Despite having been around since 1995, DAB radio remains a mystery for many people. On this page, we’ll explain what DAB radio is, where you can listen to it and how you can get the most out of it.
What is DAB radio?
DAB stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. DAB is a digital radio standard, which means it is a particular way of broadcasting radio in a digital rather than an analogue format. Other digital radio standards exist, but DAB is the main one used in the UK.
To create a DAB radio signal, analogue audio is converted and compressed using a similar audio format to MP3s.
Most of the top radio stations in the UK broadcast on both analogue radio and DAB. For example, BBC Radio 2 is available on both FM and DAB. You can also find AM radio stations such as BBC 5 Live on DAB.
There are several digital-only stations that you will find on DAB but not on AM or FM. These include BBC Radio 4 Extra and LBC, which is available on FM in London but only on DAB elsewhere.
In lots of ways, DAB radio is more user friendly than analogue radio. The first time you switch a new DAB radio on, it will automatically scan for available stations and save them all. You can then tune into them just by scrolling through an alphabetical list of stations, so you don’t need to remember frequencies.
DAB radios also feature a display which provides you with a lot of information including the name of the station, song and artist you are listening to as well as the name of the particular radio programme or DJ.
The vast majority of radios sold in the UK in 2019 have both FM and DAB. However, listening to analogue (AM/FM) radio is still more popular than listening to DAB radio.
According to 2018 figures from RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research), 47.6% of radio listening is done on AM/FM, and 38.1% on DAB. Digital’s share of listenership is increasing though, so it’s on course to overtake analogue.
However, DAB faces tough competition from online streaming, which is especially popular with younger people and may well be the future of radio.
DAB and DAB+ (the newer version of DAB) were introduced with the intention of eventually replacing FM in the UK and other European countries for several reasons, including the following:
- Digital radio can transmit audio in better quality than FM (though this isn’t always the case in practice)
- More radio stations can be transmitted via digital radio than would be possible on the FM band, so it offers listeners more choice
- Transmitting DAB radio is more energy-efficient than transmitting FM
What is DAB radio in cars?
If your car has DAB radio, this means it can pick up digital radio stations. This means you will likely have a larger choice of radio stations than if it only had AM/FM radio.
All of the main radio stations in the UK broadcast on DAB as well as AM or FM. This includes all the national and local BBC stations as well as popular commercial stations such as Heart, Classic FM and LBC.
Over 90% of new cars sold in the UK now come with DAB radio as standard. If your car doesn’t have DAB radio, the easiest and cheapest way to upgrade is by using a DAB radio adapter, which can cost you less than £100 if you choose a cheaper model.
The signal on DAB radio isn’t always perfect, and if you’re driving in the countryside you may find it disappointing. Rather than the crackling you get on AM/FM radio, DAB radio creates a gurgling sound or just cuts out entirely when the signal is bad.
One of the main advantages of having DAB radio in the car is that it’s much easier to tune into different stations. Rather than scrolling through frequencies, you just press the ‘next’ or ‘previous’ arrow buttons and it will tune into the next station. You can also save presets to quickly access your favourite stations.
Stations are listed alphabetically, so it’s very easy to find what you’re looking for, and you don’t need to remember frequencies.
Another good thing about DAB is that it gives you extra information on the radio display about the station name, song title and DJ you’re listening to.
While the government has talked about switching off FM radio at some point in the future, there’s no need to panic if your car doesn’t have DAB radio. It’s very unlikely that FM radio will be switched off in the next 5 years, and even if it was, it’s easy to upgrade using a DAB radio adapter.
Which countries have DAB radio?
The vast majority of countries in the world either use AM/FM radio or DAB+, which is a newer digital radio standard. Most digital radios sold in the UK have both FM and DAB+ as well as regular DAB, so they will work in most countries.
DAB/DAB+ radios work in any country with a DAB or DAB+ network, though they only pick up stations from that country. Many Western European countries have a DAB network, including France, Spain and Germany (which mainly uses DAB+).
If you are living abroad and want to be able to pick up stations from your home country, you should consider buying an internet radio, which will allow you to listen to radio stations from around the world.
