Tag Archives: Radio Reviews

Richard’s initial impressions of the Sony XDR-S41D FM/DAB receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Richard Langley, who recently attended a conference in Paris and picked up a Sony XDR-S41D. Richard writes:

The workshop closed around noon on Friday so I spent part of the afternoon walking around the nearby Darty consumer electronics and appliance store.

I wanted to buy a DAB/DAB+ portable receiver just to see what Europe was doing with digital radio. I bought a recently introduced Sony XDR-S41D DAB/DAB+/FM(with RDS) receiver for 79€ (about 11€ off list price).

I can use it in North America to listen to FM and take it with me when I visit Europe for DAB/DAB+ as well as FM.

It has reasonable sound from its 8-cm speaker and pretty good stereo sound on headphones. It has an automatic search mode on both DAB/DAB+ and FM and creates a list of available stations.

In my hotel room in the 13th arrondisement, I could receive 46 DAB+ stations. One of the stations is World Radio Paris (WRP) and they provide English language programming 24 hours per day from BBC World Service, Public Radio International, Radio France International, and Radio Canada International, among others as well as their own programming.

Another available station was Medi 1, which just dropped its shortwave transmissions. I recorded some of the WRP programming:

Audio Clip 1 (MP3)

Audio Clip 2 (MP3)

There is no line output from the receiver but I was able to use the earphone output and crank the volume to maximum to get an acceptable recording level without noticeable distortion.

Happy with my purchase and can’t wait to go back to Europe again, say to England, to try out DAB+ there.

I also spotted three receivers with SW capability on the shelves at the Darty store:

  • Panasonic RF-3500 for 45€
  • Brandt BR200D for 45€
  • Brandt BR120A for 15€

You don’t see SW receivers in North American consumer electronics stores anymore and I’ve not spotted any in airport duty free stores lately either.

I’ve been listening to the XDR-S41D at home and it sounds pretty good on FM, too, and does a good job of displaying the RDS information although a character or two is sometimes cut off the end of the data but that could be the fault of the station. Need to investigate that some more.

By the way, the radio doesn’t come with a case but I found (just before I was going to toss it) that it just fits in the magnetic-clasp case of one of those Air Canada amenities kits that they give you in business class (see photo below).

That’s the second Air Canada item I have recycled. They used to use full-ear headphones with disposable foam covers. They were a perfect fit for the deteriorating covers on my old Sony noise-cancelling headphones. I’ve since upgraded to Bose. 😉

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Richard! The Sony XDR-S41D sounds like a keeper for sure and is certainly compact enough to easily accompany you on travels to Europe. I was not aware of World Radio Paris either–I see they’re available via TuneIn, so I’ll add them to my WiFi radio station favorites!

Soviet Era Radio: Dennis reviews the Shoroh R-326 receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dennis Kalinichenko, who shares the following review:

The Shoroh R-326 military radio

by Dennis Kalinichenko

I believe the piece of Soviet military equipment I recently bought to my collection would be interesting to all readers and contributors.

This is the R-326 “Shoroh” (“Rustle”) general coverage military tube shortwave radio receiver. These were produced decades ago, back in 1963. These portable receivers were in active military use in the Soviet Army until the early 2000s, when the R-326 was finally discontinued . Today, this set is no more a spy secret, but a great collector’s item and also a good receiver for home use.

My set cost me about $150 US, which is rather expensive for this radio. The R-326 was plentiful in the local market in 90-s, right after the fall of the Soviet Union, very cheap and popular between radio amateurs, but nowadays this radio has become more and more rare, so the price rises up.

My R-326 arrived from Khabarovsk city, the Russian Far East, where, I believe, for many years it was on duty in some of the Soviet radio intelligence and defense forces division.
The set includes the radio itself, original military 100 ohm headphones, original rectifier box for 2,5 V output, 12 meter long wire antenna on a reel, the 1,5 meter famous “Kulikov” mini-whip antenna, the isolator for placing it on top of the radio and some minor accessories.

Originally, the R-326 radio came with two batteries–1,25 V each–for field use, but mine are totally drained and need to be serviced, so I haven’t used them so far.

The radio is a light-weight, only 33 lbs, which is a real minimum for Soviet military equipment–the famous R-250 radio’s weight is up to 220 lbs–so, in comparison, this unit is really portable. You can easily put it in your car using the attached leather handle and take it with you on a weekend trip. No other military radio can be so “travel-friendly”; this is one of the reasons it was so popular in the ham radio and SWL communities.

