Review: Ocean DBA-03R Internet Radio Adaptor with DAB

Introduction

This article reviews the Ocean DBA-03R digital audio player, with an emphasis on its usability and sound quality. It also explores potential and realistic sound quality (HIFi) quality levels with the various modes whatever device you use.

I’ve been looking for something like this device ever since my old laptop died. I’d been usingMediaMonkey on that for some time to manage and play my large digital music collection over the HiFi. I also use TuneIn Radio, so this seemed like the ideal replacement – a dedicated digital music device with the added bonus of DAB radio.

There being a poor (non-existent) selection of such devices locally, I found the Ocean at Amazon (in May 2018) for £90, supposedly reduced from £140 (LOL). It is currently (December 2018) on sale for £65, which is a much more realistic and attractive price. (Confusingly, some reviews there refer to another model with speakers.)

Unboxing and setup

The unit comes in a glossy cardboard box proclaiming its features, with a photo of it in the rarely-encountered DAB graphical slide-show mode.

Inside, you get the unit itself, manual, a power brick, remote control, aerial wire and a 3.5mm to phono lead for the analogue output (so yes, you can use it easily with any powered speaker or HiFi). You need to provide amplification/speakers and a drawing pin or small blob of blu-tac to attach the extended aerial wire.

Around the back are connections for analogue audio out (3.5mm), aerial, digital optical audio out and power, then a power switch. There is no optical digital lead (nor coaxial digital output, nor wired ethernet).

The radio measures 7 x 4 x 2”, with a 7.5” diagonal front face around a 2.25” colour TFT screen (rather small, but usable at close quarters).Viewing angle and resolution are OK, with brightness adequate. The overall impression is that it’s smart but not of luxury-quality construction, which, considering the price, is fair enough. As you can see, the ‘Ocean Digital’ logo shown on the box and marketing graphics is almost invisible on the actual unit.

The remote control is decidedly low-rent, but works well. It does not include a volume control function since that is the job of your amplifier.

Although you can use the Ocean with any amplifier and speaker through its analogue output, it’s the digital output which provides the potential for highest sound quality, and thereby the reason why it makes sense to use it for even the highest fidelity audio systems.

Sadly my first unit had a dead digital output, but Ocean UK were pretty good with providing a replacement unit.

I connected the radio to my home system, a 1986 Naim 42.5/110 amplifier and Linn Kan speakers with 2008 Arcam rDAC. It’s a fantastic system, very musical, detailed and revealing, although the Kans do make it somewhat bass-light.

The Ocean is based on a Frontier Smart Technologies Venice 6.5 module for most of its functions. Other versions of the Venice module do provide additional functions and interfaces like wired Ethernet and USB inputs but Ocean don’t yet provide these. The Venice module doesn’t provide Bluetooth either, so the Ocean’s Bluetooth mode uses another module for that and only provides an analogue output through its cheap inbuilt DAC.

The User Interface (UI) works almost entirely through the remote control, and is provided by the FS Venice module. It connects easily enough to WiFi (especially using WPS) and allows you to easily select modes, presets and stations.

The Ocean provides both analogue and digital outputs simultaneously. This enables switching between them easily to compare quality, which I’ve tried using the Music Player mode with a FLAC source. The difference with a good external DAC like the Arcam is stunning, with music like Art of Noise’s ‘In No sense? Nonsense!’ album leaping into dramatic focus and depth through the Arcam.

In long-term use, my Ocean has crashed a few times, muting its digital output or failing to catch a music player or Internet Radio stream. A reboot has fixed things fairly quickly every time.

The DBA-03R has five modes:

  1. Internet Radio
  2. Music Player (DNLA)
  3. DAB Radio
  4. FM Radio
  5. Bluetooth

Internet Radio

Internet Radio is potentially of very high sound quality. It has a huge choice of both live and on-demand global audio stations. On the downside, most stations broadcast relatively so-so audio quality 128k MP3 or WMA for bandwidth cost reasons. As bandwidth costs decrease we will most likely see a great increase in sound quality due to higher bitrates and less lossy codecs.

The Ocean’s Internet Radio mode works well, although stepping through its menus with the remote does feel clunky compared to what we are now used to with touchscreens on phones and tablets. Once the presets are set up it’s pretty seamless.

To get around the problem of navigating thousands of Internet Radio stations with such a limited UI, The Ocean system includes a linked Frontier web radio portal allowing you to search for Internet Radio stations on a computer and save them to presets on your device (cool!).

Audio quality: As good as you can get. Source quality is usually decent but not fantastic.

Music Player (DNLA)

Again, of potentially the highest sound quality. It depends on the quality of the original sound source. Practically this means either buying FLAC downloads, or ripping your own CDs (recommended: Exact audio Copy for Windows or XLD for Mac). For managing your music library, Media Monkey for Windows is unrivalled. You’ll need some kind of DNLA media server connected to your WiFi router, preferably by Ethernet cable. You can use a dedicated NAS (Network Attached Server), or a PC/Mac/Linux box. Watch out for proprietary (rather than open standard) DNLA servers like Flex.

