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The Sony CMT-GPX9DAB micro hi-fi is a curious mix of innovation and anachronistic nostalgia. On the one hand there are some nice touches to this system -- the CD is slot-loading, you can set the timer to turn the system both on and off, and you can lock the CD mechanism when moving it, for example. On the other hand there is a cassette deck, which seems irrelevant, and the setup procedures are overly complicated.
If you want to record radio programmes or anything from a CD, you have to either use the tape deck or take a line out of the headphone socket, which we found restrictive. It seems curious to have an analogue recording facility when the whole point of digital playback is clarity of sound. Retailing at around £160, this micro component system is fine for everyday use, though.
The looks of this micro system are what you'd expect from Sony -- functional and understated. The front fascia has been diagonally tiered in three sections, making the front of the stereo look like a flat, silver armadillo. From a distance the silver plastic passes muster, and could easily sit unnoticed on a shelf. Up close, however, the front no longer looks so much like brushed metal -- this isn't a stereo for poseurs. The style of the system is nothing new -- the front fascia is faux-separate in the long (and naff) tradition of micro systems. It's tasteful from a distance, but looks cheap up close.
On the top of the stereo is a single cassette deck, with the buttons to operate it located on the top section of the front of the machine. The display is located in the middle of the top section as a darkened, rounded oblong. At 90 by 25mm, the primitive LCD is large enough to be viewed from a distance, and is more than adequate for its purpose while being unobtrusive. The middle section contains the volume controls and the function buttons for the tuner. The lower section contains the CD slot and its associated buttons.
There are three connections for aerials on the back of the stereo -- AM, FM and DAB. All the aerials are provided, although Sony recommends buying an external DAB aerial for higher broadcast sound quality. Two speakers are provided, tastefully veneered in wood-finish plastic. The thin stereo wires (bell wire) are integrated into the back of the speakers, which would make it difficult to replace them with anything thicker. The connections at the back of the stereo do the job, and are handily sprung for ease of connection. Again, it would be difficult to connect thicker wire, which is restrictive if you wanted to try to improve the sound quality by changing the speakers. There is a headphone socket underneath the CD slot, near the bottom left-hand corner.
Setting up the DAB is not very easy or intuitive. When you first switch it on, the machine automatically scans for UK Band III DAB stations and puts them in alphanumeric order. It then plays the first station on the list (probably 1Xtra). This initial setup took 52 seconds.
Once the stations are scanned in, they are stored in the stereo, so you needn't scan for stations every time you switch on the CMT-GPX9DAB. However, it still takes five seconds to find the station and to get music playing. This is frustrating if you're flicking through various different stations to see what's on them. You scroll through the stations by using the Tuning +/- bar located underneath the volume control. The location of this bar did not feel right to us -- it would have felt more natural underneath the display. We kept reaching for the tape controls, which are located there.
To save DAB presets you need to use the remote. This is fine, as long as you haven't lost it down the back of the sofa. We would have appreciated the option of saving presets on the stereo without having to use the remote, as again this seems more intuitive.
Even if you haven't lost the remote, you'll probably have to keep hold of the instruction manual to remember how to save presets. With instructions such as "Press TUNER BAND repeatedly to select 'DAB', 'FM' or 'AM'" followed by "Press TUNING MODE repeatedly until 'AUTO' appears in the display", it's a long old haul (eight steps initially) until you finally store the presets. Once they are stored, you have to fiddle around between the tuner band and tuning mode buttons until the tuning mode flicks onto preset mode. This is unnecessarily complicated. It is also a three-step procedure to access the saved presets, which is a pain. You also cannot tune manually in DAB mode.
On the plus side you can store up to 20 DAB and FM stations and ten AM stations. This is a good allowance for a low-end stereo, and was much appreciated.
The quality of the FM playback was good when it was clear of static, and the CMT-GPX9DAB supports RDS (Radio Data System), so station info was displayed automatically (including station name and frequency) in FM mode. The stereo automatically tuned to a strong FM signal. You can also manually tune both FM and AM, but it only has the standard 50kHz tuning interval, which is annoyingly imprecise. You may as well let the radio just get on with it and tune itself. The tuning interval in AM mode is 9kHz, but you can adjust this. We would have preferred to adjust the tuning interval in FM mode.
The functionality of the radio (aside from the setup) is its real strength. The clock is relatively easy to set, although again you need to use the remote. When the radio is in Standby mode, the clock is illuminated, but not glaringly so. Those of a green persuasion can turn the display off completely using Power Save Mode. When the radio is on, you can cycle through the various display options by simply pressing the Display button. The different DAB display modes are station name; frequency and label; station information (otherwise known as Dynamic Label Segment), which includes song name, artist and station promotional text; ensemble label; bass level; and treble level.
If you like to fall asleep to music there is a useful sleep timer on the stereo, which enables you to set the amount of time until the stereo switches itself off. All you need to do is press the Sleep button on the remote -- unsurprisingly, there isn't a corresponding button on the main unit.
You may also find the play timer useful. This in effect turns the stereo into an alarm clock, but with the added bonus that you can load a CD or tape as well as having the option to use the tuner to wake up to. You can set the stereo to start playing at a certain time, and you can also set it to stop, too -- a fantastic feature for those too busy, lazy or forgetful to turn off their radio.
Recording options are limited. You can set the timer to record DAB programmes to tape, but this defeats the object. You would be recording a supposedly crystal-clear digital broadcast onto hissy, fluttery analogue tape. Why not go the whole hog and record it onto a wax cylinder? You don't have the option of selecting which type of tape to use, just Type 1. As previously mentioned there's a stereo line-in on the back, but the only line-out is from the headphone socket, so if you did want to record digitally (onto your PC or a minidisk) you'd have to use a mini-jack connection -- not good for quality recording or data transfer.
The DAB tuner reception was clear and crisp, and on the whole the fidelity was good. The volume range was okay for a micro system, going from silence to fairly loud before the limiter kicked in. This meant there was little distortion and little chance of blowing the speakers, but also meant it wasn't loud enough to have a party with (unless it was a soft jazz dinner party). There's also a Dynamic Sound Generator X-tra (DSGX) facility akin to a high-gain button, which beefs up the bass and treble slightly. This isn't earth-shattering. You can also boost the bass and the treble individually, but only up or down by 2 -- it's hardly Spinal Tap. There's also no balance, so if you're limited for space, you'll have to position the stereo carefully.
To improve FM tuner reception, you can turn the CD player off and you can also put it into mono mode. There are few other ways to improve the sound.
The CD player was fine for general use, but with a frequency response ranging from 20Hz to 20kHz, it was treble-heavy. The treble was smooth but the bass tended to become muddy and started to distort even at a fairly low volume, and sub-bass was virtually non-existent.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide