Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/12/16/review_dab_bluetooth_combo_radios_group_test/

Station to station: Ten DAB-Bluetooth combo radios

Take your pick – airwaves entertainment or stream your own

By Bob Dormon

Posted in Top Ten, 16th December 2013 10:03 GMT

Product roundup When Apple changed its longstanding 30-pin iPod connector to the Lightning interface, an industry died. The ubiquitous iPod dock – that for years had appeared on just about any piece of consumer audio gear – was no longer a necessity and with more Android users out there than ever before, only a few manufacturers would offer a Lightning dock alternative.

Indeed, as mobile phones have replaced PMPs, docking doesn’t come into play any more and that shift has seen the option to use Bluetooth wireless streaming for audio interfacing instead. While Bluetooth speakers have been in abundance for some time, this year has seen a much more satisfying marriage of the DAB radio offering Bluetooth connectivity. Start looking and you’ll notice them everywhere.

Besides being handy to play your own tunes over Bluetooth, there are numerous Internet radio apps for phones and tablets, that can be played to this kit too. Sure you need to have your mobile tech within proximity of the DAB/Bluetooth radio, as Bluetooth isn’t the most robust of wireless communications, but it does mean you can avoid shelling out extra for Internet connectivity on the radio itself.

We’ve gathered together some of the latest of these combos all featuring Bluetooth 2.1 or higher, DAB and FM radios. In all cases, Bluetooth pairing was achieved in seconds with no need to enter passwords or codes. Apart from the DAB Goodmans and Sandstrom models, all receivers were DAB+ but none had LW or MW bands on board. However, they all featured aux inputs so you can attach your crystal set if needs must.

Radio tuners aside, to see how well these combos performed with Bluetooth we tested them all out with Android (Motorola Moto G), iOS (Apple iPhone 4s) and Windows Phone (Nokia Lumia 820) to find out whether you should be making shelf space for a new wireless, wireless this Christmas.

Goodmans GCR1888DABBT Bluetooth DAB Clock Radio

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This DAB-Bluetooth combo radio is unmistakably designed for bedside use with its Bluetooth pairing functionality being a bit of a bonus. You won’t find DAB+ on here as it’s DAB only but this, along with the FM receiver, can be configured with 10 presets each.

Apart from the bulge around the back, face-on it’s about the same size as a large phablet. Connectivity is well catered for, featuring a USB charging port, headphone and aux input sockets – it even comes with a minijack connecting cable to hook up external audio gear, which is a very handy addition.

Goodmans GCR1888DABBT Bluetooth DAB Clock Radio

Bedside companion: compact and versatile with an easy to read display

The control buttons are all along the top with a big snooze bar in the centre. Switching modes and pairing for Bluetooth were simple enough to manage with repeated prods, but the lack of any dial does mean that cursor keys take on scrolling duties. Until you get the hang of the various menu layers, you’ll be making tiresome mistakes as you cue up stations to store as presets. Thankfully, none of this takes too long to work through.

For the most part, the navigation is intuitive, although on occasion these firm, rubberised buttons appeared to need additional presses, but often it was actually due to a slight delay in processing tasks. The intuitive poking doesn’t sustain into the two separate alarm settings though. Anyone using this as an alarm clock will need to take a look at the manual, as there are a few tricks that need to be observed that you’d never fathom without knowing the user guide clues.

If you’re in a challenging reception area, you’ll need to experiment with the wire aerial positioning to avoid babbling brook moments on DAB and FM interference too, but it wasn’t especially troublesome in tests after a bit of fiddling. The 2in speaker driver isn’t going shake the room but it’s loud enough to wake you up and while bass isn’t exactly high on the menu here, the overall output at its sober maximum volume is perfectly acceptable for its bedside duties.

Goodmans GCR1888DABBT Bluetooth DAB Clock Radio

No dials but you soon get the hang of the buttons

Lest we forget that this receiver does function in stereo from the headphone output, so if you were keen to get a cheap DAB-Bluetooth unit to hook up to a beefier stereo system, you could get away with it using this Goodmans clock radio. I know, the audiophiles out there are cringing at the thought, but hey, it works and on-line you can find this for under £50 which is what many are charging for some dumb Bluetooth streamers alone.

