Tag Archives: Tecsun PL-600

Which one: The Tecsun PL-660 or the PL-600?

The Tecsun PL-600.

The Tecsun PL-600.

This morning, I received a question I’m often asked. It usually goes something like this:

“Should I purchase the Tecsun PL-600, or invest a little more and purchase the Tecsun PL-660? Is it worth the price difference?”

I decided it best to post this question, along with my response, below.

SWLing Post reader, Warren, writes:

“I have been on your web site for a couple of hours now. I especially appreciated your super review. From that I decided I liked the Tecsun PL-660 best. As I was looking for one on ebay, I saw an ad for a Tecsun PL-600. Although I did find specs on your web site, I did not find a review by you. I did find links to other reviews.

One person said a PL-600 was a PL-660 minus the AIR band.

Another said the SSB didn’t work until he took it apart and replaced a capacitor.

Another said the filters didn’t work as well on the 600, or didn’t exist.

Many said the quality was excellent – buy it! Many said it was terrible.

Can you tell me, in your opinion, which, if any, of the above you agree with? And give me your own rating of the 600?

The 600 is much less expensive than the 660. If it is missing filters and sound quality I’m not interested. If it is only missing the airline band I am very interested.”

Here’s my reply to Warren:

“It is confusing and, you’re right, for some reason I don’t think I’ve ever done my own review of the PL-600–though it’s been included in comparisons.

Here’s my answer to your question:

If you want the best overall performance, go for the Tecsun PL-660. I think it’s well worth the price.

The Tecsun PL-660.

The Tecsun PL-660.

The PL-660 has a great synchronous detector–something the PL-600 lacks–which helps with selective fading and pulling weak signals out of the murk. Since you can select the sideband for the sync lock, you can also use this function to help mitigate adjacent signal interference.

Don’t get me wrong: the Tecsun PL-600 is a great radio in its own right. Of the sub-$100 portables [currently $96 shipped via Amazon, $89.95 plus shipping via Universal Radio], it’s one of my favorites.

The ‘600 is one of the few portables on the market in this price range that has a BFO for single sideband listening (along with the CountyComm GP5/SSB and the Degen DE1103 DSP). When newcomers to the hobby want a full-featured sub-$100 radio that’s simple to operate, I often suggest the PL-600. I’ve never had any issues with my PL-600, by the way–it performed as specified right out of the box and continues to do so today.

But again, if one’s budget allows I always recommend the Tecsun PL-660. In my opinion, the ‘660 offers the best performance and features for the price [currently $109.95 plus shipping at Universal Radio, $119.99 shipped via Amazon].

At home, I believe I actually reach for the PL-660 more often than I do my pricier PL-880.

In a nutshell? Your hunch is right. Get the Tecsun PL-660.”

Readers: Do you agree or disagree? Feel free to comment!

Tecsun PL-600: $74.99 shipped at Amazon

PL-600

SWLing Post reader, Tom Ally, writes to say that the Tecsun PL-600 is currently on sale at Amazon.com for $74.99, shipping included. While this is not a deep discount, he notes that it is a lot of radio for the price. I still have a PL-600 and tend to agree with Tom. In fact, I was using my PL-600 this morning, comparing it to the new Sangean ATS-405. In many respects, the PL-600 reminds me of the Grundig G5.

Click here to view the Tecsun PL-600 on Amazon.

A review of the Tecsun PL-680 with reader survey results

Tecsun-PL-680When I heard early reports about the new Tecsun PL-680, I was already wondering how it would stack up alongside other Tecsun portables. An early photo of the Tecsun PL-680 revealed how very similar it is, indeed, to the Tecsun PL-600, which has been on the market for many years. Moreover, the features of PL-680, which I heard about only a few weeks ago, sounded to me like a carbon copy of the venerable PL-660.  I investigated further, and spoke with Anna at Anon-Co; she was given to understand that the Tecsun PL-680 was essentially a re-packaged PL-660 with improved sensitivity. I was curious enough about the PL-680 that I ordered one from Anna as soon as they were available, even paying for expedited shipping in order to have it in hand a bit sooner.

The Tecsun PL-660 has been on the market for several years now; it’s one of the most popular shortwave portables on the market.  And for good reason: the PL-660 is relatively inexpensive, simple to use, packs all of the most vital and desirable functions/modes, and is available from a variety of retailers that ship worldwide. I have reviewed it numerous times and often used it as the basis for comparison with other shortwave portables. It’s China-based manufacturer, Tecsun, has emerged over the past few years as the dominant manufacturer of shortwave radios.

First impressions

I posted a few unboxing photos the day I received the PL-680.

Tecsun-PL-680-6

The Tecsun PL-680 looks like the Tecsun PL-600 body, with the Tecsun PL-660 features and layout. Indeed, the full complement of buttons, switches and dials are identically positioned to those of the PL-660.

Let’s cut to the chase…

Question: So, does the PL-680 have more functions than the PL-660?

Answer: No. It appears to be, and likely is, identical in every (functional) respect to the Tecsun PL-660. No surprises here, unless there are hidden features I haven’t discovered…!

