The truth about portable amplified shortwave antennas

In the past week, I have had no less than 3 email inquiries from readers regarding which amplified antenna to purchase for their portable shortwave radio.  My short answer? None.

In my opinion, there’s one fatal flaw with amplified antennas: they amplify noise just as much as they do the signal you wish to hear.

The Sony AN-LP1 is the best amplified antenna I've ever used, but that's not saying a lot.The only portable amplified antenna I’ve had any results with is the Sony AN-LP1 (now only available in Japan), and I attribute this success mainly to the fact that a suction cup, mounted at the top of the loop, allows it to be mounted on a window. Even then, results are often only marginally better than with the telescopic whip.

There may have been a time when portable amplified antennas made sense–a time prior to noisy AC adapters, flat screen TVs, and other consumer electronics which spew RFI (Radio Frequency Interference), polluting our shortwave bands. Today, however, you’ll be disappointed with the results of one of these, particularly if you travel–turning on the amplified antenna in a hotel room will increase the noise you hear two-fold, while weak broadcasters will remain lost in the static.

RollUpAntennaReelSangean

The Sangean ANT-60 is inexpensive and vesatile

So what can you do to improve the performance of your portable while traveling or at home? I’m still a fan of the roll-up antenna; like the Sangean ANT-60.  They’re inexpensive ($12 US), packable, and versatile–the clip on the end of the reel allows the antenna wire to be clipped to curtains and blinds. Place it near a window, or even hang it outside. Antennas love being outside–just take it down when not in use.

In lieu of buying a roll-up antenna, you could simply attach an alligator clip to the end of a 20′ (6 meters) length of wire.  The alligator clip can then attach to the end of your telescopic antenna, and you now have the same properties of a roll-up antenna for pennies. This is possibly the most cost-effective way to improve the performance of your portable shortwave radio. One note of caution: don’t get too generous with the length of your antenna wire. Some portable radios lack a robust front-end and a wire that’s too long could actually overload the receiver. Some Grundig G5′s were even sensitive to static discharges over a wire antenna. If uncertain, I would not exceed 20 feet in length (6 meters).

An alligator clip offers serious bang-for buck--especially if you already have the parts lying around

An alligator clip offers serious bang-for buck–especially if you already have the parts lying around!

I’ll never forget:  one of the first email questions I received on SWLing.com was from a fellow listener in Washington state who wanted to hear stations better on his Sony portable. I suggested the alligator clip/antenna wire. He wrote back enthusiastically, “This is the most cost-effective improvement I have ever made to anything!” He was so encouraged with the performance improvement, he invested in a tabletop and a proper outdoor antenna with grounding.

So, I urge you to try a roll-up antenna or the alligator clip antenna before you waste money on a portable amplified antenna.  Just my two cents.

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19 Responses to The truth about portable amplified shortwave antennas

  1. Jonathan Marks says:

    agree entirely. Have one of the old AN-LP1 which you could fold into a bag. It would spring out again as if by magic. Tried it a bit on African trips – until a customs guy asked if it was an elephant’s condom.

  2. Heinz H says:

    Yes, yes – after many years in hotel rooms:
    the alligator clip and 6m copper wire hanging out o a window is still thebest solution.

    thx Heinz

  3. Tudor says:

    AN-LP1 it’s a loop antenna which allows you to null out the noise coming from nearby sources. An amplified whip antenna is omnidirectional and totally useless in noisy environments.
    I live in an apartment with lots of RFI. I use an AN-LP1 antenna placed at the window and I rotate it until the RFI is the lowest. Works better than the telescopic whip.

    • Thomas says:

      Good point, Tudor! You’re right–that the power of loops. I hope, in the future, to review the Wellbrook HF loop. Not exactly portable–and not exactly cheap–but an incredibly effective antenna at nulling and eliminating RFI.
      -Thomas

  4. VAXXi says:

    Well, I’ve read the opinions on amplified SW antennas, but decided to bite the bullet and get one. I have a Kestrel W31MS from eBay (also found under the names Degen DE31MS, Kaito KA33, TG34). I didn’t bother to put on video too many tests of the antenna, but here’s the most relevant sample: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCpcevEv_MU

    It’s a loop of wire which can be unfolded into a square loop, with a curtain clip at the top of the loop (end of cable). The other end has a 3.5″ jack which plugs into a cigarette-sized amplifier, running on 2 AAA batteries (which last forever). With the amplifier off, it seems to act like a simple wire which is perfectly fine for me. Scotch tape to stick the loop high up on the room window and that’s it.

    Considering the whole thing fits in a cigarette pack, it’s not much of a bother to take it in luggage. For me, it’s worth having; sometimes it can amplify the signal just enough to make it understandable (noise and all), which is what you want anyway.

  5. T. Riedel says:

    I read the blog and I am reading these posts with great interest. Antenna discussions are like politics – people are diametrically opposed and even the groups that have common ground seldom reach universal agreement. The following is my experience with shortwave listening.