Price £60
More info Goodmans

Goodmans Heritage GSR1889DABBT

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As retro radios go, this Goodmans certainly makes a statement not only with its styling and wooden enclosure, but its sheer size. This is one for granny’s sideboard and she wouldn’t find it too much of a challenge to operate either.

The row of buttons spanning the breath of the front fascia gives it looks akin to a giant car radio from a 1950s American classic auto. The only quirk being the unlabelled knobs – press the one on the left for power and rotate for volume. The one on the right handles Menu scrolling with a press for selection.

Goodmans Heritage GSR1889DABBT

The orange LCD screen hints at the colour of glowing valves and adds to the retro appearance

Among the buttons is one for EQ which has a selection of presets and a custom EQ set-up which is a combination of bass and treble tweaks together with a loudness option that delivers a more in your face sound. While not particularly subtle, this palette of tonal colouration is definitely worth having.

Digging around the menu reveals some other differences to models on test here. The FM scanning has detection options for Strong and All Stations, however, your mileage will vary depending on the amount of interference, but the Strong setting is definitely handy if you’re adding a few local FM favourites.

The unimposing LCD provides helpful at-a-glance details with more esoteric DAB information accessible with repeated prods on the Info button. There are two alarms and a sleep timer, but it lacks a dedicated snooze button. Round the back is interfacing for the headphones and an aux input but no USB charging or firmware updating port. Alas, this is a DAB-only radio rather than DAB+ but granny might not be around when they finally phase out DAB, so you can buy with confidence.

Goodmans Heritage GSR1889DABBT

The push-button dials are unlabelled but are easy to work out with a quick prod
Click for a larger image

And indeed you can as this receiver has stereo speakers that belt out 2 x 10W, so if it’s volume you’re after, this model delivers. It’s one of the best sounding too as its size and shared sonic duties over two speakers seem to give it less of challenge at higher levels than some of the bookshelf alternatives have to grapple with – and don’t forget those EQ options as they can add a bit of spice to lacklustre mixes. Also available in white, if you don’t need a compact receiver, then the Goodmans Heritage makes an impact both audibly and visually.

Price £130
More info Goodmans Heritage on Amazon

Philips Original radio mini ORT2300

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Unmistakably retro and loosely based on the 1955 Philetta (BF 102 U), the Philips ORT2300 is eye-catching from the moment you take it out of the box. It looks like it might have started out as a white plastic casing at the beginning of its life but has sat on top of the fridge in a smoky transport café for two decades and soaked up its share of the atmosphere to produce its yellowing appearance.

Apart from a dual function volume/power knob at the front, all the controls are on the top of this DAB/FM /Bluetooth radio. The thinking here is it’ll be used by the bedside and lazy fumbles across the top will suffice in finding the sleep bar and other functions such as the two alarms as well as station, presets and source switching. It’s just a shame that Philips have graced the front of it with an intense blue power indicator LED that’ll surely be a distraction when the lights are out.

Philips Original radio mini ORT2300

Retro styling but not a valve in sight

At least the main LCD has dimming options and besides the time, shows station information and the current mode. The various modes appear in different places on the display, as if it were a dial, adding another retro element. A nice touch is the Bluetooth pairing momentarily shows the name of the device on the display when the connection has been established. Philips goes a step further offering the Philips DigitalRadio app on Android and iOS that taps into the functionality of the radio and enables remote control from your mobile device – so it’s a two way street of sorts.

On iTunes, the Philips DigitalRadio app doesn’t get great review, as it seems the folk trying it out don’t have a suitable Philips product to match it to. So I gave it a shot and was immediately impressed. Whilst testing it was updated too and now notifies users of any compatibility issues.

Philips Digital Radio v2 app

Philips DigitalRadio app revamped: sources, song playback and preset configuration
Click for a larger image

All sources can be controlled, including the volume of the Aux input round the back. Volume level changes using the front a panel knob are reflected in the app too and when playing audio using Bluetooth, the song title appears on the radio front panel display. You can even tune the FM radio from the app and there’s a listing of DAB radio stations to scroll through and choose from, as well enabling configuration and selection of your presets.

Sonically, the Philips ORT2300 can get quite loud without any major distortion issues and although it lacks much in the way of bass boom, it has enough range to be comfortable listening for music playback. That said, there's no headphone or line out here, so you're stuck with the built-in mono speaker, as it can't be hooked up to a hi-fi either.

Philips Original radio mini ORT2300

Old style dial effect for the mode switching

Admittedly, not everyone will thrill to its appearance and deliberate plastic styling, but there’s more than looks to this radio, especially if you load up the free DigitalRadio app, and for bedside use, there’s a USB socket at the back that’s designed specifically for charging devices. All in all, its Bluetooth use is very well thought out, but it's a pity the Philips Original isn't a bit cheaper given the alternatives at this price.

Price £110
More info Philips

Pure Evoke D2 with Bluetooth

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Bluetooth appears to have covered the Pure range like a rash over this last year, first showing itself on its Jongo portable speakers and now joining the forces with its DAB and Wi-Fi radios. Indeed, the Evoke D2 can be bought as just a standalone DAB/FM radio for £85 but pay another £15 and you get the addition of Bluetooth functionality.

Pure’s penchant for styling hasn’t always blended well with the user experience, often requiring a fair share of prods and twirls to gain satisfaction. Indeed, enabling Bluetooth does involve a bit of this too, but on the whole the Evoke D2 hits the right balance. With a few presses of the Source button you can be hooked up to Bluetooth, the display simply showing whether a track is playing or paused.

Pure Evoke D2 with Bluetooth

The perfect bookshelf Bluetooth-radio combo?

Four dedicated preset buttons on the front panel simplify station preferences with the fourth button offering scrolling to a total of ten preset channels. There’s not much else to see, but press the Menu button and you can scroll through various alarms and timers, bass and treble tweaks and various submenus for display preferences, firmware upgrading and the like.

Round the back is a micro USB socket reserved for upgrading along with an aux input and headphone output – the latter having to double as a line out if used with a hi-fi setup, which isn’t ideally matched but will work. There’s a sizeable speaker port here too and a panel that hides the battery chamber for the proprietary B1 ChargePAK that’ll set you back around £28.

The DAB reception proved top notch although the same couldn’t be said for the FM side of things. The Seek function seemingly tuning into noise rather than a proper station. Admittedly office tech interference didn’t help here, but sorting out the wheat from the chaff is what you’d hope the scanning process would achieve. Still, there is manual tuning if all else fails.

Pure Evoke D2 with Bluetooth front panel

No snooze button to slap here, but it does feature alarms and timers aplenty

The D2 does sound good though, albeit not the loudest nor the warmest. However the output is very well contained seemingly working within the limits of the speaker by not challenging it with a level of amplification or lower bass frequencies that it can’t handle. That said the tone controls do make a significant difference, if you feel the need to warm or brighten things up. As DAB/FM/Bluetooth radios go, it’s a sensible choice, sitting pretty on a bookshelf, bedside or even on top of the fridge and Pure has just announced Glacer white versions of the D2 and D4 Bluetooth models, if Domino black doesn't appeal.

Price £100
More info Pure

Pure Evoke D4 with Bluetooth

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While the Evoke D4 might simply appear to be a bigger brother to the Evoke D2, it does have some significant differences. For a start, that carry handle doubles as a snooze bar allowing a sleepy grope for instant relief after a rude awakening. As for domestic pleasures, the D4 gets a slim remote control to change modes, channels, presets and volume.

The display is bigger too and scrolling through the options it’s interesting to see that there are no bass and treble tone controls available. Besides an array of presets, the front panel also provides dedicated buttons for the two alarms and the timers, rather than having them tucked away under the Menu section as the D2 does.

