Car Advice

What is Digital Radio?

Digital Radio… it’s appearing in just about every new car. But what is digital radio?

IF YOU’RE IN THE MARKET for a new car, you’ve no doubt heard the term digital radio or DAB+. But just what is digital radio, what does it do, and does it really matter if a car has it, or not?

In the last two years, sales of new cars fitted with DAB+ radios have grown by almost 600 per cent. In 2016, that means 862,426 new cars had a DAB+ radio fitted. So if you’ve bought a new car, chances are you’ve used, or are wondering, what the technology really is.

What is it?

Digital radio in Australia sits alongside the well known AM/FM radio spectrum bands, and although it may one day replace them, we’re pretty far off from a switch-over date like we had with analogue to digital TV. And that’s because digital radio has some pretty big drawbacks, but we’ll cover that later.

In short, digital radio operates in its own wide-bandwidth broadcast spectrum (separate to FM and AM) and is extremely efficient compared to how traditional AM/FM broadcasts are transmitted. This means, usually, higher quality audio and more stations.

In Australia, digital audio broadcast (DAB) operates on the newer (since 2011) ‘plus’ standard, known simply as DAB+. Previously, DAB was the standard, however the new DAB+ architecture is more efficient than the previous. If you have an older DAB radio, you won’t receive DAB+ stations, but some stations might transmit in both DAB and DAB+ format.

For the nerds, the difference between DAB and DAB+ is, in short, that DAB was MP2 encoded and DAB+ is AAC+ encoded, meaning DAB+ is around three times more efficient now.

How do I get it?

If you want to receive digital radio, you need a DAB+ compatible receiver. This will be either standard or a cost option on new cars – some cars might not offer it at all – so ask at the dealership. Alternatively, an aftermarket headunit or standalone receiver that can be plugged into the aux input can be used on older cars.

What are the benefits of DAB+ exactly?

Because DAB+ stations use less bits of spectrum than a traditional AM/FM radio station, there can be more stations. And the DAB+ broadcast can transmit much more information.

Updates such as the current, next and previous track and artist, traffic and news can all be supplied from the broadcaster. Audio also sounds clearer and hiss free, thanks to technology that cancels out static and noise. This means higher quality sound than AM, and same or better than FM. But not always…

What are the drawbacks?

Although the compression is fantastic, if there’s too many stations in a certain spectrum quality drops. And unlike AM/FM radio wave transmission, which gets weaker as you move away, digital radio is either on or off. Meaning if the transmission is perceived as too weak, it will stop completely.

And this is a bit of a problem in fringe suburbs, because at the moment there’s only limited DAB+ coverage in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth (none in Hobart, Canberra or Darwin).

The coverage maps look good for most cities, but in reality things like buildings and can block the signal. When in these areas, DAB+ will tend to constantly drop in and out. Signal will also become weak in car parks and tunnels. Currently, tunnel operators range extend AM and FM broadcasts, but not DAB+.

We’re not going to see DAB+ broadcasts extended further anytime soon either, so if you’re driving from say, Melbourne to Sydney, you’ll need to tune into traditional AM/FM stations or load up some tunes from your mobile. Satellite radio, like what the US has, would solve this, but we’re probably not going to get it anytime soon.

What about mobile streaming?

Alternatively, apps like RadioApp, Pandora and Spotify can provide access to digital radio streams and music playlists. With recent connectivity like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, connecting the app to the car is easy. The sound quality using this method is as good, if not better, than DAB+. But it will eat into your data allowance (and pretty rapidly).

How do I tune in to DAB+?

If you have a DAB+ radio installed, then navigate to media and select digital radio or DAB+ in the radio section. It’s usually found alongside FM and AM selections.

Unlike AM/FM, you don’t need to manually search for a station’s bandwidth, and all available digital stations will be available in a list. There will be many of the AM/FM stations you know of now, plus a lot of stations you probably haven’t heard of before, like 80s, 90s, MyOMG, Buddha Radio and you can even tune in to the the dulcet sounds of Coles Radio.

If the sound stops suddenly, even if it was crystal clear, that’s because you’ve found a blackspot for transmission.

Can I get an antenna to improve signal?

Yes, there are external antennas available but installing these might require significant modification to the car. Not to mention the visual addition.

There’s also differences between broadcast channels here and overseas, so it’s best to talk to a professional about how to go about finding and installing the right antenna.

I still think FM sounds better…

That’s because some stations do. If there’s too many DAB+ stations on a certain spectrum, the quality will drop, whereas with FM there simply can’t be competing stations on the one wavelength.

What does it cost?

It doesn’t cost anything to tune in to digital radio – just like AM and FM – but you’ll need a DAB+ compatible radio.

What new cars have DAB+ exactly, and is there a coverage map for my area?

Check out the official digital radio plus website here.

Alex Rae

Alex Rae

Alex Rae grew up among some of the great stages of Targa Tasmania, an event that sparked his passion for all things mechanical. Currently living across Bass Strait in Melbourne, Alex has worked for the last decade in the automotive world as both a photographer and journalist, and is now a freelancer for various publications. When not driving for work Alex can be found tinkering in the shed on of one his project Zeds or planning his next gravel rally car.