The case is made out of steel and looks so solid you may want to use it as a nutcracker. And you can! In no way could you harm the box constructed to resist nuclear attacks. It is waterproof and sealed–so I can be confident that no previous owner has ever tried to solder something in the guts.

The radio is a super heterodyne containing 19 (!) special mini tubes and covering 6 SW bands, from 1 to 20 MHz. It works in both AM and SSB (CW) modes, having an on-board adjustable bandwidth control from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.

On the front panel, there are two scales: one is rough/coarse, and above is the precise one, a so-called photoscale, which may be adjusted to match real radio-frequency using the four screws near the sun protection visor. With this scale, you don’t actually need a digital readout. It also has a BFO control with a zero setting, adjustable AGC levels for AM and CW, and adjusting screw for matching the antenna input, as marked for 12 m long wire, 1,5 m and 4 m whip.

The radio has no built-in speaker. Instead, there are two output sockets on the front panel, for 100 ohm headphones and 600 ohm line-out.

The power consumption is very low for s tube radio, the rig needs only 1,4 A at 2.5 volts DC (including the lightscale). I use the original power transformer (transistor rectifier) and therefore switch the unit into the 220 AC outlet.

The sensitivity of the radio is extremely high and equals some modern transceivers. The selectivity is also impressive. No doubt it was really great for 1960s. But there’s negative side as well: the radio easily overloads even from the outdoor long wire antennas. The best fit is the “Kulikov” mini-whip that you can see in the photos.

When you switch on the radio, you hear noise, the level of which seems high, so you lower the volume down. Yes, the radio is sensitive and a bit noisy. But thanks to the tubes it sounds really amazing in the headphones. The SSB ham operator’s voice is warm and very clear.
The tuning is very smooth, being actually 2-speed: outer wheel is for fast tuning, inner wheel for precise tune.

It’s absolutely obvious that nowadays a simple Degen or Tecsun may be more useful than this old and heavy unit with big and tough knobs and switches. But what a pleasure sitting in front of this perfect tube radio at night, with the headphones on, turning the huge tuning wheels, looking into the moving dim scale, listening into distant voices and rustles, feeling yourself a Cold War times operator near the rig.

Isn’t this experience priceless?

Indeed the experience is priceless, Dennis! Better yet, your R-326 now has an owner that will keep it in working order and enjoy it on a regular basis. I personally believe keeping these vintage rigs on the air is one way to preserve, and experience first hand, a little of our collective radio history.

Thank you so much for sharing your review and excellent photos of the R-326!

Post readers: If, like Dennis, you have a vintage radio you would like to showcase/review here on the SWLing Post, please consider submitting your story and photos. Being a huge fan of vintage radio, I truly enjoy reading through and publishing your reviews.  I know many other readers feel the same!

A review of the Icom IC-7300 direct RF sampling transceiver

Icom-IC-7300-Front

In August 2015 at the Tokyo Hamfair, Icom debuted a new type of transceiver in their product line––one featuring a direct RF sampling receiver. Essentially, it was an SDR tabletop transceiver.

At about the same time that the IC-7300 started shipping around the world, Icom pulled their venerable IC-7200 off the market. Yet the IC-7200 was established as a well-loved product, due to its highly sensitive receiver, its relatively robust front end, and its quality audio. Moreover, it was simple to operate, which made superb as a Field Day or radio club rig.

Therefore, even though the IC-7300 promised much more versatility than the IC-7200, for its price point it had a tough act to follow.

So, of course––even more so than with any other radio Icom has introduced in the past few years––I was eager to get my hands on a IC-7300.  I’m very fortunate that my good friend, Dave Anderson (K4SV) was one of the first purchasers of the IC-7300, and that he didn’t mind (after only having the rig perhaps one week!) allowing me to borrow it for a several weeks for evaluation.

Note:  I should state here that since this rig was loaned to me, I evaluated it based on the firmware version it shipped with, and made no modifications to it.

Icom-IC-7300-FrontThis review primarily focuses on the receiver’s performance, functionality and usability.

Introducing the Icom IC-7300

In recent years, the “big three” ham radio manufacturers have been using color displays, and––Icom most especially––touch screens. While I’m no fan of backlit touch screens in mobile applications, I  think touch screen displays make a lot of sense in a base radio. If carefully designed, a touch screen can save an operator from heavily-buried menus and decrease the number of multi-function buttons on the front panel.

