Recommending the Tecsun PL-880 over the Sangean ATS-909X

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Direwolf131, who recently commented on one of the Sangean ATS-909X reviews in the Post archives.

Direwolf131 writes:

I’m a few years after Steve’s comments but I will have a go at it, at least anecdotally speaking. I’ve owned a half dozen Sangean ATS-909’s, which includes two of the 909X’s, and one super-909 from radiolabs. The 909X is the finest looking portable I have ever seen or lain hands upon, and that includes several Sony’s that I still think of as neat looking, I had the white cabinet 909X first and then the much more striking (to my eyes) black cabinet 909X after returning the first one due to rock hard buttons.

They are both extremely attractive, and exceptionally well made, especially by today’s cheap Chinese standards. I must confess that I also still find the original 909’s almost equally neat looking, though not quite sporting the same robustness of build.

The 909x’s sound wonderful on MW & FM, and its a decent performer reaching out to fairly distant FM stations. Unfortunately that is largely the best of the radio, its performance on MW & SW is best described as pathetic, and not just due to being deaf, it has a lot of noise, even when attached to the superb RF systems tuned EMF antenna. The older 909 is also to my experience substantially better then the 909X when matched up to a serious outboard antenna, such as the above EMF, I found this difference especially surprising, its not even close.

The PL-880 from Tecsun blows it away on SW and MW sensitivity, while also offering the superb advantage of genuinely ECSS tuning anything on MW & SW, you cannot decently receive any MW or SW signal via ECSS with the 909X as its SSB can only be fine tuned to 40 Hz, which is terribly disappointing, you can zero beat the little Tecsun easily. serious ECSS capability is to my mind a much more attractive option then a sync circuit, and unfortunately with the beautiful little Sangean 909X you get neither.

I do hope anyone who happens upon this pays attention, because for the money the PL-880 is far and away the better performer, in fact my little 1103 from Degen/Kaito out performs the 909X, as does my Grundig Yacht Boy-400, and my Sangean ATS-803A. Its my great hope that Sangean seriously upgrades these deficiencies in the otherwise gorgeous 909X, its circuitry is noisier than the old 909 and its not nearly not as sterling a performer hooked up to household current and a decent outboard antenna as the old 909, its 40 hz tuning SSB once a great reason to buy a 909, is no longer competitive, especially against the superb PL-880 which again is capable of excellent ECSS even by Icom R75 standards, Sangean would do well to drastically improve the SSB performance of the 909X.

I hope this helps, I liked the original review up top, but again its several years old, and the ATS-909X is now known to be clearly outclassed by the more affordable Tecsun, actually by the PL-660 to boot, I really hope Sangean addresses the issues, its such a beautiful receiver, you just want it to be as good as it looks, unfortunately it’s not!

Thank you for sharing your evaluation and comments!

The Sangean ATS-909X is an interesting radio indeed. Almost everyone loves the design, audio and overall quality of the 909X.  Yet performance reviews are somewhat polarizing: some 909X owners claim the 909X has strong performance characteristics on shortwave, while others believe it’s almost deaf. Your findings coincide with mine from the Mega Review where I pitted the ATS-909X against the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660 and Sony ICF-SW7600GR. In that review, where I relied on a whip antenna, the 909X was noticeably less sensitive than the other three competitors. Based on the premium one pays for the 909X, I was surprised.

I have learned over the years, however, that the 909X can handle larger outdoor antennas and doesn’t easily overload. Additionally, the 909X requires a fresh set of batteries for optimal performance/sensitivity. Some users have even modified the radio with a 4:1 impedance transformer–click here to read a post/comments about this mod.

I would love to see Sangean produce an updated/upgraded version of the 909X, but at this point I’m not exactly holding my breath. I’ve heard that they’re slowly pulling out of the market. Hope I’m proven wrong because I’d love to see a new shortwave set from Sangean.

