Mega Review: the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, Sangean ATS-909X, and Sony ICF-SW7600GR go head-to-head

This article, which extensively reviews–and compares–the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, the Sangean ATS-909X, and the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor Magazine. Without a doubt, it’s my longest and most comprehensive review to date.


AllFourRadios

Summer:  time for travel–and for portable shortwave DXing. As I mentioned in the March TSM issue, I love combining travel with shortwave radio listening. But what radio should I pack?

This time of year, on the SWLing Post, I receive an increase in the number of queries asking some variation of the following, “What is the best, full-featured, portable shortwave radio on the market?” Oftentime it’s an upcoming trip, or just some time off work, that prompts the question, but without a doubt, this is the most-often-asked question from my readers. Typically, the reader has several models in mind and is curious how they compare. And since a good portable radio costs between $100 – $230 US, it’s not an impulse purchase decision for most of us.

In this month’s column, I hope to answer this question as thoroughly as possible so you can make an informed purchase decision that’s right for you. All four radios I mention in this article are what I would call “flagship portables” (generally, these are the best portables from any particular manufacturer). These were recently featured in a highly-energized reader survey on the SWLing Post, and are as follows: the Tecsun PL-660, the Tecsun PL-880, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, and the Sangean ATS-909X.

AllFourRadiosInLine

The price tags for these radios fluctuate, but all are generally available between $100-$230 US, and are actively in production right now.

Moreover, all these radios have a similar form factor: they are portable enough to be operated handheld, sport a direct-frequency entry keypad, a dedicated external antenna jack, and a generous backlit display. All of them also have SSB, and all but one have selectable sideband synchronous detection.

The competitors

With the exception of the Sangean ATS-909X–on loan from a friend for the purposes of this review–I have easily spent 40+ hours of listening time with each of these radios. I know their individual characteristics quite well and have used them in a variety of situations.

In case you’re not familiar with each of the contenders, a brief summary of each radio follows with an overview of the features that make it unique.

Sangean ATS-909X

ATS-909X

If there was an award for the best-looking radio, I think the ATS-909X would win. The 909X designers put a great deal of thought behind the design and ergonomics of the 909X; for instance, there are two indentations on the back of the radio which allow it to fit nicely in your hands.  The 909X sports an internal speaker that produces excellent audio fidelity with a crisp response and even some distinct bass notes, especially notable if listening to an FM station. Of all of the radios listed here, the 909X has the the best variable receiver gain, tone control, largest display, and is the only radio with RDS (Radio Data System).

909X-Grip

While I like the position of the tuning wheel on the front of the radio, which is ideal for tuning with your thumb and reminiscent of the ICF-SW55, I don’t like the indents you feel as you tune. If you’re a listener that takes advantage of radio memory, the ATS-909X has a very appealing feature: alpha-numeric memory tags. When you store a Radio Australia frequency to memory, your 909X can display the full station name in large, easy-to-read characters.

909Xdisplay

There is one omission from the 909X, though, that I find a bit surprising: it has no synchronous detection. While I don’t use a sync detector all of the time, it does come in handy when fading (QSB) and adjacent signal interference (if the sideband is selectable) are present.  For a radio that costs over $210 US, on average–the priciest on this list, by a long shot–I feel like sync should have been a given.

Sony ICF-SW7600GR

Sony7600GR

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR comes from a series of “7600” portables that date back to 1977. Though the ’7600GR has all of the modern features one would expect for a radio in its price class, it’s a bare-bones receiver in this particular crowd. It lacks the advance memory functions of the PL-880, PL-660 and, especially, the 909X. The display is smaller and more basic, although it does provide the most vital information.

I have traveled extensively with the ’7600GR, however, as it has rock-solid, reliable performance; it’s my work horse and go-to radio for field recordings because I find its AGC and sync detector remain among the best in this class of radio. It also has a dedicated, stable line-out jack. Important controls are all accessible, and I can easily engage the key lock without fear of accidentally pressing the wrong button during the recording.

SonyKeypad

My main gripe about the ’7600GR, however, is its lack of a tuning knob and overall poor ergonomics.  My personal preference is to use a tuning knob for band-scanning, as pressing buttons just doesn’t give the same sense of responsiveness.  For casual tuning and band-scanning, I leave the ’7600GR in its case.  Nor is this radio intuitive–indeed, to learn all but the most obvious functions of the ’7600GR, you’ll need to reference the owner’s manual. Audio from the ’7600’s internal speaker is average/unremarkable.

Still, my Sony ’7600GR’s solidity makes it a friend I would never part with.  The real test? If it was ever lost or broken, I would promptly repair or replace this radio.

Tecsun PL-660

PL-660

Though I’m often an early adopter of new shortwave portables, I wasn’t for the Tecsun PL-660. When it came out, I figured it would be redundant, considering the many other portables I own with synchronous detection.

Long story short:  I was wrong.

Having at last acquired the Tecsun PL-660 last year, I now know it’s a pleasure to operate, and feature-rich for its price. The PL-660 is the bargain in this bunch of benchmark rigs, and significantly so: at an average price of $105 US currently, it is easily half the price of the ATS-909X.