The challenge, of course, is making a display with intuitive controls, and one that is large enough, and with sufficient resolution, to be useful to the operator. In the past, I’ve been disappointed by many displays; the most successful have been incorporated in DX/Contest-class (i.e., pricier) transceivers, meanwhile, entry-level and mid-priced transceiver displays often seem half-baked. While the graphics may be crisp, spectrum displays at this price point are often too compressed to be useful, and if not a touch display, force the user to pause operation in order to find the correct knob or button to change settings. In such cases, I find myself wondering why the manufacturer went to the expense of a color display at all––?

Icom-IC-7300-Display

But what about the C-7300 display?  I’m thoroughly pleased to report that Icom did a fantastic job of balancing utility and function in design of the IC-7300’s color touch display and front panel. There are  number of ways you can chose to display and arrange elements on the screen–since I’m an SDR fan, I typically chose a display setting which gave the waterfall the most real estate. Of course, one can chose to give the frequency display priority or a number of other arrangements.

User interface

I can tell that Icom built upon their experience with the IC-7100––their first entry-level touch screen display transceiver.

I was able to get the IC-7300 on the air in very little time. Within five minutes of turning on the IC-7300, I was able to:

  • change the display to feature a spectrum waterfall;
  • change the span of the waterfall display;
  • adjust the TX power output;
  • change the filters selection and the transmit mode;
  • change bands and make direct-frequency entries;
  • adjust notch, passband, and filter width;
  • adjust AF and RF gain;
  • set A/B VFOs and operate split;
  • change AGC settings;
  • turn on Noise Reduction/Noise Blanker, and
  • adjust compression.

Basically, I found that all the essential functions are clearly laid out, accessible, and highly functional.  Impressive.

The IC-7300 ships with a manual–– aptly titled, the “Basic” manual––and a CD with the full and unabridged operations manual.  The Basic Manual covers a great deal a lot more than the manual which accompanied the Icom ID-51a. If you read through the manual, you’ll readily familiarize yourself with most of the IC-7300’s higher function operations, and especially, you’ll be able to adjust the settings to your operation style. The Manual is written in simple language, and includes a lot of diagrams and graphics.

If you’re like me, you will find you’ll also need to reference that unabridged manual, so hang on to the CD, too.

Still, I imagine there’s a large percentage of future IC-7300 owners that will never need to reference the manual––especially if they don’t care about tweaking band edges or similar settings. Yes, believe it or not, it’s that easy to use.

Operation

Icom-IC-7300-Function-Buttons

While I spent a great deal of time listening to CW and SSB in various band conditions and at various times of day, I spent less time on the air transmitting.

With that said, all of my transmitting time was in CW since the IC-7300 mic was accidentally left out when my friend loaned me the rig.

I’m please to report that CW operation is quite pleasant. All of the adjustments––RF Power, Key Speed, and CW Pitch––can be quickly modified using the multi-function knob. While in CW mode, you can also toggle full break-in mode, which is quite smooth, via the function button and touch screen.

SSB functions are similar. While in  SSB mode, the multi-function knob allows you to change the tx power, mic gain, and monitor level. The function button opens an on-screen menu with VOX, compression, TBW, and the monitor toggle.

Here’s a short video I made with my phone while I made a few adjustments to the IC-7300:

Of course, my smartphones’s microphone can’t accurately reproduce the audio from the IC-7300, but you probably get the idea.

The only annoyance I noted––and perhaps I’m more sensitive to this, being primarily a QRPer––is that the 7300’s cooling fan starts up each time you key up. It even comes on when transmit power is at its lowest setting. I find this a little distracting in CW.  Fortunately, however, the 7300’s fan is fairly quiet and operates smoothly.

Receiver performance and reader survey results

Since our radio comparison shoot-outs have been particularly popular (and useful; check out our shoot-out between top portables, and ultra-compact radios, and others), I decided it would make sense to invite our informed readership to evaluate the Icom IC-7300’s performance in a series of blind, informal tests. (For information about these surveys, please read the first survey.)

Below, I’ve matched the labels (Radio A/Radio B) with the radio models.  I’ve also included pie charts which show the results from the survey.

Icom IC-7300 vs. WinRadio Excalibur

Weak Signal CW (40 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur: Radio B

CW

Based on listener comments, those of you who preferred the ‘7300 did so because the CW was more interpretable and stable.

Some of you noted that I didn’t quite have CW at the same pitch on both rigs. I believe this is because the IC-7300’s calibration was ever so slightly off. This has since been addressed.

Weak/Strong SSB QSO (40 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur – Radio B

SSB

This result was almost tied. The Excalibur’s audio––without any adjustments––has a fuller and “bassier” sound. The ‘7300 can be adjusted to have similar characteristics, but the default EQ settings produce very flat audio. Many of you commented that the IC-7300 more faithfully produced audio optimized for SSB.