8 thoughts on “Recommending the Tecsun PL-880 over the Sangean ATS-909X

  1. TomL

    Good comments by both Direwolf131 and Thomas. Sangean’s latest radios are excellent but not what DX’ers would want. They have caught the “Digital Fever”, shrinking everything down to a few set standard features like 9/10kHz tuning on MW. Remember the original selling point of “going digital”?? It was supposed to bring more Choice to the market, with more “customization” possible. Yeah, right!!! Digital done by Accountants just homogenizes EVERYTHING so that you have more so-called “choice” with 100 alternatives that look and feel exactly the SAME (oh, the cabinet color or shape might be different…). The same may also be said with the human side of programming content too! Remember Bruce Springsteen’s song about 57 (TV) channels but nothing to watch?!?!

    One less competitor to the Chinese radios with decent features is not so good in the long run. That is why I still hold out a small amount of Hopium that CCrane can fix their bugs with the Chinese manufacturer regarding the Skywave SSB. That SSB/ECSS performance (and *important* AGC + dynamic range performance) can be extremely useful to anyone wanting to venture outside the “digital bubble/mantra” of homogeneric radios! Perhaps SDR’s will have to do the heavy lifting going forward which can be cumbersome to setup, especially for (opportunistic) portable use in the field. That’s my opinion and I am sticking to it! 🙂

    Reply
  2. Kyle Taylor

    I have no experience with the PL-880, but I have owned a few PL-660s and a couple of PL-680s. I also have two ATS-909Xs. Based on my experience with these radios, I find it difficult to believe I would find myself liking the PL-880 more than the 909X. With the Tecsuns, I keep hearing an assortment of odd, internally generated noises. They also have overly bassy audio which rattles their flimsy cabinets. I’m not a fan of “soft muting” on shortwave radios, either. I think it makes reception murky, causing difficulties in copying weak signals. As for the 909X, I think it performs quite well with a longwire antenna. I’m somewhat disappointed by the fact I can occasionally hear images of certain strong stations on the 909X, but I’m happy with the overall performance of this radio. I’m glad Sangean chose not to include soft muting on this model. And I prefer a radio you can power with ordinary AA batteries instead of lithium-ion rechargeable.

    Reply
  3. DanH

    Wow. That’s a pretty crushing review of the Sangean ATS-909X. Here is my take on the 909X.

    I purchased my stock (unmodified) black 909X in mid-2015 and have used it almost daily for shortwave listening since that time. Other radios I have used for SWLing during this period are a Hammarlund SP-600 JX-21 in excellent operating condition and an Eton Grundig Edition Satellit (2017). The Satellit has some similarities with the PL-880 that I will discuss later. I admit that I have never purchased a Tecsun radio. I’ll address issues raised by Direwolf131. Due to our position at the low end of Solar Cycle 24 and the poor SW propagation that results I use “serious” external outdoor wire antennas exclusively: random wire, long wire and horizontal loop. I know, wire is a lot less expensive than most than most off-the-shelf SW antennas but I like setting up wires and try to behave as seriously as possible while listening to SW (programming permitting). I like to DX on shortwave and unless I’m listening outdoors with a whip in an RFI quiet area whips don’t perform that well for DX right now on any multiband portable.

    1. Sensitivity claims in multiband radio reviews. Until such time that I find a reviewer that has the technical chops and instruments necessary actually measure and record receiver sensitivity on many frequencies in the SW spectrum I will accept these evaluations as entirely subjective and take them with the appropriate grains of salt.

    2. Supposedly, the 909X is deaf on shortwave while using the telescopic whip antenna, or better yet it’s deaf on shortwave. Yes, I have read this many times before and have heard it on YouTube videos so it must be true.

