nearer MP3 quality than true CD. The good news is that if you don’t need the latest bells and whistles features, there is no need to spend a fortune getting into DAB radio – just double check you can get DAB reception before you buy.
Radio Types: Dab Radios
So how do I find out what DAB radio stations I can receive in my area? Check out www.bbc.co.uk/digitalradio for postcode-based information.