Shortwave Broadcast recordings

The following recordings were made on the 31 meter broadcast band in the evening. Both radios had the same filter width: 9 kHz and 8.2 kHz.

Weak Shortwave AM (Radio Bandeirantes 31 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur – Radio B

Weak-SW-AM

There was a noticeable preference for the WinRadio Excalibur in this particular audio set. Even though the Excalibur’s audio splattered a bit, the content was more interpretable. The IC-7300’s audio sounded flat in comparison––again, something that can be adjusted quite easily in the ‘7300’s audio settings.

Strong Shortwave AM (Radio Romania International, French 31 Meter Band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A 

WinRadio Excalibur: Radio B

Strong-SW-AM

Once again, the Excalibur won favor, but I imagine results would have been closer had I adjusted the ‘7300’s audio EQ.


Mediumwave Broadcast recordings

Note that the following mediumwave recordings were made during the morning hours (grayline). The strong station is the closest AM broadcaster to my home; it’s not a blow-torch “Class A” type station, merely the closest local broadcaster.

In the “weak” sample, I tuned to 630 kHz where multiple broadcasters could be heard on frequency, but one was dominant.

Both radios are set to a filter width of 9.0 kHz.

Strong Mediumwave AM (1010 kHz)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur: Radio B

Strong-MW-AM

Two out of three listeners preferred the Excalibur in this example.

Weak Mediumwave AM (630 kHz)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur – Radio B

Weak-MW-AM

In this particular example, the IC-7300 could not pull the strongest broadcaster out of the pile as well as the WinRadio Excalibur. In fairness, the Excalibur was using AM sync detection, something the IC-7300 lacks.

Icom IC-7300 vs. Elecraft KX3

IMG_20160424_105444629

I also decided to pit the IC-7300 against my well-loved Elecraft KX3.


Audio Clip 1: CW (20 meter band)

Elecraft KX3: Radio A

Icom IC-7300: Radio B

Elecraft - CW

Based on comments, readers who preferred the IC-7300 felt the CW sounded more pleasant and stable.


Audio Clip 2: Weak Signal CW (20 meter band)

Elecraft KX3: Radio A

Icom IC-7300: Rado B

Elecraft - WeakCW

Your comments indicated that the CW seemed to “pop out” of the noise slightly better with the IC-7300.


Audio Clip 3: Weak/Strong SSB
(Sable Island working Asia/Pacific on 20 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

Elecraft KX3: Radio B

Elecraft SSB

These results were spilt in the middle. Again, I believe this comes down to personal preference in the audio. And again––in both radios––the audio EQ can be adjusted to suit the operator.


Receiver performance summary

I enjoy producing audio clips for readers to compare and comment upon. Each time I’ve done so in the past, I’ve had listeners argue the virtues of a particular audio clip while others have the complete opposite reaction to that same clip. Not all of us prefer our audio served up in the same way. No doubt, there’s a great deal of subjectivity in this sort of test.

I’ve had the IC-7300 on the air every day since I took possession of it. I’ve listened to SSB, CW, and lots of AM/SW broadcasters.

And here’s my summary: the IC-7300 is an excellent receiver. It has a low noise floor, superb sensitivity and excellent selectivity. I even slightly prefer its audio to that of my Elecraft KX3, and I’m a huge fan of the little KX3.

I’ve written before about how difficult it is to compare SDRs; the problem is that there are so many ways to tweak your audio, filters, AGC, noise reduction, etc. that it’s hard to compare apples with apples.

In the audio samples above, the IC-7300 and WinRadio Excalibur were both set to their default audio settings. In SSB and CW, the IC-7300 excels, in my opinion. CW seems to pop out of the noise better and SSB is more pleasant and interpretable. The Excalibur has a better audio profile for AM broadcasters, though. Its default audio simply sounds fuller–more robust.

The audio from the IC-7300 on AM sounded absolutely flat. However, if I tweak the audio of the ‘7300, adding more bass, it instantly sounds more like a dedicated tabletop receiver.

Here’s a recent example of Radio Romania International:

I should also mention that while the IC-7300’s built-in digital recording is a fantastic and effective feature, it doesn’t produce audio true to what’s heard through headphones live. This is especially the case when you add more bass and treble response as in the RRI example above. When the audio EQ is set to a default flat, it’s quite accurate.

To be clear:  for broadcast listening, I’ll still reach for my SDRs (the Excalibur, FDM-S2, TitanSDR and CR-1a).