Check out the following comparison photos–the PL-600 on the right, PL-660 in the middle, PL-680 on the right (click to enlarge):

DSC_0187

RightSide LeftSide

The similarity is so striking, in fact, that I believe the PL-680 is the first radio I’ve ever turned on for the first time, only to find I immediately knew every function. I’m so familiar with the PL-660 that I could even use the PL-680 in the dark the first night I used it.

It also helps, of course, that the PL-680 is nearly identical to the PL-600, too, which I’ve owned for many years.

PL-600

Here’s how I see the PL-680 product development equation:

PL-600-PL-660-PL-680

In truth, I was quite disappointed that Tecsun did not add a line-out jack to the PL-680.

The PL-660, alas, lacks line-out, and though my Tecsun PL-880 has a line-out, its default shortwave volume is simply too high to be used by most digital recorders. I had hoped that the PL-680 might have a proper line-out jack, potentially making it a replacement for my trusty Sony ICF-SW7600GR.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.

But other than missing a line-out jack, I really have few complaints. I’ve always been a fan of simple radio design and I believe Tecsun has done a good thing by keeping the user experience so similar in their PL-6XX line of portable shortwave radios. Apparently, a good thing is a good thing.

But here’s what everyone wants to know…

Question: Does the PL-680 have any performance advantages over the PL-660?

Short Answer: Yes! (But keep your PL-660.)

I should add here that I’m about to get rather technical and radio-geeky, so if you’re only interested in a summary, please skip to the bottom of the page.

Otherwise, help yourself to a cup of coffee, and let’s talk radio…

Shortwave performance

Since I spend 95% of my listening time on shortwave, I’ll begin with shortwave performance. Again, we’ll compare the PL-680’s performance with that of the PL-660.

Reader survey results

Having had such great results from radio comparison shoot-outs in the past (check out our shoot-out between top portables and ultra-compact radios), I decided it would make sense to invite our informed readership to evaluate the PL-680’s performance in a series of blind, informal tests. (For information about these surveys, please read through the first of the three surveys.)

Shortwave AM broadcast listening

In most circumstances, you’ll find that the PL-680 has better sensitivity than the PL-660. It’s a marginal improvement, but one I certainly notice on the shortwave bands–and so did the majority of readers who participated in the shortwave AM reception survey.

The survey had recordings from a total of three broadcasters: Radio Prague, WWV, and Radio France International.

The PL-680 was “Radio A,” and the PL-660 was “Radio B.”

The Radio Prague recording was quite strong and was the only broadcast in our survey in which the PL-660 and PL-680 ran neck-and-neck.

Radio Prague on the PL-680

Radio Prague on the PL-660

In truth, I believe strong signal reception on both these radios is excellent and nearly indistinguishable from each other.

Survey results from the WWV and Radio France International recordings showed a strong preference for the Tecsun PL-680. Again, here are the original recordings:

PL-680 – 1st WWV recording

PL-660 – 1st WWV recording

PL-680 – 2nd WWV recording

PL-660 – 2nd WWV recording

Based on comments from those who participated, the PL-680 came out ahead of the PL-660 in two respects: better sensitivity, and more stable AGC. In both sets of recordings, the signal was weaker than the Radio Prague recording, and QSB (fading) more pronounced. Herein lies a well-known weakness of the PL-660: soft muting and a sometimes over-active AGC equates to more listening fatigue.

Here is a chart with the full survey results based on 194 listener reports. The number of responses are represented on the vertical axis.

AM-SW-Shootout-PL680-PL660

Obviously, the engineers at Tecun addressed the soft muting/AGC problem of the PL-660. In all of my time with the PL-680 on the air, I haven’t noticed any soft muting; the audio has been smooth and the AGC copes with fading much better than the PL-660. No doubt, these two improvements alone make the PL-680 a worthy portable for shortwave radio listening.

There is a downside to the improved sensitivity, however: the PL-680 has a slightly higher noise floor than the PL-660. This is mostly noticeable during weak-signal listening. Though I haven’t compared it yet, I’m willing to bet that the noise floor is comparable to that of the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. Personally, if increased sensitivity and stability means a slightly higher noise floor, I’m okay with that. I find that I listen better when the signal is stable and not fluttering/muting with every QSB trough.

Synchronous detection 

PL-680-Sync-Detector

The second survey focused on synchronous detection, which is a very useful receiver tool that mitigates adjacent signal interference and improves a signal’s stability. Perhaps it was my good fortune that the same day I tested synchronous detection, fading on even strong stations was pronounced at times. Perfect!

The first recording set was from Radio Australia, a relatively strong signal here in North America. Still, QSB was pronounced–making for an unstable signal–and there was hetrodyne interference in the upper sideband of the broadcast. When I switched the radios into lower sideband sync, halfway through, it effectively mitigated the hetrodyne in all of the recordings.