The PL-660 is a pleasure to operate, and a true performer.  Its selectable synchronous detector is one of the best in this group of portables: it’s on par with the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. It locks onto a station and rarely loses that lock. Ergonomics are excellent on the PL-660, too–the buttons have a tactile response, are well marked, and all functions are simple to find. The right side-mounted tuning knob has a smooth action.

The Tecsun PL-660 has been on the market since 2011 and has a dedicated following amongst SWLs, many of whom favor it above anything else in its class.

Of course, the PL-660 isn’t perfect, however. It lacks a line-out jack, something I find essential for recording shortwave broadcasts. The audio from the internal speaker is okay, but not on par with the ATS-909X, or its cousin, the PL-880 (below). Still, at $105 US, the PL-660 is truly a steal.

Tecsun PL-880

PL-880 (1)

The Tecsun PL-880 only started shipping in November 2013. It was highly anticipated as the new flagship portable in the Tecsun line. The PL-880 is chock-full of features and without a doubt, is the most complicated portable I’ve ever reviewed.

The PL-880 feels like a quality piece of kit: its buttons have a highly-tactile response, the tuning/volume wheels are silky smooth, and feel well-engineered. Out of the four portables evaluated here, I find the PL-880 the most pleasurable to operate. One of my favorite features is its dedicated fine-tuning knob, just below the main tuning knob on the right side of the radio.

PL-880-RightSide

Unquestionably, the one feature which makes the PL-880 highly desirable is the amazing audio fidelity you’ll enjoy from its built-in speaker: it’s well-balanced, rich, and clear. I almost can’t emphasize this point enough–the PL-880’s speaker is capable of room-filling audio. It’s one of the few radios I’ve ever owned (other than some of my antique tube radios) that encourage listening to shortwave from across the room, with pleasing results.

The PL-880 also sports the most filter options of any other portable on the market. Indeed, in SSB mode, the filter can be narrowed all the way down to 500 hz, making this CW operator, at least, quite contented.

Cons? Yes, the PL-880 has some. First of all, I feel like its current firmware version leaves room for improvement. One of the first things I had to do after receiving my radio was adjust the muting threshold so that it wouldn’t engage. Many of the PL-880’s adjustments are mysteriously hidden, even undocumented in the manual. One such hidden feature is its synchronous detection, which is the least refined in this set of portables: it has difficulty maintaining a stable lock, thus audio is significantly compromised.

[Click here for our comprehensive (and growing) list of PL-880 hidden features.]

Changing settings often results in the radio “thinking” for a second or two, during which time it mutes the receiver. This phenomenon is most pronounced when changing modes (from AM to LSB, for example). I find it rather distracting.

Still, I do like the PL-880. Its audio and overall quality make up for any annoyances. I suspect it will have a long product life and a loyal following over the coming years.

Evaluating performance

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Since I’m listening to the shortwaves 90% of the time I’m listening to a radio, I’ve limited the scope of my assessment here to the shortwave bands. With that said, none of these radios will disappoint you on AM or FM. I did note in my simple home comparison that the Sangean ATS-909X seemed to be the leader on the FM band.  The Tecsuns were perhaps best on the AM (mediumwave) band.

But what about on shortwave? I like using recordings to evaluate shortwave radio performance, typically representative clips that are 25-60 seconds in length. Why? Anytime I have more than two radios to compare, it gets difficult to switch between radios, insuring that I give each one the same opportunity to receive a station. More importantly, with this method, I can listen to the audio clips on my computer, and flip between them quickly to determine characteristics I like in each.

Before recording, I set each radio in the same spot on a table, though I might change the orientation for optimal reception (since this can differ from one radio to another). I then extend the antennas fully and set all of the filters, gain controls, tone, volume levels, and frequencies to the same position on each rig.  This way, my comparison can be on an “apples-to-apples” basis.

Note that I do not use an external antenna in any of these tests. This because I believe, when considering portables, they should be able to function very well off of their built-in antennas–thus taking into account situations in which employing an external antenna is not practical.

So that you have an opportunity to evaluate each radio in a “blind” test, I’ll tag each audio sample with a number, the order of which will not necessarily be consistent in each consecutive test. After the clips, I’ll reveal which is which.

Strong Signals

FourRadiosAbstract2

When I evaluate relatively strong broadcasts I typically listen for the best audio fidelity and signal stability a radio can offer. Unless there’s an adjacent signal (and in this case, there was not), I open the filter as widely as possible.

One of the strongest stations in my part of the world is Radio Havana Cuba–not always the cleanest signal, but always at blowtorch power levels. In this sample clip, I tuned our four radios to RHC.

To be fair, propagation from this station was poor the day of recording, so you’ll hear a little fading that is not normally present. Additionally, you’ll want to listen to the full clip, as a portion of each contains RHC interviews that were recorded by telephone (thus “tinnier” sounding); you’ll also hear the typical RHC transmitter hum:

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

You’ll hear that all of these receivers–with the exception of Sample #3–are nearly identical. Sample #3 is less sensitive than the others, thus more prone to shallow fading and a slightly higher noise level. To my ears, Sample #4 has the best audio quality and receiver characteristics, followed by Sample 2 and Sample 1.

Now let’s reveal the radios behind the samples:

  • Sample #1: the Tecsun PL-660
  • Sample #2: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #3: the Sangean ATS-909X, and
  • Sample #4: the Tecsun PL-880.

