Field Notes: Comparing the Tecsun PL-990x and PL-880

Many of you have been asking about the new Tecsun PL-990, especially as compared with the venerable PL-880. If you haven’t checked out Dan Robinson’s post yet, I highly recommend you do so. His long-format video will also give you a good indication of how both radios compare. Also check out George’s review of the PL-990.

I’ve been incredibly busy here at SWLing Post HQ because a number of new products have all arrived at once–most were held up due to supply chain and logistics issues due to Covid-19.

In the background, I’ve been spending some dedicated time with the new PL-990x and comparing it with the PL-880. I’m writing a review of the PL-990 that will appear in the 2021 issue of the World Radio and TV Handbook.

Here are a few of my “field notes” I’ve gathered along the way. Most of these confirm what Dan and I have already stated about the PL-990x, but the notes below address the most common questions I’ve been asked by readers,

Shortwave

As Dan and I have both noted, the PL-880 still has a slight edge on the PL-990 in terms of sensitivity. It’s not a drastic difference in performance, but it is noticeable when comparing the radios in a noise-free location (in the field).

The PL-990 has a proper synchronous detection mode with sideband selection. Unlike the PL-880’s “hidden feature” sync detector, the PL-990 sync detector is quite functional. It does indeed help with selective fading and has an adjustable bandwidth that, in combination with sideband selection, helps mitigate noises or adjacent signals in one half of the carrier.  With that said, I don’t feel the sync lock is as stable as, say, that of the PL-660 or PL-680. I do hear a muted heterodyne “wobble” when tuned to weak stations or during times of deep fading (as we are currently experiencing).

I’ve yet to spend a meaningful amount of time comparing both radios with external antennas connected.

Mediumwave

I’ve been testing this pre-production PL-990x  for a couple weeks already and I do believe it has a slight edge on the PL-880 in terms of mediumwave sensitivity. Not a drastic difference–much like the difference between the two radio on shortwave, but the PL-990x seems to have the upper hand.

FM

Both radios have superb FM reception. I feel like they’re very comparable.

But since the PL-880 has a slightly better built-in speaker, it really can take advantage of FM radio audio fidelity when listening to music, for example. This is not to say that the PL-990 has crappy audio–far from the truth. Indeed, I was impressed with the audio when I first put the PL-990 on the air. You only notice the PL-880’s superior audio while doing side-by-side comparisons. Is it enough to sway my purchase decision? No, not really. For AM and shortwave–which is where I spend most of my time–the PL-990 audio is robust.

PL-990 strong points

A number of PL-880 owners have been asking if it’s worth upgrading to the PL-990. I’m pretty sure Dan and I–both being primarily shortwave enthusiasts–would agree that it’s not worth upgrading to the PL-990 at this point. I would wait to see how the upcoming, much larger, H-501 performs.

I’ve also been asked by readers what I like about the PL-990 in comparison with the PL-880. Here’s a list from my notes:

I prefer the ergonomics and front panel layout of the PL-990. The PL-880 is fine, but the PL-990 is better in my opinion.

The MicroSD card is found on the bottom of the radio.

While I really wished the PL-990 had a recording feature, I do appreciate the new digital audio player with removable MicroSD storage. It’s a simple process to load music, audiobooks, or podcasts on the PL-990. This is especially a bonus for me while I travel because I can also load recordings of ambient noises (from myNoise) to help with sleep in, say, a noisy hotel. (But golly I wish it could record as well!)

Why it’s a “hidden feature” I’m not sure, but I appreciate the fact that the PL-990 can also double as a capable Bluetooth speaker.

Summary

In the end, the PL-990 is not a game-changer in the Tecsun product line: it’s an incremental upgrade in terms of features.

If you own the PL-880 and are primarily an SWL, there’s no need to grab a PL-990 just yet. Wait for the H-501. If you’re considering either the PL-990 or PL-880 and prefer slightly better mediumwave performance, digital audio playback, and Bluetooth functionality, grab a PL-990.

Pricing and availability

Tecsun Radio Australia has just received their first batch of PL-990 inventory and are immediately available for $550 AUD.

Nevada Radio plans to receive their first batch of the PL-990 in the UK next week and have a pre-order price of £259.95.

Anon-Co has not yet posted pricing or availability of the PL-990x, but I expect they will soon.

