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dab digital radio

Jack Schofield is still clueless when it comes to DAB Radio

I’ve blatantly plagiarised the headline of another frothing piece from Jack Schofield on DAB Digital Radio.

Sadly, the piece does him no credit. It might be acceptable to attack a regulator if they had a track record of making bad, ill-informed decisions that were unpopular with industry and consumers, but that doesn’t describe OFCOM and therefore his position that OFCOM is “muddling along” is unlikely to create much resonance with the reader.

It’s also desperately unwise to dismiss research out of hand.

Jack’s response to OFCOM’s independent research findings that consumers think DAB Digital Radio sounds fine is “This is, of course, nonsense.“. What a brilliantly crafted and well honed argument. Bravo.

The difficulty Jack now has is that he has thrown his reputation behind two key assumptions:

  • DAB sounds worse than FM
  • DAB+ will fix the problem and make everything sound CD quality

The problem is that there’s no evidence that either statement is true (in fact, absolutely the contrary). So how does Jack get out of this one? I’m not seeing any carefully thought out or well crafted arguments that might cause the reader to pause and think, so I’ll assume he’ll just bluster away, degrading his reputation on this issue as he continues.

Jack might get more credit if he stopped and analysed more carefully the risks and benefits of accelerating DAB+ migration, and to whom those risks and benefits would fall. But that would require understanding and assimilation of quite a lot of information and modelling complex outcomes. The kind of thing that radio broadcasters (with a huge interest in seeing a successful DAB market) and OFCOM (also with a huge interest in seeing a successful DAB market) do every day.

As a closing thought, I think you might want to e-mail Jack and ask him for how long he’s owned a DAB Digital Radio, and therefore on what basis he makes his rather dramatic statements of experience of audio quality.

7 replies on “Jack Schofield is still clueless when it comes to DAB Radio”

I am never sure quite how much damage such articles really do, as they are far too dull for anyone in the real world to worry about. Nevertheless you’ve articulated why it is a load of old pony, better than I could.

Hi Nick.

I think that DAB+ won’t be the saviour. If it comes to the UK I suspect there will be the following problems:

* Conversion – if a service provider decides to change from MP2 to AAC they have to decide if they are going to do an overnight change or simulcast for a while. The issue with an overnight change is you instantly lose your MP2 only audience. The downside to simulcasting is that the service provider then has to decide to either spend more money on being on the multiplex, or cutting the quality of the MP2 service, and having a low bitrate AAC service, in which case you have to ask what the point is!

* Demand – assuming that conversion is successful from MP2 to AAC, how much extra listening will these AAC services get? If the quality has improved won’t potential service providers simply contract for less capacity? In London and the national multiplexes there may be clients to take the new space, but for the rest of the country it may be the multiplex operators who lose out.

My hunch is that there is nothing wrong with the sound quality on DAB. I reckon service providers just want to spend enough money to sound acceptable, and aren’t actually bothered by sounding hi-fi. If we have AAC come in I think we’ll simply see services want to lower their bitrate to that which would have sounded the same as MP2. I don’t think there’ll be any winners.

> another frothing piece from Jack Schofield

It’s a personal column. Frothing is allowed or even encouraged.

> Sadly, the piece does him no credit.

That’s not an opinion supported by mail from readers.

> DAB sounds worse than FM
> DAB+ will fix the problem and
> make everything sound CD quality

> The problem is that there’s no
> evidence that either statement
> is true (in fact, absolutely
> the contrary).

That’s wrong. Why not do some research? DAB does sound worse than FM. At 128kbps or less it is provably inferior to FM both in sound and stereo quality.

The claim that I think DAB+ will “fix the problem and make everything sound CD quality” is, alas, your own naive misinterpretation.

What I do claim is that moving to DAB+ provides increased effective bandwidth, which is true. Otherwise WorldDAB/WorldDMB would not have adopted it.

This *could* be used to increase sound quality, or to broadcast more stations, or both. It remains to be seen how the industry and Ofcom will use it. However, we currently have DAB broadcast in poor quality because of reduced bit rates, and we have some stereo stations broadcast over DAB in mono because there isn’t enough space to do the job properly. DAB+ does offer the chance to alleviate those problems.

I recognise that special interests and sheer incompetence (etc) can lead to technology advances being wasted, but that’s not a good argument for pretending they don’t exist.

Incidentally, I am amused by your implicit recognition that DAB is currently below CD quality, and therefore well below SACD etc quality as well. It would be nice if everyone in the DAB industry would stop making misleading claims that suggest otherwise.

Apart from that, I do wonder if your point of view is just bit too parochial in supporting the local UK DAB industry. I’m taking a global view (DAB is a world standard) and my focus is on serving consumers. It’s not part of my brief to prop up what is starting to look like a failing industry.

