With the exception of small local radios up and down our country, broadcasting is now entirely digital. Last year, region by region, our analogue transmitters were turned off. Norway has killed off FM!
Of course, this is something we have known about, and been expecting for a long time. When I arrived at the place I am now living just over six years ago, the date had been set. Yet 2017 was psychologically a very long way off, there was no DAB transmitter in the area, and although one knew that politicians had indeed decided on getting rid of FM, psychologically it was something of a leap to believe that this would actually happen. FM, or VHF as it used to be called, was the technology of my youth (I particularly remember the fuss over the innovation of stereo in the 1970s). FM had remained solidly in place ever since, even though MW and LW were discarded many years ago.
Perhaps the strong sentimental attachment to FM broadcasting was therefore why five years ago, when the first DAB broadcasts reached my area, I began to feel a sense of unease. I am not terribly impressed with the choice we are given on the TV, and it seems to me that the more channels that are given us, the less I want to watch it; for me radio has made a remarkable “come back” this last decade. So five years ago, I decided to buy my first radio with DAB (and the DAB+ that we now use). I felt that I needed the security of knowing that I wasn’t going to be without my precious little radio. Even so, once my retro Phillips radio was standing proudly on my table, the turn off still seemed a very long way off.
FM and DAB Comparison
Of course my new radio could also be used for FM while that was still there. Naturally this allowed me to compare it with the new service at the turn of a knob (I would have a radio that looked like an old fashioned “wireless” after all). In doing so, I became somewhat alarmed. Where there were two programmes simultaneously on FM and DAB, to my ears the sound from FM was always the best.
The difference was subtle. The music was “warmer”, and I was somewhat troubled to listen to the clapping after concerts in DAB. Something seemed lost. It was hard to put one’s finger quite on what, but it just wasn’t the same as FM. A person I know who works in the telecommunications and broadcasting industry said that I was indeed right, but that most people would not notice this and it wasn’t so great a difference that one should not get used to it in the long run. Suffice it to say I began to feel a bit uncomfortable with the approaching date when FM would close.
I am now writing this report on DAB a whole year after FM disappeared from the place I live. As fortune would have it, I lived in the very first county to be turned off. So how did it go, and am I still an avid radio listener? What do I make of it now that FM is a little over a year in our history books (for us who live in Nordland, that is)?
The truth is that I have mixed feelings. However, I am still a radio fanatic, and indeed on balance I think that the increased choice with DAB+ has made me listen to the radio even more. Nevertheless, the technology has its limitations, and if you wish to listen to something in HiFi your best bet is to listen via the Internet. I am assured by the HiFi buffs that there is a standard for what consitutes HiFi, and DAB (and DAB+) will never be able to give you it. I noticed it most recently when I was listening on Christmas Eve to our Sølvgutter Boys’ Choir. As with the clapping after a concert, there is something that just doesn’t sound quite right in DAB at the very top end of the audio spectrum. To me this was noticeable with these boys’ silvery descants.
Concorde of Broadcasting
I think there are two observations that are relevant to the introduction of DAB (and DAB+). Firstly we live in a time that sadly does not seem to take lying and untruth so seriously. In the UK Britons have, after all, allowed themselves to be conned out of an advantageous trading arrangement with the EU that they will never get again. However, we don’t need to look at politics. Something similar happened when the CD came on the market. We were told that it was “practically indestructible”, and didn’t get scratches like records. So it is with DAB (and DAB+, since most stations now use the DAB+ format). It is good, but not that good. Although it is true that poor FM gives hiss and unpleasant reception, it is actually an uncontested fact that under ideal reception conditions FM cannot be beaten in sound quality.
This brings me to the second relevant observation, or rather comparison. Perhaps the best way of looking at the introduction of DAB and DAB+ in our country is to compare it with aviation. We now are seeing some very modern aeroplanes, very pleasant to travel in, energy efficient, and which go much further using less fuel. Yet for all that that is so, it cannot be denied that until a decade ago, one could travel supersonically over the Atlantic. With the demise of Concorde, for all the swanky modernisation in design, things have gone backwards. FM technology just like Concorde was getting out of date, and a large investment would have been necessary to keep it going. As with Concorde, the decision was a brutal economic one.
For all that I miss the fidelity of FM – and I do – this is because I am something of a connoisseur. In any case this is only something one notices at home, and since I have broadband Internet delivered via fibre cables, if I really want high quality music I can and do listen to it via the Internet. The fact remains that 9 times out of 10, you do not need to have the absolute best (when listening to pop music or when the radio is your background music). DAB or DAB+ is slightly less good than FM, and at that only when compared to FM under ideal receiving conditions – but by no means is it poor. Indeed as I have commented above, I listen more and more… not less than before.
It is for me important to be completely truthful. For as I have commented that DAB and DAB+ were sold to the public by people who were a little prone to exaggerating the merits of the technology, I will not commit the same sin. I really do truthfully mean it that for listening in the car, DAB and DAB+ are better than FM ever was – even at its best. In a car you are not going to be getting HiFi anyway, or certainly you are not going to be listening to HiFi disturbance free noise – simply because you are being subjected to the noises of your driving anyway. Yet it never, ever was the case with FM that you could drive thousands of kilometres and almost never experience dropouts. Certainly there were areas where the signal was poor.
There are people who complain about DAB reception. However, if one is talking about the main state channel NRK, I have travelled literally hundreds of kilometres with no loss of signal, and the quality of the sound has remained constant all the way. The only exceptions are tunnels, which I understand the authorities will remedy in time. There is another network, or multiplex, on which one finds the commercial channels. Coverage on this is poorer. Nevertheless, people forget that it was never any better with FM, but on the contrary even poorer.
Basically, then, it wasn’t all that bad after all. In fact… I am listening to my Phillips DAB+ radio as we speak…