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).

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

Confessions of an SDRaholic: when 4.5 terabytes is not enough

WinRadioExcaliburFullScreen Alas, ever since I started using Software Defined Receivers (SDRs) last year, I’ve found that I fill up hard drives faster than I can buy them. As you may have noted, I like to make spectrum recordings–especially during the night-time hours, as I slumber. The following morning, upon waking, I’ll “tune” through, say, the 31 meter band as if it were live. What makes it even more amazing for me, is that I can fast-forward through time and scan for DX stations even more quickly.  Great fun–highly addictive.  And did I say, space-consuming?

On my WinRadio Excalibur, I find that I use about 4 gigabytes of hard drive space for a one-hour-long spectrum recording, 100 kHz wide. Of course, if I were to record a 2,000 kHz (2 MHz) chunk of spectrum, it would chew through 4 GB in, roughly, 3.5 minutes.

Fortunately, I rarely ever record spectrum that wide. I find that the maximum width I ever record is 1.25 MHz, which I reserve for occasions once in a blue moon. Most of the time, I stick to 100 kHz-160 kHz widths.

After I record a chunk of spectrum, I usually listen to it, create an AF recording of anything of interest, then delete it from my drive. You’d think this would effectively keep my hard drive cleared out, ready to receive the next installment? Not so. Well, at least, not in my undisciplined SDR beginnings.

The flaw in my logic

Quite often, I make spectrum recordings while traveling, and do so remotely (using TeamViewer to control my PC). In the past eight months, I’ve done a lot of traveling. When I return from a trip, I find that I’ve often amassed a sizable collection of spectrum recordings. Upon returning from travel I also find (not surprisingly) that I’m typically busier than normal, catching up with email, phone calls, and delayed appointments. Thus, I never quite get around to reviewing–and therefore deleting–these files. Most of the spectrum recordings taking up space on my internal drives are those I’ve recorded remotely.

Last year, I thought I’d solve the space problem on my ailing laptop by purchasing a dedicated tower PC (Core i5) maxed-out with RAM and with a 1TB internal (7200 RPM) hard drive. This particular Gateway PC also has a bay that accepts cheap internal SATA drives; I simply insert an internal SATA hard drive in the ejectable bay, load the drivers, and it’s good to go. When I purchased an additional 2 TB SATA drive for spectrum recordings, I thought I would be set for years to come…Ah, how the mighty crumble…

As I write this today, I find I only have a total of 350 GB available on my PC. I’ve also filled an entire 1.5 TB external hard drive with recordings I plan to archive and share with a fellow SWLer.

The Tandy Color Computer 2 (or, "CoCo 2") was my first personal computer. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Tandy Color Computer 2 (“CoCo 2”) was my first personal computer. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

My, how times have changed

Reverse to the 1980s:  When I was ten years old, I thought my Tandy Color Computer 2 was the best thing since sliced bread.  Its 16 kB was surely plenty of memory for whatever I wanted to do, and the cassette tapes I used as a form of external hard drive gave me the certainty of a virtually limitless supply of memory.

Today, I doubt I could make an intelligible MP3 recording, even with aggressive compression, that would fit a 16 kB file size.

Facing the truth

The frank fact is that I’ve gotten much better at managing hard drive space, now that I’ve been doing spectrum recordings for more than a year. I shouldn’t need to buy additional hard drive space unless it’s specifically for archiving/sharing purposes. I just need to regularly face the music (or static)–dig through spectrum recordings made last year, and delete those I no longer need.

How do I manage space now? Here are my tricks for staying on the wagon, and saving both space and time:

  • Use the minimum amount of bandwidth possible while making recordings
  • If possible, have your SDR parse files into 2GB chunks. This makes it easier to delete sections of recording that are no longer needed without having to delete the entire recording. Happily, the WinRadio Excaliber allows for this.
  • Each time you create a new spectrum recording, have it saved into a specific directory with a label that will help you identify the contents.  For example, “Saturday Night Pirates” or “31 M Tues AM.”
  • Use Notepad or any simple text application and create a log sheet for the spectrum recording; make notes, then save it in the same directory as your spectrum recording.
  • When saving MP3/WAV files, use a standard file-naming convention to help you quickly ID a recording (you’ll notice all of my recordings do this). Mine follow this pattern: “StationName-Fequency-Date-StartingTimeInUTC.mp3” –e.g., “RadioAustralia-9580kHZ-05Feb13-1000Z.mp3”
  • Delete unwanted spectrum recordings as soon as you decide they are not worth keeping. If you wait a few days, you may forget that they’re okay to delete.
  • I also use my Bonito RadioJet for narrow IF recordings (of, say, one station).  It allows me to adjust filters and “tune,” but takes very little hard drive space. The same can be achieved by narrowing your SDR spectrum width to 20-48 kHz.

Are you an avid shortwave/medium wave audio archivist (aka, audio addict)?  What are your tricks of the trade?  Please comment!

Shortwave Radio Recordings: The Disco Palace (in DRM)

DiscoBallPerhaps one of the things I love the most about SWLing is the sheer variety of broadcasters out there. We can sample diverse offerings across a broad spectrum–from the BBC World Service to Radio Romania International, from pirate stations to numbers stations.

There’s even The Disco Palace: a station that plays only disco music, and each show is mixed thematically. This station broadcasts online and over shortwave radio via DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale).

Last week–specifically, on March 15, 2013–I caught about thirty minutes of The Disco Palace broadcast and was able to record it from my Bonito RadioJet IF Receiver. Reception on 17,875 MHz was excellent, although the DRM signal wasn’t quite strong enough for comfortable stereo decoding.

The following TDP recording starts around 2030 UTC (about halfway through the broadcast). Click here to download the recording as an MP3, or simply listen via the embedded player below:

Shortwave Radio Recordings: All India Radio on the Bonito RadioJet

The Bonito 1102S RadioJet IF receiver

The Bonito 1102S RadioJet IF receiver

After posting my latest All India Radio recording, SWLing Post reader, Pete, suggested that I check out their broadcasts starting around 21:00 UTC on 11,670 and 9,445 kHz, as they are quite strong into North America. He was right.

On Thursday afternoon, I tuned the Bonito RadioJet to 9,445 kHz, where I was greeted with a strong signal from AIR’s Bengaluru, India, transmitter site (over 8,500 miles from my home). I compared the signal on the RadioJet with that of my trusty WinRadio Excalibur to find that the RadioJet’s audio was somewhat fuller and richer. In situations where AM sync detection is not needed, I may start using the RadioJet for recordings. I’ve been using it strategically over the past few months for DRM reception and digging weak stations out of the static–something I typically don’t record, but probably should, as the RadioJet deserves even more air and recording time!

AllIndiaRadioLogo1I recorded this AIR broadcast on Thursday January 10th–around 21:30 UTC–on 9.445 MHz. This particular broadcast features news, commentary and the wonderful music I’ve come to expect from All India Radio. You can download the MP3 by clicking here, or simply listen in the embedded player below. Enjoy!

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!

Recording Radio Kuwait with the RadioJet’s IF recorder

While playing with the Bonito 1102S RadioJet the other day, I received a strong signal from Radio Kuwait. I thought I’d record the music they were playing, as the fidely was impressive for a signal traveling nearly 7000 miles.

Instead of recording the actual audio of the broadcast with the RadioJet’s AF recorder, I decided to use the IF recorder, which saves and records 24 kHz of actual spectrum. This is an excellent way to record while leaving it unattended. Later, when you review the material, you can refine and shape your recording of an individual broadcast.  Then, if an adjacent signal or some other condition requires you to adjust filters, you can do so just as you would when recording a live broadcast.

Though the file sizes are marginally larger than those the AF recorder produces, it’s not a hard drive-eater like broad spectrum recordings on an SDR.

One more (very cool) RadioJet feature: while making an IF recording, the RadioJet embeds UTC time code in the recording. This way, should you make a recording and forget to note the time you begin it, the time code shows up in the display. The Perseus also does this, and I think it’s a brilliant addition.

If you want to hear the 30+ minute recording I made of Radio Kuwait, simply listen to the file embedded below, or click here to download the mp3: