Digital radio: all you need to know

Forget about AM and FM, as digital radio (or DAB+) is the way of the future. It features interference-free transmissions, rewind and pause, and track info.

Randolph Ramsay
Randolph was previously a member of the CNET Australia team and now works for Gamespot.
Randolph Ramsay
5 min read

With digital television now in an estimated 82 per cent of homes, what about its crystal-clear radio cousin? Unfortunately, digital radio take up is still several steps behind. If you're thinking of making the leap, this article will tell you all need to know.

What is it? Is it better than AM and FM radio?

Digital radio is to normal radio what digital television is to your standard analog TV. It's the most significant upgrade to happen since the introduction of FM in Australia in the 1970s and the leap in quality is comparable to FM versus AM. Digital radio works by turning sound into digital signals for transmission and then decoding them at the other end using digital radio receivers; the result is close-to-CD-quality sound output.

While AM/FM radio quality can suffer from interference caused by signals bouncing off walls, buildings, hills and other structures, digital radio receivers have built-in technology that cleans and filters transmissions, making interference practically non-existent. The downside is that you either get signal or you don't.

As well, digital radios are also usually easier to tune — instead of fiddling with a dial to find the strongest frequency for a station, listeners choose a station by name from a menu, with the digital radio automatically locking on to the appropriate frequency at a push of a button.

The , a DAB+ radio with OLED screen. (Credit: Pure)

What else can digital radio do?

With information able to be sent along with sound on a digital radio transmission, listeners with LCD screens can receive information such as what song's currently playing, what station they're on, simultaneous news feeds, phone numbers that correspond to the ads they're currently listening to, album art and much more.

Some digital radios come with on-board storage, allowing you to pause and rewind live radio, just like you're able to do on many digital TV set-top boxes and personal video recorders.

Do I need a new radio to listen to digital?

Yes. Unlike digital television, which can be seen on an old analog TV with the addition of a set-top box, you'll need a brand new radio to be able to listen to digital transmissions. A digital radio differs from a normal FM or AM because it has a chip inside that allows it to tune into DAB+ transmissions.

The answer changes a little bit, if we're talking about in-car listening, though. Skip down to the bottom of this feature if you want to know more.

Will analog radio be phased out?

No, the analog signal will remain for the foreseeable future.

This situation differs markedly from television, where the Australian Government has decreed that by the end of 2013 all analog signals will be turned off.

Where can I listen to digital radio?

Before you rush out to buy a digital radio, be aware that not all regions of Australia are serviced by digital radio signals.

As of late 2011, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide can enjoy digital radio from almost anywhere in town, except inside road and rail tunnels. Canberra and Darwin are currently in a trial phase with low power transmitters, so coverage may not be universal.

The body responsible for digital, Commercial Radio Australia, has a website devoted to digital radio that allows you to check if your area has coverage.

What about the other 40 per cent? When will digital radio be available everywhere else?

The Federal Government has not mandated any digital radio requirement for regional areas, instead opting to allow radio broadcasters to move at their own pace. The government, however, has indicated previously it is willing to subsidise any bush roll-out and has urged broadcasters to "commence trials of digital radio in regional areas so technical and other issues can be resolved". The bottom line for regional listeners is a much longer wait than their city cousins for digital radio.

Don't hold your breath if you're outside of the capital cities currently covered, it could be years before digital radio is widespread throughout Australia.

Some DAB+ radios, such as this also include iPod docks. (Credit: Yamaha)

What stations are available in digital?

Generally speaking every commercial and government-funded broadcaster in each of the coverage areas retransmits their analog station in digital. In addition most networks broadcast a clutch of additional digital-only stations.

Examples include dedicated '80s and '90s stations from Mix, chill out music on Koffee and Asian pop from SBS. The ABC also has a full-time sports service, Grandstand, and the digital version of News Radio doesn't stop broadcasting rolling news when federal parliament is sitting.

Radio stations also broadcast event channels, such as the three-month "Pink Radio" channel that was timed to coincide with Pink's Australian tour.

I have DAB radio, but it doesn't seem to work here...

The standard used for digital radio in Australia is DAB+, which is not compatible with the older DAB format. DAB was used in Australia during the digital radio trial period between 2003 and 2008, and is also used in a number of European countries, such as the United Kingdom.

You may have a DAB-only radio if you bought a digital radio during the trial period, brought a digital radio in from overseas or you're driving a fancy European car, such as the Ford Focus RS, which is fitted with a head unit that includes DAB digital radio amongst its features.

What's the difference between DAB and DAB+?

DAB+ is a more efficient method of broadcasting music and is based on the AAC codec popularised by Apple's iPod. It's more efficient than the old standard that uses MP2 and means a higher quality signal is possible than before.

Can I get digital radio in the car?

Yes, you can, but despite the proliferation of DAB+ radios available for the home, in-car options are still limited. They fall into three categories: add-on accessories, DAB+ audio head units and cars with factory-equipped DAB+ stereos.

An add-on DAB+ receiver, such as the Pure Highway, is, in many senses, the quickest and easiest way to get an in-car digital radio fix. It sits on your windscreen, much like a portable GPS, and works with your current car stereo either via the auxiliary jack or a built-in FM transmitter.

If a jumble of wires and electronica is not to your liking, you can replace your current car audio unit with a DAB+ compatible model, such as the JVC KD-DB56.

The last, and most expensive, option is to buy a car with a DAB+ stereo. At the time of writing, the only mainstream model to feature digital radio is the new Toyota Camry, albeit only in the top-of-the-range Atara SL variant. The BMW 5-Series and 7-Series, and Audi's A6, A7 and A8 offer Australian digital radio compatibility as an optional extra.