Dan compares the Sangean ATS-909X with two classic portables

Sangean-ATS-909X-Sony-SW07-Panasonic-RF-B65

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who shares a radio comparison he initially posted in the excellent Extreme Shortwave Listening Facebook group. Dan writes:

When the Sangean ATS-909X was first released a few years ago, I decided that I would hold off obtaining one to let whatever bugs there might be in production get worked out.

I have always been impressed by the design of the 909X, but was cautious when it came to the question of overall sensitivity. I once owned the 909, had it modified by Radio Labs, but that seemed not to do much — the 909, in my view, suffered too much from the well-known deafness issue when using the whip antenna.

Over the years, I used and still own many of the classic portables. This includes the SONY 7600GR, Grundig SAT 500/700, 2010, E-1, SONY SW100/SW07, SONY SW-55, and the radio I consider to be at or near the top of the small portable heap, the Pan RF-B65. But a couple of weeks ago, I broke down and bid for a new in box Sangean 909X. It’s the black version, and arrived a couple of days ago.

I remain impressed by the 909X’s design — beautiful radio, wonderful large LCD and backlight, excellent filtering, along with a feature we used to see in the SONY’s — adjustable/variable attenuation. But I wondered how the 909X would stack up against two of my favorites, the SW-07 and RF-B65. I was crossing my fingers — but alas, initial results are not encouraging.

While the radio initially on its own seems to be quite sensitive, I lined it up next to the SW-07 and RF-B65 and did a comparison. Now, first I must note that propagation continues to be in the dumpster and I conducted this test in late afternoon.

All three receivers were tuned to Cuba on 11,760 khz — they were located next to one another on a table in the top level of my home here in Maryland. The results are seen in the video below.

You can hear how much more clearly the SW-07 and especially the RF-B65 handle a signal. With the Panasonic, stations just pop. Same with the SW-07.

Disappointingly, as you can hear, stations on the 909X appear to be buried in noise. It’s quite extraordinary — I was very surprised by this comparison and intend to perform additional side-by-side tests in different areas of my home, which does suffer from high noise levels likely produced by electric lines and a transformer outside (which is why a run a Wellbrook on my main radio stack downstairs). But it is notable that the 909X appears to struggle so, while the old classic portables SW-07 and B65 excel. Interested in the views of others . . .

Dan, this is very similar to my experience with the Sangean ATS-909X.

Like you, I absolutely love the design of the 909X–the large display, tuning wheel, front-facing speaker, ergonomics–but was pretty disappointed when I pitted it against three other (less expensive) portables on the shortwave bands.

I know the 909X performs much better when connected to an external antenna. I’ve also learned that fresh batteries are a must as the 909X’s sensitivity is directly related to supplying optimal voltage. I know, though, that you had fresh batteries in your 909X, Dan.

Again, many thanks for sharing your comparison.

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20 thoughts on “Dan compares the Sangean ATS-909X with two classic portables

  1. Pingback: Dan compares and reviews the Tecsun S-8800 portable AM/FM/shortwave receiver | The SWLing Post

  2. Bobbert

    I purchased a Radiolabs ATS-909X, and it arrived to my residence in February 2016.
    It’s performed very well as I tuned in to pirate stations.
    For ssb, it does well. I cannot complain.
    At first, it was prone to picking up electrical-generated ticking sounds (usually near buildings).
    For AM pirate in the hf’s, it can be exceptional, especially while the unit and longwire antenna is at a location far, far away from anything electrical (such as electric utility lines, houses, buildings, or security systems)… Note my different antenna examples to the end of this reply.
    I have had success catching pirate radio signals at my property in a remote location in Randolph county, West Virginia (in the vicinity of Elkwater Dam).
    At my residence (Medina county, OH) near my workplace (towards Cleveland, OH) there is a park that has a field, about 50-acres from any electric powered source. Again, I had tremendous success (using simple wire).
    ***Designs include:
    1: 100-foot Long wire (22-gauge) attached to a fiberglass MFJ Fiberglass 1910 telescopic pole. Excellent reception, appx. 75% better reception than the Sangean reel, provided the feedline on the pole is not touching the ground!
    2: 100-foot 18-gauge wire strung into a tree. Excellent reception. Identical reception to the wire placed on the MFJ 1910 outlined in example #1. Again, do NOT allow wire to touch ground. Also ensure 3.5mm plug is secure and soldered securely.
    3: Sangean ANT-60. Decent reception. Reel wire prone to getting jammed inside spool. I ripped wire in an act of frustration trying to get it unstuck while hiking deep in the woods going up Point Mountain Wilderness in WV, a few weeks ago, and was unable to get remainder of wire out of it. Ended up using 100-foot speaker wire with soldered jack anyways.
    4: MFJ-1979 telescopic whip 17-ft. with feedwire attached to base. Reception slightly better than ANT-60, but not worth the hassle since it was attached to a heavy, old tripod. Again, main wire to radio didn’t touch the ground.
    ***If any long wire touches the ground, or is even near the ground in some cases i.e. wet/dewy/snow conditions, static will be heard. All bets are off.