What’s the best DAB radio?
The best DAB radio for you depends on which features you’re looking for, your budget and your taste in design. Check out this article for our overview of the best DAB radios on the market in the UK.
Some of the top DAB radio brands include Pure, Roberts and Ruark, who make high-quality but relatively pricey products. Good budget brands include AZATOM and Majority, whose radios offer great value for money. John Lewis also sell a range of own-brand radios that offer a great compromise between features, style and value for money.
Some things you might want to look for in a DAB radio include the following:
- Portable/rechargeable – Having a built-in rechargeable battery or the ability to use regular batteries will make your radio much more flexible, allowing you to carry it around the house without having to plug it into the mains. See some of the best rechargeable DAB radios here.
- Bluetooth – Bluetooth turns your radio into a wireless speaker, so you can play audio from your phone or tablet with better sound quality through the radio’s speakers. This is a good feature to have if you listen to a lot of podcasts or stream music via Spotify and other online services.
Bluetooth radios only have a Bluetooth receiver, not a transmitter, so you can’t use them with Bluetooth headphones.
See some of the best DAB radios with Bluetooth here.
- Alarm clock – Lots of people use their radio as an alarm clock. If you’re looking for a clock radio, you’ll want something that’s easy to use in the dark and has alarm functions that are intuitive and reliable. See some of the best DAB clock radios here.
How to find DAB radio stations
When you first switch your DAB radio on, it will scan to find the stations available in your area. They will then be listed alphabetically. This makes them easy to find, as you just look for them alphabetically rather than looking for a frequency.
You won’t be able to pick up every DAB radio station, as many of them only broadcast in certain areas.
If you can’t find a station you think you should be able to pick up, try repositioning the radio near a window to improve the signal, then retuning it.
You’ll also need to retune your radio to pick up new stations that have launched since you last tuned the radio.
Some DAB radios let you tune into a station manually, though this isn’t usually necessary. DAB frequencies are usually given using a number then a letter, such as 11B, which is quite different to how AM and FM frequencies are listed.
DAB Radio FAQs
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about DAB radio.
What’s the difference between DAB and DAB+?
DAB+ is an upgraded version of DAB that was first released in 2007. It uses MPEG-4 (AAC) encoding, which is superior to the encoding format used for DAB. In the UK, most digital radio stations still broadcast using regular DAB, though several offer DAB+ as well.
DAB is not forward-compatible with DAB+. This means that DAB+ radios can pick up DAB stations, but older DAB radios cannot pick up DAB+ stations. This means that you should try to buy a DAB/DAB+ radio rather than just a DAB radio.
One of the main advantages of DAB+ over DAB is that it’s more efficient, so it can transmit more stations. It has lower transmission costs and uses less energy, so it’s more eco-friendly.
Most DAB radios on the market at the moment also pick up DAB+ signals, though you might want to double check before buying. Look for the Digital Radio Tick Mark to make sure that the radio you’re buying can receive DAB+ signals.
Is DAB radio the same as digital radio?
Technically, DAB is a specific digital radio standard, though the two terms are used interchangeably in countries that use DAB. Some other digital radio standards include DRM and ISDB-T.
Is DAB radio the same as AM radio?
No, AM and DAB are different broadcasting methods. AM stands for Amplitude Modulation and works by varying the amplitude of the carrier wave.
AM is one of the oldest broadcasting technologies, dating back to the early 20th century. DAB is a much newer technology that was developed in the 1980s.
Most radios on the market today are either AM/FM radios or FM/DAB radios, though a few offer both AM and DAB.
Is DAB radio broadcast in stereo?
Like on FM, almost all DAB radio stations are broadcast in stereo. This includes all of the most popular stations on DAB radio in the UK including BBC stations, Heart, Capital FM, Smooth, Classic FM, Kiss and Magic. A few commercial stations such as TalkSport and Planet Rock broadcast in mono on DAB.
While DAB radio is usually broadcast in stereo, many DAB radio sets only have a single speaker, so they produce a mono sound. Even DAB radios with stereo speakers can sound like they’re producing a mono sound as the speakers are often very close together.
