Backlit keys, headlamps, and radio listening in the dark…

The Digitech AR-1780 has a very tactile button/key arrangement, but it is not backlit.

No less than two readers have contacted me this past week asking if I know of a shortwave portable that has backlit keys. Both of these guys, of course, are simply looking for a digital radio that’s a little easier to use at night in the dark.

Backlit keys would certainly make a lot of sense.

I’m going to look through my inventory of portables when I’m back home, but at the moment I’m drawing a blank. I can’t think of a single portable that has backlit keys, but I’m sure there are some out there in the wild. Can someone jog my memory–?

Readers: Please take a moment to comment with the make/model of any shortwave portables that have backlit keys! It would be nice to have a list to reference.

The indispensable headlamp…

I do quite a bit of portable shortwave listening in the dark. I especially like sitting on my porch at night to catch a little DX, pirate radio activity, or simply listen to one of my favorite broadcasters.  Even though I have much more capable radios in the shack–ones that are connected to large outdoor antennas–I love the simplicity of a potable for band scanning. Portables are especially fun for night time mediumwave DXing.

I also live in a relatively rural and remote area and one of the things I love about living here is the lack of light pollution at night. This also means that if I want to see when walking outside–and avoid walking into a visiting black bear (true story)–I’ll need some sort of flashlight/torch.

I’ve been made fun of before for carrying so many flashlights around (Mark Fahey, I’m looking at you–!), but frankly, these lighting tools have saved my bacon more than once.

I have an array of high-power portable flashlights, but the one I use the most is actually a headlamp. By using a headlamp, both hands are free to do work–especially helpful while tuning a radio.

These days, I never leave home without a headlamp. I always have one packed in my backpack, EDC bag, or luggage. Headlamps used to be heavy, expensive and sometimes used odd battery types. Today, headlamp prices are very reasonable, they’re lightweight, USB rechargeable, and they’ve become incredibly versatile.

The Nitecore NU25

My favorite for performance vs. price is the Nitecore NU25. I’ve had this particular model for three months. The price is approximately $35 depending on the color you choose. It’s very lightweight and, best of all, USB-rechargeable.

The battery life is excellent; I use it all the time, yet I think I’ve only recharged it twice just to make sure the battery was topped-off.

I also like the Nitecore NU25 because it has an array of lighting options:

  • A primary light with up to 360 lumens (4 lighting levels)
  • A 20 lumen high CRI LED which better replicates soft sunlight
  • A 13 lumen red LED with two light levels and a flashing option

For radio listening, I often use the the CRI LED, or the brighter red LED setting which preserves my night vision.

If I’m reading a book, then I use the CRI LED which casts a very wide, comfortable, full spectrum light.

For walking, hiking, or doing DIY projects in the attic/basement, I use the main headlamp light which has a tighter beam and can cast light a significant distance.

The Nitecore NU25 is very compact and easy to take on my one-bag travels. I feel some sense of comfort knowing that if my hotel experiences a loss of power (again, true story) I’ve got a capable, multi-function light in my EDC pack.

Click here to check out the Nitecore NU25 on Amazon (affiliate link supports the SWLing Post).

There are actually a number of excellent headlamps on the market. Personally, I look for ones that are affordable, rechargeable, lightweight, compact, and have at least an auxiliary red LED (which I find most useful for astronomy). I considered the PETZL Bindi because it’s incredibly lightweight and a friend recommended it, but it lacks lighting options and is pricier than the Nitecore NU25. The PETZL Bindi is an excellent option for runners, however. The PETZL ACTIK CORE also came highly recommended, but it costs almost twice what I paid for the Nitecore NU25.

Of course, if you just want a simple, basic headlamp for SWLing, you can get away with this $15 Foxelli headlamp. It does almost everything the Nitecore does at less than half the cost. In fact, I’m tempted to buy one of these to keep in my truck.

Any headlamp/flashlight recommendations?

I know for a fact that there are some dedicated flashlight/torch enthusiasts in our community who are active members of the excellent Candlepower Forums. I’ve tapped into their knowledge more than once when purchasing flashlights. I hope they’ll chime in and comment with their recommendations!

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17 thoughts on “Backlit keys, headlamps, and radio listening in the dark…

    1. Ronald Mullis

      No, the 880 doesn’t have backlit button, only it’s display can be illuminated. Still a great portable, if you bring your headlamp.

