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Getting digital radio

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Andrew Smith | 10:27 AM, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

A vintage car radio

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Do you get it? Digital radio that is. At You and Yours we'd love to hear your experience of digital reception - especially if you have a digital radio in the car. The question arises after our piece which arose after the news that Ford is planning to offer the digital radio as an option on all its cars and on some models as standard from next year. And all new cars should have a digital radio as standard by 2013 - two years earlier than was required of them.

But do consumers want DAB radios in their cars? Martin wrote to tell us he had a DAB radio fitted to his old car - but quickly went back to FM. "I didn't want 80 stations to choose from," he says.

Assuming you would like that choice, is it really available? Not according to Simon, who recommends a trip along the A470 from Cardiff to north Wales. "The radio works well at first," he says, but after less than 30 miles from Cardiff, the radio dies. "Then there is no signal until the north Wales coast - nearly 150 miles away."

Geoff says he drives four miles to the nearest town in Sussex and the digital radio gives up altogether - and Andrew complains that he can't even get an FM signal in Argyll and Bute let alone DAB. Simon says his DAB signal in Cumbria "frequently drops out altogether."

And Robert complains his car often suffers total signal loss in London - when he drives past buildings. "Analogue interference is tolerable as you can still hear something... but with digital you get nothing at all," he says.

Only Steve from Anglesey felt he could recommend a DAB car radio. Sceptics tried to stop him but he says:"Since having it, the only place it hasn't worked was the Conwy Tunnel."

New masts are going up to improve coverage - not sure they'll help in the Conwy Tunnel though - at the moment a DAB signal reaches around 90 per cent of the population - though, significantly for motorists that's not 90 per cent of the geographical area.

So let us know where your DAB coverage starts and ends - maybe we'll even draw up an informal, unscientific map. In the meantime the BBC does offer help with reception problems.

Andrew Smith is editor of You & Yours


  • Comment number 1.

    I hope on the programme you make the distinction between in-car DAB that's properly fitted vs the radios with aerial that stick on your windscreen.

    If it's the former, it's a great experience, if it's the latter, then there's so many variables that could make it great or terrible.

  • Comment number 2.

    My experience has been mixed. When there is signal it is great, but as soon as the reception drops off then it becomes awful. It's not like FM where a little interference is fine. It's all or nothing with DAB, and far too often it's the latter rather than the former.

    Something that would worry me is if I wanted to drive on the continent where DAB isn't standard. I think cars with DAB radios should have an FM receiver fitted too, considering that they cost pennies.

  • Comment number 3.

    I've had mixed experiences with digital radio. I have one in at home and it's fantastic, so I'm sold on the principle. My dad used to have a Lotus Elise which comes with a digital radio tuner as standard. This was actually quite poor and would regularly drop-out.

    Last year I bought a brand new, top of the range Mazda MX-5. This came with an all-bells-and-whistles BOSE stereo, but that was only FM and AM. So far as I could make out, Mazda don't supply a digital radio. So, for me to get digital radio in my car, I've either got to buy an add-on or use one of the many free iPhone apps.

    However, even at home, I tend not to listen to digital-only radio stations.

  • Comment number 4.

    I love DAB, in the house I live in with my father we have 4 I think. Although I tend to the digital stations via the iplayer as I have a significantly better sound system on my PC than any of the radios have. Or I listen to podcasts in my car played over the small FM transmitter gadgets.

    I would assume all DAB car radios (like their home equivalents) would have an FM transmitter ( they'd also have an MW and LW as well ideally) and if not that is a serious design flaw.

    FM isnt that great anyway, it is variable at best. two of my most common journeys outside of my daily commute are through mid-wales and down the A34/M3. Getting Radio 4 on those trips is impossible anyway.
    And variable signal quality and varying frequencies are just frustrating, I'm all for a car DAB.

    I am only stopped from upgrading in my car because of the ludicrous cost of car stereos. The very cheapest car radio will set you back £100 probably a lot more (which is an unjustifiable price for what is now relatively cheap technology).

    If the price comes down significantly (which seems unlikely) or i buy a car with one in i will upgrade.
    Until then its podcasts or radio 4 on fm all the way.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've had 2 kinds of in-car digital radios - one that replaced the existing radio head unit and had an aerial that extended about a metre along the top of the front windscreen. The signal quality was excellent and very rarely dropped out, the radio itself was easy to use and since it took the place of the existing radio I didn't have to worry about any extra cables.
    When I changed my car, the new one's existing radio unit wasn't removeable in the same way and there wasn't a digital radio option so I had to move to one of the windscreen-mounted digital radio units that re-broadcast the signal in FM to your normal radio. This has been very disappointing in comparison; with the signal dropping out a lot, the difficulty in finding a free-enough FM frequency so there isn't any interference from actual FM radio broadcasts and there's a lot of extra cables and I need to take the radio off of the windscreen mount when I leave the car.
    On long journeys, the FM broadcast setting inevitably has to be changed when you drive into an area with local radio on the same frequency and there are places where the signal drops out completely for minutes at a time. I prefer to listen to talk radio - Radio 4 and BBC 7 (soon to be 4 Extra) so it's very frustrating to miss chunks of dialogue through poor signal or having to retune the FM transmitter. In fact, when I'm listening to Radio 4, I often switch back to the analogue channel when the signal drops!
    I would love to go back to my original installed digital radio, which worked brilliantly even with a windscreen-mounted aerial, and think that if more people had this experience, then there's be a lot more demand for cars to be fitted with digital radio as standard because the quality is excellent and the choice of channels more extensive. Unfortunately, the cheaper and more universal windscreen mounted units are probably putting people off with poor quality and frustrating user experience.

  • Comment number 6.

    I miss the ease of tuning with digital (can never be bothered to sort out presets with our in-car analogue) but as our digital radio signal at home in a stationary environment is not always stable I wonder how the signal will be for a moving car that encounters hills quite often and what happens when it rains (our signal is affected quite badly)...

  • Comment number 7.

    Having moved to a Somerset valley, we have three redundant DAB radios. Like many villagers in the West Country, we do not receive a digital signal here at all. The car has an analog radio and receives a perfect FM signal. DAB would be pointless of course, as there are so many blackout areas. iPhone apps sound the perfect answer, until you realise that... yep... we have no mobile phone signal here either.

    When the switchover happens, it's back to the dark ages for us.

  • Comment number 8.

    When DAB works, it's great. Unfortunately, it doesn't often work.
    Even the demonstrator unit in the public foyer in BBC White City churns out crackly / lossy BBC channels while the non Auntie stations are generally clear as a bell. At home a mile away it's fine on a fixed unit with a big telescopic antenna.
    I've never tried a dedicated in car DAB unit, but going walkabout with an PURE pocketsized unit is a joke.
    It has to work a great deal better than it does before the mobile alternatives are phazed out.

  • Comment number 9.

    In reply to the question about coverage in Derbyshire - here's some info on the BBC's current and future plans:

    We have two transmitters currently bringing BBC digital radio coverage to Derbyshire.

    Stanton Moor launched earlier this year covering Matlock and Bakewell adding about 30,000 people to the coverage area and improving reception for a further 15,000.

    Buxton launched back in 2008 providing coverage to the town and the north of the country.

    And we plan to improve the coverage in Derby itself in June with a new transmitter at Quarndon.

    Lindsey Mack
    Senior Manager Digital Radio

  • Comment number 10.

    I have a Pure Highway DAB radio. I bought it on a whim, because I enjoy listening to BBC 7 and Planet Rock, which probably speaks volumes about me. Living in a marginal DAB location, we have to have a roof aerial to pick up a decent signal, I was amazed by DAB coverage in the car. For some unkonon reason, Aylesbury has very bad reception. However, reception is generally good. You get signal blips, but these rarely affect your enjoyment. Obviously, you get no reception in the Scottish Borders, but I always resort to R4 on long wave there anyway.

    I thought that your "expert" was rather disdainful/condescendant about the current add-on DAB radios. They work and have the added advantage of being able to be moved from one car to another. The only additional cost is a portable magnetic aerial, which works well. This is a lot cheaper than upgrading car radios in the several and various cars that I drive!

    Keep up the good work, you have a great programme, but I'm afraid that it does not compete with Hancock's Half Hour and the Navy Lark on the soon to be Radio 4 Extra!

  • Comment number 11.

    There are now 23 national (11 BBC & 12 Independent) and 6 quasi-national DAB stations including stations playing gospel, jazz, rock and worship music plus BBC Radio 4 Extra & World Service all broadcasting 24/7 but none of these specialist stations, and please note this fact, among the 8 national analogue (FM/LW/MW) stations.

    Those people who just want to stay in an analogue-only-world for radio are limiting listener choice. Most parts of the country, away from the metropolitan areas, only have 8 national stations, a BBC local or nations service and perhaps two or three local commercial stations mostly playing variations of popular music on FM and MW.

    Radio needs to have a multi-platform ecology that will enable free-to-air radio to be on DAB and FM as well as stations broadcasting via a combination of other platforms including Freesat, Freeview, the Internet, Sky Digital and mobile phone apps.

    As I understand it the plan is to move all national and regional stations to DAB and leave the FM band for local and community radio once over 50% of the population are listening via digital radio. Currently over half the FM is taken up by five national stations which has always limited the coverage of both local commercial radio and community radio stations. Currently national DAB covers over 90% of the population and what needs to happen is for the coverage to be rolled out to the remaining 9.9% as soon as possible. The BBC say that they will have increased coverage to 93% by the end of 2011. Remember it took nearly 30 years for FM to reach that level and DAB will do it in just 16 years.