Weak signal DX

AllFour-RightSide

I like comparing radios while listening to weak signals and/or when conditions are less favorable. Since I often listen to weak signals (after all, so few broadcasts are actually directed to North America), it’s an important test.

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

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

If you like, jot down what you observe as you listen to each 50 second clip:

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

Obviously, the radio in Sample #4 is significantly less sensitive than the other radios–it truly struggled to hear the RRI signal under these conditions.

The other radios were able to hear RRI. Sample #3 sounded fine when there was no fading present, but in the fading troughs, there was a pronounced high-pitched noise–most likely a DSP-based noise. Sample #1 had pretty solid copy with stable AGC (automatic gain control). Sample #2 was the most sensitive of this bunch.

Now let’s reveal the radios behind the weak signal samples:

  • Sample #1: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #2: the Tecsun PL-660,
  • Sample #3: the Tecsun PL-880, and
  • Sample #4: the Sangean ATS-909X.

In this particular test, I was most impressed with the PL-660’s sensitivity, but given the choice, I would have chosen the Sony ICF-SW7600GR as the best overall. Why?

The Sony produced audio simply more pleasant to my ears due to the stability of the AGC.

Wondering if others would draw a similar conclusion, I posted the same clips above on my blog, the SWLing Post (http://wp.me/pn3uc-2pl).  I doubted whether many readers would take the time to listen, or to vote, in this blind test. Boy, was I wrong–!

I received about seventy responses by email and in the comments section of my post. All but a very few readers ranked the clips in order of preference. The Sony was the clear favorite, with a total of 40 votes as the best of the bunch. The Tecsun PL-660 was second, with a total of 23 votes as the best. No one voted the PL-880 as best. (Click here for full results: http://wp.me/pn3uc-2qH)

What became very clear from the results and the comments, however, was that people who prefer sensitivity, prefered the PL-660. People who preferred stability, preferred the ’7600GR. In a sense, both were “best,” simply depending on the listener’s preference and/or listening requirements.

Weak single-sideband (SSB)

AllFour-LeftSide

To test the SSB performance of these radios, I tuned to W1AW as they worked a pile-up from Puerto Rico. You will hear some fading. For those of you not familiar with SSB listening, you should note that W1AW sounds a little “grainy” in all of these recordings; this is simply the audio processor on W1AW’s transceiver which is set to be most audible and punch through the static.

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

W1AW is barely audible in Sample #1. In Sample #2, audio is well-balanced, with good audio, low noise, and a stable AGC. Sample #3 sounds more narrow (even though its filter, like all, was set to the widest setting), but the audio “pops out” of the static and is very intelligible. Sample #4 sounds much like Sample #2, perhaps slightly more sensitive but with slightly less stable AGC.

By now you may have guessed each radio behind these samples…Here’s the lowdown:

  • Sample #1:  the Sangean ATS-909X,
  • Sample #2:  the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #3:  the Tecsun PL-880, and
  • Sample #4:  the Tecsun PL-660.

I believe the Tecsuns perform best in this category, even though the difference between the two models is pretty dramatic. The PL-880 has the best sensitivity in SSB–indeed, I could have probably lowered the gain on my recorder and made the background noise sound even less pronounced, but I wanted the levels to match the other receivers. I was somewhat surprised its 5 kHz filter sounded so narrow on SSB.

The Tecsun PL-660 had the most pleasant audio, but during QSB peaks, its audio would suffer a little distortion (you only hear this once in this sample, near the end of the recording). The Sony had slightly less sensitivity, but the most stable AGC.

Once again, the Sangean ATS-909X struggled to hear the signal, having the least sensitivity of the group.

A note about the Sangean ATS-909X

909Xkeypad

Alas, the most disappointing radio in all of these tests is the Sangean ATS-909X.

To be fair, however, it’s worth noting that the Sangean performs admirably if connected to an external antenna. Again, I resisted connecting an external antenna in this particular series of tests because I believe a good portable radio’s performance should first be judged upon what it can receive with only its telescoping whip antenna, considering that, when traveling, it’s not always possible to use an external antenna.

Indeed, if you plan to buy a portable that will be hooked up to an external antenna more often than not, the Sangean ATS-909X may be a good choice for you. Its front end can handle external antennas better than most of the radios above (with the Sony as an exception, in my experience).

Syncronous detection

I did not test sync detection, as the Sangean ATS-909X lacks a sync detector and the Tecsun PL-880’s sync detector leaves much to be desired. But many hours of listening to the Sony ’7600GR and the Tecsun PL-660 leads me to conclude that their sync detectors are fairly comparable in performance.

So, how do you translate these results?

Although all of these receivers are considered best in the portable realm for a particular manufacturer, each has a character that suits individual listening skills or requirements.

Herein lies the difficulty offering advice on which portable to purchase. Because radio listening tends to be a solitary hobby, it comes down to personal preference–like choosing a friend. What one person values may matter very little to someone else.

For example, I rarely (if ever) save stations to memory on a permanent basis. Other than temporary auto-tuning memory features, I never give memory functions any weight when making a purchase decision (for myself, that is). Yet there are listeners who place a great deal of emphasis on memory functions.

