History of and Transition From Analogue to Digital Radio
A DAB on Radios and the Dawning of the Digital Age in Britain and America
Fascinated with technology and its development while taking a peek behind the scenes briefly looking at the history and technological development of radio in Britain and America from the days of analogue to today's digital age.
In writing this article I was keen to understand the differing industrial standards in America and Europe. Im already familiar with the different 'industrial standards' in technologies for TV Broadcasting between America and the European Union due to my long standing interest of 15 years in multimedia as a hobby e.g. our home and holiday videos for viewing on TV. I was however less familiar with the differing Radio broadcasting technologies between these two great nations on the opposite side of the Atlantic, and was keen to bring myself up to speed with how these technologies differ between the DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) in Europe (which as a European I'm familiar with) and digital radios in America e.g. HD Radios, Satellite and Internet Radios.
As Media, Multimedia and new technologies is an interest of mine I found comparing DAB Radios in Europe with HD Radios, Internet Radios and Satellite Radios in American a fascinating topic to explore. Although not critical it would have been nice if these two great Nations (The European Union and America) could at times work together to form a single and truly universal industrial standards in technology; just think of the savings in costs by pulling resources in research and development. According to my research on the Internet there are currently 38 countries worldwide using DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) either in full, in part or testing it including Canada, Mexico, Hong Kong and Russia.
In Britain, following the analogue switch off of all television transmissions, all TV services whether they be Satellite, Cable or FreeView include free reception of all the main radio stations. I'm not sure if this is the case in America but I am keen to learn. So join me on my journey into the dawn of the digital age and learn a little about its origin and where it may be going, then take a moment to browse the range of Digital radios Ive picked for great gift ideas for you and your family or friends that maybe music to your ears for years to come.
What is Analogue and How it Differs From Digital
In the Beginning was Analogue
Keeping it in simple laypersons terms and not getting too technical analogue is an As Is' representation of the real world, such as a negative of a photo, photograph on paper or card, a sound recording on magnetic tape or record (for those who remember them).
The main advantage of this is that it can be an accurate representation of the original object or sound so that when the negative is developed or the music is played every curve, shape and line in the original object and every variation in the music played are represented in the analogue image or sound recording.
The main disadvantage of this is that any imperfection on the negative, photo, sound recording or record such as a scratch or speck of dust will also be present when viewing the image or playing the music.
Digital is breaking down the image or sound into a series of blocks ([pixels) which can then be digitised in binary code e.g. a series of '0' and '1', coded, stored electronically, re-created as an accurate but not true representation of the original and easily edited, enhanced and manipulated.
A couple of main advantages of digitising are:-
- That vast amounts of images and sounds can be stored in a small physical space (memory stick) and decoded back into an image or sound when needed to be viewed or heard.
- Any imperfections not in the original recording, such as a scratch on a CD aren't part of the digital coding and don't affect the image displayed on screen or recording played back on a CD. Interestingly, CDs, DVDs and Bly-rays include an error-correction table on the disc, a matrix that uses algorithms first developed by Reed and Solomon back in 1960. In the event that there are scratches, or thumb prints on the disc preventing the player from reading parts of the binary code of the images or music from the disc the playback equipment can use the error-correction look-up table to accurately second guess what the missing code is and authentically reproduce the music or video; although it's not foolproof and a badly damaged or marked disc can sometimes still fail to playback properly or even stick.
The main disadvantage of digitising is that the image or sound is broken down into blocks (granularity) and in terms of a picture the colour assigned to a particular block (pixel) is the colour that best represents the colours in that area of the image e.g. if the image in that portion of the picture is 90% dark green then that particular pixel will be coded as dark green. Therefore granularity (the sampling rate) can have a big impact on the quality. For example if the sampling rate (granularity) of digitising a picture of your face was 1mm (1/25 inch) then the digitised image would look quite respectable compared with a sampling rage of 25mm (1 inch) where the image of your face would then look very blotchy (pixelated, granulated).
It's the same with music, if the sampling rate is high (such as on a CD) then the music quality is high. One gripe I have with mp3 music is that, although mp3 files are a tenth of the size of wav files, unlike wav files mp3 files are not wave files but data files and not really suitable for quality playback of music; they're more suitable for voice which is generally in the frequency range of 500 HZ and 1 KHZ (the mid-range of music). The mp3 files, to compress the music to a small storage space cut off the high and low frequencies that are on the outer edges of human hearing range; most people don't notice but if you play the music back on high fidelity equipment (which is hard to buy these days) and have a keen ear (as I do) then the difference is striking; the mp3 format makes the music flat.