If, however, I have limited space and/or budget for multiple receivers, I’d be quite happy using the IC-7300 as a broadcast receiver on the HF bands.

Speaking from the Shortwave Radio Listener (SWL) perspective, meanwhile, am I pleased with how the ‘7300 handles the broadcast bands?  Most definitely.

And as a ham radio operator, am I pleased with the IC-7300’s receiver––?  Absolutely.

In short:  the IC-7300 seems to have some of the best all-around receiver qualities of any transceiver I know under $2,000.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes of my initial impressions. Here’s my list for the IC-7300:

Pros

  • Excellent sensitivity and selectivity
  • Excellent, highly-customizable RX and TX audio
  • Color touch screen interface
    • Spectrum display is large enough to be useful
    • Intuitive functions
  • Twin PBT is both intuitive to operate and effective
  • Effective RF gain to compensate for noisy band conditions
  • Built-in RX and TX recording, file transfers via common SD card
  • Front panel knobs and buttons are spaced appropriately and easy to use
  • Quiet cooling fan (see con)
  • Decodes RTTY on screen
  • Built-in ATU
  • Antenna analyzer function (not tested)

Cons

  • Lacks secondary receive antenna jack on rear panel
  • Cooling fan immediately starts up on CW/SSB transmit at any power setting (see pro regarding fan noise)
  • Occasionally you may get lost in deeper customized functions
  • Supplied printed basic owner’s manual, while well-written, doesn’t fully cover the IC-7300s functions and options; you must explore the digital owner’s manual in supplied CD.

Conclusion

In a nutshell: Icom has hit a home run with the IC-7300.  If I didn’t already have an Elecraft KX3 and K2, I would buy the IC-7300 without hesitation.

Though the price point is a little high for an “entry level transceiver,” it’s worth every penny, in my opinion. For $1500 US, you get a fantastic general-coverage transceiver with an intuitive interface, nearly every function you can imagine, and performance that would please even a seasoned DXer.

Though I haven’t done and A/B comparison with the IC-7200, I imagine the IC-7300 would prevail in a test. The IC-7300 would certainly wipe the floor with it’s more economical brother, the IC-718.

Radio clubs, take note:

In my view, the IC-7300 has the makings of an excellent radio club rig in which performance, functionality, as well as ease of use are important. I expect that the IC-7300 will not only cope very well with crowded and crazy Field Day conditions, but it will also give any newcomers to the hobby a little experience with a proper modern transceiver. The fact that you can view signals so easily on the spectrum display means that it will be easier to chase contacts and monitor bands as they open and close. Indeed, what better way to mentor a newly-minted ham in modes, contacts, carriers, QRN, QRM, and so forth, than to simply point these out on the IC-7300’s bright, clear display––?

If your club is considering a transceiver upgrade or purchase, do seriously consider the IC-7300. I think you’ll find this rig is up to the task.

And for home? The Icom IC-7300 may be all of the rig you’ll ever need.

Update: Sangean ATS-405 review

Sangean-ATS-405After publishing my initial review of the Sangean ATS-405 on July 25, I contacted Sangean and requested a sample radio for comparison purposes. Back story:  there were some receiver performance issues that I suspected may have been tied to my particular ATS-405 unit. Sangean kindly dispatched another ATS-405 which I received last week. The following is an update to my initial ATS-405 review.

In truth, there were two main reasons I wanted another unit to compare to my initial review radio:

  1. I wanted to see if the new unit showed improved performance–sensitivity, selectivity, and, specifically, noise floor–in comparison with the first review unit tested
  2. I noted strong DSP “birdies” (noises) on 800 and 1600 kHz on the test model, while several of our readers commented that their ‘405s did not feature birdies

Shortwave sensitivity/selectivity and noise

I noted in my initial review that the initial ATS-405 had an ever-present noise, a sort of low-volume static hiss. The noise floor, while not high, certainly seemed to be higher than other comparable shortwave portables, and was most noticeable when tuned to marginal/weak stations. I suspect many listeners may not notice it unless they compare it with other portables.

ATS-405-9580kHz

Fortunately, my new review unit’s noise floor seems to be slightly lower than that of my initial review unit. [Perhaps this unit’s board is better soldered–?] The noise is still there, but can be better mitigated by judiciously using narrow filters and the three-position audio tone control.

I suspect this is a noise somewhere in the audio amplification chain, because I find it less noticeable with headphones, and more pronounced via the ATS-405’s internal speaker.

