The SWLing Post 2014-2015 Shortwave Radio Buyer’s Guide

RadiosShootOut-SonyTecsunSangean

The following article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


Although many large government shortwave broadcasters are departing the shortwave radio scene, there’s no shortage of great products being introduced to it. Indeed, growth in the portable and SDR (software defined radio) markets is reasonably rapid.  This suggests, perhaps, a new kind of future for shortwave.

The following is a basic, easy-to-follow buyer’s guide to some of the best receivers on the market. This guide is, by no means, comprehensive; rather it’s a selection of rigs I know or own, thus have tested.

Compact/Travel portables

If your budget is tight, or if you’re looking for a radio that could easily slip into your glove compartment, backpack, carry-on, or even jacket pocket, you need to look at an compact shortwave radio. Typically, there is a performance compromise with compact radios: they don’t typically have the sensitivity, like their more expensive cousins; they have a more limited frequency range; and they don’t detect single-sideband signals. Nonetheless, the ones listed here are fine performers for their size and price. Entries are listed in alphabetical order.

ccradio-swpCrane CCRadio-SWP

The CC Radio SWP has been on the market for many years and has become a classic portable. The layout and design are very simple, the display clear, with easily-read icons and intuitive controls. The tuning knob on the right side is for fine tuning–no muting or chugging between frequencies, either. Shortwave and MW sensitivity are better than one might expect for a radio this size; I often find myself comparing it to much pricier portables. But most significantly, this radio offers the longest battery life of any radio I own: almost 70 hours on 2 AA cells!

The CC Radio SWP is available from C.Crane for $55.00 US. You can also purchase the CC Radio SWP from Universal Radio ($44.95) and Amazon.com.

Note: The CC Radio SWP may soon be replaced by the new CC Skywave which has just started shipping at time of posting.

KA1103Kaito KA1103 or Degen DE1103

The Kaito KA1103 packs a lot of bang-for-your-buck if you’re looking for an inexpensive, ultra-portable entry into SWLing. Like the CC Radio SWP, the KA1103 (a.k.a. Degen DE1103) has enjoyed a long market life. The KA1103 is full-featured and one of the only sub-$100 radios with SSB mode. One interesting design feature of the KA1103 is its large Digital/Analog frequency display: the LCD screen features the frequency display in digits, but also sports a working digital representation of an analog frequency dial. As you tune up and down the band–with, yes, a tuning knob–the LCD needle moves along the display as it would on an analog radio dial. While I believe radio ergonomics could be improved, the KA1103 is still a great bargain.

The KA1103 is available at Universal Radio for $79.98 and Amazon.com for $79.99. Click here to search eBay for the Degen DE1103.

Tecsun PL-310ETTecsun PL-310ET

The Tecsun PL-310ET is an updated version of the acclaimed PL-310, a mini-legend in the world of portable radio, offering exceptional value and high-performance in a small package. The PL-310ET is fueled by a SiLabs DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip that gives this ultra-portable excellent sensitivity and selectivity. The PL-310 has been a favorite amongst ultra-light Dxers, as sensitivity and selectivity are  exceptional for the price. The new “ET” version of the PL-310 sports ETM tuning; a feature which allows you to scan the entire band and automatically store all strong stations to temporary memory locations. I believe the updated PL-310ET also has better AGC for weak signal DXing than its predecessor. Another bonus is that the PL-310ET sports an external antenna jack for shortwave and FM reception.

The Tecsun PL-310ET is largely available from Hong Kong-based sellers on eBay (http://ebay.to/1seZP3h) as well as on Amazon.com.

Tecsun-PL-380Tecsun PL-380

The Tecsun PL-380 is my favorite radio under $60. Much like its cousin, the PL-310ET (above), the PL-380 has a DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip that gives this ultra-portable excellent sensitivity and selectivity. For three years, I have traveled extensively with the PL-380 in tow, and I’m constantly amazed by this radio’s excellent audio and reception across the bands.

The Tecsun PL-380 is available from Universal Radio for $59.95 and from Amazon.com for $54.99. Click here to search eBay for the PL-380.

Tecsun offers a number of compact portables, based on a similar DSP chip as the PL-380, but with built-in stereo speakers. Check out the Tecsun PL-390, PL-398BT, and PL-398MP, too.

Full-Featured Portables

In the portables market, I believe you get the most value and quality in the $90-250 price class. Most beginners and seasoned SWLs prefer a radio that includes everything necessary to get on the air immediately; all of these radios provide just that. Straight out of the box, you’ll have everything you need to listen to shortwave bands. All of these recommended radios are designed to pick up major shortwave broadcasters with ease, and offer the following features: good frequency coverage; circuitry that helps in the detection of weaker stations; and the ability to receive single-sideband (with the exception of the CCRadio-SW, see below).

ccradio-swCrane CCRadio-SW

If you’re not as concerned about portability, the C.Crane CCRadio-SW is an excellent broadcast receiver. Think of the CCRadio-SW as a larger portable or tabletop radio (11.25″ x 7.25″ x 3.5″). What makes this radio stand out from its peers? Exceptional audio fidelity. The large built-in speaker has separate treble and bass controls and reminds me how important audio quality is while listening to a faint signal. This radio’s audio will fill a large room. Shortwave sensitivity is very good. Medium wave (AM broadcast) reception is excellent. Negatives? No direct keypad for frequency entry, and the SW also lacks a native SSB mode (a rare missing feature in this price class). With that said, it does have impressive array of external connections, including an IF-Out connection, which (with an IF converter and some free software) will allow you to interpret SSB and an array of digital signals, including DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale). What really strikes me about the CCRadio-SW is its sheer ease of use.  Its design is simple, ergonomic, and highly effective. I’ve often recommended the CCRadio-SW to listeners who want simplicity of use and robust audio.

The CCRadio-SW is available for $149.95 at C.Cranes’ website, $129.95 from Universal Radio and is also available on Amazon.com. Click here to check eBay for used models.

Radios with a similar form-factor include the Grundig S450DLX and the new Eton Field.

ATS-909XSangean ATS-909X

At $249.95, the Sangean ATS-909X is one of the priciest full-featured portables on the market. The 909X sports a large alpha-numeric display, tactile buttons, and a solid build quality. I also believe the 909X has a one of the better internal speakers and audio fidelity amongst portables. Negatives? Surprisingly, the 909X lacks synchronous detection, a tool most other portables have in this price range. Additionally, in my recent shortwave portable shoot-out, I gave the Sangean low marks for sensitivity; this review was based upon use of the built-in telescopic antenna. With an external antenna, on the other hand, the 909X performs admirably. If you’re looking for a quality portable with a front-end robust enough to be attached to a larger external antenna, the 909X may very well be your radio.

The Sangean ATS-909X is available at Universal Radio for $249.95 and Amazon.com for $219.99. Click here to search for used ATS-909Xs on eBay.

Sangean still has several models of portables available.  Check out the Sangean ATS-404 and ATS-505P.

Sony7600GRSony ICF-SW7600GR

For performance, you’ll find that the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is top of its class among full-featured portables. Two of its outstanding features is a solid synchronous selectable sideband (a feature which helps to reduce fading distortion and adjacent-channel interference) and stable AGC circuit. In fact, the ICF-7600GR was chosen as a favorite in a blind audio test on the SWLing Post. Indeed, my only criticism of the ‘7600GR is that it lacks a tuning wheel; instead, you’re forced to use tuning buttons on the front face of the radio.

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR is available at Universal Radio for about $150.00 and at Amazon.com for $130-150.00. Click here to search eBay for a used ICF-SW7600GR.

KX3-Helper-Tecsun-PL-600Tecsun PL-600

The Tecsun PL-600 is the value leader among the full-featured portables in this list. It can be found at a wide array of retailers, such as Universal Radio, Amazon and eBay. Price ranges from about $65 to $90. I’ve often recommended the PL-600 as a first full-featured radio for the budding SWL, and for good reason: the PL-600 has great sensitivity, selectivity, and even has capable single-sideband reception. The PL-600 does a surprisingly good job of holding its own against the other contenders in this list. Negatives? Like all sub-$100 portables, the PL-600 lacks synchronous detection (and if this is a deal-killer for you, check out the PL-660). Additionally, the PL-600 is not well suited for large external antennas; but it does work quite well with its own antenna. In a nutshell: if you’re not willing to spend over the $100 mark, the PL-600 is a safe bet.