If you want to appreciate stereo sound more while listening to DAB radio, you can try listening through headphones or buying a stereo system with DAB radio like the Sony CMT SBT 100B which has two speakers that you can position a good distance apart from each other.
Is DAB available in my area?
Around 97% of the UK population are covered by DAB/DAB+ networks, so if you’re reading this in Britain, DAB radio is almost certainly available in your area. You can check the coverage in your area and find out which stations you’re likely to receive using this coverage checker.
Is DAB better than analogue?
The question of whether or not DAB radio is better than AM/FM is highly debated. The main complaint with DAB radio is that when you lose the signal, it cuts out completely rather than just crackling like in AM/FM.
While in theory DAB offers better sound quality, the listening experience can be worse when the signal is poor. Another issue with DAB is that it uses more power, so if you have a battery-powered DAB radio it will eat through batteries quite quickly.
While DAB/DAB+ radio has its flaws, it offers several benefits when compared to AM and FM, including the following:
- More choice of radio stations
- Better sound quality (provided the signal is good)
- Text information about the station and song is shown on the radio’s display
Can I get DAB radio in the car?
Yes, DAB radio is available in the car, though if you have an older car, you may need to buy some extra equipment or upgrade your car stereo.
Does DAB radio need WiFi?
No, DAB radio uses a digital signal, but you don’t need to connect it to the internet. All you need to listen to DAB radio is the radio itself. This means that digital radio is free at the point of use, with no data charges. If you want to listen to digital stations on your phone you will need the internet, as practically no smartphones have a DAB receiver.
Can DAB radios receive AM and FM stations?
Most AM and FM stations also broadcast on DAB, including BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live. The vast majority of DAB radios also have an FM receiver, though only a few such as the König Portable DAB+ Radio let you pick up AM signals as well.
Is DAB radio the future?
When DAB was first launched in the UK, the idea was that DAB was a modern radio broadcasting standard that would eventually replace FM. Nobody predicted that online streaming would become so popular, and DAB radio now seems quite outdated when compared to internet-based alternatives.
It seems quite likely that eventually most radio listening will be done online, either via a smartphone or computer or using a dedicated internet radio.
DAB radio certainly isn’t dead—in fact it’s growing in popularity. However, it’s unlikely to endure as long as AM radio has.
DAB vs. internet radio – which is better?
There are pros and cons to both DAB and internet radio. DAB is more straightforward as you don’t need to connect it to the internet, and DAB radios are usually more user friendly as they don’t have big, complicated menus.
If you don’t have internet access or your internet is slow, DAB radio is clearly a better choice.
However, internet radio offers you a lot more choice. You will have thousands of stations available, including stations from all over the world. This is great if you have diverse musical tastes, are learning a foreign language or are an expat who wants to listen to radio from your home country.
Internet radio often has better sound quality, and as long as your internet is fast there won’t be any interference.
Is it worth upgrading your car stereo to DAB?
Upgrading a car stereo to DAB can be expensive and inconvenient. The main reasons for upgrading your car stereo are to get more stations and improve reception (though there’s no guarantee it will improve reception).
Using a DAB adapter is cheaper and easier than completely replacing your car stereo, so if you want DAB without spending too much money it’s a good idea.
Ultimately, whether or not getting DAB is worth it depends on how much you want to listen to digital stations.
Where can you buy a DAB radio?
It’s easy to find places that sell DAB radios in the UK. You can pick up cheap digital radios in most large supermarkets, including Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
On the high street, good places to look include Argos, Currys and John Lewis.
If you have a question that isn’t answered here, please leave a comment below.
For more useful information about digital radio and DAB/DAB+, check out these sites:
- WorldDAB.org – WorldDAB is the global forum for digital radio, facilitating the adoption and implementation of digital broadcast radio based on DAB, DAB+.
- UkDigitalRadio.com – This website is run by Digital One, the company that operates the UK’s only national commercial DAB digital radio network.
See which DAB radios we recommend in our guide to the best DAB radios in the UK.