    I have a G6 Aviator, a G5 Globe Traveler and a Yacht Boy 400. And I own a plethora of different antennas: TG34 (KA33/W31MS), KA35, a Slinky-type antenna, a Radio Shack 20-280, Sony AN-1/AN-12, and a Grundig Wire Reel antenna w/ 22.5’ of wire. Nearly each antenna has its niche. But as others have clearly stated: before an antenna is used – even before one powers-on a radio – the radio must physically be in the right place (away from sources of interference). I have found that if step one is successful, then my antennas will enhance my listening experience.

    The Sony AN-1/AN-12 does a great job – arguably the best overall performer having both a long whip (that can be mounted outdoors) and an amplifier/attenuator. But you’re not taking this on the road!

    In my experience the slinky is only good if it is “tuned” by the Radio Shack 20-280; neither one alone seems to work very well.

    The KA35 sits on my windowsill with the cable connected to my radio on my nightstand. Without the KA35 I would be unable to listen to many radio stations (with the antenna off, I often cannot even decipher an audible signal that a station might even exist on a frequency).

    And as another poster (VAXXI) stated, the TG34 (KA33/W31MS) performs extremely well [for me], also attaches to the window (like the Sony AN-LP1), costs less than $30 and has such a small footprint when packed that it travels extremely well.

    The one antenna that I personally haven’t had any success with is the 22.5’ wire reel-type antenna (maybe that’s because I take steps to reduce interference?).

    No antenna will improve radio reception if you have excess interference. In my house, I can minimize external interference with everything except the dishwasher! When that’s running, I can forget any SWL.

    Your experience may – and obviously will – vary as evidenced by the divergent opinions everyone seems to have re: antennas. But nonetheless, these discussions are always quite interesting. I thank everyone for sharing their thoughts & experiences.

    • Thomas says:

      Vaxxi and Troy–Thanks so much for the input. Very, very good points. With precautions, and under the right conditions, amplified antennas can fill a niche.

      I think the intention of my post was to make people aware that amplified antennas aren’t an instant salvation and that under heavy RFI, can disappoint. Frankly, even a passive wire antenna will effectively receive RFI.

      I actually had some good success with the AN-LP1 while on vacation in an off-grid cabin last year. No RFI to be heard and the little loop and tuned amp certainly pulled in weak signals better than the whip.

      I wish someone would develop a mini wellbrook antenna. One that amplifies the magnetic portion of EM, thus eliminating RFI. Something small enough for travel.

      Hey, at least one can dream!

      Cheers,
      Thomas

      • Bruce Fisher says:

        Hi Thomas,
        I wanted to purchase a Wellbrook Loop but didn’t have the space. After some research I found the AOR LA-390 Magnetic Loop Antenna, which is a foot in diameter, so it could be used in travelling. I don’t know how well it compares to the Wellbrooks (except that it costs about the same!). It does work well and is much less noisy than an indoor wire. I just checked the Universal Radio’s website and they now offer an improved version, the AOR LA-400:
        http://www.universal-radio.com/catalog/sw_ant/5051.html

        – Bruce

        • Thomas says:

          Hi, Bruce,

          The Wellbrook and AOR are certainly a worthwhile investment if you live in an RFI area. I have never heard a comparison of the two. I would also add some budget for a motor to rotate any loop (especially if outside). Loops like the Wellbrook have great nulling abilities–I imagine the AOR as well. Very curious if anyone has experience with the AOR loops–I bet some Brits do.

          Cheers,
          Thomas

  6. Mike says:

    The one active antenna that I have been pleased with is one I built myself. The design was by ON2NLT and uses a ferrite rod, so it is somewhat directional. Rotating the unit (it is very compact) often allows nulling out noise or interference. You have to be careful not to crank up the gain too much though, or you will amplify the noise floor. The link is here

    http://www.kolumbus.fi/juha.niinikoski/Ferrite_antenna/Ferrite_antenna.htm

  7. Pingback: Mike’s home brewed amplified antenna | The SWLing Post

  8. Derek says:

    Anyone use the parodt mini whip antenna for 0-30mhz. Seems to get good reviews

    • Kelvin says:

      Yes I have used the pa0rdt mini whip it works well on the lower bands under 10mhz but its not an indoor antenna, you have to put it outside away from the house and RFI, I use it with a softrock for NAVTXT on 518khz.

      If you put it inside the house and it will pick up tons of RFI, so as a portable antenna its not so great, very simple to build and does not cost much. Another antenna which I use is a amplified loop the schematics are at http://www.qsl.net/m0ayf/active-loop-receiving-antenna.html, I ended up using a hula hoop as the loop frame, I use it inside the house and it really works pretty well. With my AFEDRI sdr it makes a good match.

      Kelvin

  9. mark abraham says:

    try AOR LA 400 loop antenna, a must when it comes to top loop antennas. the rest like mentioned in this article is rubbish. sony sw radios are 3nd categories when compared to grunding and tecsun.

  10. billy ross says:

    please, does anybody have a copy of an user manual of an radio shack amplified shorwave antenna Mod. 20-280?
    what’s the rca connector for?
    Thanks a lot.

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