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Monday, 19 August, 2002, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Digital radio and me
With the launch of the BBC's latest digital radio station, 1Xtra, what life there is out on the digital airwaves?
It's like being part of a very exclusive club. I don't know anyone else who has a digital radio, and I don't know anyone who knows anyone else with one either.
But just before Christmas, I had a rush of blood to the head and treated myself to an early present.
The choice of stations is bigger - especially in London, which admittedly has always been spoilt for choice for radio stations.
The reception is perfect - a bonus for anyone that's had to put up with lousy FM signals which get gatecrashed by pirate stations at the weekend.
Mind you, my radio did forget where it was and tried to pick up Essex stations over the weekend, ending in a stuttering digital mess. A quick retune fixed that, though.
Rather than select a frequency, you simply select a station by name - on my Pure Digital set, you do that by turning a wheel.
The little digital display shows the name of the station, and it can offer scrolling messages too.
Many stations tell you the name of the track that's playing, a simple idea that comes in very handy. Others give you information about the programme - suddenly Radio 3 isn't so mysterious. Some just regurgitate the station's slogan. Five Live gives you football scores and news.
Or waiting a couple of months for? John Lewis in Oxford Street, London is telling customers they will have to wait for up to 10 weeks to pick up one of the new £99 sets.
The stations come in groups of about eight called multiplexes. One multiplex is for national BBC stations, and one for national commercial stations.
There may also be least one "local" multiplex, varying from area to area, featuring more stations. London has three extra multiplexes.
The BBC's digital stations - aside from Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and Five Live - are Five Live Sports Extra - handy for picking up extra football commentary and Test Match Special - and 6 Music, whose mixture of new music and classic tracks is a breath of fresh air.
There's 1Xtra, Radio 1's urban music spin-off, and the World Service too. The Asian Network - currently only on AM in parts of England - and a comedy and drama station are to to come.
Over on the commercial side, things are a little hazier. Classic FM, Talksport and Virgin are already there - digital broadcasts are a boon for Virgin, stuck on AM across most of the country.
Alongside these is a strange mix. Oneword broadcasts novels, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, discussion, comedy and features - the David to Radio 4's Goliath.
Bloomberg provides financial news, while Planet Rock is a surprisingly varied mix of harder sounds from the 60s to the 80s. Poodle perms are welcome here without embarrassment.
But there the variety ends. Life says it is "contemporary music for individual, confident, aspirational adults". Actually, it's like a watered-down version of your annoying local pop station. And Core is exactly like your annoying local pop station.
After that, what you get varies around the country. But don't expect to hear many opportunities for local talent beyond your regular BBC or independent stations, which will also feature.
Some are simply London stations rolled out across the country, like Sunrise (Asian), Kiss (dance) and Xfm (rock). Either Classic Gold or Capital Gold are likely to appear as well - maybe both - along with Saga Radio (more easy listening), Heart (soft pop) and Magic (softer pop).
Others have sales pitches which are more interesting than their stations - "The Storm is for anyone who lives life to the limit and loves great no-frills music". While Smash Hits! and Ministry of Sound seem to be little more than cunning brand extensions.
If you're happy with what you listen to now, there isn't going to be much point in having 20 new stations you won't listen to.
But if you're one of the many who feels you get a raw deal from analogue radio - which is likely to be true if you're a serious rock fan, or an easy-listening lover - then it's worth investing in a set, and taking part in the quieter end of the digital revolution.
BBC News Online readers added their views on digital radio.
As a regular music listener I am disapointed with the sound qulity and feel that this format will die a quick death as a result of market forces. With so much else on offer I feel people will be buying a white elephant!
I remember, aeons ago, constructing a crystal radio with my electronics project set for my mum during a power cut so she could listen to Radio 2 on AM. It was very satisfying, even though my brother found her a battery-operated radio before I had finished ... I think it's a shame we're moving away from an age when you could tap in to an immensely powerful medium from your own bedroom using just a few cheap electronic bits and pieces. Any chance we might be able to buy a do-it-yourself DAB kit in Toys-R-Us this Christmas? Thought not.
