Traveling light, SWLing right: the best shortwave radios for travel

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor Magazine.


SWL Travel Gear - Grundig G6

With spring around the corner, my thoughts drift toward the outdoors…and especially, toward travel. Those who know me know that I love travelling, anywhere and everywhere–and that I prefer to travel light, with only one bag. In fact, I can easily live for two weeks out of a convertible shoulderbag/backpack (the Timbuk2 Wingman) that’s so compact, I can fit it under the the seat of even the smallest, most restrictive aircraft. I never have to check luggage unless the nature of my travel requires extra supplies (I run Ears To Our World, a non-profit that donates radios and other technologies to powerless regions in the developing world).

My Timbuk2 Small Wingman is very compact, yet holds everything I need--including radio gear--for two weeks (or more!) of travel.

My Timbuk2 Small Wingman is very compact, yet holds everything I need for two weeks (or more!) of travel.

So, why not pack everything you could possibly ever want on a journey?  While this remains an option, travelling light has many advantages over the take-it-all traveler’s method. First, it gives one incredible freedom, especially when travelling by air or train.  I never have to worry about being among the first to be seated in an aircraft, nor do I worry about my luggage not making a connection when I do.  Second, it’s kinder on the back and shoulders, and easier to maneuver wherever I go–no wheels required–whether in a busy first-world airport or bustling third-world street market.  Third, I always have my most important gear right there with me.  And finally (I must admit) I find light travel to be fun, an entertaining challenge; the looks on friends’ faces when they meet me at the airport to “help” with my luggage is, frankly, priceless.  Seeing me hop off a flight with my small shoulder bag, friends ask in bewilderment, “Where’s your stuff?” It’s music to my ears.

You would think that having such self-imposed restrictions on travel–carrying a small, light bag–would make it nearly impossible to travel with radio. On the contrary!  Radio is requisite, in my book–er, bag.  I carry a surprising amount of gear in my small bag:  once at an airport security checkpoint, an inspector commented, “It’s like you have the contents of a Radio Shack in here–!” But more significantly, each piece–and radio–is carefully selected to give me the best performance, durability, versatility, and reliability.

So what do I look for in a travel radio? Let’s take a closer look.

SWL Travel Gear - full selection

Travel Radio Features

While the CountyComm GP5DSP only has average performance for its price class, it has three different ways of auto tuning stations quickly, an alarm function and the display will even indicate the current temperature. Its unique vertical, thin body might be easier to pack at times, depending on your travel gear.

The CountyComm GP5DSP has three different ways of auto tuning stations quickly, an alarm function and the display will even indicate the current temperature. Its unique vertical, thin body might be easier to pack at times, depending on your travel gear.

In a travel shortwave radio, I search for features I wouldn’t necessarily pick for home use, where I’m mainly concerned with raw performance. I don’t want to carry an expensive receiver while traveling, either: $100.00 US is usually my maximum. This way, if I accidently break the radio (or my gear gets stolen), I won’t feel like I’m out very much money.  I also prioritize features that benefit a traveler, of course; here are some that I look for:

  • Small size: Naturally, it’s sensible to look for a travel radio that’s small for its receiver class for ease in packing.
  • Overall sturdy chassis: Any travel radio should have a sturdy body case that can withstand the rigors of travel.
  • Built-in Alarm/Sleep Timer functions: While my iPhone works as an alarm, I hate to miss an early flight or connection, so it’s extra security when I can set a back-up alarm.
  • Powered by AA batteries: While the newer lithium ion battery packs are fairly efficient, I still prefer the AA battery standard, which allows me to obtain batteries as needed in most settings; a fresh set of alkaline (or freshly-charged) batteries will power most portables for hours on end.
  • Standard USB charging cable: If I can charge batteries internally, a USB charging cable can simply plug into my smart phone’s USB power adapter or the USB port on my laptop; no extra “wall wart” equals less weight and less annoyance.
  • ETM: Many new digital portables have an ETM function which allow auto-scanning of a radio band (AM/FM/SW), saving what it finds in temporary memory locations–a great way to get a quick overview of stations.  (As this function typically takes several minutes to complete on shortwave, I usually set it before unpacking or taking a shower. When I return to my radio, it’s ready to browse.)
  • Single-Side Band: While I rarely listen to SSB broadcasts when traveling, I still like to pack an SSB-capable receiver when travelling for an extended time.
  • RDS: Though an RDS (Radio Data System) is FM-only, it’s a great feature for identifying station call signs and genre (i.e., public radio, rock, pop, country, jazz, classical, etc.)
  • External antenna jack: I like to carry a reel-type or clip-on wire external antenna if I plan to spend serious time SWLing. Having a built-in external jack means that the connection is easy, no need to bother with wire and an alligator clip to the telescoping whip.
  • Tuning wheel/knob: Since I spend a lot of time band-scanning while travelling, I prefer a tactile wheel or knob for tuning my travel radio.
  • Key lock: Most radios have a key lock to prevent accidentally turning a radio on in transit–but with a travel radio, it’s especially important to have a key lock that can’t be accidentally disengaged.
  • LED flashlight: Few radios have this, but it’s handy to have when travelling.
  • Temperature display: Many DSP-based radios have a built-in thermometer and temperature display; I like this when I travel anytime, but especially when I’m camping.

While I don’t have a portable that meets 100% of the above travel radio wish-list, I do have several that score very highly.  I also rank my travel radios by size, as sometimes limited space will force me to select a smaller radio.

