George reviews the new Tecsun PL-990

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, George Joachim, who shares the following review of the Tecsun PL-990.

AS George points out, the PL-990 in the following review is not the “export” model Anon-Co will eventually offer for sale later this year. It might be nearly identical in every respect, but at time of posting Tecsun is addressing some final firmware updates the the “export” version prior to starting a full first production run. As we learn more about the various versions of the PL-990 in the wild–compare serial numbers, etc.– we will eventually sort out any nuances between versions.

George purchased this PL-990 on AliExpress and I am incredibly grateful to read his review of this model:


Review of the Tecsun PL-990

by George Joachim

Introduction

The Tecsun PL 990 is one of the three new radios offered by Tecsun and according to the news from the company these may be the last developed.

The other two radios are the Tecsun H-501 and the PL-330. The H-501 is the largest with dual speakers and the PL-990 is of a similar size to the PL-880, PL-680, PL-660 and PL-600. The PL-330 is the smallest and is similar to the PL-310ET and PL-380.

The Tecsun PL-990 is a medium sized portable multi-function radio. It has the following features:

  • Shortwave (SW)
  • Medium Wave (AM)
  • Frequency Modulation (FM)
  • SSB (LSB and USB)
  • Bluetooth connectivity (BT)
  • MP3 playback from a microSD port
  • Clock and two Timers with Alarms
  • Auto Sleep
  • powered by a single 18650 rechargeable 3.7V Lithium Ion Battery, unbranded and supplied.

The radio is a refinement of the PL-880 with styling similar to the PL-680. It is matte black with a hint of grey, finished in a quality plastic case and it is ergonomic with a good weight and feel, just like the PL-880.

Background

This is my fourth portable radio of this size. I had owned the analogue Sony ICF-7601 back in the day and then the PL-660 and PL-880. The Sony was destroyed by me doing naughty electronic experiments and both the PL-660 and PL-880 were gifted to my family members.

Having no such radio, I considered the purchase of a new PL-880. I had contacted Ms Anna from the Anon Co. in HK and she was very helpful and also mentioned that Tecsun is developing a couple of new radios, but these are not yet available. This got me interested in the PL-990 and the H-501. I had also considered the H-501, because I liked the fact that it has two speaker sets, however the radio did seem a big bulky for my needs. I have a few desktop radios, but I needed something to be on my lap or by the bedside. Usually I fiddle with these portable radios lying on my chest until I find something nice to listen to then let it play on auto sleep until it puts me to sleep. I am sure some of you guys do this too. I imagine the H-501 would be a bit big for this.

After reading articles on the SWLing Post and despite the warnings about Pilot run versions and Chinese versions, I decided to risk a purchase from AliExpress. This has been my one and only purchase on AliExpress so far.

Purchase

My radio was supplied by a company called Li Jia Shops in AliExpress. It cost a steep US$400 and US$157 DHL shipping. Totally expensive and risky in my opinion, but I am known to be reckless with my online purchases.? Besides, I wanted a new toy!

As this was my first purchase from AliExpress, I was a bit apprehensive, as I mainly use eBay. Also buying electronic items from China is a bit risky. One may end up not getting the item, or getting it after some significant delay. As you all know, electronic items exported from China is the largest electronics export operation in the world, so there is congestion in logistics and Covid-19 also adds to that. Selecting DHL to ship the item was very expensive, but I believe necessary. Waiting for an expensive electronic device for two months is a painful experience, at least from my perspective. Using DHL took a mere 12 days. The main delay originated from the shippers. They give the shipment information to DHL well in advance, but they do not actually take the item to DHL unless it suits their facilitators who they assign. The shipment shows as shipped and DHL status is ‘shipment information received’, but in reality the item is still with the shippers. Once it does actually get to DHL, then it is quite fast. Usually the shippers are located in the Shenzhen area and DHL is in Hong Kong. AliExpress will not release the payment unless the buyer confirms receipt of the item as described, so there is some safety for the buyer.

Overall, I was satisfied with the purchase and shipping process. But it was expensive and it was risky. It would be better to approach Anon Co in HK for your purchases rather than AliExpress and Bangood, but ultimately it is the buyer’s decision. For the English Export Version you must wait a bit I think.

