DAB Digital Radio's mono radio stations

By James Martin
Posted 5 January 2015, 12.40pm est

Today's news about the mainline Absolute station downgrading to Mono shouldn't surprise me, but it has.

Here's a station which broadcasts on analogue, out of London, on AM. They've been at the forefront of high-tech since the Virgin days. Surely, therefore, one would expect future growth to come from digital, allowing Bauer to start shutting down the AM transmitters and helping drive us towards this promised land of The Digital Future the larger players in the industry are so keen on.

So why on earth have Bauer reduced the sound quality of Absolute so much in order to shoehorn Magic onto D1? Are there any commercial stations even in stereo on D1 now, apart from Classic FM? I have no doubt Heart Extra will launch with a similarly one-track mind.

This continued race to the bottom for audio quality on DAB just baffles me. The public are being sold DAB as a medium with superior sound quality, "sweet sounding" in fact - the claim is, to quote Roy Hodgson, fucking bollocks. Fact.

Yes, there's more choice but it either sounds like a dial-up Internet stream or like it's coming from either the middle of your head or down a toilet. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

I'm not suggesting a return to the IBA days of rediculously high techincal benchmarks being set, but does the regulator need to mandate a minimum acceptable audio quality, such as 112k Stereo? Or should we just get the hell on with it and migrate to DAB+?

I don't want to get into the DAB vs. Internet Radio debate, but it's now at the point I barely use my DAB radio, as the Internet streams are generally of a better quality. Likewise, even if FM went tomorrow, DAB in-car wouldn't be a dealbreaker for me when buying a new motor because as I have all-you-can-eat data, I can just use Radioplayer on my phone in the car, and 97/8% of the time, the reception is rock solid.

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5 years ago

Totally agree James, but what teccies like you and me don't understand is that "real people" don't notice the difference and are perfectly happy with mono and low bit rates. Complacent and patronising attitude that is re-played every time this issue is discussed here.

5 years ago

It's tantamount to Freeview being black and white to get more channels on.

5 years ago

Capital Xtra is still in stereo on D1 at 112kbps.

5 years ago

@James Freeview's a great example as the same thing has happened there. Bitrates are lower than is ideal, to squeeze on more TV stations because demand is high. The BBC scaled back bitrates and turned off some Freeview Radio stations in Scotland because of its own capacity squeeze.

I'm sure everyone at Absolute and Bauer would like Absolute Radio to be in stereo. However the demand from listeners for Absolute 80s, and their ability to monetise each kilobit more effectively over 2 stations, means that having two stations at 80 is better than one at 160.

At the same time, many of the listeners that can get it in FM Stereo can also get it on DAB in Stereo as it also now broadcasts on London 1 at 112. Additionally Absolute provide high quality versions on all of their stations online.

If we look at one of the main aims for radio fans/the industry (at a very macro level) surely its to encourage UK listen to maintain and grow their radio listening? So, what's the best way to do that? Is it high quality stereo or is it a diverse and growing range of services that they can receive on their current devices?

As a radio fan, I'm for the latter.

5 years ago

True about Freeview, but on the flipside the picture quality isn't so badly degraded as to be unwatchable.

On your last statement, as a radio fan - I'm somewhere in between. I think we haven't got the balance between quality and quantity right at the moment, largely due to duplication of FM services which are in high quality sound. I'd rather have a solid, diverse choice of stations regardless of platform all in roughly the same sound quality than flood the band with stereo, high-bitrate duplications of the FM stations, and mono, low-bitrate carriage of the DAB-only stuff.

Ending simulcasting would free up tons of room for digital-only services to generally run at 112k Stereo.

5 years ago

Hmm, when you talk to DAB listeners they've generally migrated listening across device by device. Not simulcasting FM would mean less listening for stations on that band and less desirability for DAB. Which is somewhat worst of both worlds. At the moment existing+new on same device/band is very popular with listeners.

Improved ease of tuning is often one of the highest rated features post-purchase.

5 years ago

Every standard definition channel on Freeview (with the exception of ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and the BBC's (except BBC Parliament) is broadcast at 3/4 resolution. In fact, when DTT started in 1998, most multiplexes had a maximum of five channels on them, and all at full resolution. Since then, bitrates for both video and audio have been squeezed, and GOPs lengthened to the point that we now have DTT multiplexes containing numerous data services, radio services, and up to 14 TV channels on a multiplex!

To put it another way, there are nearly triple the number of channels in the same amount of capacity on DTT. Yet on DAB, Digital One is broadcasting only four more stations today then back in 2000!

And it's funny that James Martin says DAB is badly degraded, yet Freeview isn't unwatchable! Shows how subjective the quality debate is, doesn't it? There are folks out there that do say Freeview is unwatchable!

The number of people that are upset by DAB sound quality, is probably a similar number to those upset by DTT picture quality - a small number overall.

In the case of DAB and Freeview/DTT, people do value choice over quality. Absolute 80s has been mono on DAB for most of its history, yet RAJAR shows that going from stereo to mono hasn't harmed figures.

Bauer have five stations on Digital One, as a result of Monday's changes, they are all now 80kbps. None of which are available nationally on FM. At least Bauer are being consistent in their approach to all of their services.

With D2 multiplex bids due in soon, and Bauer part of a joint bid with Arqiva and UTV, I wouldn't be surprised if we do see a return of Absolute to stereo. In fact, even if their bid doesn't win, they might later do a deal with the eventual winner to facilitate this.

5 years ago

The DTT codecs have changed since the onDigital days Art. Infact, STBs from the onDigital/ITV Digital era won't work anymore. Unlike DAB.

5 years ago

I wrote the post you were refering to! The reason why ONdigital boxes don't work is NOTHING to do with codecs and everything to do with the fact that since DSO, we now use 8k transmission on DTT (which allows SFNs). The 8k standard didn't exist when ONdigital launched, hence once 2k transmissions stopped they become door stops.

The DAB encoders have changed since launch too, you know. I suspect there might be a handful of services still on the original Factom 100 codec, but very, very few.

5 years ago

I do notice a difference in picture quality on Freeview, even when I flick from Channel 5 to one of Channel 5's secondary services. Does it bother me? No - because I'm too busy watching the program and its content.

The only time I ever became really bothered about a channel's picture (and sound) quality being degraded to such an extent as to make it un-watchable, was when the successor to Classic FM TV on SKY did that. The service didn't last too long after that.

By the way, I should point out that I am a hi-fi enthusiast for which I have an integrated system, with expensive hi-fi components, that contains a CD player, hard drives, a turtntable, DAB radio, FM radio, wi-fi radio, minidisc, cassette deck, amplifier, 4 old mobile phones, an I-pod, another MP3 player, SKY, the Freeview TV with additional android-for-TV dongole, a games console, two DVD players etc all plugged into it. I really do like good, preferably great sound quality - but when it comes to radio , which is music that's polluted with people talking over it, adverts, idents and all sorts of stuff to get in the way of music, I'm not too bothered about it not being available in super surround sound quality. If I want CD quality, I'll listen to CD's.

5 years ago

Funny you should say that. I can only put up with watching 5* on an old CRT because I find the picture quality that bad.

Adam Bowie has written a great blog on this in today's eRadio, which says everything I am trying to. If DAB in-car takes off, which is something I'd say at least half of the people here are desperate to see happen, that's where I think it's going to come back to bite. Radio 2 is already enough of a pain in the arse to commercial radio without giving Auntie an open goal like this.

As I say I have no desire to upgrade my car stereo when RadioPlayer on my phone does the job in much better quality.

5 years ago

Sorry, but complaining about audio quality, and saying that BBC Radio 2 does better because commercial radio audio quality is so bad, is like saying that Good Morning Britain is an inferior show to Breakfast because the desk is too large, and changing it will solve the problem.

People don't listen to the radio or watch TV, because of audio quality or nice studio sets, they do it for the content, and commercial radio has gone so light on content, that people have gravitated towards the BBC as a result.

If commercial radio actually got back to broadcasting meaningful content again, it would do better.

By the way, I listen to FM in Mono on my little portable, because the stereo signal in the city can be very patchy, and mono gives me a more consistent performance. Stereo is not the be all and end all of audio. It's great for drama, but for most other things, it's not necessary.

5 years ago

The DTT codecs have changed since the onDigital days Art. Unlike DAB.

Not true. Indeed, I observed that Virgin Classic Rock - at its original 128kbps stereo - sounded considerably better than Virgin Radio, at 160kbps stereo. Digital One insisted at the time on a specific and very outdated codec, and insisted on them doing the encoding, at Croydon, rather than Virgin doing the encoding ourselves using the latest codec in Golden Square (which we were doing for VC). The result was pretty awful value for money, if you were to ask me - but they wouldn't budge, quoting the original contract.

Digital One has since changed that policy. I think it was because they didn't want us also encoding other things into our streams - like a pretty slideshow - without charging us lots of cash. It was therefore disappointing when we did launch some slideshow tests that we couldn't do it on the main Virgin station, and had to do it on Groove, VC and VX instead.

So - anyway. Just saying that the codecs have got considerably better, and today's 112kbps is probably the same actual quality as the 160kbps you were getting on Digital One's setup in the mid 2000s.

As I've said separately here, the majority of radio listening is in mono or virtual mono; and an 80kbps mono signal will actually sound better than a 112kbps stereo one, if I understand the codecs right. Until we have Digital Two, we will have a temporary overcrowding of Digital One. I suspect that we'll have better-sounding radio once D2 is available.

The good news is - all these radio stations are available in great audio quality online. If you care about audio quality that much, and your internet connection is reliable enough, use that. Nobody's bullying you to do otherwise.

5 years ago

"Virtual Mono" owe me a new keyboard. This one is full of beer.

It seems a massive own goal from Bauer. I'm not convinced people will listen to a low-bitrate mono stream over Smooth, which is in high-bitrate stereo wherever it's also on AM or FM. I see the arguments for such awful audio quality but a minimum of 112k Stereo is something I would quickly enforce if I had my way. If that means we have to lose services, so be it.

For the record, wherever possible I do listen online if FM is not available and will continue to do so. If I were a regular Absolute listener though I'd be very pissed off. You can shout "oh they've only got one speaker" or invent terms like "virtual mono" but it's a massive step backwards. 1950s audio quality on 21st Century technology.

5 years ago

And still on radio forums I see lots and lots of people lamenting the loss of radio services on crackly, fizzy, staticy, fadey monophonic medium wave - but heaven forbid if a DAB service broadcasts in mono. Oh - and to think that for hundreds of years, listeners to many programs on BBC local radio were doing so in mono because the programs were only available as that. Indeed, some BBC local radio stations were only broadcasting in mono, even right up until the mid-90's. A small number of commercial radio stations were only broadcasting in mono until that time as well, including the No.1 station in Staffordshire - but I guess those stations had no listeners.

5 years ago

Was that true mono or virtual mono? ;-)

That was in the mid 90s. This is 2015. So I stand by my point - it's going backwards. It's a retrograde step. We are going back to a 25-30 year old standard.

Those moaning about the loss of AM stations are generally anoraks. AM does have its uses, most notably being pretty resillient in a dire emergency -Radio 4 LW is still, I understand, our go-to if North Korea finally completely loses the plot - and of course there are some places where the geography of the TSA demand AM (Radio Hafren, for example) - but I doubt many normal people are that bothered about it.

5 years ago

Backwards? Well, it shluld be pointed out that it's commercial radio that is doing that. The BBC are staying as they are and only ever tried to squeeze a station in doing Eurovision and special events - but their stereo music stations stayed as that.

Then again, commercial radio seems to like cutting back on things to the detriment of the listener. Races to the bottom and all that.

5 years ago

"Virtual Mono" owe me a new keyboard. This one is full of beer.

I guess you don't understand because you're drunk! That explains everything. But, let's pretend you're actually interested.

If you have a stereo receiver, where the speakers are a fixed ten inches apart, and you are listening the other side of the room, you are getting no stereo image at all.

If you have a stereo receiver, and the speakers are a few feet apart, but you are sitting the other side of the room facing 90-degrees from those speakers, you are getting almost no stereo image.

If you have a stereo receiver, and are listening to a relatively low signal strength FM stereo signal, you are getting very little stereo image anyway, since the stereo merges into mono relatively early on with any signal degradation.

You may not understand "virtual mono", but it is how the majority of radio listening is done. A true stereo image, for most people, simply doesn't happen. Exceptions are listening on headphones, listening in the car, and listening in front of properly-positioned hifi speakers.

I see the arguments for such awful audio quality

If I might: audio quality is nothing to do with mono or stereo. An 80kbps mono stream is significantly better quality than a 112kbps stereo one.

wherever possible I do listen online if FM is not available and will continue to do so

And there's nothing wrong with that. Brilliantly, we have a multiplatform radio landscape in this country, and if you're in the minority with a usable stereo image in the places you listen to the radio, keep right on. However, not sure why you should tell me that I am unable to listen to Absolute 80s on DAB any more because you want Smooth Extra in stereo. Strikes me that's rather selfish.

5 years ago

Shameless self-promotion time. On the link below you can compare various DAB qualities with FM, AM and original audio.

5 years ago

See your points there. Nearly all my listening is in-car, on my stereo system, or on earphones. The exception is the odd bit in the kitchen, where I have a DAB radio and will put up with 64k mono there. For some reason my Roberts iStream 83i doesn't like the microwave oven, and I lose the network whenever it's on in the kitchen!

5 years ago

"If you have a stereo receiver, where the speakers are a fixed ten inches apart, and you are listening the other side of the room, you are getting no stereo image at all."

I'm not an expert, but I think you do still get a stereo image, albeit maybe with imperfect stereo image. At the end of the day there are two speakers producing different audio, so there will be two different audio signals reflecting off walls, ceilings etc.

"If you have a stereo receiver, and the speakers are a few feet apart, but you are sitting the other side of the room facing 90-degrees from those speakers, you are getting almost no stereo image."

Same argument of reflections applies. I think in a blind test I could still hear the difference when sitting at right angles.

"If you have a stereo receiver, and are listening to a relatively low signal strength FM stereo signal, you are getting very little stereo image anyway, since the stereo merges into mono relatively early on with any signal degradation."

True at the fringes, but in general Joe Public listens to the stations that serve their area rather than fringe stations and heavy audio processing (and road noise) tends to hide the "stereo hiss". Maybe my car radio is unusual but it retains clear stereo most of the time - I notice when it blends to mono and that is in quite fringe areas. It's really obvious because in a car the separation is better (speakers are either side of you rather than in front of you)

5 years ago

Funniest of many discussions I've read on this site. Commercial radio makes an expensive step forward to DAB, then a marathon number of steps backward to glorious Mono. DAB enthusiasts claim we never really listen in stereo anyway, to justify why its "alright really" which with the same logic, AM or FM would be. Personally, I'm lucky to have 2 ears, so hear the world in stereo, but feel free to argue that I don't...
And best quality radio is on the Internet, which I can pick up in my house, the car, my pocket... DABs days are numbered, lets face it

5 years ago

The reason that I originally purchased DAB radios was so I could listen to a Christian station – Premier Christian Radio – outside London in the car and at home.

Premier has always been in mono but that has not stopped many of us across the country from listening to both their speech programmes, including news coverage and discussion programmes, and their range of worship music.

What I find very distressing is that after years of lobbying parliament to allow faith-based stations access to DAB and the fact that Premier took up capacity on Digital 1, when other broadcasters such as Global were dismissing DAB, we now face the possibility of listener choice been reduced by a so-called brand extension of yet another ‘pop’ music station – Heart Extra – potentially ‘evicting’ Premier from our DAB radios.

We need to stop the race to the bottom in listener choice so that not only faith-based stations like Premier Christian Radio, which is a listener supported station, can be safeguarded in their access to DAB capacity but that stations offering other genres can also have access so that the likes of Amazing Radio and Jazz FM or another jazz/blues station can be heard across the UK.

5 years ago

Surely you listened to your own station on DAB, Peter? Unless there is more than one J Peter Wilson? Day One Radio when it was on DAB was around long before Premier (or even UCB) arrived.

5 years ago

Yes Ash you are right. A few of us ran a trial Christian station - Day One Radio - in just part of the West Midlands prior to the starting of national broadcasts of Premier (and then UCB UK). The wider national supporter base gave Premier the ability to broadcast across the whole country so Day One Radio closed down but Premier took over the Day One studios in Wolverhampton as a production centre for around a couple of years.

I have recently been with my wife in Memphis TN (Elvis would have been 80 years old this week) where I can hear a wide variety of Christian stations, including WKVF K-LOVE 94.9 and WCRV Bible Teaching & News 640 AM, broadcasting alongside other formats such as WKIM Newstalk 98.9, WGKX Today' Best Country KIX 106 and WRBO Soul Classics 103.5.

It is a variety of radio formats and genres of music that we need on DAB and whether they are in mono or stereo. We trust and pray the Digital 2 will enable a wider choice of listening and not just more slight variations of existing popular music stations.

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