Why Digital Radio Sucks… at the moment

When Digital TV was being launched we were promised better Video and Audio quality and more channels. Aside from some reception problems early on these promises were kept.

When Digital Radio was launched we were promised better quality, clearer audio, improved reception, live track information and other useful data. I was already impressed with Digital TV so I was curious. I put “Digital Radio” on my Christmas list.

My lovely wife gave me a “Roberts” DAB+ Digital Radio. I powered it up on Christmas morning, tuned in to my favourite station and was instantly disappointed. It sounded like a old cassette tape recording. I thought maybe it was the speaker on the radio (yes, a lot of digital radios are mono) so I plugged in a pair of headphones but there was only minimal improvement listening in stereo.

At this point I thought I had a dud radio, I figured I would be returning to the store first thing Boxing Day. However the radio was also equipped with an FM tuner and a solar panel and since it was a nice sunny Christmas Day I figured I’d play with it some more. I flipped over to FM and was pleasantly surprised. The audio was much richer. It sounded just like any other radio I own. I switched back to DAB+ and again the audio was crap. Maybe I had missed a setting somewhere. I dissected the instructions. Nothing was apparent, there was no “Quality” setting. What I did discover by repeatedly pressing the “Info” button was that the bit-rate for my favourite station was only 80kbps.

One of the catch lines you hear in digital radio commercials is “CD Quality Sound”. “CD Quality” cannot really be measured in kbps because it is uncompressed. MP3s, on the other hand, are compressed. A “good” quality MP3 is 128kbps, most music lovers prefer even higher, 160kbps, 320kbps, etc. I know that perceptible quality isn’t only about the bit-rate. I know that the algorithm used to compress the audio is also important. In any case it would appear that 80kbps and the AAC Audio codec really isn’t sufficient unless you are only listening to talk-back radio. I have lately been streaming radio directly to my iPod. My favourite station claims to limit their stream to 48kbps and yet it still sounds better than Digital Radio.

Another failure was with the track information. I had taken my radio with me to Christmas lunch. I found a digital only channel playing non-stop Christmas carols and noticed that the station information was not telling me the names of the carols as they were playing. I browsed some popular stations, same result. At the most they had their name and a slogan scrolling across. I had figured that with Digital Radio that the track details would be embedded in the music but apparently the track data is in a separate stream. If the station doesn’t program the track names, the track names are not displayed.

Finally the claim of improved reception was also false. FM radio is pretty reliable. You have to be pretty unlucky to have fuzzy reception and if you do get a little bit of fuzz at least you can still hear the broadcast. DAB+ is different. As with Digital TV, if you lose the signal, you lose everything. At the time the signal levels were not very good. If you were standing still you could get a signal but try moving around and it was very easy to lose the signal, even with the old fashioned telescopic aerial.

That was three years ago. All in all I was quite under-whelmed with Digital Radio. It had not delivered on any of its promises. Now, 2012, and still DAB+ fails to impress me. The signal strength is better, I hear that DAB+ even works pretty well in car audio, but there are still plenty of black spots. The live track information is better on some stations but many still fail to live up to expectations. Finally the audio quality still sucks.

I read online that we are not alone with respect to Digital Radio. The UK and other countries are also experiencing similar problems. There is speculation that the switch off of Analogue TV signals will free up some radio frequency spectrum allowing for increased radio bandwidth. I would really like to see Digital Radio treated like Digital TV; some stations in standard definition, some in high definition. For example, football and talk-back on standard definition and premier music on high definition.

Time will tell but I think there will need to be a dramatic improvement before they can even contemplate turning off FM.

This entry was posted in Rants.