How to get DAB radio in your car
By Oliver Trebilcock
Don't have a digital radio in your car? Check out our handy guide to see what options are available to you ahead of the digital switchover.
At some point in the future, the government will stop using FM radio to transmit national radio stations, such as BBC Radio 4, although it's likely that FM will still be used for local and community radio stations.
As a result, if you have an older FM or AM radio in your car, you have four main options available if you want to carry on listening to your favourite national radio stations. And you’ll get lots of new digital stations to choose from as well.
1. Plug-in-and-play car radio adaptors
Plug-in-and-play DAB radio adaptors are the most popular way to get DAB radio in your car, since they don't require serious modifications to your car interior. All you need to do is plug them in for power, fix in place the control unit, attach the aerial to your windscreen and neatly fix any wires into place.
We've tried three popular models available on the high street and online to see which are worth your money.
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|Popular DAB car radio adaptors|
This car DAB radio adaptor is the best we’ve got our hands on. It sounds fantastic. The design is good as well, with the turning knob on the front making it very easy to use. The control unit is battery-powered, avoiding excess messy wires, but you’ll need spare batteries to hand. It has a hands-free calling feature that works reliably. There is a slightly cheaper model of this DAB radio adaptor if you’re not interested in the calling feature.
This basic low-cost car DAB radio adaptor can store 20 presets for your favourite radio stations. There are two ways to connect. If your car has an aux-in socket, this is recommended for better sound. The other option converts the DAB signal to FM for your car’s radio to pick up. This car DAB adaptor’s controller is nice and compact, but the buttons are a little hard to press. You can also play audio from devices such as an MP3 player via aux in.
This cheaper car DAB radio adaptor conveniently plugs into your car’s 12V power socket, so couldn’t be easier to install – although you still have to fix the antenna wire into position up the side of your car. It’s robustly built, the buttons are easy to press and it also has a lovely large LCD screen. However, we were not impressed with the signal or sound quality from this radio, and you can’t store any presets either – this is one to avoid.
Although plug-in-and-play devices are arguably the simplest way to get digital radio, they can make your car interior look ugly, with lots of visible wires. They can be useful if you're looking for an inexpensive way to upgrade more than one vehicle, as it's relatively easy to move them from one car to another. They usually plug into your car's 12V or cigarette lighter socket for power, and good ones typically cost £60-£100.
Plug-in-and-play devices get the DAB radio signal through their antennas and convert the signal to FM, which your existing car radio can then pick up (or it can get the signal via your car's 3.5mm aux-in socket if it has one). However, these devices are more likely to lose the radio signal than more sophisticated solutions because of their internal wire aerials.
There are generally two types:
Windscreen or dash-mounted
These fix on to your windscreen or dashboard, like a portable sat nav. These can be fiddly to install, as they have a long antenna wire that you trail up to the dashboard, and another cable that trails down to your car’s cigarette lighter socket for power. Examples include the Pure Highway 400 and Pure Highway 600. Both give you Bluetooth connectivity and the latter also has hands-free connectivity with your smartphone.
These plug directly into your car’s cigarette-lighter or power socket, and have an antenna wire that needs trailing up on to the top of your car’s dashboard. These are easier to set up, but are more difficult to use while driving. Both types will detract from the look of your car interior, and can make it look cluttered.
2. Digital radio conversion kit
This approach uses the same technology as plug-in-and-play solutions, converting the digital signal to FM. However, they look far better, with only a new antenna visible. However, they are complicated to install, and need to be put in by a trained professional, which increases the cost.
If they are installed correctly, your vehicle interior will look unchanged, and they have much better antennas, so you will get a much more stable radio signal.
Again, there are two different types:
With this type, the only visible change to your car will be a new antenna. DAB radio information is displayed on your existing vehicle radio display, and you control the radio via your existing dash or steering wheel buttons. For this reason, they are suitable only for cars with dash or steering wheel controls available to be adapted.
You can expect to pay around £250-£300 for a fully integrated digital radio solution to be installed – semi-integrated solutions are cheaper and more flexible for other types of car. You also may find with fully integrated conversion kits that the labels for buttons on your dash or steering wheel do not correspond logically with the radio controls, as they were never designed to be used in that way.
With this type, you get exactly the same solution as fully integrated, except you don’t control the radio through your car’s existing controls. Instead, you are supplied with a wireless remote to control the radio. Good kits will include a remote that does not need to be pointed at the control unit. This solution will work in any car, and installation is cheaper than with the fully integrated type.
Expect to pay around £200-£300. Since the dedicated remote is designed for radio use, it often gives a better user experience than a fully integrated kit.
3. Replacement radio
This is generally not possible with more modern cars, as dashboards now vary greatly in design. But if you have a car considerably more than 10 years old, it could be relatively easy to take out your existing radio and replace it with a new one, with a wide range available from brands such as Alpine, JVC, Kenwood, Panasonic, Pioneer and Sony.
If you drive a newer car, it can require a lot of additional parts to make these new radios fit in your car, adding lots of extra hidden costs. It can also be difficult to maintain a nice interior look to your car.
4. Use your smartphone
You can use apps on your smartphone, such as TuneIn Radio, to listen to DAB and internet radio. You can connect your phone through your car’s aux in if it has one, or through a separate Bluetooth car kit, such as the Parrot Handsfree Kit.
Beware that this can be a very costly solution, as it counts against your smartphone’s data allowance, so watch your data usage and check your smartphone subscription to see whether this is viable for you. Listening to the radio for one hour every weekday for a month will use around 1GB of mobile data.
This can be a good way to try out digital radio if you’re unsure before committing to a dedicated option.
Buying a digital radio
Look for the digital radio tick mark shown below to ensure you are buying a future-ready digital car radio. The tick mark shows that the radio is capable of receiving not only DAB and the extended range of DAB+ radio stations, but FM radio as well , so you can be sure you don’t lose any stations. All AM stations are due to convert to digital or FM channels.