Production and Pre-production comparison

Tecsun Radio Australia has kindly offered to send me one of their production PL-990 units to compare with the pre-production PL-990x.  I’m very grateful to them for doing this as it will be interesting to see if there are any differences between the two models. Of course, I’ll report my findings in the 2021 WRTH review and notes here on the SWLing Post. The production PL-990 is already en route to SWLing Post HQ via DHL.

For more PL-990 information check out:


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8 thoughts on “Field Notes: Comparing the Tecsun PL-990x and PL-880

  1. Dave

    All the Tecsun SW receivers are too sensitive and have faulty AGC circuits which manifest as overload and distortion.

    Why the S-2000 is the only Tecsun radio with an RF-Gain is a mystery as the 3 position attenuator on all the other Tecsun boxes is just pure junk. This omission makes SSB impossible to resolve properly.

    As for the PL-990, it looks like more of the same sub standard garbage from Tecsun with a few sprinkles thrown in. I will pass. My ATS-909, which is 24 years old, totally outperforms any Tecsun and even has RDS and Alpha Tags.

    The Chinese know how to build radios but have no clue about functionality and quality.

    Reply
  2. Babis

    Thanks for the review … will be interesting to see the 990 vs 990X together (also videos side by side of both helps better) because i have seen videos of the 990 (Chinese version) at SW compared to older sony 7600gr & also sangean 909x & pl-680 , & the 990 seems it does well, i can say slightly better

    Reply
  3. Joseph B

    While I appreciate Tecsun updating the PL-880, what I really wish they would do is update the Tecsun S-2000/Eton Elite 750. I just purchased the rebranded Eton Elite 750 and am really enjoying it. SSB is more difficult to tune than with the 880 (which I also own), but once tuned in it is clear and rock stable. It really helps that it has a switchable AGC and variable RF gain control — all incorporated into the same knob. However, it still has some quirks that are over a decade old now. For example, if you use the “Wide” filter on medium wave, it always tunes 3 Khz high. It doesn’t bother me all that much — I usually just keep the filter in “Narrow” mode anyway. (And “Narrow” mode seems to be “Narrower” when in SSB mode.). And while it will scan shortwave bands, the full ATS feature is only implemented for FM and AM.
    So I would like to see an improved S-2000/Elite 750 with the following features:
    * Multiple BW selections. (At least 4).
    * VFO quirkiness fixed on medium wave.
    * LED lighting for the display and S-Meter. (They’re a little dim for a desktop.)
    * Full ATS for the shortwave bands.

    Other than that, it’s the (almost) perfect radio — short of an SDR.

    Reply
  4. Mark

    Can’t seem to find a review on SSB, this is the reason I got rid of the PL-880, it had disastrous issues on SSB especially with stronger signals with external antenna.

    + the 880 filters 4 Khz didn’t work in SSB and because it had not got SYNC you couldn’t zerobeat on AM.

    The PL-880 was a really horrible radio, for AM SW only it was fine but too many other issues, I’m glad I sold it, I also sold the S-8800 which had the same issues, I made a very expensive mistake.

    If any SSB listeners have the 880 then I absolutely would recommend getting the 990. ( provided it’s proven they fixed the agc fault )

    I ended up getting the PL-680 which has really great sounding audio not mutilated by badly implemented DSP.

    MY D-808 suffered the same though the AGC issue wasn’t as severe, a lot cheaper radio, decent but harsh sounding audio too, the 680 may not have all the filtering but it sure is a teriffic sounding radio and zerobeat on an AM station using SSB works great.

    Reply
  5. Sergio Potes

    Thanks for the nice review. If the 880 has better sensitivity than the 990 , I hope they do something about it sin6thr 880 is not very sensitive. I have the 880 and my XHDATA D808 is way more sensitive than the 880. Hope the improve it before they release it.
    Thanks again for the review.

    Reply
    1. Tom Laskowski

      My PL-880 is not very sensitive either, especially on mediumwave. My C Crane Skywave is a better mediumwave radio than the 880. The only thing I use the 880 for anymore is FM. It’s actually a pretty good FM DX radio with just the whip.

      Reply
    2. Gordon Seifert

      Looks like the 99 is not something I am much interested in, but thanks for the mention of the myNoise site. Great stuff!

      Reply
  6. Ad Dieleman

    In the PL-880’s review it was mentioned that SSB reception was hampered by distortion due to inadequate AGC response times, which I considered a dealbreaker so I didn’t get a PL-880. How is the PL-990 performing in SSB mode? Thanks!

    Reply

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