    Reply
  3. Thomas Brogan.

    Some really good comments on the 909x, but most of you are going around in circles, it states in the instruction manual the whip is for FM, for SW they advise you to employ an appropriate SW antenna most Sangeans are designed like this. The Sangean is a high quality radio if you use it properly, so I will leave you all still running round in circles with your debate. A proper long wire attached and it will take on any radio currently manufactured. Thank you all for great insights into this Gem of a radio. 73 Tom.

    Reply
    1. Mick Aitch

      Thanks Tom, that’s a no nonsense reply for sure.

      There does seem to be some value in the ever-decreasing circles discussion above as it seems (to me) that people are trying to turn a really-really good radio into a great one by making it a ‘true’ portable.

      This is where I come in… I’m after a high quality portable for mainly shortwave listening. High quality in the sense of a sensitive receiver that holds onto a signal once tuned. SSB is also important as I plan to monitor ham radio and, possibly CW. I’ll be using headphones 75% of the time. The Tecsun PL660/680 seem to be ideal for this, but I’ve a hankering for the Radiolabs modded ATS-909X on the assumption that these mods have sorted out the SW sensitivity issue. Does anyone have experience of the Radiolabs rig and is it as good as/better than the Tecsuns if I’m only bothered about listening via ‘phones?

      Cheers,

      MickH

      Reply
  4. John

    The solid front-end on the ATS-909 and ATS-909X really differentiates these receivers from the cheaper hyper-sensitive ones made by Tecsun/Degen. I can run the RF-Gain on the 909 series set to max with a 30′ random wire and not suffer any overload. A PL-660 would be next to useless with the same wire unless one adjusts the three position attenuator switch down to normal or low – which basically kills the signal.

    I’ve actually found the 4kHz filter quite good for SSB DXing as it helps to maintain good audio fidelity over a narrower filter. If I encounter any interference I can either back off the RF-Gain a bit or tune off frequency slightly.

    Reply
  5. Guy Atkins

    On the two ATS-909X receivers I’ve owned before, I replaced the narrow filter with an even narrower than stock filter to improve SSB reception. There’s info about this modification in the Yahoo Group for the receiver.

    I purchased the narrow 450 kHz I.F. filter at a reasonable price from ICOM America in Bellevue, WA, which is a few miles from where I work. The filter was originally used in the “PCR” series of black box (non-SDR) receivers. If I remember right the filter’s specification is 2.4 kHz @ -6 dB bandwidth. It worked well for my intended purpose– better selectivity with SSB transmissions.

    Reply
  6. Ian from England

    I too can verify the slight deafness of the 909X when used with it’s internal antenna, and although not always possible, will use the supplied longwire where possible if on the shortwave bands. As others have also noted, I’ve found the FM performance nothing short of superb on the 909X, along with the AM (MW/LW) performance, which I have found slightly disappointing on my PL660. This is why I invariably reach for the Tecsun when I use a portable to check out shortwave, but turn to the 909X when I fancy some portable FM/AM DXing.

    The other advantage to the 909X is it’s directionality on AM, compared to my “main” radio, the Eton E1, which of course receives all it’s signals through the whip antenna only.

