The in-car digital listening experience just got a whole new meaning with the new PURE Highway – a stick-on DAB device which transmits digital stations to your car's FM radio. We have been sent one to try, and here are our views..
From the fine manufacturers of DAB sets comes a radio for the car – the PURE Highway. Boasting an in-built FM transmitter, easy installation and high-sensitivity stick-on aerial, I just had to give this a try. Now, I already own a Philips handheld radio which I bought from John Lewis a couple of years ago for just under £80. I use this in the car to listen to DAB through a cassette tape adaptor. The sound is OK and the lead on the cassette adaptor is long enough to provide satisfactory reception inside the M25.
But with the PURE Highway at a mere £70, it'd be interesting to compare the two radios and to explore the benefits of each. Do note, however, that the Philips handheld no longer seems to be available to buy from any of the major electrical stores. But there are also other makes and models of handheld available.
Anyway, back to the Highway. The radio came complete with an aerial, a transformer to plug into the cigarette lighter socket of the car, and a cradle and sucker unit for the windscreen. Installation was a doddle, especially as a quick-start guide was provided on top of a full instruction manual. The radio was physically installed, and I was shown an FM frequency that the radio had decided was free to transmit on. I tuned this in on my car stereo and "PURE DAB" immediately came up on the RDS screen. In less than 5 minutes from when I opened the pack, the radio was set up and I was tuned into a DAB station. Great!
Out where I live, DAB reception is a bit patchy – the perfect opportunity to test this high-sensitivity aerial of PURE's. I had great expectations, considering my Philips had what some engineers would equate to a wet piece of string. With this head-start in mind, I didn't find the performance of the PURE exactly dazzling, and I could see no improvement in signal quality upon my Philips arrangement. However, the broken signal was slightly more pleasant to listen to, with a noise resembling a tape being rewound, rather than annoying gurgles, pops and screeches that my Philips gives. A really nice feature of the PURE is the option to mute the gurgling, so at times of low signal, the PURE can give you silence rather than the sound of rewinding tape. Unfortunately, this feature can be a bit over-zealous at times, and you may end up listening to more silence than radio. So for me, this feature was deliberately turned off. Perhaps in future firmware upgrades, it would be possible to have more control over the muting threshold. Another comment I'd like to make about the reception is that the operation of the FM transmitter didn't seem to interfere with the DAB signal, as you may come to expect if you've ever owned a cheap version of the iTrip! So PURE seem to have paid real close attention in this department.
The sound quality was quite impressive and had a similar range of dynamics compared to FM, unlike my Philips/tape arrangement, which created a much more duller sound with a lack of top end. Now, I don't actually have an AUX function on my radio, so the poor sound quality of the Philips probably had more to do with the cassette adaptor rather than the radio. But under those circumstances, I really do rate the PURE as a worthy improvement. At times, the sound can be a little crackly, most likely caused by interference on the in-use FM frequency. But a quick FM rescan (which involves pressing a mere two buttons on the radio) usually solves this problem. It'd be nice to have the option for a cabled set-up, but I can understand PURE's vision for a DAB radio to work for sure on all cars with FM radios. You'd be surprised how many cars don't have tape cassette players these days, but virtually every one has an FM radio. It may actually be possible to use the radio with an AUX cable that connected to the car stereo, but I was unable to test this. What I do know was that using the tape cassette adaptor with the PURE Highway was near impossible, due to high input volume causing major distortion. Note that there is no control over the volume once a power adaptor is used with the radio.
As a semi-permanent fixture of the car, it really is a convenient upgrade. PURE really have all bases covered: The aerial is discreet, the radio can be detached and is easy to set up during both first-time installations and when you're just jumping in the car for a quick journey to the shops. The radio itself is held by a magnet on the cradle rather than with the usual clamp you commonly have on other types of cradle. Whilst this provides a quick way of detachment, I'd still certainly remove the cradle entirely when I'm out of the car to avoid risking having my windscreen smashed in. In theory, the radio can also be used in multiple cars. I say it's theoretical, as PURE haven't yet provided a set of accessories to purchase as extras, so you can't exactly buy an aerial without buying the radio… yet?
Additional features of the radio that haven't been covered in this review include the option of plugging your iPod into the radio. This is done by plugging in a 3.5mm stereo lead into the side of the radio – useful if you don't have an iTrip. PURE's ReVu feature has also been built in to this radio, making it possible to pause and rewind radio by 10 second increments. I haven't found a real use for this just yet, and is probably too dangerous to fiddle with whilst driving, so I have no comment on this feature other than to mention its presence. Finally, a small yet important feature: The radio has a backlight for night-time control and listening.
