DAB radio : Strong performers

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DAB continues to go from strength to strength. At the time of writing, cumulative UK sales of DAB radios have passed the four million mark and the percentage of adults with access to a DAB radio at home was more than 15%.
DAB coverage now reaches more than 85% of the population, and there are more than 425 DAB services. More than 70 manufacturers now offer DAB products and there are almost 300 DAB products on the market. Kevin Parslow, Intempo’s business development director, notes that: “The DAB market is still strong and growing, with noticeable trends towards portability and personalisation, which will continue into 2007. In terms of pricing, this is not eroding on brand name of high performance products, however at the opposite end of the scale, supermarkets are making significant inroads into the low end/low performance DAB radio market.”

Leslie Burrage, chief executive of Roberts Radio, says that overall, the average value of DAB products has come down because of own brand products rather than traditional brands: “A lot of these are coming out of Chinese factories, which don’t always offer the best in terms of quality.” Burrage is keen to see Intellect launch a DAB quality logo, which will tell consumers that a DAB radio offers a minimum level of performance.

A wide range

Not only are there more DAB radios on the market, but there is a much wider of choice of product types. “The profile of DAB has increased largely because of increased content and a far broader range of devices featuring DAB functionality including micro systems, such as our MCM240 and MCB700, whereas previous DAB had been largely restricted to standalone radio products. As a general trend, more emphasis has been placed on design, and while there is still growth in conservative desktop DAB style radios, products like our AJ5100 offer a much more contemporary alternative. Of course, portable devices still remain popular,” says Justin Clarke, Philips audio product manager.

Shinji Nakajima, Sony’s audio product manager, believes that: “Portable has entered a mature stage as growth rate has slowed down. Clock is the category which is growing massively as more brands and models come into the market. For handheld, DAB’s growth is slowing down due to the switch over to added MP3. The biggest trend in terms of features is MP3 for personals.” Paul Scott, Panasonic’s assistant product manager for general audio, adds that: “The DAB market is developing very well and continues to show strong growth, with sales at an all time high. One strong trend has been incorporating DAB into micro systems, such as Panasonic’s SC-EN29.” Roberts Radio products include the Sound 16 and Sound 23. These versatile hi-fi systems offer features such as CD playback and iPod compatibility via an auxiliary socket. The Sound 36 is the company’s first DAB/CD clock radio.

New features

David Harold, Pure Digital’s spokesman, says that: “New features, such as EPG and digital recording are a definite driver at the higher end of the market and new features such as Intellitext mean that even at the entry level customers are looking for feature differentiation on their radios.” But Intempo’s Parslow notes that: “There are a limited number of products with record/rewind and EPG, because currently demand is not high enough to produce these features in high volume.”

But on a brighter note, consumer awareness of DAB is growing, as Intempo’s Parslow notes: “Sixty five percent of the UK population is now aware of DAB and it’s the unique stations and broadcast content which is driving up demand. This is especially true for coverage on specialist stations, such as sport, which is opening up the market and audience for DAB. This will only increase in 2007 now that the bidding process for a second national multiplex is open.” Sony’s Nakajima agrees: “DAB has achieved great consumer penetration, due to massive PR efforts and affordable pricing, and on top of that, more and more products are in the market.” However, Philips’ Clarke warns that: “Consumer awareness of DAB has improved, but there is still more that can be done to increase public perception. Key factors driving consumers to DAB are the superior sound quality and the wide selection of stations available, some of which are exclusive.”

Consumer awareness

Panasonic’s Scott thinks that consumers need to be reminded why a DAB radio is such a good product: “Consumer awareness of DAB has increased; consumers now understand the many benefits of DAB. DAB offers up to twice as many stations as analogue radio, less interference and there’s no need to remember the station frequency when tuning: simply select the station you want from the radio’s text display screen. Another thing driving consumers to DAB is that once you have a DAB radio, there is no subscription to receive the channels.” Pure’s Harold adds: “Awareness is high, both of DAB in general and of specific brands, and with ongoing promotion on both the BBC and commercial radio, that’s set to continue strongly into 2007. Strong products reinforce that message, as does the exclusive content, both of which are far more important to most users than how DAB works at this point.”