PL-680 – 1st recording Radio Australia

PL-660 – 1st recording Radio Australia

PL-680 – 2nd recording Radio Australia

PL-660 – 2nd recording Radio Australia

The second set of recordings were of Radio Riyadh–a much weaker station–also affected by QSB:

PL-680 – 1st recording Radio Riyadh (wide band filter)

PL-660 – 1st recording Radio Riyadh (wide band filter)

PL-680 – 2nd recording Radio Riyadh (narrow band filter)

PL-660 – 2nd recording Radio Riyadh (narrow band filter)

While I have always considered the PL-660 to sport one of the stronger sync locks in current production portables, it did truly struggle to maintain a lock in both the Radio Australia and Radio Riyadh recordings. Indeed, I was so surprised by how comparatively feeble the sync lock was on Radio Australia, that I disconnected the PL-660 from the recorder and moved to a different location to verify that something nearby wasn’t causing the sync lock instability. It was not; it was solely due to unstable band conditions.

It came as no surprise that survey respondents took note of the PL-680’s stronger sync lock: the PL-680 beat the PL-660 by a wide margin in both sample recordings. I chart the results, below, from a total of 85 responses:

Syn-Lock-Shootout-PL660-PL680

Very good, PL-680!  Someday I’d like to compare the PL-680 with the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, which I’ve always considered to have, among current portables, the strongest sync lock.

Single Sideband

I wasn’t able to provide an audio survey of SSB performance since the PL-680 picked up too much noise from my digital recorder to make for a fair contest.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent time listening to both radios in SSB mode and comparing the models. To my ear, both are very close in SSB performance, but again the PL-680 does have a slight edge on the PL-660 in terms of sensitivity and AGC performance.

SSB audio fidelity is very similar in both radios.

FM Performance

While I haven’t spent more than, let’s say, an hour with the PL-680 on the FM band, I have concluded that it is very sensitive–able to receive all of my benchmark local and regional FM stations.

An informal comparison between thePL-680 and the PL-660 also leads me to believe that they are both excellent FM performers and seemed to compare favorably. I would certainly welcome FM DXers to comment with their own evaluations of the PL-680.

Medium Wave Performance

Tecsun-PL-680-MW

I’ve also posted a medium-wave listener survey since many of you asked that I provide an evaluation of the medium-wave band.

In short, here is where the PL-680 loses to the PL-660: whereas, on the shortwave bands, the PL-680 is more sensitive,  it lacks the same sensitivity on the medium-wave bands.

Though I believe the PL-680 does a marginally better job than the PL-660 of handling the choppy conditions of nighttime MW DX, the PL-660 still pulled voices and music out of the static and made them noticeably more intelligible.

The survey result swung very hard in favor of the PL-660, which has long been one of the more notable medium-wave performers among shortwave portables.

I provided a total of four sample broadcast recordings for comparison. Below, I have embedded one of them–a recording of 940 AM in Macon, Georgia, for your reference.

PL-680 – 940 AM

PL-660 – 940 AM

You can listen to all four recordings in the original survey (again, note that Radio A is the PL-680, B is the PL-660).

Survey results were definitive, with a total of 116 responses:

MW-Shootout-Results

 

In all but the strong station sample (750 AM – WBS Atlanta), the PL-660 was preferred by a wide margin.

Summary

Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here is a list of my notes from the moment I put the Tecsun PL-680 on the air:

Pros: 

  • Excellent sensitivity and selectivity on the shortwave bands
  • Improved weak signal stability over the PL-660
  • Stable sync lock
  • Proven PL-600 form factor with good overall ergonomics
  • Great internal speaker–an improvement over the PL-660 (but not as good as the PL-880 or Sangean ATS-909X)
  • Other than medium-wave performance (see con), a worthy replacement for the PL-660
  • Excellent audio from the PL-680 internal speaker (improved over the PL-660, but not matching the fidelity of the PL-880)

Cons:

  • Medium-wave performance for is a step backwards from the PL-680’s predecessor, the PL-660. Okay on strong and moderate-signal reception, somewhat poor for weak signals
  • Marginal noise floor increase on the shortwave bands
  • Like the PL-660, lacks a line-out jack (Please note this, Tecsun!)
  • SSB frequency display on my unit is + 1 kHz, slight BFO adjustment is needed (details in this update)

Conclusion

Tecsun-PL-680-MWIf you’re a shortwave radio listener, you’ll be pleased with the Tecsun PL-680. In all of my comparison tests between the Tecun PL-660 and Tecsun PL-680, the PL-680 tends to edge out the PL-660, performance-wise. This coincides with the user surveys, too.

If you’re a medium-wave DXer, you might skip over the PL-680. That is, unless Tecsun makes a good iterative design improvement. If you’re a casual medium-wave listener, on the other hand, you’ll probably be pleased with the PL-680.

All in all, I like the Tecsun PL-680 and I see myself using it more than the PL-660 when I’m on the go. If you’re primarily a shortwave radio listener, the PL-680 may very well be worth the upgrade. At $95 US plus shipping, it is certainly a good value. Note that Anon-Co plans to post the Tecsun PL-680 for sale on eBay in March 2015.

Click here to find the Pl-680 on eBay.

A review of the CountyComm GP5/SSB portable radio: a great preparedness radio

GP5SSB-FrontOn Tuesday I received the new CountyComm GP5/SSB portable shortwave radio, a sample sent me from CountyComm. If you’re familiar with the current shortwave portable landscape, then you’ll quickly note that the GP5/SSB shares a striking resemblance to both the GP5/DSP and the Tecsun PL-360.  While I hadn’t anticipated writing yet another radio article before the end of the year, having just published a lengthy review of the CC Skywave, my curiosity got the best of me…and before I knew it, I’d spent a few hours listening to and making notes about the CountyComm GP5/SSB as I put it through its paces. In the end, I found I had the makings of a review.

