DAB – Digital Radio in the UK Explored
We take a look at the DAB radio service, and how plans are afoot to get the UK listening to digital radio instead of FM and AM.
What is DAB Radio?
DAB stands for "Digital Audio Broadcasting". It offers a larger number of radio stations than you’ll be able to find on FM, and for those stations broadcasting on AM, better quality.
When DAB launched in the UK, DAB promised less interference and more functionality than traditional FM and AM radio receivers. For many though, DAB has not lived up to expectations, with many reporting poor coverage and audio quality.
This page includes information on DAB in the UK, a summary of what’s on offer, and advice on digital radio. We also look at the range of DAB receivers and answer some common questions on digital radio in the UK.
What does DAB offer?
- More choice – A range of extra digital radio channels not available on FM, including BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC 5 Live, BBC 6 Music, talkSPORT, Planet Rock, Absolute Radio and Premier Radio.
- Digital quality – Signals that are less prone to interference and hiss than FM.
- Improved station selection – Tune in to a station by station name or format, not frequency.
- Extra features – Most DAB radios support scrolling radio text, but some have extras like MP3 playback and the ability to pause or rewind live radio.
What’s available on DAB?
The available radio stations are divided up into National and Regional ‘multiplexes‘ (collections of stations, also referred to as ensembles), and what you’ll receive depends on which region you live in.
Here are details of the stations that should be available to most DAB listeners:
UK DAB radio stations include:
In addition to these stations, many local and regional radio stations are available on DAB. Some of these you’ve probably heard of, such as Kiss FM & Capital FM, and some may not have heard of.
A number of extra services from the BBC are available, and added to this are local commercial and BBC stations (there are about 20 stations for London, including LBC, Xfm, Sunrise, Storm, and Ministry of Sound), and you’ll find there’s a lot of extra channels available.
For an idea of what could be available to you, see what’s available in South-East England on our Essex DAB Radio Stations page.
The DAB downside?
Extra radio channels are always a good thing – and with DAB, you can listen to stations that aren’t available on FM or AM. DAB’s not perfect though, and there’s not been a serious mass takeup of digital radio yet.
Here are some of the things to bear in mind when considering DAB radio:
- Signal. Although the DAB signals are less prone to interference, they’re currently weaker than FM signals, which can cause problems if you’re in a fringe reception area.
- Quality – DAB radio stations are "compressed", so that lots of stations can be squeezed into the available bandwidth. Because of this compression, some stations on DAB are not in as good a quality as on FM. In particular, the BBC stations are transmitted on a low bitrate to squeeze their range of stations into the available space.
- Formats: There’s a new format on the block, DAB+, which may eventually replace the existing DAB format in use in the UK. If you’re thinking of buying a DAB radio, consider one that supports DAB+, or can be upgraded via a software update.
- Cost. Fortunately, prices are now beginning to fall, and you can get a DAB radio from Currys for under £30. Until prices start to tumble, many think that it’s too expensive to replace home, portable and car radios with DAB radios.
To get access to the extra radio stations that are available on DAB, you’ll need to buy a DAB radio receiver. These tend to be slightly more expensive than standard FM radios, but DAB is subscription-free, so the one-off purchase cost is all you need to worry about.
There’s a wide range of DAB receivers available, including handheld, tabletop, clock radio, hi-fi, mobile phone, in-car as well as DAB radios that can be plugged into a PC.
DAB radios can be bought from high street stores, but you can quite often pick up a set at a bargain price from the Internet.
Below is a list of some of the top DAB tuners. For a full list, see our UK DAB receivers list
Popular DAB Radios
Details: At less than 4cm thick, the Intempo TRS DAB digital radio is both sleek and stylish. It’s also both mains and battery powered, with a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can enjoy one of the 10 pre-set DAB stations all to yourself. And weighing just 40g, this Intempo digital radio is great to take anywhere.
Alba TRDAB2830 WHT
DAB radio with FM radio. Digital display and 20 station presets. Mains operated or can be powered by 6 x C batteries.
Available for £39.99 from Argos
Excellent Micro system with DAB, FM, CD and MP3 playback. The DMX-50 also supports pause and rewind of DAB radio and the ability to record and playback radio recorded direct onto SD card. With remote control. 40 Watts (RMS) power output.
Price – £190. See our Pure DMX-50 Review for more
Roberts Gemini 26 DAB Clock Radio
Details: 4 Alarms, 10 station presets, sleep/snooze, 16 x2 line display. See our review on Gemini 26 page
Available for around £70 from Currys
From Pure, the respected name in DAB, this is a combined DAB/FM radio with 20 presets, scrolling display with enhanced radio text features. Battery or mains powered, and a top recommendation. Available in black, white or pink.
