Comparison: Over the air listening on FM vs. streaming audio on Android phone

I have had my HTC Android phone for just about a year now, which is enough time to learn the device’s strengths and weaknesses.  I have done a fair amount of listening to audio, watching youtube videos and playing .mp3’s to give me some idea of the technical quality and operational issues.  Like anything else, these are general observations.  Some radio station’s streams sound better than other due to the effort those stations put into audio quality.

The listening test was done with a set of Sony earbuds, which sound far better than the small speaker built into the phone.  For ease in streaming audio, I used the TuneIn Radio application for Android by TuneIn Inc.  For this test, I only listened to FM broadcast stations, both streaming and over the air.

The over the air tuner is the stock factory radio in my 1997 Jeep Cherokee.  I would rate the radio average in every way.  The actual tests were done driving around on interstate highways and other major roadways.  There were a few instances where I had to give up on the Android phone due to traffic and driving considerations.

My Android phone has an FM tuner installed in it, however, it is really useless.  I get only local stations, and then their audio is all hissy and for the most part unlistenable.  The HTC FM tuner uses the headphone wire for an antenna, which may be a part of the problem.

Here is a chart of my observations:

Category evaluated Analog FM radio Streaming via Android
Overall Station Selection Only those stations that can be received Any station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Varity of interesting programming Only those receivable signals which limits it to a few well programmed stations, the rest being garbage Almost unlimited, world wide*
Available formats Only those stations that can be received Any station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Ease of use Can press the preset or scan buttons on radio without taking eyes off the road* Requires squinting at a small screen and pressing several little boxes to get to the desired station
Annoying commercial avoidance See above on preset and scan buttons* Very difficult to change stations quickly
Quality of sound Good to excellent, depending on the station’s signal strength* Fair to good, depending on the bit rate and network congestion, some stations sound very good and some can sound very bad
Drop outs Occasional picket fencing with distant stations, otherwise, non-existent* Varies depending on location, can be quite annoying, especially in mobile environment.  App also occasionally locks up and needs to be restarted
Expense Free, radio came with the vehicle, no paid data service needed* Requires data plan with smart phone, some plans cap data amounts, can be fairly expensive
Overall enjoyment Good Good

*Wins category.

I am having a difficult time assigning the overall enjoyment as well as an over all winner.  One the one hand, it was very cool, driving down I-84 in Danbury, CT listening to Howlin’ Wolf on New Orleans’ non-commercial Jazz station, WWOZ.  On the other hand, it was a right pain in the ass to get to that point, in rush hour traffic.  By the way WWOZ’s web stream is excellent, audio wise.

From a safety and ease of use, the FM radio in the Jeep wins hands down, I just don’t know how many more times I can listen to the same Led Zeppelin song on i95 (that used to be I-95, frankly I thought Steve Jobs copyrighted the lower case i).

The drop outs were also a concern, mostly taking place in on the section of I-84 going through Putnam County, NY.  I don’t know if my cell carrier needs to beef up it’s data coverage in that area, or if there were just a great many users on the network checking their e-mail, etc.

If they could sort out the ease of operation problem and get rid of the drop outs, streaming audio over HTC Android would win hands down.

 

TuneIn Radio

I posted previously about how to listen to radio station streams on an Android phone. In the time between then and now, somebody has come up with a much better way to do it.  TuneIn Radio is both a website for streaming and a mobile application for Android and iPhone users alike.

I have found that every local radio station that has a web stream is listed.  The major overseas broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, Radio Netherlands, and so on as well as all of the non-government US owned shortwave stations are listed.  As their website states:

With over 30,000 FM and AM radio stations from across the globe, TuneIn Radio makes radio local, no matter how far from home you might be.

Far easier than what I posted before. Further, this is exactly the type of service that terrestrial broadcasters needed the most; a concise consolidated listing broken down by genre and locality, to compete with Pandora, Slacker, Last.fm,  et. al.