The Export Version, the Chinese Version and the Pilot Run Version

This aspect is a bit confusing. From what I understood, and I could well be wrong, the versions are as follows:

Pilot run: this has the buttons as TIME DISPLAY and ALARM (this is also slightly cheaper on AliExpress and Banggood)
Chinese version: TIME TIMER A and TIMER B, but with Chinese manuals (what I have acquired)
Export Version: TIME TIMER A and TIMER B but with English manuals. (there may be further changes / improvements, as these units are still not available)

I am not sure about the firmware. My unit is presumably a later Chinese Version. And everything works properly as per the Firmware. The serial number of my unit indicates a possible manufacture date of July 2020, although this could be wrong.

Review

The review will be based on the different functions of the radio.

FM reception

In the UAE we are blessed with several English language FM radio stations with good music and limited advertisements. Each station caters to particular tastes, such as 90s music, modern and classic hits. Reproduction was crisp and in full bodied stereo. The speaker is powerful and not unlike the speaker of the PL-880.

MW reception

I do not usually listen to AM or MW. However, the radio does a good job receiving these stations with a deep sound and minimal crackling.

SW reception

Shortwave is still out there folks, although its variety and abundance is greatly reduced. I do receive quite a few broadcasts using the telescopic antenna. Activity is concentrated around the 16m band, the 31m band and the 49m band, although occasional broadcasts can also be found in the 22m, 19m and 41m bands. The SYNC function holds on to weak broadcasts and makes them intelligible. I am sure that the Radio would do a commendable job if one could use a time machine to take it back to the SW hay-days of the 80s and 90s. I wonder if they have any time machines up for sale in AliExpress? 🙂

SSB Reception

Right out of the box I was able to fine tune into 14,182.10 kHz on the USB and hear HAMS ‘doing their thang’. It was excellent and far better than what similar attempts resulted in my previous Tecsun radios. I do think that Tecsun has improved the SSB reception with this receiver. I am not a very capable SSB chaser, but if there is something SSB out there, the PL-990 should able to pull it in. One needs to know where and when to tune and luck also plays a role.

LW Reception

Yes it is there, but no, I have never heard anything in there using the PL-990 and all my previous radios. I do wonder if submarines transmit in the LW band? I don’t know.

MP3 Playback

A lot of listeners are not interested in MP3 listening, but I am. Especially with SW being so sparse nowadays. MP3 was a feature missed from previous Tecsun radios. I enjoy compiling a list of favourite tracks and listening to them, while engaged in a barbecue or in car maintenance or cleaning. I am also a train modeler and like to listen to MP3s while running my trains. Tecsun has even supplied a Sandisk micro SD card of 16GB with various Chinese and international tracks, which I think was nice of them.

Bluetooth

There is no Bluetooth button, but by pressing the RADIO/MP3 button an indication will come on the display as BT. The radio can then be conveniently paired with a mobile phone to transfer the audio from a you tube clip or similar to the radio, although I wouldn’t see the need for that. I am not sure if files can be transferred to the radio this way, I believe the function is only for audio playback.

Presentation and packaging

Much like the PL-880, the radio comes superbly packaged. The cardboard box functions as a glossy display of the radio and its features. Inside there are foam holders and there is a sturdy grey plastic toolbox case. In the toolbox case there is the radio, within a nylon bag inside its light brown faux leather pouch. The radio as well as the pouch have a carrying strap. In the toolbox there is a black foam case that contains:

  • A blue 18650 3.7 V Lithium Ion Battery
  • A long wire antenna in its real
  • A short(ish) charging cable
  • A UK style plug adaptor
  • A Chinese style charger with 2 USB outputs
  • A Chinese language operation manual
  • A Poster containing the map of the world and country Radio codes
  • On the other side of the Poster is a detailed view of the PL-990 with illustrations in Chinese

Batteries

The radio uses one Li-Ion type 18650 3.7V battery. The included type is a blue generic unbranded type, I would have preferred a Tecsun-branded battery. I have a couple of vape equipment batteries –Golisi S30, which I believe are superior to the unbranded battery. (No, I am not a Vaper).

Concluding Remarks

The latest Tecsun offering is a great conclusion to their series of multi-function portable radios. It offers some advantages over the PL-880, such as:

  • Styling
  • MP3
  • Much improved SSB reception
  • Superb FM reproduction
  • Bluetooth

Apart from the above I don’t see a compelling reason to acquire the radio unless, SSB or MP3 is important for you. Or like me, you just must have the latest.