To be perfectly honest, I think each one of these radios has an individual character that makes it a stand out for a particular type of listening.  While I often sort through my collection to give away radios that I seldom use, you won’t find me letting go of any of these rigs. The Sony ICF-SW7600GR is still my favorite portable for field recordings; its stable nature and robust front end mean that I can hook up long wire antennas if I wish. The PL-880 is the radio I reach for if want robust sound and armchair listening to shortwave and mediumwave–I also find it the best of the bunch to tune, a quality machine harkening back to the glory days of Panasonic and Sony. The PL-660 is my simple, bullet-proof performer–when in doubt of conditions, it’s the radio I reach for. If I owned the Sangean ATS-909X, it would probably become my bedside shortwave; its audio fidelity, large display, stable back stand, and ability to benefit from an external antenna make it very appealing for this purpose.

You can’t go wrong with any of these benchmark performers, so long as you know its weaknesses and strengths–which I hope this review has made clear.

If I had to choose just one of these radios…

FourRadiosAbstract

I’m forcing myself answer this question. While it’s difficult to answer, I believe if I could only have one of these radios for travel…I would chose the Tecsun PL-660. I find it the best overall performer, and a true bargain at its price point.

To be clear, if the Sony ICF-SW7600GR only had a tuning knob, it would be my choice, instead.  If the Tecsun PL-880 handled weak broadcast signals better, it might be my choice.

But this is my personal choice; you might have a completely different answer.  I guess that’s the point I made earlier–it all depends on the listener.

Now…which do you choose? 

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31 Responses to Mega Review: the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, Sangean ATS-909X, and Sony ICF-SW7600GR go head-to-head

  1. Stephen says:

    Well done Thomas, two years ago I made a decision on which of the three, 880 not available at the time, to buy. I ended up with the 660 and really glad I did. After your sample testing’s, The 880 sounded excellent, I might just go out and buy one now, wouldn’t mind tinkering with it’s hidden features.

  2. Moshe Ze'ev Zaharia says:

    That review is a masterpice!
    well, very embaressing for the Sangean, as I own the 909, and the 909X was suppose to be an improvement over it…
    I have ordered the Tecsun S2000 from Anon-co, I am sure this rig will be much better on LW, MW, and Shortwave of course.
    The sony, again proves to be a REAL radio, and beside it’s ergonomics, It looks a very joyfull radio to use.
    Both Tecsun’s would be my choice, as a tunning knob is a must for me (and the Tecsun S2000 definitly has one!)
    Well done Thomas! I couldn’t stop reading.
    All the best.
    Moshe.

  3. princehifi says:

    We likely now have the definitive review of current portable shortwave radios :) .

    I just got back from a week of camping and had along my Tecsun PL-600 (not tested I know) for afterdark headphone listening. A few notes: First, the plastic volume knob had previously slipped off my PL-600 and was lost, so I borrowed the BFO knob (which also came off easily) as I was not doing any SSB. The point, the Tecsun feels a bit cheap and not durable for the long haul. Secondly, I pretty much know what frequencies I want to tune and almost always used the PL-600 number keys for frequencies: 11780, 6000, 6925, 12070, 13650 etc., rarely used the tuning knob. Third, camping after dark I listen on headphones so speaker quality is a secondary for me.

    Therefore, my choice for a portable would have to be the Sony ICF-SW7600GR as it seems built to last, with solid performance and features and the key pad tuning may not be a problem for the SWL who has ‘go-to’ frequencies.

    Would love to see Sony update the 7600 once again to show the new kids how it’s done.

  4. Pingback: Shortwave Radio Recordings: ERT Open (Voice of Greece) | The SWLing Post

  5. Ken K. in NJ says:

    Great review! Thanks for doing it. The only one of these I have is the Sony, and my feelings about it are the same as yours.

    Is the PL 660 the same as the Eton E-10 that was around in the mid 2000’s? I have that one and it looks identical, but if the PL 660 is an upgrade or a completely different radio, I might go for it.

    Thanks again.

    • Furoido says:

      @ Ken K. in NJ: I think you’ll find documentation that the PL-660 recycles the E-10’s case molding but is basically completely different internally. (More closely related to the PL-600 than the earlier Eton.)

  6. Gary W8VI says:

    Thank you for this very informative review and audio clips. This has really helped in finalizing my decision for a portable SW/ham band receiver.

    Before this article I was trying to decide between the ATS-909X and the PL-880. I’m going with the 880 because the audio especially on SSB and weak DX to my ears is sharper and clearer thus producing better audio “intelligibility”.

    My mid range hearing is not what it once was and glad that some manufactures are working on improving the audio. Would be nice to see a software driven RX EQ feature in the next portable receivers.

  7. Tony Leneis says:

    I own the Sony SW-7600GR & the Tecsun PL-660. I carry the Sony with me on trips. I like that the Sony has a slide switch to lock it off when traveling. Lack of a tuning knob is no big deal to me. With headphones, the Sony’s audio sounds great. Mostly I like the Sony’s solid construction. I will purchase the Tecsun PL-880 & also another Sony as a spare. Not sure how much longer Sony will offer their SW-7600GR. Thanks for your fine review – much appreciated.

    Tony

  8. Tony YO3IPR / G4IPR says:

    Exceptionally well done review! Well balanced and a pleasure to read, Thank you Thomas!

  9. Mark Piaskiewicz says:

    I’d like to see a grid type chart of these radio’s features and specs. The 880’s tuning step and filters are extremely interesting and perhaps someone like Craig Siegenthaler of Kiwa fame might be called upon to measure filter skirts and overall effectiveness.

  10. Nigel Holmes says:

    It’s tough job trying to find common ground for testing “similar” devices. You’ve done very well.

    As someone noted: a tad embarrassing for Sangean. The venerable 909 was excellent value-for-money for years. Mine has a cracked display, pieces out of the case, no battery cover, the labels worn off and the dregs of the WRTH “best receiver 1996″ label. The speaker packed it in years back (foam decay), but it’s still used today with headphones. I love it.

    The 909 is deaf by itself – that was an advantage in my work ironically – but its front end is the toughest I’ve found in a consumer-grade portable. Any experienced hf user knows “sensitivity” is the least important receiver criterion cf. selectivity, stability, image rejection & sound. With an 8 metre bit of wire for an hf aerial the 909 was as sensitive as any other portable. With a “real” aerial it’s a communication receiver in disguise. VK amateurs love the 909 as a back-up rx. There’s a utube of one hooked into a 4×4 tci array & tuning the aero band around 11MHz – about 18 dBd of aerial gain next to the 25m band & the receiver was unconditionally stable. The 3-way aerial socket (not documented inthe manual) was a boon for mf listeners who could plug in a tuned, shielded loop aerial & bypass the the internal ferrite rod.

    Having said all that I might have to get a PL-880, maybe after the firmware has settled down. Unless Sangean produces a “909Z” with DRM/DAB+ capability in which case all bets are off. Is that a Wessex saddlback I see doing aerobatics…

    • Moshe Ze'ev Zaharia says:

      Nigel Hi,
      I was abel to get my 909 hot with it’s telescopic antenna (improved contact to the antenna, and isolate it from shorting with the speaker’s (-) terminal). now it receives very well on all bands with only it’s telescopic antenna.
      the price: noise level on FM increased and auto scan is no longer possible.
      As you mentioned, connecting the Sangean to external antenna, and you get A communications receiver.
      All the best,
      Moshe

  11. Bob C. says:

    Personally, after having played around with each, I agree that the Sangean is very disappointing when using the internal antenna. That, to me, is very unfortunate because it has the potential to be a wonderful rig.

    However, I have an entirely different take on the Sony. Perhaps this is because I tend to dx the AM and FM broadcast bands first, before tinkering with SW. The Sony has dreadful reception on FM. It’s not particularly sensitive and (even worse) not particularly selective. Out of every comparable radio I have, the Sony has the worst FM receiver. Almost useless for out of market FM signals. Now, as far as AM goes, it is very good to excellent and on par with the PL-660 and PL-880, if not a little better. It’s LW is better still. And, it’s SW section is excellent and it’s SSB and sync detector are the best in class. That said, tuning with the old fashioned “up and down” buttons is a user-unfriendly chore. Because of this, I find that I use the Sony far less than the others.

    The Tecsuns aren’t perfect, but they do cover every band well. The PL-880 has better selectivity while the PL-660 is a tad more sensitive (on all bands). It comes out as “a wash” as to which is “better”. Although I usually listen with headphones, the sound from the PL-880’s speaker is SO good that it encourages me to unplug sometimes just to listen to the warm, room-filling sound.

    Overall, I suppose which one to choose is a matter of personal taste – just as Thomas so wisely stated. In closing, this was an excellent review and I really enjoyed reading it…nice work!

  12. David - EA4998URE says:

    Excellent review!

    As far as digitally tuned mid-priced portables are concerned, I personally own the Tecsun PL-660 as well as its “older brother” the PL-600. Both are excellent receivers; I think China for once has done a very good job, at least in the SWL field.

    Because of its higher sensitivity, excellent sync detector performance, lower noise floor and the possibility to separately choose in between LSB and USB modes, the PL-660 is almost always my first choice whenever I’m out home and want to DX pirate radio signals, SSB signals (such as ham stations in the amateur bands or utilities such as oceanic ATC), or weak broadcast signals (like the exotic Voice of Korea as received from inside the city of Barcelona).

    But when I feel like listening to strong and clear sounding SW broadcast stations (specially if there’s music aired, like in Radio Kuwait each local evening in 15540 KHz starting at 1930UT, or in the 10 KHz wide CRI Spanish broadcasts for example), or even to music stations in the local FM band, I always tend to reach for the PL-600. It has a slightly warmer audio than the PL-660. The PL-660’s audio tends to have a bit more presence in the high audio frequency region, and sacrifices a bit of the sonority in the low audio frequencies; this results in a slightly sharper sounding sound which is good for improving the intelligibility in voice signals, but which is not as pleasant for music like the audio out of the PL-600 that balances the highs and lows very well.
    Because I made a recommended PL-600 mod in mine, to eliminate annoying audio distortions when listening to strong SSB signals (by soldering a resistor in between pin 18 -AM IN- of the TA2057N main IC and ground) I find it handles strong signals better than the PL-660 (at the cost of lowering the intensity of the audio in AM and SSB -not when selecting the FM broadcast band- at the maximum volume setting). The AGC also seems to be more stable in my PL-600, as it seems to perform better than the PL-660’s in attenuating fading when strong broadcasting signals collide with poor propagation conditions – perhaps this is due to the modification “unloading” the circuit and making it work with less “weight in its shoulders”. Also, my PL-660 sometimes exhibits a “soft muting”-like effect when fading is very pronounced. I think this may be a product of a “bad batch” of receivers coming out of the factory, as it has two other defects as well – not very annoying after I got used to them (one of them being the center setting in the SSB BFO knob not being the same than its physical center position – the “notch” or “detent”). So my PL-600’s AGC seems to be the best performer.
    Another positive point in favour of the PL-600 is the ergonomy. I feel that the buttons and keys in the front panel have a softer press on them than in the PL-660; they’re also bigger. So, to me, the PL-600 is more pleasant to operate.

    Finally, and although I’ve not mentioned it until now, I’ll say that I own the CommRadio CR-1 as well; a receiver that I feel should not be considered only as a desktop receiver, but as a portable one as well, its (overpriced) price tag permitting. Because it sports SDR technology I think it does not compare directly to “HDR” (Hardware Defined Radios) such as the PL-600 and PL-660. But I always tend to choose it over the Tecsuns when I want to listen to SSB and/or weak signals (and I am in a suitable and stable location -be it at home or outdoors- for setting up the CR-1 and also at least a short antenna wire) because of its very good SSB and distortion-less strong signal performance and because it offers functionalities that were only seen before in desktop receivers. For example: 10Hz frequency readout resolution in the display, standard S-units displayed in the S-meter -rather than the unknown 1-to-5 scaling in the Tecsuns’ “signal intensity meter”-, an even lower noise floor -thus better sensitivity- than in the PL-660, no sync but very good ECSS performance, and several filter bandwidth and AGC speed choices, to name a few. Also, I feel the front tuning knob very delightful to use and closer to the feeling of the few weighted big knobs of big desktop receivers and transceivers that I’ve been able to turn! The flimsy and prone to fail encoder that is driven by this knob “downrates” it a bit, but when everything works correctly -like right now- the CR-1 is highly enjoyable to tune.
    Not a receiver for music, though: even at the widest filter setting AM audio sounds tinny, without any trace of basses and really sharp – not only out of the internal speaker, but also out of any external speaker and headphone that is plugged in to the CR-1. The receiver has an advantage in being an SDR, though: with a firmware update containing improved software demodulators and different widths for the software-defined filters, all these problems should be gone with independence of the hardware that runs this firmware and the CR-1 should sound marvelously in AM (I only hope CommRadio to release another update soon, as the next one was scheduled for May and nothing happened then or later…). Some work should be done in improving the AGC performance as well, as strong static crushes momentarily and completely deafen the receiver – something that is partially (but, unfortunately, not completely) solved by setting the AGC speed to “Fast”.

    A Mega Comment for a Mega Review :)

    73 from Spain! (main QTH in Barcelona – now in an almost QRM-less location in the northeastern Spanish countryside near the very small town of Arén!)

    David – EA4998URE SWL

  13. …Sony should remake the Sony icf 7600 gr with a tuning knob, DSP chip, VHF air band , make it more fuel (battery efficient)….and then maybe it would be the cat’s ass of radios!
    Why not and any feedback?

    • Mark Piaskiewicz says:

      Sony is far too busy right now trying to survive to worry about a niche as small as shortwave. I’m pretty sure the 7600gr is the last serious shortwave radio we’ll see from them.

    • Tapokata says:

      Sony did all that before… With the ICF-2010.

      Great review. After years of holding off, I think I may grab a 7600 before they’re gone.

  14. Phil Ireland says:

    Well done Thomas, Always enjoyable to read well written reviews on shortwave radios. As a member of the Australian Radio DX Club, radios capable of good shortwave reception and medium wave reception are of great interest to me
    Of the radios reviewed, I own 3 of the 4 although I’ve had the opportunity to listen on the Sony. I concur wholeheartedly with your findings. I do enjoy the PL880 most of all despite it’s obvious quirks. I have however bought a radio that does outperform all on SSB and with a Synchronous detector that is the best I’ve come across in portable radios, dare I say it? The Grundig G3! I have to say my sample is superb in this area. The SSB is spot on, better than my PL880 which I have to add is excellent and its Synchronous Detector holds lock even during the heaviest of fading, very impressive. Somewhat surprising considering a lot of negative press about the G#, especially earlier examples. David’s mention of the CR-1 is worthy as well, I’m very impressed with my CR-1, I will be taking it on DX’pedition to Darwin in Northern Australia shortly and will be looking forward to testing its capabilities.
    Another radio worthy of consideration is the Tecsun PL390, a surprising performer however not capable of SSB reception. Keep up the great work Thomas, look forward to the next installment!

  15. Frederick says:

    Very good review, an enjoyable reading. I am about to buy a Tecsun PL-660, this review helped me a lot to decide! Keep up the good work Thomas!

  16. John says:

    From my extensive reading and participation in the Yahoo groups, I do not believe many people rely solely on the whip antenna for these radios, even on the road. At home, most people seem to either connect an external antenna or at least a long wire. On the road, many use the roll up antenna provided by the manufacturer. Testing as you are is unrealistically slanting the test results very hard against the Sangean ATS-909X.

