In car radio - digital or analogue, you'll always get some reception problems

Posted on 8 July 2009 in Radio (2 comments)

Over on the BBC News website is a little video of Zoe Kleinman driving down the road playing with incar DAB radios.

To view this video you need Flash installed. If you have Flash and still can't see this video, you can watch it via BBC News

As someone's who has had DAB for years in his home and loves it to bits, I was interested to see what the car experience was like but I confess that I watched that yesterday and thought "bloomin' hell".

However this morning I cast my ear back to driving round the east of Manchester in my late teens.

Radio 1 on FM was always dropping out on 98.8 and you had to hastily retune to 98.5. Only to find that a mile down the road, 98.5 had dropped out and you had to switch back to 98.8!

It was a nightmare unless you had a radio which retuned itself. But that then gave complications of its own - specifically on Thursday evenings when the Session in the Nations was between 7 and 9.

For 98.5 is actually from a transmitter in Wales but is very strong in East Manchester (indeed I used it as my default at home). So you'd Steve Lamacq suddenly had disappeared and had been replaced by Huw and Bethan coming life from Cardiff. You'd enjoy a good track only to find it disappeared half way through.

Ultimately there will always be some problems somewhere when you're driving. Reception black holes, interference and the like.

However as someone who doesn't drive in London, what I can't say is if the drop outs on FM are fewer than on DAB - maybe we should send Zoe out to repeat the test!

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Kev said:

I don't think either platform can really claim the upper hand in the coverage stakes - The number of quasi-national stations on local DAB multiplexes certainly makes long distance travel annoying - although the configuration of NOW Digital's multiplexes makes this less so - retuning transparently (except on Gold); Unlike the Bauer multiplexes of the north.

Certainly round here (Nottingham) the FM drop outs are a right old pain in the bum - constant flicking between 99.7, 99.4, 98.9, 98.3, and 97.9 (or more often than not "search") - DAB is much stronger and more reliable. I have the JVC DAB tuner shown in the video, but connected to the standard fit aerial via an FM/DAB splitter, and it generally works well - the coverage maps published by NOW Digital are surprisingly spot on in my experience - 100% rock solid reception on the Nottingham local services all the way from South Nottinghamshire to Lincoln (only dropping out in the latter town where the NOW maps show black spots) and back down to Grantham on the A1.

Alas this isn't true of everywhere - The city I grew up in - Preston - being a case in point. The signal on FM is that strong that I got used to being able to use any walkman type FM radio and get rock solid (stereo) reception of Radio 1 on 98.2, BBC Lancs on 103.9, Rock on 97.4, Jazz FM on 100.4 (now Smooth) or Century on 105.4 (now Real) - even radios without an aerial didn't bat an eyelid. However move over to DAB and while in-car reception is unfazed - using a handheld set (or even my trusty Roberts RD49) you see how weak the signal is - in the right place all five multiplexes (two nationals, north west, central Lancashire, Merseyside) are rock solid, but start moving about and they start laughing at you - quite a lot of bubbling mud. Not quite as bad as FM here in Nottingham, but nowhere near as good as FM in Preston.

That said and done, going to the city at the other end of the M61 (Manchester) - the city centre specifically - you would find that all and FM radio would pick up was Galaxy 102 (even on 103.0 - home of Picadilly Key 103 Manchester) but with DAB you get rock solid reception of the likes of Century, Smooth, Kiss, and Magic - having a DAB transmitter in the city centre works wonders - deep inside the Arndale centre and portable DAB is still working perfectly well - Nottingham has the transmitter 3km from the city centre and the buildings just block the signal from being usable on portable sets, similar story with Preston and the Winter Hill transmitter some 30km away.

Mind you DAB does have a way of rubbing salt into the wound - being able to see the Winter Hill transmitter standing tall over the moors of Lancashire yet at the same time having your radio displaying "no signal" as you pass between it and Wigan on the M6 or (even worse) the M61 is completely mad.

And finally, who on earth planned the local multiplex coverage plan in Yorkshire? On the main long distance routes though the county (i.e. the M62 and M1) the four local multiplexes cut in and out constantly - needing to flick between three presets just to keep listening to XFM is pure madness (lack of AF on Bauer's multiplexes just serving to rub this in) - at least MXR Yorkshire works fine.

All that being said I believe there are plans to increase the power on the DAB transmitters which should reduce the borderline problems and make for a better all round experience (All we need after that is for the bods from the Now Digital multiplexes to go a set the Bauer ones up properly).

Posted on 8 July 2009 at 10:54 PM

Kirk said:

Agree with the point about Manchester.

I listen to Radio 1 on the way to work - I couldn't find an FM radio that works past "very poor" reception at all, but my cheap and nasty portable DAB radio is crystal clear right until I'm in the lift at work.

Posted on 10 July 2009 at 6:01 PM

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