Weak signals: Which radio do you prefer?

SideBySide-FourRadios

I’m in the process of reviewing a number of shortwave portables and pitting them against each other. Sometimes, it can be very difficult to decide which radio is better–especially if you have more than two radios to compare at a time.

What I’ll often do to help level the playing field is to make an in-line recording of each radio (via my Zoom H2N handy recorder) with the mic and volume levels equal. I then tune to the same frequency with similar filter settings (wide, maximum RX gain, antennas fully extended, etc.).

I also like comparing radios while listening to weak signals and/or when conditions are less favorable. Those were exactly the circumstances yesterday when I pitted four radios against each other: the Sangean ATS-909X, Tecsun PL-660, Tecsun PL-880 and the Sony ICF SW7600GR.

I found a weak signal from Radio Romania International on 11,975 kHz. Normally, the signal would have been stronger, but propagation was rough and QSB (fading) was pronounced at times. Under these conditions you get the opportunity to hear how the AGC circuit handles fading and troughs, how the noise floor sounds as conditions change and note the overall sensitivity.

While I give priority to a receiver’s sensitivity and selectivity, there’s more to evaluate–for example, sometimes the more sensitive radio may be less pleasing to listen to.

Below are three recordings of Radio Romania International made from three of the four radios tested (I did not include one of the four radios that was notably less sensitive). These are audio snapshots, but represent what a listener would hear via headphones during similar conditions. All recordings were made within a four minute period of time.

[Update: Check out the results of this test.]

Which of the three recordings do you prefer? Which radio do you find handles these unfavorable conditions best? Why do you prefer one over the others?

Sample 1:

Sample 2:

Sample 3:

Please add your comment below, or contact me via email with your favorite and any comments. I’m also very interested in which one you believe is second best. I’ll tally up the results in one week and will reveal which radio came out on top!

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73 Responses to Weak signals: Which radio do you prefer?

  1. Dan Srebnick says:

    Sample 2 wins. Better audio and clarity. Sample 1 sounded rough, probably a narrower bandwidth, sample 3 was a dog. Then again, my decision could just be based upon an EQ curve that works for me.

  2. Han Solo says:

    Sample 2 had better audio quality, but sample 1 had much better AGC and did not have the annoying up and down volume changes that sample 2 did.

    It almost made sample 1 easier to listen to even though it was less audio quality and probably lower bandwidth.

    To me good AGC is one of the most important features on a radio.

    • Paul says:

      I agree, for laid back easy listening before bedtime, sample 1 is most relaxing. For active listening, to catch details of every word for that critical mission, sample 2 is the go. Sample 3 seemed a mix of sample 1 and 2

      My selection for what I do is 1, 2 and then 3

      Can we have results pls.. thinking of buying a PL-880 and I’m hoping it’s fast AGC circuit is doing this nice stable ( yet slighlty muffled) reception.

  3. Rick Blythe says:

    Sample one to me was best. superior AGC

  4. Ken Carr says:

    I prefer no. 2.

    I made sure to do it as a blind test. (did not read post or look at photos).

    Great idea!

  5. Rob says:

    Starting with favorite: 2, 1, 3.
    2 has the best overall consistency and sound quality.
    1 is very close, a little less consistent as the signal fades and regains.
    3 has a nasty sound artifact in it, almost a hiss, but perhaps some digital processing noise.
    OK, now I can go read what everybody else had to say.

  6. RadioFlynn says:

    I think #1 was the most pleasant to listen to, followed closely by #2, and #3 a distant 3rd. I prefer the more active agc action in #1, even if some of the audio is filtered. #2 does have nice audio, but over a long listening session I think I would tire of the fluctuating volume.

  7. Tom Stiles says:

    First of all thanks for taking the time to make this post. I select recording 1 as it seems to have less fading. 2 is a close second and 3 is way behind. Which radio was not included? 909?

    Another Tom

    • RadioFlynn says:

      Question: was synchronous detection used in any (or all of) of these clips? Or is that part of the test?

      • Thomas says:

        Good question!

        No, I didn’t use synchronous detection because one of the four radios lacks it (the ATS-909X).

        I set all of the radios to their widest filter setting and with the gain up all of the way (“DX” instead of “Local” mode, for example). Antennas were fully extended and I tried to orient each radio on a table (I didn’t hold any of them) so that reception was optimal for each unit. No other radios were running while I made an individual recording; I simply cycled through them one at a time. I also made sure backlighting was off (not that any of these four have issues with noise off of the display).

        -Thomas

        • RadioFlynn says:

          Were you thinking of doing another test with a medium to strong signal?

