DAB vs FM radio: Which is best?

If you’re like most people, you probably listen to the radio whenever you’re busy doing something else with your hands. You could be whipping up a nice meal in the kitchen, folding your laundry, or getting some light paperwork done at the office.

Now, say you suddenly move one of your hands and clumsily knock over your radio, sending it to the ground with a loud bang. You bend to pick it up, and as you fidget with it trying to get it to work, your worst fears are confirmed; you’ll definitely have to get a new one. 

One of the questions that’d be running through your mind include whether you should get the exact same model, or go for a decent upgrade. This is where the question ‘DAB vs FM radio?’ comes in.

If you’ve been using an analogue radio, maybe it’s time to switch over to a digital one and see how life is like on the other side.

To help you make that decision, Radio Fidelity has considered what you can expect if you do go ahead and buy a digital radio, and how it will compare to your now defunct analogue equivalent.

Here are the main differences between DAB and FM radio…

Analogue vs digital radio: The basics

So that the differences between DAB and FM radio come out as clearly as possible, we’re going to begin by delving into exactly how a radio works.

By definition, ‘radio’ refers to the transmission of electrical energy without any wired connection. The transmitter refers to the equipment that sends out the radio waves, and the receiver is the equipment that picks it up.

The electromagnetic energy that gets transmitted moves around in waves, and these waves exist with a certain speed, length and frequency. 

The radio waves get around through a certain up and down movement, which is characteristic to the program signals that govern it. A program gets transmitted once it is added onto a radio wave, and is then known as a carrier.

This particular process is known as modulation. 

Now, there are two main ways of adding a program to a carrier.

The first way involves adding it in a manner such that the program signals cause an alteration in frequency of the carrier wave. This first method is known as frequency modulation (FM).

The second method involves altering the size of the carrier wave. In physics, this size is referred to as amplitude, and as such, this method of changing the size of the carrier wave is referred to as amplitude modulation (AM).

FM signals are therefore transmitted by an FM radio station, and AM signals by an AM radio station. These two types of signals can both be picked up by an analogue radio.  

Digital radio is a form of radio that relies on digitally transmitted data, made up of ones and zeros.

This binary data gets encoded and transmitted from a station, and gets picked up by a receiver, which then decodes the data and processes it into music that gets played through your speakers.

Think of it this way: in digital radio, the sound is turned into digits that represent different patterns, with each note bearing a different pattern of digits.

To form a tune, a different series of individual notes is required, and the processing of these groups of notes into audible sound is done through a computer chip present within the digital radio.

It might sound confusing at first, but in a nutshell, this is essentially what digital audio broadcasting refers to. 

DAB and FM radio have both been in use for quite a long time, however, one of these formats is often looked to as the better alternative to the other.


DAB vs FM: The need for better quality sound

Digital audio broadcasting is seen by many as the next step in radio, simply because it solves the cardinal problem faced by FM radio transmission.

This is the fact that FM radio waves from different radio stations in the same area cannot easily coexist with each other within the same airwaves. This results in the distortion of frequencies, and therefore, distortion of sounds. 

DAB solves this problem by allowing for program signals to be encoded into digits, and sent over in fragments that can only be decoded by a digital radio receiver.

In addition, these fragments can be sent over a number of times so as to improve the chances of them being picked by a digital receiver.

This works out better since the computer chip in the digital receiver is able to process the arriving fragments into sound, even if they were received in different instances, from different sources. 

This therefore allows for many different digital radio stations to exist within a specific area, and to not interfere with each other. Listeners then have a larger variety of choice in regards to what to tune into.

The digital radio signals are also capable of travelling over a larger area than analog signals, and this works out great for a listener who wants to remain tuned in to the same station despite being on the move. 

To further ensure that signal reception remains uninterrupted, DAB operates over a much larger span of radio frequencies, allowing for a larger volume of program signals to be encoded into one particular signal.

In layman’s terms, this means that one digital radio signal has the capacity to carry up to six music programs, and this is what allows DAB receivers to offer an option of different channels while still on the same frequency.

This also makes it possible for digital signals to carry information in the form of text, which might arrive on the digital receiver as details about the track being played. This might include the song year, album title, artist name and so on.

This advantage by itself serves as one of the key differences between analog and digital radio.

DAB vs FM: History

To date, the argument between DAB and FM radio is still rife, with both formats each having a significant bit of history. The analogue radio and its use dates back to as early as the 1800’s, but digital radio is far more recent.

DAB was adopted quite early in the UK, and as early as back then, the UK had the most advanced DAB network. The transmission of digital radio signals then began with the BBC first broadcasting through DAB in the late 1990’s.

