Review: LG Stylus 2 - is the DAB+ radio in this phone any good?
I test the DAB+ radio in two countries and discover where it's flawless - and where it's useless
At Radiodays Europe, the LG Stylus 2 mobile phone was released: a mid-range “phablet” with a DAB+ radio inside it.
Most inbuilt radio receivers in devices like this have been placed there as an afterthought: with poor sensitivity and poor user interface, so I thought I’d give the DAB+ part a test in both London and Brisbane to see how it fared.
My LG Stylus 2 is using the production-release firmware. I wasn’t given a pair of headphones, so I used a personal pair of Sennheiser bud earphones which have a very thin wire. I’m telling you this because the headphones act as the antenna, rather than an unwieldy and breakable separate antenna.
LG intends radio broadcasters to use the API to make their own apps better: and that's the game-changer here. That said, it comes with a default DAB+ app, which itself is basic but does the job: it presents an alphabetical list of stations. The battery appears to decline by 5% an hour when listening to the DAB+ app (with mobile data switched off). Naturally, you can turn the screen off and still listen.
Reception on the Eurostar was, politely, patchy. My first experience of the DAB+ reception was listening in Kent: never the best place to listen to DAB, given its proximity to France and lower transmission power. Reception was, however, rock solid on the train in London (overground) on the approach to St Pancras, and relatively good in the basement of the station. I tried a number of stations including the new SDL multiplex, listening to some of the test transmissions for talkRADIO and Virgin, as well as some of the splashy-sounding DAB+ services.
BBC DAB coverage in central London is mostly supplied by an 800W transmitter on the BT Tower (plus many more, including a 10kW transmitter at Crystal Palace, 16km away). While walking in London, mostly on the Euston Road, reception of all multiplexes was solid - no breaks, just great-sounding audio, sounding significantly more robust that you ever get from portable FM. A bus between Kings Cross and Paddington station gave perfect reception of BBC Radio 6 music.
The experience wasn't as good on the Heathrow Connect train. In fact, reception of any station was almost zero. Whether they put some coating on the windows, I don't know - but while it was flawless on the bus, it was useless on the train. Given the use-case of a commuter, this is disappointing.
Unlike London, which is a patchwork of lower-powered transmitters on a single-frequency network, Brisbane’s DAB is one big 12.5kW transmitter on top of Mount Coot-tha, which overlooks the city centre 8km away. I tested the LG Stylus 2 while in a bus (with advertising mesh on the windows) from the Mount Coot-tha foothills into the city centre - low-rise suburbs to a difficult terrain of high-rise buildings on the way down to the river. I listened to 973, a music station on the Brisbane 1 multiplex.
Reception wasn't flawless on the twenty-minute journey, but there were only three glitches (towards the beginning of the journey). In the city centre, while walking round amidst the high-rise buildings, reception was perfect. One big powerful transmitter ought to give ‘shadows’: areas where there is no useful coverage; and perhaps that’s what I was getting at the start of the journey; however, reception in the city centre was surprisingly good.
Australian DAB stations, all using DAB+, are in stereo and sound relatively rich and sonorous. 973 sounded good, if a little splashy at high frequencies, with a good stereo signal, and nice dynamic processing. It turns out it's just 48kbps DAB+, which surprised me. (There isn’t any way to see bitrate from the standard tuner).
London? While BBC Radio 6 Music sounded excellent, most of the commercial stations I tried to listen to sounded fairly poor. This isn't the fault of the LG phone: more that mono simply doesn't sound as good as stereo when using earbuds. With no stereo separation, commercial radio was, simply, a poor choice in comparison to the BBC. I found myself listening less: and distinctly underwhelmed by the Virgin tests.
The experience in Australia; yes, it has an FM radio too (with RDS); and in the UK
When listening to radio in the UK, the screen is mostly blank. DLS (“livetext”, the scrolly text thing) displays, but that’s as far as you get. (I believe, though I didn’t think to try it, that Capital carries slides).
In Australia, almost every channel has a slideshow of some sort. ABC Radio National carries a simple slide with a logo, but 973 has a rotating set of information slides including pictures of the current presenters, a weather slide, and a news slide - though that one was partially broken. The slides display on the LG phone perfectly.
The radio in conclusion
My tests - both, admittedly, in relatively strong signal areas - show that the LG Stylus 2 does a great job of pulling in a DAB signal. I’ve tried using a portable DAB set in central Brisbane before: not to great results; but this device was a solid performer. Better, you could keep it in a pocket like an ordinary mobile phone, since there’s no antenna to wave around. Reception is great, and if I was travelling into work by bus every morning, this would be a brilliant phone to have: hardly any battery consumption and rock-solid sound.
The software's fine, though bespoke software will be better. I hope LG allow more people to produce new DAB+ tuners; I'm sure there's a market for one that shows all the possible data from the multiplex, as well as others which will look better for a normal listener.
Indeed, the only let-down was the UK's mono stations, and whatever was hampering the coverage on the Heathrow Connect. Neither are LG's fault, though both are significant.
And the rest of the phone
In terms of specifications, the phone itself might have a large screen, but it displays the same amount of information as LG's flagship Nexus 5 phone (from October 2013), at a worse dpi. It has a larger battery (which is removable), but a little less RAM. It runs Android 6.0, and has access to the Android monthly security patches. It's certainly a mid-range phone, and a little unfair to compare it to the Nexus 5 (but that's what I'm going to do, since I own one).
It runs well, has some strange LG customisations over the top of Android, and the stylus is a nice gimmick (though I suspect most users will never take it out after the second day of owning it). The power button and volume control are on the back of the phone, in a placement that LG are proud of, but in one I found a little annoying.
The phone itself was launched in Barcelona last month, but that launch didn't mention the DAB+ capability. It's now a game of wait-and-see to see whether consumers see the benefit of a capable radio inside a mobile phone: or, even, whether they know it's there. I hope they do - because it's pretty good.