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XFM DAB radio review: XFM DAB Radio

Although it's unsubtly endorsed by XFM, this stylish, curvy, white radio will let you listen to whichever digital radio station takes your fancy -- and record it to an SD card. Don't expect sonic miracles, though, and the spartan control design will take some getting used to

Chris Stevens
6 min read

The radio-station-endorsed radio seems like a gimmicky concept, but the XFM is actually quite attractive to behold. It's hard to know how many people love their radio station enough to want its name emblazoned on their bedside radio, but this is certainly a dream product for any stoic XFM listeners out there. Despite an unhealthy splattering of embossed logos, the XFM DAB draws the line at all-out corporate hegemony and will in fact let you tune in to competing radio stations.


XFM DAB radio

The Good

Elegance; plain design; nice big clock; ability to record radio to SD card.

The Bad

Mediocre sound quality; distracting branding.

The Bottom Line

XFM's foray into DAB radios doesn't offer professional audio quality, but it's a passable stereo clock radio for people who want to wake up to a DAB broadcast

The XFM DAB looks like a white plastic sausage, with one edge shaved flat. The front is covered by a dark metal speaker gauze which wraps around the central LCD and hides two speaker cones at either end of the sausage. Like so many current audio products, the XFM is clearly paying homage to the iPod. The directional pad even echoes the design of the iPod's famous Click Wheel. The central LCD displays a digital clock when the radio is turned off and provides access to on-screen menus when turned on. It's a stereo radio and you may find the XFM logo embossed on the two speaker grilles annoying -- it catches the light in a way that makes you think the speaker grille is dented, rather than designed that way.

The radio has a decent-sized telescopic aerial at the back, along with a slot for SD and MMC cards. There's also an aux-in and -out connection so that you can hook up another unit (like an iPod) to it, or run the DAB radio through your stereo. It also has a sturdy carry handle on the back. There's a battery flap on the bottom that takes five D-sized batteries, although this unit feels much more like a bedside device than a portable music player.

The controls on the front include a menu and back button, and a directional pad with a select button in the middle. There's the power on/off button on the far right of the unit, a replay button on the far left for playing back a recording from live radio, and then four buttons in between. These act as four radio presets for DAB, and as CD-style controls when you're playing MP3 from a data card.

Although the XFM uses essentially the same internal hardware at the BT Aviator, it seemed to be considerably more responsive and tolerable than BT's monolith. Despite a very brief moment of confusion about how we were supposed to turn the radio on, there were few incidents. Having said this, it feels as if i.Tech Dynamic, the XFM's manufacturer, has taken a step backwards with this purportedly futuristic radio. The omission of a tuning dial you can physically turn, and the absence of a mechanical volume control (you use the unlabelled left and right buttons on the menu pad) may seem like the product of glamorous forward-thinking vision, but in fact these basic controls are sorely missed. The design of household radios has been refined over decades, and it seems a shame to abandon all the conventions that made it possible for anyone to approach a radio and operate it immediately.

Instead of adapting analogue controls to interact with digital radio, i.Tech Dynamic has reinvented the wheel in a considerably less elegant way. If you're comfortable with computer menus, you may wonder how a newcomer could find the XFM difficult to operate, but the fact remains: using a directional pad to scan through several menu options is not easier than twisting a dial. We can't recommend this radio to anyone who is easily frustrated by technology, as control-wise it makes a poor replacement for traditional analogue radios. If you're looking for a radio that combines the best elements of traditional design with digital components, you would be better off considering one of the current offerings from Roberts, such as the determinedly retro Gemini 10.

Our initial impression of the XFM was thwarted momentarily by utter confusion over how to actually turn the thing on. The power button is enigmatic in that it's not labelled with any conventional power symbol and, at first, looks like it's a record button. It's a small criticism, but it's worth noting that the the power button is on the far right of the transport controls on the top of the radio. Once the radio is powered up, you extend the aerial, plug it in and turn it on. Within a few seconds it autotunes to a selection of DAB stations. If you hold down the preset buttons for a few seconds, they lock to that particular station -- as expected. Tuning in FM stations is more fiddly, but presets are set in the same straightforward way.

One of the better features of the XFM is the LCD screen. It's exceptionally easy to read even from some distance away. Sleepy heads resting on pillows should be able to discern what station is playing without needing to sit up. It's perfect for those tragically hung-over Sunday mornings.

The XFM can record live radio. Although it doesn't make a song and dance about it, the radio is invisibly storing the last 10 minutes of radio you've been listening to. This means that you can nip out of the room to tend to a screaming child or shoo a cat out of the chrysanthemums, and on your return press the replay button to catch up on what you've missed.

If you'd like to keep a recording for posterity, you can store it in the XFM's internal memory, or use a removable SD card to transfer it to a portable medium. Once you've done this, it's possible to play the stored MP3 file back on a home computer equipped with an SD slot.

Playing back recorded radio is relatively straightforward. There are buttons across the top of the radio that will be familiar to anyone who's used a tape recorder. When you're listening to normal radio, these buttons double as station presets -- recalling stations you've assigned to them. If you like to boogie old-school, then FM radio transmissions can also be received on the XFM. Switching bands is fairly intuitive, achieved by navigating a menu system on the LCD.

Tone on the XFM lacks low-end definition, but otherwise is no worse than most bedside alarm/radio combos and certainly better than some. Because this is so obviously not a device aimed at the audiophile, it's essentially meaningless to level detailed criticism at the clarity of audio it produces. Sure, it has a tendency to overemphasise the shriller frequencies and sound extremely tinny at high volume, but this has been staple behaviour of all-in-one radios since time began. When you're singing along to Will Young, blow-drying your hair, the sonic fidelity of your bedside radio is unlikely to weigh heavily on your mind.

Largely thanks to the big telescopic aerial on the XFM, radio signals are held well. We didn't have significant problems tuning in stations or keeping the radio tuned to them. You may need to retune the radio when changing location, but apart from this, the XFM stays locked to a transmission as tight as a laser-guided missile streaking towards a nuclear facility. If you use the XFM as a portable radio, battery life is entirely dependent on the volume you're listening to music at -- adding the five batteries required contributes a whopping 750g to the overall weight, so we find this feature hard to recommend.

Big fans of XFM will enjoy the station's prominent endorsement of this radio, but others may find it grating that the brand should be slapped so enthusiastically across the speaker grilles. Despite a few usability shortcomings, the XFM DAB is an attractive-looking radio that will certainly appeal to 20-somethings who need a radio to wake them up with a daily dose of saccharine pop. Older listeners or audiophiles, on the other hand, will find the control system on the XFM convoluted and the sound quality underwhelming for focused listening.