    When using whip antennas on SW or the same external antenna I have yet to tune in and copy a station on the Satellit that I couldn’t hear as well or better on the 909X. True, the four-element signal strength meter on the Satellit will give a higher indication than the 12-element SS meter on the 909X but if the audio controls on each radio are adjusted for equal sound volume the signal on the 909X is just as readable and usually less noisy on the 909X. SS meter indications on the 909X are much more in line with the that of the SP-600 than the Satellit. The 909X tends to be better at rejecting noise especially on weak signals. In fact, if a station is extremely weak, so weak that it can not be ID’d by listening to the audio then the 909X may reject it as noise while the Satellit will not. The SP-600 is very good at digging into noise. It will receive weak, unintelligible signals much more effectively than the 909X or Satellit.

    3. Shortwave ECSS listening on the 909X. I agree that ECSS operation on the 909X is not as good as that of the Satellit. 909X SSB resolution is 40 Hz and resolution on the Satellit is 10 Hz. These means that tuning will be closer on the Satellit for SSB or ECSS. Voices with ECSS will warble on the Sangean and not on the Eton but both can be easily understood. Don’t even try listening to music with ECSS on the 909X. The 40 Hz SSB resolution is not that much of a detriment when listening to SSB. When listening to an amateur group on SSB the 40 Hz resolution on the 909X is not a problem at all because none of the amateurs will be on the same frequency (plus or minus 10 Hz) anyway. I find that ECSS operation on both the 909X or ECSS or SYNC operation on the Satellit are of very limited practical use for SW broadcast reception. By the time I use either ECSS or SYNC I usually find the signal can be copied better by switching back to standard AM!

    4. Like most multiband portables in current production SW reception is much better with battery power than AC power due to noise generated by switching power supplies used in wall wart power adapters. I use four standard (white) Eneloop rechargeable AA NiMH cells in both the 909X and the Satellit. Both radios will charge batteries inside the radio but the the charging system in the 909X is a modern, fast “smart” charger while the Satellit has a “dumb” charger that is twice or three times slower. With both radios I recharge the Eneloops as soon as the first battery charge state indicator bar goes out. This keeps the radios operating at maximum battery power for SW. I use SW portables a lot so there is no way I’m forking out money for replacing non-rechargeable batteries.

    5. Selectivity. The ability of a shortwave radio to separate the tuned signal on one frequency from unwanted signals on another is just as important as receiver sensitivity. This is called selectivity. Like the PL-880 the Satellit uses DSP variable bandwidth filtering provided by the Silicon Labs DSP chip. The Sangean (which also uses the same Silicon Labs DSP chip) makes use of two older-tech tech but excellent Japanese MuRata ceramic IF filters. The SP-600 features non-crystal filters for 16, 8 and 3 Khz bandwidths and crystal filters plus phasing control for 1.3 Khz, 500 Hz and 200 Hz. This filter selection offers selectivity and options that are far superior to the 909X and the Satellit (incidentally, the better SDRs offer much better filtering than the Hammarlund!). The Satellit features DSP bandwidth filter settings (what kind of bandwidth units I don’t know) of 6, 4, 3, and 2.5 while the ceramic filters on the 909X are 6 and 4 Khz. I did a side-by-side comparison of filter performance of the 909X and the Satellit using the same target station with the same external antenna. The target station was fairly weak on 49 meters while another station was vastly stronger and 5 kHz higher in frequency. The 6 Khz ceramic filter on the 909X showed no audible interference from the stronger station while the DSP filters on the Satellit produced piercing heterodynes and splatter with the 6, 4, 3, and 2.5 Khz filter settings. I have a video of this comparison on a YouTube channel listed below. As the PL-880 uses the same DSP bandwidth filtering from the same chip as the Satellit it is a safe assumption that it suffers from wide-skirted filters as well.