Score

Style: 90%
FM: 100%
SW: 90% SYNC available
SSB: 95%
MW: 85%
LW: 80%
Battery Life: 70% for the provided battery 8/10 for externally sourced batteries
Display: 70% (the display is good, but it hasn’t really changed from previous displays)
Buttons: 85% Sturdy and precise, no wobbly buttons here.
Dials: 90% hard and precise with excellent indentations
Ports: 90% strong a tight female ports with protection plugs
Packaging: 95% anything you could wish for.
Documentation: 100% for Chinese speakers
Antenna: 60% normal telescopic antenna, should be a bit more shiny IMO.
Stability: 70% Stands well and has the rear bracket as the PL-880, however, would be easy to snap if pushed.
Sensitivity: 95% if it is there it will receive it and improve the signal over listening time.

Overall Review Score:
85.3%

Final thoughts:
Go get one, if you must, but better wait for the full export version.

George Joachim
11 AUG 2020


Many thanks, George, for sharing your review of the PL-990!

So far, the PL-990 sounds like it has iterative improvements over the PL-880 which is, I suppose, what I would expect. The PL-880 is a great portable, so I believe even minor performance upgrades–especially in terms of synchronous detection–could be very beneficial to some SWLs.  And thanks for taking the deep-dive and grabbing one of the models on AliExpress! It’ll be interesting to compare notes once the “export” PL-990 is released.

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12 thoughts on “George reviews the new Tecsun PL-990

  1. stogieguy7

    The UAE would seem to be a tough place to objectively review reception on the commercial bands. For example, the FM band would probably consist primarily of local-grade, well spaced signals. While there are always exceptions, and here could be signals available from your surrounding Emirates, it would seem like a place where most signals are “local”. This is likely even more true on MW, though perhaps some MW signals from other Gulf nations could be received as dx. Again, not the reviewers fault, but it reminds me of trying to play around with my rigs in San Jose, Costa Rica. Hard to make judgments as national FMs are all 0.4 MHz spaced, quite unlike my home location between Milwaukee and Chicago.

    I’d love to see a review of this model that is located in a more congested area, so that the sensitivity and selectivity of MW and FM can be more thoroughly evaluated.

    Reply
  2. Bertrand

    Hi George,
    thank you very much for your impressions on the Tecsun PL-990…Sounds good, there will be a real improvement over my PL-880 for sure, especially in SSB…!!

    Well it arrives a bit late, all that, as there is not much to receive on short wave anymore…

    Europe1 on 183 KHz and RMC Monte Carlo on 216 KHz LW have gone… recently…
    These huge LW transmitters are very expensive to use, ( Electricity bill…Hi ) …
    LW listeners in Europe habe seriously decreased…in number..in the last years… is a real fact…!!

    LW was largely use in the car radios all over the country, as France is the biggest nation in size…
    You could use one LW station all over , without changing you frequency… there was no skip and no shadow LW reception was really uncritical….

    FM and DAB+ local radios have largely won…over MW and LW… There is a very large choice of stations in the 3 border region where I live.. France, Germany and Switzerland…

    Vy 73 Bertrand F6GYY

    Reply
  3. Roger Fitzharris

    Thank you George for sharing your impressions, your review and photos of your newly acquired Tecsun PL-990.

    I’m sure it will provide you with many hours of listening enjoyment.

    What really struck me though, was how delivery times and shipping costs have been adversely affected by the pandemic, which has limited the number of cargo flights and decreased available cargo space.

    I can’t help but to compare your shipping costs [$147 (USD) via DHL] in August 2020 for your PL-990 compared to the shipping costs ($0) that I paid in May 2016 for my PL-880.
    At that time, I purchased my Tecsun PL-880 for a total of $149.99 (USD). The complete package arrived within six days to my home address in SW Ohio, from Hong Kong, via FedEx. With the exception of the sturdy, gray-plastic, toolbox-case, English language operation manual, and two Tecsun-branded, 18650 LI-ion batteries, my related accessories were the same. But of course, you got the latest iteration.

