DAB vs. FM Radio

In this article we’ll explain the difference between DAB and FM radio, and look at the pros and cons of each broadcasting medium.

FM and DAB are the two most popular radio broadcasting methods in the UK. Most of the country’s most popular stations, such as Radio 2 and Radio 4, are available on both FM and DAB.

FM

FM stands for ‘Frequency Modulation’. It’s a type of analogue radio broadcasting that varies the frequency of the carrier wave rather than the amplitude. This makes it different to AM, which stands for ‘Amplitude Modulation’ and varies the amplitude of the carrier wave.

FM was invented in 1933 but wasn’t introduced in Britain until the 1950s. It took a while for FM to overtake AM in popularity, but by the 1990s it was the leading broadcasting method.

DAB

DAB stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. It is a type of digital audio broadcasting that uses the MPEG-1 Audio Layer II audio codec, which is similar to the common MP3 digital audio format.

DAB was developed in the 1980s and introduced in the UK in 1995. DAB has grown steadily in popularity, and the majority of radios sold on the market now have a DAB receiver.

According to radio audience measurement company RAJAR, roughly 35.5% of live radio listening is done on DAB, compared to 46.6% on AM/FM (source). Despite the government’s support for DAB, analogue radio (AM/FM) still remains more popular among the public.

 

DAB vs. FM

Let’s take a look at the difference between these two broadcasting methods in more detail.

Sound quality

In theory, DAB can offer better sound quality than FM. In practice though, this often isn’t the case as digital radio broadcasts are compressed to allow several radio stations to broadcast using the same frequency.

The quality of digital audio is mainly determined by its bit rate, which is measured in kbps (kilobits per second).

However, things are a bit more complicated, as the encoding method also affects sound quality. For example, MP3 is a more efficient encoding method than MP2, so a 192 kbps MP3 file will sound about the same as a 224 kbps MP2 file.

DAB is broadcast using MP2, which is now an outdated audio format. DAB+, which is the newer standard of digital radio and is used on a few broadcasts in the UK, uses the superior AAC+ audio format.

DAB radio stations in the UK usually broadcast at 128 kbps or less using the MP2 codec, which means that they have lower audio quality than FM broadcasts.

DAB radio stations in the UK usually broadcast at 128 kbps or less using the MP2 codec, which means that they have lower audio quality than FM broadcasts. Furthermore, many DAB stations only broadcast in mono, or switch to mono at certain times.

Since FM radio is analogue, it doesn’t have a bit rate. However, if an FM signal were translated to a digital signal, it would normally be roughly the equivalent of an MP3 file at 128kbps.

DAB doesn’t suffer from the crackling or hissing you often get with AM and FM, but if your radio is in a weak signal area you might not pick the station you want to listen to, or the signal might cut out at frequent intervals. This is obviously very disappointing for those who buy a DAB radio expecting it to fix their signal issues.

There are also some things you can do to improve your digital radio signal.

On the plus side, digital radio isn’t affected by things like planes flying overhead that can affect FM signal, so provided you have a strong signal it should be consistent.

If you live in an area with relatively poor reception, your best bet might be to get an internet radio, as this will mean you don’t need to rely on radio reception.

 

Choice of radio stations

With an analogue radio, you’ll probably only have a choice of 10 or so stations on FM (unless you live in a big city). With DAB radio, however, you will have a much bigger choice.

For example, if you like rock music, DAB radio will usually let you listen to BBC 6 Music, Kerrang Radio, Arrow and XFM, among others.

If you like comedy or current affairs programmes you can pick up additional speech stations like Radio 4 Extra and LBC.

If you just want to listen to one of the regular stations an AM/FM radio will suit you fine, but in general DAB offers more choice.

Digital signals can transmit more information, such as the song being played. The technology also allows more stations to be broadcast in the same area, as they take up less frequency space than on FM and AM.

An analogy with television is to think of DAB as like Freeview, while FM and AM are like the old analogue channels. For a more complete explanation of DAB, see this article.

 

Price

AM/FM radios used to be much cheaper than their DAB counterparts, but these days there isn’t much difference in price. If price is your only concern, you can pick up a basic AM/FM radio for £10 or so. However, there are lots of good budget DAB radios, so getting DAB doesn’t have to cost much more.

 

Additional features

DAB radios are more likely to offer additional features such as Bluetooth than straightforward AM/FM radio.

If you just want something simple to listen to the radio, there are plenty of straightforward DAB radios without confusing additional features.

 

Ease of use

Some people are worried that DAB radios might be harder to use than AM/FM radios, but in fact they tend to be easier.

You no longer need to remember radio frequencies to find the stations you want; most DAB radios will automatically scan for stations and display them on an LCD screen, so you can just flick through to find the station you want.

Most digital radios also let you save your favourite stations so you can access them quickly. Best of all, you won’t have to fiddle with the frequency to get it just right, as the radio will scan and find the frequency for you.

DAB vs FM

Will AM/FM become obsolete?

The UK government have proposed a digital radio switchover at some point in the future, like the switchover to digital TV in 2012. However, an exact date or schedule hasn’t been set.

In a 2015 interview with the Independent, former culture minister Ed Vaizey said it will happen when over 50% of radio listening is digital and DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage.

This criteria had been met by 2018, but in March 2018 the BBC said that FM radio would be kept to offer more listeners more choice.

AM and FM will probably be switched off at some point, but there’s no hurry to switch to DAB just yet. If and when AM/FM radio is eventually is switched off, it’s likely that online listening will have overtaken DAB anyway.

  

What about internet radios?

If you’re thinking about upgrading your AM/FM radio to get better sound quality and more stations, you might want to consider bypassing DAB radio altogether and instead buying an internet radio.

An internet radio looks like a regular radio, but instead of having an aerial it connects to the internet via WiFi or an ethernet cable.

Internet radios have a screen that lets you select radio stations, so they are easy to use and you don’t need to enter web addresses. As well as being able to pick up national and local UK stations, you’ll also be able to receive 20,000+ stations from around the world.

For more information, see this article: Is Internet Radio Better Than DAB?

 

Conclusion

Most radios on the market in 2019 offer both FM and DAB, so you don’t necessarily need to choose between them. DAB offers more stations to listen to, but generally lower audio quality.

For some more suggestions and help with choosing a DAB radio, see our roundup of the best DAB radios on the market.

8 thoughts on “DAB vs. FM Radio”

  1. The opinions above only hold for urban areas. In my cabin I had a perfect analog retro TEAC FM receiver that gave me 10+ stations. My brand new Argon DAB 2+ gives one (1) FM station and no DAB. Power outage gives loss of memory (need to retune to find that single station). Station switches cost a second rather than being immediate. There is no way to settle for less quality to listen to important news, etc. Very disappointed. Digital sucks. I miss the immediacy of analog.

  2. I think analogue is the best and always will use it out do lose signal with digital and bits of info in digital music is lost I am sticking to anologue much better

  3. More choice? – yes but 90% of it is stuff I would never dream of listening to on fm, especially hours of guys talking endlessly about football gossip.
    No need to remember frequencies? – fm radios have had presets and easily read tuning dials for years so dab isn’t exactly breaking new ground in this respect.
    Ability to stream info ? – yes but the reason I listen to a radio around the house is that I don’t need to look at it so streamed info is a bit of a waste of time.
    Better reception? I have no problems with fm normally so dab is unlikely to be an improvement and strangely,living in central Scotland, listening to radio Scotland on dab is not good. In the highlands of Scotland fm can be patchy but dab is largely non existent and this seems unlikely to change for some time. Maybe the plan is to sacrifice highland listeners for the greater good of everyone else.

  4. I have an analogue radio in the bathroom which is on for 20 minutes a day and the batteries last at least a year.
    I did replace it with a DAB radio and they ran out after three weeks. Needless to say, I’m back with an analogue!

    1. I completely agree, when using DAB radios on 240v the power consumption isn’t noticed but when a portable DAB receiver is used the battery life really is significant. I am about to replace my bathroom receiver and have thought about DAB but when I look at the battery life of DAB v AM/FM there is no contest. TMS on LW can be received in the Dordogne; try that with DAB.

  5. DAB sound quality is awful mp2 highly compressed a thin nasty sound. FM from a quality Tuner easily sounds better. BBC iplayer online via a usb DAC at 320 kbps is a different beast, it walks all over DAB.

  6. DAB is a massive disappointment. Several reasons:

    Just look at the Digital reception map. Outwith major urban areas, reception is poor or non existent. Actual experience shows that on the move, DAB is useless.

    Even in ‘good’ reception areas, reception is patchy with major dead spots indoors.

    Most channels in my area are only broadcast in mono. Progress?

    Most channels are just variants of an incredibly shallow pop music ethos with a constantly repeated small playlist.

    Fact – no matter how the sales pitch tries to dress it up – the sound quality is poor. If a good reception is achieved it may be clear but even on the best quality equipment, it is not a dynamic, rich, natural sound like on FM. The system and process selected by U.K. DAB engineers for relaying the signal and subsequently converting it to sound in your radio is physically incapable of transporting the kind of quality sound that we should be expecting from a modern audio product described as ‘the future of radio’.

    If all you want is a tranny in the corner it’s probably fine but if you are looking for a quality audio system to complement your existing hi-fi, as I found out after forking out a fortune on several DAB components.

    I live in hope that one day things will improve, but until then, be prepared for a potential disappointment. Ask your salesmen for the truth about DAB before making your mind up.

    It’s not all doom and gloom though. Once set up, sets are usually very easy to use. Just be prepared to always have plugged into the mains socket. Unlike LW/MW/FM radios in which batteries can work for months, DAB radios can eat a new set of quality alkaline batteries in a day or two.

    Another plus – you do get a slightly better choice of channels (if mono is acceptable).

  7. Interestingly, I too am unimpressed with my new dab stands for BAD? The nearest broadcaster where I need to pick up –
    Midlands radio 3, just won’t come in. Very frustrating. Yet newstalk , no problem if all you want is an hourly diet of depression inducing current claptrap, beginning with the letter B/ (SITOSIS).

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