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Wavefinder review

For many people, the cheapest way so far to tune in to DAB digital radio is to buy a Wavefinder. The Wavefinder is a streamlined 'drop' shaped DAB digital radio antenna, which works with your PC to allow you to tune in to digital radio stations without having to connect to the internet to do so. Listening to digital radio broadcasts is free. With a current price tag of GBP79.99, the Wavefinder seems to be an inexpensive option. But is it worth forking out for the unit?


Wafefinder picture Antenna dimensions
290mm tall (with aerials 700mm) x 75mm wide x 75mm deep approx.

The Wavefinder antenna looks and feels unsurprisingly plastic - as this is exactly what it is made of - its translucent blue shell containing the DAB radio circuitry within. A set of LEDs sits under a white dome in the centre of the antenna, which cycle through various colours to indicate when the machine is tuning, or when reception is unavailable, for example.

The antenna hooks up to your PC's powered USB hub via a measly 1.8 metre long 'umbilical cord'. This greatly limits the positioning of the antenna to find the best signal, and you may find yourself dragging your computer across the room to see if reception can be improved. An alternative is to buy a USB extension cable, but you'll probably find the best reception can be found where you first hang the Wavefinder on the wall, positioned next to a window or middle of the wall. Sticky pads and Rawlplugs enable you to finally position the antenna, although a picture hook works fine.

The antenna is powered both by a supplied 10 volt adaptor but also needs an active (powered) USB port on your PC - it's worth checking to see if you have one.

Installing the software is very easy and, when complete, you are invited to run the Reception Wizard to search for individual multiplexes. Depending on where you live and where the antenna is positioned in the room, the Wavefinder will seek out DAB broadcasts. It has to be said, there's an element of anticipation here. If no multiplexes are found, you might have purchased a very expensive doorstop. However a useful dialog box pops up that allows you to select individual multiplexes to see if the antenna needs to be moved to improve reception. The red/yellow/green level meter updates to show you if your efforts are fruitless.

                             

Choosing stations to listen to simply involves scanning for stations the first time you launch the Wavefinder interface. The interface presents the stations in the form of a map, which can be changed to group stations by multiplex or content. Customised maps can be created - helpful if you want to create an easy-to-navigate page of your favourite stations, with text and a background image as an afterthought.

You'll either love or hate the interface. Personally, I don't find it at all offensive, although navigating the map window is slow and clumsy, as the standard Windows scrollbars are absent.

Clicking on a station's boxed logo launches a 'miniplayer' window, complete with volume and recording controls, and scrolling text information about the song or station, if available. Unhelpfully, the software insists on spawning a new window for every station opened, thus quickly clogging up the Windows taskbar; however it does remember the volume level for a particular station - a nice touch since audio output levels vary between rock and classical music stations.

Recordings can be saved to your hard drive in MP2 or MP3 format and a newer version of the Wavefinder software allows you to make timed recordings - I haven't tried the latter so can't comment on the efficiency of this feature. Station logos can be updated via the Wavefinder site to make the services more identifiable on the map.

Multiplexes broadcasting to Bristol
Now Bristol (local)
MXR Severn Estuary (regional)
Digital One (national commercial)
BBC radio (national public service)

The Wavefinder, for me, hasn't been entirely successful in picking up DAB multiplexes. Living just south of Bristol city centre, I should theoretically be able to receive four multiplexes. Glancing up at the antenna it is perhaps understandable that the stumpy-looking aerials might have trouble catching a signal without help from an external aerial.

To be fair, the postcode search at the Wavefinder site suggested an external aerial might be necessary. It sounds as if I am quite lucky to be able to receive multiplexes with just the basic unit.

Both the MXR Severn Estuary regional and Now Bristol local multiplex signals are very strong, lighting 5 out of 5 indicators on the interface. The Digital One multiplex fares less well, barely managing one light (improved reception Jan 2002 - see note below).

IMPORTANT NOTE: Improvements to the transmitter network of Digital One in January 2002 means that all Digital One services are available in the city of Bristol. In order to illustrate the effect of a poor signal on the Wavefinder unit, the following information has been kept, however this does not now apply to the Digital One multiplex in the Bristol transmission area.

For
Relatively cheap way of getting digital radio
No additional hardware needed to receive data services
Ability to record audio direct to hard disk.

Against
Listening via a PC is restricting
May need an external aerial
PC may add its own hum and hiss to the audio

Verdict
As a means of receiving digital radio, the Wavefinder is an impressive piece of kit, but for the average listener it's still overpriced. Budgeting for an external aerial is recommended, as the Wavefinder needs a strong signal. It's also worth downloading one of the several alternative pieces of software to drive the unit.

Summary
If you absolutely must have digital radio now and live in a strong signal area, the Wavefinder is a good buy. However, I'd be tempted to go the extra mile and buy the Pure Evoke-1, at GBP20 extra. Having to switch on your PC just to listen to the radio can become irritating, although the direct-to-disk recording shouldn't be overlooked and the new software supplied from February 2003 adds new features with less clutter.

Unfortunately a poor signal causes the audio to stutter and break up as the Wavefinder frantically attempts to construct a 'sentence' from the missing 'words'. Tweaking the position of the antenna to improve the signal a little can rectify this problem - at least getting one light means interruptions on speech stations such as Oneword or talkSPORT is kept to low enough levels not to be a distraction. On music stations such as Life and Virgin Radio it makes listening tiresome, as glitches are more evident. The antenna wasn't able to identify any signal for the national BBC multiplex from the Mendip transmitter, which was really disappointing.

When fed with a poor signal, it is expecting too much from the Wavefinder to be able to produce continuous high-quality audio. It seems a digital radio signal is less resilient that I imagined, although a direct comparison in the same place with a standalone tuner such as the Videologic would be useful. The Wavefinder is probably more sensitive to interference from your PC, disrupting the electronics and clouding the signal. It would almost certainly benefit from an external aerial mounted in the loft, which will set you back around another GBP 30 pounds. It's worth remembering that FM radio is less fussy than DAB digital radio. In this area, all national and local FM services can be heard loud and clear. The same cannot be said of digital radio at the moment.

With a good signal, digital radio sounds great through the unit. It's definitely not CD quality, but hiss and crackle (normally attributed to FM radio) is noticeably absent from the audio. You may find your computer's sound card adds its own hiss to the signal path anyway. Some stations sound better than others, depending on the bitrate used for each individual station. At 128kbits, closer listening through headphones reveals the slight degradation of sound quality, which can be heard within the audio as 'chattering monkeys'. So, while there are improvements over FM and AM radio, DAB digital radio introduces its own imperfections.

I can't help feeling a little disappointed by the fact that I can't hear any of the stations on the BBC national multiplex without upgrading to an external aerial supplied with the Wavefinder. To be fair, though, this might have been the case with any DAB digital tuner - with DAB it really does help if you live on top of a hill.

The Wavefinder opens up digital radio to those prepared to pay for it. However, I can't help thinking DAB digital radio will be the preserve of enthusiasts for the foreseeable future. It's also difficult to identify the one Unique Selling Point that DAB digital radio has. Access to more stations is just as well, as few people will be interested in paying the DAB tuner premium just to hear simulcasts of existing stations.

Related links:
Wavefinder launches new user interface software (Feb 2003), supplied with all new Wavefinders purchased.
buy a Wavefinder online, via this website.
DAB Digital Radio - what is digital radio? - a guide, on this website.

Radio-now.com promo banner

Official Wavefinder website
Dab Bar - alternative software to drive the unit