    Reply
    1. Dan H

      Yes, the ferrite bar (MW) AM band antenna built into the the 909X has been a fine performer for me. With appropriate rotation of the radio it out-performs my 106′ random wire antenna most of the time for 540-1700 kHz. This radio and antenna combination is very directional and a fine choice for reception of signals for emergency use.

      Reply
  7. Dan H

    I did a very casual measurement of bandwidth on WWV by tuning one kHz increments up and down from WWV. Not very scientific, but useful nonetheless. Interestingly, one side of the filter is one kHz wider than the other. This is within published specs for the Murata SFPLA450KJ1A-B0 with a center frequency tolerance of -1kHz to 1 kHz.

    Reply
  8. Andrés

    It’s absolutely true that the 909X without an external aerial doesn’t have sensivity enough. I use it with 20 meters of long wire external, it works pretty well!
    What I note is, it has a too narrow IF bandwith, sometimes when a good signal is chased, I would like to hear it with a wider bandwith.
    The receiver has a chain with 2 filter, the first, DSP internally in the Silabs chip, and the second are a couple of X’tals (for wide and narrow). I replaced the original Wide X’tal (SFPLA450KJ1A, that it has a +-2kHz of BW @6dB!! Yes, 2kHz!!!) for one wider, but the thing didn’t change. That meant the Silabs has a BW near 2kHz. It is necessary to re-program the chip by I2C protocol, and I am thinking to build a simple circuit to reprogram the chip.
    Has anybody noted its too narrow BW?
    Andres

    Reply
    1. Dan H

      Andres, the Murata SFPLA450KJ1A-B0 ceramic filter used as the wide IF filter in 909X is indeed a 4 kHz filter. The pass band is 2 kHz on either side of 450 kHz which totals 4 kHz.

      The 2010 909X spec sheet describes the wide filter as a nominal 6 kHz filter with a tolerance of 4-8 kHz. Testing the wide filter on a strong signal from WWV at 20 MHz I find the wide filter on my 909X to be somewhere between 5-6 kHz. This wider bandwith value is probably due to the skirt width on the Murata filter and whatever the heck Sangean did with DSP. This 5-6 kHz value is consistent with what I have heard while tuning other stations across the SW spectrum.

      Shortwave listeners will have individual preferences for IF filter bandwidths. I am happy with the wide IF filter used with the “NORM” audio filter setting for general SW listening on the 909X. However, I would like to have a wider filter available in addition to this if I had my way with 909X design. When I was using the Collins R-390A for SWLing a lot I liked the 8 kHz IF filter. Then again, Collins used mechanical filters which performed very differently than ceramic filters.

      Reply
      1. Andrés

        Dan, you are partially right….the band pass of the filter is 2khz (total 4khz, or the same +-2khz), but what we real hear it is just 2khz, not 4khz. You have the same information both sides, LSB and USB, so the real BW is 2khz. In a transmitter, if you modulate the carrier with a base band (audio) wich has a maximum frequency of 5khz, the spectrum of the signal will be 10khz, this is the example of MW Radio.
        I didn’t measure the real BW, but I can sure you that is awful! hehe…
        I watched your video again, and I can realize that your 909x sounds brigther than mine, so it’s very probably they can have some differences according the production year. I dont remember the year of my 909x.
        Bottom line, I have to change my IF BW!!!
        73’s

        Reply
        1. Dan H

          Andres, I am Dan H, not the same Dan who wrote the original post. Too many Dans…

          I bought my 909X back in May of this year directly from Amazon and not one of their affiliate shops. I’m hoping that is is a very recent production radio. I don’t know if the serial number on these radios can be used for dating purposes.

          The 909X used in Dan Robinson’s video sounded muddy to me. Mine seems much brighter with great bass but not tinny by any means. It’s difficult to judge sound quality on YouTube videos.

          I hear you. I wouldn’t mind having the option for an additional and wider IF filter available on the 909X. The need is not so great for me that I would consider swapping out filters, though.