Pure Evoke D4 with Bluetooth front panel

Slap happy: the Snooze Handle takes care of penetrating aural arousal in the mornings

The Bluetooth set-up is pretty much the same as the D2, although the display doesn’t report whether playing or paused, just rather boringly states: No battery. Well that’s probably because it’s a proprietary F1 ChargePAK that costs an extra £35.

Pure does offer something for nothing in the form of its Pure Connect app for iOS and Android. Along with Nokia MixRadio, I used this app as part of the product testing, as it enables easy access to Internet radio stations from a mobile phone or tablet, which what all of these radio makers are hoping you will do one way or another.

Using Pure Connect you can access your own tracks stored on your mobile device as well as enable music purchasing, iTunes-style and music streaming. With the latter the free Green service hooks up to listen again and Internet radio or you can opt for the Blue (£5) or Violet (£10) monthly subscriptions for various all-you-can-eat options.

Pure Connect app on Android

Pure Connect app on Android: create your own playlists, search for music and on-demand radio programmes
Click for a larger image

Overall, the Evoke D4 radio reception performance is on a par with the D2, but sonically this model is definitely warmer but not noticeably louder. I asked Pure’s PR what the difference was, and was told that the D4's physical size had an impact on “audio capacity”. Er, so the D4 can play an orchestra whereas the D2 is better for solo acoustic sets? A request for clarification didn’t really expound upon the earlier statement, but I’ll assume its capacious ported cabinet helps deliver sonic enhancements.

Whether it is worth an extra £50 for a few more front panel buttons and additional presets would surely depend on how much you value fingering a remote or fondling a snooze handle. And if you’re that keen, why not go the extra mile and get the Pure Evoke F4 which for £180 has Internet radio too, but you lose out on the preset buttons. Always a catch, eh?

Price £150
More info Pure

Revo SuperSignal

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In terms of styling the SuperSignal it’s quite a big departure for Revo with a big volume dial on the top of it that reminds me of Ruark (formerly VitaAudio) kit, yet with an aluminium speaker grille that takes me back to gazing at Ferguson radios in the Dixons’ catalogue in the late 1970s. As for the chunky remote control, this monster is more 1980s Ferguson TV.

Revo Supersignal with Bluetooth

The SuperSignal with Pixis RS touchscreen internet radio in the background – where on earth did Revo find that remote control?

The real wood walnut casing features a bass port in the base working in tandem with the 3.5in speaker and 10W Class D amplification. At 2.3kg, it’s surprisingly weighty and a fair size too, although I found this rather reassuring. Given it has an array of buttons for set up functions including an alarm and dedicated five presets, and a neat joystick navigation control, a bit of weight helps when prodding at it on a bedside table.

That said, the back panel has phono outputs so you can hook this up to hi-fi system and hear everything in stereo and there's the front panel headphone socket too. The Aux input enable wired devices to join in the fun and firmware upgrades can be performed using the USB B port.

The Mode button toggles through the playback options that include an RDS FM radio. Select Bluetooth and the display reports “Discoverable…” and then “Device Connected” once you’ve paired it with your phone. Apart from the time, that’s all you’ll see on the display when using Bluetooth. Revo is keen to flag up that it has aptX tech on-board too, so if you have a source device that supports this protocol, you can hook it up for a superior quality audio stream.

Revo Supersignal with Bluetooth front panel

Handy volume and power controls on the top with a joystick to the top right up front

I did try connecting multiple phones which is possible on some Bluetooth speaker systems, but the SuperSignal just stayed loyal to one pairing partner at a time. I liked the practicality of the SuperSignal – the essentials of power and volume so easy to reach and the hi-fi interfacing options to expand its functionality. The array of buttons is a very different approach to Revo’s Pixis DAB/Internet radios that rely on touchscreens and are worth looking at it if you’re in two minds about Bluetooth streaming.

One thing that makes the SuperSignal stand out is arguably the most important, the sound quality. It’s was the loudest single speaker unit on test, delivering a warm and punchy output at full throttle without raucousness or noticeable distortion. £180 is a bit on the high side for a DAB-Bluetooth combo radio, but with the Revo Supersignal, you not only hear the difference, thanks to its fuss-free layout, you get to experience it too.