  1. Michael Black

    Doesn’t the Grundig Satellit 500 and/or 700 have backlit keys?

    I haven’t turned on either in a few years, but I have a vague memory.

    It is odd. The displays on receivers are often well lit, but in the dark that makes the keys even harder to see, the backlight kind of blinding you.

    On the other hand, I was using a Delco digitally tuned car radio for some years twenty years ago, it wasn’t LCD or LED, but in the dark it lit up the room, until I found a way to dim the display.


  2. Bruce

    I’m kind of late to this game, but I’ve found the Eton Executive Traveler III has so few controls that operating it in the dark is easy. Once you have the controls memorized, you don’t need to see them. On the other hand, the Executive Traveler isn’t really the best radio for DX…

  3. Jason

    I love nitecore products, I hadn’t considered their headlamps before but I will now, thanks. A trip around Australia last year saw me accumulate multiple headlamps, but all AA/AAA powered, as I became obsessed with them for a while and used them a lot on that trip.

    The best one I ever bought was this Arlec number for $5

    It’s one of the few I have where the body tilts, and I like the angles it can tilt at.

    I am buying a usb rechargeable one (or 2) for my next trip away. After some consideration I bought the Nitecore HC65 just now, but I may pickup the Nitecore NU25 for $35 AU later (you have to order from HK to get that price, nobody in Australia sells the NU25 under $70 which is too much to pay). The HC65 won’t be here in time for my trip away to bushland this weekend sadly, but I’ll pack one of my other headlamps, and of course a good portable radio (it will be either the Digitech AR1780, the CCrane Skywave SSB, the Sangean PR-D19 (no SW there but I would like something that tunes to 1710 in 9k steps) or maybe the Tecsun PL398BT. For a pocket portable it will be either the Sangean DT-120 or Retekess PR-12 I haven’t decided yet. Being close to a city I could try the Sangean DPR-35 DAB+ radio but that would be no fun.

    I never leave home without a torch in my pocket. My EDC is the nitecore MH20 but lately the light flickers sometimes, I think the bulb is starting to go (i’ve had this EDC at least 8 years), so these days I usually carry the Acebeam EC50 instead. I’m thinking about upgrading to the EC65 (4000 lumens instead of 3000).

    I like having way more power than i’ll need in a flashlight, as I’m vision impaired it comes in handy, however it’s also important to me the lowest light setting isn’t blinding for items closer to me either like reading.

  4. Jack K

    I have the Grundig G5 and I don’t believe it was designed that way on purpose. If you look at its Kaito and Degan siblings, their lights were placed to illuminate that large display. I could be totally wrong, but I believe they simply left those bulb placements on the E5 & G5 and viola, buttons lit up. But the G5 is not an easy dial to view at most angles. When the G/E 3 came out, a redesign eliminated that illumination.

  5. Guy Atkins

    The Degen DE1103 & Kaito KA1103 are close cousins to the E5/G5, and have nice, soft backlit keys too. In fact, this is probably my favorite feature of the DE1103. (Just avoid the DSP-based newer DE1103– it’s an overload champ.)

    Regarding headlamps, I have a variety of these dirt-cheap, very bright headlamps from Amazon, which are sold under a variety of names:

    I’m sure the light output is nowhere near the listed “1600 lumens”, and the included batteries are very questionable. However, for the price these have been awesome headlamps. I’ve only had one fail mechanically (broken clip for the elastic band). These are excellent for knock-about use such as when I’m crawling under my car doing an oil change!

    For radio use, I suppose they are clunky and rather over-kill. One of the more compact, lighter weight USB rechargeable headlamps mentioned by Thomas and others would be more suitable. Don’t overlook these Amazon cheapos for use around the house though!

    1. Ronald Mullis

      Hi, thank you for inspiration! I was looking at the Nitecore NU25 you mentioned, it’s very decent. Then I’m thinking that maybe I’ll pay a little more to get this more powerful version: Nitecore NU32 Head Torch USB Rechargeable LED Super Bright 550lm /w Red Light IP67 for £40 on Amazon UK. I’m cycling a lot for DXing and when returning in the night it would be useful. Anyway, when you use one radio for a long time, you get used to keyboard and other controls. I can use my PL-880 without light but I still need to see other things like wire connection, loop antenna, etc..


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