The Tecsun PL-600 is available at Universal Radio for $89.95. Click here to search eBay for new and used PL-600s.

PL-660Tecsun PL-660

The Tecsun PL-660 is one of the best selling portable shortwave radios currently on the market–and for good reason. This rig has a full compliment of features and is quite easy to operate. The sync detector (selectable USB/LSB) is currently one of the best in the sub $150 US price range. Sensitivity and selectivity are both excellent; indeed, I consider it to have the most sensitive receiver among the portables listed here (and so. With the introduction of the Tecsun PL-880 on the market, the PL-660 has also become more affordable and can be found at or near the $100-120 price point with shipping. What a bargain!

The Tecsun PL-660 is available at Universal Radio for $109.95 and on Amazon.com (prices vary). Click here to search fro a new or used PL-660 on eBay.

Tecsun PL-880PL-880 (1)

The Tecsun PL-880 was introduced to the market one year ago (November 2013), and while the introduction was a bit bumpy (feature variation based on differing firmware versions), it has recovered and found quite a good following. While the PL-880 does not rank as highly as the PL-660 or ICF-SW7600GR in terms of sensitivity (see review TSM June 2013) it does have compensating factors.  For one thing, the PL-880 has the best audio fidelity from its internal speaker among the radios listed here. It’s also the most feature rich, boasting the most filter selections and a growing number of “hidden” features (http://wp.me/pn3uc-2tl). I also love the build quality, ergonomics, and tuning options; indeed, the PL-880 even has a dedicated fine tuning control. Negatives? Though the PL-880 has an undocumented sync detection among its “hidden” features, I find its sync lock quite feeble, compromising audio fidelity a bit too much. If you’re looking for a small portable that will fill a room with rich audio–whether you’re listening to the BBC, a classical concert, or just two ham radio operators chatting on 40 meters– look no further than the PL-880.

The Tecsun PL-880 is available at Universal Radio for $159.95 and on Amazon for $159.99. The Tecsun PL-880 is also available from Hong Kong-based sellers on eBay.

New Eton portables now shipping

Eton-SatellitAt time of publishing, Eton Corp–the North American distributor of Grundig–has four updated models of shortwave portables new to the market. All are updated versions of recently retired Grundig models:

If history is a guide, I expect all of these radios to prove worthy of the 2016 Shortwave Radio Buyer’s Guide. Indeed, preliminary reviews of the Field have been most favorable. Barring schedule changes, all models should be available in time for the 2014 holiday season…Stay tuned.

Tabletop receivers

While tabletop receivers have started to decline with the advent of SDRs, there are many listeners who still prefer a simple, dedicated, stand-alone high-performance receiver with a good tuning knob and clear display, which is to say, a tabletop receiver. Tabletops are designed to perform best with a resonant external antenna.

AlincoDXR8TFrontFaceAlinco DX-R8T

I reviewed the Alinco DX-R8T in 2011 a few months after it was introduced. I was favorably impressed with the DX-R8T. So much so, I purchased one after the review. It has excellent selectivity and sensitivity, a large display and tuning knob, a detachable faceplate (if your desktop space is limited), and a decent built-in speaker. What’s more, the DX-R8T has an SDR mode that allows you to hook up the receiver to your PC to see a spectrum display, and with an optional accessory cable, control its rig functions and tuning. The DX-R8T requires a regulated 12-volt power supply (not included). Cons? The DX-R8T lacks a selectable synchronous detector–a feature I enjoy using to combat adjacent signal interference.

The Alinco DX-R8T is available at Universal Radio for $449.95. Click here to search eBay for the Alinco DX-R8T.

Icom-R-75Icom R-75

Various versions of the Icom R75 have been on the market for well over a decade.  This receiver stands the test of time because it’s a full-featured tabletop with attributes like twin passband controls, a two-level pre amp, separate AF/RF gain, adjustable AGC, an alpha numeric display, a direct frequency entry keypad, not to mention a logical, ergonomic layout for all controls.  Amateur Radio operators, pirate radio listeners, as well as utility broadcast listeners will all appreciate the R75’s performance in SSB mode. Cons? The current base version of the R75 lacks synchronous detection, though some models in the past have had this option.

The Icom R75 is available at Universal Radio for $669.95. Click here to search eBay for the R75.

SDRs/IF Receivers

If you’re searching for maximum performance for the price, software-defined radios (SDRs) and IF receivers are hard to beat. These small “black box” radios require a computer to unlock their performance; none of these are stand-alone. But while I’ve never been a fan of combining my PC with radio listening, once I starting using an SDR, I never turned back.  Now, 90% of the time that I’m on the air, it’s with an SDR. They’re simply incredible.

The following selection of SDRs–and IF receivers–are all available for $1,000 or less.

BonitoRadioJetDaytonBonito RadioJet IF-Receiver 1102S

The Bonito RadioJet is included in this group because it is very similar to an SDR, but strictly speaking, it’s an IF receiver. Like an SDR, it requires a PC for operation. But while the RadioJet’s spectrum bandwidth is more limited than the SDRs that follow, it has advantages over the others.  For one, the RadioJet is more akin to a PC-controlled radio–most of the hard work is done in the receiver itself, not your computer–-so even older model Windows PCs, tablets and netbooks can run the  RadioJet application with ease. The RadioJet is great for travelers since it requires no external power supply: it derives its power from your computer, from the same USB cable used for data. The RadioJet is an excellent receiver and has a very low noise floor. If you like listening to DRM, you’ll be impressed with its native ability to decode the mode. Click here to read my comprehensive review of the RadioJet.

The Bonito RadioJet 1102S is available at Universal Radio for $649.95. The RadioJet can also be purchased directly from Bonito in Germany.

Elad-FDM-S2-CoffeeElad FDM-S2

If you’ve read my Elad FDM-S2 review (coming soon!) you’ll know that this little SDR packs a powerful punch for the price. Indeed, I would venture to say that the FDM-S2 offers the best value among the SDRs listed here. Its performance is uncompromising, comparing favorably to receivers $300-400 more in price. The S2 also provides native DRM decoding.  In short, the S2 makes for a fine DRM receiver.

Any negatives with this rig? Some users have reported diminished receiver performance in the presence of high-powered AM stations (fortunately, not an issue in the rural area where I live). Additionally, the Elad application has a greater learning curve than, say, the Perseus or the Excalibur (below). Still, I like the S2 so much that even though I already own a benchmark SDR, I’m planning to purchase the S2 after review.

The Elad FDM-S2 is available at Elad USA for $580.00.

PerseusMicrotelecom Perseus

If you’re looking for a benchmark SDR, it’s hard to overlook the venerable Microtelecom Perseus. Though it’s been on the market for many years now, the receiver architecture holds its own and is as robust as they come. Selectivity and sensitivity are absolutely superb: no matter the mode or band. Another benefit of the Perseus is that users can network their receivers with relative ease, sharing them with other Perseus users. Negatives? The Perseus price point still tops the charts at $1000. And while the supplied application works quite well, it lacks features found in other SDR apps, and the window cannot be resized (though numerous customer requests have been made). Still, the Perseus is likely to remain a DXer’s receiver of choice for years to come.

The Microtelecom Perseus is available at Universal Radio for $999.95. Click here to search eBay for a used Perseus.

WinRadio Excalibur

I have owned the WinRadio Excalibur since 2012, and it has become my primary home receiver. I have directly compared the Excalibur to the Microtelecom Perseus and the Elad FDM-S2 (above); any receiver performance differences are minor. As a radio broadcast archivist, I find the Excalibur to be the best receiver suited to capturing broadcasts, as it’s the only one in this group that can record up to 2 MHz of radio spectrum (and allow you to play back this recording later); up to three broadcasts can be captured simultaneously within that 2 MHz window. Negatives? The Excalibur application only works on Windows PCs. Additionally, it requires a dedicated 12V power supply, thus is less convenient than the RadioJet or FDM-S2 for travel and outdoor listening. Read my full review of the Excalibur by clicking here.

The WinRadio Excalibur is available directly from WinRadio for $945.95. Click here to search eBay for a used Excalibur.