Here are a few of the radios I’ve used and/or evaluated for travel–I’ll break them down by size. Note that all portable radios have alarm/timer functions, unless noted otherwise.

My Tecsun PL-380 and the small Eagle Creek pack that also holds my Zoom H1 recorder, earphones, audio cables, external antenna, spare batteries and Kindle.

I often grab the Tecsun PL-380 for travel. It’s an ultra-portable that truly performs and even has a selection of six AM bandwidths.

Ultra-portable:

Tecsun-PL880-SWLing-Post-0528

Full-Featured Portable:

I have also been known to travel with an SDR (software defined radio), especially if travelling to an RF-quiet location where I could make spectrum recordings. While SDRs all require a computer (laptop) to operate, those best suited for travel derive their power from the same USB cable plugged into the PC. Neither of the SDR models below require a power source other than what’s provided by their USB cable.

A screen capture from my Toshiba Satellite Windows 7 laptop (click on image to enlarge)

The RadioJet is an excellent travel radio: it’s an excellent performer, über-rugged and is powered by one USB cable.

“Black box” radios (SDRs & PC-controlled radios):

  • RFSpace SDR-IQ • Pros: Small size, works on multiple operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux) • Cons: front end can overload if close to strong signals
  • Bonito RadioJet • Pros: Great performance, low noise floor, good audio, flexible graphic interface; • Cons: Windows only, limited bandwidth on IF recordings, no third-party applications (note that the RadioJet is technically an IF receiver). Check out our full review.
The CommRadio CR-1

The CommRadio CR-1

Tabletop:

Seriously? A travel-ready, full-featured tabletop–? Until last year, I would have argued that it was impossible to travel lightly with a full-featured desktop radio in tow.

My view changed when I got my hands on the CommRadio CR-1 tabletop SDR. Indeed, other than it being pricey ($600, as compared with $100 portables) this rig is ideally suited to travel!

The CR-1 has an array of features–most everything you’d expect from a tabletop radio–and even covers some VHF/UHF frequencies. Its built-in rechargeable battery not only powers it for hours at a time, but meets the strict airline standards for battery safety. The CR-1 can also be powered and charged via a common USB cable. It’s also engineered to be tough and is almost identical in size to the Tecsun PL-880.

CommRadioCR-1PowerKnobThough I’ve never needed to do so, you can even remove its resin feet to save still more space. Its only less than travel-friendly feature is the fact that it’s quite possible to accidently power up the CR-1 by bumping the volume button during travel–a problem easily remedied, however, by simply twisting an insulated wire around the stem of the volume knob (see photo).

The importance of a Go-Bag

The SpecOps PackRat

The Spec-Ops Pack-Rat

I keep a dedicated “go-bag” with radio and supplies–specifically, the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat–packed and ready to travel, at the drop of a hat. Why? First of all, I know exactly what I’ll be taking, no need to ponder if I have everything.

Inside the bag, everything has its place: my portable SW radio, my Android tablet, my D-Star Icon ID-51a HT, DVAP (DV Access Point Dongle), my Zoom H2n Handy Recorder, earphones, charging cables, batteries, small notebook, clip-on wire antenna, etc.

If something’s missing, there’s an obvious blank spot in my bag. I also know exactly where and how it fits into my carry-on bag, so if it’s missing, it’s conspicuously missing. Since I’ve been using this go-bag, I’ve never left anything from my pack behind. Incidentally, this is how I pack the rest of my bag, as well: everything has its place, and any gap will draw my attention to exactly what’s missing.

SWL Travel Gear - Spec-Ops Pack-Rat Open

There’s another benefit to having a dedicated go-bag: when flying, before I place my carry-on under the seat in front of me or in an overhead compartment, I can pull the go-bag out of my carry-on and have my Android tablet close at hand with other electronics.  As an added bonus, when going through airport security, all of my electronics can be easily removed from my flight bag by taking out just this kit.

 SWL Travel Gear - Spec-Ops Pack-Rat Contents

I’ve had many versions of the Go-Bag over the years, and they’ve all done a great job. What I love about the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat, though, is the fact that it’s military grade–very durable–opens with all of the main storage pockets on the inside, has a bright yellow interior which makes it easy to see the contents (even in the dimness of a night flight), and it’s just the right size to hold my usual travel gear. The Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat also carries a lifetime, no-matter-what, guarantee.

There are thousands of similar packs on the market, and you may already have one, but you should look for something with multiple storage pockets. Small packs I’ve used in the past that only had one or two main compartments made it easy to leave something out when packing.

Radio travels

The travel radios I reach for most often. Top Row (L to R, Top to Bottom)  Tecsun PL-380, Sony 7600GR, CommRadio GP-5DSP, Grundig G6, Tecsun PL-660, and the CommRadio CR-1

The travel radios I reach for most often. Top Row (L to R, Top to Bottom) Tecsun PL-380, Sony 7600GR, CommRadio GP-5DSP, Grundig G6, Tecsun PL-660, and the CommRadio CR-1 (Click to enlarge)

When I spent a year in France during my undergraduate studies in the early 1990s, shortwave radio was my link with home. I would listen to the VOA–the only source of English I permitted myself to hear–like clockwork, each week. Today, although I travel with a smartphone which can tune in thousands of stations, I always choose to listen to radio. Besides, if the Internet goes down or if–heaven forbid!–your trip takes you into a natural disaster, it’s radio that you will turn to to stay safe and informed.

