A review of the Degen DE321 DSP shortwave radio

This analog dial packs DSP!

The Degen DE321 is the first of a new type of radio hitting the market–a DSP-based receiver with an analog tuning dial. I was very intrigued by this radio since both it and the future Tecsun R-2010 are the newest of their kind. We’re still waiting for the R-2010 to hit the market, but the DE321 was introduced just a few weeks ago.

So, keep in mind that the DE321 I describe is not technically analog, although the dial and face appear to be.

Impressions

The Degen DE321 is slightly thinner than the Kaito WRX911.

My first impressions of this radio are very positive. The DE321 is small, slim, and fits nicely in the hand. While holding it the first time, I even noticed a small indentation where my index finger fits on the back of the radio underneath the telescoping whip antenna. Nice touch!

The DE321 also feels durable. It’s slightly thinner than the venerable WRX911–the radio I believe it best compares with in the analog world. It’s the first SW radio I’ve owned that can actually comfortably fit into the pocket of my jeans. Indeed, its size and form are fairly comparable to the typical smart phone.

For a very tiny built-in speaker, the DE321 has unexpectedly decent audio. In fact, it is easily superior to the WRX911–its tones are more mellow and there’s even a hint of bass response. I’m sure the DSP chip has been tweaked to produce audio suitable for this application.

The DE321 has a nice, sturdy back stand for tabletop listening. However, it takes quite a lot of pulling force to get it to pop out of its closed position; I keep fearing that I will break the stand when opening it up. For what it’s worth, I prefer this tension to radios that have floppy, lose back stands.

Tuning

The DE321 has a tiny red tuning light that works well when you receive a strong signal.

For a guy who was raised on analog tuning, yet now almost exclusively uses digital portables, the DE321 is a strange animal. When I first started tuning the radio, I noticed that the tuning wheel feels slightly “sticky.” At first, I thought the stickiness of the analog encoder was causing the tuning to skip over stations, as the action was not as fluid as most analog-tuned radios. Upon further investigation, I realized that it’s not the slightly sticky tuning wheel producing the tuning “skips,” rather, it’s the fact that the tuning is actually digital, thus I was hearing the “steps” between frequencies, which tricked my brain, translating into the sensory experience of wheel stickiness. Still, since the tuning wheel isn’t terribly fluid, I am not discounting some real frequency skipping at times.

I’m guessing that the steps are near 5 kHz on the shortwave bands, and that the single bandwidth is rather wide. The tuning steps on medium wave and FM seem to be appropriate for international use.

On a side note, the tuning experience is exactly opposite to that of the Grundig S350DL–an analog-tuned radio with digital display. The S350DL’s tuning feels sloppy and flexible, and the receiver is prone to drifting. The DE321, on the other hand, has a vague analog tuning display, but with precise, incremented tuning behind the scenes.

I’m pleased to note that the DE321’s stability is rock-solid and does not drift.

For casual band scanning, I find that the bandwidth and tuning steps are well placed. Happily, there is no noticeable muting between tuning steps.

Performance

The Degen DE321 with its older analog cousin the Kaito WRX911 in the background.

For this review, I compare the DE321 to the analog Kaito WRX911. The two have the same approximate size and price. In the near future, I’ll also compare reception with SiLabs DSP-based radios like the Tecsun R-2010 and the Tecsun PL-380. (Check back for these comparisons soon.)

On the shortwave bands, I feel that the sensitivity and selectivity are well-balanced. When I compare reception with the WRX911, the DE321 seems to pull in faint signals out of the murk a little better than the WRX911. However, I do notice some “pumping” as the AGC tries to cope with faint signals; it reminds me a bit of the Tecsun PL-310 in this respect. Sometimes I also notice that faint signals can range from being very faint to stepping up to clear and strong very quickly–the switch sounds like the DSP moving from not having enough signal to digest, to having enough to do its job. This can be a little frustrating as broadcasts may sound strong one minute, become weak within a fraction of a second, then pop back up again. I only observed this phenomena, however, when processing weak signals. Normal broadcast stations come in quite clearly.

Though I chose not to spend much time evaluating FM and AM (please comment if you have done so), I found the FM and AM (MW) performance to be on par with other radios using the SiLabs DSP chipset. I may expand upon this in the review later. (Update 16 Mar 2012: With more time spent on AM (MW) I realize performance on this band is sub-par–see comments).

