Had a quiet moment in the office this lunchtime and wanted to fill the silence with some backgorund radio. So I fired up iTunes 10.3 and thought to check whether any BBC radio stations were available in the Radio listings – a curious omission for the last five years or so that I’ve been using iTunes. Turns out they are there, but it’s not always obvious as to where they appear in the listings, not helped by the lack of search functionality, which is a shame.
What you’ll find and where:
BBC Radio 1: Top 40 / Pop
BBC Radio 1Xtra: Top 40 / Pop
BBC Radio 2: Adult-Contemporary
BBC Radio 3: Classical
BBC Radio 4: News / Talk Radio
BBC Radio 4 LW: News / Talk Radio
BBC Radio 4 Extra: Comedy
BBC Radio 5 Live: News / Talk Radio
BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra: Sports
BBC Radio 6: Alternative Rock
BBC Asian Network: International / World
It just makes more sense to me as a consumer that radio should come from the music app on a device, rather than from inside a web browser running flash and goodness-knows-what in the background just to grab and decode an MP3/MP4 stream. Online radio doesn’t need to be complicated – can we please lose the Flash and its contemporaries already?
Here’s where I get to make a confession: I never did get around to doing any critical listening of the improved sound streams! So, a few months have passed and two key things have happened. Firstly, the “standard” stream has been upgraded to 192Kbps AAC from the previous standard of 128Kbps – good news for everyone listening to the standard stream, and technically this is arguably already a big improvement over the concurrent FM, DAB, Freeview and Satellite/Cable streams. The second big development is that the “HD Sound” stream is now available full-time on the Radio 3 home page by clicking on this link on the top right-hand-side of the Radio 3 banner:
It’s worth pointing out that common wisdom indicates the difference between the standard 192Kbps stream and the “HD Sound” 320Kbps stream will tend to only be audible on top-notch equipment in ideal conditions. I’ve done some quick listening tests between the two streams on a MacBook Pro 13″ laptop using it’s built-in speakers – hardly the worlds best audio playback system.
I was surprised to hear a real difference between the two streams through the laptop speakers. I was even more surprised when my wife was able to hear a difference between the two in a blind A-B test, and correctly attributed the poorer-sounding source as the lower-quality stream.
Both are great quality, revealing lots of dynamics in music and both sounding tonally very natural, so far as the laptop speakers allow us to hear. But the difference between the two streams is subtle, yet significant. Spoken word sounds a little clearer on the 320Kbps version, with sibilants (C’s, S’s, F’s, Ph’s) and the breathiness of the human voice sounding more natural, yet being less distracting at the same time. With music, the 320Kbps version gives better tonality, in particular revealing more harmonic overtones of the recorded instrument or ensemble.
This bodes well for further listening tests on better audio equipment – an experiment we might find time to carry out tomorrow.
In the meantime, I must publicly say a big “well done, chaps” to the BBC staff involved – this is clearly a very audible step in the right direction and backs up a rumoured drive to increase the technical quality of all BBC output, in spite of the cynicism that has surrounded the transition from analogue to digital TV, and is presently surrounding the pained transition from FM to DAB, which may or may not yet be successful.
It seems that the BBC is due to launch “HD” audio streaming for its online radio broadcasting, starting with their Radio 3 service in December 2010. They’ll also be running a trial of the technology for this year’s Radio 2 Electric Proms on 28th to 30th October 2010.
Currently we’re used to listening to many BBC national and local stations on iPlayer, most (perhaps all) of which use 128Kbps AAC encoding in stereo. These streams have not been running in their current form for all that long, and brought significant improvements over the previous up-to-56Kbps RealPlayer streams both in terms of quality and accessibility, making hi-fi playback of online radio streams pleasurable for the first time, and certainly a big improvement over the audio quality DAB currently offers.
Initially the new “HD” stream will only be avalailable for Radio 3, and will use 320Kbps AAC-LC stereo encoding. Experts with more knowledge than I can explain what the difference means from a technical perspective, and therefore why it is seen as such an improvement. I’ve not yet listened to any of the trials that were arranged for this years Proms, but in my work I find myself playing with many different audio and video compression systems for online distribution and I have to say that there is a significant difference between 128Kbps and 320Kbps AAC audio. The former is “good enough” for many, but the latter is so close to either “lossless” or “PCM” in various forms that many won’t be able to tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed sources.
This is a huge step in the right direction – digital audio broadcasting in the UK has long suffered demonstrable quality issues that are easily audible even on small DAB receivers and laptops, so anything that kills these audio data compression artefacts is a very good thing. Despite the lower-quality MPEG encoding currently used by DAB, I’d love to see them lose some of the fringe stations and put the extra bandwidth to better use on the national stations.
Certainly I’ll be very interested to hear the new HD streaming during the Electric Proms – and will report back here with my findings.