Receiver Review: Sony ICF-SW07

ICF-SW07

Year Introduced 1999
Power Battery. AC adapter & active antenna included
Size (WHD) 135 by 33 by 91 mm
Weight 240 g
Price €519, US$420
Coverage FM, MW, LW, SW

Value Rating: starstarstarstar

 


This review was compiled independently. The Medium Wave Circle and Radio Netherlands has no financial connection with Sony, the manufacturer of this receiver.


Reviewers: Diana Janssen & Jonathan Marks

 

Introduction

In the last twelve years, several leading manufacturers of short-wave receiver have tried to make compress traditional analogue radio technology into a space about the size of a cigarette packet. Laptop Computers continue to get lighter, more compact and powerful. The same is true of portable phones. In the radio field though, many early attempts at miniaturisation meant that essential features were squeezed out. We have also been critical of some manufacturers who concentrate on silly gimmicks rather than practical features that most travellers need when on the move.

All along, the Sony Corporation of Japan has proved its interest in developing receivers for the more sophisticated end of the short-wave listening market. It all started in 1987, when Sony launched its SW-1 receiver. It was slightly larger than the size of a cigarette packet and offered complete coverage of the short, medium and longwave bands plus stereo on FM. It's performance was as good as larger models, but at the time we criticised the tuning... you could only move up and down the dial in rather coarse steps of 5 kHz. On the crowded international broadcasting bands, being able to off-tune slightly can make the difference between good reception and no reception at all.

 

Problems with Previous Models

In 1994, Sony took the best features of many of its portable receivers, including the SW-1 and launched a new receiver called the SW-100. Again, the set was about the size of a cigarette packet and weighed in at 240 grams including 2 penlight batteries inside and a soft-leather protective case which folds over the radio to protect it from scratches. This set is still on the market in many parts of the world, including the Netherlands. After the on-air version of this review was broadcast, we got a letter from Philip Murphy writes from Winsford, Cheshire in the UK. He comments:

I have the older ICF SW100 and find its performance excellent, however, it does suffer from a very costly design fault. The fine multi-strand cable connecting the top and the bottom needs to be replaced every couple of years (depending on how many times you open it) at a cost of more than £100 each time. If I was to buy the new radio I would have to be sure that this was no longer a problem, so not inherited by the new radio. Has this been tested?

Our research shows that this problem has been addressed. There were changes made to later versions of the Sony ICF-SW-100 round about 18 months ago. The synchronous detector chip in the SW-100 was upgraded which means the receiver locks on to weak signals much better than early production models did. The distortion is slightly less too, though that is most noticeable if you're using headphones.

Sony in the Netherlands also say that the multi-strand cable used to connect the two halves of the set has been upgraded because of complaints that it snapped after the receiver was opened and shut a few hundred times. The SW07 uses the same upgraded synchronous detector. There is still a linking cable between the two halves of this set too, but the wires are better shielded than on the ICF-SW100.

 

Numbers Confusion?

Now, in May of 1999, Sony has launched the ICF-SW07. From the model number might indicate this is a knock-down version of the older SW-100. But in fact, the ICF-SW07 offers more features than older models. The main extra is the addition of an extensive on-board database of frequencies from popular stations and a well-matched loop antenna.

This radio is 135 by 33 by 91 mm in size, which in practical terms means it fits in the palm of your hand. It looks like a woman's make-up case. However, when you unclip and lift the lid, you reveal a liquid crystal display, an extensive keypad and a miniature world-map instead of a mirror and eyebrow pencils.

So what have we got? Most versions of the radio offer FM coverage from 76 to 108 MHz and continuous AM coverage from 150 through to 29999 kHz. Reception on FM is in stereo when you use headphone and the radio performs fine in this range in Europe. In city areas with high FM signal levels, performance is improved by switching in around 18 dB of attenuation. There is a small thumb wheel on the side of the set that allows you to adjust the sensitivity of the receiver on both AM and FM. That's an excellent idea seen on table-top sets that is extremely handy on a portable.

But in most cases you'd buy this compact radio for its AM features. You can tune the radio in a number of ways. If you know the frequency of the station you can just tap that in on the keyboard. If you punch in 9895 for instance, then the display shows the frequency selected and reminds you that you're in the 31 metre band.

 

Keypad

A tiny protruding blip next to the key marked with the figure 5 is handy for blind users who need an orientation point. This helps with orientation for the keypad, but there is no audible readout of the display of course. There are four shuttle buttons to let you move up and down the dial. The innermost buttons shift the frequency by 1 kHz. If you press the outer two buttons you move in 5 kHz steps. If press these buttons for a few seconds the radio starts scanning within the chosen metre band, stopping on strong stations and letting you hear them for a few seconds before the scan resumes. That's the same as the Sony ICF-SW-100.