I agree with the comments about the generally poor quality of DAB stations.
I'm just glad that I went for a £49.00 wavefinder, while it was on special offer, rather than a much more expensive set that by all accounts wouldn't have sounded any better.
Apart from satisfying the manufacturer's greed why should even a basic DAB receiver cost £100.00?
In theory, DAB radio broadcasts are a great idea, but in practice there are simply too many stations crammed into a finite amount of airspace. The result is that the signals are compressed excessively and what you listen to is a stable, but sub-standard sound. Yes, it may be digital, but the quality is far less than that of a CD. Despite all the hype, DAB radio radio is cutting its own throat by promising crystal clear audio, but not delivering it.
I've been listening to Digital Radio for a year now from my Psion Wavefinder. It's a PC based digital radio, and was a dog to get working, but it means radio gets much more time in my house.
I can easily find a different style or type of music (or listen to the crackly AM stations crystal clear).
Once the sets drop down to £50, more people will join in - just like with CD players!
I bought a digital DAB radio last year and I was impressed, however over the last year the quality has been reduced to shoehorn new services into the space, it's not that impressive anymore, I actually regret paying over £300 for something that gets little use. I would suggest satellite as a better option.
I don't have a DAB set at present, and to be honest I have no plans on buying one. I can receive all the mentioned stations, plus a great deal more over the internet. Using a broadband connection and plugging my PC into my stereo, I can receive all the stations I need. Even better is utilizing the BBC's play on demand system. I can listen to the radio I want to listen to when I want to listen to it. DAB is a nice idea, but as the take up of broadband increases, the public will find alternative methods of listening to the music and stations of their choice.
What's so great about digital? The world is not made up of 0s and 1s, and the process of reducing it to such a scheme does no favours to fidelity. The fact is that a turntable playing vinyl records sounds far better than a CD player of the same price. Ditto for radio. Digital radio sounds just awful. I'm damned if I'm going to give up sound quality just because of all this digital hype. Shame on the BBC, which employs some of the most skilled sound engineers in the world, for trying to foist it on us!
Given the choice between 6 Music on DAB or no 6music at all, I know which I'd rather choose... and Virgin Radio sounds so, so much better than crackly old medium-wave. Yes, it's not super hi-fi - but it's quite okay for me...
Who needs to go out and buy a DAB radio as most house have satelite or cable and can listen to it that way. The true measure of success will be consumers buying DAB radios for their cars and the car manufacturers fitting it as standard, just as they now do with CD players. Ford already has announced this, so it is only a matter of time before availbility increases and costs come down.
Inclusion of DAB radios in new cars will be key, however action so far isn't encouraging, Ford was going to start fitting DAB radios as standard in 2003 however this has now been delayed indefinitely because of the high cost.
DAB started out being all about providing better audio quality but now that has changed. Over the last year those of us with a DAB radio have seen more stations added and the bit rates have had to be lowered to fit these new stations in. The result is that almost all of the music stations on DAB sound *worse* on DAB than they do on FM, unless the listener has a very poor FM signal, which seems to be a rarity for the BBC stations.
Rather than buy a DAB radio there are much better alternatives for most people. If you are happy with the stations that you can receive now but you have a poor FM signal then buying an aerial for £15 and putting that in the loft would sort out most people's problems. If you want to listen to digital-only stations then they are almost certainly available on digital satellite, which does not require a subscription, and has far better audio quality than is possible on DAB.
I've had a Wavefinder PC DAB receiver since the beginning of the year and I am impressed by the large number of additional stations I can get here in Central London and regularly listen to MOS and Purple Radio ¿ both DAB exclusive stations which sound much better than their internet feeds. However the FM versions of simulcast DAB stations are clearly better sounding to my ears. The low bit rates employed by most DAB stations result in a lot of artefacts being introduced to the signal. Anyone who believes they will get CD or even FM quality audio will be disappointed with DAB.
The idea behind DAB is a good one, but in reality the broadcasters are trying to pack in so many stations (many of them clones) on their service that the quality is just plain poor.