          • Thomas says:

            Yes, actually, I did four tests and recordings:
            - Weak station
            - Strong station
            - Weak SSB station
            - Synchronous detection (but only on three of the radios as the 909X lacks a sync detector)

          • RadioFlynn says:

            Seems like a nice design for a radio “experiment” to me! Thanks for doing this. I see you have a new 909X, is that what prompted the post?

          • Thomas says:

            Yes, it was the ATS-909X that gave me the reason to pit all four against each other. The 909X, by the way, is simply on loan from a friend who purchased it a few weeks ago. Great opportunity to play radio. :) I really enjoy this sort of thing.
            -Thomas

        • Owen says:

          Oo That’s no reason to disable the other radios? This test is not valid.

          • Thomas says:

            To be clear: this particular test was only using AM mode (no sync) on weak signals because one of the radios lacks sync (909X). I did a separate test with recordings using sync, but only with the three that have a sync detector (PL880, PL660, 7600GR). It wouldn’t be comparing apples-to-apples if I used sync on some, but not all of the radios. I attempt to keep the playing field as level as possible.

  8. Woody says:

    I feel that #1 was possibly the strongest but the audio was a little muddy or to bassy??
    But it was the best over all for me..

    #2 was just ok with me the signal was better than 3 but not as good as one..this one was probably a little more clear than 1 but signal was in and out…but not nearly as bad as 3

    #3 was just ok weaker receive but the audio to me what you could hear other than fading in out of static was crisper than the other 2…
    Would love to know which one was which after you are done.. I pick 1 because it is best over all because of receive strength and less fading and I guess #2 is the second one…but not by much.. but there again I go with signal strength…but audio was sketchy to my old ears……

    #3 was just pretty week all around…except for the crisper audio.. Just my 2 cents worth…
    Woody

  9. Bill says:

    I like number 2 and then 1. 3 is not in the mix as for as I am concerned.

  10. Cliff KU4GW says:

    I definitely liked the audio and signal quality of sample # 1 the best. Number 2 was OK and number 3 wasn’t even comparable to the other two.

  11. Stephen Powell says:

    I agree with the 1,2,3 (in order of preference) rating.

    Steve

  12. Herb Simpson (Toronto) says:

    I too prefer #2! Lower background noise and program right up front.

  13. Ed McCorry says:

    I listened to these a couple of times, because in some aspects they were close, Number 1 was my pick. In my opinion there was better noise suppression and less fading. The AGC seemed to be better than the others. Number 2 was acceptable and number 3 didn’t come close to the others. Thanks Thomas!

  14. Mark Fahey says:

    1, 2 and then a distant 3rd is 3. I did my listening on an iPad sitting on the underground with heaps of commuter ambient noise using standard Apple earbuds. I wonder if I would rate the clips differently if I was at home listening via a speaker? The 2nd clip’s fluctuating volume was distracting when listening with the earbuds.

    Funny enough I was listening to Radio Romania’s DRM French broadcast (S9+20 here in Sydney) a bit earlier in the day, it wins hands down!

  15. Joel R says:

    My votes:
    Best is Sample 2
    Decent second place to Sample 1

    Sample 3 was passable but 2 and 1 out did it by some margin.

  16. Was number 2 the Tecsun PL660? Because even though I dont own one yet,all reviews Ive read and seen on YouTube bring the 660 out on tops compared with many other receivers in use.Ive decided to buy one very soon! I live in Auckland NewZealand.

  17. ¾ Blind says:

    Depends on the program and listening intent. For best voice intelligibility and listening via the radio’s own speaker, I choose #1 for its good signal to noise ratio and more even volume level, followed by #2 and last #3. However, for listening to low volume background music with the audio piped through a Pioneer A35 amp and Pioneer BS41 speakers I choose #3 for its high frequency audio content, followed by #1 and last #2.

  18. Bill Boyd says:

    #1 first, slightly better overall quality than #2; both significantly better than #3.

  19. Guy Atkins says:

    Signal #1 was the best for me, followed closely by signal #2 for second place. #3 is a distant 3rd.

    I have a suspicion that the ATS-909X is the 4th receiver you left out, due to less sensitivity. The 909X is widely known to be only average on its whip for shortwave reception; however, it does very well with a passive external antenna and is less likely to overload like the others.

    One popular mod for the 909X is the addition of a 4:1 balun to achive a better impedance match between the whip and the RF input circuitry. The details on this are found on the ATS-909X Yahoo Group.

    • RadioFlynn says:

      I understood that the balun mod decreases FM sensitivity, which would make me think twice. I would use an external antenna instead.

      • Guy Atkins says:

        That’s true… I wasn’t thinking of the impact on FM reception as that’s not an interest of mine. There are other portables with impressive FM performance, such as most of the Tecsun models with the SiLabs DSP chips.