Again the device UI really falls down in being able to navigate through large music collections. Fortunately, there’s a solution: You can use an app like MediaMonkey or HiFi Cast on your phone or tablet (or even full MediaMonkey on a Windows PC) to cast music from a DNLA server to the Ocean. Doing this, the Ocean is both slick to use and a musical delight.

Audio quality is as good as you can get for CD-quality files (44kHz/16-bit). The Ocean doesn’t support super-high quality encoded files, so for those, you’ll need to look elsewhere for a player.

DAB Radio

DAB radio is convenient and crackle-free, of potentially great (but not the best) sound quality. DAB also offers extra goodies like programme/track info and the potential for visual ‘slide shows’, although in practice these are rarely-to never used.

Unfortunately the operative word is ‘potentially’. Like the US in the 60s with blurry NTSC colour TV, early adaptors, by definition, don’t always get the latest standards. So it is with DAB in the pioneering UK, whose radio broadcast industry, led by the BBC, standardised in the years around the Millennium with a decidedly obsolete MP2 codec standard. No, I never heard of MP2 before DAB either. The big names are still Hersfordshire-based Pure and Frontier  and the various commercial mass-market stations.

In the mid-naughties, other countries adopted DAB+, which uses the vastly superior Apple AAC+ codec. This more efficient codec allows a combination of more stations and/or enhanced sound quality. Most DAB radios manufactured since about 2005 are perfectly capable of playing DAB+, but won’t find any such broadcasts in the UK.

The UK’s digital body will probably wait until 2025 or so before switching to DAB+, whereupon I would expect a scrappage programme, offering something towards a replacement for pre-2005 radios.

For now, DAB in the UK offers an unrivalled fuss-free experience, with a reasonable range of about 30 mainstream stations. In other countries with DAB+ you might get great audio quality, but in the UK the best we can get is BBC Radio 3, at 160k MP2, which admittedly can sound great. Most other stations broadcast at an unbelievable AM-quality bandwidth. The appropriately named ‘Absolute C Rock’ for example dribbles out an 80k MP2 which might as well be coming down a vibrating string to a tin can – an auditory painful stream currently murdering Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on my system. BBC John Peel rip-off effort Radio 6 manages 120k MP2, which makes it the only listenable pop & rock station.

As you might expect from a radio based on a Frontier module, the DAB mode works really well, with a full feature set for things like scan, presets and information display. Sound quality is as good as you can get, which as explained above, is usually mediocre.

FM Radio

Ah, the analogue format that refuses to die. Probably because there are billions of FM radios out there. Potentially of very high quality with a good original source (especially live performances), strong signal and a good receiver. Transmission is limited to 50 miles or so and some areas are marred by clashes with pirate stations. FM is limited by design to a maximum 15 kHZ, so lacks a sharp top end.

The Ocean does include what are now basic features such as search, presets and RDS, but regarding sound quality, it’s difficult to say since the unit is very insensitive, at least downstairs, indoors, with its supplied aerial. As tested, hissy and mediocre; in fact so bad that I never use this mode. Things might be different with a good aerial. If you’re serious about FM listening then you should probably go for a dedicated HiFi receiver.

Bluetooth

The latest Bluetooth incarnations include supposedly radical codec improvements, so it is potentially capable of great sound quality, but not yet CD/FLAC standards, and there’s no avoiding a lot of near-field radiation (like WiFi), if that’s something you prefer to avoid. To get the best from Bluetooth, you do of course need both transmitter and receiver to operate at the latest and highest standards.

The Ocean Bluetooth receiver is usable, but audio output is through the analogue output only, so can be awkward to use.

If you use the Ocean’s Bluetooth mode then it’s easy to get confused about which input you have selected on your amplifier and inadvertently leave the Ocean’s analogue output selected rather than its digital output through your super HiFi quality DAC. DOH!

Sound quality: mediocre, mainly due to the Ocean’s cheap inbuilt DAC. If you have a better DAC then I’d recommend an all-digital latest-spec Bluetooth receiver. Newer DACs and amplifiers often have this built in.

Conclusion

The Ocean DBA-03R is a great low-cost high-quality audio source for DAB, Internet Radio and Music Library streaming. You can get potentially the best HiFi music quality possible in purely digital modes through a good quality DAC and audio system, with the proviso that DAB and Internet Radio generally don’t offer the best HiFi sound quality.

Using these modes, the Ocean is effectively invisible, performing all its operations well in the digital domain; it provides more-or-less the best sound quality you can get, limited only by the quality of the rest of your system (DAC, Amp and speakers).

The FM and Bluetooth modes are best considered ‘bonus features’.They are usable but not really HiFi quality, more for if you need to use these sources and/or are using a cheap powered speaker.

The User Interface is dated for 2018, but for a dedicated device perfectly usable and less distracting than a tablet or phone touchscreen. Where the small screen and remote run out of steam, other options such as Android HiFi Cast are available.

It would be nice to see an updated version of the Ocean.With its versatility and digital output, it can power the best of systems, but does literally cut a few corners.

Here’s a wish-list of what a more luxurious and up-to-date version might look like:

  • Nice aluminium case
  • Better quality remote control
  • Larger screen
  • Ethernet port
  • Digital Bluetooth output

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