Digital radio: all you need to know

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Ty is a journalist with 15 years experience in writing for IT and entertainment publications. He is in charge of the home theatre category for CNET Australia and is also a PC enthusiast. He likes indie music and plays several instruments. Twitter: @tpendlebury

With digital television now in an estimated 82 per cent of homes, what about its crystal-clear radio cousin? Unfortunately, digital radio take up is still several steps behind. If you're thinking of making the leap, this article will tell you all need to know.

What is it? Is it better than AM and FM radio?

Digital radio is to normal radio what digital television is to your standard analog TV. It's the most significant upgrade to happen since the introduction of FM in Australia in the 1970s and the leap in quality is comparable to FM versus AM. Digital radio works by turning sound into digital signals for transmission and then decoding them at the other end using digital radio receivers; the result is close-to-CD-quality sound output.

While AM/FM radio quality can suffer from interference caused by signals bouncing off walls, buildings, hills and other structures, digital radio receivers have built-in technology that cleans and filters transmissions, making interference practically non-existent. The downside is that you either get signal or you don't.

As well, digital radios are also usually easier to tune — instead of fiddling with a dial to find the strongest frequency for a station, listeners choose a station by name from a menu, with the digital radio automatically locking on to the appropriate frequency at a push of a button.

The Pure Evoke Flow, a DAB+ radio with OLED screen.
(Credit: Pure)

What else can digital radio do?

With information able to be sent along with sound on a digital radio transmission, listeners with LCD screens can receive information such as what song's currently playing, what station they're on, simultaneous news feeds, phone numbers that correspond to the ads they're currently listening to, album art and much more.

Some digital radios come with on-board storage, allowing you to pause and rewind live radio, just like you're able to do on many digital TV set-top boxes and personal video recorders.

Do I need a new radio to listen to digital?

Yes. Unlike digital television, which can be seen on an old analog TV with the addition of a set-top box, you'll need a brand new radio to be able to listen to digital transmissions. A digital radio differs from a normal FM or AM because it has a chip inside that allows it to tune into DAB+ transmissions.

The answer changes a little bit, if we're talking about in-car listening, though. Skip down to the bottom of this feature if you want to know more.

Will analog radio be phased out?

No, the analog signal will remain for the foreseeable future.

This situation differs markedly from television, where the Australian Government has decreed that by the end of 2013 all analog signals will be turned off.

Where can I listen to digital radio?

Before you rush out to buy a digital radio, be aware that not all regions of Australia are serviced by digital radio signals.

As of late 2011, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide can enjoy digital radio from almost anywhere in town, except inside road and rail tunnels. Canberra and Darwin are currently in a trial phase with low power transmitters, so coverage may not be universal.

The body responsible for digital, Commercial Radio Australia, has a website devoted to digital radio that allows you to check if your area has coverage.

What about the other 40 per cent? When will digital radio be available everywhere else?

The Federal Government has not mandated any digital radio requirement for regional areas, instead opting to allow radio broadcasters to move at their own pace. The government, however, has indicated previously it is willing to subsidise any bush roll-out and has urged broadcasters to "commence trials of digital radio in regional areas so technical and other issues can be resolved". The bottom line for regional listeners is a much longer wait than their city cousins for digital radio.

Don't hold your breath if you're outside of the capital cities currently covered, it could be years before digital radio is widespread throughout Australia.

Some DAB+ radios, such as this Yamaha TSX-120 also include iPod docks. (Credit: Yamaha)

What stations are available in digital?

Generally speaking every commercial and government-funded broadcaster in each of the coverage areas retransmits their analog station in digital. In addition most networks broadcast a clutch of additional digital-only stations.

Examples include dedicated '80s and '90s stations from Mix, chill out music on Koffee and Asian pop from SBS. The ABC also has a full-time sports service, Grandstand, and the digital version of News Radio doesn't stop broadcasting rolling news when federal parliament is sitting.

Radio stations also broadcast event channels, such as the three-month "Pink Radio" channel that was timed to coincide with Pink's Australian tour.

I have DAB radio, but it doesn't seem to work here...