    Sangean seems to know their target markets very well, and I think it was a conscious decision on their part to optimize FM performance on the whip antenna at the expense of SW performance. They obviously believed that this radio would be used with some sort of additional SW antenna, whether external or adding the reel antenna to the whip, else why would they have included the variable RF Gain control? I have also found the internal speaker on the ATS-909X to be just as good, if not better than the Tecsun PL-880 in FM mode. This is most likely due to the upgraded speaker Sangean used in the 909X (definitely not the same as the ATS-909).

    A more realistic test would include a test segment utilizing either an external antenna, or at least the reel antenna provided by the manufacturer.

    You also do not do a comparative test for MW DXing. Many of us hams got started at an early age with a simple AM radio and got a lot of enjoyment out of picking up distant AM broadcasters. I have all 4 of these radios, and it is no contest; the Sangean ATS-909X is by far a better MW DXing radio that the others. This is most probably due to the fact that the internal ferrite rod antenna runs the entire length of the case, and the 909X has a large case.

    In summation, you picked the only weakness the Sangean ATS-909X has, sensitivity on SW on the whip antenna, as your sole criteria for a travel radio. I think most of us would also expect decent FM and MW performance in addition to the SW. And, as I explained above, most of us on the road would also augment the whip antenna with a reel antenna or some sort of long wire.

    If you retested the radios and included FM, AM DXing, and an augmented whip antenna on shortwave, your test results would be a lot different, and the Sangean ATS-909X would win in every category.

    • Thomas says:

      Hi, John,

      Frankly, I’m mostly concerned with shortwave radio reception on this blog as it’s my favorite band. (In other words, I am biased!) :) I do love listening to MW and FM from time to time, but shortwave is my staple.

      This is the longest review I’ve written to date. I agree that it would be great to do one with the same external antenna on each radio–indeed, I might just do this in the coming months–but I simply didn’t want to fit more into this review. It is what it is for the moment.

      The ATS-909X is a good radio when hooked up to an external antenna. Indeed, I made a statement in the review to this point:

      “To be fair, however, it’s worth noting that the Sangean performs admirably if connected to an external antenna. Again, I resisted connecting an external antenna in this particular series of tests because I believe a good portable radio’s performance should first be judged upon what it can receive with only its telescoping whip antenna, considering that, when traveling, it’s not always possible to use an external antenna.

      Indeed, if you plan to buy a portable that will be hooked up to an external antenna more often than not, the Sangean ATS-909X may be a good choice for you. Its front end can handle external antennas better than most of the radios above (with the Sony as an exception, in my experience).”

      Thanks for your comment!
      Thomas
      Cheers,
      Thomas

      • John says:

        Hi Thomas,

        And thank you for the response. I can appreciate your focus on SW, but I will add when traveling I also like to have good AM and FM available for those occasions when you are looking for local weather reports, or just want to relax with some music. I have sometimes also used the radio when out of town to do some AM DXing to pick up Chicago stations to get Chicago local news updates.

        I can appreciate also not wanting to evaulate performance on external antennas, but most of these radios come with a reel type antenna as the manufacturers realize that most people want more performance than the whip antenna alone can add, and tend to pack the reel antenna or a small active loop to supplement the whip. And, as I said, it is very common to use external antennas with these radios as Tom Stiles is doing here with the 909X:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pULy1QmSWiA&index=3&list=UULVm5STfCi4fYim73JIKClA

        What I think would be useful is to benchmark performance on the whip, and then connect the manufacturer supplied reel antenna to note the improvement, if any, in reception. Some radios, such as the 909X, tend to come alive with a few more feet of wire added.

        It would also be useful in a travel radio to be able to operate the radio while charging the batteries. the 909X is excellent in this regard; the Tecsun PL-880 is a disaster when using any kind of charging source other than a laptop USB port, and even then the audio suffers from artifacts. Given the bad press Li-on batteries have been getting, I am none to sure I would like to travel with spare Li-on batteries for the Tecsun PL-880 simply because I could not use the radio while it was recharging.

        Just my thoughts. I did enjoy the review, even though my conclusions were different from yours, and look forward to more.

        John

  17. Mark Piaskiewicz says:

    I have three out of these four radios and as a long time SWL, I have to point out a few things about the 909x that bug me enough to keep me from buying it.

    Price is a big deal, being ~$100 more than the competition, ESPECIALLY since the 909X is the only high end portable receiver without synchronous detection. (That’s a big one!)

    Very little explanation of what the DSP doing.

    A 40 Hz tuning step is still to wide for comfortable ECSS, regular sideband listening or decoding digital signals (100Hz was a problem for the 2010, 50 a problem for the SW77, but 20 was tolerable for the G6.)

    Finally, the sensitivity. I mostly use a 30-40″ wire or an LP-1, but there are many situations where the whip is the only option.

    Overall, it’s a beautiful looking radio, just behind the times feature-wise, overpriced, and in some cases, badly engineered (40Hz? Either make it 10 or 100 with a fine tune.)

    • John C says:

      Mark,

      The Sangean ATS-909X is commonly available for a little over $200.00 on amazon and epay, and sometimes I have seen blowouts for as low as $179.00. The PL-880, at $149.00, is only about $50.00 cheaper, not the $100.00 that you claim in your comments. As far as the DSP, I don’t know of any of the manufacturers of currently available portables explaining what the DSP does, including Tecsun.