If you take anything away from this reading, I hope it’s that even when you’re presented with travel restrictions, you won’t hesitate to take your hobby, in the form of a portable radio and a few accessories along. It contributes measurably to the fun of travel, as I’ve discovered when I’m able to tune in local and international stations so different from those I hear at home.  Or sometimes, it’s just the opposite–it’s the chance to pick up a favorite broadcaster or program while you’re on the road.

After all, for me and other travelers like me, the world’s familiar voice is radio.

SWL Travel Gear - Full View

SWLing.com’s 2013 Holiday Shortwave and Radio Gift Guide

gift-wrapOne of the most popular posts on the SWLing Post each year is the annual Holiday Radio Gift Guide. I started this annual post in 2010 when I realized that it would be easier than answering an in-box full of individual emails from people seeking the perfect shortwave radio for their friend or loved one.

In the following, you’ll find a handful of select radios I recommend for the 2013-2014 gift-giving season. I’ve arranged this selection by price, starting with the most affordable.

For the benefit of those with less radio experience, this quick guide is basic, non-technical, and to the point. For more comprehensive reviews, please consult our Radio Reviews page.

Updated for the 2013-14 holiday season on 08 December 2013.

Simple, affordable and portable

The Shouyu SY-X5 mechanically-tuned, DSP portable radio. (Click to enlarge)

The Shouyu SY-X5 mechanically-tuned, DSP portable radio. (Click to enlarge)

ShouYu SY-X5 ($29)

You can’t buy a lot for $30 US these days, but I’m here to tell you that you can buy a unique, portable AM/FM/shortwave radio with a built-in MP3 player called the ShouYu SY-X5.  I made a full review of the SY-X5 earlier this year; in short, it surprised me. While this little radio’s receiver can’t compare to the others on this page performance-wise, it is still very respectable. The MP3 capability is worth the price. You can load a microSD card full of your favorite music (or shortwave radio recordings) for days of listening!

Indeed, the audio from the built-in speaker is superb for a radio this size. Th SY-X5 can be powered from multiple sources (a rechargeable built-in battery pack, AA batteries, or via USB power cable).

Since the ShouYu SY-X5 is only available from eBay sellers in Hong Kong, you need to allow at least two or three weeks shipment time from the seller. You might ask if they offer an expedited option.

Click here to search eBay for the ShouYu SY-X5.

Other considerations include the Degen DE32 (review here) or Degen DE321 (review here). Note that the Degen DE321 lacks an MP3 player.

Self-Powered Shortwave Goodness

The Tecsun Green 88

The Tecsun Green 88

Tecsun Green 88

In each issue of the holiday guide, I like to feature at least one self-powered radio.  Why? Because if you’re ever been left in the dark due to a natural disaster or extended power outage, these radios become invaluable.

The Tecsun Green 88 is not only self-powered, but quite a capable little analog shortwave radio.  It has a nested fine tuning control on the tuning knob, an easy to read display and will give you about 40 minutes of listening time (at moderate volume levels) from two minutes of cranking. The LED lamp on the front makes an excellent flashlight and reading lamp. Again, to my knowledge, this radio is only available from sellers in Hong Kong on eBay, so allow extra shipping time.

Click here to search eBay for the Tecsun Green 88.

Some other self-powered radio options you might consider are the Eton Rover and the Eton FRX2, though note that they both have NOAA weather radio channels instead of shortwave. A very useful feature, though, for weathering winter storms.

Portable & powerful shortwave receivers

The Tecsun PL-660

The Tecsun PL-660

The Tecsun PL-660 ($100-110 US)

With the introduction of the new Tecsun PL-880 this year, retailers have dropped the price of the PL-660; you can now find them between $100-110 US.

The PL-660 is an all-around excellent receiver with great sensitivity, selectivity and all of the features to please a casual listener or the experienced DXer. For a full-featured radio, the operation is so simple an owner’s manual is barely needed. The PL-660 covers the entire shortwave radio spectrum, LW, AM (medium wave), FM and even has an AIR band (to monitor aircraft communications).

Purchase the Tecsun PL-660 from:

The new Tecsun PL-880

The new Tecsun PL-880

The Tecsun PL-880 ($150-170 US)

[Update: Unfortunately, after reviewing the PL-880 favorably, I have discovered that many units–especially those purchased through Amazon.com–have an older firmware version and lack some functionality I would consider very important. I now suggest buyers wait until Tecsun has corrected this–sometime well after the holiday season.]

At time of posting, the Tecsun PL-880 has only been on the market for about a week. It is the newest flagship portable radio from Tecsun. I have been reviewing this radio for several days and find it to be an excellent choice, if your budget allows. (Indeed, reviewing this radio had lead to a late delivery of the Annual Gift Guide!)

If you would like to see and hear the PL-880 in action, simply click on this link and explore the numerous posts and comments.

In short: it’s a great radio with superb audio from the built-in speaker. It’s also designed to make the amateur radio operator happy as it has an array of filter selections for the ham bands. In my experience, the selectivity and sensitivity are on par with the PL-660 (mentioned above).  Click here to read a full review of the PL-880.

The PL-880 is only available from a few retailers so far–most of whom are on eBay. Again, I purchase all Tecsun products from Anon-Co–I’m sure there are other qualified sellers on eBay, but Anon-Co provides excellent customer service. My PL-880 was shipped by Anon-Co and received in 3 days!:

Tabletop Performance

The CommRadio CR-1 is sure to please even the most discriminating radio listener in your life.

The CommRadio CR-1 is sure to please even the most discriminating radio listener in your life.

CommRadio CR-1 ($600 US)

The CommRadio CR-1 was introduced early this year and began shipping in the Spring. While you can read my full review of the CR-1 by clicking here, in a nutshell, it’s a brilliant little receiver! It wooed me from the moment I first saw it.

The CR-1 is made in Colorado, USA by CommRadio, a company well-versed in radio avionics. It’s thoughtfully engineered, relatively small (über portable), and meets all of my performance needs. It’s also a fun little radio and very easy to operate.  The CR-1 can be updated by the user via a USB cable and free PC software. Many of the updates include minor tweaks requested by users and even new features.

Only one catch: CommRadio has sold out of their stock for the holiday season. They’re offering a $25 coupon (see below) if you order and don’t mind an early January delivery time. However, call Universal Radio as they had radios in stock at time of this posting.

Purchase the CommRadio CR-1 from:

  • CommRadio (until December 31, 2013 use the coupon code CR12014 at check out to receive $25 off the price) or
  • Universal Radio who may have them in stock to ship

Other tabletop radios to consider are the Alinco DX-R8 and the Icom R-75.

Looking for an accessory?

UniversalRadioIn addition to the radios above, there are many antennas, accessories, books and used gear that you might consider. I would encourage you to contact Universal Radio and speak with one of their staff to seek suggestions. I mention Universal Radio frequently, because they are one of the only remaining true shortwave radio retailers in the US. If you live in Canada, you might also consider Durham Radio, in the UK, Waters & Stanton. (Readers: if you have suggestions of radio retailers in your country, please comment on this post.)

Want more gift options?  Try our 20122011 or 2010 gift guides, take a look through our shortwave radio reviews guide and/or our simplified reviews page.
Happy Holidays!

SWLing.com’s 2012 Holiday Shortwave and Radio Gift Guide

One of the most popular posts on the SWLing Post each year is the annual Holiday Radio Gift Guide. I started this annual post in 2010 when I realized that it would be easier than answering an in-box full of individual emails from people seeking the perfect shortwave radio for their friend or loved one.

In the following, you’ll find a handful of select radios I recommend for this gift-giving season. I’ve arranged this selection by price, starting with the most affordable. I’ve included a few promising new radios that have recently been introduced to the market, along with models that have proven their reliability and are on their way to becoming classics.

For the benefit of those with less radio experience, this quick guide is basic, non-technical, and to the point. For more comprehensive reviews, please consult our Radio Reviews page.

Updated for the 2012-13 holiday season on 22 November 2012.

Simple, affordable and portable

The Kaito WRX911 is a classic, no-frills analog radio. Turn it on and tune. That’s its game.

Kaito WRX911 or Tecsun R-911 ($33)

I’ve owned this little radio for years. It has been on the market a long time and I know exactly why: it’s affordable and very simple to operate. While it has no tone control, bandwidth control or digital display, the WRX911 performs better than other radios in its stocking-stuffer price range. I find its medium wave (AM band) reception above par–especially its ability to null out interfering broadcasts by simply turning the radio body. The WRX911 is also a great radio to keep in the glove compartment of your car. (Another similarly-priced radio to consider is the DE321, which we recommended last year–also check out our review.)

You can purchase the Kaito WRX911 from Universal Radio.

Don’t live at home without it

No matter where you live,you should have a self-powered radio in your home. The Eton FR160 is like a Swiss Army Knife when power fails.

Eton FR160 ($34 US)

A good friend recently sent me a message: she had been without power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy for two full weeks. She also added that her little FR160 kept her family informed and provided comfort in the dark days following the hurricane.

The Eton FR160 is a sturdy and useful little radio.  This radio features AM/FM and the NOAA weather radio bands (at least, the North American versions do; international versions may have shortwave instead of weather frequencies). The FR160 also features a very bright white LED flashlight and even sports a small solar panel that can effectively charge the internal battery pack. The FR160 also features a USB port that you can plug your mobile phone, iPod or other USB device into for charging. (Note that it takes a lot of cranking to charge a typical cell phone, but I can confirm that it does work in a pinch.)

Over the past few years, these radios have become ubiquitous. I’ve seen them in sporting goods stores, RadioShack (Tandy in some countries), BestBuy, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond–indeed, they’re in practically every North American big-box store and in many mail order catalogs besides. Of course, Universal Radio sells them, too.

The CC Solar Observer has everything you need to weather a power outage

CC Solar Observer ($50 US)

Like the FR160, the CC Solar Observer is a wind-up/solar emergency radio with AM/FM and Weather Band, and an LED flashlight built into the side of the radio. It’s perhaps a nicer option for those who want bigger audio out of their emergency radio. The Solar Observer is rugged and well-designed, like many C.Crane products.

The CC Solar Observer is available at C.Crane.

Eton and C.Crane sell many other self-powered radio models.  If interested in exploring more models, check out our self-powered/emergency radio reviews.

A shortwave radio with Bluetooth

When coupled with another Bluetooth device, this radio doubles as wireless remote speakers

The Tecsun PL-398BT ($100)

The Tecsun PL-398BT is a very unique shortwave radio.  In fact, it may be the perfect gift for a radio enthusiast who is also very tied to their computer or smart phone. Besides being a very capable shortwave/AM/FM receiver in its own right, when put into Bluetooth mode and connected to a smart phone, PC, or other device, the PL-398BT’s speakers act as its wireless stereo speakers. I believe this may be an ideal way to listen to internet radio from your iPhone, for example. Of course, the PL-398BT comes from a legacy of great receivers, so the AM/FM and shortwave performance will not disappoint. It’s a little on the pricey side for a shortwave radio that lacks the SSB mode (for listening to utility and ham radio transmissions), but the Bluetooth function more than makes up for it, in my opinion.  Some people may definitely prefer this function.