Price £180
More info Revo

Roberts Blutune 50

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Described as a 2.1 sound system, this Roberts radio features two small, probably 1in drivers behind a cloth grille at the front and one 2.5in downward firing driver in the base. It’s a cheeky way of getting around providing stereo speakers with a decent bass response and everybody is at it these days. Still, for casual listening, rather than an audiophile critique, this arrangement works well enough in most cases and here it sounds just fine.

Roberts Blutune 50 DAB+ radio with Bluetooth

The only model on test with stereo speakers, the Blutune 50 has a downward firing bass driver too

This speaker set-up also enables a smaller build, and the Blutune 50’s pleasing compactness rather reminds me of some bench test equipment of old. With just two knobs – volume and tuning/scroll select – along with the central LCD screen on the front panel, the remaining controls including Mode, Menu, Preset, Alarm and Snooze buttons are on top.

Curiously, there are transport controls here too. It turns out you can use them to operate the playback from the Bluetooth connected device. This does rather reverse the typical control set-up, but is handy nonetheless. For instance, idly playing the jazz selection from Nokia MixRadio I could skip back and forth over tracks and pause playback too.

Nokia MixRadio app for Windows Phone

Nokia MixRadio: playback options, artist mix and genre mix collections
Click for a larger image

Unlike the Roberts Revival below, there’s no handset pairing information in the Blutune 50 display, which in terms of typography is rather unsubtle with its blatant digital clock appearance. Besides time and abbreviated day of the week, it can be set to scroll through the DAB programme information, but there’s very little else in terms of detail and customisation available here. Round the back there’s headphone output and Aux input connectivity along with USB charging and firmware update ports.

Roberts Blutune 50 controls

The top panel features transport controls to play and pause the Bluetooth stream playback

In use, it’s fairly quick to get going and the sound is perfectly respectable, notching up a decent volume without too much of a fuss. As the only unit on test equipped with a 2.1 speaker arrangement, at times the sound did seem slightly less contained than most of the other models with the mix of some tracks faring better with the bass driver blend than others. Once or twice, the DAB reception had its babbling brook moments but all in all, the Roberts Blutune 50 is solid and delivers but could really do with a display makeover.

Price £100
More info Roberts

Roberts Revival Blutune

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When it comes to retro radios, Roberts has had this corner of the market well populated for quite some time with regular refreshes to its Revival range - from its traditional Heritage colours livery to Jubilee colours and Union flag decor. In keeping with its Bluetooth functionality, the Revival Blutune's charcoal leatherette casing distinguishes itself with a couple of blue pinstripes around the edges.

Roberts Revival Blutune

The Revival sound projects well – the speaker porting can be seen through the grille

As one of two radios in this selection supporting standard battery cells, its carry strap adds a go anywhere touch and go anywhere you might, as the reception on both FM and DAB isn’t that impressive. Admittedly office conditions are quite demanding regarding interference, but it didn’t particularly shine as others on test had done.

To cap it all, the headphone socket doesn’t properly accommodate four-pole jack-plugs featured on mic/headsets used on mobile phones. I tried out two different makes and the problem is the output is out of phase, creating karaoke style versions of the test songs played via Bluetooth – vocals disappeared along with the bass – and suffering a massive drop in volume on talk radio channels.

If you’ve a standard three-pole headphone jack, then it all sounds fine, bass and vocals are all there. Roberts could easily fix this headset issue with some thoughtful headphone socket hardware choices and wiring to suit.

The 3in speaker delivers a fairly robust output and its roomy ported cabinet has a resonance that errs toward the lower mid-range, which is ideal for talk radio clarity, but does colour music playback such that it wasn’t as warm as others models but it did project the sound well.

Roberts Revival Blutune

Uncomplicated controls with a one stop shop Favourite button to instantly avoid channel crossing chaos

With all the controls on the top panel, you simply toggle through the modes to get to Bluetooth and then press the adjacent pair button. Unlike the Blutune 50, the name of the mobile device does appear on-screen and a blue LED indicator glows to confirming the connection. It even has those quirky transport controls too and if you open up the back, there’s a USB B port for firmware updates.