Who is CountyComm?

Unlike most other brands I review, CountyComm has only one or two shortwave radio offerings. I wanted to know a little of the back story and motivation behind creating the GP5/SSB, so I contacted CountyComm directly and spoke with their representative, Nick.

Nick explained that CountyComm is a retail distributor of products created primarily for US government use. In a sense, CountyComm is the consumer spill-over from the thousands of products intended, for example, for state and federal agencies.

According to CountyComm, the GP5/SSB is a case in point. The company received a large order from a US government department for an “inexpensive, small portable, AM/FM/SW radio with SSB” for emergency supply caches and diplomatic posts. The GP5/DSP (a.k.a., Tecsun PL-360) fit the bill, but lacked SSB. The request was large enough that CountyComm approached SiLabs–manufacturer of the DSP chip in many of the portables on the market–and asked for help. SiLabs made some design changes and worked directly with the factory in China to produce the GP5/SSB.

The GP5/SSB comes with a medium wave bar antenna, carry pouch, stereo ear buds, wire antenna and manual.

The GP5/SSB comes with a medium wave bar antenna, carry pouch, stereo ear buds, wire antenna and manual.

Besides SSB, another interesting design CountyComm implemented was extending the upper frequency range of the GP5/SSB to 29,999 kHz; previous and similar Tecsun models only had an upper limit of 21,950 kHz.

You may note that as of today, there are no similar Tecsun portables on the market–this is because the first batch of units were designed for (and all purchased by) CountyComm. However, I have already heard rumblings that there will soon be a Tecsun PL-365 on the market–if so, no doubt it will turn out to be the GP5/SSB.

First impressions

GP5SSB-SideAppearance-wise, the GP5/SSB is nearly identical to its predecessor, the GP5/DSP or Tecsun PL-360. The vertical form factor is rather unique in the ultra-portable world, this radio is designed for one-handed operation, much like a handy-talky. The volume and tuning controls are on the right side of the radio and are designed to be operated by thumb (for right-handed operators, at any rate). All of the buttons on the front face are easily operated by your thumb–they’re small, but have a firm response. The GP5/DSP (like its predecessor) lacks a back stand, but does have a belt clip.

The small internal speaker produces clear audio, but sounds a little tinny; there is not even a hint of bass. Via headphones, the audio quality is far better.

Besides a slight modification to the keypad layout to accommodate the new addition of SSB and a bright green antenna tip, the radio is identical to the GP5/DSP and Tecsun PL-360.

FM Performance

The CountyComm GP5/SSB, like many other SiLabs-based receivers we review, has excellent FM sensitivity.

Medium Wave (AM broadcast band) Performance

The MW bar antenna increases performance--if using headphones, you will need a connector with a right angle to allow the MW antenna to rotate 360 degrees

The MW bar antenna increases performance–if using headphones, you will need a right angle connector to allow the MW antenna to rotate 360 degrees

While I have not yet had the opportunity to do a proper comp recording session with the CountyComm GP5/SSB versus comparable radios, I plan to do so in the near future…stay tuned for that, right here! I’ll create a post to give you a heads-up when I’ve added medium wave samples to this review.

With that said, I expect the GP5/SSB performance on medium wave will be very similar to that of the GP5/DSP and Tecsun PL-360. I like the included rotatable ferrite bar antenna that plugs into an external antenna port on top of the radio. It certainly helps with both overall sensitivity as well as nullifying unwanted signals.

Shortwave performance

I’ve had a couple of opportunities to compare the GP5/SSB with other portables on the shortwave bands; embedded audio samples follow of a strong station, a weaker station, and even an SSB sample. Note that all of the sample recordings were taken during poor band conditions–QSB (fading) is pronounced.

Single-sideband

Of course, when I received the GP5/SSB, the first thing I did was tune the ham radio bands in SSB mode.

Nick, the CountyComm rep in charge of the GP5/SSB design, is an amateur radio operator, and I’m pleased that he represented the importance of a truly functional SSB mode on this radio.

GP5SSB-TopThe GP5/DSP only has 1 kHz tuning steps: more than adequate for broadcast listening, but too coarse for SSB. Amateur radio operators do not necessarily transmit right on a frequency; they’re often slightly off-frequency, either accidentally or intentionally. And older ham radios are also prone to drifting until the rigs have properly warmed up. Radios with SSB need finer-tuning controls to hone in on SSB signals. But the GP5/SSB has a work-around for this.

The GP5/SSB accommodates SSB by allowing the listener to select either the upper or lower sideband, then use the BFO function to help fine tune and zero-beat a signal.

Specifically, here’s how to tune to an SSB (phone) amateur radio signal with the GP5/SSB:

  1. Turn on either the upper or lower sideband, depending on the meter band (generally, 40 meters and below are lower; all else, upper).
  2. When you hear a signal, use the 1 kHz tuning increments to find where it’s strongest.
  3. Now, press the BFO button once to activate BFO tuning; the U or L (indicating upper or lower) will begin to blink.
  4. While the sideband indicator is blinking, use the tuning wheel to adjust the BFO. Adjust tuning until the voices in the signal sound natural.