You can purchase the PL-398BT from Universal Radio or you can click here to search eBay.

Best performance for price

The Grundig G3 has a solid reputation and at $100, great value for the performance.

The Grundig G3 ($100 US)

Simply put, the Grundig G3 offers the best bang for your buck in 2012. I have a lot of portable radios, but the one I probably reach for the most–for recreational shortwave radio listening–is the Grundig G3. I wrote this review three years ago and even recently posted this update. Read them and you’ll see why I like the G3.  At $100, the G3 will please both the shortwave radio newbie and the seasoned listener.

The Grundig G3 can be purchased from Universal Radio or Grove. Some local RadioShack stores also keep the G3 in stock (though unfortunately, less often than they used to).

Of course, two other excellent (though pricier) options are the Tecsun PL-660 and the Sony ICF-SW7600GR.

Small black box + PC = rich performance

The RFSpace IQ is small, but packs a big punch

The RFSpace SDR-IQ  ($500 US)

If $500 is within your budget, and you’re buying for someone who would love combining their radio hobby with computer technology, a software defined receiver (SDR), like the RFSpace SDR-IQ, will certainly exceed their expectations. There are many SDRs on the market, but the SDR-IQ offers the most bang-for-the-buck in the SDR line (though the WinRadio Excalibur ($900 US)–which we recently reviewed–and the Microtelecom Perseus ($1,000 US) are certainly pricier benchmarks worth considering).

The RFSpace SDR-IQ is available from Universal Radio and is manufactured in the USA.

The Bonito RadioJet

The Bonito RadioJet ($700 US)

The Bonito RadioJet is new to the North American market in 2012.  I reviewed the RadioJet this summer and even traveled with it extensively. I was thoroughly impressed with its portability, performance, and it did not task my PC as much as SDRs do.  Like the SDR-IQ, it’s a small black metal box that hooks up to your PC to unlock its impressive features. The RadioJet, though, represents cutting-edge IF receiver design, and comes with an amazingly versatile software package. If you’re buying for someone who likes versatility and raw performance–and likes being an early adopter–the Bonito RadioJet may well be the perfect fit.

The Bonito RadioJet can be purchased from Universal Radio and is manufactured in Germany.

Tabletop Performance

The Alinco DX-R8T

The Alinco DX-R8T ($450 US)

We featured the Alinco DX-R8T in last year’s holiday gift guide. We also gave it a full review–in short, this radio thoroughly impressed us. It’s full-featured, performs well, and comes at a very affordable price. If you’re buying this for a ham radio operator, they’ll understand the reason why the Alinco DX-R8T needs a 12 volt power supply and an external antenna. It’s a receiver version of a ham radio transceiver, and as such, does a fine job on SSB modes.

Want more gift options?  Try our 2011 or 2010 gift guides, take a look through our shortwave radio reviews guide and/or our simplified reviews page.
Happy Holidays!

SWLing.com’s 2011 Holiday Shortwave Radio Buying Guide

Would you like to buy a shortwave radio as a gift, but don’t know a thing about radios? Or want help leaving a hint for Santa or Ms. Claus? 

Following, you’ll find a handful of select radios I recommend for this gift-giving season. I’ve arranged this selection by price, starting with the most affordable.

This quick guide is basic, non-technical, and to the point. For more comprehensive reviews, please consult our Radio Reviews page.

Updated for the 2011-12 holiday season on 23 November 2011.

High-tech stocking-stuffer

The Degen DE321 ($21 US)

Don’t be fooled by looks: the Degen DE321 is not your dad’s portable shortwave radio. Behind the analog face hides cutting-edge DSP (digital signal processing) technology that makes this slim cell-phone-sized radio a quirky yet pleasing portable.  The impact upon your wallet will be slim, as well:  this radio will set you back only $21 bucks. One additional note to tuck away–don’t hesitate to order the DE321 if you want to put it in your sweetheart’s Christmas stocking. There’s an approximate two week delivery time, as this radio can only be ordered from vendors in Hong Kong, and airmail doesn’t come with a confirmation date. [Read our recent full review of the DE321 if you want more details about this little radio.]

Pint size performer

The Tecsun PL-380 ($55)

When I flew cross-country to visit a friend on the coast of British Columbia earlier this year, I had very limited space in my carry-on bag. I required a radio companion of a modest size, one that performs well on all bands–not just the shortwaves–for I intended to listen to local and distant AM (medium wave) stations, too. My choice was simple:  the Tecsun PL-380.  This little radio is affordable, compact, and has (especially with the aid of headphones) excellent audio. It’s powered by a pretty innovative DSP chip that helps pull stations out of the static, as well.

Keep in mind, if you’re planning to purchase any Tecsun product, to allow at least a two week delivery time, especially if ordering from eBay.  Occasionally, Kaito (the US distributor of the PL-380) will sell some stock on eBay; in this case, delivery is quicker and the unit carries a US warranty.

Purchase a PL-380:

  • from Amazon

Best performance for price

The Tecsun PL-600 ($70.00 US)

Simply put, the Tecsun PL-600 offers the best bang for your buck in 2011. The PL-600 is not the newest offering from Tecsun; in fact, it’s a model that has been on the market for several years. (Tecsun’s PL-660 is basically the updated version of the PL-600.) For $60, though, you get a very capable, sensitive and selective portable shortwave radio with SSB capabilities and nifty auto-tune features. I liken its performance to the legendary and highly-regarded Grundig G5 (which is no longer in production).

