Despite everyone's fears, video didn't kill the radio star. In fact, radio is now entering a new era, so it could be time to update your old analog radio with a new digital model that does far more than just play music.
Radio waves are used to transmit data packets containing information, such as a song's title, artist's name or even a forecast of the weather. The audio quality can be better than the popular AM/FM radio stations and, best of all, you can listen to as much DAB+ (Australia's upgraded version of the Digital Audio Broadcasting standard) as you'd like, without worrying about the expense of data.
Who can access digital radio?
Australia has pulled the plug on analog TV, but there are no plans to do the same with radio. So, strictly speaking, you don't need a digital radio. In fact, digital frequencies are only available in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, with trials underway in Canberra and Darwin. If you live outside of these areas, then a digital radio is definitely not for you. If in doubt, you can check your postcode's signal online.
Why is digital radio better than analog?
Digital radios have a lot to offer beyond what you're getting from your current AM/FM radio. Here are some pros and cons.
- Better sound quality (potentially).
- Easier searching for channels (you get names, not numbers).
- Scrolling text with information (Like a song? Quick check its name!).
- Time-shifting: The ability to pause and play back live radio, but not many models offer this feature.
- Pop-up channels. These are temporary channels which support some sort of special event - for example playing Lady Gaga's back catalogue during a national tour (no, really) or the ABC's dedicated station for the Australian Open Tennis Tournament.
- Digital radios can update their clock time from the broadcast, so they should keep accurate time and recover after a power outage. Unfortunately, while this should be automatic, some of the models we tested do not offer this functionality.
- Broadcasters try to cram in as many channels as they can into their available bandwidth, which can reduce the sound quality.
- Sometimes ads can appear on the scrolling text screen (however most models can dim the screen).
- Time-shifting isn't available on all models.
- The market is not yet open to all broadcasters, which means that only a few companies offer channels. Check to make sure your favourite station is available before buying.
So which digital radio should I get?
Digital radios come in all shapes and sizes, just like analog models. You can still get portable and desktop models, and some hifi systems have them built in as well. Portable and desktop models can look like old-style traditional radios and the retro 1950s look seems to be in vogue. Contemporary styles are also available though if you're feeling less nostalgic.
You can also buy digital radio tuners for your home theatre system. These have the potential for the best sound quality, however they're less portable, of course, unless you want to take your living room with you.
Some manufacturers are including them as standard in particular car models. If you want to add one to your existing vehicle, you can get one fitted by a specialist and this will usually require installation of a special aerial.
What else is there to know?
Some things to keep in mind when looking at digital radios:
- Buying a digital radio overseas? Make sure you get a DAB+ radio. Plain old DAB won't work in Australia.
- Screen size and shape are important, so you can see scrolling text. Look for screens that are big enough to let you scroll down, because it's easier than scrolling across.
- The speakers on the desktop models are usually either mono or stereo.
- Some models will have a USB connection, but in most cases this only allows you to do firmware upgrades.
- If you are OK with paying a bit more, you can get models that include an iPod dock.
- If you want to connect your radio to a more powerful sound system, make sure the model has a line-out socket.
- A headphone socket is good for listening on your own.
- The remote control should have buttons big enough to press without touching the adjacent ones, and clear labels.
- A clock with an alarm is useful for waking up in the morning, but can also be used to remind you that a program you want to tune into is about to start.
- If you want to stream music or internet radio from your computer through a digital radio make sure it has an ethernet (LAN) connection or Wi-Fi.
- Channel presets let you select your favourite stations and assign them to a button or special listing in the radio's menu for easy access.
Tip: Radios that charge the batteries when connected to the mains will save you the cost of a charger.
In our latest reviews, portable digital radios ranged in cost from about $100 to $450, and desktop digital radios ranged from $250 to $1000.