Receiver Review: Sony ICF-SW55
Year Introduced/discontinued: 1995/1998
Power: Battery and mains
Size: 118 x 71 x 24 mm
Weight: 230 g
Price: US$360, CAN$600, £300, A$800
Coverage: FM (stereo on headphones), LW, MW, SW: 150 - 29999 kHz (some national variations)
The ICF-SW55 is slightly larger than the existing ICF-SW-7600G. Performance is similar. There is a familiar keypad for directly entering frequencies, and also a thumb wheel which allows you to tune up and down the bands either in 1000 or 100 Hz steps. But the front panel is dominated by a large liquid-crystal display screen. There is a world map which shows your time zone with respect to UTC, a signal strength metre, a display which shows you if your on either wide or narrow AM bandwidth, upper or lower sideband, a complex but versatile 5 function timer to programme the radio to choose certain channels at a particluar time. You can store up to 125 favourite frequencies in the set. You do this in groups of up to 5 frequencies for each favourite station. e.g. Let's say you want to store Radio Netherlands channels in it. By using a shift button and the keypad you can get the display to show HOLLAND. Then under the display are five function buttons, and you can programme button number one to remember 5955, button 2 to remember 13770 kHz, and so on. Imagine it rather like an electronic logbook, where each page contains the name of a station, and up to 5 favourtie frequencies. The set comes with some stations already programmed in it.
This review was compiled independently. The Medium Wave Circle and Radio Netherlands has no financial connection with Sony, the manufacturer of this receiver.
There's a danger that the ICF-SW55 is dismissed as a budget version of the ICF-SW77. Whilst the ICF-SW55 doesn't have synchronous detection, our tests show that it offers overall better performance than the ICF-SW77. The sync mode is available on the cheaper ICF-SW7600G though.
To someone new to international radio, the front panel of the ICF-SW55 looks like a luxury electronic game. The front panel is dominated by a sophisticated 95 x 55 mm liquid crystal display. The data which appears includes a world map, UTC and local time, station name (when programmed), frequency, mode, and signal strength. But if you're prepared to read the instructions, the radio quickly becomes extremely easy to use. The extra facilities offered, compared with the simpler ICF-SW7600, allow you to get far more out of shortwave listening for a reasonably small extra investment.
We gave the radio to several non-technical people to experiment with. Several commented on the clever compact design. The SW55 is only slightly larger than the SW7600 (for the record it measures 125 x 195 x 35 mm), but the designers have been able to spread out the controls by using a unique loudspeaker construction. The speaker is actually mounted at the back of the set, and a curved duct is used to guide the sound through a "letterbox" on the front of the radio. Openings at the back are important for the bass response, so the radio sounds best when propped up at an angle on a table-top. This is easy using the built-in stand. The radio sounds no different (or worse) than sets of a similar size using a conventional front mounted loudspeaker.
The software used for the direct access tuning is more user-friendly than cheaper Sony sets. On the 7600 series, for instance, pressing key "1" called up Preset One from the memory. To punch in a shortwave frequency you first selected AM, then tapped in the frequency, and then pressed AM again. On the SW55 you simply type in the frequency and press the execute button. You only need to press the AM and FM buttons when you switch from FM reception to long, medium or shortwaves, or vice-versa. The receiver remembers the last AM (or FM) frequency selected, which is useful when checking from a programme running in parallel. The receiver also decides a default mode, depending on the frequency selected. Tap in 9895 kHz and the set selects AM wide for broadcast reception. Tap in 10145 and the set selects upper-sideband as the default. These mode changes also occur when manual tuning is selected.
Manual tuning is achieved with a "jog shuttle" rotary tuning knob. In the so-called "FAST" position, manual tuning moves in 1 kHz steps on AM, 500 kHz steps on FM. If you select the "SLOW" position the steps reduce to 100 Hz steps on AM and 50 kHz on FM. Whilst even the fine steps are audible as a slight "chuffing" sound, they are small enough to allow easy tuning of single-sideband signals (in contrast to the ICF-SW7600), although the steps are occasionally a little too coarse for easy deciphering of RTTY signals. The manual tuning can be locked, whilst allowing direct keyboard access to remain active.
Two buttons allow you to jump up or down the shortwave dial in 5 kHz steps, 9 or 10 kHz steps on medium wave, 3 kHz on longwave, and 50 kHz on FM.
Name that station!