Although you can fill up the Revival Blutune with presets and scroll through them, I rather liked the dedicated Favourite button – a saviour for grown-up devotees of a particular station who end up sharing radio listening pleasures with channel hopping teenage children. Also, if you fancy hooking it up to a stereo, it has a line output and for wired devices, an aux input too. As DAB/FM/Bluetooth combos go, it’s truly portable and looks good but for the price it could perform a lot better.

Price £200
More info Roberts

Sandstrom S7BTD12

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If you’d not heard of Sandstrom before it’s not too surprising as this is the Dixons/Currys/PC World taste-the-difference audio brand that cuts a bit more of a dash than its Happy Shopper-style Logik offerings.

Certainly, as far as performance goes, this bookshelf design with a ported speaker packs a punch and delivers respectable DAB/FM reception too. The Bluetooth communication required a few flicks of the mode switch from a familiar looking range of options. At a glance, the list of functions suggests it has the same innards as the Philips or Revo but this model, like the other Sandstrom on test is DAB only with no DAB+ receiver.

Sandstrom S7BTD12 DAB-Bluetooth radio

The cheapest model on test holds its own rather well

For the time being at least, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem although audiophiles will argue the merits of the improved codecs on DAB+. Well, to be honest, audiophiles are more likely to argue the merits of FM stereo than DAB+, but I digress.

The front panel has a feast of buttons with some doubling as transport controls for Bluetooth playback. It does save diving into lengthy menus but you’ll need to do some prods and twirls for preset access via the Memory button. Likewise, FM autotuning needs a bit of encouragement this way too.

As a bedside or kitchen companion there’s little to complain about with its aux input, headphone jack and USB charging around the back accommodating various scenarios.

Sandstrom S7BTD12 front panel

A rather busy front panel but sensibly laid out all the same

One thing to watch out for is the name of this radio doesn’t appear in the Bluetooth device listing on your mobile. Instead, when pairing you’ll either see "Bluetooth speaker" or a MAC address, while it thinks about what to display. With this Sandstrom you do get what you pay for given the absence of DAB+ but the rest is quite stylish with a sound that, while no bass boomer, is certainly very listenable and quite pokey too.

Price £60
More info Sandstrom

Sandstrom SDABXRL13

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As I type, El Reg’s boozy afternoon Christmas bash is underway and I’m busy testing this late arrival to our Bluetooth-DAB radio fest; streaming some choice New Wave tunes from a bygone era and blasting them out across the office as fellow Vultures sup ale, make merry and shout out song requests.

Sandstrom SDABXBL13 DAB-Bluetooth radio

Can be battery operated too, just be sure to stock up on rechargeables

Still, I’m no party pooper, playing DJ with streaming services while actually sort of working, ’tis no bad thing and this Sandstrom acquits itself very well. While it doesn’t pump out bass anything like the Revo SuperSignal, it certainly doesn’t whisper either. Unlike its S7BTD12 stablemate, the styling is rather more spread out and doesn’t seem so finessed, but it all works and it’ll even report its name when pairing to Bluetooth devices and features transport controls too.

The carry handle is a giveaway, as it does take batteries. Yup, 6 x AA cells which, given DAB’s power hungry nature, doesn’t suggest they would last too long – some high power rechargeable cells would seem to be in order here, if you want to chance it. Round the back are the aux and headphone jack sockets and a USB B port for updates, which hopefully will make an appearance on the dedicated Sandstrom site which, as far as support goes, looks very much like work in progress.

Sandstrom SDABXBL13 DAB-Bluetooth radio

Styling for a stainless steel kitchen?

While there is an alarm you won’t find a snooze button and likewise the sleep options are all buried in the Menu functions. Although presets are another prod and twirl effort, the large LCD delivers a good level of information showing, stations, programme material and the obligatory clock. Perhaps not the first choice for the bedroom, it would play nice in the kitchen or home office, especially as you'll currently find it discounted from £100 to £70. ®

Price £70
More info Sandstrom