Hybrid Stand-Alone SDR/Tabletops

The CommRadio CR-1

CommRadio CR-1a

The CommRadio CR-1a could be classed as either an SDR or a stand-alone tabletop receiver, as it fits both profiles. Furthermore, the CR-1a is as portable as nearly any of the portable radios mentioned above. In short, I really dig this radio! It’s beautifully engineered and mil-spec rugged; performance-wise, it’s hard to beat. Receiver sensitivity and selectivity are superb. The best part? The CR-1a has an optional internal battery that will power it for hours on a single charge. With antenna and fully-charged CR-1a, you will enjoy hours of outdoor listening while traveling [check out my recent travel review]. If you’re on the fence about getting an SDR or tabletop radio, grab the CR-1a; at $599.95, it’s a lot of kit for your investment. Click here to read my comprehensive review of the CR-1.

The CommRadio CR-1a is available from Universal Radio for $599.95 and directly from CommRadio for $599.99. Click here to search eBay for a used Comm Radio CR-1 or CR-1a.

The Shortwave Radio Index

If you would like to view a comprehensive list of all shortwave radios currently on the market, check out the Shortwave Radio Index (http://swling.com/db).

The best shortwave receiver for your boat or yacht

YachtSWLing Post reader, Bob, recently emailed the following question:

“My wife and I live on a boat and plan to go to the Bahamas this season. We cannot afford to install a SSB radio – costs $7K to $8K. But we need to be able to hear the weather reports and forecasts

So we are thinking of just getting a SW radio receiver.

A friend has purchased a Grundig satellite 750 but it does not seem to have the range, and he has not been successful connecting an antenna.

I think I need a SW radio I can connect to an antenna. I am thinking of a CommRadio CR-1 ?

What do you think?”

Thanks for your question, Bob.  I’m going to give you a few suggestions, then open this one up to your fellow SWLing Post readers, as I suspect there may be some with experience setting up and using an HF receiver on the water.

Indeed, as Bryan commented, just after I posted this review, readers should note that none of the receivers/transceivers I offer here are designed for maritime use, thus they lack features like GMDSS, DSC and DGPS and have no extra protection from the corrosion of salt water on their circuit boards.

Receivers

The CommRadio CR-1

The CommRadio CR-1

For my part, as an inlander, I think you’re on the right track with the CommRadio CR-1.  Not only will it cover the entire HF spectrum (for HF weather fax, RTTY and many ship-to-shore communications), but it also covers VHF (64 – 260 MHz) and UHF (437 – 512 MHz) frequencies. The CR-1 is also a very stable receiver and covers all of the modes you’ll need (upper side-band, lower side-band, AM and FM).

If you’re space conscious, fortunately the CR-1 has a very small footprint; you could mount it nearly anywhere. The CR-1 also has a built-in battery pack and can run/charge on an array of DC voltages (6-18 VDC).

You may also wish to consider the Alinco DX-R8T (see review) or the Icom R-75. The Alinco has a detachable face plate, thus may also be easily accommodated. The Icom R-75 is a great receiver for your application, as well, but is larger than the CR-1 and does not have a detachable face plate option.

Again, I think you’re on the right track with the CommRadio CR-1.

Another option to consider…general coverage ham transceiver

The Kenwood TS-480SAT is full-featured,  small, and has a detachable face plate.

The Kenwood TS-480SAT is full-featured, small, and has a detachable face plate.

Here my advice is going to sound a bit like that which I gave reader Phil recently: I would strongly urge you to get your amateur radio license. It’s a simple process–even elementary kids do it–and the license no longer requires a knowledge of Morse code (CW), (although I am a devotee of code and would suggest pursuing a knowledge of this at a future date). Moreover, the testing material will make for an excellent primer on radio communications, so if something goes wrong in the middle of the ocean, you’ll be better prepared to diagnose and fix it.

The Yaesu FT-857D

The Yaesu FT-857D

Additionally, in case of an emergency, a ham radio transceiver would provide yet another means of calling SOS to a community that is well-versed in handling emergency communications. Check out this previous post for suggestions on getting your amateur radio license.

Ham radio transceivers also offer excellent stability and the modes you’ll need to decode any voice or digital mode.

