DAB in the UK. Quantity, not quality.

We have, for quite some time, covered a lot of the new and interesting ways to enjoy music and other types of media. Over the years we’ve featured the start of internet radio, streaming internet radio in the car and even the Virgin Mobile Lobster TV phone. Remember that? It actually used DAB. Yes, DAB. The Lobster 700 could get you 5 TV channels over the data capacity on DAB, and it was doing this way back in 2006.


So DAB should, by now, have knocked FM into touch. We should be living in a world of crystal-clear DAB with a wider choice of stations. However, what we’ve ended up with is a big choice of very low-quality audio streams.

If you’ve got your geek hat on, you can read my article about the mediocre, sometimes mono DAB stations that you can receive here in the UK.

Basically digital radio is just that – digital. You effectively listen to a stream, just like you do over the internet or through an app on your phone. Your favourite station will probably be wanting you to download an app for you to listen to them on. It effectively wraps their audio stream, which is fed over your 4G data connection, and adds a load of additional “helpful” content about the station. However, rather bizarrely, you’ll probably be getting a better quality stream this way than you can on DAB.

 

Bit-rates and audio quality

I might blind you with science in a minute, so let’s talk about bit-rates and explain what they are.

Generally, the higher the bit-rate, the better the audio quality. Popular streaming websites like Spotify and Pandora typically use a bit-rate of 160 kbps, which is less than that of MP3s. If you upgrade to Spotify Premium, you get 320 kbps tracks, which is equivalent to MP3s.

Back in the day we used to use something called a “CD” (remember them?!). The bit-rate on a CD is 1,411 kbps. Yeah, I know. CD wins, by a long way.

 

What this means for you..

As an example, Jazz FM (which is called that but broadcasts on DAB too) has a 112kbps stream on TuneIn. You can also get higher quality internet streams if you want or, for the full beans, perhaps use your Sky TV box on channel 0202 and get it fed down from the Astra satellites up in space.

However, if you want to listen to Jazz FM on your swish DAB radio, or in your car on DAB, you’re going to get a relatively rubbish 32kbps stream, encoded via AAC.

A 32kbps stream? When there’s a 320kbps stream on the internet?

Why?

Well, stations here in the UK are now mostly owned by just a few big media companies. Global, as an example, runs Capital, Heart, Classic FM, Smooth, LBC and Radio X to name just a few. There’s also Bauer Radio running Absolute, Heat, Kiss and so on. You’ll also find the Wireless Group, who run Talksport and Virgin Radio.

We’ve got the choice, even if it is via a few big media companies, but the margins and costs just aren’t stacking up. On FM you have to try to please as many people as possible. That results in a lot of stations that sound pretty similar. They’re expensive to run, so you have to maximise the advertising by appealing to a broad church.

If a radio station isn’t going to pay for itself, it just can’t carry on running. So, with DAB, paying for a relatively expensive, high bit-rate, high-bandwidth transmission across the whole of the UK has to be squared off against your advertising revenue.

Most of the time, that can’t be done. There’s not quite enough people listening to DAB and those that are chose to switch to it for that increase in choice. They don’t want that generic “Bob and Sue in the mornings” or “The big drive home with Zak”. They want something different – oldies, dance, talk, rock, sport and so on. All of this has resulted in a large amount of cheaper DAB stations appearing. Some without DJs, some without many adverts and most with either a low-quality audio feed or mono broadcasting.

That bugged me, especially when you consider the other selling point of DAB.

In addition to the choice, the relatively expensive DAB equipment is sold on how “superior” the sound is meant to be. It’s what spurred me into writing this earlier article, because a lot of people just aren’t aware that it just isn’t that way at all. I mean sure, if you’re comparing it to those MW stations that have traditionally offered extra and alternative categories of stations, then yes – it is clearer, but it’s not as good as it could be and it’s not as wonderful as the marketing makes out.

It’s almost like we’ve gone backwards in a way, especially as there was such huge fanfare when stations used to promote the high-grade audio and stereo part of their FM transmissions back in the 1980’s.

Now? Well, now we’re all using Bluetooth speakers or listening to music through the external speakers on our phones. It means that the rather inefficient MP2 encoding format that DAB traditionally used is being dropped to a lower and lower quality in order for more stations to appear. It’s being dropped lower than was ever intended or even recommended by the early DAB pioneers. Sure, a new (and more efficient) encoding method has come onto the scene now, but again – the bit-rate is being dropped to reduce the “cost of entry” for radio stations.

So that all brings me onto this. On YouTube there’s a rather excellent channel called Techmoan which I heartily recommend. A guy called Mat does some properly in-depth tech videos, covering the inner workings of old radios, dash cams, tape recorders, TVs, Laserdiscs, cameras and everything in-between. It’s a brilliant channel and he’s filmed a very informative video which puts a lot of my earlier waffle into a very slick presentation.

In the video below Mat is showing off a DAB radio he’s purchased, but at around 8 minutes 30 (it should start at that point below) he explains all about the problems we have with DAB here in the UK..

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