Mega Review: the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, Sangean ATS-909X, and Sony ICF-SW7600GR go head-to-head

This article, which extensively reviews–and compares–the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, the Sangean ATS-909X, and the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor Magazine. Without a doubt, it’s my longest and most comprehensive review to date.


AllFourRadios

Summer:  time for travel–and for portable shortwave DXing. As I mentioned in the March TSM issue, I love combining travel with shortwave radio listening. But what radio should I pack?

This time of year, on the SWLing Post, I receive an increase in the number of queries asking some variation of the following, “What is the best, full-featured, portable shortwave radio on the market?” Oftentime it’s an upcoming trip, or just some time off work, that prompts the question, but without a doubt, this is the most-often-asked question from my readers. Typically, the reader has several models in mind and is curious how they compare. And since a good portable radio costs between $100 – $230 US, it’s not an impulse purchase decision for most of us.

In this month’s column, I hope to answer this question as thoroughly as possible so you can make an informed purchase decision that’s right for you. All four radios I mention in this article are what I would call “flagship portables” (generally, these are the best portables from any particular manufacturer). These were recently featured in a highly-energized reader survey on the SWLing Post, and are as follows: the Tecsun PL-660, the Tecsun PL-880, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, and the Sangean ATS-909X.

AllFourRadiosInLine

The price tags for these radios fluctuate, but all are generally available between $100-$230 US, and are actively in production right now.

Moreover, all these radios have a similar form factor: they are portable enough to be operated handheld, sport a direct-frequency entry keypad, a dedicated external antenna jack, and a generous backlit display. All of them also have SSB, and all but one have selectable sideband synchronous detection.

The competitors

With the exception of the Sangean ATS-909X–on loan from a friend for the purposes of this review–I have easily spent 40+ hours of listening time with each of these radios. I know their individual characteristics quite well and have used them in a variety of situations.

In case you’re not familiar with each of the contenders, a brief summary of each radio follows with an overview of the features that make it unique.

Sangean ATS-909X

ATS-909X

If there was an award for the best-looking radio, I think the ATS-909X would win. The 909X designers put a great deal of thought behind the design and ergonomics of the 909X; for instance, there are two indentations on the back of the radio which allow it to fit nicely in your hands.  The 909X sports an internal speaker that produces excellent audio fidelity with a crisp response and even some distinct bass notes, especially notable if listening to an FM station. Of all of the radios listed here, the 909X has the the best variable receiver gain, tone control, largest display, and is the only radio with RDS (Radio Data System).

909X-Grip

While I like the position of the tuning wheel on the front of the radio, which is ideal for tuning with your thumb and reminiscent of the ICF-SW55, I don’t like the indents you feel as you tune. If you’re a listener that takes advantage of radio memory, the ATS-909X has a very appealing feature: alpha-numeric memory tags. When you store a Radio Australia frequency to memory, your 909X can display the full station name in large, easy-to-read characters.

909Xdisplay

There is one omission from the 909X, though, that I find a bit surprising: it has no synchronous detection. While I don’t use a sync detector all of the time, it does come in handy when fading (QSB) and adjacent signal interference (if the sideband is selectable) are present.  For a radio that costs over $210 US, on average–the priciest on this list, by a long shot–I feel like sync should have been a given.

Sony ICF-SW7600GR

Sony7600GR

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR comes from a series of “7600” portables that date back to 1977. Though the ’7600GR has all of the modern features one would expect for a radio in its price class, it’s a bare-bones receiver in this particular crowd. It lacks the advance memory functions of the PL-880, PL-660 and, especially, the 909X. The display is smaller and more basic, although it does provide the most vital information.

I have traveled extensively with the ’7600GR, however, as it has rock-solid, reliable performance; it’s my work horse and go-to radio for field recordings because I find its AGC and sync detector remain among the best in this class of radio. It also has a dedicated, stable line-out jack. Important controls are all accessible, and I can easily engage the key lock without fear of accidentally pressing the wrong button during the recording.

SonyKeypad

My main gripe about the ’7600GR, however, is its lack of a tuning knob and overall poor ergonomics.  My personal preference is to use a tuning knob for band-scanning, as pressing buttons just doesn’t give the same sense of responsiveness.  For casual tuning and band-scanning, I leave the ’7600GR in its case.  Nor is this radio intuitive–indeed, to learn all but the most obvious functions of the ’7600GR, you’ll need to reference the owner’s manual. Audio from the ’7600’s internal speaker is average/unremarkable.

Still, my Sony ’7600GR’s solidity makes it a friend I would never part with.  The real test? If it was ever lost or broken, I would promptly repair or replace this radio.