  20. Keith says:

    I’m going
    1
    2
    3

  21. Bob B says:

    I think 1 is best in overall quality. 1 is pl-880, 2 is 660 and 3 is 7600GR?
    Just received pl-880 yesterday so maybe it’s wishful thinking.

  22. danech55 says:

    I bought myself a Sangean 909x and a Tecsun Pl 660 for Christmas. The Tecsun consistently delivers better results with weak stations on an external long wire. Also, the SSB on the Tecsun is more sensitive than the Sangean, which,by the way, cost twice as much.

  23. Curt says:

    I’ll give #2 a slight edge over #1, with #3 obviously inferior. So: 2, 1, 3. -Curt

  24. Lebkuecher says:

    I will vote for # 2 with second up being # 1. (Very close between one and two)

    I hope # 3 is not the Tecsun PL-880 or the unit left out of the recordings.

  25. Rod Wallberg says:

    Receiver one is the best over all for listening accuracy, two has better audio with more fidelity where three is the last as it is not able to handle weak signals with fade.

  26. Peter says:

    2>1>3

    Personal preference on audio quality

  27. Michael Stevenson says:

    I liked sample 1 the best, better AGC control, sample 2 had better audio when the signal was stronger but it had funny audio affects when the signal faded, sample 3 was a failure in my book!

  28. Joel says:

    I liked the way sample 1 sounded the best, very easy to listen to. Followed closely by sample 2 which had great audio but more pronounced fading. Sample 3 was a distant 3rd place.

    Looking forward to seeing the results.

  29. Mark says:

    Great test. Liked 1, 2, 3 in that order.
    Bandwidths on 1 & 2 virtually identical to my ears. Found the enveloping AGC in #2 strange & fatiguing after a couple listens. Wider bandwidth on #3 only added noise here. What would #3 sound like in comparison w/ it’s bandwidth or hi-freqs knocked back one notch? Is that option available? Looking forward to more!

  30. cardiackid55 says:

    I rank the samples as follows: #1, #2, and #3. The #1 sample was more tenacious in hanging on to an intelligible signal throughout the sample, while the #2 sample faded in and out rapidly, with brief times of unintelligibility. However when #2 pulled the signal in well, the speaker sounded better than #1, but I’d rather have consistent intelligibility. Sample #3 was far inferior to the other two.

  31. RadioFlynn says:

    Thomas, I don’t know if you have put any thought into the analysis of the survey data, but I suggest you average the ranks for each receiver on each test, and present a final table for your readers to judge who won, overall.
    So, for this test, lets say receiver #1 got ranks 1,1,1,2,2 then average rank for R1 Weak would be 7/5=1.4
    The final table would look like:
    | Weak Strong SSB Sync
    ============================
    R1 | average ranks
    R2 | for each receiver
    R3 | for each test
    R4 |
    There are statistical tests for determining a final result, but in the end, presenting the data and letting people hear the recordings should allow people to make a “best fit” choice amoung receivers.

  32. KK5AB says:

    Here are my votes in order of best to worst
    #1
    #3
    #2
    I did not like the way #2 chopped the signal

  33. Mike says:

    I liked #1 the best, and based upon the sound, I’d bet it was the PL-880 (it has a pretty distinctive sound compared to most SW receivers). #2 was a close second, and #3 was inferior to the other two. Since I’m in a betting mood, I think #3 was the Sony, which I always found to be overrated.

    Thanks for organizing this test; great idea!

  34. Christos says:

    Nice idea Thomas to compare the same signal from the Balkans with four radios and well presented. I own only the Sony model so I think it sounds like the third recording which is really inferior. As far as I have read in various reviews the Sangean model needs a good external antenna to perform so this could be the radio omitted. I tend to enjoy the second recording (PL-660 ?) more than the first one which any way is quite close to it. I am about to order a Tecsun, but I have not decide yet between these two models. Probably the posts will help me to come to a conclusion.

  35. Steve says:

    I think 1 had the smoothest AGC, so it was most listenable, followed by 2 with more gain changes but less noise than 3.

  36. Stephen says:

    I think I like #1 best by a fairly long shot. I think #2 is fairly far behind, followed not-so-closely by #3.
    On #2 it seems like the IF/audio bandwidth is being constricted on the ultra-weak parts.
    #3 seems to have some digital-type noise when it gets weak.
    #1 seems to behave more like I’m used to an analog radio behaving on weak signals. I do still notice a bit of selective fading (or whatever it is on a regular AM radio when your signal is still there but heavily distorted), but not much. Question – what feature on a radio would eliminate that? SSB? Sync? ECSS? Or something else?

    I’m guessing #2 and #3 are the Tecsuns, but I’m not sure. I have a few Tecsun DSP radios, just not those ones, and they share some similar characteristics, especially with #3, except I don’t hear any “soft muting” / audio/agc stepping/pumping in these recordings. Is #3 the PL-880? I’m guessing #1 is the Sony.

  37. Paolo says:

    1, 2, 3.
    1 seems to be the clearest followed closely by 2 which has slightly more background noise. 3 is the worst on account of the harsh background noise.

    It’s nice of you to do these tests and I’m really curious which radio is which.

    Cheers!

  38. Curt says:

    The “reveal” is going to be interesting. I’m guessing no one who is guessing which radio is which owns all four! -Curt

  39. Tudor says:

    I prefer 1, then 2 and 3. #2 must be the Tecsun PL-660, I recognize the muting of high audio frequencies at low signal levels (a “feature” I disabled on my unit).

  40. kb8viv says:

    can’t wait for the results

  41. kb1uac says:

    #1 radio is rated third (tough to listen to this one – pulls in the station but with greater variability)
    #2 radio is rated first (better blend of ‘listenability’ and ability to consistently bring in the station)
    #3 radio is rated second (easiest to listen to and understand)

    - but my personal test results have been Sangean 909 Radio Labs radio is superior to the others, Sony icf7600 is easiest to listen to (w/ great battery life unlike to Sangean), with Tecsuns just hard on the ears even if they are sensitive. I’ve only borrowed the Tecsuns (660 and 880) since I’m not impressed with the build quality and total engineering quality versus the Sangean and Sony).

    I cannot listen to the #1 radio very long due to the tinny sound – it’s very tiring
    #3 was easier to listen to but #2 had something turned on(sensitivity) that wasn’t in #3

  42. Rich W says:

    1 had less fading and was easy to listen to, thanks for the comparison.

  43. Moshe Ze'ev Zaharia says:

    OK, I liked #2 audio quality, so it will be my first choice.
    #1 has far better AGC, but poor audio.
    #3 if far behind.
    I have the ATS909 (before the 909X), and I have found a way to get it working with it’s telescopic antenna:
    1. polish off the colour from the black screw to make it conduct.
    2. isolate the speaker positive terminal of the speaker with heat shrink tube, as it touches the antenna’s pin on the pcb.
    tested it outside, now it works perfect on all bands.
    all the best.

  44. Chrissy Brand says:

    Sample 2 seemed best, closely followed by Sample 1, then the third sample.

  45. Kanwar Sandhu says:

    Sample 2 is clear cut winner. Close second is Sample 1.

  46. Chris in Michigan says:

    I think # 1 then #2 and 3 comes in last. It was a hard choice between 1 and 2, i liked both of them.
    This is like the blind Coke vs Pepsi test. I hope I picked Coke.

  47. Russ Bunyas says:

    First why are there 3 clips and 4 radios? Second #3 is the Sangean and it doesn’t even get an honorable mention. It’s a toss up between 1 & 2. I like the more consistent volume of #1 and prefer it over the clearer but constantly changing volume of number 2.

    • Moshe Ze'ev Zaharia says:

      I don’t think #3 is the Sangean, it sounds like something else when it fades.
      I think #2 might be the Sangean, as it’s AGC sounds very similar to my 909.
      #1 has A very good AGC, (and it sounds auful), so this one is not the Sangean.

    • Thomas says:

      Hi Russ,
      One of the four radios was significantly less sensitive than the other three. I mention in the post that I didn’t even bother including it.
      Cheers,
      Thomas

  48. Stefanazz77 says:

    Sample 1 is the best. Maybe not so clear, but without the horrible up and down fading of sample 2 and 3, this means a good AGC.

  49. W4ASZ says:

    1, 2, and 3. Easy call for me.

  50. MarkG says:

    I prefer 2 and then 1.

  51. Jim Curione says:

    Recording #1 does it for me. Very clear with very little effort to listen.
    #2 had too much fade or QSB.
    #3 was practically in the noise.

  52. Gene James says:

    1) Sample 1 – The Best – I think it is from Tecsun PL-660 ?
    2) Sample 2 – It’s Ok – I think it is from Sony ICF SW7600GR ?
    3) Sample 3 – The Worst

  53. Pingback: Results of the Shortwave Portable weak signal shoot-out | The SWLing Post

  54. Kris says:

    Sample 1 the best

  55. Paul says:

    I liked sample 2 the best.

  56. Mikebc says:

    I liked number 1, Then 2 and 3 is pretty bad to me. I don’t mind the muffled audio in 1 due to the fact I usually use headphones or earbuds.

  57. Geoff VK3DMN says:

    For listening my order is number 2, then number 1 and then a fair way behind those number 3.
    Number 1 had better AGC but number 2 had much more pleasant tone.

    I have no idea which one is the Tecsun PL-660 but I’m hoping it isn’t number 3 because I’ve already ordered one and it hasn’t arrived yet LOL.

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