Data-Free FM Radio Arrives On The iPhone

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For months, TagStation LLC and the team behind its NextRadio app worked hard with Apple to get its smartphones to include an enabled FM chip, which would allow users to access local radio stations.


Apple has been a stubborn player, drawing the scorn of individuals including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Now, a Southern California-based tech company has brought to market an App that just might trump what Emmis Communications-based TagStation hoped to perfect—FM radio, data-free, to an iPhone.

RBR+TVBR first learned of the product, the SOUNDOT AF1 headset for iPhones and iPads using the Lightning interface, in April — ahead of the 2018 NAB Show in Las Vegas.

Working with audio design partners Tempo Semiconductor Inc. (TSI) and Silicon Labs (SLAB), the Walnut, Calif.-based tech company developing the product, Blackloud, formally brought the SOUNDOT AF1 to market on Sept. 18.

It features an iOS app and “premium lossless sound quality” for listening to music, watching videos, answering calls, and activating Siri.

But here’s the plus for radio broadcasting executives: The SOUNDOT headset also lets users directly access compression-free FM radio anywhere in the world via the FM chip embedded in its control box, without requiring internet connectivity or an activated FM chip in the iOS device itself.

At the 2018 Radio Show in Orlando, executives from Blackloud were on hand to promote SOUNDOT; attendees could have received a 10% discount for what is available for $79.89 on Amazon.

RBR+TVBR received a SOUNDOT AF1 for reviewing purposes. Was this radio’s solution for bringing over-the-air radio to the iPhone user?

It is.

On the convention floor, stations including WPCV-FM in Winter Haven, Fla., and WNUE-FM 98.1 in Deltona — some 45 miles away — scanned up.

Throughout the weekend in Delray Beach, Fla., many West Palm Beach and Miami stations were easily accessible.

But not all immediately scanned up.

Not to worry, as after playing around with the App one downloads to activate the SOUNDOT AF1, manual tuning brought us a variety of local and distant stations.

HOW IT WORKS

To be clear, SOUNDOT AF1’s technology does not involve a “chip” in the headset or turn an iPhone into a radio. Rather, the tuner is embedded in the headset, with the chord acting as an antenna and the lightning plug the activation signal for use of the SOUNDOT App — a digital audio tuner one may download from the iTunes store at no cost.

For Android-powered phones, Google Play offers the SOUNDOT App with a similar interface.

But, it is its use on the iPhone that has gotten the notice of not only Chairman Pai, but also iHeartMedia VP Drew Kondylas, Puerto Rico’s UNO Radio Group — a fierce advocate for FM chips in smartphones following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017, Media Services Group broker George Reed and broadcast radio engineer Steve Clawson.

Upon downloading the app and plugging in the headset, one can scan up local radio.

RBR+TVBR‘s Hollywood, Fla., editorial offices are close to an antenna farm, causing some interference issues on the FM dial. Still, most “major” FM signals scanned up, including NPR member station WLRN-FM, Cox Media Group’s top-rated WFEZ-FM “Easy 93.1,” and stations from iHeartMedia, Entercom, SBS and Univision Radio.

It took a manual swirl of the dial to try some of the more distant stations. WDNA-FM 88.9, the noncommercial Jazz station with BBC World News at the top of the hour, was a struggle but somewhat audible. The KLOVE member station was very clear, although unable to scan up. The same was the case for SBS’s WCMQ-FM “Z92” and WRMA-FM “Ritmo 95.7,” which each share a more distant tower site in downtown Miami. Even translators, such as that used for Dance WZFL/WHYI-HD2 “Revolution 93-5,” sounded great. Alpha Media’s just-sold WRMF-FM 97.9 in West Palm Beach is also manually tunable.

The sound is adjustable, with preset or custom EQ settings in the App.

What are the drawbacks? Data isn’t being gobbled up, and it can be used in a time of emergency when local wireless networks are strained or go down completely. Plus, it doesn’t consume a lot of battery power. But it’s for personal use: There is yet to be a model that uses a speaker. Perhaps an App upgrade will include a Bluetooth option, sending the over-the-air signal from the headphones to a speaker.

For techies, the driver size is 015+07. The microphone is omni-directional, with a metallic case and a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Sensitivity is 110 db/mW at 1 kHz. It has a 32-bit audio codec with 24-bit DSP.

For individuals in areas prone to natural disasters, it is another essential for the emergency supply kit.

RBR+TVBR inquired with C-Suite executives from Blackloud at the 2018 Radio Show about its retail plan of action. They note that Amazon.com is the main outlet.

That is unacceptable. We recommended that the SOUNDOT AF1 be available at every retailer that sells emergency preparedness products, or items of need for those in regions prone to earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, wildfires or lava flow.

In short, this product should be sold across the U.S. in retailers as broad as CVS/Pharmacy and Walgreens/Duane Reade to Costco, Walmart, Target, Fred Meyer, Best Buy, and Publix supermarkets.

Further, the American Red Cross should offer this product as part of their emergency supply kits available for sale.

While we support NextRadio and its efforts, SOUNDOT AF1 brings live radio to an iPhone today.

The industry should do whatever it takes to make this known to every American now.


1 COMMENT

  1. RBR.com just received this comment, from a media pro who wished to remain anonymous:

    I’m fascinated by the Soundot product and popped over to Amazon for a look. It almost seemed buried in their lineup, and took some time to find. Oddly it had no reviews yet. At $79 it will be interesting to see if it can draw folks over from the popular apple pods that I’m seeing a lot of.

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