Let's talk about the annoyances during normal use. Now, my car allows me to listen to the radio even when the car key isn't inserted. Unfortunate for me, it is a design that battery-power can only used when in portable mode. Portable mode means that the radio can be used as a personal radio – you take the radio off the cradle and plug in a pair of earphones and of you go. Except the radio is rather bulky (measuring 122mm x 70mm) and wouldn't really fit in your trouser pocket that well. The radio knows it's in portable mode when the power lead isn't plugged into it. "So take out the power lead", I hear you say. Yes, I can do that, but that'd mean losing the FM transmitter's functionality and I'd have to plug in my tape adaptor lead.. a bit too much hassle that I'd rather avoid having to do. I'm guessing the reason why the FM transmitter is not used during portable mode other than the fact you have no real reason to use it is that the operation for the transmitter may be a bit draining on the batteries.
Let's compare this to the usage of my Philips. I mainly run it on its rechargeable batteries as it comes with a 230V mains adaptor for home use, which conveniently, also charges the batteries whilst they're still seated inside the radio. The batteries give me around 7 hours of listening time. More than enough for any journey in the car. When I get into the car, I simply switch it on, plug it into my adaptor, and we're set up. When I turn my engine off, I have no interruption in the music. But I'm not restricted to listening off batteries. I also have the option of using a cigarette power supply that I can buy from Maplin or wherever. If my engine is turned off, I just remove the power lead from the Philips, and I switch it back on again. Simple! Personal listening is also more convenient, as it fits nicely in my pocket. I think my Philips is far more attractive in such cases. Depending on the reaction of PURE's users, there may be a demand for behavioural change, which can easily be fixed, with thanks to PURE Highway's USB socket for firmware updates to be applied.
Some other small niggles I've found which may be deciding factors in whether to choose this radio or perhaps an in-built DAB car stereo involves the tuning design. PURE have deliberately left out manual tuning, with the premise that if it's to be used in the car, autoscan is all that's needed. Whilst that's the responsible approach, the anorak in me would like to have the option of manual tune just to be able to try and lock onto a weak MUX regardless of signal quality. At present, I'd have to do an autoscan which searches ALL Band III DAB frequencies (not just the current UK ones of 11B-12D). This can take some time, and if the radio has decided the MUX I wanted to listen to is too weak, I'd have to perform the procedure all over again. A tad timewasting.
Another unusual problem I've found is the inability to search alternative MUXes for the same station. For example, if you're listening to KISS, and you're driving through one local MUX's coverage area into another, KISS wouldn't be found automatically. In my test, I was listening to KISS Essex from NOW Essex, driving into Central London. When the signal was completely lost, the radio did a small search, but refused to lock onto KISS on CE London. Not most helpful. Even when I manually retuned to KISS, I was presented with the KISS from Kent, whose signal had completely gone by the time I was where I was in London. No other KISS entries were available on the station list other than KISS Essex, presumably because KISS from NOW Kent shared the same SId as KISS from CE London. I cannot remember exactly what cured the problem, but I think it was a quick tune to a CE London station such as "Capital" before reselecting KISS. A bit of an awkward procedure that'd lose you a few more seconds of attention from your primary role of driving.
As we've already covered the accessories included, let's take a brief look at what's not included that you may expect to be included. You're not provided with any batteries, nor the 3.5mm stereo cable for the auxiliary function. Not a real problem, but these may have come in handy. If you decide to purchase a cable separately, the freedom is yours over the length of it. If you have kids in the car and you don't particularly mind them blasting their music all over the stereo, you may opt to buy a cable long enough to reach the backseat so that it can be plugged into the iPods in their hand.
To conclude, the PURE Highway is an impressive radio if you don't already have in-car DAB. The sensitivity is far from amazing, but at £70, it really is a steal (and to be honest, you're probably not going to get any better results with other windscreen-mount aerials). If you already own a personal/handheld DAB, you may decide the PURE Highway is not worth the effort, as the benefits aren't particularly great and you're probably better off with the convenience and the size of the handheld. But if sound quality is important to you, then I would recommend getting the PURE Highway, regardless. I applaud PURE for bringing out a convenient in-car DAB adaptor for the masses!