Once you’ve done this a couple of times, the process becomes second nature.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the SSB functionality and performance. While I prefer either very fine tuning increments, or a separate BFO knob (no room for that on this tiny radio), I appreciate that CountyComm has used the BFO function to eliminate the need for a separate tuning wheel.

Audio samples

While there are a number of portable radios with SSB on the market, there are very few in this $80 price range with SSB. Indeed, to my knowledge there are no other SSB-capable portables currently on the market that are as compact as the CountyComm GP5/SSB.

I decided the best comparison radio would be one with a similar price, thus I used the Tecsun PL-600, which (at time of posting) is readily available from Amazon for the same $80 price tag as the GP5/SSB.

GP5SSB-PL-600

Below, you can hear two representative audio samples of how each radio receives an SSB conversation between two ham radio operators on the 20 meter band. I like this sample because one of the operators has a very strong signal, while the other is much weaker:

Tecsun PL-600 SSB sample

CountyComm GP5/SSB sample

You may notice that the GP5/SSB has a slightly higher noise floor and DSP artifacts while listening to the weaker signal. The PL-600 sounds a little muffled in comparison.

I listened to many SSB signals that afternoon on the 20 and 40 meter ham radio bands.  At length I concluded that I prefer the PL-600 for weak-signal listening. The PL-600’s AGC could cope with the QSB better than the GP5/SSB.

With the majority of the SSB signals, however, I found that the GP5/SSB’s audio was clearer and voices seemed to “pop” out better than on the PL-600.

GP5SSB-PL-600-G6

I should note that I also attempted to include the Grundig G6 in this comparison, but the G6 somehow picked up noise from my digital recorder, thus making the recorded audio sound worse than it actually was. To my ear, the Grundig G6’s SSB reception was very similar to that of the CountyComm GP5/SSB–the G6 perhaps has a very slight edge in terms of weak-signal reception.

Shortwave broadcast listening (AM)

Wednesday afternoon, I had the good fortune to tune in a relatively loud broadcast on 9620 kHz–turns out, it was Radio Nacional de España–! (This is a new shortwave relay service intended to replace the Radio Exterior de España (REE) service that ended in October 2014).

I still had the PL-600 hooked up to my digital recorder at that time; here’s the comparison:

Tecsun PL-600 on 9620 kHz

CountyComm GP5/SSB on 9620 kHz

This morning I also had an opportunity to record Radio Australia on 12,065 kHz. This time, I had the Tecsun PL-310ET handy, so I used it for comparison:

Tecsun PL-310ET on 12,065 kHz

CountyComm GP5/SSB on 12,065 kHz

As you probably hear in these examples, the GP5/SSB has fine sensitivity, though not quite as good as the PL-310ET.

I’ve also noted good selectivity during casual broadcast listening with the GP5/SSB.

However, I do not like the GP5/SSB’s AGC (auto gain control) as well as that of the other portables in this comparison–it’s a little too reactive to fading on the broadcast bands. To be fair, these audio samples really accentuated the AGC on the GP5/SSB since all were made during poor reception conditions and pronounced fading.

Under normal conditions, I believe I would be quite pleased with the GP5/SSB; it’s otherwise on par with most of the other ultra-portables on the market.

Summary

Every radio has pros and cons, and I jot down my reactions as I evaluate a new radio so as not to forget any details. The following is my list:

Pros:

  • Audio well-tailored for AM broadcast listening–fidelity quite good via headphones
  • Adequate sensitivity and selectivity
  • Clear, simple LCD back-lit display
  • SSB mode is quite functional
    • BFO feature allows for zero-beat tuning
    • Includes both upper and lower sideband selection
    • Much like the PL-880, when in SSB mode, the GP5/SSB will select ham bands when changing meter bands
  • Extended frequency range (up to 29,999 kHz)
  • Very good medium wave reception with supplied external bar antenna
  • Uses three standard AA batteries
  • Can be charged with common mini USB adapter
  • Displays temperature in Fahrenheit (if MW set to 10kHz steps) or Celcius (if set to 9 kHz steps)
  • Great radio for an emergency kit or bug-out bag
  • Designed for one-hand operation/included belt clip (see con)
  • US Warranty

Cons:

  • AGC doesn’t cope with fading as well as other comparable portables
  • Audio from internal speaker rather tinny (without headphones)
  • No back stand, nor rotatable whip antenna; thus this radio is not ideal for tabletop listening (see pro)
  • Supplied belt clip feels flimsy, if you plan to use this in the field, consider purchasing the excellent CountyComm GP5 series rugged case.

Who should purchase the GP5/SSB?

GP5SSB-BackIf you’re looking for an ultra-portable radio for travel and general broadcast listening, I would encourage you to consider the new C. Crane CC Skywave, the Tecsun PL-310ET or the Tecsun PL-380.  Overall, the performance and form factor of these radios are a better fit for broadcast listening. If you’re looking for armchair SSB listening, a larger portable with a larger internal speaker such as the Tecsun PL-600 is a good choice for the same price as the GP5/SSB.