    5. FM and MW (AM broadcast band) reception. Most of my FM listening is to local stations and both the Sangean and Eton Satellit do quite well. Both companies have paid for RDS which is a nice aid for FM DXing. The PL-880 is missing RDS altogether. Of the two the 909X has far better AM and FM sound thanks to a powerful 1-watt audio section driving a very responsive speaker. The PL-880, like the Satellit has a much less powerful audio section. I do a little MW DXing. I can hear Canadian, Mexican and Midwestern stations on the 909X at night with the built-in ferrite bar antenna. My MW listening from the east is a little attenuated by 11,000′ peaks of the Sierra Nevada range 80 miles away . I listen to the 24-hour AM news station from a big city 70 miles away on the 909X during daytime with no static.

    I have read numerous reviews of the Sangean ATS-909X that grudgingly praise the attractive appearance, rugged build quality and ergonomic control placement as somehow detracting from its performance as a radio. My only comment for that is “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

    The 909X as been priced about $50 higher than the PL-880 for the last couple of years. The Satellit price varies somewhere in-between. As far as the 909X goes you get what you pay for.

    Here is my hugely popular YouTube channel and shortwave playlist. Many videos of the 909X in action are here along with some appearances by the SP-600.

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBS1S1WX1DkCp037ZWfLzvA

    Reply
    1. DanH

      Sorry about having two No. 5 items in the above reply. Also, there are many nice DX catches with the 909X on the YouTube channel. Click on “VIDEOS” near the top of the page to find all of them.

      Reply
  4. Keith Perron

    To Sangean SW is not longer important and as soon as parts for this and the other SW radios run out they are no longer to be replaced.

    In the early 90s SW accounted for just over 80% of their business. Today it’s less than 2% and falling. Albert Chen who was the head of the SW section of Sangean also retired and no one replaced him. Or I should say no one wanted to replace it.

    Tecsun is totally different. Being an SOE, even if they sold 20 radios a year they would still get money. Sangean’s mandate under the if to produce, which is part of the ideology of the CPC. At their main warehouses in Shenzhen and Guangzhou they literally have millions of radios of all kinds. Some have not moved in years, but yet the production lines keep running.

    Since 2007 and more recently under Xi Jingping, Tecsun is one of the SOEs being investigated as the Central Government in Beijing is paying more close attention, to all SOEs that are unprofitable.

    Reply
    1. DanH

      Thanks for the information, Keith. Sangean is quite a different company from Tecsun. For one, Sangean is headquartered in the Republic of China (ROC) where it designs its radios. Sangean has the radios built under their supervision in the PRC (People’s Republic of China). Tecsun radios are designed and built in the PRC and in the big picture the company is owned by the Politburo and the Communist Party.

      I can’t tell you how disappointed I am to learn that Sangean will not produce any more SW radios. Sangean continues to develop and improve their AM radios with some innovative designs like the PR-D4W.
      https://www.amazon.com/Sangean-PR-D4W-Portable-Bandwidth-Narrowing/dp/B00PBWV5Q0

      This radio means they still have some people developing AM radios. I will try to contact Sangean for more information. I would love to provide some input for a possible successor to the 909X. Two or three years from now would be a good time to introduce a new radio with SW propagation on the upswing again. But, if the SW radio market is gone there really isn’t much hope left.

      Reply
      1. Keith Perron

        Sangean own their own factory. While they do they their own brand, they are also an OEM, which how the company started. The largest business now is DAB, DAB+, FM and MV.

        in 2008 Sangean had 11 world band radios as part of their product line. Today there is only 3, ATS909X, ATS405, and SG622. From time to time new old stock of models produced between 2000 and 2010 appear.

        I remember a time when i would go by their head office, located 10 minutes from my place in Chung Ho where the world band receivers had their own department, which was closed and and just put with the product line for the rest of the company.

        I own two ATS909X receivers. The export version and the domestic version. What I don’t get the price gauging many retailers have for this receiver. Prices from 280$ as high as 350$. A know retailers here in Taiwan and Singapore who have told me the retailers overseas are marking up the price way to high. Even with taxes and duties the ATS909X should be no more than 150$ to 200$.

        Reply

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