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Performance of digital radios

What to look for in a digital radio

Here we give an explanation of the performance aspects of the DAB radios we assessed and report on our general findings. See our test reports for the results of each radio tested.

Digital reception

Digital reception is affected by where you live - you can use a postcode checker to check the quality of the signal in your area. Some radios are better than others at picking up the signal. We checked the reception performance of each radio using technical measurements at our laboratory.

The vast majority performed well, with the Roberts RD-8BW Duet and Roberts RD-59 Gemini 59 scoring the highest and the hand-held Sony XDR-S55DAB the lowest, though in practice it received stations reasonably well.

Analogue tuner

All the radios on test could receive analogue FM channels as well as digital ones. This is important if your DAB reception for some stations is weak or if you want to listen to local stations that don't broadcast in digital. Some of the radios could be switched to mono to reduce the background noise if the FM stereo signal was weak.

Sound quality

Before you buy, listen to your shortlisted radios in a shop when it is not busy or noisy, to hear what speech and music sound like on each of them. Our listening test showed that sound quality varies a lot. Check out the individual summaries in our test reports.

If you have poor hearing, check any radio that you are considering for the clarity of the sound it produces, at the volume you need. Tone control will be really useful to you. It can boost bass or treble, meaning that you have a greater chance of finding a sound that suits you.

If you're used to a good analogue radio, you might be a bit disappointed with the sound from digital radios. This is because, to fit in more channels, digital transmission involves extra compression of sound. Normally, you won't notice the difference, but there can be a subtle change in the sound when playing music. Because of this, Radio 3 signals are broadcast with slightly less compression, so can sound closer to FM analogue.

Stereo sound

For stereo, the radio needs two speakers and you need to listen midway between them - but there are other ways to get stereo sound. You can connect some models to external speakers and some to your hi-fi system. Headphones could be used with all the tested radios, with most delivering stereo sound even if the radios loudspeaker was mono.  Check radios for stereo audio line output (analogue) or optical output (digital), which are both useful for making recordings or connection to hi-fi. The detailed test reports tell you which radios had them.

Power options

Digital radios generally use more power than analogue because of extra features such as illuminated displays, internal memory and so on. We measured both standby and in-use power consumption, and found quite big differences between models. In use, the highest measured consumption was 11 watts and the lowest 2.3 watts.  In standby, the highest was 8.3 watts and the lowest 0.1 watts. See the test reports for details.

If you want to take your radio around the house or use it outside, go for one that can run on batteries. Note that the extra digital features will run down your batteries faster than they would on an analogue radio. Bear in mind that battery life will also depend on how loud you play a radio - the louder it is, the more energy it uses. Few of the radios tested can use rechargeable batteries, which is a pity as many use a lot of power. The Pure brand of digital radios have an optional ChargePak rechargeable battery pack, which you fit inside the radio. It costs around £30.

Last updated: August 2011

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