Sony's advertisements highlight what they call "Station Name Tuning", also available on the ICF-SW77. Research shows that people remember names of stations much better than frequencies. Hence a radio which displays the name of a station, as well as a number of alternative frequencies for that broadcaster, would seem to be a logical step. Grundig tried it successfully on their Satellit 500, and extended the idea on the now-discontinued Satellit 700.
The Sony ICF-SW55 gives you 25 electronic "pages". Each page allows you to define one name, and up to five frequencies (and bandwidth and mode), making a total of 125 channels. Start by calling up a blank page. Letters can be entered into the receiver by pressing the orange "Label Edit" button. The buttons of the numeric keypad then represent letters of the alphabet. Since there are 26 letters of the alphabet, plus some extra signs such as *, you may have to push each numeric key up to three times to get the letter you want. Numbers can also form part of the name, e.g. "BBC R.1". It doesn't take long to program the names you want.
Since there is one 8-character name per page, you can either decide to store the name of a station, plus up to five favourite frequencies. Alternatively, you could tap in the name of the country, and store the frequencies of five favourite networks. You could also store one station, one frequency, but with options for AM wide, AM narrow, LSB, and USB under the memory keys. Paging through the system is made easier by a "Last Page" button which lets you spring back to the page you were programming.
A separate "page" is used to programme the versatile timer. You can set up to five stations into the timer, each with different frequencies and/or modes. You can select the on time (either local time or UTC) to the nearest minute. The off-time is anything up to 199 minutes later. If you want, you could programme the set to play the first two minutes of station A (with say news headlines) and switch over to another station for a local weather summary. A separate alarm function can also be selected in the same way. A socket on the side of the ICF-SW55 can be used to activate a suitably adapted tape recorder.
The radio comes complete with some international broadcasters and their most popular used frequencies already programmed into the memory pages. BBC, VOA, Radio Moscow, Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, and Radio Veritas were just some of the stations. The stations stored by the factory will depend on whether you buy the set in Asia, Europe, or the Americas. For the most part, the choice of channels by Sony seemed logical. You can change any of the factory-set frequencies very easily, although if you press the RESET button in the battery compartment the set reverts to the factory settings.
To get the set working you need to put four penlight batteries. These batteries are also used for backing up the memory and the dual-time clock. You have about three minutes to change the batteries before the clock resets and the memory is erased. A button allows you to check the condition of the battery, and a symbol is the display gives advance warning of low power. The set consumes around 80 mA at a comfortable listening volume. In our tests, a fresh set of alkaline batteries lasted a total of 9 hours with listening sessions of around 90 minutes at a time. Batteries are some 200 times more expensive than household current. A dual voltage AC power adapter is included with the set in most countries. Note that this receiver (like the ICF-SW77) uses the new Japanese standard DC socket, which is smaller than previously. The centre pin is positive, not negative as with many power supplies.
A small world map is shown in the liquid crystal display. Two black lines show the local time zone selected. If you set the clock correctly to your local time, then it's possible to check the current time in several capital cities around the world. Of course the radio can't compensate for the fact that summer and winter times start on different dates around the globe. A button also allows you to display areas of the world currently in darkness. Another button compensates for local summer or daylight time.
The radio has a 20-segment signal strength meter, although this is just a rough guide rather than a calibrated instrument. While tuning up parts of the shortwave dial, the meter rarely leaves the maximum signal strength position.
Selectivity - no surprises
The ICF-SW55 has more than adequate sensitivity on all bands. The synthesiser noise is significantly lower than the ICF-SW77, this being especially noticeable on longwave. AM selectivity is switchable between WIDE ( 6 kHz at -6dB) and NARROW (2.8 kHz at - 6 dB). Selectivity is good for a portable.
Connecting an external antenna is possible, and this disconnects the internal ferrite rod and telescopic whip. In Europe an external antenna is not really needed unless it can provide signals which are less prone to man-made interference. If used, best results are often obtained with the sensitivity switch set to LOCAL. A pair of stereo headphones can be connected to the side of the SW-55. You can switch between stereo and mono on FM, although there is no indication of stereo on the liquid crystal display.
In short, at around £300 in Europe the ICF-SW55 is a good table receiver with a lot of built-in features. It calls into question what you really gain by paying significantly more for a ICF-SW77 (£400). If you're interested in either of these new sets then take the time to really compare the difference.
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.