Its very first stint with DAB technology was in 1995, when the station went on air on a signal that only covered the London area.

Unfortunately, uptake was slow, and not particularly encouraging, for two primary reasons.

First, the general public was not satisfied with the quality of sound being transmitted, as they had earlier been led to believe that it would achieve levels of CD-quality clarity. This was not the case.

Second, DAB receivers were new to the market and came with a hefty price tag compared to what Britons were prepared to pay for a radio. 

Despite those initial challenges, things have since changed, and the UK slowly continues to embrace the use of digital radio if recent statistics are anything to go by.

Findings from this 2018 report show that more than 50% of UK listeners now rely on digital radio, with 47.6% of them still hooked on analog radio. 

Digital vs analog radio: Sound quality

The large disparity in terms of users that prefer DAB vs FM radio may be attributed to the fact that the sound quality received on digital radio is not as good as most users thought it would be.

In principle, this is quite wrong as DAB is inherently supposed to provide better quality audio compared to FM radio.

Users receive poor quality sound mainly because the digital radio stations they’re listening to might have overdone sound compression to an extent that the sound quality falls below that of analogue radio.

This means the bit rate levels they might have used fell below 192kbit/s, which is the standard set by the BBC Research and Development team as the preferred bit rate for a high fidelity stereo broadcast. 

There are also a number of users who are more inclined to stick with FM radio mainly because the quality of sound received largely depends on how well you place your antenna.

With digital radio however, you either receive the signal, or you do not. This is how DAB works, there are no in between. 

Another major difference between analogue and digital radio is the lag in sound playback with some digital receivers. This points to the fact that their computer chips don’t process the sound fast enough to keep up with an analog radio when put together side-by-side. 

One major advantage of using DAB radio is that the digital receivers have various methods of cleaning up the sound to make it as perfectly audible as possible. There are adaptabilities built within the system that make it anti-noise and anti-interference.

These efficiencies require a significantly higher amount of energy to support, and this ends up consuming battery power much faster than an analog radio would.

It’s estimated that a DAB radio can have you replacing batteries almost every month, while an analog one might push through with the same pair of batteries for up to a year. 

DAB radios are also known to be multifunctional, meaning that they can be used as external speakers for your phone through Bluetooth. 

Signal availability for DAB receivers also depends on whether you are based in an urban area, or are closer to the countryside. Those based closer to cities have more of an advantage as DAB stations prefer to set up in such areas. 


DAB vs FM radio: Coverage

It goes without saying that FM radio network coverage outweighs that of DAB by far, simply because AM/FM radio stations have been around for much longer.

That notwithstanding, the rate at which DAB transmitters are being put up around the world is also nothing to scoff at.

The UK, for example, added an extra 2.6 million listeners to its grid once the company in charge of its radio infrastructure finished putting up 150 new transmitters throughout the country in 2017. 

As the uptake of digital radio continues to rise, most regular radio listeners remain curious as to whether or not their location allows them to receive digital radio signals. To confirm whether or not your area is covered, you can use this postcode checker. 

If your area happens to be covered, but you’re not receiving the audio quality that you’d want, there could be a few things that you could do to receive better coverage. 

First off, check within different locations of your house or building to see where reception occurs and where it does not. If there’s a clear difference between certain locations, then your building might consist of materials that inhibit reception.

It might also be that parts of your house are just on the edge of reception, and other parts are not within range. You also need to be sure that your radio or antenna is sensitive enough. You can compare this with the result you get by testing with different DAB radios. 

National DAB stations are also very popular with car owners, as they don’t tend to break up as you step out of a particular city or boundary zone as an FM signal would.

It is also quite easier to get a national DAB station compared to an FM one, and this makes it possible to listen to stations broadcasting in different parts of the UK right from your home. 

Worldwide, other countries are investing a lot to set up the infrastructure necessary to transit DAB radio signals.

Australia, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Norway are some of the few that have the most developed DAB networks, with the UK also appearing in the same list. 

Seeing that the UK still has a long way to go in matching the number of people who listen to DAB vs analog radio, a complete switchover from FM to digital radio is not as likely to happen any time soon, but it eventually will. Factors such as the ease of access and availability of Internet radio and online streaming mean users have much more efficient means of accessing media, and so no one is in a hurry to embrace DAB radio. 

DAB vs FM quality: Advantages of digital radio

In as much as digital radio isn’t quite the perfect step up, there are some clear cut advantages that digital radio listeners are sure to enjoy over their analog counterparts.