          Reply
  9. James Patterson

    From what I can see,as a recent owner of a new 909X,it is designed to soly rely on an outside antenna for all HF.The Sony and National portables I have eg National Panasonic DR/RF 49 & 31,both very vintage still work fine and pull in HF stations very well on the supplied telescopic antenna.Also my small dedicated Sonys all do the same,and also my PL660.So putting them all together side by side with the 909X,I can not expect the very expensive $500 nz dollars to compare anywhere near the others or though at that price you would expect it to perform far better.But as soon as I plug a lenght of wire,arround the same lenght as the telescopic antenna’s into it,it fires up with receiption on a parr with the other radios.So as far as I can see,the 909X telescopic antenna is only there for receiving the FM band,of which it seems to work very well.I have read where some people have done mods to their 909X and re-wired the antenna to serve the HF band,but they admitt they have lost the FM receiption.So as a new owner of the 909X,Im happy to simply plug in a lenght of wire,infact I use my 100 FT Windom antenna,that I also use to operate my 725 ICOM ham transceiver pluged in dirrectly without an antenna tuner,and I have no problem at all with over loading the front end.It works perfectly.Another thing you could try with the 909X,is rig up a telescopic antenna having it mounted onto a stand,with wire soldered onto the bottom,and a mono plug soldered to the other end of the wire,and plug that into the antenna socket.The 909X has all the bells and whistles you would expect to find in such a portable general coverage receiver,and Im still a very happy and proud owner of it.I would recomend it to anyone to add to their collection of radios.But remember,it is not quite like other radios we have all been used to.So get to know it and you should become a very proud owner!!

    Reply
  10. Dan H

    Here are some additional things I have learned about using Eneloop NiMH rechargeable batteries and non-rechargeable alkaline batteries with the 909X. My DMM (digital multimeter) came in handy for this.

    Brand new alkaline batteries are not 1.5V. They are 1.6-1.7V depending on battery make and battery age. Let’s call alkaline batteries 1.65V when brand new.

    Eneloops are NiMH batteries and have a nominal voltage of 1.20V. Fresh off the charger (including the built-in charger inside the 909X) the batteries will read about 1.49V. Let the batteries sit unused for an hour and the voltage will fall to 1.45V.

    The 909X will see 6.6 volts from a set of brand new alkaline batteries and 5.8V from the freshly charged Eneloops.

    Now tune the 909X to a stable signal (no fading) like a local AM station or a S4 noise floor on a noisy SW band. Make sure that your AM or SW frequency is free from AC line noise from the 909X first. Compare the S-meter readings from the 909X running on AC power to the S-meter readings of the same signal source using:

    A. Brand new alkaline batteries
    and
    B. freshly charged Eneloop batteries.

    The resulting S-meter value will be the same whether the 909X is run from the AC wall wart or either of the two battery sets. Given that the signal source does not change over time the S-meter value will not change as long as the AC power supply is used. Given enough operating time on the 909X the Eneloop batteries will show a drop in S-meter value some time before a S-meter drop is noticed with the alkaline battery set.

    As an aside, some SW portables use Li-ion 18650 batteries. The nominal voltage for Li-ion is 3.7V. Fresh off a charger these batteries are 4.2V or a tad lower. Just like NiMH or alkaline batteries the voltage will drop as the battery is used.

    Reply
  11. Broadwing

    When I purchased my 909x about a year ago, I had the clear mod modification done hoping I could tell a difference. I should have saved my money on both ends. The 909x looks like a Corvette Stingray, but drives like a Moped. What ever is under the hood just doesn’t pick up very well compared to cheaper radios I bought like the Tecsun PL-660 which outshines the 909x by a wide margin for Shortwave reception which is what I mainly listen to and log. It’s a pretty radio that doesn’t do much with just the whip, or with an external antenna hooked up. I plan on selling mine in the near future as all it’s doing is collecting dust. Such a shame.

    Reply
  12. Dan H

    Thanks to Dan Robinson for another look at the venerable Sangean ATS-909X. I have owned and used this radio for the last six months and have observed a number of its peculiarities in SW reception, most of which are fairly endearing. My 909X is also black in color and is not modified.

    Yes, the 909X leaves something to be desired when operated on SW with the whip antenna. However, I use a random wire or long wire antenna virtually all of time with my SW radios. Why limit my listening range to a whip antenna? The 909X factory box includes the ANT-60 antenna. It is a little 23′ random wire antenna in a reel-up case. This can be used anywhere including indoors. I use the ANT-60 with the 909X on my boat.