Issues to resolve

But there are several issues facing DAB. One of these is the battery life on portable and personal products. DAB’s digital processing requires more power than that used by analogue radios and so battery life is shorter. As a result, some consumers have been less than happy with their DAB products. But things are improving. “The latest equipment has increased battery life considerably. Our Gemini 46 offers up to 80 hours of battery life,” notes Roberts’ Burrage. Pure’s Harold thinks that battery life will soon cease to be a big issue. “It’s getting to be good enough so that it’s really no longer a key issue, with radios like our new Move offering over 40 hours of DAB digital radio.”

Some have criticised the sound quality of some DAB broadcasts, claiming that they even offer sound quality that is lower than FM. This is largely because broadcasters have used greater data compression, using fewer data bits for the sound quality. Although DAB can offer near-CD quality, most broadcasters have decided to opt for giving listeners more stations at a lower quality rather than a smaller number of stations at a higher quality. Most agree with this strategy. “If the radio content is good, you’ll listen to it, even if the quality is not as good as it could be, but the reverse isn’t true. There is some diminution of quality but I don’t see it as a big issue. One or two hi-fi nuts might worry, but most people won’t,” says Burrage.

Intempo’s Parslow also thinks that broadcasters are right to focus on the quantity of stations over the quality of DAB sound:” Ultimately, it’s content that is driving demand for DAB. Sound quality is important and shouldn’t be overlooked, however for the majority of the listening population it’s not critical – think about where DAB radio is generally played, in the kitchen or bathroom, where there is other ambient noise, so sound quality is not a key issue.” It’s an approach that Philips’ Clarke also endorses: “DAB offers superior audio performance to FM and it is a key consideration for consumers when buying a DAB device. However, the choice of stations is another and is always going to be one of the areas broadcasters focus upon.”

Pure’s Harold points out that: “It’s rare that we receive comments from customers about bit-rate issues. They’ve been far more concerned about things like getting radios with remote controls and better reception sensitivity. Most of the quality debate seems to be localised in the hi-fi arena. When the UK is compared to other countries, where there’s no exclusive DAB content, it’s hard to make the case that the broadcasters have made a bad choice by focusing on content first.”

New dilemmas

News has emerged about a new DAB standard, DAB2, which uses a new audio coding system called AAC+, which is superior to the MPEG-2 system used by countries such as UK. At least one commentator has suggested that today’s DAB radios could become obsolete as a result. But the verdict from the industry about such predictions is simple: not true. “It’s not a big issue, but one can feed this fear if the industry is not careful,” warns Robert’s Burrage. “This is an interesting debate. In the parts of Europe and the rest of the world where DAB is effectively going to launch from scratch, it’s an obvious choice to use DAB2 standard because it’s the latest technology and offers certain advantages. In the UK, we already have a standard national network for DAB, so we are not going to see DAB become obsolete – especially in the short term, the timeframe for implementation of DAB2 is likely to be years rather than months,” says Intempo’s Parslow.

“It’s far too early to start speculating about future standards when ultimately the consumer will drive the pace of DAB’s evolution and it’s unlikely the current status quo will change over the next few years,” says Philips’ Clarke, “Importantly, manufacturers expect all future DAB digital radios with a high efficiency audio decoder will also include the existing audio decoder. There are several reasons for this: there is no royalty cost saving to be achieved by excluding the existing audio coding nor any real technical advantage. DAB digital radios using the existing technology will continue to be made and sold in the UK. The services received by these radios will not change, and, indeed, are set to increase in number following the launch of a new national commercial multiplex and a series of local and regional muxes over the next two years. Existing product and that sold over the coming years will continue to do exactly what it was designed to do.”

“AAC will definitely be a key driver in overseas markets but we don’t foresee it getting any traction in the UK until the majority of radios can support it – which will take a long time. Fortunately most users seem very satisfied with their radios ‘as is,’” adds Pure’s Harold. Mandy Green spokesperson for the Digital Radio Development Bureau (DRDB) is quite clear: “You may well see hybrid DAB/DAB2 products emerging over time, but you’re not going to see a DAB2-only product. Maybe in eight to ten years ahead, the DAB2 market will start to grow, but ultimately consumers will decide. Today’s DAB isn’t going away.”

Benefits of DAB

• twice as many stations as analogue radio

• less interference

• no need to remember the station frequency when tuning

• no subscription to receive the channels

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