Keeping in mind that you’ll need a transceiver 1) in the same price range as the CR-1, 2) that is compact or has a detachable face plate, 3) has a general coverage receiver, and 4) is rated for 100 watts of output power, I would suggest the following:

  • The Linco DX-SR8T

    The Linco DX-SR8T

    The Alinco DX-SR8T. While not a small radio, this rig has a detachable face plate (with optional extension cord), a sensitive receiver and is a great value at $520 new. I favorably reviewed the receiver-only version of this radio two years ago. I’ve heard that the receiver in the DX-R8T is identical to the one in the DX-SR8T. I would purchase this from Universal Radio or Ham Radio Outlet.

  • The Kenwood TS-480SAT. Also worth considering, this transceiver has an excellent receiver with better filters and a smaller footprint than the Alinco DX-SR8T. Though it costs nearly twice as much as the Alinco, it’s on sale until 11/30/13 for $974 from Universal Radio.
  • The Yaesu FT-857D.  This is probably the most compact among the transceiver options listed above. The FT-857D has been on the market for many years and has proven itself a capable mobile transceiver. The detachable face plate could easily be mounted anywhere you wish. The Yaesu FT-857D can be purchased at Universal radio or Ham Radio Outlet.
  • The Icom IC-7000 is an excellent choice for maritime operation. It's possible to find a used one at a good value.

    The Icom IC-7000 is an excellent choice for maritime operation. It’s possible to find a used one at a good value.

    Also consider buying a good-quality used general coverage transceiver from a reputable retailer like Universal Radio, Ham Radio Outlet, The Ham Station or Amateur Electronic Supply. Search for the three models listed above, but I would also consider the Icom IC-706MKII and the Icom IC-7000.

Of course, you will need a good HF antenna for any of these options to work, even the CommRadio CR-1; a radio, after all, is only as good as its antenna.  The type of antenna you can use will be limited by your ability to mount it on on your boat: some are limited-space wire antennas, others are whip antennas.  Make sure the antenna will resonate on the frequencies important for your maritime travels.

Fortunately, most of the retailers listed above have experience in this capacity.

Portables

ATS-909X_smallIf I were on a boat, I would also carry a portable shortwave radio as a backup. Some to consider are the Tecsun PL-660, Sony ICF-SW7600GR or the Sangean 909X. All of these have SSB and good sensitivity, selectivity and stability.

Hope this helps, Bob!  Happy sailing!

SWLing Post readers: if you have experience in maritime HF operation, we welcome your comments and suggestions…

Update: Check out Frank’s maritime radio suggestions.

It’s hard to say goodbye: my Alinco DX-R8T lands on eBay

ALinco 021Alas–! It’s time to bid a fond farewell to my trusty Alinco DX-R8T. I’m only selling it to raise money to purchase hard drive storage for spectrum recordings and more review radios, which fuel this site.

Needless to say, it’s in great shape and reviews most favorably. Indeed, the sensitivity is so good, I’m a little reluctant to sell it…But sacrifices must be made; there are some 4TB SATA drives with my name on them (plus, admittedly, I still have five other tabletop receivers for consolation).

Click here to view the listing of my Alinco DX-R8T on eBay.

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!

Using and setting up the Alinco DX-R8T/E receiver as an SDR (software defined radio)

The Alinco DX-R8T (DX-R8E in Europe) can be used as a traditional tabletop or as a software defined receiver

Some time ago, I posted a review of the Alinco DX-R8T–a surprisingly capable, flexible and affordable dedicated tabletop receiver.  In that review, I explored its capabilities as a tabletop unit, and was favorably impressed.

But I knew then that one of the virtues of the DX-R8T is that it’s more than a typical tabletop:  the control head (or, front panel) can literally be detached, and with an extension cable, can be moved as far away as 16 feet from the rest of the receiver. Also, with the optional ERW-7 cable and a shielded audio patch cord, you can connect the Alinco to your PC, converting it to a software-defined radio (SDR).  Just to be fair, I wanted to further check out this alternative operation mode, and review it independently.

I’ve recently had an opportunity to explore the Alinco DX-R8T/E as an SDR, and here’s what I’ve discovered.