      I don’t know why Sangean has a 40 Hz fine tuning step, but it has never been a problem for me tuning in a SSB station. Many reviewers consider the ATS-909 and ATS-909X one of the best portable radios around for ham and utility station listening in SSB.

      A huge factor for me in price is unit to unit quality variation, and overall quality. the 909X is very well put together, and displays a consistent level of quality. However, if you go on the Yahoo group for the Tecsun PL-880, you will find that many of us (myself included) had to go through 2 or 3 radios to get a good one. I donated one to Dave Zantow’s site, “Dave’s Radio receiver Page” for him to review, and it arrived with a non-functional tuning encoder, and the antenna was loose. We had to get his sample replaced.

      The most recent entries in the group deal with the problem of defective tuning encoders, and there is a copy of an Email from Anon.Co acknowledging the poor quality and problems with the tuning encoders in units produced to date. Supposedly Tecsun is addressing the problem, but that does not help owners of radios already in the field.

      I would rather pay a little more for a quality product that will be around for awhile trouble-free, as opposed to playing the Tecsun defective radio lottery.

      John

      • Moshe Ze'ev Zaharia says:

        Hi john,

        I have to agree with you, as I have the 909 and it is well built (inside and out). I ahe fallen in what you called “Tecsun defective radio lottery” as I ordered the Tecsun S2000. On the first day of use, the backlight started dimming erratically (like poor contact) and went dead. I opened up the radio to sort this problem, and it seems Tecsun is using some kind of low grade soldering tin that looks (and acts) more like powder.
        I needed to resolder most of the board because most of the solders were bad.
        I suspect that those Tecsun radios now working good, are prone to fail due to this soldering issue.
        All the best,
        Moshe.

  18. Mike says:

    Hello, All,

    I read and listened to the different radios reviewed in this thorough assessment. I own 2 out of the 4; 880 and 909x and I put the 909x above the 880. Like a few others here I use the whip and/or provided spool antenna on the 909x and charge simultaneously. In this case tech beats the 880 with the same type antenna.

    By the way I paid $125 for the 880 shipped and $179 for the 909x shipped, both brand new from eBay. The price for the 909x is a driving factor when making my determination. I’ve seen the 909x priced as high as $400 and the 880 as high as $200. I will say they both, or in the case of your review, all 4 are great radios and have their purposes. When it comes down to it, every person buys a radio(s) for a specific reason(s) or feature(s). In my case I enjoy the hobby of SW and MW.

    If you are a licensed HAM like most of us, if not all of us here, we all have a different base, portable and handheld than the next guy but it’s always nice to get a different perspective from others like getting a repeater check from across the country. 73!

    Respectfully,
    Mike

  19. Tudor says:

    I own three of the four radios reviewed here (the one I don’t have is the 880). My main interest is DX-ing in general but mainly on SW. There is something that needs to be said about the Tecsun PL-660, and I’ve always wondered why none of the reviews I read mention this. The 660 has a flaw which (as far as I read on a mailing list) has been acknowledged by the Tecsun engineers. The DC-DC converter inside the radio (NOT to be confounded with the external DC power source!), which supplies the variable voltage needed for the varicap diodes inside the tunner, generates a strong spurious signal slowly moving up and down between 900 and 1000 kHz. Moreover, there are numerous harmonics going well up into the SW bands.

    If the MW or SW bands in your area are crowded with strong stations, you may not notice this spurious signal. But medium strength or weak stations will be periodically muted for a few seconds, each time the signal crosses over their frequency. I may be picky but for me this is unacceptable.

    This problem (together with some other annoyances on other models) made me decide to stop buying Tecsun radios. I know all radios have flaws. But some of them can be overcome using external help. I don’t mind 909X lack of sensitivity: I use external antennas. I don’t care too much about the strong 2nd order intermodulation products noticeable on the 7600GR: I can get rid of them using a preselector. I can’t, however, do anything about the spurious signals on the 660, and it’s so frustrating because it really is an excellent radio in other aspects (excepting LW and MW).

  20. M.L. Jaiswal says:

    Dear All,
    I am from Mumbai India. Technically I know nothing about radio. I am more interested in FM an AM.
    (SW sometimes).I want Good Sound Clarity Noise Free.It should also have Sleep Timer.Can you pl pin down the best model as I would like to use by Bedside?
    Regards
    Jaiswal

  21. Rui Costa says:

    Friends, I’m from Brazil, I’m not expert in radios, but I’m in love with them and am getting a model among these four to listen to AM / FM mostly. I would appreciate an opinion of you.
    Thank you.

  22. Jay says:

    Thank you for one of the most informative comparisons across a set of radios that I have read in a very long time.

    73,

    Jay

  23. Noel says:

    I have found this radio comparison very informative and for me has been published very timely as I start to gain a bit of an interest/understanding of this whole new field.
    After reading this and many other reviews I felt compelled enough to put any order in for the Sony SW 7600GR ……… hopefully arrives by father’s.
    I am waiting expectantly to receive it in the mail and hear first hand about the good wrap this unit gets building a long term relationship with it.

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