If you’re looking for an ultra-portable radio with SSB, then the GP5/SSB is a very good choice (if not the only ultra-portable SSB choice currently on the market). While the SSB performance can’t compare with larger, pricier receivers and ham radio transceivers, it’s very good for $80 US.

If you’re looking for an emergency communications receiver–something to stash in your vehicle, emergency kit or bug-out bag–the CountyComm GP5/SSB is a great choice and value. Indeed, that’s who the GP5/SSB was designed for; that’s why this rig has excellent frequency coverage in all modes, with good sensitivity/selectivity and designed for portable, one-hand operation. In fact, CountyComm has even designed and manufactured (in the USA!) a robust, protective 1000-Denier case for the GP5/SSB. This case makes it very easy to strap the GP5/SSB to your belt or backpack securely.

GP5SSB-FrontIn conclusion, the CountyComm GP5/SSB was designed for a specific purpose: to be an emergency communications receiver. It does this job quite well, despite any shortcomings in comparison to other popular shortwave portables, and for this purpose, I can recommend it.

Purchase the CountyComm GP5/SSB from Universal Radio.

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).

A review of the ShouYu SY-X5 DSP shortwave radio

The Shouyu SY-X5 mechanically-tuned, DSP portable radio. (Click to enlarge)

The Shouyu SY-X5 mechanically-tuned, DSP portable radio. (Click to enlarge)

The ShouYu SY-X5 shortwave radio came to my attention only a few weeks ago. It is yet one more mechanically-tuned, DSP based, portable shortwave/AM/FM radio. I have reviewed several other models based on the same DSP chipset: the Silicon Labs SI4844–see my reviews of the Degen DE321, Degen DE32, and the Kichbo KK-9803. I also recently reviewed the Tecsun R-2010D, though it is based on a slightly newer, though similar, SiLabs DSP chipset.

What makes the ShouYu SY-X5 stand out is the fact that it can be powered by either a rechargeable slim battery pack (found in the DE32) or three standard AA batteries.  It also has a built-in MP3 player that uses a standard microSD card for media storage. Why are these features of particular note for me?  I have been searching for a shortwave radio/mp3 player for use by my charitable non-profit, Ears To Our World. ETOW works in parts of the world where people lack mains power as well as access to the Internet (or else simply can’t afford Internet service). In such settings, radio allows teachers and school children to hear up-to-date international news via shortwave, and through pre-recorded educational material, they can play (and replay) MP3 content as needed.

Therefore, I immediately ordered an SY-X5 for review here, hoping to donate it for use in the field care of Ears To Our World.

First impressions

Degen DE321 (left) Shouyu SY-X5 (right)

Degen DE321 (left) Shouyu SY-X5 (right)

The ShouYu SY-X5 is a small radio, almost exactly the same size as the very portable Grundig G6 and only slightly larger than the Degen DE321 (see left). It feels sturdy and even slightly heavy in your hand (no doubt, due to the number of batteries it holds). The antenna is rotatable and feels more robust than other radios in its price class.

The SY-X5 has a back stand that likewise feels sturdy enough. Note: to open the battery compartment, you must lift up the back stand.

The overall quality is better than one might expect for $27 (US), with one notable exception: the printed frequency display behind the analog dial on my unit is positioned slightly off-center and not level, making needle position on the dial, well, frankly ambiguous.

Audio

Without a doubt, the greatest aspect of the SY-X5 is the audio delivered from the built-in speaker. It is exceptional for this size radio, full and with impressive bass characteristics. It very much reminds me of the Melson M7 (not yet reviewed here) and the Degen DE1129.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Performance

I’ve reviewed enough of these mechanically-tuned DSP-based radios now that I’m beginning to note performance commonalities that can only be attributed to the design of the DSP chipset itself (regardless of how they are implemented in each model of radio).

At risk of sounding like a broken record, this radio’s sensitivity, selectivity and AGC performance is nearly identical to the Degen DE321 on every band; here’s a summary:

  • Shortwave
    • sensitivity is mediocre–expect to hear all strong stations
    • AGC circuit has difficulty coping with weak station and fading
    • selectivity is mediocre
  • Medium Wave (AM)
    • strong daytime stations sound great
    • the SY-X5’s AGC circuit struggles with night time conditions, even with some strong stations
    • selectivity is mediocre
  • FM
    • FM performance is quite good
    • Both selectivity and sensitivity are great for the price–in this case, $27 US
(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Between the two FM bands, the SY-X5 should easily accommodate world-wide FM broadcasts (even Russia). The two AM (medium wave) bands are almost identical in frequency allocation, but have been set up so that one is on 9 kHz spacing and the other on the 10 kHz spacing typically used here in North America (nice touch).

Tuning

While the “feel” of the tuning wheel on the right side of the radio seems smooth, in reality it is not. The tension or actual mechanics behind the analog tuner are problematic; I find that upon tuning in even a strong station, when I let go of the tuning wheel, it immediately moves off-frequency. It’s most annoying. Over the course of several days of use, it doesn’t seem that the mechanism has broken in at all as I had hoped. This is perhaps the biggest negative of the ShouYu SY-X5; it is just not easy to accurately tune it.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

MP3 Player

While I haven’t spent hours using the MP3 player, I find that it’s simple, yet quite effective. Most notably, it lacks fast-forward and reverse controls, though it does have buttons for ten-second skips both in the forward and reverse directions. Of course, you can pause, stop and skip to next/previous MP3 files.