Jack Schofield
Computer editor
The Guardian

I know it’s not normally good form to comment on one’s own blogs, but I wanted to take the opportunity to thank Jack for commenting (genuinely meant, Jack!) and just to correct one thing that I think is where we might be coming to blows.

My point is that *the majority of consumers don’t think that DAB sounds worse than FM*, and that we should never have positioned DAB (or DAB+) about being CD quality or anything like it. (I’ve never sold it as such – ever. Indeed, I have a long history of being quite clear on that matter). I don’t know how we shed that reputation, but trying to drive DAB with quality as foremost benefit simply doesn’t work.

I don’t think anyone is trying to STOP DAB+ coming to the UK. The issue is how the transition from one to the other is handled, and over what timescale – and to answer my own postulation, “carefully” and “slowly”. So the UK won’t lead a transition to DAB+ because it simply isn’t fair on the 5m people who have bought DAB Digital Radios and the 97% of whom think they sound fine.

I also think we made the mistake of suggesting that DAB was the universal panacea of radio transmission. I would probably suggest that if you have a fine Hi-Fi system, and looking for absolute sonic purity, you might want to suggest that BBC Radio 3 invests in a very high bit rate feed on Freesat / Astra / Cable / Internet, where bandwidth and infrastructure is cheap and non-mobile.

DAB is an excellent portable radio system, which is appreciated by the vast majority of its users in the vast majority of locations. For more demanding users, it might be that another technology platform is more appropriate.

Thanks for the very civilised response, Nick 😉

I’ll happily accept that *you* haven’t oversold DAB sound quality, but recently, listening to Classic FM on my humble Quad/Rega/Harbeth/Nakamichi etc outfit, I heard DAB being sold as like being in the concert hall etc

> My point is that *the majority
> of consumers don’t think that
> DAB sounds worse than FM*,

Sure. If they are using mono/almost mono tabletop radios as background music, that’s not really a surprise. And I’m not against digital in general: I do value reduced multipath interference, hiss etc.

But we *know* DAB is objectively worse if you do tests with decent equipment and critical sound files.

I understand the argument that it’s good enough for the masses, and I always appreciate that the prime driver is content. (People didn’t give up Radio Caroline for Radio 3 because it sounded better. But they did switch to Radio 1.)

However, the masses are now hearing better and better noises from their cheap hi-fi systems, MP3 players, Nicam and 5.1 home cinema outfits and next-gen DVD players and so on, and my *opinion* is that if radio wants to keep its appeal it has to move forwards, not backwards.

> The issue is how the transition
> from one to the other is
> handled, and over what timescale
> – and to answer my own postulation,
> “carefully” and “slowly”.

Agreed.

> So the UK won’t lead a transition to
> DAB+ because it simply isn’t fair
> on the 5m people who have bought DAB
> Digital Radios and the 97% of whom
> think they sound fine.

Also agreed, up to a point. But I’d argue that almost all those tabletop radios will still work fine for a long time (at least five years, probably more, on DAB) and they will continue to work on FM even if DAB is turned off.

Five years is a long time in the electronics industry (as opposed to “brown goods”). People buy mobile phones and MP3 players that last less than two years, and most people think they’d be lucky to get five years out of a games console, notebook PC, or some of today’s TV sets. All those cost far more than a tabletop radio.

Also, the young listeners that radio desperately needs are technically-oriented and much more receptive to change. You don’t want to end up like the newspaper industry, do you? 😉

Finally, it seems possible that by including DAB+ in MP3 players, phones and car radios (with compelling data services), the installed base of DAB+ could quickly become much bigger than DAB. But I’m assuming much better battery performance, etc 😉

Either way, I’m not asking for a revolution, just a rational policy and a timetable for evolution. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Jack Schofield
Computer editor
The Guardian

Some very salient points, and you know I think the frustration (on both sides!) is about the timing of a change, not the principle of change.

Classic fm – heard the same claim myself, and have made suitable point within Classic fm about overselling. Creatives sometimes get carried away.

DAB+ – I suspect DAB+ technology will be in the supply chain during the early part of next year. The question is how fast DAB+ enabled receivers become the majority rather than the minority.

Radio for the younger generation – I couldn’t agree with you more. Digitising the kitchen radio was one thing, but the interesting challenge in front of us now is about getting DAB+ included in all portable media devices, and devices like PSP, Nintendo DS and so on. I expect that those devices will be DAB+ enabled, but more importantly, I want to see the multi-media promise of DAB(+) Digital Radio realised with visuals and interactivity. Once you’ve got someone thinking about putting DAB, EPG, Slideshow and Web browser in a device, making it DAB+ is a no-brainer.

I’m really not a luddite, but I’d hate to destablise the DAB market in the UK (which is so crucial to global confidence at the moment) in rushing DAB+ ahead of retail and device penetration.

As an aside, I think its excellent form to comment on your own blog, I’ve never understood why people don’t.

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