    RadioLabs will modify the 909X to provide better SW sensitivity with the whip antenna but I have read that this modification comes at the expense of FM sensitivity. SW and FM employ the same whip antenna on the 909X. I suspect that Sangean had to choose between better whip performance with FM as opposed to SW and chose FM. Most everyone agrees that the 909X is a superb FM radio. This certainly makes good sense from a marketing viewpoint as most 909X users are going to use FM much more than SW. However, when using the 909X for SW with an external antenna this receiver is hard to beat.

    I am pretty old-school when it comes to listening to shortwave and am not satisfied listening with whip antennas. I have always used outdoor wire antennas with my radios whenever possible. The 909X is a standout among SW portables when used with a wire antenna. The thing just won’t overload no matter how strong the signal or how long the antenna. A rotary potentiometer gives full control of RF gain, useful in reducing AGC noise on very strong signals. The Radio Havana Cuba flamethrower for my part of California is 6100 kHz during the evenings. Using a 106′ random wire during good propagation conditions I have received this powerhouse with a full 10 on the 909X S-meter with the RF gain control reduced from 10 all the way down to 6. No overloading, even with RF gain advanced to 10 and the S-meter way past the point of being pegged.

    If you are into using wire antennas the 909X is a joy to use. It is sufficiently frequency stable for good SSB and ECSS operation. I have the memory pages updated with my favorite frequencies and stations.

    Like most SW portables the 909X is subject to AC line noise even though it uses an AC/AC wall wart as opposed to AC/DC. RFI from household devices still manages to travel household wiring to the radio’s front end. I always use battery power when using the 909X for SW.

    I use four Eneloop white AA 2000 mAh rechargeable batteries to power the 909X. Portable radios will deliver less sensitivity when batteries fall below a certain voltage. The 909X is not unique in this respect. I have watched the relationship between SW sensitivity and Eneloop battery charge state fairly closely. Using the built-in charger on the 909X the radio can be operated on freshly charged Eneloops 3-4 hours before seeing a one S-unit drop in sensitivity. This is important if you want maximum performance for SW DXing but doesn’t really make a difference for casual listening. The three bar charge state meter on the 909X front panel will drop one bar after about 8 hours of typical listening at moderate audio volume.

    Of course, using fresh non-rechargeable alkaline batteries instead of NiMH will yield longer performance times with peak sensitivity. Alkaline AA batteries have 2500+ mAh capacity as opposed to 2000 mAh with the Eneloop whites.

    Given up to 2100 charge cycles possible with Eneloop whites, I choose to use them with the 909X with frequent charging for DX operation.

    The Sangean ATS-909X has its share of idiosyncrasies as does any radio. It’s a great fit for my kind of portable SWLing. I have some really nice tube-type communications receivers including a Collins/Capehart R-390A and a Hammarlund SP-600. I plan on pulling these from storage and getting them cooking again during the next several months.

    Reply
  13. Guy Atkins

    The Yahoo Group for this Sangean has details on a popular modification that adds a 4:1 balun between the whip antenna and connection point on the PCB board. It’s rather simple if you can do basic soldering; this same mod was required on the earlier ATS-909 receiver also.

    Thomas posted an entry in this blog in January about this modification, and there’s good information in the comments section regarding the sensitivity-vs-voltage issue also:

    https://swling.com/blog/2015/01/two-strategies-to-improve-sangean-ats-909x-sensitivity/

    The above post from January contains a link to the PDF with the modification details; it was originally for the ATS-909 but applies to the “X” model also. Note that FM reception can suffer with this mod, but some owners have installed a switch to take the balun out of the circuit when listening to FM. (I kept the mod inline all the time on my 909X).

    Despite the lower sensitivity on the stock 909X via the whip antenna, I really liked the radio’s usefulness with external antennas. The chance of overloading is reduced and the 909X really comes alive with a decent antenna; even a Wellbrook active loop didn’t cause overloading.

    Reply
  14. Marty

    Has anyone here had the RadioLabs modify their 909X with their ClearMod? The 909X is a fantastic radio but the SW sensitivity off of the whip is sub par. Wondering if the clear mod makes a lot of difference?

    Reply

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