Analogue to Digital Radio
In Britain, as with analogue TV transmissions which were switched off in recent years, the government is committed to the switch off of analogue Radio once the trigger points are reached. The trigger points being when more than 50% of listeners use digital radio and when the DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) signal has a coverage of more than 90% of the population in Britain, in a move to get closer to the 90% coverage the government is currently planning to build five new DAB multiplexes over the next 18 months. Currently about 30% of listeners use DAB and other digital radio services e.g. online (Internet Radio) and via Digital TV (includes Sky, Cable and FreeView), which is a big increase from last year when it was less than 19%; so from what I've read in recent years it seems that the best estimates for the big switch-off of analogue radio in Britain is likely to be sometime between 2015 and 2019.
In Britain all Internet Radio is free, is provided by the DAB service, and can be accessed either from a DAB Radio, online or from Digital TV which includes Sky (satellite), Cable (Virgin Media) and Terrestrial FreeView. FreeView being a Free Digital TV Service received via the old analogue TV aerial (and includes HD TV) with 50 Free TV channels and 24 free Radio channels.
DAB Radio is the industrial standard for digital radio across the European Union and uses the power of digital technology to compress all digital radio transmission into a small frequency bandwidth which once analogue radio is finally switched off will free up large swathes of frequency bandwidths for other uses. I understand from reading various articles that the bandwidth used by Europe is prohibited for private commercial use in America so America has taken its own route and developed its own two independent digital radio standards using different technologies to the DAB system in Europe; I understand these two systems to be Satellite Radio which has a monthly subscription and HD Radio.
Our Transition to Digital
What I Like About the DAB
Before DAB we had a superb 1980s Hi-Fi Radio in the living room which although analogue, with the 10 channel equalizer and amplifier, gives excellent quality sound reproduction which can't be beaten; along with an assortment of portable analogue radios (accumulated over the years) scattered around the house and in the garden shed (my DIY workshop). The main disadvantage of analogue radio, mainly the portable ones as the Hi-Fi radio tracks the signal well, is the need to frequently retune as the tuners heat and cool and drift off channel; whereas DAB being digital stays right on track (correct frequency) perfectly.
Once we had digital cable TV which includes hundreds of free radio channels, with the TV being in the same room as the Hi-Fi and as the TV play CDs and digital radio there seemed little point in keeping the Hi-Fi; it was time to retire the Hi-Fi and put the space gained in the living room to alternate use. Then it was a case of retiring our other analogue radios, one by one and replacing them with DAB. First the analogue radio in our home office was replaced with DAB, a bit superfluous in some ways in that I could use the DAB service online, except that in order to listen to digital radio over the internet requires the home computer to be on; so in this respect it's just more convenient to have a DAB radio in the office then I can have the radio on regardless to whether the computer is on or not. The following year I replaced the old analogue radio in the dining room with DAB and assigned the old radio to the home DIY workshop; and at that time all the other old analogue radios kicking around the house were gathered up and taken out of service in that if we want a radio elsewhere e.g. the patio I can just pick up one of the DABs from the home office or dining room and use that. Finally, a couple of years later we replace our bedside radio alarm clock with a DAB one; which is brilliant because the DAB radio alarm clock has far more functions than I'll ever need, and it has the neat feature of automatically setting itself to the correct time from the DAB signal so it's always the correct time.
When choosing a DAB radio the main feature I look for is powered by the mains electrify rather than battery. I'm not interested in battery operated radios in that you're always replacing and recharging the batteries; I just want a radio you can plug into the mains supply, and if I want to use it in the garden e.g. for a BBQ or garden party then getting an extension cable isn't a great hassle, and for the use on the patios then we just use the exterior sockets. The other feature I like about DAB is that unlike the old analogue radios which were almost always plastic DAB radios (except for the radio alarm clocks) tend to have a wood effect casing; which looks really neat. Now we have all DAB in the house it's just my DIY workshop which has analogue radio, which will need to be replaced with DAB once analogue radio is switched-off in Britain in a few years' time.
So in conclusion if you're still using analogue radio now might be a good time to consider replacing it to digital radio whether it be DAB in Europe or HD and satellite radio with its monthly subscription in America. A digital radio would certainly make a great gift suitable for the whole family from teenagers to Aunts and Uncles. I have my favourite radio channel, Classic Gold, dedicated to playing music from the 70s and 80s broadcasting on FM (analogue radio) and DAB (digital) and apart from when watching TV (which I don't do a great deal of these days) the radio gives me a good background music that helps me to concentrate on other tasks in the home or garden better than silence e.g. I'm one of those people who at home finds the sound of silence distracting; so for me I wouldn't be without a good radio. It's not as strange as it sounds, if you're in the countryside you have birds singing in the background and on the beach the sound of the sea both of which is tranquil, but at home in the absence of these sounds of nature I find the silence can be deafening.
Our DAB Radio Alarm ClockClick thumbnail to view full-size
How People Listen to Music from the Radio
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