As it took some time to figure out how to get KGSDR, the Alinco control software, communicating with my DX-R8T, it’s fair to state that the Alinco’s SDR functionality is not exactly “plug-and-play.”  Nor does Windows seem to find the USB driver automatically.  You must download a USB driver for your computer, as well as download KGSDR from external sites.  It’s also important to note that the Alinco website is not easy to navigate–at least, the relevant links are somewhat buried in large portions of site content.

When I first attempted to set up my receiver as an SDR, I had to use a combination of the printed owner’s manual, the Alinco website, external sites, and simple determination.

Before reviewing the actual performance of the Alinco DX-R8T/E as an SDR, I’ll simplify setting it up as an SDR with a step-by-step process, below. (I wish this was clearly outlined in the owner’s manual, however.)

How to convert your Alinco DX-R8T/E into a Software Defined Receiver

The ERW-7 is the cable that connects your Alinco DX-R8(T) to your computer.

1.) Connect the ERW-7 cable and download the  driver

The ERW-7 is the USB cable that connects your Alinco DX-R8T with your computer. Specifically, it allows your computer to tune and control the DX-R8T; it does not carry audio. If you wish to have full control of your receiver via your PC, you will need to purchase the ERW-7.

You simply plug one end of the cable (the one that looks like an 1/8″ audio connector) in the “clone” port on the back of your Alinco, the other end into an available USB port on your computer.

The download page–at FTDI Chip, the manufacturer of the Alinco cable–has versions of the USB driver for most OS platforms. If you have Windows, you can save a little time by downloading the USB setup tool that will attempt to automatically load the USB driver. Otherwise, you can download and manually install the drivers for the Windows 32 bit version or Windows 64 bit version.

You will need a shielded audio patch cord with 1/8″ stereo plugs on both ends

2.) Connect an audio patch cord

The Alinco DX-R8T/E sends the received IQ signal to your PC via a shielded audio patch cord. This is a standard audio cable that you can purchase at most electronics retailers. It needs to have 1/8″ stereo connectors on both ends, and it must be shielded.

One end of the patch cord is plugged into the IQ port on the back of the receiver, the other is plugged into the microphone input on your computer.

3.) Tell your DX-R8T/E to send the IQ audio to your computer

Your computer will need to “hear” the IQ (spectrum) audio produced by the Alinco DX-R8T/E. The receiver will only send the IQ audio to your computer if you tell it to do so. Fortunately, this is easily done:  simply press the MODE button on the front panel of your receiver until FM appears. Then, simply press the FUNCTION button, then the MODE button.  Your Alinco should now display “IQ” on the main display. You can feel confident the audio is now being sent to your PC.

4.) Install KGSDR

The KGSDR controls are very similar to those of the Ten-Tec RX-320D

KGSDR is a software-defined radio application built specifically for the Alinco DX-R8T/E receivers. A third-party software developer maintains the download page for the KGSDR. Click here to download the setup software for Windows. (If this link doesn’t work, you can also download a zipped copy by clicking here.) To my knowledge, there are no updates to the software–as of time of this post, the current version is 1.0.0.

Installation is simple and only requires that you extract the contents of the zipped folder, then run the KGSDR executable file.

If all has been installed correctly, and the IQ signal is being sent to KGSDR, then you should be able to hear the received audio via your computer.

I have actually installed KGSDR on three different computers. On my laptop, I had to troubleshoot and tweak the settings to get KGSDR to work. On the other two computers, it worked the first time.  All of them were running a 64 bit version of Windows 7.

Troubleshooting tips

If you change the tuned frequency on KGSDR from, say 5,000 kHz to 10,000 kHz, but your Alinco receiver does not change frequencies (it still displays the centered frequency on the front panel), then the USB driver has not been installed or configured properly.

If the receiver tunes, but the audio is garbled or non-existent, you will need to check the audio cord connections. First of all, make sure it’s plugged into the microphone input on your computer (not the speaker/headphone port!) and the IQ port on the back of the Alinco. You cannot plug the patch cord into any other port port on the DX-R8T/E. The plug will fit in the headphone jack, for example, but the IQ port is the only one that sends interpretable analog information to your PC.

