Most DAB radios are conservatively styled boxes that sit on a shelf in your kitchen or bedroom, tethered to the mains by a snaking cable -- but it doesn't have to be that way. Sony's XDR-M1 is smaller than your wallet and runs off batteries, enabling you to enjoy DAB broadcasts in the great outdoors. You can get commentary from Test Match Special while you sit in the stand at Lord's or tune in to Gardener's Question Time while you plant your carrots.
Marketed under the Walkman brand, the XDR-M1 lets you listen to FM radio as well as DAB. If you're primarily interested in FM, there are many smaller -- and cheaper -- radios on the market. On the DAB side there aren't as many options and this is the smallest of the current crop. We've seem Internet prices ranging from £115 to £149, so shop around.
The XDR-M1 is a neat black box with tasteful styling that's typical of Sony. The minimalist front combines gloss black plastic at the top with matt black plastic at the bottom. The LCD screen is the same size as the silver control panel, giving an overall feeling of simplicity and harmony.
The screen has a pale green backlight and displays four lines of information. It's dim and difficult to read, even when you activate the backlight, which stays on for a miserly five seconds. We had to concentrate hard to be sure the backlight was working.
The control panel has four buttons for activating the menu, selecting presets, switching between DAB and FM modes, and changing the information on the screen. The round button in the centre can be rocked up or down to scroll through the menus or stations. Pressing it selects the highlighted item.
The rest of the controls are tucked away around the sides and include a switch for selecting FM sensitivity, a button for activating the backlight, a hold switch, a power button, and a rocker for controlling the volume.
Sony supplies stereo earbuds and a remote control that lets you change modes, change stations, adjust the volume and turn the radio on or off. The headphone cable acts as the aerial, so it's best to extend it as far as possible. You also get a mains adaptor that you can use when you're listening at home. If you want to take the radio out into the great outdoors, you'll need two AA batteries. With batteries, remote and earbuds, the radio weighs 155g.
When you power up the radio for the first time, it automatically scans for DAB stations and starts playing the last one on the list. To choose another station, simply rock the central control.
The XDR-M1 sorts the stations by ensemble (an 'ensemble' or 'multiplex' is a group of stations that are broadcast on the same frequency). Within the ensemble the stations come up in a standard but meaningless sequence. In the Switch London group, for example, you'll find Spectrum, Virgin Groove, The Hits, BBC London, YARR, Galaxy, Kerrang!, Jazz FM, Heart and Saga, in that order. Virgin Radio is in a different multiplex and Virgin Classic Rock is somewhere else again. We're all for mixing things up and encouraging people to try new stations, but this is just annoying. We much prefer radios that list the stations alphabetically.
To reduce the confusion, you can copy up to 20 stations to the Favourites list. This involves pressing Menu, scrolling down two positions and selecting Favourite, then selecting Save -- a total of five button presses. Following this procedure automatically switches you from Normal mode, where you can see all the stations, to Favourite mode, where you can only see your presets. To store a second station, you've got to switch back to Normal mode and start again. It's not the most intuitive or convenient system for storing presets.
The XDR-M1 also operates as an FM radio. Tuning is a mostly manual affair, although you can press and hold the central control to scan to the next station. You may then need to rock it up and down to adjust the tuning by 0.05MHz increments. Once you've found the perfect frequency, add the station to the Favourites list, which also has space for 20 FM stations. The procedure is basically the same as for DAB stations, although there's an additional option that lets you enter the station name by scrolling through the alphabet and picking out letters. You might want to save this task for a rainy day when there's nothing on the telly and you've read everything in the house, including the backs of all the cereal packets.
Although it's a Tic Tac in a market dominated by enormous lollipops, the XDR-M1 displays more information than many full-size radios. You get four lines of DAB information, including the ensemble name, the station name, the programme type and a line that can be switched between scrolling text, frequency, component name, bit rate and signal level. There's also an option to fill the screen with four lines of scrolling text. In FM mode you get the frequency, plus the station name if you've bothered to enter it. Sony also squeezes in icons for almost all the radio's functions, from band and signal strength to Mega Bass and low battery, and a clock. Despite this, the display doesn't feel cluttered. If only it were brighter...
One unusual and useful feature is the ability to store the scrolling text as a text memo. This enables you to make a note of a song title, Web address or phone number that has been pushed out alongside the broadcast. You can store ten items and recall or overwrite them as required.
An Auto Off option enables you to turn the radio off after 30, 60, 90 or 120 minutes. We can't think of a use for this feature, since you surely won't want to fall asleep with the earbuds jammed into your ears. It doesn't have an alarm.
The XDR-M1 uses the headphone cable as its antenna, and ideally the cable needs to be vertical. When it's wrapped around your body and you're striding down the street, walking past the wrong kind of building can interrupt the signal. Sometimes you get a momentary blip in the broadcast; sometimes it sounds as if a big hairy monster has eaten the DJ and is slobbering on the mic.
We found the interruptions annoying, especially in comparison to the clarity of the DAB broadcasts. This problem is not unique to the XDR-M1. We've had similar experiences with other pocket radios and we only recommend them for people who're going to be outdoors or next to a window. If you're standing on the sidelines of a football match or parked under a green umbrella by the local canal, it should be fine. Moderate activity is okay, as long as you're in an open space, and we got good reception on a bus -- albeit a modern, mostly plastic bus. It barely worked on a train and the signal disappeared completely when we walked under a metal roof.
The XDR-M1 has a Mega Bass function that boosts the bass to fill out the sound. It's switched on by default, although you can switch it off via the menu. It makes a noticeable difference to the sound, especially when you're listening to music. The difference between FM and DAB is also clear, with FM broadcasts sounding hissy, especially when the signal is weak.
Sony claims a battery life of nine hours in DAB mode or 40 hours in FM mode. Those figures would seem more acceptable if Sony had built in a rechargeable battery, so you could just plug it in between trips. As it is, you should budget for rechargeable batteries and a charger.
Additional editing by: Nick Hide