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Mono or stereo?

article date: Friday, May 31, 2013

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Digital radio listeners often ask why different stations broadcast at different bit rates, some in mono, some in stereo. The following article by Glyn Jones gives some background to the factors influencing the choices made...

Radio stations take very seriously the decision about what data rate to use when broadcasting digitally. It's a key choice affecting how consumers will perceive the station, primarily in terms of what they'll hear from their radio's speaker, speakers or headphones.

The management team of a radio station must consider several issues. Sound quality will depend on bit rate, signal strength, the radio being used, the background noise in the listening environment and the listenerís own hearing. All of those matter. For example, at some data rates DAB digital radio will reproduce high frequency sounds which audiologists would say most listeners will not hear (ie they are outside the hearing range of a typical listener). They also consider other ways in which listeners will hear comparable music or content eg TV, cinema, MP3 players, computers, etc as those will all shape listener expectations.

Stations will also decide whether to broadcast in stereo (or joint stereo) or mono. Sometimes this is subject to approval by Ofcom, the regulator. Typically stereo capacity will cost about twice as much as mono. So the station has to consider how many listeners will benefit from stereo (eg a listener with a single-speaker radio will only hear the difference if they also sometimes use headphones). In car listening is important and stations are aware that for many listeners this is the time when they will get most benefit from stereo.

Whether stations are funded via commercial revenues (eg advertising and sponsorship), listener supported (eg by appeals and fund raising) or paid for from the BBC licence fee, the choice of bit rate will also affect the costs of running a radio station. Lovely if we lived in a world where this wasn't part of the decision making process - but many of the UK's radio stations are commercial businesses and so commercial factors canít be ignored. Charities and the BBC have responsibilities to spend money wisely too.

Whatever the type of radio station and whether the people taking the decisions have a creative, editorial, technical or commercial background, they always hunger for people to listen to their station. They pay for digital capacity to reach and connect with listeners. And the choice of bit rate is something they make after much thought, trying to balance all of these issues.

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