See our Pure One page for details.
Pure Evoke Flow RECOMMENDED
Another top radio from Pure, this one offers a wide range of stations as it has Internet radio, DAB and FM radio. Also supports podcasts, Listen Again and media streaming.
Available for £125 from Play.com
Revo Pico and Pico+
The Pico and Pico+ from UK firm Revo feature DAB, FM and an iPod speaker system. Powered either via the mains or by the built-in rechargeable battery. The Pico+ supports DAB recording and rewind/pause.
In 2010, we interviewed one of Revo’s director’s about the Revo range, and why you should consider getting a Revo Internet or DAB radio. See our Revo Radio Reviews page.
The Revo Pico is available directly from Revo.
PURE DAB EVOKE 1
The original DAB radio: Portable, 6 preset stations, scrolling text display, Mains lead supplied.
Available from around £85. Listed at Amazon
Small handheld DAB radio, that also has FM radio, MP3 playback, and recording capabilities. One-touch DAB recording onto SD card, also supports times recordings.
More on our oono MiniDAB page
|Is DAB available in my area and what stations can I get?|
DAB is reportedly available to 80% of the UK. You can check on the availability of digital radio in your area with the UK Digital Radio DAB postcode checker.
You may also want to take a look at the BBC reception site for some useful information on receiving DAB.
|What’s the difference between Digital Radio and DAB?|
The phrase Digital Radio causes some confusion. DAB is commonly mistaken for radios with a digital display, digital radio services such as radio stations found on satellite TV and Freeview, and Internet radio stations.
Although many radio stations found in these ways can also be found on DAB, the distinction is to do with the way DAB is transmitted. It’s transmitted in a similar way to FM radio (i.e. with a transmitter over-the-air), but it uses multiplexing (combining lots of signals into one) to give you more channels than you can squeeze onto an FM radio. Also, because it’s ‘digital’, it’s less susceptible to interference, hiss, fading, atmospherics and ‘multipath’.
|I’m confused!||Digital Radio confuses me… What’s the difference between digital radio on my TV, on the Internet, and on a DAB receiver? For the answer, see our Radio FAQ on this subject.|
|Do I have to move from FM to DAB ?|
You’re probably aware that in order to free up space on the broadcast spectrum, we’re all switching to digital TV between now and the end of 2012. There are plans afoot for a similar switch-off of the FM and AM radio services, and a switchover to digital radio – possibly as early at 2015.
For more on this, see The FM Switchover.
|How do I choose a DAB radio?|
There’s quite a range of DAB radios out there. If you’re looking to buy a DAB radio, here are a few things to look for:
Hopefully that offers some guidance – now take a look at our DAB Radios List to see what’s out there
|Interference and reception problems?|
First, determine if you’re in an area that should be able to receive DAB (see above). Note that the coverage predictor can only guess at likely coverage based on your postcode – if you live in a basement, or a very built-up area, you may struggle to get reception, especially if you’re any distance away from the transmitter. Note that DAB signals are generally a little weaker than FM signals, so if you’re in an area where you can’t get FM – you have no chance with DAB.
If you’re not lucky enough to be in a strong signal area, you may find that you may not be able to receive all of the channels, or you may get interference. Interference on DAB is different to the type of interference you’ll notice on FM radio. Instead of hiss and crackle, the symptoms are digital breakup (like when your mobile phone starts to cut out), or a sort of warbling, sometimes likened to being underwater.
For information on ways to improve your digital radio reception, take a look at the BBC Reception site. Other tips for improving reception include: using a good external aerial, keeping your radio away from electrical interference (such as a TV, computer, etc), and for internal radios, keeping them near a window, or with the aerial pointing the direction of the transmitter, as high up, and with as few walls in the way as possible.
Think there might be a problem with your local DAB transmitter? Check for faults on engineering work with the BBC Reception Problems Tool
Still no luck? Perhaps try taking the radio to another location (friends house?) to try reception in a few other areas. For help handling problems where there’s no reception, see below
|No DAB reception?|
If there’s no DAB reception in your area, you can still get a wide choice of digital radio services either via Sky TV, or on Freeview. With Freeview receivers at under £30, you can get access to all of the BBC’s national digital radio channels, plus a large selection of commercial stations too, all through your TV for a lot less than a DAB set. Most boxes have hi-fi audio out, and of course, some extra free TV channels too!
