Manufacturers like Roberts have made a business out of slipping modern DAB electronics into the husks of 50s radios, but Sony is not well known for its traditionalism. The XDR-S20 is about as retro as Sony gets. There's a hint of Bakelite about the plastic chassis, but apart from that, there's little mistaking this for a vintage model.
The S20 best suits the kitchen. Its single-speaker design means it's a radio destined for casual use. There is the option to plug in headphones, but if you're going to be listening this way, you'd be better off opting for a much more compact unit without a built-in speaker. Compared to offerings from PURE and Roberts, the S20 seems ambitiously priced at around £90, but those looking for a basic home radio may find this suits them.
Our overriding concern about the S20 is its tuning control system. Though it works adequately, it's a giant step backwards for radio design, and dismisses several decades of thinking about radio user interfaces. The tuning dial on the S20 is a fruitless effort to reinvent the wheel -- the radio signal may be digital now, but this is no reason to abandon the familiar, and effective, traditional tuning dial.
Sony has opted for a fairly clean design with the XDR-S20. By Sony's standards this is a very utilitarian-looking device. There are no flourishes to the chassis, and there's a distinct absence of the glassy black plastic that has become the mainstay of the VAIO and PSP. The S20 is available in black as well as white, however: our review model was the white unit. It could have easily been mistaken for a piece of medical equipment -- its design is extremely functional.
Unfortunately, appearances are deceptive, and the S20's design over-complicates the natural simplicity of a kitchen radio. Small things, like the power button being labelled 'operate' instead of 'ON', or, as on a traditional radio, being integrated with the volume dial, make the radio less friendly than it should be. Minor points perhaps, but given that the user interfaces on radios are so well established it seems extremely disorientating to suddenly redefine the control system on a whim.
The most glaring design flaw on the S20 is the tuning dial. Rather than use a rotating control, the tuning dial toggles a few millimetres in either direction. This is not a completely illogical way of scanning through stations, but the traditional method was much quicker and more effective. Given how well Roberts and PURE have implemented rotary tuners on their digital radios, it's a shame that the S20 ignores this method of tuning.
Controls along the top of the radio perform obvious functions including switching from DAB to FM, Auto Tune, Display and Favourites. There are also controls for clock, the brightness of the LCD display and contrast. The LCD screen on the S20 is bright and clear -- you won't have any trouble reading this through bleary morning eyes. A headphone socket on the left-hand side allows a more personal listening experience. There's a power-cable socket in the back that accepts a standard figure-of-eight power lead, and a battery compartment which takes six C-cell batteries -- adding significant weight to the unit.
If you've used a DAB before, you'll be familiar with the tuning process on the XDR-S20. It's an automated tuning system that activates itself when the radio is first switched on. The radio will automatically seek out all available DAB broadcasts and list them on the LCD in a scrollable list.
Compared to the other DABs we've tested, the S20's tuning speed was snappy. First-time users will have little problem getting the radio to a stage where it can play.
The XDR-S20 has a basic feature set: there are no record functions or complex graphic equalisers. Given the radio's domestic appeal, it's to Sony's credit that they haven't gone overboard with confusing options for the likely casual user.
Every DAB station broadcast in the UK can in principle be received by the S20. In practise signal strength may vary, but you can use the radio's telescoping aerial to improve reception in trouble spots (see Performance, below).
Those who want to use the S20 as a bedside radio can take advantage of the clock functions. Anyone who enjoys pottering about outside in the garden will enjoy the portability of a radio that can be powered from internal batteries.
Up to 40 DAB presets can be stored in the S20, and there's always the option to revert back to FM if you find that the DAB signal where you are is not strong enough to maintain reception.
As with all portable DAB radios, the XDR-S20 suffers from reception problems in certain areas. Londoners are unlikely to have many problems with tuning into a strong signal, but even in built-up regions, with very strong digital broadcasts, the DAB signal can be lost depending on the listening environment.
Unlike analogue broadcasts, which generate interference patterns in areas of poor reception, digital broadcasts simply stop altogether. The digital conversion circuitry will stop working if the received signal lacks parts. This gives DAB an all-or-nothing behaviour. Where an FM broadcast becomes slightly thin and crackly, the DAB broadcast may not be there at all.
Sony's radio deals with DAB reception fairly well. Reception was good in areas where we have previously experienced good reception in the past, and predictably suffered in rooms with thicker walls.
Low-frequency sound is not well defined on the S20. It seemed to lack much of the low-end warmth that we've heard on other radios of its size. The Roberts Gemini 10, in particular, trounced the S20 for music listening.
Sony has taken a rather traditional approach with the sound quality on the S20 -- you can hear the quintessential tinniness of radio signals. But it has taken a non-traditional approach to the user interface -- witness the strange tuning control. It's not an ideal combination and means the S20 never strays far beyond basic competence.
For casual listening the XDR-S20 is fine, but given the price and average sound quality, you may find other kitchen DABs more satisfying.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide