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 the 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 others 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 evaluatedAnalog FM radioStreaming via Android
Overall Station SelectionOnly those stations that can be receivedAny station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Almost unlimited, worldwide*Can press the preset or scan buttons on the radio without taking eyes off the road*Only those receivable signals limit it to a few well-programmed stations, the rest being garbage
Available formatsOnly those stations that can be receivedAny station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Ease of useVaries depending on location, and can be quite annoying, especially in mobile environment.  App also occasionally locks up and needs to be restartedRequires squinting at a small screen and pressing several little boxes to get to the desired station
Annoying commercial avoidanceSee above on preset and scan buttons*Very difficult to change stations quickly
Quality of soundGood 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 outsOccasional picket fencing with distant stations, otherwise, non-existent*Requires data plan with smartphone, some plans cap data amounts, can be fairly expensive
ExpenseFree, radio came with the vehicle, no paid data service needed*Requires data plan with smartphone, some plans cap data amounts can be fairly expensive
Overall enjoymentGoodGood

*Wins category.

I am having a difficult time assigning the overall enjoyment as well as an overall winner.  On 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 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 dropouts were also a concern, mostly taking place in the section of I-84 going through Putnam County, NY.  I don’t know if my cell carrier needs to beef up its 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 dropouts, streaming audio over HTC Android would win hands down.

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4 thoughts on “Comparison: Over the air listening on FM vs. streaming audio on Android phone”

  1. Great read. I have the iPhone and use TuneIn Radio on it.

    The phone network in my area is quite reliable, but I do notice a bug in TuneIn where the stream will sometimes keep going back 30 seconds or stopping for a brief period (even on WiFi).. Those issues are annoying and embarrassing if anyone else is listening with me!

    Waited a long time to get an iPhone. Big internet radio fan (I actually program a station online) and I listen a lot at home. Listened a lot at first when I got the phone, now not as much.

    It’s easier just to listen to local stations if it’s a short trip. Otherwise I prefer playing songs from the iPod.. then I can choose exactly what I want to hear. Streaming in the car means data usage and I might be wasting it on songs I don’t even want to hear, commercials, etc..

    I’m a technology fanatic, but even I definitely agree it’s easier to just flick the FM radio on than fiddle around with an app while trying to drive. That’s the part I hate the most, it’s ridiculously hard to switch net stations to get away from a bad song / commercials. Then have to wait for buffer, etc..

  2. Joel:
    I am a musician, have played bass viola for many years in
    symphony orchestras. But, since that doesn’t make any money, also play electric bass in a rock band so I can eat. I pretty much disagree with you based on one point. That point being audio quality. Now, the problem is that many FM stations download their music from crap websites which most of them are so GI-GO rules. However, a select few of the FM stations especially with classical, easy listening or classic rock that have their library recorded from vinyl or CD and are using a non compressed digital playback sound great. I have never, I repeat never heard any audio on the internet that I would consider 60’s audiophile quality, its loaded with all kinds of artifacts that I can hear. It’s not always the fault of the source but the fault of the compression required to squeeze through that skinny internet pipe. Actually, I would prefer good old AM radio to a lot of the internet streams I have heard and actually some of the AM stations sound cleaner than the FM’s. The downward spiral of quality audio started with 8 tracks, then cassettes, and its still going downhill. Like television, people are brainwashed into thinking its better because its DIGITAL. After many years of hearing digital audio and attempting to watch digital television that breaks up when a bird lands on the antenna, I say it can be stuck somewhere the sun doesnt shine.

  3. George,
    This post (and Joel’s comment) was written 10 years ago, a lot of things have changed between then and now. You are entirely correct in your assessment of audio quality. These days, many (not all) radio stations do not care one iota about audio quality. In fact, the technical staff has no clue about analog audio, digital compression schemes, or anything else that effects the end product.
    In order to be brainwashed, one needs to have a brain in the first place.

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