Life was simpler in the 1980s when listening to the radio - you only had a choice of FM, AM or Long Wave. If you wanted the best sound quality, FM was your ‘go-to’ broadcast type – it had higher fidelity than AM or LW, was capable of broadcasting in stereo, and manufacturers offered high-quality FM tuners. Fast forward to 2022 and ways of listening to high quality radio have increased; analogue FM is still with us, but has been joined since the 1995 in the UK by DAB, and later still by radio via our Sky, Freeview and Freesat boxes. Since the 2010s, streaming has become more popular and many of us are now listening to live radio – and catch up services too – via the internet, whether that’s through a compact ‘smart’ speaker, a laptop or tablet, or through high performance streaming components linked to a Hi-Fi system.
But, it you want to listen to a classical concert that’s being broadcast live, or a high quality jazz station, country music, music from a specific decade, or a radio drama or debate, which way should you go if you want to enjoy it in the best sound quality?
FM is ‘analogue’ and in theory should sound very good, and there have been some excellent Hi-Fi separates FM tuners made in the past. What isn’t readily known, however, is that FM broadcasts are sent from the BBC studios digitally for distribution to the FM transmitters… so much for analogue! What’s more, the BBC’s classical music station Radio 3 – often seen as the ‘gold standard’ for sound quality – is also subject to dynamic compression when distributed by FM. This type of compression boosts the soft passages of music and reduces the loud – presumably to make it easier to hear music in noisy environments such as when driving – but terrible for the natural reproduction of classical music.
There has been much talk of the impending FM switch off, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced at the end of last year that there will be no switch off until at least 2030.
Russ conducted some tests a few years ago to assess DAB‘s sound quality and found that, on the whole, DAB did not sound as good as FM, the reason being the further digital encoding that takes place for distribution. The very best DAB signals, such as on BBC Radio 3 are encoded as an MP2 at 160-192 kbit/s (kilobits per second) which at its very best is said to be of ‘similar’ quality to FM. BBC Radios 1 and 2 are broadcast at 112-128 kbit/s which is inferior to FM, and many of the commercial stations are broadcast in mono at only 56 kbit/s.
Freeview – Freesat – Sky
Russ had a rather better experience listening to radio via his TV’s set-top box. While it is true that the radio streams distributed are encoded in a similar way to DAB, there is more bandwidth available so the streams are less compressed and the sound quality is better. Freesat and Sky tended to perform slightly better than Freeview too, with all of the main BBC stations broadcast in 192kbit/s stereo on satellite, as are many of the commercial stations which are only broadcast in mono via DAB. Russ’s conclusion at the time was not to bother buying a proper DAB tuner, instead connecting your TV set-top box to your Hi-Fi system to enjoy sound that was better than DAB, and in most cases better than FM.
Online and catch-up
The key development in radio listening in recent years has been the growth of online radio: both live and via catch up services such as BBC Sounds and Radio Player. According to the latest figures from RAJAR – the official body in charge for measuring the size of radio audiences in the UK – 17% of the total number of hours listened to are online (with 42% listened via DAB, 36% FM and 5% via TV). The good news for us is that radio broadcast via the internet is in most cases far higher quality than anything broadcast by FM, DAB or TV, and is therefore capable of delivering the very best sound quality achievable from radio. All of the main BBC Radio stations are broadcast online at 320 kbit/s in the efficient AAC-LC codec: for comparison, ‘better than FM’ is said to require only 56-96 kbit/s in AACLC, so the broadcasts are clearly of higher sound quality. Commercial stations also use more efficient codecs and less compression to deliver better sound, and almost all of them are in stereo here in the UK.
Of course, another benefit of listening online is that in many cases you can take advantage of the catch-up services from both the BBC and commercial stations, meaning that you aren’t tied down to listening at a particular time. Most of the time, these are in the same, high quality as the live online broadcasts.
A third benefit of online radio is choice: there are some very high quality radio stations available that are only available online, and being online means that you can listen to stations broadcast from anywhere in the world. Here in the UK, Hi-Fi companies Linn and Naim Audio, for example, have stations that broadcast music from their own labels, and both of them offer dedicated classical and jazz channels. Linn offers streams of 320 kbit/s MP3 and Naim even offers lossless FLAC - of a very similar quality to CD. A quick internet search will bring up plenty more of these CD quality stations – one website that curates them is www.hiresaudio.online/cd-quality-internet-radio , which has links to dozens of stations offering content as diverse as local radio from France to hip hop, rap, and RnB, through to easy listening.
It’s actually really easy to add internet radio stations to your Hi-Fi system. All you need is a smartphone, tablet or ideally, for greater flexibility, a laptop with a ‘headphone out’ socket. Think of your device as a source and connect it to one of the inputs on your preamp or integrated amp, using its headphone output; you’ll probably need a 3.5mm to RCA mini interconnect. You can then browse and play any of the internet stations that can be found online and take advantage of the catchup services to listen again. Some stations offer feeds in different qualities - just make sure you choose the highest quality stream for best sound. One Russ Andrews customer, Dennis from Gloucestershire, did just this having previously listened solely to FM; he connected the headphone output from his laptop to his Naim preamp with our Mini to Phono interconnect to allow him to listen to online radio. Once connected, he found the sound quality to be significantly better than his Naim FM tuner, and he could easily use the listen-again and catch-up services and download podcasts too.
If you’ve yet to try internet radio, using a laptop as Dennis did is a straightforward way to test the concept; if you find it works for you, you can improve things with a dedicated DAC to improve the sound quality.