What is digital radio?
The term 'digital radio' can mean many things to many people, but in modern day Australia it most commonly refers to DAB+. DAB stands for 'Digital Audio Broadcasting', and the plus sign indicates that the system being used is the new bells-and-whistles version of the DAB digital radio standard.
DAB+ is the digital radio standard that operates in Australia. Introduced in Australia in 2009, DAB+ is available in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
Digital radio is radio that's broadcast as a digital stream (in a similar fashion to digital TV).
Do I need to buy a new radio to listen to DAB?
Unfortunately, unlike digital television, which can be enabled simply by connecting a set-top box to your TV, you will actually need to buy a brand new radio to take advantage of DAB+ radio.
Because of the nature of digital radios, you don’t have to fiddle around with an analogue dial to get to your desired station. Instead, you merely access a menu and choose the station from a list, push a button and the radio will automatically lock onto that signal.
Digital radio vs. AM or FM radio
Digital radio offers a few advantages over AM and FM radio. Its biggest advantage over AM radio, of course, is the quality of the sound. Digital radio can (and often does) outdo FM radio in terms of sound quality too, although this does depend on the quality that the broadcast is encoded at, so some channels are likely to sound better than others on a good stereo system.
Digital radio operates using MPEG compression - similar to the way an MP3 works - and the quality of the audio stream makes a significant difference to how much data needs to be transmitted (called the 'bit rate'). Sometimes, in order to transmit more channels or information within the allowed radio spectrum, a broadcaster will reduce the audio quality to make room for this extra data.
Another advantage of digital radio over AM and FM radio is that it offers what's known as 'radiotext'. Radiotext is information transmitted in realtime, giving the listener information about what they're listening to, what station they're tuned to, news and traffic updates and more.
Digital radio also offers the ability to pause or rewind a radio broadcast, in much the same way as some digital TVs and PVRs do, and some digital radio streams allow the station to broadcast in surround sound.
Can I access digital radio in my area?
The unfortunate truth is that DAB is not available Australia-wide. If you live in a capital city you will be able to tune in, but many regional areas still don’t get coverage. You can find out if DAB is available in your area by entering your postcode here.
What are the drawbacks with digital radio?
There are a few. The first issue with it is that it's still fairly expensive to get your hands on a digital radio - especially when you compare it to the cost of a regular old AM/FM model. The coverage itself is still very limited too, so unless you live in a major city, you're unlikely to be able to enjoy it at all.
Digital radio has also been criticised for the fact that DAB+ receivers also use far more electricity than FM radios - in some cases, more than twice as much.
Many people also suggest that the added functionalities and potentially superior sound quality simply aren't significant enough improvements over FM radio for it to replace it as the standard of choice.