DAB — Is it a wind-up?
It boasts crystal clear sound and station choice but is there a downside to digital radio? Jane Turner finds out whether it's worth it.
Digital radios have been one of the fastest selling consumer products in the last five years with over a quarter of UK adults now listening to digital audio broadcasting (DAB). More than 85% of people in the UK can get digital radio but quality can be patchy in some places. You can check what reception is like in your postcode area by visiting www.digitalradionow.com.
This report only covers brands of portable digital radios, not clock radios or micro systems. All the radios in this report can receive analogue FM signal as well. Some digital radios let you record, pause and rewind live radio and have electronic programme guides (EPG) that tell you what's on for the next seven days.
Turn up the energy use
The rise in use of digital radios is likely to bring a surge in domestic energy use. Traditional analogue radios have an average power consumption of two watts, but digital radios consume, on average, more than four times this amount (8.5 watts).(4) The 'standby' power used when the digital radio is switched off at the unit averages five watts,(4) compared with less than one watt for analogue models. This power consumption whilst apparently 'off' can only be avoided by switching the radio off at the wall.
If every household in the country switched to digital radio and listened for 3 hours a day and the rest of the time left the radio in standby, the added burden to energy demand would be equivalent to the electricity required to power around 225,000 homes.(4)
However, 'best practice' digital radios, like PURE's EcoPlus range (see below), consume much less energy than the average.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, using a digital radio is much better than listening to digital radio through your television or computer, which will use 10-20 times more energy.(4) The millions of Britons that do that are releasing an extra 190,000 tonnnes of CO2 a year.(3) If your TV has 'screen blanking' then the amount of power can be reduced by 75% but only Sony TVs apparently have this facility.(4) Freeview owners can implement a blank screen whilst listening to BBC stations, which can cut energy consumption by more than half.(4)
Some in the radio industry are predicting that the future of digital radio is not in DAB radios but listening via the internet and mobile phones. One radio executive has called DAB the "Betamax of radio" because the technology has already been overtaken by the web.
At the moment, three times as many of us listen to radio via DAB rather than TV or internet. But if TV listening becomes more prevalent then TV manufacturers will have to be pressurised to incorporate 'screen blanking' in all their TV models.
What about embodied energy?
The trouble with some of these energy calculations is that they don't take into account the energy it takes to manufacture, ship and package a new DAB radio.
At least with listening via your TV or computer you don't have to buy another piece of kit with all its associated environmental impacts. We found one energy analysis of DAB radio which estimated that 66kg of CO2 were emitted during production and distribution of each radio.(5)
According to our calculations, if you're listening on a computer with a 50 watt power consumption (midway between a laptop and desktop), you could listen to 7 hours a week of DAB radio for 6 years before you emitted the same 66kg of CO2 that it took to manufacture a new radio.
Of course there are a lot of potential variables here, but it is a calculation worth making ? especially if you?re going to listen on a computer, not a TV, and you don?t listen to that many hours a week.
Only two companies in this report marketed their radios on their green credentials — Freeplay and PURE. None of the other companies made any mention of the environmental impact of their radios or their energy use.
The Freeplay Devo, is a wind-up DAB radio with analogue FM backup. It can be human powered and has a rechargeable battery. When mains power is not available to recharge the battery the analogue FM can be used. A 60 second wind gives 1 hour of analogue FM (but only 3-5 minutes of DAB). A fully recharged battery gives 6 hours of DAB or 36 hours of analogue FM. Freeplay's non digital radios can additionally use solar power.
PURE has an EcoPlus range of 15 digital radios which are designed to have reduced power consumption in both standby and active mode. Standby power consumption for most EcoPlus products is less than 1w and active power consumption can be as low as 18% of that of its competitiors.
We couldn't find energy consumption data for any of the other brands in this report (even Freeplay).
The EcoPlus range is also packaged in recycled content cardboard and sold in the smallest boxes possible instead of large ones which stand out on the shelf.
As at February 2008, portable models in the EcoPlus range were: DMX-20, Elan DX40, Elan RV40, Evoke-1S, Evoke-2XT, Evoke-3, Move, Oasis, ONE, PocketDAB.
Energy Saving Recommended
The PURE Move was recently the first radio to be endorsed by The Energy Saving Trust (EST) and will now carry the Energy Saving 'Recommended' logo. The Move is a palm-sized, DAB and FM radio consuming less than 1w power in standby and 1w while active, the lowest of all the EcoPlus models (and thus meeting the EST criteria of consuming less than 1w power in standby and 3.5w while active, and also reducing landfill by incorporating rechargeable batteries).
DAB - Don't Actually Bother?
There is no doubt that DAB has reinvigorated the now rapidly expanding UK radio market. There are no current plans in the UK to switch off analogue radio but sales of digital radios are still predicted to rise.
Obviously the radio set manufacturers are cock-a-hoop - a huge market of people replacing their old analogue radios with digital ones. It's the CDs replacing cassettes replacing vinyl scenario all over again. And there are plans for an even newer way of broadcasting digitally, DAB+, which will mean another raft of models that we can replace our DAB radios with. But is it actually worth it?
DAB is supposed to give crystal-clear sound without the interference experienced on analogue but there is some anecdotal evidence that that's not always the case with reports of 'babbling brook' syndrome and difficulties in receiving some stations consistently. This is especially the case with portable radios which use an ordinary aerial rather than a rooftop one. However, for some people, sound quality was not the motive for switching to digital radio. It's the greater number of stations and the ease of switching between them.
All this is bad news for the environment with a mountain of working analogue radios discarded in favour of the Holy Grail of more choice and clearer reception. Another reason for listening through your computer.
60 second green guide
Switch your digital radio off at the wall. Don't leave it on stand-by.
Don't listen to digital radio through your TV.
1 Which? February 2008 online report - www.which.co.uk 2 Imagination Technologies Annual Report 2007 3 'How the wrong sort of radio adds to CO2 emissions' - The Guardian 13/11/2006 4 The ampere strikes back - The Energy Saving Trust 5 An ecological footprint and carbon audit of digital radio - Best Foot Forward Ltd, August 2006