In terms of sensitivity and selectivity on the shortwave bands, I believe my new unit is identical to that of the initial review unit. That is to say, the ATS-405 is not an especially  sensitive shortwave receiver, but fairly average, and thus will fit the bill for most but not for the discriminating weak-signal hunter.  Frankly, even my $46 Tecsun PL-310ET does a better job of pulling in weak stations.

I’ve tried tinkering with the AGC settings and soft mute–very cool features!–in an attempt to improve sensitivity, but alas, these only help the quality and stability of the received signal.

Birdies

Immediately after opening the box of the new ATS-405 sample, I popped in a fresh set of AA batteries and tuned the Sangean to 1600 kHz AM. [If you read my initial review, I noted a strong DSP birdie on 1600 and (to a lesser degree) on 800 kHz].

At first listen, I was happy to note that the new unit lacks the wild DSP noise that overwhelmed my favorite local station on 1600 kHz.

As I listened more carefully, though, I did note a metronomic “chick” sound that was also present but partially buried in the noise on my initial ATS-405.

ATS-405-1600kHz

Below, I’ve embedded audio comparing the two receivers:

Initial review unit:

New review unit:

Listening to these samples, I realize I may have had the filter set to the middle position on the first sample and the wide setting on the second (hence, the brighter tone).

To further demonstrate the difference between the two, I made this short video; I start with my initial review unit, then switch to the new review unit provided by Sangean:

Note that this was recorded at least 100 feet from my house on the tailgate of my pickup truck. DSP birdies on 800 kHz sounded very much like the 1600 kHz sample, save the noise level on the latter is slightly lower and there are no broadcast stations in the background.

None of my other portables have digital noises or birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz.

So, the bad news:  I do still hear a noticeable (and slightly annoying) internally-generated noise on the new review unit. The good news: it isn’t as objectionable as that on my initial review unit.

Summary

In short: I stand by my initial review of the Sangean ATS-405.

While the new ‘405 review sample seems to perform better than the initial ‘405 sample, I find the discrepancy somewhat marginal, especially since I spend the bulk of my time on the shortwave and mediumwave bands.

I’m not a fan of production runs where units vary so greatly from one to another, making accurate testing difficult. Therefore it’s quite possible you might receive a unit that performs better than those I tested…but unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

So, if you’re a Sangean fan, if you don’t mind the birdies on mediumwave, and if you mostly listen to strong shortwave stations, you may entertain purchasing an ATS-405. The keypad layout is almost identical to previous Sangean models.

To be clear, of course, this radio’s negatives above have been viewed under a microscope; the ATS-405 is not a “bad” receiver, it’s just not that exceptional. Other than the added mute/AGC/squelch features, when compared to its predecessors, it’s really not a better iteration.

In conclusion?  For the $90 US price, I believe there are better receivers out there–such as the Tecsun PL-600 (which, as a bonus, has USB/LSB reception–and saves you $10, to boot).

Initial review of the Sangean ATS-405

Sangean-ATS-405-Box

Just last week, I received the new Sangean ATS-405 on loan from Universal Radio. Though I’ve only had the radio for a week, I thought I’d share a few un-boxing photos (by request) and my initial impressions/review of this radio.

Unboxing

Sangean-ATS-405-OpenBoxThe ATS-405 comes with a thick owner’s manual (in five languages), a 7.5 volt AC adapter, and a soft radio case. The package does not contain rechargeable batteries nor a clip-on wire antenna (like many Tecsun products do, for example).

Sangean-ATS-405-OpenBox-2

Overall, the packaging accommodates the radio and accessories efficiently and would probably ship safely even if the carrier doesn’t handle it with particular care.

Sangean-ATS-405-OpenBox-3The first thing I noticed about the ATS-405 is the near-identical design and layout Sangean has used in their design of past shortwave radios. If you’re a Sangean fan, you’ll find all of the functions, buttons, and labels pretty much in the same place; virtually no learning curve.

Performance: first impressions

Sangean-ATS-405

After unboxing the ATS-405, I installed a fresh set of AA batteries in it and turned on the radio…

Display

Like most Sangeans, the display is crisp, clear and can easily be read straight-on or at low angles, like when the radio is resting on its back stand, for example. If you look at the display from a higher angle, however, you’ll find that the LCD digits nearly disappear.

Sangean-ATS-405-Display

Back-lighting is perfect: it’s soft and consistent across the display, very much like the ATS-909X.

Audio

Audio from the internal speaker is good. It’s in the same league with most similarly-priced competitors.