    Nevertheless, I’m still amazed by high far and how fast shipping costs have skyrocketed since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Cheers and 73

    Reply
  4. Mangosman

    George,
    What criteria are you using for your percentage rating. For example how can you give it 80 % for long wave when you did not receive anything?
    ITU zone 1 includes UAE but most AM transmitters are in Europe, and Africa. It is not used for broadcasting anywhere else. There are no DRM transmitters in this band.

    It is a real pity that the new design will not receive crystal clear stereo DRM signals on high frequency (SW)
    For you Radio Kuwait in English at a very strong 200 kW from Sulaibiyah, Kuwait on 15540 kHz. Broadcasts 1800-2100 UTC 22:00 – 01:00 UAE time daily. https://www.drm.org/what-can-i-hear/broadcast-schedule-2/ shows other DRM broadcasts. You should be able to get the Indian Overseas DRM services which contain two simultaneous programs on a single transmitter.

    Reply
    1. George Joachim

      I agree my rating of 80% for LW may be very arbitrary.

      Thanks for the DRM tips, I will surely try these out.

      Reply
  5. Babis

    Thanks for review … you are a bit far to get LW stations … and seems most of tecsuns sensitivity at LW is not the best …
    try 518 khz where you may hear some navtex operation (they transmitting only when need, at specific hours ) from Bahrain maybe at 00:10, 04:10, 08:10, 12:10, 16:10, 20:10 UTC time
    Oman at 02:00, 06:00, 10:00, 14:00, 18:00, 22:00 UTC time
    And for commercial stations night time to mornings (example 12-5 am your time) you may get dx (if you are lucky to catch at a really good good night)
    from 252 khz radio Algeria because they transmitting with about 750 kw …
    234 khz rtl with about 1500kw …
    225 polish radio with 1000kw …
    medi 1 at 171 khz with 1500 kw …
    it use to be and Turkmenistan at 279 khz the closer to you but i think is inactive …
    I am getting them some nights here in Greece with a small tecsun pl-360 but of course i am way closer, that is why i mention you may got some dx if you get a good good night

    Reply
      1. Mangosman

        Babis,
        I am not surprised that the long wave band is so noisy. Arcing , including lightning, switch mode power supplies which are used in nearly all new electronic devices including lighting produce their most interference at the lowest frequency but as the frequency rises the power drops at these frequencies.
        As a result most long wave broadcasters use very high power, with very large antenna systems in large areas of land. Many of the long wave broadcasters also transmit in DAB+ digital radio which is much cheaper to broadcast than long wave so many LW transmitters are being shut down.

        Long wave broadcast band 148.5-283.5 kHz. Long wave band is 30 – 300 kHz. Medium Wave band 300 kHz – 3 MHz.

        Reply
        1. Babis

          Thanks for the info, well spot it for LW … when i am trying to get LW stations (commercial – 148.5-283.5 kHz you mentioned) or check the band from time to time if are changes … i need to turn off most electric appliance (for my case mainly tv is a Must 100% to be turn off & also be very far from any pc/laptop) at home, in order to hear kind of good/ok LW signals especially at weak stations (not every night all are coming good) …

          i have an old just dvb TV (not T not T2) and at 198 khz on top of BBC & it makes additional super noise covering few khz around there, so will not hear anything till tv is off & of course any other electric appliance does at other freqs additional noise issue …

          & by the way posting my other LW experience … i have an other LW cheaper hand held radio than pl-360 ( & is way better at LW band – that is why i mention that some tecsuns sensitivity seems not so good at LW) but with that one using power supply (5V) will not get Anything at LW, till i use Only batteries … so in some cases even power supply can cause issues at LW (there are few PSU which having noise protection for cases like this, but never tried one)

          Reply
  6. Richard Langley

    George:
    Can your unit record a scheduled (timer) transmission from a SW station onto the memory card?

    Reply
    1. George Joachim

      I haven’t tried this yet and I believe recording is not possible on this receiver, the memory card exists solely for playback.

      Reply
      1. George Joachim

        Yes, I can confirm there no recording possible on this receiver. You can listen to mp3 that’s about it. Or you can connect it to a blue tooth device to use the speaker for playback.

        Having a bunch of my favourite tracks on the micro SD card for listening is not a bad thing. It sure helps the frustration those days/night when there is nothing on SW. But usually there is,

        Reply

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