Tecsun PL-660

PL-660

Though I’m often an early adopter of new shortwave portables, I wasn’t for the Tecsun PL-660. When it came out, I figured it would be redundant, considering the many other portables I own with synchronous detection.

Long story short:  I was wrong.

Having at last acquired the Tecsun PL-660 last year, I now know it’s a pleasure to operate, and feature-rich for its price. The PL-660 is the bargain in this bunch of benchmark rigs, and significantly so: at an average price of $105 US currently, it is easily half the price of the ATS-909X.

The PL-660 is a pleasure to operate, and a true performer.  Its selectable synchronous detector is one of the best in this group of portables: it’s on par with the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. It locks onto a station and rarely loses that lock. Ergonomics are excellent on the PL-660, too–the buttons have a tactile response, are well marked, and all functions are simple to find. The right side-mounted tuning knob has a smooth action.

The Tecsun PL-660 has been on the market since 2011 and has a dedicated following amongst SWLs, many of whom favor it above anything else in its class.

Of course, the PL-660 isn’t perfect, however. It lacks a line-out jack, something I find essential for recording shortwave broadcasts. The audio from the internal speaker is okay, but not on par with the ATS-909X, or its cousin, the PL-880 (below). Still, at $105 US, the PL-660 is truly a steal.

Tecsun PL-880

PL-880 (1)

The Tecsun PL-880 only started shipping in November 2013. It was highly anticipated as the new flagship portable in the Tecsun line. The PL-880 is chock-full of features and without a doubt, is the most complicated portable I’ve ever reviewed.

The PL-880 feels like a quality piece of kit: its buttons have a highly-tactile response, the tuning/volume wheels are silky smooth, and feel well-engineered. Out of the four portables evaluated here, I find the PL-880 the most pleasurable to operate. One of my favorite features is its dedicated fine-tuning knob, just below the main tuning knob on the right side of the radio.

PL-880-RightSide

Unquestionably, the one feature which makes the PL-880 highly desirable is the amazing audio fidelity you’ll enjoy from its built-in speaker: it’s well-balanced, rich, and clear. I almost can’t emphasize this point enough–the PL-880’s speaker is capable of room-filling audio. It’s one of the few radios I’ve ever owned (other than some of my antique tube radios) that encourage listening to shortwave from across the room, with pleasing results.

The PL-880 also sports the most filter options of any other portable on the market. Indeed, in SSB mode, the filter can be narrowed all the way down to 500 hz, making this CW operator, at least, quite contented.

Cons? Yes, the PL-880 has some. First of all, I feel like its current firmware version leaves room for improvement. One of the first things I had to do after receiving my radio was adjust the muting threshold so that it wouldn’t engage. Many of the PL-880’s adjustments are mysteriously hidden, even undocumented in the manual. One such hidden feature is its synchronous detection, which is the least refined in this set of portables: it has difficulty maintaining a stable lock, thus audio is significantly compromised.

[Click here for our comprehensive (and growing) list of PL-880 hidden features.]

Changing settings often results in the radio “thinking” for a second or two, during which time it mutes the receiver. This phenomenon is most pronounced when changing modes (from AM to LSB, for example). I find it rather distracting.

Still, I do like the PL-880. Its audio and overall quality make up for any annoyances. I suspect it will have a long product life and a loyal following over the coming years.

Evaluating performance

AllFour-LeftSideLine

Since I’m listening to the shortwaves 90% of the time I’m listening to a radio, I’ve limited the scope of my assessment here to the shortwave bands. With that said, none of these radios will disappoint you on AM or FM. I did note in my simple home comparison that the Sangean ATS-909X seemed to be the leader on the FM band.  The Tecsuns were perhaps best on the AM (mediumwave) band.

But what about on shortwave? I like using recordings to evaluate shortwave radio performance, typically representative clips that are 25-60 seconds in length. Why? Anytime I have more than two radios to compare, it gets difficult to switch between radios, insuring that I give each one the same opportunity to receive a station. More importantly, with this method, I can listen to the audio clips on my computer, and flip between them quickly to determine characteristics I like in each.

Before recording, I set each radio in the same spot on a table, though I might change the orientation for optimal reception (since this can differ from one radio to another). I then extend the antennas fully and set all of the filters, gain controls, tone, volume levels, and frequencies to the same position on each rig.  This way, my comparison can be on an “apples-to-apples” basis.

Note that I do not use an external antenna in any of these tests. This because I believe, when considering portables, they should be able to function very well off of their built-in antennas–thus taking into account situations in which employing an external antenna is not practical.

So that you have an opportunity to evaluate each radio in a “blind” test, I’ll tag each audio sample with a number, the order of which will not necessarily be consistent in each consecutive test. After the clips, I’ll reveal which is which.

Strong Signals

FourRadiosAbstract2

When I evaluate relatively strong broadcasts I typically listen for the best audio fidelity and signal stability a radio can offer. Unless there’s an adjacent signal (and in this case, there was not), I open the filter as widely as possible.

One of the strongest stations in my part of the world is Radio Havana Cuba–not always the cleanest signal, but always at blowtorch power levels. In this sample clip, I tuned our four radios to RHC.

To be fair, propagation from this station was poor the day of recording, so you’ll hear a little fading that is not normally present. Additionally, you’ll want to listen to the full clip, as a portion of each contains RHC interviews that were recorded by telephone (thus “tinnier” sounding); you’ll also hear the typical RHC transmitter hum:

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

You’ll hear that all of these receivers–with the exception of Sample #3–are nearly identical. Sample #3 is less sensitive than the others, thus more prone to shallow fading and a slightly higher noise level. To my ears, Sample #4 has the best audio quality and receiver characteristics, followed by Sample 2 and Sample 1.

Now let’s reveal the radios behind the samples:

  • Sample #1: the Tecsun PL-660
  • Sample #2: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #3: the Sangean ATS-909X, and
  • Sample #4: the Tecsun PL-880.

Weak signal DX

AllFour-RightSide

I like comparing radios while listening to weak signals and/or when conditions are less favorable. Since I often listen to weak signals (after all, so few broadcasts are actually directed to North America), it’s an important test.

I found a weak signal from Radio Romania International on 11,975 kHz. Normally, the signal would have been much stronger, but propagation was rough and QSB (fading) pronounced at times. Under these conditions, you get the opportunity to hear how the receiver’s AGC circuit handles fading and troughs, how the noise floor sounds as conditions change, and judge the overall sensitivity.

While I give priority to a receiver’s sensitivity and selectivity, there’s obviously more to evaluate here–for example, the more sensitive radio may be less pleasing to the ear.

If you like, jot down what you observe as you listen to each 50 second clip:

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

Obviously, the radio in Sample #4 is significantly less sensitive than the other radios–it truly struggled to hear the RRI signal under these conditions.

The other radios were able to hear RRI. Sample #3 sounded fine when there was no fading present, but in the fading troughs, there was a pronounced high-pitched noise–most likely a DSP-based noise. Sample #1 had pretty solid copy with stable AGC (automatic gain control). Sample #2 was the most sensitive of this bunch.

Now let’s reveal the radios behind the weak signal samples:

  • Sample #1: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #2: the Tecsun PL-660,
  • Sample #3: the Tecsun PL-880, and
  • Sample #4: the Sangean ATS-909X.

In this particular test, I was most impressed with the PL-660’s sensitivity, but given the choice, I would have chosen the Sony ICF-SW7600GR as the best overall. Why?

The Sony produced audio simply more pleasant to my ears due to the stability of the AGC.

Wondering if others would draw a similar conclusion, I posted the same clips above on my blog, the SWLing Post (http://wp.me/pn3uc-2pl).  I doubted whether many readers would take the time to listen, or to vote, in this blind test. Boy, was I wrong–!

I received about seventy responses by email and in the comments section of my post. All but a very few readers ranked the clips in order of preference. The Sony was the clear favorite, with a total of 40 votes as the best of the bunch. The Tecsun PL-660 was second, with a total of 23 votes as the best. No one voted the PL-880 as best. (Click here for full results: http://wp.me/pn3uc-2qH)

What became very clear from the results and the comments, however, was that people who prefer sensitivity, prefered the PL-660. People who preferred stability, preferred the ’7600GR. In a sense, both were “best,” simply depending on the listener’s preference and/or listening requirements.

Weak single-sideband (SSB)

AllFour-LeftSide

To test the SSB performance of these radios, I tuned to W1AW as they worked a pile-up from Puerto Rico. You will hear some fading. For those of you not familiar with SSB listening, you should note that W1AW sounds a little “grainy” in all of these recordings; this is simply the audio processor on W1AW’s transceiver which is set to be most audible and punch through the static.

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

W1AW is barely audible in Sample #1. In Sample #2, audio is well-balanced, with good audio, low noise, and a stable AGC. Sample #3 sounds more narrow (even though its filter, like all, was set to the widest setting), but the audio “pops out” of the static and is very intelligible. Sample #4 sounds much like Sample #2, perhaps slightly more sensitive but with slightly less stable AGC.

By now you may have guessed each radio behind these samples…Here’s the lowdown:

  • Sample #1:  the Sangean ATS-909X,
  • Sample #2:  the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #3:  the Tecsun PL-880, and
  • Sample #4:  the Tecsun PL-660.

I believe the Tecsuns perform best in this category, even though the difference between the two models is pretty dramatic. The PL-880 has the best sensitivity in SSB–indeed, I could have probably lowered the gain on my recorder and made the background noise sound even less pronounced, but I wanted the levels to match the other receivers. I was somewhat surprised its 5 kHz filter sounded so narrow on SSB.

The Tecsun PL-660 had the most pleasant audio, but during QSB peaks, its audio would suffer a little distortion (you only hear this once in this sample, near the end of the recording). The Sony had slightly less sensitivity, but the most stable AGC.

Once again, the Sangean ATS-909X struggled to hear the signal, having the least sensitivity of the group.

A note about the Sangean ATS-909X

909Xkeypad

Alas, the most disappointing radio in all of these tests is the Sangean ATS-909X.

To be fair, however, it’s worth noting that the Sangean performs admirably if connected to an external antenna. Again, I resisted connecting an external antenna in this particular series of tests because I believe a good portable radio’s performance should first be judged upon what it can receive with only its telescoping whip antenna, considering that, when traveling, it’s not always possible to use an external antenna.

Indeed, if you plan to buy a portable that will be hooked up to an external antenna more often than not, the Sangean ATS-909X may be a good choice for you. Its front end can handle external antennas better than most of the radios above (with the Sony as an exception, in my experience).

Syncronous detection

I did not test sync detection, as the Sangean ATS-909X lacks a sync detector and the Tecsun PL-880’s sync detector leaves much to be desired. But many hours of listening to the Sony ’7600GR and the Tecsun PL-660 leads me to conclude that their sync detectors are fairly comparable in performance.

So, how do you translate these results?

Although all of these receivers are considered best in the portable realm for a particular manufacturer, each has a character that suits individual listening skills or requirements.

Herein lies the difficulty offering advice on which portable to purchase. Because radio listening tends to be a solitary hobby, it comes down to personal preference–like choosing a friend. What one person values may matter very little to someone else.

For example, I rarely (if ever) save stations to memory on a permanent basis. Other than temporary auto-tuning memory features, I never give memory functions any weight when making a purchase decision (for myself, that is). Yet there are listeners who place a great deal of emphasis on memory functions.

To be perfectly honest, I think each one of these radios has an individual character that makes it a stand out for a particular type of listening.  While I often sort through my collection to give away radios that I seldom use, you won’t find me letting go of any of these rigs. The Sony ICF-SW7600GR is still my favorite portable for field recordings; its stable nature and robust front end mean that I can hook up long wire antennas if I wish. The PL-880 is the radio I reach for if want robust sound and armchair listening to shortwave and mediumwave–I also find it the best of the bunch to tune, a quality machine harkening back to the glory days of Panasonic and Sony. The PL-660 is my simple, bullet-proof performer–when in doubt of conditions, it’s the radio I reach for. If I owned the Sangean ATS-909X, it would probably become my bedside shortwave; its audio fidelity, large display, stable back stand, and ability to benefit from an external antenna make it very appealing for this purpose.

You can’t go wrong with any of these benchmark performers, so long as you know its weaknesses and strengths–which I hope this review has made clear.

If I had to choose just one of these radios…

FourRadiosAbstract

I’m forcing myself answer this question. While it’s difficult to answer, I believe if I could only have one of these radios for travel…I would chose the Tecsun PL-660. I find it the best overall performer, and a true bargain at its price point.

To be clear, if the Sony ICF-SW7600GR only had a tuning knob, it would be my choice, instead.  If the Tecsun PL-880 handled weak broadcast signals better, it might be my choice.

But this is my personal choice; you might have a completely different answer.  I guess that’s the point I made earlier–it all depends on the listener.

Now…which do you choose? 

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.

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The Tecsun PL-380: a great travel radio

My Tecsun PL-380 and Eagle Creek pack

SWLing Post reader, Alan, commented on our “most durable radios for travel” post:

You should include the Tecsun PL-380 [on] the list. It is an excellent tuner with good selectivity. The ETM feature was made for a traveler. The radio is cheap enough that it won’t bother you if you lose it or break it.

I have to say, I agree! In fact, I travel with the PL-380 quite often. It has become my back-up radio when I make field recordings (my primary portable for field is the Sony ICF-SW7600GR).