Receiver performance

Keeping in mind that I’ve only logged a few days of listening time on the ATS-405, I do have some initial impressions about receiver performance across the bands:

Sangean-ATS-405-RightSide

Right side view (click to enlarge)

FM

On a positive note, I believe FM performance is quite good. Perhaps not in the same league with my PL-660 or PL-680, but still the Sangean offers above-average sensitivity. I was able to pick up my distant benchmark FM stations with ease, though to help with the signal lock, I had to switch from stereo to mono reception.

AM/Mediumwave

AM reception is a bit of a mixed bag. I find that the ‘405’s overall sensitivity and selectivity are quite good for broadcast band listening.

When I first tuned around on the AM broadcast band, however, I found the noise floor a little too high. Regardless of whether I was tuned in to a station or not, there was an ever-present high-pitched hiss, like static. It was quite disappointing, especially since I read a review by Jay Allen that really complimented the AM performance on the ATS-405.

I trust Jay’s reviews, however, so I promptly contacted him. Jay pointed out that the problem may be that I was listening in the default “wide” filter setting on AM. And indeed, he was right–though I had changed filter settings a few times while tuned to local stations, I had moved it back to wide and didn’t make note of this. (The ATS-405, by the way, has three filter settings: wide, medium and narrow.)

Sangean-ATS-405-LeftSide

Left side view (click to enlarge)

But the wide setting is really too wide, and was certainly the source for the bulk of the high-pitched hiss I heard. The best filter setting for most broadcast band listening is the middle position, which sounds like a 5-6 kHz filter. In the middle position, noise is decreased significantly. I also believe selecting the “music” audio tone setting helps dissipate some of the noise.

Regarding the noise floor: to be clear, I still feel like the noise level is slightly more noticeable, to my ear, on the ATS-405 than on the PL-660, PL-600, and PL-310ET when band-scanning or weak signal listening. This is most likely some internally-generated noise that somehow still meets Sangean’s engineering spec.

Local AM stations sound fantastic, and the ATS-405 can detect all of my benchmarks. AM audio fidelity is better than that of my PL-660 and, even, PL-310ET. When locked on a local station, the noise floor also seems to disappear. For some reason, I even find that the ATS-405 does a better job receiving local AM stations from indoors–even near noisy electronics–than other sub-$100 portables with which I’m familiar.

Uh-oh, birdies

The most disappointing discovery I made on the Sangean’s AM broadcast band is that it has DSP birdies. Birdies are internally-generated noises resulting from the outputs of the oscillators that form part of the DSP receiver circuit. While almost all receivers do have birdies somewhere in the receiver’s reception range, radio engineers try to keep them out of the way of the important parts of the band.

Unfortunately, my ATS-405 has strong DSP birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz. This is a big negative for me, since my favorite regional AM broadcast station is located on 1600 kHz (WTZQ). Rather than attempting to describe what the birdies sound like, here are a few audio clips that will give you an idea–I start with 1350 AM, which has no birdies and is representative of good AM reception:

WZGM 1350 kHz (broadcast sample with no birdie):

800 kHz (birdie on frequency with no broadcast signal):

WTZQ 1600 kHz (birdie on broadcast signal):

The ATS-405’s birdies almost sound like a jamming signal on 1600 kHz.  Indeed, if this station were only located on a different frequency, I’m sure it would be quite audible on this radio…too bad.

Birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz may very well be deal-breakers for many of us. Again, since one of my favorite regional independent broadcasters is on 1600 kHz, it’s a deal-breaker for me.

Jay specifically mentioned a lack of birdies on the AM broadcast band in his review. It could very well be that he doesn’t hear them on his particular receiver–variations in quality control on a radio production line are certainly a real phenomena (the Grundig G3 is a case in point). This could indicate that some units may have pronounced birdies while others don’t. If you purchase an ATS-405, I would check to see if your unit has birdies after powering it up.

When I contacted an engineer for Sangean North America, and described my listening experience, he confirmed that he believed these are, indeed, DSP birdies. I may ask Sangean if they can send another ATS-405 for comparison.

On a more positive note, I checked harmonics in the HF/shortwave bands and heard no DSP birdies there.

Country of origin?

Sangean-ATS-405--BottomView

Bottom view with charge and keylock mechanical switches (click to enlarge)

One additional question I posed to Sangean: where is the ATS-405 made? One reader told me the radios are produced in both Taiwan and China. Thinking variations in quality control may be accounted for by two different production lines, I checked my radio to see where it was made. Unfortunately, my unit has no mention of country of origin; not on the radio, the box, the manual, behind the battery cover, nor on the back stand. It’s possible it could be marked internally, but I didn’t want to take apart a receiver I’ve been loaned.

