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

What makes an expert Technical Communicator?

There’s a massive and very fundamental error which many companies make when recruiting a new Technical Communicator (or for that matter, a Business Analyst). In fact, this error is so common as to be practically ubiquitous.

What does this error typically look like?

“Acme is looking for someone with extensive experience in blah blah technologies, using the ABC content management system in the XYZ industry.”

Sounds familiar, yes? Sensible? Well, Acme may well be looking for someone with extensive experience in blah blah, ABC and XYZ, but such a search will inevitably constrain the field of available applicants so narrowly that it will have a severely adverse effect on the recruitment process, and thus personnel quality. In fact, sticking blindly to such criteria is likely to result in recruiting a merely adequate person at best, rather than one who excels. It’s not that Acme should necessarily employ someone with only mechanical engineering experience for their latest software product, more that insisting on experience with a particular programming language or platform will adversely affect the available pool of candidates.

Suppose you’re trying to communicate the ins and outs of a complicated suite of software, or an oil refinery. You’re probably looking for someone with a degree in Computer or Process Engineering, perhaps combined with some kind of postgraduate Diploma in Technical Communications, then years of experience in your industry. Those factors are certainly relevant, but they don’t necessarily add up to finding a brilliant technical communicator, any more than you would find a best-selling novelist from English graduates banging away at novels for years. Best-selling authors arise from diverse and mysterious backgrounds.

It’s ironic, in the same way as a professional plumber having dodgy plumbing in their own home, that the body of professional Technical Communications performs poorly in communicating our role. Perhaps this is because for technology end users (such as many senior managers), technical manuals are merely a necessary evil, often used only as a last resort when “this damned thing isn’t doing what I want it to!” or “We only have the documentation to sell until the [vapourware] is released.” Thankfully perhaps, the great majority of Technical Communications consumers are themselves Engineers and Technologists, who greatly value clear technical communications.

So what is it that a Technical Communicator does? And what makes an expert?

In general terms, a Technical Communicator (TC) is something of a Detective investigating a mystery. The mystery is the technology. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are witnesses (or sometimes suspects…) The TC must explore the mystery of the technology by a combination of direct investigation, research and interrogation of available witnesses. Sometimes the TC starts with a blank sheet; sometimes engineers provide such comprehensive documentation drafts that he is relegated to the position of proofreader, editor and publisher. The service a TC provides is usually dictated by their client or manager, in terms of the type of publication required, its audience, purpose, tone and style. A technical communication may be – necessarily or not – terse or verbose; stand-alone or integrated with the technology; textual or multimedia. Whatever the situation, the TC is ultimately required to present a clear case to the court, tailoring the material to an audience which could lie anywhere between a jury of laymen and a tribunal of expert judges.

An expert TC is not necessarily an SME. Indeed, seemingly paradoxically, it is actually often better if the TC is NOT an SME. This seems counter-intuitive. Why would a non-expert perform better than an expert? This is a deceptive question, worded in the same faulty terms as the job advertisement quoted above. There is all the difference in the world between an expert Technical Communicator and a Subject Matter Expert. Although the technology itself is an impersonal and impartial thing, the way in which it is understood and exploited will inevitably differ according to the perspective of each person interacting with it.

There may actually be a conflict of interest between the SME and the end user. SMEs will, by definition, be expert in technical intricacies and may even wish to keep their knowledge restricted, in order to maintain or increase their own value. End users may broadly be divided into two camps: consumers and other experts; for both, their objective is to understand and use the technology as smoothly as possible. Whatever the situation, when it comes to deliverables, the TC must, as the investigation phase ends, take on the role, not of a Detective or Expert Witness, but a Barrister. While all three roles deal with objective facts, the Barrister must present them subjectively, in the interests of his client (the technical communications consumer). The TC-Barrister must take on the mind-set of his client, presenting information not entirely objectively, but intelligently presented for the intended audience – usually spun with a pinch or more of marketing. For even articulate SMEs, to do all this and put themselves in naïve users’ shoes is a tall order. What is obvious to the SME may well be a mystery to the technology user.

The TC becomes expert when stepping beyond mere excellence in writing, multimedia production and particular technologies. The expert TC is accustomed to dealing with many different people and technologies, often in various fields or industries. This experience of technical and business diversity can again be analogised as that of a senior Detective who has investigated many types of crime, or a top Barrister used to prosecuting or defending a wide variety of cases. The expert TC goes way beyond competence with using and describing particular technologies. The expert TC:

  • clearly understands and develops his role within the team.
  • asks searching questions and performs exhaustive peripheral research around a topic.
  • shows initiative and develops new ideas.
  • questions narrow deliverable specifications and asks “how could we communicate this more clearly and effectively?”
  • nimbly adapts to new technologies, people and industries.
  • goes out of his way to find end-users, and see what they think about the technology and its documentation.
  • takes an active role in product development as the end-user’s ally, suggesting useful usability improvements and avenues for development.
  • knows that when it comes to technical communication, less is most definitely more. Like the art of a great musician or artist, his deliverables look effortless and easy (even when the source material is incomprehensible gobbledegook).
  • is perfectly poised to take on related roles such as Business Analysis, Usability or Product Manager.

Of course no man is an island, especially within the realm of technology development. An expert TC can only shine when given demanding challenges by a confident, expert manager with an accomplished team.

The fallacy of seeking a communicator with specific technical experience is intimately connected with misunderstanding the role, or interpreting it too narrowly. Real success in finding, engaging, developing and retaining expert TCs only comes with fully understanding their role.