The PL-600 is easy to use, has reasonable audio fidelity from the built-in speaker, and sports a display with all of the essential elements for casual shortwave listening or hard-core DXing. I have found the quality of Tecsun radios to be superb. The PL-600 is a great size/weight for portability–it will easily fit into a suitcase or carry-on–it is not, however, a pocket radio.

The Tecsun PL-600 would make an excellent first radio for the beginner or seasoned radio listener. Click here to read full specs and links to other reviews of the PL-600 in the Shortwave Radio Index.

Purchase the PL-600:

  • from Amazon

It’s like a PL-600 on steroids

The Tecsun PL-660 ($100-120 US)

Okay, so forget everything I said about the PL-600 if you’re able and willing to invest another $50-60 into your radio gift. The beefier Tecsun PL-660 is new to the market in 2011 and has quickly gained the respect of the shortwave community. It is, in essence, an updated version of the PL-600, with improved performance, sync detection, a band for listening to aircraft, and RDS for displaying FM radio station info. As with other Tecsuns, eBay sellers provide better pricing, but Kaito does sell these radios on Amazon.com as well. If you purchase from Ebay, do so at least two weeks in advance of gift-giving time–again, these radios make a trip from Hong Kong via airmail.

Purchase the PL-660:

  • From Universal Radio

Performance, Audio Fidelity and Simplicity

The Grundig S450DLX  ($100 US)

This large portable (along with the C.Crane SW) is still my first pick for someone who wants excellent radio performance, but also wants a radio that is simple and straight-foward, with ease of use in mind (i.e., grandparents, children, your uncle who gets muddled by the TV’s remote control).  It comes with an owner’s manual, but you most likely won’t need it.  The S450DLX has robust, room-filling sound. Ergonomics are excellent, and it sports a large, comfortable tuning knob. Audio performance is very good and enhanced by its large front-facing speaker. This is not a pocket or travel portable, rather a tabletop portable.  The S450DLX will please both the beginner and seasoned radio listener.

Quality and classic performance

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR ($150)

This Sony shortwave radio is a classic, with solid, time-tested performance, and features to please both the beginner and the seasoned radio enthusiast. I like to include different radios each year in the gift guide, but the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is on the list again this year.  It’s probably the only radio on this list that isn’t made in China–it’s made in Japan!–and is built, as one of my ham buddies says, “like a brick toilet.” (Ahem, just meaning that it’s sturdy and reliable).  The ‘7600 will deliver some of the best performance that you’ll find in a portable on this page. At $120-150 US, it’s not the cheapest on the market, but certainly one of the best. I regret that its days are limited as Sony pulls out of the shortwave market; but mark my words, this one will become a classic.

Read the full review here.

Chase DX

The Alinco DX-R8T

The Alinco DX-R8T ($499 US)

The Alinco DX-R8T is new to the market in 2011. We reviewed it, in detail, only recently; in short, it impressed us. It’s full-featured, performs well, and comes at a very affordable price. If you’re buying this for a ham radio operator, they’ll understand the reason why the Alinco DX-R8T needs a 12 volt power supply and an external antenna. It’s a receiver version of a ham radio transceiver–as such, it does a fine job on SSB modes.

Crazy money? Crazy performance

The Ten-Tec RX-340 ($4,450.00 US)

Let’s face it, these are tough economic times. So, you may be wondering why I would put a radio in this list that’s priced the same as two Tata Nano passenger cars. Why? Because, if you have the money, I promise the performance of the RX-340 is not likely to disappoint even the most discerning of radio listeners. It is a textbook-perfect, 12.5 lb. example of form following function.  Heavy, man.  But it is very, very good.  Sure, you could buy two hundred (and eleven) lightweight Degen DE321s for that kind of money, but who wants that many portables cluttering up the den when you could lounge by the fire and tune in an RX-340 instead?  Close your eyes, sip your favorite scotch, and just…listen to the world.

If you doubt me, Check out our RX-340 page in the Shortwave Radio Index. It’s chock-full of stellar reviews on this radio work-of-art.

Let’s put it this way:  every time I dream of Santa leaving a radio under my tree…it’s the RX-340. (Seriously, I must have this dream at least twice a week.)

Note from your wife (aka, Ms. Claus):  Dream on, dear.

Want more gift options?  Try our 2010 gift guide, take a look through our shortwave radio reviews guide and/or our simplified reviews page.
Happy Holidays!

The most durable portable shortwave radios for traveling

A great portable radio is your passport to the world while traveling, even in remote areas.

I receive a lot of emails from SWLing.com readers, quite often from those who about to embark upon international travel–sometimes to remote locations–and who are looking for a durable travel shortave radio.  These travelers are looking for a basic travel radio which, while it might not need to survive being submerged underwater or dropped from a cliff, will hold up in the semi-protected environment of a suitcase or backpack experiencing some rough baggage handling.

I travel a great deal myself, and always carry a shortwave radio with me (actually, I usually take more than one). Here are some considerations I use to determine which radios go in my bag or pack, and thus make good travel companions:

  • Rugged enough to withstand typical suitcase/backpack travel conditions
  • Lightweight and relatively compact size
  • Supplied protective travel case
  • Efficient operation on AA cells, the most common batteries found in the world
  • Useful travel features, like auto-tuning, alarm/clock functions, sleep timer
  • Relatively inexpensive–if you lose your radio or it gets stolen, you don’t want it to ruin your trip
To be clear, none of the radios on the list that follows are marketed as  “ultra-tough radios”–indeed, I know of no capable SW portable that is–but these do represent the most durable I’ve personally tested and used in my travels.

