Sounds bad for DAB digital radio

Who would spend ages doing hard sums when you can use a calculator? Who would wash their clothes by hand when you can just put them in the washing machine? And who would listen to an old, hard-to-tune analogue radio when you could have a new DAB digital radio?

That was the gist of a recent series of adverts on Classic FM, promoting DAB digital radio. I had grown increasingly annoyed by these frequent and repetitive adverts, which usually told listeners about all the extra stations they could receive (although many, like me, are loyal listeners of Classic FM so would probably not want those) and also said how much easier it is to tune a digital radio (but only slightly easier, particularly if you have an FM radio with RDS…) They used to advertise the “crystal clear sound”, but more recently, that has been changed to “digital quality sound”, which doesn’t really mean a lot.

The reason for the continuous advertising of DAB was that GCap Media, owners of Classic FM, held a 63% in Digital One, the national commercial radio multiplex. Naturally, it was in their interest to persuade people to buy digital radios.

Yesterday, however, it was announced that GCap are going to sell their stake in Digital One and to pull out of DAB, closing their digital stations theJazz and Planet Rock in the process. Instead, they are going to concentrate on FM and broadband radio. Funnily enough, this item didn’t make it onto Classic FM’s Classic Newsnight programme, but there has been a notable absence of digital radio adverts since.

I have never bought a digital radio, mainly because I have doubts about the sound quality. DAB is already an out-of-date system, using the inefficient MP2 codec (yes, that’s one before MP3!) It is capable of delivering good quality sound, but only if the bitrate is high enough (at least 192 kbits/s). Unfortunately, in order to squeeze all the extra stations into the limited bandwidth allocated for digital radio by the government, both the BBC and commercial operators have reduced the bitrate to as low as 64 kbit/s in some cases, with an average bitrate of only 128 kbit/s. The result is that digital radio can sound worse than FM. It’s true that you don’t get the background hiss that is associated with FM, but then if your DAB reception is poor, you can end up with silence. Not only have they reduced the bitrate to insufficient levels, but in order to accommodate the extra stations, some music stations, including the aforementioned theJazz and Planet Rock are even broadcast in mono! While most DAB radios so far have been small portable sets, it’s clear that the system would not be sufficient to replace the tuners in hi-fi systems.

Hopefully, GCap’s dramatic change in strategy will now result in a rethink of digital radio, and speed up the adoption of the far superior DAB+ standard, which uses more efficient audio codecs.

Unfortunately, though, Classic FM listeners still won’t have escaped from GCap’s self-advertisements. A few weeks ago, they launched “My Classic FM”, which provides six internet radio stations. With hindsight, we have to wonder: was this an early indication of GCap’s new policy of focussing on broadband radio? Sadly, the adverts for My Classic FM are just as irritating and repetitive as the ones for DAB, but that’s the price we have to pay for listening to commercial radio.

digitalradiotech.co.uk has a lot of information about digital radio, in particular sound quality and bitrate issues.

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