Before the BBC announced their wave of new stations, the sound quality was most definately superior to FM. Now with a decent FM aerial people can enjoy some of their favourite stations in superior quality on a 40 year old medium.
Digital is not about quantity as the broadcasters seem to insist, but about quality which at the moment is lacking.
The technology has already been superceeded and unfortunately DAB sets are not upgradable to cope with better broadcasting methods.
I am a self confessed radio lover - and proud of it.
This means I listen to radio from a variety
of different sources, such as shortwave, broadband
Internet, Worldspace, and conventional FM. For me,
another new broadcast medium is just another opportunity
to endulge my passion, so from that point of view DAB is
a winner. Of all the formats I use, DAB offers the best
sound quality (except possibly broadband at very high
speeds). The marketing for DAB did give the impression
that it was CD quality or nearly so. This was an error
made in common with some other digital formats, however,
the difference to my ear is not all that great and I am
sure that the average listener who won't be using their
radio in an ideal acoustic will not complain. DAB is for people who like radio
rather than Hi-Fi buffs, if you like radio DAB will be
for you. Personally, I am already looking forward to the
next new format, DRM (the digital "AM equivalent"),
which is likely to turn up in the next year or so.
I do have a digital radio. The reception is great, but the programming still has some way to go. If Phil Jupitus is the BBC's flagship presenter it's a poor indication of the quality of programming listeners can expect. He's a complete boob.
I too was disappointed by DAB. It has solved my ropey FM problems where installing an aerial is not an option. But it could be *so* much better if the Beeb and others got their beans in a row regarding the compromise between quantity and quality. Good for speech, really not worth it for music.
I think DAB is fantastic, there's a great choice of stations most of which are of fairly high quality, suprising when there are so few listeners. The sound quality is crisp clear and interference free, a great improvement on AM and FM.
I purchased a digital satellite receiver in 1998 (not a Sky one) and have enjoyed over 300 digital radio stations since then.
These are all much higher quality that the UK radio stations (higher bit rate), and I have a digital connection to my minidisc recorder and a timer for perfect time shifted recordings.
When will the UK stop letting its pride get in the way of a good thing and start enjoying the quality of digital services that the rest of Europe enjoys??
I've been using a Sony DAB tuner for some 18 month, and Psion Wavefinders for 10 months. Before the BBC decided to reduce the audio quality of its DAB transmissions (with the single exception of the wonderful Radio 3) last Christmas, I very much enjoyed listening to Radios 4 and 1 on DAB. Since the Christmas bit-rate massacre, however, only Radio 3 is worth listening to via DAB. For the rest, FM is far superior in audio quality.
Fortunately for me, I am principally a Radio 3 listener, so DAB has not been a total waste of money. The Wavefinder is excellent as a tool for sending the Musicam stream to a computer hard disc as MPEG1, layer 2 files.
I would recommend that anyone considering DAB for listening to any BBC station other than Radio 3, think again. You are far better off with FM fed via a decent rooftop aerial.
Okay the DAB set prices will come down, but what about the BBC/Sky digital terrestrial service? This has promised to deliver at least some of the new digital networks as well as TV. I'd rather fork out £99 (or hopefully more like £59 by Christmas) for a digital box that delivers TV and radio - even if the radio quality isn't perfect. Those of us outside London have had to put up with appalling local stations (BBC and commercial in Notts) and Internet broadcasts are no substitute.
Digital Radio is available in Northern Ireland but our selection seems to be much more limited - we have the BBC stations and some local stations as well but we are missing many of the big UK players for example - NO Virgin or TalkSport! Any chance?
I have a SKY box, and I receive a good quantity of digital radio stations, both UK and overseas (especially from the Republic of Ireland). These include much smaller niche interest groups that wouldn't get access to DAB. The quality is excellent and I see no reason to buy a DAB receiver now.
Digital radio does sound like a good idea but it seems to me that it is already doomed to fall to the "we play pop and everything else gets a one hour a week slot at ten past to two in the morning!" I had always hoped that with the introduction of digital there would be a much wider variety of music, from underground trance through to metal and old school hip hop. Sadly this does not seem to be the case.
01 May 02 | TV and Radio
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