Eagle Creek pack with contents: Tecsun PL-380, Zoom H1 recorder, earphones, audio cables, external antenna, spare batteries and Kindle. Click to enlarge.

In fact, I have a small Eagle Creek bag with a shoulder strap that holds my field recording kit and other electronic “necessities:”  Tecsun PL-380, Zoom H1 recorder, ear buds, audio cables, roll up antenna, spare batteries, and, of course, my Kindle (so I can read while waiting for my plane/train/bus). In a pinch, it can even accommodate a Sony AN-LP1
active antenna (which I use primarily in hotel rooms with inoperable windows). To help you visualize, check out the photo on the right.  It’s my grab-and-go bag.

A traveler’s review of the Grundig G6 shortwave radio

The Grundig G6 makes for an excellent travel companion

Last week, I traveled to New York City by air and used trains, taxis and buses en route to Philadelphia. All the while, I carted along my luggage–and it’s a good thing I like to travel light.

Indeed, I almost never check in luggage, no doubt a remnant of my days as an expatriate, when I was required to travel throughout Europe at a moment’s notice. But I love traveling with only one bag. It’s incredibly liberating. I revel in the challenge of fitting everything I need into one Eagle Creek convertible backpack/suitcase.

This latest trip was no exception, and I planned to do a little shortwave and medium wave DX along the way. So which radio did I reach for? Oddly enough, none of those I listed from my travel radio suggestions, my usual stand-bys. This time, I chose my Grundig G6.

Keypad for direct entry and as with most Grundig radios, the G6has a logical, simple key combination for entering frequencies.

I have had a mini Grundig G6 review out for a couple years now in which I praise it highly. I am surprised to find that many other reviewers only give it a lukewarm rating. I believe a lot of this stems from the fact that the radio’s aircraft band (117-137 MHz) is not terribly sensitive or selective. Since purchasing the G6, I’ve only used the aircraft band once–during review. I leave aircraft and VHF/UHF listening to a proper scanner, preferably one with triple-conversion circuitry.

Yet I find that the Grundig G6 performs quite well on the shortwave and medium wave bands. Last week, while in NYC and Philadelphia, I was surrounded by big signals and didn’t hear many instances of overloading or imaging. Sure, larger portables (like the Grundig G3, Tecsun PL-660, Sony ICF-SW7600GR, Sangean ATS-909X) will outperform the G6 on SW and MW, but none of those radios can comfortably fit in my pocket. In fact, the G6 is so small that it can get lost in my suitcase–oh, there it is, tucked among my socks. The portables mentioned above, though reasonably sized, will need some dedicated space.

The placement and orientation of the tuning knob on the G6 is genius. My favorite ultra-portable radio for band-scanning

There’s another plus about the G6. It feels good in your hand. I have big, clumsy fingers, yet I still manage to punch in the frequency correctly every time. Having the (smooth) tuning knob in the upper left corner of the radio where it’s accessible both on the side, and (more importantly) on the face, was a stroke of ergonomic genius by this little radio’s designer. I wish more manufacturers would do this. It’s so easy and comfortable to band scan using your thumb on the face of the tuning wheel, which is great when you’re sitting around a campfire or listening to FM on a bumpy bus ride.

Don’t get me wrong: if I were going on a DX vacation where I needed top-notch filtering, sync-detection and SSB, I would not pick the G6. For the odd business trip, though, it’s the perfect little radio.

The G6 even has an external antenna connection.

Pros:

  • Small, affordable and full-featured
  • Shortwave and medium wave reception are comparable to others in price class
  • Two bandwidth choices
  • Direct keypad entry of frequencies
  • Fluid and well-placed tuning knob
  • No chuffing/muting during band scans
  • Includes SSB (see con)
  • Great audio for a tiny speaker
  • Excellent ergonomics (especially for such a small package)
  • Aircraft Band (see con)

Cons:

  • SSB reception is mediocre–fine tuning is difficult
  • Volume button increments a little too steep (between 8-12) with headphones
  • Keypad not backlit
  • Some image problems on aircraft band

The Grundig G6 has been on the market a long time, in a consumer electronics life span. I would not wait to purchase one. Occasionally, RadioShack (in the US and Canada) will close out their stock of shortwave radios and the G6 can be found at bargain prices. Universal Radio currently has a promotion where if you buy a Grundig Satellit 750 for $299.95, you will receive a free Grundig G6. You get both a large portable/tabletop radio and a pocket-sized one in the same deal. That’s great value!

Want specifications and other reviews of the Grundig G6? Check out our G6 entry in the Shortwave Radio Index.