Digital radio buying guide

Making the transition to the new digital radio format.

Digital radio is the next evolution of radio broadcasting. It offers better sound and signal quality compared to existing analog radio services, but you will need special equipment to receive digital radio transmissions. It has been in development since the early 1980s but will start officially broadcasting in mid-2009.

To receive the digital radio signals you will need a radio with a Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB+) chip built in. One of the benefits of shifting to digital radio broadcasts — along with having better sound quality and clearer reception — is that you can access additional features not available with an analog signal. Features such as recording, rewinding, channel name searching and program guide information are available with digital radio broadcast services. Like traditional analog radio, digital radio is free to listen to.

A digital radio receiver will lock onto the strongest signal for the station you are tuning into and block out all others. Because of this digital radio is free of the static and interference that is common with analog AM/FM radio.

A single digital radio broadcast takes up a small segment of the radio spectrum, which means more radio stations can theoretically be broadcast on the radio spectrum than are currently broadcast using analog radio. This means that almost double the number of analog stations may be available once the move to digital radio has been made. This will offer more scope for specialist radio programs and genres to be broadcast to a wider audience than ever before. Additionally, all new radio stations will be available on digital.

DAB+ and DAB: What's the difference?

Australian digital radio uses DAB+ technology, but there are other parts of the world transmitting with an older DAB standard.

The original DAB standard was designed in the late 1980s and the digital compression technology used is outdated by modern standards. The newer DAB+ standard uses modern compression technology and includes newer error correction algorithms for better reception. Overall, using DAB+ instead of DAB means better sound quality and a wider coverage area.

What does Digital Radio offer?

Digital radio is superior to analog radio mainly due to the substantial increase in sound quality. Traditional AM radio has a muffled sound and cuts off many audio frequencies. FM radio offers slightly more clarity, but digital radio is significantly superior to both analogue transmission formats.

Digital radio receivers are essentially miniature computers. Depending on the model they can offer features such as rewinding and storing programs for later listening. Some digital radio receivers can display additional information transmitted by the broadcaster, such as song and artist details.

If your digital radio receiver includes an LCD screen you will be able to browse through digital radio stations by channel name, rather than by frequency as with analog radio. Many digital radios will allow storing of these channel names to create lists of ‘favourites’ for easy browsing.

If they decide to, stations can transmit music downloads, slideshows and guides about upcoming programming. A digital radio station's electronic programming guide may display information on upcoming shows, presenter biographies and even lists of individual tracks that will be played. Manufacturers such as Sony, Grundig and Philips have already released digital radio products.

Who is Digital Radio for?

The digital radio stations that will start broadcasting in 2009 range from youth-oriented stations such as Triple J, to ABC Radio National and Classic FM. The initial launch favours an older audience, with government-run stations and talk-back radio stations making up the majority of broadcasters. This means that the 40+ market may be the early adopters of digital radio technology.

When digital radio broadcasts become more widespread in the future there will be a similar variety of stations to the ones currently on air on the analog spectrum. This means that there will be digital radio broadcasts to suit all age groups and interests.

When can I start listening to Digital Radio broadcasts?

Officially, digital radio broadcasts will begin in May 2009 across five Australian capital cities — Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth — though some test broadcasts may already be running. The ABC has two channels, DiG Radio and DiG Jazz, currently active. This means that metropolitan areas will have access to digital radio first, with expansion into regional areas coming after the initial launch date.

When digital radio is officially launched in May, all analog broadcasters will be able to broadcast their services in digital if they choose to. Commercial stations that currently broadcast an analog service must begin their digital broadcasts before July 2009 or they will lose their digital broadcasting licences — so expect to hear all your favourite radio stations on digital.

Will Digital Radio eventually replace Analog Radio?

Analog broadcasts will still continue when digital radio services are officially started in May 2009. There are currently no plans to switch off analog radio broadcasts, so your existing radio receivers will continue to work.

What do I need to listen to Digital Radio?

To listen to digital radio all you will need is a digital radio receiver. These receivers can range from simple screen-less handheld radios to complete home radio speaker systems. Some new luxury cars already have digital radio receivers installed as standard; some manufacturers also offer upgrades to car stereos so they can receive digital radio.

Can I use any radio to tune into Digital Radio?

You must purchase a new radio to be able to tune in to digital radio – older analog radios are not able to pick up and decode digital radio transmissions. For a radio to receive digital transmissions it must have a DAB+ (Digital Audio Broadcasting) chip inside – this will be clearly labelled on the packaging to avoid confusion.

Digital radio is available in most areas where analog radio is currently broadcast. Regional areas may not currently be suitable for digital radio use though, because it doesn't cover the same wide broadcast area as AM radio services.

Is Digital Radio the same as Internet Radio?

No, digital radio uses radio frequencies rather than an Internet connection to broadcast audio.

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Campbell Simpson

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