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!

Review of the Alinco DX-R8T tabletop shortwave receiver

Last year, when I saw the announcement that a new tabletop radio–the Alinco DX-R8T–was about to hit the market, I almost fell out of my chair.

AlincoDX-R8T

The Alinco DX-R8T tabletop shortwave receiver

A new tabletop on the market? Could it be true? Over the past few years, many long-time manufacturers have dropped out of the shortwave tabletop market, while newer, smaller manufacturers have been popping up in the SDR (Software Defined Radio) market. SDRs are great–a lot of performance for the price–but to listen to the radio, you have to turn on your computer, launch a program, and typically, do things to isolate any noise your computer may generate.

A tabletop, on the other hand, simply requires that you turn it on:  instantly, it’s there, awaiting tuning.

Obviously, I was eager to try out the DX-R8T. Fortunately, the good folks at GRE America (the US distributor for Alinco) kindly loaned me one of their receivers to review for SWLing.com.

First Impressions

The face plate on the Alinco DX-R8T is detachable (with optional extension cable). This view, from underneath, shows where it plugs into the receiver body.

I really appreciate the size and feel of the Alinco DX-R8T.  It’s heavy, with a metal case and a very durable plastic face plate.  It has a bail under the front panel which allows it to be lifted and carried for easy tabletop operation.

Please note: If you’re new to tabletop shortwave receivers or ham radio transceivers, be aware that the Alinco DX-R8T is based on the Alinco DX-SR8T ham radio transceiver–and as such, it operates on 12VDC. Meaning, you will need a 12 volt power supply like the Pyramid PS-3 or similar. If you already have a power supply, make sure it can at least deliver 1.5 amps at 13.8V. You do not want to purchase a “wall wart” type power supply, as many of these are noisy and will effect your ability to hear stations. For the purpose of review, I have actually been running the DX-R8T off of a 40AH, 12 V battery to eliminate all such noise.

The tuning knob on the DX-R8T is solid, smooth and certainly pleased this reviewer.

The tuning knob, which I personally find to be a particularly important feature, is substantial, solid, and moves fluidly–a plus.  I have not found a way to adjust the tension/resistance on the tuning knob, but haven’t felt the need to do so, either. The radio is heavy enough that it stays put while tuning and pressing keys, which is also important.

The ergonomics are good. I like how the volume, squelch, IF shift and RIT are all easily accessible single-function knobs.

If I have any criticism of this radio’s ergonomics, it would simply be that several of the buttons are a bit close to the tuning knob.  I have larger fingers, so while pushing the Function switch, RIT switch, keylock or turning the RIT knob, I often inadvertently move the tuning knob. But in truth, this is a fairly persnickity observation; in general I’m pleased with the panel layout and ergonomics.

AlincoSpeakerLike the IC-R75, the DX-R8T has a front-facing speaker–always a good thing when listening via a built-in speaker. Admittedly, the overall fidelity of the built-in speaker is mediocre at best–it lacks any bass response and sounds shallow, and unfortunately, there’s no way to change the tone from high to low. While the built-in speaker is fine for listening to the ham radio bands (in SSB or a CW mode), I would like better fidelity for the broadcast bands. This is no doubt a vestige of this radio’s ham transceiver heritage.

The front display is large, with an adjustable dimmer. It is crisp and very easy to read, which I like very well.

The competition

The only current shortwave tabletop competitors with the Alinco DX-R8T ($500), are the Icom IC-R75 ($600-700) and the Palstar R30A ($740 US). The Icom IC-R75 is a fine receiver and one I have recommended to many web readers in search of a multi-function tabletop. It has been on the market for years in many versions (some more successful than others), and is generally a solid performer.  The Palstar R30A is also an excellent receiver, though it lacks the bells and whistles of its Japanese counterparts. People who buy a Palstar want bare-bones simplicity and performance.

Since I own a Palstar R30C (the predecessor to the R30A), I used it as a point of comparison in my review of the DX-R8T.

Operation

The DX-R8T is a pleasure to operate. I was able to intuit nearly all but the memory functions without looking at the owner’s manual even once. A major plus, in my opinion!

Tuning is the function you use the most on any radio; with the DX-R8T you have three ways to tune:

  • the tuning knob
  • the up/down arrows and M/kHz button to toggle steps
  • the direct keypad entry
The keypad is configured like that on a phone, which I like. Again, because I have large fingers, I do wish the keypad buttons were slightly bigger. Frequencies are entered in MHz, so to go to 6,925 kHz, for example, you enter “6” “.” “9” “2” “5” “ENT.” To move to 6,000 kHz, you can shortcut by entering “6” “.” “ENT.”  Simple enough.

I did find it helpful to use the up/down arrows to move between meter bands, otherwise I never tune with the up/down arrows.

The tuning knob gets my seal of approval and scanning with it is a pleasure. Admittedly, I wish it were a little more adaptive to tuning speed (i.e., turning quickly speeds up the frequency steps) or that it could be adjusted somewhat. You can tell that the Alinco DX-R8T derives from amateur radio, as its tuning knob speed is perfect for finding ham radio stations.

Switching between modes is simple–pressing the “Mode” button moves you between, AM, FM, CWL, CWU, LSB and USB.

The volume, squelch, IF shift and RIT knobs are all well-spaced and easily accessible.

Broadcast listening

The Alinco DX-R8T is a capable broadcast receiver. In my tests, it was as sensitive as my Palstar.

The generous, wide 9kHz AM bandwidth means that broadcast stations come in with a great deal of fidelity. The flip side of the 9kHz bandwidth, though, is that it is less effective if there is an adjacent station–say, 5kHz away. Luckily, the DX-R8T has an IF shift knob handy so that a modest adjustment can usually eliminate adjacent interference.

I found the narrow AM bandwidth a little too narrow for broadcast listening.  It’s a mere 2 kHz wide and is simply too restrictive if listening to music. For voice intelligibility, the narrow filter works fairly well, using the IF shift to open it a bit. This narrow filter could be useful if trying to snag a weak DX signal, as it’s sufficiently narrow to cut out a lot of noise.

Speaking of noise, the Alinco has a respectfully low noise floor.

Amateur radio bands

The DX-R8T has modes for upper sideband, lower sideband and even upper and lower CW (morse code/digital) sidebands.

It performs rather well on the ham bands, pulling out weak SSB stations from the static.

In fact, its 500 Hz CW audio filter is quite good if you like listening to CW under normal conditions. I did try out the DX-R8T on Field Day 2011 and found that it had a hard time dealing with the intensely crowded band conditions.  Adjacent signals cause “thumping” while listening in pile-ups. This was no surprise; even pricey ham radio transceivers are subject to this type of problem under crowded CW conditions. [I usually turn to my Elecraft K2 or Ten-Tec OMNI VI+ (ham band-only transceivers) when participating in a Field Day or contest event.]

Th DX-R8T should do a formidable job listening to SSB ham radio, utility and pirate radio stations and the digital modes (like PSK31, RTTY, etc.).

Summary

Pros:

  • Excellent sensitivity in the shortwave (HF) bands
  • Simple design requires very little reference to owner’s manual
  • Extra wide 9kHz filter lends to high-fidelity broadcast listening (see con)
  • Filters are effective and well selected for SSB and CW modes
  • Large dimmable back-lit display with all pertinent information
  • Versatile: use the DX-R8T as a tabletop, detach the remote head to save footprint in your shack, mount in your car or connect to your PC and use the DX-R8T as an SDR
  • Front-facing speaker (see con)
  • DRM ready
  • Full control of all receiver functions when used as an SDR
  • Excellent value

Cons:

  • AM narrow filter is a little too narrow for most broadcasts
  • Some front-panel buttons are a little too close to the tuning knob
  • Mediocre built-in speaker, but good fidelity through external speaker or headphones
  • External speaker hook-up only on front panel
  • Does not come with a 12 volt power supply (sold separately)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was very skeptical of the Alinco DX-R8T before reviewing it. The price point was almost too attractive for a tabletop radio, and to offer the versatility of a detachable faceplate and control as an SDR receiver seemed too good to be true. I thought there must be a compromise somewhere.  Fortunately, it seems I was wrong.

Rear panel view of the Alinco DX-R8T

The Alinco DX-R8T is, in fact, a fine receiver. I especially love the fact that it’s simple to operate. While there are relatively few new tabletops introduced to the market, there are a number of Software Defined Radios available–their performance is excellent, but the learning curve (especially for a newcomer to the hobby) can be intimidating. Plus they require a computer.

With the Alinco DX-R8T, you get the best of both worlds, a simple “turn on and tune in” tabletop, plus a fully DRM ready SDR.

When people write in and ask for advice on buying their first tabletop receiver, I can recommend this DX-R8T without hesitation. Though it lacks the DSP that can be purchased separately with an Icom R75, it’s as sensitive as my Palstar R30C and the 9kHz AM bandwidth lends some excellent fidelity into headphones or an external speaker.

I must admit, I’m impressed with the Alinco DX-R8T.  It has all of the major features I like in a tabletop radio: it’s well-built, easy to use, sensitive, versatile, and it has sufficient control options to help adjust adjacent interference and improve intelligibility. It also has a very attractive price at $499 US.  It’s next-best competitor is probably the Icom R75–but neither the Icom, nor the Palstar R30A, can be used as an SDR and neither have the appropriate IF output for DRM as does the Alinco DX-R8T.  In short, it’s a lot of radio for the money, excellent for those starting in the hobby.

Paired with a good antenna, the Alinco DX-R8T is a bargain performer. If you’ve thought about moving from portable radios to the world of a more serious receiver, you can’t go wrong with the Alinco DX-R8T.

––

Want to hear what audio from the Alinco DX-R8T sounds like? Here is a 2+ hour sampling of Radio New Zealand International recorded 02 Sep 2011:

Resources

The Alinco DX-R8T – a new shortwave tabletop

UPDATE -> 02 September 2011: Please click here to read our full review of the Alinco DX-R8T. 

Universal Radio has announced the Alinco DX-R8T with an estimated delivery date of December 28th. All of the data and specs they mention are subject to change, but this looks like it could be a receiver worth consideration.

The Alinco DX-R8T tabletop shortwave radio.

Notable features include:

  • Frequency coverage: 150-30,000 kHz
  • 500 Hz CW Audio Filter
  • 600 Alpha Memories
  • 10 Hz Display
  • IF Shift
  • RIT
  • Squelch
  • Dual VFOs
  • Attenuator

Will the Alinco DX-R8T perform as well as the Icom IC-R75 or the Palstar R30A? We’ll let you know.

We can say that this is most likely a stripped-down version of their amateur transceiver, the Alinco DX-SR8T–probably a good thing. The DX-SR8T gets good marks for receiver sensitivity and selectivity (for a transceiver in its price range). In fact, eham reviewers give it an average of 4.5 stars out of 5.

Regarding price, I imagine it will be in the $500-600 US range (especially based on the pricing for the DX-R8 by Nevada in the UK and the $645US price point of the DX-SR8T transceiver). Universal has not yet announced a price (listed T.B.A.).

Check back for updates–we will post them as soon as they become available.

Please click here to read our full review of the Alinco DX-R8T.