The best shortwave portables for travel

Full-featured portable – The Sony ICF-SW7600GR ($130-150 US)

This Sony shortwave radio is a classic, with solid, time-tested performance, and features to please both the beginner and the seasoned radio enthusiast. It is full-featured, with excellent SSB and exceptional sync detection. I grab the ‘7600GR when I plan to do a little DXing on vacation. It has everything I need.

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR is still made in Japan and the case is metal. It feels like a very high-quality portable when holding it in your hands. The lock button is a sliding switch on the top part of the radio face–easy to turn on and off intentionally, difficult to do so unintentionally. Additionally, it comes with a decent padded case. The ‘7600GR operates on 4 AA cells. The only travel feature the ‘7600GR lacks is an alarm, and that’s okay by me; for the features and durability, I’ll keep the Sony and use my cell phone or watch for an alarm. The instruction manual is comprehensive and easy to read. Read the full review here.


Compact portable – The Grundig G8 Traveller II ($25-50 US)

Actually designed with the traveler in mind, the Grundig G8 will make for an excellent companion on your next venture. I’m quite impressed with this radio:  shortwave reception is good, and FM reception exceptional. The AM broadcast band does suffer from some images (a type of signal interference in which aural “ghosts” of other broadcasts layer over the one you’re trying to hear), though still quite respectable. The G8’s audio is a little tinny out of the built-in speaker, though quite good for a radio this compact. The customary price for the G8 is $49.95, but occasionally retailers place them on sale for nearly half this price. I especially like the fact that there is a front cover on the G8 which protects many of the controls. The body is somewhat rubberized and the zip case that comes with the radio is padded and perfectly designed for suitcase/backpack travel. The G8 is also smaller than a paperback book.

The G8 does not have SSB capability like the Sony does, but it is a good product for casual broadcast listener. The G8 also has a great alarm clock function and a world time selector switch on the front:  simply dial up your time zone as you cross the planet. The G8 uses 3 AA cells.

Pocket portable – CountyComm ETFR ($25 US)

The County Comm Marathon ETFR Emergency Task Force Radio is a very small ultra-portable radio. The ETFR is similar to the earlier County Comm GP-4L, but was produced initially for the Canadian military, thus it features enhanced cold-weather operation. It is very durable–indeed, military-grade durability at least with regards to impact. To my knowledge, it is not waterproof, but it will certainly withstand your airline’s roughest luggage treatment.

The ETFR is no incredible performer, but the price is low and it is quite capable of catching the major international broadcasters–indeed its sensitivity is better than I had anticipated. The tuning is actually analog, though the display is digital, thus you can expect a little receiver drift if you keep this radio on a broadcast for very long. The ETFR operates efficiently on 2 AA cells providing up to 150 hours at 40% volume or 70 hours of illumination from the built-in LED light. The ETFR also has a built-in clock and alarm feature.

In my humble opinion, all frequent travelers should keep a County Comm ETFR in their go-to vehicle and/or travel bag.

Also (I have to admit) this radio looks very cool in the carry case that Universal sells.  Together, these make a great bon voyage gift for any traveler.


The G6 makes for an excellent travelling companion

UPDATE 11 March 2012: Check out our latest post and review of the Grundig G6–a pocket-sized portable ready for the road warrior.


My Tecsun PL-380 and the small Eagle Creek pack that also holds my Zoom H1 recorder, earphones, audio cables, external antenna, spare batteries and Kindle.

UPDATE 23 May 2012: Yes, I’ve also added the incredible PL-380 to the travel list as well.  Read the full post here. Thanks for the comment, Alan!

 

SWLing.com’s 2010 Radio Gift Buying Guide

(Update: Check out our new 2011 Radio Gift Buying Guide)

Would you like to buy a shortwave radio as a gift for someone, but you don’t know a thing about radios? gift_box_iconOr, are you thinking about buying a radio for yourself (cashing in a gift card, for example) but aren’t sure how much you need to spend to be satisfied with function and performance? Want a little help leaving a hint for Santa or Ms. Santa?  If so, no worries:  you’ve found the right place in this vast world wide web to answer your questions, or help you with that hint–just leave a link to this article somewhere that Santa can find it!

Following you’ll find a few select radios I recommend based on best performance, lowest price, and ease of use. I’ve also included current pricing and made suggestions where these radios may best be purchased. Of course, radios are available at large internet retailers–occasionally for better prices–but I highly recommend you purchase from the manufacturer and/or authorized retailer. Most radio retailers offer much better customer support in case you have a problem or question, or just need a little help getting started.

This quick guide is basic, non-technical, and to the point. For more comprehensive reviews, please consult SWLing.com’s Radio Reviews page. Also, take a look at our new Radio Marketplace page where we have pre-filtered shortwave radio eBay search results.

