It seems strange to introduce a digital tuner to countries that don't use most of the technology the Cambridge Audio Azur 640T is designed for. Currently, there is no full-service Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) in Australia or New Zealand. Europe and the US have DAB, but with different standards, broadcast technologies and business models. Herein lies our dilemma: regulation, transmission and commerce.
The law being an ass. Again
Regulatory standards decide how the radio spectrum is used for DAB. Europe uses a different standard to the US. While this seems trivial, it causes problems when the next hurdle is considered.
Ground control to major headache
DAB is harder to broadcast than FM or AM. Like the "drop out" experienced with digital television, DAB is more directional, more sensitive to the elements and to obstructions than previous technologies. It needs "line of sight" transmission to reliably broadcast data that is converted in a DAB tuner, so unless you have a flat country, or can afford to erect lots of broadcast towers, you need to transmit from above to cover your desired reception area. That means satellites.
In the US, DAB services like Sirius are satellite broadcast - you mount a dish on your dashboard or house. In Europe, the broadcasts are terrestrial and satellite. With different standards between areas, satellite DAB could create overlapping "footprints", causing garbled reception across the spectrum. Australasia is trying to agree on standards to avoid similar problems. This issue is still evolving and the outcome will have an impact on the third hurdle.
Show me the money
Australasia's current radio business model relies on scarcity and stability. While both countries have quite different regulatory systems, the commercial operators make money by purchasing as many frequencies as possible and broadcasting formats to audiences that advertisers want to target. Because only so much of the available spectrum can be used for radio, the price of frequencies is high and only realistic to big-money players. However, DAB allows for more efficient use of the spectrum - up to ten times the number of stations could broadcast with DAB (see sidebar). The commercial networks are concerned their expensive businesses may lose significant value with increased competition and the large costs of converting current broadcasting technology to digital. A five-year moratorium on DAB has been negotiated in Australia; New Zealand is still formulating DAB policy. Insiders say that New Zealand DAB won't happen until Australia shows the way. Others think that non-commercial and public service DAB might kick-start the commercial sector.
For what it's worth
So why bother? DAB has advantages: extra data capabilities (more messages, ads and traffic updates anyone?), more stations (a mixed blessing, perhaps) but also CD-quality music. So far the 'traditional' stations in Europe and the US aren't panicking.
So, what about the kit?
As for the 640T, it's an excellent FM tuner, with Radio Data Service (not DAB, but a way of sending messages to enabled receivers). I tested the 640T using our Yamaha 02R96 digital audio production suite through Dynaudio Acoustics BMGA Professional Studio Monitors at the Auckland University of Technology. It was simple to set up and easy to use. Tuning was extremely accurate, with the excellent sound expected from high-spec digital gear. Naturally, I couldn't find any DAB stations, but the specifications show it will translate DAB signals well, assuming we adopt the standards that it was designed for (that looks likely). It features 'Natural Contour' switching between normal, 'lively' and 'warm' modes to fatten up thin-sounding DAB and for adding depth to FM signals. It has a clean, simple front panel and remote, although for an RDS-capable tuner the LCD screen could have been bigger.
There are also inputs for another tuner and coaxial and digital outputs. While the 640T digitises and replicates FM signals well, it is for the future-proofed audiophile.