The standard used for digital radio in Australia is DAB+, which is not compatible with the older DAB format. DAB was used in Australia during the digital radio trial period between 2003 and 2008, and is also used in a number of European countries, such as the United Kingdom.

You may have a DAB-only radio if you bought a digital radio during the trial period, brought a digital radio in from overseas or you're driving a fancy European car, such as the Ford Focus RS, which is fitted with a head unit that includes DAB digital radio amongst its features.

What's the difference between DAB and DAB+?

DAB+ is a more efficient method of broadcasting music and is based on the AAC codec popularised by Apple's iPod. It's more efficient than the old standard that uses MP2 and means a higher quality signal is possible than before.

Can I get digital radio in the car?

Yes, you can, but despite the proliferation of DAB+ radios available for the home, in-car options are still limited. They fall into three categories: add-on accessories, DAB+ audio head units and cars with factory-equipped DAB+ stereos.

An add-on DAB+ receiver, such as the Pure Highway, is, in many senses, the quickest and easiest way to get an in-car digital radio fix. It sits on your windscreen, much like a portable GPS, and works with your current car stereo either via the auxiliary jack or a built-in FM transmitter.

If a jumble of wires and electronica is not to your liking, you can replace your current car audio unit with a DAB+ compatible model, such as the JVC KD-DB56.

The last, and most expensive, option is to buy a car with a DAB+ stereo. At the time of writing, the only mainstream model to feature digital radio is the new Toyota Camry, albeit only in the top-of-the-range Atara SL variant. The BMW 5-Series and 7-Series, and Audi's A6, A7 and A8 offer Australian digital radio compatibility as an optional extra.

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JonH1 posted a comment   

Beware of electronics shops like Dick Smith that sell digital radios in areas where there wont be any coverage for years! I queried the assistant in the Hobart City store about the impressive advertising display and was told, "Sorry, I agree we are selling radios that won't work for 2 years. Its a national campaign that all stores have to put up." There should be a law against it - in fact there is!! They are in breach of the Trade Practices Act since surely this is false and misleading advertising.


VincentC posted a comment   

My digital radio does not work indoors. There is only a particular spot somewhere in the middle of living room it would play. How can I rig up an aerial for it?


WilliamS2 posted a comment   

A campervan hire agency is a company that specializes in hiring campervans to customers. It is interesting to note that not all campervans are owned by the company that hires them. There are also privately owned units, obviously with some profit- and responsibility-sharing with the campervan hire company.

Caravan Hire Sydney


gregory.opera posted a comment   

For clarification, I was referring to the video, which claims that no one offers built-in, DAB compatible stereos in Australia...


gregory.opera posted a comment   

Actually, according to your own article posted BEFORE this article, the new Camry Atara SL has a digital radio built-in as a factory option. Furthermore, the same article claims that the Camry Atara SL is the SIXTH vehicle in Australia to offer this!

This is the article to which I am referring:

As for myself, I'll update the stereo in my car just as soon as Sony releases a digital radio-compatible head unit (stereo)... Until then, I'll stick with my cassette player and FM receiver.


Lisa posted a comment   

I have brought my digital radio over from the UK and its picked up the stations but it won't play them. It will only play in stereo. What can I do?


Lukey posted a comment   

64kbps for music is not good enough. People will start throwing their dab+ radios in the bin, if it doesn't improve. What a waste of money for the government in setting it all up. It sounds worse than FM!


rooster posted a comment   

I purchased 2 Digital radios and have absolutley no prolem with them.
However, I do have an ordinary radio and find that the Digital ones are a good 10 secords or so behind for some reason.

But at least "Modern Technology" is finally here meaning the end to all that current and unnecessary static that is on ordinary radio.
Ditigal TV is great. You can get all good channels which has the re-runs of all the "Good Old Shows" from yester year. In some ways its better than the rubbish that is dished up on the other "Free to Air" Channels.


DavidB11 posted a reply   

The lag is the time taken to decode the signal. It will depend on the processing power of the radio. It might be good in that ABC radio cricket will no longer be ahead of the cricket on TV.


perth posted a comment   

Can yo get Melborne channels such as 3AW in Perth on digital radio?

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