The XDR-M1 was the first Walkman model that could receive Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) programmes. Sony were not the first to offer a pocket-sized DAB set, though as a quality manufacturer with a reputation built on quality miniature equipment, their entry to this new market was eagerly awaited. Following the release of a larger table set, the XDR-M1 was a logical next step for Sony, and as well as being a fully-featured DAB set, it could also receive FM broadcasts in stereo. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
The XDR-M1 took the form of a small black box, similar in concept in many ways to the SRF-80W, the original pocket stereo radio. The front of the case was dominated by a large LCD panel and the main control keys. The display was unusual in that it showed transparent characters on a black background, which looked stylish but was not especially easy to read. In an attempt to ease this, a button on the side of the unit caused the display to illuminate briefly, though frequent use of this would drastically shorten the life of the batteries. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
The large display screen allowed all the functions of the set to be controlled via a menu system. Through this, radio stations could be tuned and stored, the signal strength and quality could be monitored and scrolling text transmitted with the broadcast could be viewed. When the set was first powered, it automatically scanned the DAB band and stored all available stations. The user could then nominate some of these as “favourites”, making the desired programmes easier to recall. FM stations could be tuned and stored as well, though the process was more “manual” in nature. The omission of a Radio Data System (RDS) decoder meant that station naming had to be done by the user, assuming that they felt strongly enough about it to complete the rather complex procedure. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
The headphone volume was controlled by a rocker bar on the side of the set, and when this was used the display showed what proportion of the available level was being used. Operating the volume control this way allowed the function to be duplicated on the remote control, a small unit that was located in-line with the headphone lead that could also change the programme and switch between DAB and FM. The remote control was designed so that it would work with any headphones, not just the in-ear types that were supplied with the unit. To compensate for the small headphones that were likely to be used, “Mega Bass” loudness could be switched in, again via the menu system. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
It was clear that the XDR-M1 was intended for use as a portable set only, though in the early days of DAB it would have been rather more useful to include facilities to make it into a tuner for a hi-fi system as well. Although a mains adaptor was provided, but there was no “line out” connection and no facility for an external antenna, even though neither of these would have required much work to include. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
So, having perfectly understood the requirements for a personal cassette player with the TPS-L2 25 years previously, had Sony done the same thing for DAB? In a word, no. In fairness to the designers, many of the drawbacks of DAB were due to the shortcomings of the system itself, the “all or nothing” nature of digital audio did not really suit a miniature portable with an improvised antenna (in this case the headphone cable), and for much of the time the DAB programmes would be inaudible or of such poor quality so as to be unusable for entertainment purposes. However, the XDR-M1 was not especially sensitive, and some models from other lesser-known manufacturers could provide better results under difficult conditions. The only suggestion that Sony could make to assist listeners who were having reception problems was to “try standing near a window”, hardly practical in all circumstances. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
The inclusion of FM meant at least that one could listen to something, though foolishly there was no way to switch the reception to mono, meaning that on the whole results were noisy. In addition to these problems, the menu system was rather poor, being awkward to use and non-intuitive. The controls did not help, most of the menu navigation was performed by a “joystick” in the centre of the front panel, but this was poorly designed and frequently the wrong function would be selected. Finally, battery life was disappointingly short (as little as four hours) when receiving DAB programmes, though it was more respectable when the set was used for FM reception only. This again was not a problem unique to Sony, all DAB sets of this generation were heavy on batteries, but in the case of the XDR-M1 an extra level of nuisance was added: unless the discharged batteries (two “AA” cells) were replaced within ten minutes all the settings would be lost. Given how difficult these settings were to make, this was especially galling. A solution to these problems could have been a high-capacity integral rechargeable battery, as was included with many of the better Discman models (e.g. the D-EJ885), but this was not done, leaving the owner no choice but to keep feeding in the Duracells. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.
So the XDR-M1 was not the type of perfect product that Sony had been so good at producing in the past. It still looked desirable, but in use there were too many drawbacks. Clearly DAB did not respond to Sony’s talents like the compact cassette had done. Text copyright © Walkman Central. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.