Another option, of course, is Internet radio
To get decent DAB radio reception, it’s important to have a decent aerial.
Pictured to the right is an amplified indoor DAB aerial, the Philex Indoor DAB Amplified Aerial from Argos
For the best reception, an external DAB aerial is recommended. We previously recommended the DAB Log Periodic 6 element aerial from Maplin , optimised for radio in the 175-230MHz range. However, at the time of writing, this is no longer available.
For a range of aerials, including telescopic aerials for portable radios, indoor radio aerials, aerial splitters, cable and connectors, we recommend Maplin.co.uk
|I want to record DAB|
If you’re looking for ways of recording DAB, here are a some options:
Examples of suitable DAB recorders: the Bug , the Revo Pico+, some of the Roberts Gemini range, the iAudio D2 pocket DAB, and the PocketDAB 2000 handheld. Some of the DAB products from Pure support ReVu (record/rewind), including the Pure DMX-50 midi system.
|Can I use my UK DAB receiver overseas?|
You’ll be unlikely to receive UK DAB radio signals overseas, due to the signal strength of DAB radio signals, however, you may be able to use the radio to pick up local signals when overseas.
The UK uses Band III (Band 3), while other parts of the world use the lower-performance L Band (1452-1490MHz). Most DAB radios available to the UK support Band III only. The UK may be extended to cover L Band in the future. In 2008, OfCom awarded Qualcomm a licence to broadcast digital radio on L-Band, but we’ve heard no details of any plans that they may have.
For details of which countries use Band III and L Band, see the DAB Ensembles site. Note that we’re not aware of any UK stations being transmitted overseas on DAB. Worldwide travellers may still be better off with shortwave or satellite services to receive UK stations abroad. If you have a question about coverage in a specific country, best bet is to try asking in our forum.
Thanks to M Heaney for letting us know that Berlin-Brandenburg, Germany appears to be broadcasting the BBC digital radio services on the LA frequency block (L-band) in Berlin.
|Why is there a time lag on digital radio?|
One of the slightly annoying things you may notice about digital radio and TV, is that there’s a slight time delay in the digital transmissions – sometimes up to a couple of seconds. This can be a pain if you are listening to a digital service with an analogue service in another room, or you’re using the BBC pips to set your watch.
We’ve added a more detailed answer to this question on our Digital Radio Time Lag Problem section.
|Does DAB support RDS travel news announcements?|
FM radio supports a service called RDS, which can be used to alter listeners to travel news information that’s being broadcast by an FM radio station. So, is a similar service supported on DAB in the UK? The answer to this one appears to be ‘no’. Although travel data over DAB appears to be in the DAB spec, this currently isn’t implemented by any of the UK broadcasters, or over the transmission network.
Looks like, at least for the moment, you’ll need to stick with FM radio for RDS TA announcements – luckily, many in-car DAB radios also support FM RDS. For more on RDS, see our RDS Radio Traffic System page, and for more on travel news on the move, see the UK Live Travel News Services section at FileSaveAs
|DAB Radio repairs|
We’ve been asked how to get a broken DAB radio repaired. Here are some options:
|Data services on DAB?|
If you scan around the BBC National multiplexes, you may see references to various BBC data channels, including: BBC Vision, BBC Guide and BBC Travel. We don’t know of any useful practical applications for these just at the moment, and understand that these are test research services. Information on the BBC Travel research activities can be found on the BBC TPEG information pages).
Screenshot of BBC Data over DAB – from a Psion Wavefinder connected to a PC
Got a question on Digital Radio? Ask in our DAB forum
Or, leave a message on our Podline, 0208 133 4567, so we can answer it in a future podcast.
- FrequencyCast – This site’s podcast. We first discussed DAB in show 3. In Show 24, we discussed the future of DAB and Internet radio
- UK Digital Radio – List of stations available on DAB
- DAB Station directory – Radio-now’s list of UK DAB stations
- Multiplex operators: BBC , Digital One , Digital Radio Group , Switch Digital, MXR, CE Digital, Now Digital
- GetDAB – Good source of information on getting digital radio in the UK
- UK DAB info – Information on DAB in the UK
- DAB Ensembles – Technical info, plus details of UK and worldwide DAB frequencies
- DAB radio models – A summary of the range of DAB receivers
- Buyer’s Guide to DAB digital radio – Buy your 160 page guide on available DAB receivers
- DAB forum – Get talking and ask for advice in our Digital Radio forum