In-car DAB radio… awesomeness defined, but can it be a bit cheaper please?

As someone who has an unhealthy interest in radio I’ve spent many years being told by the radio industry that I should buy a DAB digital radio (first by Matt Deegan at the 2007 Student Radio Conference in York). Over the last twelve months I’ve invested heavily in devices that support the platform and following a Pure Evoke Flow given to me in Christmas 2008, I’ve arguably gone further than most in the radio industry by buying an in-Car DAB head unit.

Specifically, I bought the JVC KD-R801 – a Swiss army knife of in-car radio head units. Along with DAB, it offers FM/MW/LW, Bluetooth (including A2DP music streaming and handsfree calling), an auxiliary input and even a USB socket. It also happens to play CDs, arguably the least useful addition for me (though as a bonus it manages mp3/wma CDs)… it even comes with a remote in the box!

Buying the head unit on its own isn’t a problem – the cheapest price I’ve found is £140… but there’s a significant catch.

The standard unit doesn’t immediately support DAB – there’s the small matter of the necessary DAB tuner not being supplied in the box. It’s a separate tuner which will cost an additional £120. And you’ll need a DAB aerial – add another £35… and finally you’ll probably need a harness to convert the electrical connections provided in your car to the necessary jack that’ll fit the unit (£10-£20)… along with fitting costs if you want it installed.

I took what was undoubtedly the most expensive option, though I did buy over the counter rather than online price included the head unit, DAB tuner and aerial. I also needed a harness and took the lazy option and paid for installation, which took an hour for the guys trained to do the job – goodness knows how long I’d have needed to fit it (and I know I wouldn’t have done it as neatly).

Here’s the big catch… it’s cost me £410.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s nothing short of stunning.

I had it fitted in Birmingham on Saturday and spent Sunday travelling back to South Wales via London – nearly 300 miles and 4 hours. And my experiences so far are so good that it’s put many of my doubts about DAB radio permanently to rest.

Firstly, I’ve found that the DAB radio is, in terms of audio quality/fidelity, equal or better than FM on most stations – I listened to Radio 1, BRMB, Kerrang, Capital, Galaxy, BBC Berkshire and Kiss 101, all of which sounded as good as or better on DAB than on FM. Only dabbl seemed to be lacking in treble and bass – though that could be down to it playing live music rather than a poor bitrate (and it’s not available on FM).

There’s some cracking features – I love that it can recognise that a station may be broadcasting on both FM and DAB, and switch on the fly to the stronger signal (as it did with Kiss 101).

I shoud add that this test is based on one head-unit, in a 2001 model Mazda 323 using the standard factory-fitted speakers using my ears… but I really could not hear DAB being any worse than FM quality and in most cases was significantly better (I had previously thought that DAB was slightly inferior, but have since realised that FM on my Panasonic Hi-Fi is better than FM on my Evoke Flow… and DAB/FM on the Evoke Flow sound the same).

I only have two concerns…

1) Simplicity… not in terms of use (it took about 10 minutes to find everything) but more specically the limitations, at least with my car radio, particularly compared to my Evoke Flow.

The Evoke Flow can be tuned in a similar manner to a Digital TV Freeview Box… tell it to automatically add all available stations and it adds all of them to the channel list, regardless of frequency/multiplex they are broadcast from – any available DAB station can be chosen simply by spinning the dial. My new car radio is far more limited in that it can only actively tune into one specific multiplex.

I’ll quickly outline multiplexes in this paragraph to be certain I’m making the point correctly (feel free to skip this paragraph if you wish). I’ll use the example of  MXR Severn Estuary, which uses frequency block 12C (12 have been allocated by OFCOM – 10, 11 & 12, each having 4 blocks A-D). On FM, Kiss 101 is broadcast on 101MHz. With DAB, Kiss 101 is broadcast on block 12C at a frequency of 227.360 MHz – along with Real Radio South Wales, Choice, Heart, The Arrow, Jazz FM, LBC, UBC UK and UBC Inspirational.

Here’s the issue – my new in-car radio tunes by DAB multiplex… so for example, I can use the up/down buttons on teh head-unit to switch to any of the stations listed in the previous paragraph. But I don’t get the full list of available stations, as would be listed in the station list on my Evoke Flow – I have to switch to a different DAB channel to access other stations (using Kiss/Radio 1 as an example, with FM I simply go to 99.5 from 101 – with DAB, I have to retune from block 12C to 12B, then find Radio 1 from the available stations).

It sounds like a very pathetic point – and one most people reading this blog will, I’m sure, be very dismissive of. But trust me, it could cause big problems for the average consumer of DAB radio.

Since July last year I’ve been working full time as a service engineer – basically if your TV breaks, I’m tasked with driving out and either fixing if possible or collecting it for the fully qualified engineers to take it apart and repair it. Most of what I’ve seen in the last six months are items that are usually not repairable in the home (e.g. LCD screen failure, DVD lasers breaking etc.) but I have seen some problems that are simple misunderstandings (like assuming a letter/number combination on a homecinema system with hard disk is an error code, rather than the recording quality and available time remaining), finding a DVD player that doesn’t receive analogue TV… because the aerial cable hasn’t been connected, or having a poor picture on a brand new TV… without considering that the 5 year old cable box might be the problem. They’re very simple things to spot but can easily be overlooked – and it’s not necessarily older people who are doing that….

…which is my concern for in-car DAB radio. I can see someone trying to get Radio 1, only to be offered 9 stations on a single multiplex and thinking that their radio is broken, or that the DAB platform is inherently a failure because of it.

2) My other concern is one that most people will have… Cost. Clearly a £129 premium on having DAB is not going to be a mass-market option… indeed, I’d have happily fitted the JVC radio I bought myself if it wasn’t for having to install a separate aerial for DAB. It certainly works well but prices simply have to fall, and very quickly (within the next twelve months) if the scheduled 2015 target date for the digital upgrade is to be realistically met.

Saying that, some perspective is required. The model I bought is very high-end (not quite the highest of the high end that JVC make, but I’m only losing out on playing CDs with AAC files… hardly a major loss for someone who converts all iTunes purchases to mp3 files). I’ll highlight two significantly cheaper options that, while lacking features or not being fully integrated, do at least make it easier to access DAB on the road.

The first is the Pure Highway – which can be purchased for £60. It’s easy enough to set up though this video suggests it’s not fantastic at receiving every station (the BBC article on the rest of the page about DAB vs pirate radio is a fascinating read in its own right).

The other option is to, as I’ve done, replace your car-radio head-unit. I’ll happily link to this entry-level JVC model, which, if it’s anything like mine, should be phenomenal. It also betters mine by having the DAB tuner is built in (and a DAB aerial is included in the price). It’s £170, though add £45 if you want it fitted (it’s from the company who installed my own and I can’t recommend them enough).

To be honest, I’m surprised by just how good in-car DAB radio has been so far – whilst not perfect and arguably in need of refinement it’s very good and more than usable (a price drop wouldn’t hurt though). And based on the audio fidelity I’ve heard I can’t reasonably argue that the UK should hold out for DAB+ – it may be better but I’m very much in agreement with Tony Moretta (and his views on 3g/wimax).

It’s certainly a worthwhile purchase for me. Having  just clocked 15,000 miles in my car since I bought it a year ago nearly to the day… I can comfortably say that the next year will, at least in terms of in-car entertainment, going to be far more fun.

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