Receiver Review: Sony ICF-SW100
Year Introduced: 1994
Power: Battery (2 AA), external mains adaptor
Size: 155 x 90 x 33 mm
Weight: 240 g
Price: US$360(S), CAN$550(S), £160, A$650, €319
Coverage: 150 kHz - 30 MHz, FM (stereo on headphones)
This review was compiled independently. The Medium Wave Circle and Radio Netherlands has no financial connection with Sony, the manufacturer of this receiver.
In the last six years, several manufacturers have tried to make smaller versions of their best selling shortwave portable receivers. There's a growing market of businessmen and women on the move, and the last thing you want on a trip is another piece of bulky hardware. Computers have got more compact and powerful, so have telephones and fax machines. In the radio field though, many of miniaturisation projects have been a disaster. The size of the radio shrinks, but in order to keep the costs down, many useful features on standard size portables are either left out or become clumsy to operate. In many cases too, the engineers concentrate on gimmicks rather than ensuring that the radio performs well.
In 1987, Sony launched its SW-1 receiver. It was about 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.
Now Sony has taken the best features of many of its receivers, including the SW-1 and launched a new receiver called the SW-100. Again, the set is about the size of a cigarette packet and weighs 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. Unlike other Sony designs so far, this radio is in two parts. You press a button on the side of the set, after which you can lift the lid on the SW-100. You open the radio to reveal a tiny loudspeaker and a liquid crystal display in the lid, and 28 pushbuttons to control the radio are laid out on the base.
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. The version sold in Italy has a section of the shortwave bands under 3850 kHz missing so as to comply with national legislation. Reception on FM is in stereo when you use headphone and the radio performs fine in this range in Europe. In areas with high FM signal levels, performance is not as good. In that case, a DX/LOCAL switch provides some relief from overloading.
But 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 6020 for instance, then the display shows the frequency selected and reminds you that you're in the 49 metre band. A tiny protruding blip next to the key marked with the figure 5 is handy for users with a visual disability who need an orientation point. 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.
There's also a third way. Sony has taken the station name tuning concept from the SW-55 and SW-77 and put some of it into the SW-100. You can store up to 50 favourite stations in the memory. These are arranged in pages. Each page consists of a station name and up to 5 pre-set frequencies. The radio comes with 30 frequencies already programmed in it, 10 regularly used channels from the BBC, 10 from VOA and 10 from Radio Japan. But you can wipe these quite easily and replace them with, for instance, the 10 most used frequencies of Radio Netherlands and label them with a name of up to 6 letters. If you're a walking encyclopaedia of station frequencies, you may regard the labelling feature as a bit of gimmick. But if you rely on a station as a news-source being able to jump to alternative frequencies at the press of a button is extremely useful. The memory not only remembers the name and frequency of the station, it recalls the mode you were listening in.
The SW-100 is first radio of this size to offer true synchronous detection. So if you're listening to a station on 6155 and a strong station on 6160 is splattering over the signal you're trying to hear, you can escape some of the problem by selecting 6155 in the synchronised lower sideband mode. 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 RTTY signals) is possible, but rather fiddly. In real situations, the need for utility signal reception on a portable of this nature would definitely be the exception rather than the rule. On the Sony ICF-SW55 there was a rather annoying feature that tried to guess the mode you would need, depending on the frequency selected. So if you tapped in 8450 kHz, the radio jumped from AM to SSB. That was more of an annoyance, especially because quite a few stations use frequencies outside the official shortwave broadcast bands. The SW-100 doesn't try to guess, and as a result is handier to use.
Design and Sound
We gave the radio to several non-technical people to experiment with. Several commented on the clever compact design. Most of the comments came about the audio... people either find it crisp and clear or too shrill... 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 with the lid, and making some discrete holes in the back, the mid and low-end response is improved. 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.
Packaging and Power
There are two packages for the SW-100 that are appearing. The SW-100E package consists of the radio, carrying case, in-ear headphones and a washing-line type of external antenna. A more complete and more expensive package, the SW-100S, also includes an active antenna and AC power supply. In Europe, you don't really need the active antenna because the set is sensitive enough without it. And the power supply is as big as the radio and takes away some of the charm of the SW-100's unique size. Another solution would be the use rechargeable batteries on trips instead of dragging the power supply along. We got around 17 hours of listening to shortwave using a fresh set of alkaline batteries. Rechargeables work for a much shorter period but can be recycled.
If you're travelling from North America to either Europe or Asia it is important to set the dual time-zone clock. The difference between local time and UTC is used to set the difference between 9 or 10 kHz channel spacing on medium wave.
The ICF-SW100 is a really excellent compact portable receiver with a lot of unique features for its size. It costs 649 Dutch Guilders (US$350) in Holland, which puts it between the Sony ICF-SW55 and ICF-SW7600G. The SW-100 doesn't make as much noise as its larger brothers, but, unlike the SW-55, it does have synchronous detection which makes overall reception quality a lot better. In Europe the package being sold generally comes with a pair of earphones only. It is labelled the SW100E. In the USA, the set costs around US$360 with an active antenna and power supply already included in the price. Bearing in mind sets like the Grundig Yacht Boy 400 are around 100 dollars cheaper in the US, we think the Sony receiver is slightly on the expensive side in North America, even though the accessories are included.
The instruction book with the radio is not as clear as it could be in English... the Dutch translation from the Japanese is much clearer in explaining the more complicated functions. The use of new micro-technology has meant that more features can be packed into a smaller space. The price in Europe is around £175 for the basic receiver, or £250 including an active antenna. You don't need the active antenna if you use the set in Europe.
This review first appeared on the Radio Netherlands website.