The SY-X5 has a dedicated MP3 player red LED display; it is very bright–almost too bright, in fact, for low light conditions–and quite simple, offering only basic functions (no alpha-numeric tags, for example). Unfortunately, I find that the LED display does inject a little noise into the audio, but it’s nothing that would deter me from using it with the built-in speaker.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Summary

Every radio has positive and negative attributes; below are the pros and cons I noted from the moment I unpacked the SY-X5:

Pros:

  • Audio from internal speaker excellent for size
  • Integrated digital audio player
    • Uses standard Micro SD card for storage
    • Very bright red LED display (see con)
    • Dedicated, tactile buttons for basic MP3 functions
  • Multiple power sources
    • Internal rechargeable slim battery pack
    • Standard AA batteries
    • Charged/powered via standard mini USB cable
  • Relatively sturdy construction
  • Good FM sensitivity
  • Tuning indicator light
  • Inexpensive
(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Cons:

  • “Sticky” tuning wheel/dial results in immediate and annoying digital “drift” off-frequency
  • Sloppy selectivity (typical of this class of mechanically-tuned DSP radios)
  • MP3 player’s LED display almost too bright for low light settings; the LED does inject some slight noise into the headphone amp chain
  • Shortwave and medium wave sensitivity is mediocre, typical of other SiLabs SI484X radios
  • MP3 capabilities are only as a player, the SY-X5 cannot record in any capacity
  • Analog dial is small enough to make tuning accurately quite difficult
  • The dial’s printed frequency display in my unit is positioned off-center and tilted, resulting in ambiguous needle alignment

Conclusion

The ShouYu SU-X5 is very similar, performance-wise, to the Degen DE321. Out of all of the mechanically-tuned DSP portables reviewed thus far, the SY-X5 may have the best audio fidelity via its built-in speaker (save the Tecsun R-2010D). Also, like other similarly sized and priced models in this family, the SY-X5 has tuning issues; in its case, a tuning wheel that will not stay on frequency without practice.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

I’ve decided to take my SY-X5, on behalf of Ears To Our World, to inner Belize City in the near future. I’m going to offer this radio–together with a microSD card packed with VOA Special English programming (and a host of other English language educational materials, music and stories)–to a visually-impaired, economically-disadvantaged school child who will hopefully give this basic little radio lots of use, and perhaps even maximize its potential. While the SY-X5 has shortcomings, for this particular use–serving an individual who will not rely primarily on sight, but on tactile response, to operate it–I think it may serve its purpose. Perhaps this will be the best litmus test for the SY-X5’s utility and longevity:  I may post an update when I receive feedback in approximately one year, as to whether this radio has required repair, replacement, or has offered (as I sincerely hope!) some measure of benefit to the child-owner.

For the radio hobbyist, I would encourage you to skip the ShouYu S-X5 and, instead, invest in a Tecsun PL-380, PL-390, PL-398BT, Degen DE1102, DE1103, or the Tecsun PL-600. Though all are pricier, each is under $100 US, and will actually provide a lot of performance for the price. The SY-X5 and other mechanically-tuned DSP radios seem only to offer mediocre performance and a low price.
Click here to search for the Shouyu SY-X5 on eBay.

SWLing.com’s 2011 Holiday Shortwave Radio Buying Guide

Would you like to buy a shortwave radio as a gift, but don’t know a thing about radios? Or want help leaving a hint for Santa or Ms. Claus? 

Following, you’ll find a handful of select radios I recommend for this gift-giving season. I’ve arranged this selection by price, starting with the most affordable.

This quick guide is basic, non-technical, and to the point. For more comprehensive reviews, please consult our Radio Reviews page.

Updated for the 2011-12 holiday season on 23 November 2011.

High-tech stocking-stuffer

The Degen DE321 ($21 US)

Don’t be fooled by looks: the Degen DE321 is not your dad’s portable shortwave radio. Behind the analog face hides cutting-edge DSP (digital signal processing) technology that makes this slim cell-phone-sized radio a quirky yet pleasing portable.  The impact upon your wallet will be slim, as well:  this radio will set you back only $21 bucks. One additional note to tuck away–don’t hesitate to order the DE321 if you want to put it in your sweetheart’s Christmas stocking. There’s an approximate two week delivery time, as this radio can only be ordered from vendors in Hong Kong, and airmail doesn’t come with a confirmation date. [Read our recent full review of the DE321 if you want more details about this little radio.]

Pint size performer

The Tecsun PL-380 ($55)

When I flew cross-country to visit a friend on the coast of British Columbia earlier this year, I had very limited space in my carry-on bag. I required a radio companion of a modest size, one that performs well on all bands–not just the shortwaves–for I intended to listen to local and distant AM (medium wave) stations, too. My choice was simple:  the Tecsun PL-380.  This little radio is affordable, compact, and has (especially with the aid of headphones) excellent audio. It’s powered by a pretty innovative DSP chip that helps pull stations out of the static, as well.