Here are a few of them:

Digital radio provides a greater selection of stations to choose from

DAB simply offers a vast array of stations to choose from as compared to FM radio. DAB receivers also do not require the users to remember which stations to choose from since they list all available stations at once.

They also don’t take time to tune to a certain frequency as an analog radio would. 

DAB radio offers crisp quality sound

DAB radio doesn’t come with the hissing or crackling that you might sometimes hear from an AM/FM receiver. Digital radio also isn’t affected by things such as planes flying nearby.

Users are guaranteed a clean, continuous stream of audio, as long as they stay within reception of a digital radio signal. 

Digital radio comes with added features

DAB radios offer a lot of added features. Some of these features allow users to pause, record or rewind live radio. If you’re not a fan of these added features, then there are a lot more digital radio options that don’t have all these bells and whistles. 

DAB radio can be very user friendly

Most digital radios are a lot more user friendly compared to analog ones.

Digital radios allow users to save their favourite stations, view additional information about the songs being played, and also scan automatically for new stations if you happen to change your location. 

Digital radio offers longevity

As long as it might take, the world will eventually move over to digital radio, just as it has from analog to digital TV. Norway for example has already switched off its analogue radio stations. 

DAB radio offers shared transmission

DAB radio stations transmit in binary, meaning many stations can transmit from the same radio tower without any interference. This helps save on costs, and is also eco-friendly.

DAB vs FM quality: Disadvantages of digital radio

As mentioned earlier, DAB radio is not entirely perfect.

Here are some of its disadvantages:

Reduced market viability

DAB radio is only viable where there are many market players. At the moment, most broadcasters in the UK relay their transmission as FM radio stations, with some of them doing a simulcast (transmission of both analog and digital signal).

This is because, as shown by statistics, listeners are not too excited to switch to DAB as their needs are already being met by the present AM/FM radio stations. 

DAB reception quality

A complete loss of signal is possible if the digital signal transmitted is too weak. This is not the case with FM signals, as reception can be improved with better placement. 

Digital radio coverage

Coverage of the DAB signal worldwide is not as widespread as that of FM radio stations. Network rollouts are still ongoing, and may take a significant amount of time to be on par with FM stations. 

Expensive transmission costs

DAB transmitters are quite expensive to put up and maintain. This is why most digital radio stations come together to share one transmitter. This means it can be difficult for a local or community radio to switch to DAB if there are no other stations to partner with.

FM transmitters are much cheaper to put up and maintain. 

DAB vs FM: FAQ’s

In case you’re at this point and still have some questions about the differences between analog and digital radio, see if we might have answered them here:

The growth of online radio is set to continue at an incredible pace in the years ahead.

Q. Which is better, FM vs DAB?

A: DAB. Digital radio is built to be better than FM as it offers more channels to choose from, has a more reliable signal and is available over longer distances. 

Q. Will FM be switched off?

A: Eventually, it will. The UK government listed three criteria that have to be met for this to happen.

The three are:

• Local digital radio being able to reach at least 90% of the population
• Digital radio coverage at national level matching FM coverage, and
• 50% of radio listened to be from digital radio platforms.

Of the three, we are closest to attaining the required digital radio reach, with the latest figures at 49.9% of the population. 

Q. Is DAB radio available in the US?

A: Yes it is, but as HD radio. This means that it is broadcasted as a higher quality option, although alongside the regular AM or FM signal and at the same frequency. 

Q. What is the advantage of DAB radio?

A: The advantages are many, but the best is improved sound quality. DAB receivers process transmitted signals into crisp clear sound, and allows for the use of different bit rates within the same frequency.  

Q. Does DAB radio work anywhere?

A: No. This is because DAB radio signals are transmitted through special DAB transmission towers, which are more expensive to purchase and maintain compared to FM transmitters. Also, DAB network coverage is not as widespread as that of FM, although many countries are taking significant steps to improve this. 

Q. What’s the difference between DAB and DAB+?

A: DAB+ is merely an improved version of DAB, as it uses an encoding format that is superior to its predecessor. This results to higher quality audio. DAB+ also allows for more stations to be broadcast, making it more efficient than DAB. 

Q. How do I get DAB radio in my car?

A: Assuming your radio uses a regular FM receiver, you can switch to DAB radio through a plug-and-play DAB radio adapter. This is the most cost effective way to do it.

If your budget allows, you can also go ahead and purchase a new digital radio tuner, and a compatible head unit to go with it. 

Q. Does DAB radio need internet/Wi-Fi?

A: No. DAB radio signals are transmitted over the Internet and can be listened to through your smartphone, but if you have your receiver you’re good to go. 

Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.

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