Summary

Positives:

  • For a tiny speaker, the sound is surprisingly full
  • Sensitivity and selectivity are both good
  • Nice form–slim, and easily fits in the hand
  • Simple (see negative)
  • Inexpensive
  • Exceptionally wide FM bands (64-108 MHz) (see negative)
  • Unlike its analog counterparts, has absolutely no frequency drift

Negatives:

  • Back stand hard to pop open–though sturdy, it feels vulnerable as a lot of force is needed to open it
  • Tuning wheel feels slightly “sticky”
  • Absolutely no bells and whistles (see positive)
  • FM is in 2 bands, FM 1 and 2 (see positive)
  • AM (MW) performance is very weak
  • Though it looks analog, digital tuning produces slight “stepped” sound/ sensation, unlike the fluid experience of tuning a true analog radio

In conclusion, I think the DE321 is a great buy. It’s certainly a steal at $21 US, shipped. Though I simply find the idea of a rather vague analog encoder and display combined with the precision of a digital tuner a tad quirky–even backward–at the end of the day, the audio is very pleasant and the form perfect for slipping into your pocket.

I’m very eager to see how it stacks up against the soon-to-be-released Tecsun PL-2010.  Stay tuned as I compare these in the near future…

Like most Degen (and Tecsun) radios, the DE321 is only available from eBay sellers in China/Honk Kong. I would normally call this a negative, since there is no real warranty for those of us living outside the country of origin. Still, I’ve been most impressed with purchases I’ve made from these highly-rated sellers. I believe they would help you if a problem were to arise and my experience is that they do a second QC (quality check) of their own, prior to shipping. The Degen DE321 in this review was purchased from eBay seller 

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16 Responses to A review of the Degen DE321 DSP shortwave radio

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  2. Thomas says:

    SWLing Post reader, Dennis, spent time with the DE321 on AM (MW) and found reception very poor. He wrote the seller (and to their credit) they contacted Degen. Degen’s response: “the FM band and SW band are using the telescopic whip antenna to receive the signal, the MW band use the ferrite bar antenna, but because this radio is too small so the inside ferrite bar antenna is very small also, this cause the signal reception is not very good than some bigger radio, this is the root cause for your question, hope it is helpful for you.” On the positive side, you will be pleased with SW and FM reception on the DE321, just keep low expectations on AM (MW).

    • CG says:

      You could probably take a long wire antenna, and wrap the end of it several times around your De321, preferably in the same circular motion as the coil is inside the radio. This would transfer the single very efficiently from the long wire to the ferrite bar antenna inside and boost your signal strenth greatly. Or you can take the end of the long wire, and loop it flat like a plate, and tape it together, and hold it up against the back of the radio flat as if it were a plate. I’ve used this method on a 1951 GE 430 AA5 AM radio with great success. Of course, I had 100 yards of long wire out laying on the ground ;-) The longer, the better.

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  4. Heinz H says:

    Question: Does “5kHz steps” on AM mean that European MW stations cannot be tuned in correctly? (US has 10KHz steps from station to station, Europe has 9kHz).

    • Thomas says:

      Hello, Heinz,

      Good question. Since this unit is really marketed to Asia, I would imagine that 9khz stepped would almost be the default. Problem is, I can’t find this spec for the DE1129. Sometimes, I feel like it may actually be designed only for 9kHz, but the bandwidth on MW is wide enough that it still receives stations in N America on 10kHz increments. I will play around a bit more on MW and see if I can draw some firm conclusions.

      Thomas

  5. Heinz H says:

    Thomas: Thx for the time taken to reply! Now that I have the radio I tend to agree with your “9kHz default”. Some MW stations come in with simply too much noise, suspicion they are not tuned well enough. Heinz H

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  8. vimal oberoi says:

    Hello Thomas,
    I am based in India so need “9kHz default”,should I go for DEGEN DE321
    http://www.amazon.com/Shortwave-Stereo-Portable-Pocket-Receiver/dp/B0094Q3N6O/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_t_2_FTM3
    or for Kaito KA321
    http://www.amazon.com/Kaito-KA321-Pocket-size-Shortwave-Processing/dp/B008MPKAPK/ref=pd_rhf_dp_p_t_1_37DB
    costing almost same at Amazon.

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  14. Nithya says:

    I bought a Degen 321 yesterday. Inside my home, I usually get poor signals for even FM and AM (no need to say anything about SW). So I usually hear SW from outside. And strong stations of FM or AM inside the home. I also have a local FM radio of Philips and Tecsun R909. Tecun R909 picks up most of the FM, AM stations and many SW stations from inside the home itself. The problem is that with Degen 321, I get only the strongest of all the stations and that too, only in some places inside the home. It’s receptivity is very poor. Is that a defect or something or problem with poor signal inside? Also, I had removed the antenna and fixed it back. Can the problem be due to antenna not in place or something like that? In a place with low signal strength, what can I do to improve the receptivity?

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