Keep in mind, if you’re planning to purchase any Tecsun product, to allow at least a two week delivery time, especially if ordering from eBay.  Occasionally, Kaito (the US distributor of the PL-380) will sell some stock on eBay; in this case, delivery is quicker and the unit carries a US warranty.

Purchase a PL-380:

  • from Amazon

Best performance for price

The Tecsun PL-600 ($70.00 US)

Simply put, the Tecsun PL-600 offers the best bang for your buck in 2011. The PL-600 is not the newest offering from Tecsun; in fact, it’s a model that has been on the market for several years. (Tecsun’s PL-660 is basically the updated version of the PL-600.) For $60, though, you get a very capable, sensitive and selective portable shortwave radio with SSB capabilities and nifty auto-tune features. I liken its performance to the legendary and highly-regarded Grundig G5 (which is no longer in production).

The PL-600 is easy to use, has reasonable audio fidelity from the built-in speaker, and sports a display with all of the essential elements for casual shortwave listening or hard-core DXing. I have found the quality of Tecsun radios to be superb. The PL-600 is a great size/weight for portability–it will easily fit into a suitcase or carry-on–it is not, however, a pocket radio.

The Tecsun PL-600 would make an excellent first radio for the beginner or seasoned radio listener. Click here to read full specs and links to other reviews of the PL-600 in the Shortwave Radio Index.

Purchase the PL-600:

  • from Amazon

It’s like a PL-600 on steroids

The Tecsun PL-660 ($100-120 US)

Okay, so forget everything I said about the PL-600 if you’re able and willing to invest another $50-60 into your radio gift. The beefier Tecsun PL-660 is new to the market in 2011 and has quickly gained the respect of the shortwave community. It is, in essence, an updated version of the PL-600, with improved performance, sync detection, a band for listening to aircraft, and RDS for displaying FM radio station info. As with other Tecsuns, eBay sellers provide better pricing, but Kaito does sell these radios on Amazon.com as well. If you purchase from Ebay, do so at least two weeks in advance of gift-giving time–again, these radios make a trip from Hong Kong via airmail.

Purchase the PL-660:

  • From Universal Radio

Performance, Audio Fidelity and Simplicity

The Grundig S450DLX  ($100 US)

This large portable (along with the C.Crane SW) is still my first pick for someone who wants excellent radio performance, but also wants a radio that is simple and straight-foward, with ease of use in mind (i.e., grandparents, children, your uncle who gets muddled by the TV’s remote control).  It comes with an owner’s manual, but you most likely won’t need it.  The S450DLX has robust, room-filling sound. Ergonomics are excellent, and it sports a large, comfortable tuning knob. Audio performance is very good and enhanced by its large front-facing speaker. This is not a pocket or travel portable, rather a tabletop portable.  The S450DLX will please both the beginner and seasoned radio listener.

Quality and classic performance

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR ($150)

This Sony shortwave radio is a classic, with solid, time-tested performance, and features to please both the beginner and the seasoned radio enthusiast. I like to include different radios each year in the gift guide, but the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is on the list again this year.  It’s probably the only radio on this list that isn’t made in China–it’s made in Japan!–and is built, as one of my ham buddies says, “like a brick toilet.” (Ahem, just meaning that it’s sturdy and reliable).  The ‘7600 will deliver some of the best performance that you’ll find in a portable on this page. At $120-150 US, it’s not the cheapest on the market, but certainly one of the best. I regret that its days are limited as Sony pulls out of the shortwave market; but mark my words, this one will become a classic.

Read the full review here.

Chase DX

The Alinco DX-R8T

The Alinco DX-R8T ($499 US)

The Alinco DX-R8T is new to the market in 2011. We reviewed it, in detail, only recently; in short, it impressed us. It’s full-featured, performs well, and comes at a very affordable price. If you’re buying this for a ham radio operator, they’ll understand the reason why the Alinco DX-R8T needs a 12 volt power supply and an external antenna. It’s a receiver version of a ham radio transceiver–as such, it does a fine job on SSB modes.

Crazy money? Crazy performance

The Ten-Tec RX-340 ($4,450.00 US)

Let’s face it, these are tough economic times. So, you may be wondering why I would put a radio in this list that’s priced the same as two Tata Nano passenger cars. Why? Because, if you have the money, I promise the performance of the RX-340 is not likely to disappoint even the most discerning of radio listeners. It is a textbook-perfect, 12.5 lb. example of form following function.  Heavy, man.  But it is very, very good.  Sure, you could buy two hundred (and eleven) lightweight Degen DE321s for that kind of money, but who wants that many portables cluttering up the den when you could lounge by the fire and tune in an RX-340 instead?  Close your eyes, sip your favorite scotch, and just…listen to the world.

If you doubt me, Check out our RX-340 page in the Shortwave Radio Index. It’s chock-full of stellar reviews on this radio work-of-art.

Let’s put it this way:  every time I dream of Santa leaving a radio under my tree…it’s the RX-340. (Seriously, I must have this dream at least twice a week.)

Note from your wife (aka, Ms. Claus):  Dream on, dear.

Want more gift options?  Try our 2010 gift guide, take a look through our shortwave radio reviews guide and/or our simplified reviews page.
Happy Holidays!