FOR ME the infuriating thing about that first wave of digital radios to hit the market wasn't the scarily high prices or the total lack of knowledge of the salespeople, it was that none of them sounded particularly good. In almost all cases it was difficult to pick any difference between digital and regular FM.
But lately the sound quality has been increasing in leaps and bounds and flipping from regular FM to digital (and many of them have an additional FM tuner) reveals a marked improvement in the music. And, it has to be said, a marked decrease in volume.
In every one we listened to, the volume level plummeted with the switch to digital and getting a level sufficient to hear throughout a normal room necessitated cranking the volume up to max.
There's been another change, too. Maybe someone finally told the manufacturers that we like portable radios. Digital portables hardly existed back in the early days of the format but now they're all over the place and I've seen them as cheap as $44.
Thus, with a new season kicking off for the NRL and the AFL, we figured a comparison of them would be timely.
There are some points to bear in mind. The first is that digitals only work in the major cities, so if you take your digital portable to an exhibition game in, say, Wagga Wagga, Toowoomba, Launceston or even Hobart, you'll only get the FM stations, and FM stations tend not to broadcast footy. Digital broadcasting is coming to regional areas but by all accounts it won't be any time soon.
The second is that there are plenty of digital black spots in the transmission area, especially throughout hilly old Sydney. If you're in one of these, you won't get anything at all out of your digital because digitals either present the program in all its glorious detail or present nothing at all - there's no middle ground.
So if you live in a black spot your digital radio won't work - well, not on digital, anyway; it will probably still get FM - and you'll want your money back. Make sure you have this understanding with the retailer before you buy.
$130, 4.5 stars
At first I marked this down for not having a carry handle but then I discovered the handle is so cunningly disguised as part of the aluminium trim I’d missed it. This is a great-looking portable and also great sounding, probably because it’s the largest here and has the biggest speaker. There’s plenty of depth and spaciousness to the music as well as good definition. It has an FM tuner and a generous display and the controls are intuitive and easy to use. It operates on mains power or with four C batteries. There are 20 station presets and a headphone plug. This is the biggest one here at 210millimetres wide by 137millimetres high by 79millimetres deep and it weighs 780grams. If you can live with that — and the carry handle makes it easy — it’s a ripper.
$189, 3 stars
Sangean is a respected brand in radios and is one of the few specialising in models for remote areas but this digital portable is for city folk and they’ll appreciate its compact design and striking white colour scheme. It’s by far the most expensive here and for that the sound quality is pretty ordinary. There’s a slight degree of hollowness to the sound that is far more noticeable with music than speech, and the improvement in switching from FM to digital is much less noticeable than with the other two. But it does have a rechargeable battery (it also runs on mains power). There are 10 station presets and a headphone plug. It’s the lightest here at 348grams and the smallest at 161millimetres wide by 106millimetres high by 36.5millimetres deep.
$99, 3.5 stars
This has no carry handle but it’s small enough to carry comfortably with one hand. It looks good, with a contemporary design that includes two knobs on the right side that turn out to be pressure sensitive rather than rotary. The sound quality is surprisingly good for its size right up to full volume, with plenty of definition and good body. There’s a headphone plug and a sleep function. Unlike many digitals you don’t have to press a ‘‘select’’ or ‘‘enter’’ button after choosing your station; it simply switches to it after you leave the selector there for a few seconds. There are 20 station presets and 10 FM, and it works on mains power as well as four AA batteries. It weighs 486grams and measures 189millimetres wide by 103millimetres high by 38millimetres deep.