In order to download TuneIn Radio, point your mobile web browser to http://tunein.com and it will automatically direct you to the proper download source.  Or one could search through the Apple store or Android Market to find the app.

Radio Industry Technology Study

Wheatstone, Inc has sponsored a radio industry future technology study which brings into focus some of the connections between technology and radio business models.   It appears to be very thorough, polling radio professionals on all aspects of technology development and management.

According to Josh Gordon:

While it is hard to predict which of the radio industry’s newest business models will succeed in generating new revenues, we can better anticipate the winners by measuring how fast the technologies that enable them are being adopted.

To find out, we surveyed the radio professionals involved in all aspects of technology management (engineers, and operations and technical management). The results reported in this study can serve as a benchmark for managers to evaluate their own organizations’ progress.

The first graph is telling:

Wheatstone Technology Survey Results
Wheatstone Technology Survey Results

Almost everyone believes that the internet will play a greater role in radio (and all media).  This goes against the “radio with its head in the sand” idea that can be found in some corners of the internet (I’d provide a link, but the site has turned on a paywall).

The question is, what are management type people doing about it.  Some have good ideas on how to bridge the gap between making money the old fashioned way; selling spots, to making money the new way; brand imaging,  media promotion and personal contact through new media.  While it is generally agreed that radio stations should stream their audio, many, if not most, make little or no money on this.  If radio is going to make some revenue on internet applications, obviously some new ideas are needed.

Unique local content seems to be the most sought after, things like local news podcasts, or new music, e.g. studio sessions with up and coming band and musicians, locally produced shows that are area specific, etc. Put a 10 second sponsorship in front of those and people will get the message.  Other things like value added contests that can only be heard on the internet.  Interactive radio station apps that have streaming, now playing, recently heard features that link to a .mp3 store for iPhone and Android operating systems.  Text link adds on radio station web pages, etc.

On the flip side of this, huge, great amounts of bandwidth will be required if the internet streaming is going approach the same number of off the air listeners.  Depending on the how the radio station has the stream set up, anywhere from 20 to 64 kbps of data transfer is needed for each listener.  For a station in a large metropolitan area, multiply that by 500,000 to 4,000,000 listeners at any one time and data gridlock ensues.

On the in house side, the red hot, cutting edge thing these days is AOIP (Audio over IP), which Wheatstone is heavily invested in with its E console series.  While some might not think of AOIP as a traditional internet application, it none the less uses the same transport protocols as other internet applications.   AOIP offers some great advantages over other routing systems, as both private (internal) and public (wide area) networking can be used to transfer audio in real time.  Of course, this is not as easy as plugging the new computer into an ethernet jack, it takes more planning than that.

Wheatstone has published an excellent white paper on Network Design for Ethernet Audio.  Well worth the read.

As AOIP technology develops more, web streams could come directly from the console and be customizable according to destination.  Further, IP logging can create stream user profiles and customizable greetings, listening preferences and so on.  This would require that the web streaming server be in house and the studio facility have enough bandwidth to handle all of the outgoing streams and other content.

Certainly an in house IT/Web developer will be needed to manage and maintain such a system.

You can download and read the entire studio at Alethea/Wheatstone Radio Survey.  The cliff notes summary is this:

Finding #1: Almost all radio tech people believe the Internet will play a bigger part in the future of radio.

Finding #2:Of the new revenue generating technologies, streaming a station’s signal has the biggest earning potential.

Finding #3: Technologies that require little or no capital investment are being deployed at similar frequencies by both stand-alone and group owned stations.

Finding #4: A technology gap is emerging as stand-alone stations deploy revenue generating technologies requiring investment at only half the frequency as group owned stations.

Finding #5: The revenue generating technology that most group owned stations plan on deploying next is a mobile app, while for stand-alone stations, it is broadcasting in HD Radio, with mobile apps coming in a close second.

Finding #6: There is a big divide between radio stations that are now, or will soon be, making money from streaming their signal over the Internet, and those who likely never will.

Finding #7: The day will come slowly, but in 15 years a majority of radio stations expect they will have more online listeners than RF listeners.

Finding #8: Despite the expected decline in over the air listeners, few stations expect to turn off their transmitters.

Finding #9: Three years from now, radio station technology will be more IT centric with more automation, as well as more networking between stations, IT networks, and office and audio networks.

Finding #10: Three years from now, the stability of each radio station network will be more important, as will networks with no single point of failure.

Finding #11: Three years from now, more audio consoles will be networked together. Also, the bandwidth of those networks will be required to increase.

Finding #12: The top reason group owned stations bought an AoIP network was to reduce maintenance costs. The top reason for stand-alone stations: to share talent.

Finding #13: At stations that have installed an AoIP network, more than a third of stand-alone stations found installing it harder than anticipated, while only 16.7% of group owned stations found installation harder than anticipated.

Finding #14: At stations with an AoIP network, more than one in four stand-alone stations and one in three group owned stations report latency problems.

The study is a good indication of where technical managers see growth.  One thing that internet sites like Pandora have shown, radio broadcasters cannot sit back and be content with the status quo.  Without technical innovation and some outside of the lines thinking, radio will be bypassed by newer more interactive media services.

Something to ponder.

Vintage Texar Audio Prisms

I give to you, the original Texar Audio Prism:

Texar Audio Prism
Texar Audio Prism

I love the sound of these units when coupled with an Optimod 8100A.  Many people have (or rather, had) difficulty setting these things up.  I found them to be very easy to deal with, just follow the instruction manual.  If that doesn’t sound good, then there is something wrong with the unit.  Over the years, there are only a few consistent problems.  The first thing is with the voltage regulators.  They have heat sinks attached with nylon screws.  The screws get brittle and fall apart, making the regulator overheat and go bad.  I have taken to replacing the nylon screws, and if the heat sink has fallen off, the entire regulator.  There are also a few electrolytic capacitors in the power supply and on the audio board, it is always a good practice to replace those.  Otherwise, unless the unit has been blown up by lightning, it should work.

As for set up, follow the directions in the manual:

  1. Bypass the units using bypass switch
  2. Turn on on board pink noise generator
  3. Using the test ports on the front of the unit, plug a Simpson 260 VOM set on 2.5 VAC  important: use the ground port on the front of unit, not the case
  4. For use with an Optimod 8100A, using the dB scale on the Simpson 260, set all the bands for a 4.0 reading.  Set the density to 3/4.
  5. Turn off pink noise generator and switch out of bypass mode.
  6. Make sure the levels in the studio are where they should be.
  7. Adjust the input gain so the “Buffer Active” light does not come on during normal level programming.
  8. Adjust the output levels so that the input buffer on the Optimod reads between -7 and -3 vu.

The rest of the settings are on the Optimod:

  1. Clipping = 0
  2. HF limiting = 5
  3. Release time = 2
  4. Bass coupling = 2
  5. Gate = 0
  6. Set the input attenuators for about 10 dB total gain reduction, with peaks around 15 dB or so.

Then set the L-R null.  To do this, make sure the program material is in mono, then adjust the L or R input attenuator for minimum reading.  Also, if the Audio Prism has PR-1 (phase rotators) installed, bypass the phase rotator in the Optimod.  There is also a replacement card 5 made by Gentner called the RFC-1  for the Optimod 8100A.  I notice little difference between a stock Optimod and on RFC-1 Optimod.

That is a good starting point.  Most people are quite happy with this, but if needed, the high and low settings on the Prism can be adjusted slightly to suit the station equipment.  When properly adjusted, this equipment rides gain, adds a certain amount of loudness, while keeping the programming material natural sounding.  Further, unlike some “modern” air chain processors, it does not boot up and it does not occasionally loose its mind, requiring a reboot.

The best paragraph in the manual, or any broadcast equipment manual is this:

There is a wealth of information available in the LED display.  A few minutes of watching them in reduced light (emphasis added) while listening to a familiar program input will greatly help in understanding their action.

It will also greatly enhance your buzz, dude.  It was the 70’s.