Analogue radio has reached the sad point where the airwaves are overrun by commercial pop that serves as little more than a long advertisement for whatever bands Clear Channel is pimping this month. Luckily digital radio has brought with it a slew of specialist stations, many of which cater to a much wider range of musical tastes.
While the initial launch of digital radio (DAB) confined itself to dedicated receivers that were far from portable, companies like PURE have been busy finding ways to pack these DAB radios into smaller and smaller packages. The PocketDAB 2000, as its name would suggest, is a pocket-sized DAB radio with the capability to record live radio in MP3 format onto removable SD cards. It's a sign of the ongoing transformation of digital radio into a portable format and, provided some niggling problems with reception are sorted out, could be the first in a line of mini DABs that become as popular as the iPod.
It's called the PocketDAB, but PURE is stretching the limits of what the average pocket can hold. Imagine the original iPod, but with a beer belly. The LCD screen juts out from the front of the DAB, so there's a bulbous shape to the device.
The chassis is finished in a uninspired silver-grey, but it's solid and well-constructed. The back of the chassis is coated in a grippy rubber material that ensures the radio won't slip out of your hands during a sweaty workout. The one disadvantage of this rubber grip is that it collects dirt and grease -- not the most attractive look for a portable music player.
Controls on the PocketDAB are neatly organised. The main joypad -- used for navigating stations -- is orbited by a series of other controls that provide access to the PocketDAB's main functions. These include equaliser setting, recording and information modes. At 160g, this radio doesn't compare to the credit-card style offerings from analogue radio manufacturers. Granted, the DAB technology is new, but this will weigh down a suit pocket enough to be visible to thieves. Hopefully these weight problems will be overcome as the receiver technology evolves.
The PocketDAB's LCD screen is exceptionally resilient. PURE has done well to elevate the protective plastic cover far above the surface of the display. No matter how much pressure you exert on the surface of the radio, the LCD refuses to distort. SD cards are inserted into the left-hand side of the radio and there's a USB socket on the right. A rocker wheel on the side of the device controls volume, while 3.5mm jack and optical connectors are available on the top of the radio. These allow you to listen to radio on the bundled headphones or, using an optical connection, on your home stereo with the digital signal more or less unimpaired.
The headphones bundled with the PocketDAB are visually unremarkable. Although they bear a resemblance to the free headphones you're handed on long-distance flights, we were surprised by the quality of sound they produced -- more on that later.
Power for the PocketDAB is supplied via three AA batteries that insert into the rear of the chassis. The radio accepts rechargeable batteries and our review unit shipped with three of these included.
The moment we switched it on, the PocketDAB auto-tuned to all the available DAB radio stations, which took about five seconds. We could then scroll between them using the directional-pad control, finally making our selection by pressing down on the pad. This was all without having to consult the manual.
If you move the radio to a new location and you notice the reception becoming unreliable, there's a menu option that instructs the PocketDAB to retune all its stations. Our review model was partly charged , so we were able to sample DAB broadcasts straight away. With uncharged batteries you may have to wait several hours before the radio is ready to be taken on a long journey.
For a relatively small radio, the PocketDAB is packed with features. Not only can you scroll between stations, but also full broadcast information is shown on the LCD as you're listening to tracks. Depending on the music that's playing you may be given an artist biography, or news about that band's latest gigs. This scrolls up the screen like end-credits to a film.
The 40mm (1.6-inch) LCD is clear and bright. It's not vital though, because you don't need a huge amount of information when you're listening to radio -- most people are busy doing something else as they listen. You can record live radio in MP3 format, using removable SD cards which are available in a range of capacities and can be swapped between your PC and the PocketDAB. This is especially useful if you need to stop listening for a while, but don't want to miss the end of a programme.
It's also possible to use the PocketDAB as a standard MP3 player. The SD card can be written to by most computers (PC and Mac) and you can listen to your regular MP3 files using the PocketDAB as a player.
When you're in an area of good reception, the sound quality on the PocketDAB is excellent. Despite the relatively low bit rate of digital radio at the moment, we were impressed by this radio's punchy low-end and overall tonal balance. You shouldn't expect to have to do much equaliser tweaking on an integrated DAB system and this held true here. The PURE headphones, while not impressive in themselves, are well matched to the radio and were particularly good at defining transient bass-tones which can sometimes be lost by cheaper headphones. The driver units themselves are housed in fairly deep plastic ear-buds, which may be doing something to complement deeper frequencies.
Unfortunately, disappointment is never far away with a portable DAB system. While small analogue radios were never fantastic at maintaining good reception, they were at least subtler as they lost a signal. Where an analogue radio would gracefully descend into static when a signal weakened, DAB radios tend to make odd shrieking and jibbering noises. Under our informal test conditions we sometimes lost the digital signal and the PocketDAB began to make some quite unsettling noises.
Provided you use the PocketDAB in an area of good reception -- if you want a radio to jog with, for example -- this is an excellent machine. But, though the build quality is excellent and the features impressive, this radio -- like all portable DABs -- holds the potential to irritate you when the signal inevitably drops out. How and when such problems will be resolved is difficult to know, but for the moment the PocketDAB is a very good radio limited only by the inherent limitations of current digital radio technologies.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide