Radio is now broadcast in a variety of ways. Analogue is the system used since the 1920s, with a significant quality boost in the 1960s when FM radio was introduced. Digital Audio Broadcast, or DAB for short, was introduced in the 1990s. Digital broadcasting is more efficient and takes up less space on the frequency band, allowing more stations to be broadcast. You can also listen to digital stations on your TV and the internet.
For further performance information on these radios, and test reports on a wider range of DAB radios, see Which? - Digital radio reviews (subscription fees apply).
We also tested digital radios in 2009 with funding from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). Many of these radios are still available and are included in this report. All prices were updated in August 2011.
Most traditional stations are broadcast in both analogue and digital, but there are lots of digital stations you can't get on analogue, and some local analogue stations that have not gone digital. Although there has been no Government announcement to switch off the analogue signal anytime soon, digital radio has arrived and will be the future.
So what are the advantages of digital?
- There are lots of digital stations. They include the traditional stations you get on analogue plus extra BBC and commercial national stations and many local ones. Depending on where you live you could get up to 30 on a DAB radio, or over 50 in the London area with all its local stations.
- Stations are listed by name on a screen as you tune, which is helpful if you are sighted.
- Depending on model, you can get information on screen about the station and programme you are listening to.
- No more background hiss during a programme.
- New features are available like pause and rewind live radio and, on the more expensive models, recording.
- Most DAB radios have built-in analogue tuners, which is important for receiving some local and community radio stations.
What are the disadvantages?
- If the digital signal is very weak, you get no reception at all.
- Tuning the radio or using some of its features may be difficult if you cannot see information on its screen.
Buying a digital radio
This guide provides information about how digital radio works and what to look for in a radio. For the radios that did best in all our tests, see Recommended Radios.
If you want to consider a wider range of radios, we suggest that you read our guides to features and performance first. This will help you to know what difference the options make, when you compare the test reports for each radio we tested. One important difference, particularly if you are blind, is the ways digital radios are tuned (see Tuning in for more on this).
Around nine out of ten of us should be able to receive digital radio signals where we live. Check out which stations you can receive in your area by using an online postcode checker such as Digital One's postcode search or see Contacts. As well as telling you the strength of signal in your area, they list the various radio stations you are likely to receive.
Of course they can't tell you how good the signal will be inside your home. If you live in a basement and have always had problems with radio reception, digital won't solve your problems. Buy from somewhere that will take back a radio if you really can't get a signal at home. First, try it around the room - for instance, by windows or on a high shelf and away from metal surfaces, where it has more chance of picking up a signal. If this doesn't work, think about an external aerial.
Alternative ways to get digital radio
If you can't get a digital radio signal where you live, there are other ways to listen to digital radio, but we have not assessed their ease of use.
- Digital TV - whether terrestrial, satellite, cable or telephone-based, it carries radio stations. But note that listening to radio on a digital TV uses a lot more power than any digital radio we have tested. If you get digital TV via a set-top box or digital TV recorder, you can connect this directly to your hi-fi and switch the TV off, to reduce energy use.
- Over the internet - on a computer via a computer card or a plugged-in DAB receiver.
- On an internet radio. You don't need a computer, as the radios are complete in themselves, but you do need a broadband connection and a home Wi-Fi network as the radio signal comes through this rather than through the aerial. You get access to many more stations in this way, since they don't depend on what signals are broadcast locally, and also the BBC listen again service.
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Last updated: August 2011
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