Giving DAB a go

Having headed to my local Homebase outlet for a cheap landline phone I spotted a Pure One DAB radio on the shelf for €38, around half the RRP according to Pure’s website.

I’d been planning on buying a cheap DAB device for the last while and €38 was by far the best price I’d seen on a DAB device to date (even the USB dongle ones), so I gave in and made an impulse purchase.

Firstly the device itself -
It’s a neat and extremely light little player with a long telescopic aerial hidden in a recess in the top. It can run off batteries (6 ‘C’ sized ones) or a power adapter (supplied) and can be updated via USB – although the pre-installed firmware it came with is the latest available at the moment.

For anyone with the slightest bit of where-with-all in terms of tech, this should be easy to set up. It’s literally a case of plugging it in, pressing the power button twice and waiting for it to gather all the information (like the time, available stations etc.). The control interface is a bit awkward to use but it’s not very difficult either.

The Pure One is very much an entry-level device and it lacks stuff like an EPG and pause, rewind or record capabilities that high-end DAB systems might boast. Considering the fact that it cost me about as much as a run of the mill FM radio I’m not going to complain, however, and given the limited broadcast range of DAB in Ireland at the moment this might be ideal for someone who wants to check availability before handing over a tonne on something that’s top of the range but useless to them.

Now the stations:
Most of what you get on the Irish DAB trial is no different to its FM counterpart with only RTÉ offering some advert free digital-only services at the moment.
Flicking through the stations list you can find 98FM, FM104, Newstalk, Phantom FM, Q102, Today FM, RTÉ Radio 1 (and the AM simulcast), RTÉ 2FM, RTÉ RnaG, RTÉ Lyric. The unique stations are RTÉ 2XM, RTÉ Choice, RTÉ Digital News, RTÉ Gold, RTÉ Junior and a sports news station which is currently named ‘Service 10′.

There’s no need to talk about the existing stations, so a quick word on the digital-only ones.

RTÉ 2XM & Gold:
Both of these stations are dedicated music channels, with the only interruption being brief station idents. With that in mind it’s likely that neither of these stations will make it to any national DAB service in their current form, not unless other stations are allowed to seriously re-negotiate their BCI contracts too.
2XM is a strictly alt/indie/rock/rock-pop station and makes no qualms about its attempted appeal with its taunting “suddenly your iPod sounds crap” ident. Were this to go national the guys in Phantom would have a serious case for upset.
Gold is a kind of “classic” station, playing songs from the 50s through to the early 90s. Very easy listening and very varied. Were this to go national the guys in Q102 would have serious case for upset (as would the eventual winner of the multi-city and county station that is currently being bid for).

RTÉ Digital News & ‘Service 10′
The concept behind these two stations is quite simple – they loop three minute News/Sport bulletins across the hour and update them on a regular basis throughout the day. In many cases the bulletin used is the audio from RTÉ One’s latest TV news broadcast.
These stations are what they are – they’re designed for people to drop in and out every other hour. The fact that some of the broadcasts are lifted from TV news means that some packages may not make as much sense, however. During a quick dip-in earlier I heard a news reader refer to something “seen here”, which was obviously of no use to radio listeners.

RTÉ Choice
This station is said to offer a mix of documentaries, international programming, comedy and archive programming and so far it seems to be doing just that.
My only fear about this station is that it doesn’t become another RTÉ Radio 1 simulcast, simply re-organising the schedule but offering the exact same programming.

(I’ve not listened to RTÉ Junior yet, by the way.)

Overall:
Overall I’m not blown away by the digital-only stations, but I never expected to be.
It’s quite clear that RTÉ are testing the waters and it’s good to see them branch out with six different stations at once, rather than just one at a time.
There is potential to be had in digital radio and hopefully these trials will prove that, but that said I don’t think potential lies in the current set up that RTÉ have chosen, and they probably realise that.
I think RTÉ Digital News, Choice and Sport could all be combined into one ‘talk-only’ station that focused on documentary, current affairs and very regular news/sport updates.
2XM could become a slightly more alternative variant of 2FM, and could dedicate more time to Irish-only music, live gigs in Ireland and some of the left-overs of Choice, specifically Comedy.
Junior isn’t a bad idea in itself, but the fact that it’s only tween and toddler-friendly music is a completely wasted opportunity; it should be the radio equivalent of Britain’s Cebeebies or CBBC TV channel with actual programming, not just “safe” music. Maybe playing kids programming until 6PM, then switching to Golden Oldies for the parents might be a good way to consolidate this service with the RTÉ Gold one too.

All in all it was a €38 well spent, if only for the fact that the FM reception in my bedroom is terrible anyway. The radio I picked up was the last on the shelves at the time, but if you’re interested in DAB in Ireland (and on the East Cost of Ireland, specifically Dublin) I’d recommend you keep an eye out next time you’re shopping in Homebase!

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