There are a lot of internet radio reviews out there and when you read too many, they can get a bit confusing. Bluezoome has produced this article to help you understand the difference between FM and DAB, the benefits of moving to a DAB radio and the changes in the UK political and commercial landscape that will affect your decision.
From AM to FM to DAB – How and why they developed.
FM radio, as we know it, was developed back in the 1930's by a man called E.H. Armstrong. He'd been working in radio for some time and eventually developed the wide-band Frequency Modulation broadcasting we use today.
Despite the increase in audio quality over AM, the broadcasting bodies weren't particularly interested and FM radio didn't take off as quickly as you might have expected. It became more popular in the US as technology developed and legislation changed and was a major market player by the Eighties.
In Europe, we got on board a little quicker due to World War 2. First, the Allied Forces' broadcasts were crowding the AM spectrum. Furthermore, after resources were redeployed more equally, Germany was left with only 2 AM frequencies. Consequently, they adopted FM.
Similarly to the US, the UK's use of FM picked up as legislation changed. The BBC started FM broadcasting in 1955 and, after a relaxation in licensing in the 1970's, it really took off.
Digital Audio Broadcasting, or DAB, developed in the Eighties with the first channels launching in 1995. Like the transition from AM to FM, DAB has many advantages over FM.
The characteristics and benefits of using DAB
DAB improves on sound quality. Rather than the fading and crackliness you get with FM tuning, DAB avoids this hit-and-miss approach. It sometimes sounds a little like your radio is underwater when struggling to get the reception but generally, the sound quality is much clearer.
Now, you can scroll through your stations instead of carefully turning a knob to find just the right FM frequency. Sometimes, you can even look through your stations by genre or category. For those of us with a more limited use of their hands, radio tuning has become much simpler!
This improvement in accuracy also changes the information that can be transmitted. With FM, you only receive the audio. With DAB, you can receive information too. This might seem sometimes like it is limited to a pretty display with the time and the name of the station but it can be used for so much more.
Stations have used DAB to transmit electronic program guides (EPGs), extra track and station information, pictures, lyrics and even videos. DAB technology also allows the possibility of receiving useful related information like stock prices, weather reports, real-time news reporting and road maps.
Aside from the vast amount of information that your radio can receive, digital transmission allows for the deliciously useful and modern ability of pausing, recording and rewinding live broadcast. Before the digital age, live broadcast was just that; immediate, ephemeral and right-there-and-then. Now, if the phone rings or the baby is squalling, we can pause our programs and return to them when the time is right.
Does the government support DAB? What about everyone else?
No discussion of a modern technology is complete without a consideration of your needs for the future. Technology adoption can be a little nerve-wracking if you don't know about the commercial and political landscape to provide the context for your purchase decisions.
You've probably heard that the UK Government is planning to switch off FM broadcasting. For the moment, the government does not plan to switch off FM – this won't happen until the nation is predominately using DAB by choice and, even then, FM will still be used for ultra-local broadcasting.
But, the Digital Radio Working Group (DRWG) has already advised the Government to make the change once that 50% of the market uses DAB. They also feel that, regardless, the change should happen between 2017 and 2022. As the UK is a leader in the DAB market, it makes economic sense to capitalise on this.
A 2006 OFCOM report did note that strong DAB usage over FM is likely by 2016-2021 and the government's 2009 Digital Britain report said that the Government would be working towards digitalising all national radio stations by 2015. When a selection of broadcast media experts were interviewed by the DRWG, most certainly thought FM use would be dying out by then.
The DRWG also reports a continuing trend in the increase of DAB use. As of 2008, 31% of adults were listening to radio stations on a digital platform and over 2 million digital radio sets were bought. Those that do use DAB radio report a high consumer satisfaction with the technology. An article from the Journal of Radio and Audio Media also noted that the UK's attitude to DAB has been strongly supported by broadcaster commitments to DAB provision.
This all makes sense; with these trends, the consumer satisfaction and the UK's high profile in DAB use, it is unlikely that we will be switching to another digital broadcast method any time soon. What is more likely is that DAB will grow from the 2008 measurement of 31% national usage.
So, should I make the change?
Well...like all things, it depends. If you're reading this, you're probably looking to upgrade your radio and are ready to either make the change or continue on as a DAB listener.
DAB has a lot to offer. The sheer scale of available international radio stations; the handiness of the extra information; the possibility of pausing, rewinding and replaying; the satisfaction of quality technology ownership; and the increase in usability.
Coupled with the imminence of the Government's planned move of national stations to DAB and the increase in consumer use and satisfaction, it's an attractive prospect. FM radios can only receive FM stations but DAB radios can receive DAB and FM stations. Should the digital change happen sooner than expected, you'll be ready and waiting with your shiny, practical and attractive bit of kit.