The other way of tuning is by using the memories. You can simply store 10 favourite FM stations on, and 10 from AM behind the calculator style keys. You can also play around with the keypad to label your choices with up to 5 letter…so that the display shows something like HLVSM if you wanted to be reminded of Hilversum for instance. But the memory banks of this radio are more sophisticated than that. Using what Sony terms SW-Station Call Tuning, the ICF-SW07 comes pre-programmed with the popular frequencies of 8 international broadcasters, BBC, VOA, Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, Radio France International, China Radio International, Spanish Foreign Radio and Radio Japan. In some larger markets, for instance in Germany, the station selection varies slightly to include Radio Austria International.

 

Thanks for the Memories

The set knows those frequencies thanks to a removable memory chip. On the back of the set is a tiny sliding door that opens to reveal a black EPROM pressed against tiny gold springs. The Sony division that has traditionally produced a printed short-wave tuning guide is now in the business of producing these frequency chips. The radio is quite intelligent. It checks the radio's clock to deduce whether you're listening in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas. Then the radio displays the correct regional set of popular frequencies for that station. In the case of the BBC in Europe, that's a total of 27 channels, for Radio Netherlands 18 frequencies are pre-programmed for the region.

While it is true that frequencies change with the seasons, its unlikely that all the channels are useless. Simply by zapping through the selection, you're bound to find one channel that's working - if the station is on the air at that moment. Inside the instruction book is an order form giving you the option to subscribe to updated frequency chips in October of each year. You can customise 5 of the stations you want programmed from a list of 25 popular stations. It will cost less than US$20 US dollars, including postage, to get a new chip from what's called the Frequency Corporation of Tokyo Japan.

You can't update the pre-programmed channels yourself, but you can put in an extra 100 favourite channels of your own choosing. As you can probably gather, there are more than enough ways to tune the radio. The performance of the Sony ICF-SW07 is similar to the older improved SW-100, although this new set is more resistant to overloading problems, thanks to the attenuator. It is one of the few radios of this size to offer true synchronous detection. So if you're listening to a station on 6020 and a strong station on 6025 is splattering over the signal you're trying to hear, you can escape some of the problem by selecting 6020 in the synchronised lower sideband mode. You also notice that the effects of certain types of fading are reduced, although not eliminated.

 

Sync Detection

The radio locks onto the signal so that you can enjoy music without the problems with the wrong pitch that you'd get if you tried that with ordinary single sideband. The radio is more sensitive in the sync mode and we found it a feature that you use constantly. The radio also has upper and lower sideband. In the SSB mode, the innermost buttons then tune in 100 Hz steps, although this is not shown on the display. The tuning of SSB signals (especially radio teletype signals) is possible, but rather fiddly. But of course, in real life situations, the need for utility signal reception on a portable of this nature would definitely be the exception rather than the rule.

As with other receivers, we lent the radio to several non-technical people to experiment with. Several people found the frequency database to be useful, with a couple of people commenting that they could see the day the radio would be able to read updates via the Internet rather than having to send away to Japan for a new chip. The majority of the comments came about the audio... people either find it crisp and clear or much too tinny... it really is a matter for personal taste. The speaker in the radio is only 3 cm in diameter, but by matching the characteristics of the speaker to the case, the mid- and low-end response is improved.

 

Sound Level

Naturally, the sound level cannot compare with a full-size portable. The radio works from only 2 penlights, so the maximum output of 250 mW is designed for purely personal listening when there is not too much background noise. Ideally, for concentrated listening, the supplied headphones provide the best solution. If you use hi-fi headphones you get the same full-range response as on any full-size portable.

In Europe, the SW07 comes complete with a multi-voltage mains power supply and an ingenious active loop antenna to improve short-wave reception above 2 MHz. The loop springs out when released, you need to concentrate to work out how to fold it back into the cloth bag. But it really works in low signal strength areas like a hotel and the performance is much better than earlier attempts in the 80's by Sony to produce an active antenna.

The instruction book supplied with the radio is 50 pages long! That indicates the complexity of the radio. But it is straightforward and much clearer than some previous Sony manuals. Naturally, all this technology comes at a price. In The Netherlands, the radio, complete with active antenna retails at just under 1000 Guilders, around 488 US dollars, or 304 pounds sterling. That's the top end for a portable. There may be an optional package later without the active antenna. In short we think this receiver is a useful addition to the short-wave portable market. It has good overall performance.

Special Note: A copy of the manufacture's manual for this receiver is included on Vol 51 of our archive CD's.

This review first appeared on the Radio Netherlands website.