Digital Killed The Radio Star
Radio has become common-place for people around the world with current estimates at as many as five radio devices in most households today. To this fact add that there are currently in excess of 750 million vehicles in the world (with some estimates that this will double in the next 30 years), and you soon realise just how large the reach of radio really extends. According to industry sources, over 40% of radio is listened to in a vehicle.
It’s no wonder then that as we embrace the worlds technologies, tweet our latest gossip and continue to adopt any new device that makes our life simpler, easier or just damn cool, that radio is now leaping into the next century.
FM Radio has been around since the late 1950’s and over that time has not really changed dramatically. Some sixty years later we’ve now been bombarded with media and advertising telling us that unless we upgrade our radios, we’re missing out.
Digital Radio has been around in various formats since the early 80’s but has struggled with different formats being adopted in various countries. The countries that drive technology and in turn manufacture products such as United States, United Kingdom, Japan and Korea, have been in a power struggle as to the best method of broadcasting Digital Radio, or more accurately which ‘codec’ to transmit the signal in.
No different to these countries above, enter Digital Radio Plus, or ‘DAB+’ as it is known; the new kid on the block in Australia. Australia has chosen this technology current being used in Switzerland, Malta and Italy. Last time I checked, none of these countries are known at most for their production of consumer electronics devices?
‘Commercial Radio Australia’ is the national industry body representing Australia’s commercial radio broadcasters and also the driving force behind DAB+ in Australia. I’m not privileged to the reasons why DAB+ was chosen as the format for Australia, but given that CRA is made up of a board of elected positions representing metropolitan and regional commercial broadcasters in Australia, we can only trust that the decision was made with Australian consumer’s interests in mind.
When compared to traditional FM Radio, the DAB+ format itself offers clearer sound and reception, extra channels with pause and rewind functions, tagging and downloading of music, slideshows, scrolling text, electronic program guides and much more. As they state in their slogan ... “It’s radio as you know it, plus ...”. We’re not here to argue that, in fact quite the contrary.
Digital Radio offers far more than traditional radio at no extra cost and unlike other countries there are no subscription fees or ongoing costs. It sounds so exciting and yet so simple, so what is the problem? What you will need however is a new radio to receive DAB+, and for those of us who spend so much time in our vehicles, to date this is where the problems begin.
In Australia, between ‘OE’ vehicle manufacturers and the aftermarket car audio brands our consumer electronics products, in this case ‘head units’ typically come from Asian markets. You need to consider that the companies at the forefront of the industry releasing new products are generally planning at least two years ahead. My guess is that no one told them two years ago Australia would be adopting DAB+ for its radio transmission!
Another consideration here is that in the grand scheme of the global car audio market, Australia is still an island and as such does not offer the turnover of products Asia and Europe do. It would be no secret that the majority of aftermarket car audio products are never designed exclusively with Australia in mind. So can we really lay blame that to date, not a single manufacturer has released a dedicated in-car, fixed unit capable of receiving DAB+ transmissions?
At the time of writing, there is only one product on the market that we are aware of allowing vehicles to take advantage of this exciting new technology. Distributed in Australia exclusively by Pioneer Electronics, is the ‘Pure’ branded ‘Highway’.
The Pure Highway is a plug and play device that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket and can be easily attached to your windscreen with a removable flexible mount, no different to a navigation device. Highway receives DAB+ stations and transmits them to your car radio through an unused FM frequency. This is easy, convenient and opens up your in-car experience to a whole new world of channels and content.
There is a downside however. This new crystal clear signal with potentially near CD quality sound has just been re-transmitted through traditional FM radio signals to your radio. In some ways, this is like playing compressed MP3 music through a twenty thousand dollar HiFi system. These days however, most consumers have come to accept the loss in sound quality for the convenience of hundreds of tracks at their fingertips in a world of iPods, so it’s probably no consideration given the benefits of more channels, content and features.
We’ve spoken with nearly all of Australia’s leading brands of aftermarket car audio products and the frustrations felt with the lack of dedicated DAB+ products is shared almost exclusively. In most cases we’re hearing products with DAB+ ‘onboard’ are as far as 12 months away (at time of writing) for both OE Manufacturers and also the aftermarket. There are however a number of plug and play devices similar to the Pure Highway coming to market, and these are sure to be one of the best selling products of 2010.
Moving away from the in-car environment for a moment, there are strong rumours around that many of us may already be sitting on a Digital Radio device, quite literally. Some believe that 3G and imminent releases of our beloved mobile phones are already capable of receiving digital radio. This could lead to us simply ‘pairing’ or plugging in our mobile phone to our vehicles source unit and digital radio freely flows. Well perhaps not so freely, as Australia’s mobile phone networks love to offer additional services for a small monthly fee. Time will tell but the rumour extends to the current generation of Apple’s iPhone already on the market.
Digital Radio Plus is now transmitting in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth with more and more stations being added all the time. Presently there are no official plans to switch off AM or FM radio transmissions, so unlike Digital TV we’re not being forced to upgrade, however with so much more additional content available on DAB+ the upgrade is certainly enticing. For now, I’ll continue listening through the Pure Highway with anticipation of further devices coming to market before the next technology comes to light.