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How They Work and Their Differences


Across the globe, radio is undergoing a monumental shift from analog to digital. The basics are still the same: you can use digital radio to consume music, news, and other information over the air. But digital radio also brings the promise of better signal quality, a wider range of stations, and more information about what you’re listening to.

Here’s everything you need to know about the differences between analog and digital radio.

How Does Analog Radio Work?

In order to learn about digital radio, you first need to learn how analog radio works. That way, you can understand the difference between analog and digital radio, and why it’s a good idea to make the change.

Analog radio obviously isn’t a new technology. In fact, it pre-dates the 1900s. Guglielmo Marconi is credited with the first successful application of wireless technology after sending out the first radio signal—consisting of a single letter, “S”—in 1895.

While radio broadcasting grew in popularity through the 1920s, it took years of legal battles for Nikola Tesla to be finally awarded the US patent posthumously in 1943. Although fierce rivals, the impact of Marconi and Tesla lead to the use of analog radio as we know it today. And in all honesty, not much has changed since Tesla’s first “modern” radio. In fact, a lot of vintage gear is still in use.

The technology itself is remarkably simple. Analog radio has two main parts, a receiver and a transmitter. The transmitter sends radio signals—called continuous sine waves—using one of two types of modulation to carry information. These two types of modulation are Amplitude Modulation (AM) and Frequency Modulation (FM).

The differences between AM and FM analog radio signals include:

  • The frequency range (around 1MHz for AM or 98MHz for FM)
  • The width of the frequency band
  • And the transmitter power

The receiver in a radio captures these signals, then removes the continuous sine wave leaving only the information in the modulation. And this is what you hear on the radio.

Why Is Analog Radio Being Replaced?

Analog radio is starting to show its age. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, but digital radio offers a cleaner signal with less interference from weather, distance, or other devices.

This is why it’s inevitable most countries will switch to digital radio eventually, with Norway leading the way.

Digital radio offers different features that aren’t possible with analog radio, including:

  • More channels and radio stations
  • Cleaner audio with high bitrates
  • The ability to pause and rewind live radio
  • Quicker tuning by searching for stations rather than certain frequencies
  • On-screen information including the song and artist, radio show presenter, guest, phone number, or details about the ad you’re listening to

Your radio or receiver may already work with digital radio. In the US, you’ve probably heard it called HD Radio. In Europe, it’s commonly known as DAB (digital audio broadcasting). Each of these formats is similar, with only slight differences in how they work with digital radio signals.

How Does Digital Radio Work?

Like analog radio, digital radio sends a signal through the air that a receiver captures and plays through your speakers. The main difference between the two is that digital radio doesn’t send complete information all at once. Instead, it converts the audio to digital information. Then it compresses the digital information

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and transmits it in pieces.

The receiver captures these pieces of information much like it would with an analog signal. But instead of playing them, it decodes the data and pieces it together first. While this seems like an odd process, it actually makes the digital signal less likely to suffer from interference.

Analog radio is more prone to signal degradation from competing signal sources. This is why you hear a lot of static and hisses with AM and FM analog radio stations.

Digital radio doesn’t have this problem for two main reasons:

  1. Receivers have advanced amplifiers which help to filter out competing signals
  2. The digital signal is simpler, making it easier to filter out interference

Digital radio is also sent redundantly, which means your receiver can piece together the signal even if a few parts go missing along the way.

The Downsides to Digital Radio

Digital radio isn’t perfect. One of the biggest downsides is that when the signal gets too bad, you lose it completely. In contrast, with analog radio, you can still listen to the fuzzy signal and put up with bad reception. That’s not an option for digital.

As we mentioned above, digital radio drops out completely when the signal gets too weak. This means you’re more likely to lose a station as you move too far.

Another problem with digital radio is the lag caused by transmitting the audio signal in pieces, and then re-constructing them before playback. If you have a digital radio, put it next to an analog radio and tune them to the same station. You’ll notice a significant delay in the digital radio.

Finally, you can’t retrofit analog radios to work with digital. That means you’d need to upgrade your receiver, car stereo, or boombox to take full advantage of digital radio. Luckily, there are tuners, adapters, and smartphone radio transmitters

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available if you want to avoid the expense of a full upgrade.

When Will Analog Radio Die?

Old analog radios on a bookshelf

There’s no confirmed timeline for analog radio to die out completely. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to keep it operational in some capacity. Especially since analog radio is more useful in an emergency situation. But a mainstream shift to digital radio is already taking place.

Most major radio stations already emit their programs for analog and digital radios, and most new cars and radio systems are designed to work with digital. It’s only a matter of time until you find yourself with more digital radio options than analog, at which point you may as well make the switch yourself.

Chances are, you can already listen to some digital radio stations on your phone. Just check out these digital radio apps

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to get started.

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