Sangean came back with a firm answer:

“I can confirm that the ATS-405, along with all our radios, are manufactured in China. We have an office in Taipei for engineering, sales, marketing and customer support.”

Not a big surprise here; I expected China was the country of origin.

To sum up AM performance: if you aren’t bothered by the birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz, or if your unit isn’t producing them, you’ll find the ATS-405 a capable little AM broadcast band receiver.

Shortwave

Our HF propagation conditions since last Friday (when I first turned on the ATS-405) have been poor. Other than a few short band openings, I’ve struggled to hear anything other than the normal blow-torch broadcasters we hear in North America. Still, bad propagation conditions are actually good for reviewing some aspects of a shortwave receiver, so I used the opportunity.

In terms of sensitivity on the shortwave bands, I think the ATS-405 is mediocre. It lags behind my Tecsun PL-660, PL-600, PL-310ET, and CC Skywave. Adding a clip-on wire antenna to the telescoping whip (there is no aux antenna port) does help in terms of sensitivity.

Since I do most of my listening on the shortwave bands, this, too, is a deal-breaker for me. If you primarily listen to stronger shortwave stations, or spend most of your time on the FM/AM bands, then you might still consider the ATS-405.

The ATS-405’s selectivity seems to be on par with my other DSP-based portables. In truth, though, band conditions have been so unfavorable, I don’t feel like I’ve had ample opportunity to test selectivity. I’ll likely follow up this initial review with an update.

And as on medium wave, the noise floor on the shortwave bands seems a little high to me–especially with the filter set to the “wide” position.

Cool, innovative features

While I clearly haven’t been wowed by the ATS-405’s shortwave performance, I have been more favorably impressed with some of its innovative features: specifically, the ability to control squelch, tuning mute, and soft mute.

Sangean-ATS-405-KeypadUsing the menu button (see image above), you can engage or disengage the tuning mute and soft mute by pressing the “2” or “3” buttons on the keypad, then using the tuning up/down buttons to toggle these features on and off. Squelch works the same way, using the “1” button and volume control to set the threshold.

This menu control works regardless whether the radio is turned on or off.

Of course, by using the menu button and the keypad, you can also control the ‘405’s tuning steps, AGC, clock, and backlighting functionality; each of these are marked in green next to the appropriate button on the keypad (see image above), a very useful feature.

I wish other radio manufacturers would give users the ability to control some of the DSP chip’s built-in functionality, as the ‘405 does with the muting–especially since over-active soft muting has been the downfall of several DSP-based radios. Thanks for trail-blazing, Sangean!

Summary

Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here is a list of my notes from the moment I put the ATS-405 on the air:

Pros:

  • Improved features and controls:
    • Soft Mute
    • Tuning Mute
    • Squelch
    • AGC
  • Crisp, clear display
  • Good travel size, similar to the Grundig YB400
  • Good AM/mediumwave sensitivity
  • Three audio/tone settings: Music, Norm, and News
  • Good FM sensitivity
  • Dedicated mechanical switches for keylock, audio tone, FM stereo/mono, and charging.

Cons:

  • Lackluster shortwave sensitivity
  • DSP Birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz
  • Higher SW/AM noise floor (especially in wide filter setting)
  • No tuning wheel
  • No AUX antenna port
  • No shortwave SSB reception (AM only)
  • No audio line-out port

I’m going to hold onto the Sangean ATS-405 for a few more weeks, as I’d like to give it a more thorough test on the shortwave bands. I hope to follow up with a post offering a few representative recordings.

Sangean-ATS-405

My nutshell opinion of the ATS-405 so far is that it’s a decent little radio with a lot of functionality and features for a rig in its price class. But overall, its performance seems to me rather mediocre. If you primarily listen to FM, you’ll be pleased. If you’re a mediumwave listener, you’ll be pleased only if you don’t mind the 800/1600 kHz DSP birdies. If you’re primarily a shortwave listener, you’ll need to carry a clip-on wire antenna to bring the sensitivity up to the level of similarly-priced receivers.

In short, I do want to like this radio unreservedly. But it appears that Sangean may need to pull up its socks on their quality control.  Readers: please comment if you’ve purchased the ATS-405–I’m very curious to learn whether there are QC discrepancies in performance from one unit to the next.

PLEASE NOTE: After publishing this following review, Sangean kindly agreed to dispatch a second unit for comparison. 

Click here to read my update to this ATS-405 review.

Follow the tag ATS-405 for updates.

Sangean ATS-405 Retailers:

Many thanks to Universal Radio for supplying this radio, on loan, for review!