You may have heard of the term ‘digital radio’ or DAB, but what does it actually mean? And when and how can you get started listening to digital radio? All these questions and more are answered…
What is digital radio?
At the beginning of last year the Federal Government passed a motion that said by 1 January 2009, all major Australian cities will have access to the next generation in radio, called ‘digital radio’, or digital audio broadcast (DAB).
While radio has been around for years and to must of us seems quite functional, digital radio will be a free service yet it will offer many interactive features that analogue radio just can’t – and all you need to do to access them is buy a radio with a built-in digital receiver.
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Why should I buy a digital radio?
Essentially, digital radio offers much better sound quality than analogue, but with other enhanced features including more stations and text information displayed on the radio’s LCD about the program on-air, such as song and artist details, or weather and sports results.
Finding a station is also easier with a digital radio because users can search via station name instead of frequency.
A digital radio also offers a sort of ‘PVR’ service, which allows users to rewind and record programs, just like a Foxtel PVR when connected to a TV.
What can I expect to pay?
Like most audio equipment, the digital radio’s price will vary depending on the amount of features packed into the unit.
While most of us picture a bedside clock when asked to imagine a radio, the digital radio will come in various form-factors, just like the current analogue AM/FM radio.
Customers should expect to pay anything from under $150 to over $15,000 depending on the product.
When digital radio broadcasts begin airing, a whole manner of products including clock radios, portable radios with built-in MP3 players, wired-in car radios and digital radios built into high-end audiophile amplifiers will be available.
Why has it taken so long for us to get digital radio?
While digital radio is already well-established in the UK and other parts of Europe and Asia, Australia waited until the second generation in digital radio – a standard called DAB+ — was created to implement its service, which will be the first, and best, of its kind in the world.
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Now, trials are being held in Melbourne and Sydney to help the developers ‘tune’ the DAB+ service, and to ascertain which features Australian audiences want.
Manufacturing companies are also running to catch up with the demand, making new models especially for the Australian system.
The digital radio trial, which began in Sydney in 1999, was initially sponsored by the ABC – however this service was based on the first generation digital radio standard called just ‘DAB’, rather than the new DAB+ service.
At the moment, users who own a radio with a DAB tuner could listen to ABC trial broadcasts, however digital radios won’t be commercially available for consumers until at least the middle of this year when the first radio stations begin to air digital programs.
What products will be available?
A company called Pure Australasia Pty Ltd, a fully-owned subsidiary of the UK’s largest DAB-maker, Imagine Technologies, claims it will be the first company to provide radios with the new DAB+ tuner in Australia when it launches them in the second half of this year.
According to Pure Australasia spokesperson, Graeme Redman, his company gets about one call per week from eager customers enquiring about DAB.
“It’s already gathering momentum, and people are picking up the phone and saying, where can we buy these receivers?,” he said.
The company is currently working with Digital Radio Australia – a consortium made up of Commercial Radio Australia along with delegates from the ABC and SBS – to develop three models specifically for the Australian market.
The first, called the Siesta, is a bedside clock radio that also plays FM and AM transmissions, which features multiple alarms and an LCD for program and news information, which will be priced under $150. Offering both DAB+ and DAB capability – meaning it is backwards-compatible – Pure Australia will also be able to sell the Siesta overseas.
The company is also working on a digital car radio called The Highway and a second clock radio called the Chronos2. According to Redman, Pure aims to offer approximately six digital radio models by the start of next year ranging in price from sub-$150 to $800.
While the big players in the consumer electronics business, namely Sony, Sanyo, Philips and Hitachi, are cashing in on the booming UK market, which now offers transmissions to cover almost 75 per cent of the population, at this point primarily smaller, niche manufacturers are entering the Australian digital radio market because if its low revenue opportunities.
A spokesperson for Digital Radio Australia said that consumers should prepare to see a range of new brand-names enter retailers in the next year including Nordos, which currently makes speaker cables in the UK, and Revo, which is a popular brand overseas and is currently setting-up a local representative agency.
“The main players at the moment are iRiver, which makes the first portable digital radio with slideshow capability, and Pure, which has a lot to do with DAB planning and beta testing,” said the spokesperson.
Another option for consumers who want to jump in early is to purchase a stereo amplifier or a surround sound processor that offers an in-built AM/FM tuner, and have the tuner replaced by a DAB+ module when the technology becomes available.
Not all companies offer this service, so consumers should conduct some research before buying, but a trusted high-end hi-fi company that says it will provide this opportunity is Meridian – distributed locally by Sydney-based Amber Technology.
“The G series range, including the G68 digital surround processor ($13,995), G92 DVD player/pre amp/processor ($10,995), G95 DVD player/pre amp/processor/power amps ($11,995), G51 stereo receiver ($5,775) and the G01 stereo pre amp ($4,259) all feature the AM/FM tuner module built in,” said Amber Technology marketing manager, David Small.
“The G series tuner is a card module and I believe the answer is yes, we can swap the tuner at a later date from the AM/FM unit to the DAB/FM unit without problem.”
Korean company iRiver is also planning to hit the Australian market with products when DAB broadcasts commence. The company makes a range of portable MP3 players with built-in digital radio tuners which it is currently tuning for the local market.
But according to iRiver product manager, Danny Bejanoff, who is based at distributor CR Kennedy’s Melbourne office, it is “impossible” to speculate on the state of digital radio products in Australia at this early date.
“A lot can change in eleven months,” he said, referring to the length of time before digital radio signals must be functional.
“And realistically, this date could even change.”
The company is currently circulating a number of portable, walkman-like units in the European, American and Korean markets, including the B20 DAB/MP3 player which offers a 2.4-inch landscape LCD screen and a 4GB memory drive.
Some iRiver units even feature digital TV tuners which is much more popular overseas than currently in Australia.
“Realistically, we can have an iRiver product on the Australian market, which works with Australian standards, in four weeks from when [the Government] gives us the go-ahead,” said Bejanoff.
Though Bejanoff would not speculate a price for up-coming iRiver digital radio units, he said that prices would vary depending on the functions available in the player.