How current is this information? This guide was last updated on: 6 December 2010

 

Best performance for price

I start with this category because I believe that if you’re going to the trouble of finding the right radio as a gift, you at least want one that will perform and give years of listening pleasure.  All of the following radios are sure to please those who are new to shortwave radio, and seasoned radio listeners as well. Most of these radios fall between the $100-150 price range.

g4000a1The Grundig G4000A ($99.95 US)

The G4000A is a great portable radio and I include it here first because it is a part of a special promotion continuing through the end of March 2010. The receiver performance is very good, and it has all of the major features one might expect in a radio in its price class. I owned a version of this portable for over ten years and traveled with it extensively–it’s the perfect little travel companion, and it even has an alarm clock. But what’s really amazing about the G4000A is that it’s currently part of an exceptional package promotion by Universal Radio. If you buy the G4000A for $99.99, you also receive a free Grundig FR350 self-powered (emergency) shortwave radio, and a Grundig AN200 indoor antenna. I wrote about this special in a previous post if you want more info. Suffice to say, this is the best advertised deal for a portable shortwave radio I’ve ever encountered. You could, of course, buy the G4000A for someone and give the two extras as gifts to others on your holiday shopping list–or, better yet, keep one for yourself!

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR ($150)

This Sony shortwave radio is a classic, with solid, time-tested performance, and features to please both the beginner and the seasoned radio enthusiast. The instruction manual is comprehensive and easy to read. Read the full review here.

g3_selectorThe Grundig G3 ($150 US)

The Grundig G3 was introduced in August 2009. It’s the latest portable receiver from Grundig and is an upgrade of the popular Grundig G5. I reviewed this radio right after it hit the market and found it to be excellent, save that its sync detection (a new feature for this model) did not perform up to spec, so I simply never use it–but this is no problem, as the receiver has many other outstanding features. The latest models of the Grundig G3 all have good sync detection.  Overall, the G3’s performance is on par with–or in some respects, better than–the Sony (above). Read full review here.

The C. Crane CCRadio-SW ($150 US)

This large portable would be my first pick for someone who wants excellent radio performance, but also wants a radio that is very simple to use (i.e., grandparents, children, your uncle who gets muddled by the TV’s remote control).  It comes with an owner’s manual, but you most likely will not need it.  The CCRadio-SW has robust, room-filling sound, and is a joy to operate. Ergonomics are excellent, and it sports a large tuning knob. Performance is top-notch on all shortwave bands and it’s top of it’s class on Medium Wave (or the AM broadcast band). It’s a little bigger than the previous radios (not really for flight bags), but still fine for car, camper, and fishing trips.  The CCRadio-SW will please both the beginner and seasoned radio listener; speaking for myself, I find I use mine all the time. Read the review here.

rx320controllerThe Ten-Tec RX-320D ($369 US)

This radio is more expensive than the others listed here, and is not a portable, however, I couldn’t help but include it because I recently reviewed this radio and found that it offers high-end performance for a fraction of the cost of a tabletop receiver. The little RX-320 is PC-controlled, meaning, you need to hook it up to a computer to bring it to life. It’s the perfect gift for your favorite ham radio operator or a computer enthusiast who also likes radio. Read the full review here —or, if you prefer, a short review here.

Budget Portables

Let’s face it, these are tough economic times, and it may very well affect your gift budget this year. Below, I’ve put together a small list of radios for $100 or less that would make excellent gifts for a radio enthusiast or for someone who has never used a shortwave radio. Keep in mind, of course, that you pay for what you get; thus these radios do not perform quite as well as the portables above.

Grundig G6 ($100 US)

The G6 has many of the features of the portables above and comes at a much better price and in a smaller package. This radio could easily fit in a glove compartment or coat pocket. Its shortwave radio reception is very respectable for such a small radio. Read the full review here.

ka1103newKaito KA1103/Degen 1003 ($80 US)

The Kaito KA1103 (a.k.a. Degen DE1003) offers the best performance I’ve tested under $100. But keep in mind, the ergonomics of this radio (pretty much any Kaito/Degen radio) leave something to be desired:  for example, to turn up the volume, you have to press the volume button and use the tuning knob to adjust. Still, it’s fairly easy to operate, and comes with a one-of-a-kind digital display that imitates an older analog style dial. Another Kaito/Degen Product to consider is the KA1102/DE1102–read a review of this $60 portable here. In general, I’ve found that Kaito offers great performance for price, but their quality control is sometimes sub-par. I have had to return two of their products in the past, and each time was relieved I had purchased from an authorized dealer (see below). Read the KA1103 full review here.

ccradio-swpC. Crane CCRadio-SWP ($50 US)

 

The CCRadio-SWP has a great receiver, especially in such a tiny package. C.Crane ergonomics are always very good, and you’ll probably never read the manual, it’s so simple to operate. I keep one of these in my car to listen to shortwave radio when I have  few minutes to spare. A few “AA” batteries will run this little radio for 70 hours! Now, the CCRadio-SWP has some limitations, as does any little radio in this price bracket, so read the full review here before purchasing. But this cute radio can make a great stocking stuffer–and will fit in that stocking’s toe just fine!

Grundig G8 Traveller II ($25-50)

The Grundig G8 is a nice pocket radio and the perfect traveling companion. I’m quite impressed with this radio. Shortwave reception is good and FM reception exceptional. The AM broadcast band does suffer from some images, though still quite respectable. The G8’s audio is a little tinny, though quite good for a radio this compact. The customary price for the G8 is $49.95, but occasionally retailers place them on sale for nearly half this price. It’s a grab at $50, it’s a steal at $25!

Grundig M400 ($30)

The M400 is a fun, ultra-portable, ultra-thin shortwave radio. Though its performance isn’t as good as other portables on this page, it is a super simple radio and is quite capable of picking up strong SW broadcasters–at $30, it’s also super affordable. I wouldn’t purchase this radio for someone who is just discovering shortwave radio since they will want a better performer with more features (like the portables at the top of this page). I do think the M400 makes for a nice stocking-stuffer or small gift for the radio enthusiast in your life. I take mine with me on morning walks and overnight travels.