Review:  the Alinco DX-R8T/E as an SDR

KGSDR comes with a spectrum and waterfall display (Click to enlarge)

I have read reports of people achieving remarkable results with their Alinco functioning as an SDR…I wish I could report the same.

While the Alinco DX-R8T/E is a very capable tabletop receiver, I find that the SDR functionality adds very little, performance-wise. In fact, in many respects this function seems to compromise the performance of the DX-R8T/E. Still, there are some positives:

Pros

  • Affordable – the EWR-7 USB cable is about $45 US, and you can easily buy a shielded audio patch cable for under $10. For about $55 US, you can unlock the SDR functionality of your receiver.
  • With KGSDR, you can see a bit of the surrounding spectrum on a waterfall display
  • KGSDR is a very lightweight program, not likely to tax even older PCs.
  • KGSDR allows for variable filter control–a true compensating factor since the DX-R8T/E only has a wide/narrow filter on AM (see review)
  • You get the basic benefits of typical SDR receivers:
    • Spectrum/Waterfall display
    • Recording at the push of a button (.wav only)
    • Practically unlimited memory slots
    • With practice, you can import frequency databases
    • A basic DSP filter
  • Simple “lightweight” application that should work on any Windows-based PC (see con)
  • With a DRM decoder, you will be able to receive and decode DRM transmissions (see con)

Cons

  • Performance is underwhelming–not as good as the DX-R8T as a stand-alone tabletop receiver
    • Images of strong stations several kilohertz above the source
    • DX-R8T/E sensitivity is somewhat compromised in SDR mode
    • Selectivity is mediocre
  • Audio patch cord transfers computer/shack RF noise more easily than SDRs which use a digital IQ output via USB
  • Audio fidelity, in general, is not as good as the stand-alone receiver will provide
  • KGSDR has only the most basic of SDR features
  • KGSDR does not allow the spectrum display to be expanded vertically
  • Requires tweaking and repeated efforts in order to function properly
  • Owner’s manual and website are confusing and lack vital information about the installation and trouble-shooting process (hopefully our guide above can help the average user)
  • DRM mode is not native; you will have to use a program like DREAM (see pro)

 Summary

So, is it worth it?  Well, yes––and no.

Yes

If you have $55-60 US dollars to spare, it’s a real bargain. I believe the extra SDR features  and functionality are worth the price. I have not yet tested this in a DXpedition setting, where there are a limited number of RF noise-producing devices around. If you have an RF-“quiet” location in which to use the Alinco as an SDR, you may find you have better results than I describe above.  I imagine you will still suffer from some imaging of stronger signals, however.

Plus, KGSDR is so lightweight, I believe you could use it on a netbook. Moreover, I have heard of owners who’ve actually used other open source SDR applications to drive the Alinco DX-R8T/E.  Additionally, though I have not yet tested it, N4PY makes a software controller that would be far superior to the KGSDR–I base this on the fact that N4PY’s RX-320D software was such an improvement over the standard OEM package.

No

If you wish to enhance the performance (not features) of your Alinco DX-R8T/E, I do not think it’s worth it to put your Alinco into service as an SDR.  Again, I find that it somewhat compromises the performance of what is otherwise an excellent tabletop radio.

If, like me, you have other SDRs in the shack, you’ll find that you’ll seldom use the Alinco as an SDR. Your other digital IQ-based receivers or IF receivers will most likely run circles around it.

Thanks, Alinco

I think it’s pretty cool that for under $500, you can purchase an excellent tabletop receiver like the Alinco DX-R8T/E. Its price tag is significantly lower than its top two competitors (the Icom R75 and Palstar R30A). Still, even with this price edge, Alinco added bonuses like a detachable face plate and SDR functionality, making this a “Swiss Army Knife” of a receiver. So, again,I’ll say…thanks, Alinco!

What do you think?

If you are using the Alinco DX-R8T or E as an SDR and feel you are achieving better performance than I’ve described, or would like to share any other thoughts/suggestions, please comment below. Note that my Alinco is a very early-release–perhaps from the first production run. It is possible that some of the issues I mention above have been resolved  in later production, or that I simply have not finished properly tweaking settings.  I await your responses!

 

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!

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.

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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:

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