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Sangean WFR-20 internet radio

Sangean WFR-20 internet radio

Then I’ll begin.

I suppose I was an early adopter of internet radio.

I liked the idea of a device other than a computer accessing audio streams, and being a Brit living in the US it meant I could listen to the BBC. Radio 5 Live, Radio 4 and Radio 6 Music came across in ever better audio formats to the point where something like Radio 3 could be played via my hifi just to show how good streaming internet audio could be.

Alas, no more.

In its wisdom the BBC has decided to completely reformat its internet streams, hobbling them all to a 128kbps mp3 stream. Just as good as iTunes actually.

So what’s wrong with that?

Oh, yes, it’s fine if you’re listening to your iTunes via the $1 headphones that come with your iPhone. But listen to those new BBC streams through anything that remotely pretends to be hifi (that’s another story …) then compression, audio artefacts and just plain quality of sound reinforce the impression that the BBC has taken a massive step backwards by implementing these changes.

HD and lossless | low bitrate MP3

HD and lossless | low bitrate MP3

Hopefully, the illustration will demonstrate the difference between a high quality audio codec and a compressed, lossy format like mp3.

In effect, they’ve made many devices which were actually capable of using the BBC’s original high quality feeds obsolescent. You might as well listen over your iPhone.

It’ll be interesting what manufacturers such as Cambridge Audio and Denon, who’ve made features out of their $1k+ devices’ reproduction of the, up until now, very high quality Radio 3 codec, will have to say when all they can do is squeeze out something which sounds like it’s coming down an analogue telephone line – basically 19thC technology. In fact, the Radio 3 stream logo still shows it as HD sound even though it’s anything but. However, since they were advertising BBC HD and encouraging listeners to invest in high quality (expensive) equipment to maximise HD sound right up to the day they cut the feeds they probably pretty much don’t care.

Yes, they’ve said that they intend to make new improved streams, but using a technology which isn’t yet even available to listeners. Most existing devices cannot be upgraded to the new standards. So the BBC has graciously consented to providing these feeble 128kbps mp3 streams for the next couple of years by when most existing devices will be only of use as doorstops.

It’s like the BBC suddenly said they were ceasing to broadcast television in HD colour and from now on, as a stop gap they’d be providing a 405 line monochrome service until some new technology, which doesn’t actually exist yet, reinstates colour as a 625 line service. Oh. And by the way, four of those lines will be used for TeleText, and you’ll need a new TV.

Why is this. How can this have happened. For years the BBC was a driving force in invention and media development. For a long time listening to Radio 3 was the cheapest way into hifi. Why now has the BBC taken a massive step backwards in internet audio technology even though maintaining its, up until now, cutting edge in streaming technology would be a very small expense for a media giant? Why do its promised future developments seem to be aimed at squirting a compromised stream to an iPhone. Are BBC streams one day only to be available on iTunes. I seriously wonder.

Of course, there are plenty more fish in the sea. There are plenty of internet stations streaming all sorts of music in high quality, even lossless streams. Virtually all of them are very small operations indeed. So if they can do it, why is it a burden for probably the largest media organisation in the world?

Anyway, just to show how easy it can be you can listen to my very own internet radio station, Liquid Lounge, which uses a codec which carries an order of magnitude more audio information than the BBC’s – 216kbps AAC.

If I can do it why can’t they?

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