    Come on government, Ofcom and the transmission industry let us keep up the momentum to reach the whole population with DAB between 2015 and 2020

  • Comment number 12.

    I have just listened to the item on DAB digital radio.
    I would go further than David Blunkett.
    There was no mention that if I want to listen to the range of digital radio stations I can do so on my TV via Freeview and/or satellite and/or internet.
    There is no need for a separate expensive DAB system as well.
    Car manufacturers' persistent non-installation of DAB radios in their products shows that there is no real demand for in-car DAB radio. (Apart from Ford and I'll be they don't get many takers at an extra £300-£500/DAB radio.)
    Channel 4 dropped plans for DAB radio channels.
    So forget it BBC and save some licence fee instead of wasting money on another electronic toy.

  • Comment number 13.

    I only ever listen to Radio 4.
    I don't want any other channels.
    I actively dislike music, I can't hear it properly and it NEVER "moves" me.
    My FM radios provide better reception than DAB and better coverage. Like all digital equipment DAB radios work well or not at all. There is no retuning you can do if it fails. There is no way of accepting a poorer reception in order to listen to a programme.
    I do not believe that anyone can create another radio station that I would want to listen to.
    Why is the BBC persisting with this nonsense which will NOT improve MY "listening experience", whatever that means?

  • Comment number 14.

    There is a need for free-to-air DAB radio.

    Some of us are already listening to stations on DAB in the East Riding like Amazing, BBC 6Music, BBC World Service, Gold, JazzFM, Planet Rock, Premier, Smooth, UCB and Yorkshire Radio. We can also listen to our local Yorkshire Coast Radio on FM.

    I already have a DAB/FM/LW/MW installed in my small Fiat car (it cost £250 installed) so that I can listen to a variety of radio as we travel from Yorkshire to Wiltshire and from Hertfordshire to Staffordshire.

    What we need is robust DAB coverage across the 99.9% of the UK population and congratulations to the BBC in rolling out their BBC national DAB transmitter network.

  • Comment number 15.

    We have six rooms in our house and a radio in every room - using fm frequency. I have two big concerns relating to this ridiculous idea of moving to digital in 2015. We are very happy with the radios we currently have. They are all in very good condition and work well - why would we want to throw them away? When money is tight and resources are tight, why would we want to buy another six radios? What about the landfill implications on this mountain of old radios that have suddenly become redundant and all the resources needed to make new ones.

    This seems a highly irresponsible act and the BBC should be negotiating with the Government to rescind this very foolish decision.

  • Comment number 16.

    The BBC, like the mobile phone providers, always claims its coverage of DAB radio reception in terms of percentage of the population. This would be fine as long as we never left home but even then there would be households within the so-called coverage areas that suffered poor reception due to the proximity of objects which shield the signal, so we had all better live in a tent on the top of a hill.

    But we don’t! We all want to move around the country and use our mobile phones and listen to our car radios. As we don’t use our phones continuously, we accept that it may be necessary to move on to find a signal – our callers can leave a voice message which will be picked up later – but it would be extremely annoying if our radios were frequently going unstable and cutting out completely. It’s bad enough when our FM radios start getting fuzzy but DAB can never be as good as FM.

    There are very sound technical reasons why DAB will never have the coverage of FM. The higher the frequency of the broadcast signal the more line-of-sight is its propagation. It is exactly why Medium Wave coverage is better than FM and Long Wave is even better than Medium Wave. I can receive The Archers on Long Wave in much of France because the signal bends with the curvature of the Earth but with DAB any obstruction will cause degeneration of the signal.

    With good reception DAB provides excellent quality in terms of lack of noise (i.e. background hiss) but there is very little wrong with FM in this respect. However, DAB doesn’t provide the Hi-Fi music quality that FM does because the BBC chooses not to. It would need a higher bandwidth for the signal, which would then limit the number of channels that could be squeezed into the spectrum. We are being offered quantity over quality!

    So; car drivers unite and campaign against the loss of our FM signal and the imposition of the theoretically superior but practically inferior DAB.

  • Comment number 17.

    @ Annietomic

    Ford will be fitting DAB radios as standard equipment - nobody will be given the option of paying an extra £350-£500 to have it fitted in their new cars.

    You can't listen to Freeview and satellite on the move, and because of download limits you can only listen to internet radio on a mobile device without charge for about 30 minutes per day before tariffs are imposed.

  • Comment number 18.

    One other point which hasn't been mentioned in the context of in car usage of DAB radios is that they lack RDS live traffic news. Whilst that FM service is imperfect with local channels sometimes generating spurious switchover messages it is mostly useful news at rush hour about major routes with problems. It is clearly a big step backwards to lose this useful traffic news feature by having a DAB car radio!

    I do agree that the best place to use a DAB radio is inside a moving car since if you go fast enough the engine and road noise will mask out the shortcomings of the receiver. Assuming that the signal doesn't drop out entirely or crash the decoder which seems to be all too common :(


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