If you missed the Australian launch of digital radio on August 6, you may not be aware that the service is now up and running. But it is – and, to get in-car access to the 39 digital radio channels currently broadcasting (in Melbourne, at least), you’ll need a new receiver like the PURE Highway.
Digital radios – or, to be technically precise, DAB+ receivers – have been widely heralded for their ability to deliver better sound, more efficient use of radiofrequency spectrum (read: more stations), and extra features such as album art and lyrics. Stations broadcast using either DAB, a 128Kbps MPEG1-based standard, or DAB+, which uses the same MPEG-4 based AAC+ audio compression technology as that used by Apple’s iTunes Store.
Configuration. Dick Smith supplied us with a review unit of the PURE Highway, a handheld portable DAB+-capable receiver that comes bundled with everything you need to use it in your car, including car charger adapter and a 2m antenna that became unwieldy when unspooled in the cabin space. We eventually draped it over the rear-view mirror, although for more permanent installations you’d want to run it around the perimeter of your windscreen, perhaps holding it in place using Blu-Tac. The antenna alone is one reason digital radio will be more enjoyable when it’s a built-in option in car radios.
The PURE Highway can also be carried around away from the car, using a pair of AA batteries for a claimed seven hours’ listening time with headphones (we did not test this). The unit also comes with a suction-cup mounted arm that can hold the radio in place using a strong rare-earth magnet; this approach gets the unit out of the way, but requires constant vigilance against thieves just as with a GPS unit.
After plugging in the PURE Highway, the unit automatically scanned for available stations, listing them by station name rather than frequency as on FM radios. For easy integration with existing car stereos, the unit also includes an FM transmitter, which automatically picks out the FM frequency with the least interference and broadcasts onto it. There is also a line-out jack for cars with auxiliary-in ports (which we used during testing), and a line-in jack that serves as a passthrough for external music players.
Performance. The improvement in quality that DAB+ offers is quite clear; in switching between a station broadcast over conventional FM and the same station received through the PURE Highway, it was immediately obvious that the digital signal provided crisper, more dynamic sound than the FM frequencies. However, this difference was negated when using the FM transmitter, which sacrifices some of DAB+’s dynamic range into the more-limited FM bandwidth; for this reason, we preferred to use a line-in adapter playing through our car’s built-in tape deck.
When signals were strong, the PURE Digital was a delight to listen to – especially on stations such as the chillout-geared Koffee, which uses the higher-quality AAC+ standard. The difference shows: Koffee’s music had crystal-clear music, even at low volumes, with no hiss at all. The difference was especially noticeable after switching back to conventional FM stations.
Unfortunately, not all stations sound better; many are still broadcasting using the lower-quality 128Kbps DAB standard, and the difference is quite noticeable. Indeed, some of the lower-quality DAB stations sound like they’re being played through a drainpipe, with an overall compression of the sound that makes FM sound like a live performance by comparison.
Stations claiming that digital radio offers better sound than FM need to shift to AAC+ quickly or risk alienating customers that have shelled out for digital radios in good faith. Even some rebroadcasted AM channels, which by all rights should gain from digital radio’s expanded bandwidth, sounded tinny and hollow. Broadcasters also need to address blackspots, in which a reduction in signal strength results in complete silence rather than the hiss and static-affected signal typical of FM reception. Furthermore, in our tests digital radio gets sketchy in carparks and disappears entirely even a few meters underground.
All this is not the fault of the PURE Highway, however, which simply plays what it’s given. In that respect, the unit was a solid performer that quickly became the preferred method for listening to the radio while driving.
Usability. Sadly, once the novelty of digital radio’s performance wore off, the PURE Highway’s limitations began to show. Although the digital radio value proposition once revolved around rich multimedia features like album art, the PURE Highway’s display is a two-line monochrome textual display that shows the station currently being played, and (configurable by the menu) technical details such as the date, signal strength, and information about the broadcast channel being used. Not even song titles can be displayed, although this was easily remedied using an iPhone running Shazam.
It’s not something you want to look at much, which may be intentional: it is our understanding that many of the multimedia features promised for digital radio have yet to be activated, due to ongoing concerns about driver distraction. However, the PURE Highway costs nearly as much as an iPod touch which, with its striking colour screen, has really raised the bar for consumer expectations. In this respect, the PURE Highway comes up short.
Four of the unit’s eight buttons are dedicated to the ReVu feature, which lets you pause the radio – for example, to take a phone call or if you’re listening to a riveting talkback show but have to stop to take a phone call or break up the kids fighting in the back seat. This feature worked well in tests, allowing us to pause, listen to and step back through live broadcasts at original quality; this effect is achieved using a continuous audio buffer in the unit, although there are no indications as to how many hours of audio this buffer can hold.
The other four buttons include three direct station presets and a fourth button that provides access to up to 20 more presets. This configuration was somewhat limited and awkward, particularly paired with a terrible channel selection system that requires you to rotate the front-mounted dial to select the station you want, then push the button to actually switch to that station.
This feature is particularly aggravating because it requires one to look away from the road for prolonged periods simply to change the channel. This basic function shouldn’t be so difficult to achieve; it would have been easier and more intuitive to offer channel-up and channel-down buttons for tuning by touch alone, or even to have the dial change stations rather than simply displaying a target channel on the screen. As it is, we only felt comfortable changing the channel at stop lights and while the car was parked, which is much less than ideal.
Macworld buying advice. The PURE Highway is a serviceable portable digital radio unit that’s capable of delivering excellent sound from stations providing it. The built-in FM transmitter ensures compatibility albeit at the expense of sound quality, and its plug-and-play operation provides an easy introduction to the world of digital radio. However, its limited display and clunky interface hamper its long-term usability. There is much to like for customers eager to enjoy digital radio, particularly those who drive a lot and want new alternatives to existing FM stations. However, those who are looking for a value-for-money receiver, or one that’s easier to use, may want to wait until the inevitable pre-Christmas flood of products expands available options.