- Records noise-free radio to MP3s, adds many new stations
- bundled software is generally well thought-out and integrates well with the BBC's electronic programme guide (EPG).
- Audio quality is disappointing
- bundled MP3 player is rudimentary
- software does not supply bit rate information
- cannot record one station while playing another
- no Linux drivers available.
UK radio listeners will have heard about DAB -- Digital Audio Broadcasting. You’ll know it’s got lots of extra channels, that the BBC is dead keen on it, and that receivers are scarce and expensive. But if you’ve got a PC running any modern version of Windows, then the price of entry has gone down. Modular Technology has produced a £99 (inc. VAT) DAB PCI card that pops in a free slot and works with your sound card.
After installing the software and enduring two restarts, it’s a question of plugging in the antenna -- a small centre-loaded whip with a couple of metres of co-ax -- and scanning for your local stations. That took us around two minutes, during which time the card found five multiplexes with some fifty stations between them. Each multiplex is on a different radio frequency at around 200MHz -- there is another band, but that isn’t used in the UK and the card doesn’t cover it -- and each has enough bandwidth for six full-quality stereo programmes. Reduce the bandwidth and go to mono, and you can fit in more stations -- but at the risk of disappointing your listeners.
Even at its best, DAB audio quality is disappointing, with even the higher bit-rate services having audible artefacts on cymbals and high-frequency notes. It’s not that bad -- certainly not much worse than comparable MP3s -- and you soon get used to it, but switching back to FM (especially Radio 3) is always enlightening. However, audiophiles have already given DAB up as a dead duck, while the rest of us care more about the programme content than the compression ratios. The one point of concern is that aerial positioning can be a bit fussy: trying to tune in all multiplexes at a decent signal level proved impossible in the centre of the office, and low signal levels make the programme sound like the DJ is being boiled alive. Although this was temporarily satisfying, we had to move the aerial to a window at the edge of the office to get reliable reception.
Each station appears as a 3D button in the main DAB software. Rest your mouse over it, and it explodes into multiple panes -- one for playing the station, one for recording (with a signal strength bar), one displaying the programme type and one with a volume control. Every station has an individual volume control, which is a remarkably handy innovation given the variation in output levels and compression across the band. However, there's no information on bit rate: the company took the decision to hide that technicality from listeners. As the subject of bit rates has already been a matter of public debate -- and incensed letters to the BBC -- this is regrettable. In any case, you can find out by recording a programme and checking the bit rate in the file properties.
Which stations you get depends on your area, but as well as the BBC’s ever-increasing set of stations -- recent additions are 1Xtra for young urban black music and 6Music for middle-aged suburban white males -- there are uncountable easy listening, middle-of-the-road rock and top-40 stations. There are also sports, ethnic, spoken word, business and news channels, but very little that’s dramatically new. Perhaps that will change, but more imagination is required.
By far the most impressive aspect of the software is the integration with the BBC’s electronic programme guide (EPG). This has listings for radio programmes for up to a week ahead: if you want to record one, just click on it. Want to record everything John Peel does in a week? Search for his name in the EPG, click on the results, and that’s that. It’s like a video recorder for radio, but a thousand times easier to use. And writing as someone who has in the past painfully set up cassette recorders on clockwork time switches, this function alone is worth the money. Files vary in size depending on programme length and bit rate, but are typically around 1MB per minute.
In combination with a portable MP3 player, the EPG integration means I can record my favourite obscure late-night music and always have something worthwhile to listen to on my commute into work. Also, every so often I can go through the week’s listening and just click on anything that looks interesting, thus creating a huge pool of listen-on-demand programming for those times when nothing’s on. Files are given the names of the programme, so it’s easy to remember which one is which. It’s wireless nirvana! The EPG takes a couple of minutes to download over the air, it comes with links to the appropriate Web sites, and is a thing of joy in every respect.
Unfortunately, the BBC is the only broadcaster providing an EPG, and then only for Radios 1 through 5 and the World Service. For all others, you’ll have to set a manual recording event: the software only allows one of these, and it’s quirky to set up. Other broadcasters are working towards producing EPGs, and an XML-based standard has been agreed -- which, alas, the BBC's guide does not follow. There will be a proper solution to this at some point, but some confusion is to be expected for a while. Modular Technology has said that the single timed recording event limitation may also go in future versions of the software, by popular demand.
You can play back the recordings through the DAB software itself, or use a third-party MP3 player. The latter option is better, as the integral player has no fast forward or rewind control; with something like Winamp, you can skip the dull bits.
Some of the stations on DAB are interactive services. These download a block of data and the software displays it in a special browser. If you’d never seen the Web before, you’d think this a truly magical experience, and perhaps when we get pocket DAB receivers with colour screens there’ll be some point. Otherwise, they’re like your friends’ holiday snaps: you’ll look at them once and wonder why you bothered.
You switch between multiplexes, access the EPG, the recordings list or group programmes by type rather than multiplex, all through a set of funky fruit-coloured tabs that slide out of the front screen of the software. That looks nice but is a bit silly, as the function names are hidden until you roll the mouse over them. There’s also a small clock, a settings button, a button to tidy up the station buttons -- which do get mixed up, for some reason -- and a master volume control.
The card is based around the TI DRE200 chip, and Radioscape's software. There are no Linux drivers available and Modular won't be releasing any, but the company won't comment on whether it will release enough information for third parties to write some. Another limitation that may be relaxed in the future is the card's inability to record one station while playing another, although there are no plans for a version where more than one card can work in the same PC. There are also no plans for a PC Card version of the device: people wanting portable PC DAB will have to wait for the USB product, due early next year.
Despite the various downsides of DAB, no serious radio listener should resist it. In time, the price of cards -- and complete receivers -- will fall to sensible levels, but the Modular Technology card is a good performer that delivers more of the potential of DAB than any other product. It’s certainly a million times more fun than any of the existing crop of FM tuner cards, and for those whose life isn’t complete without something good to listen to, it’s hard to resist.