Tecsun PL-990x vs. PL-880: Comparing SSB audio characteristics and pre-production/production PL-990 models

A number of SWLing Post readers have been asking about SSB audio characteristics on the new Tecsun PL-990.

Earlier this week, I took a moment while visiting family to make a few quick comparison videos with the PL-880 outdoors and away from RFI.

As I mention in the videos, there are a lot of cicadas singing in the background and you can also hear a bit of road noise–not ideal for audio, but I had to take advantage of a break in the weather!

You should also note that this isn’t a sensitivity comparison. The radios were pretty close together–if measuring sensitivity, I would have spaced them much further apart. Rather, I hope these videos give you an idea of the audio characteristics in SSB (both CW narrow and voice) and one comparison in AM. If you’re curious about sensitivity and how the PL-990x compares, check out Dan Robinsons initial evaluation.

CW Audio: .5 kHz filter on the 80 meter band

CW Audio: .5 kHz filter on the 30 meter band

SSB audio: 75 meter band

AM Audio: 5 kHz filter WWV 10 MHz

My thoughts

While these videos are far from ideal, they should give you a real-word impression of audio characteristics.

Personally, I think the PL-990x is a much better performer in single sideband. The noise floor is lower, but I think that may have more to do with better filter implementation. I’ve always felt that the PL-880 audio sounds “wider” than the selected filter in the more narrow SSB selections.

In addition, the PL-990x exhibits better SSB stability that’s especially noticeable in CW. The PL-880, at times, almost sounds garbled in comparison.

I also mentioned in the last video that the audio sounds better on the PL-880. I should have qualified that statement a bit better.

In general, yes, the PL-880 audio sounds better because its built-in speaker has slightly better audio fidelity that’s most noticeable when listening to music on the FM band, or a strong local AM station. On shortwave, I feel like I actually prefer the PL-990 audio for all but the strongest stations although I do wish the PL-990 filter could be widened to 9 kHz like the PL-880.

PL-990x (pre-production) vs. PL-990 (production model)

Tecsun Radios Australia reached out and kindly sent me one of their PL-990 production model radios to compare with the PL-990x pre-production model from Anon-Co we’ve been testing up to this point. This has been incredibly helpful as I put together my PL-990 review for the 2021 World Radio TV Handbook.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I feel it can be problematic using a pre-production model radio for review only because there can be differences in quality control when a small number of pre-production units are manufactured compared with a proper first production run (remember this case?).

I’ve only had the production model PL-990 for a few days and most of that time we’ve been dealing with the remnants of hurricane Sally moving through our area dumping torrential rains.

Last night, however, a massive tree fell across our road knocking out power for the better part of 5 hours. This gave me a perfect excuse to start my comparison indoors while rain continued outside.

Based on my comparisons last night, it appears performance is nearly identical between the production and pre-production models. I’ve still more testing to do, but my initial impressions are most positive. Very happy quality appears to be consistent.

Many thanks again to Tecsun Radios Australia for making this comparison possible.

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19 thoughts on “Tecsun PL-990x vs. PL-880: Comparing SSB audio characteristics and pre-production/production PL-990 models

  1. TomL

    Is there a video comparison of SYNC of the 990x vs.. 660/680 SYNC? Isn’t the 990x just a warmed over 880 with the same crappy SYNC???

    Reply
  2. Robert Richmond

    IIRC, the PL-990 and H-501 are supposed to be Tecsun’s last “high-end” shortwave receivers. If so, that leads me to believe the company probably will continue with portable models; just in the lower price segments.

    I have no immediate knowledge of Tecsun’s internal business model, but I can imagine a sales ratio of numerous affordable receivers (360, 380, 606, 660, etc.) sold versus each 880/990-class receiver sold.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      I have a PL-660 and looking at both the 880 and the 990x I do not see any reason to upgrade. Yes, the latter two have more bells & whistles but in the most important function of a SW receiver, the strength & clarity of a signal, the 660 is as good or better than both of them.

      Reply
      1. Mark

        Hi Tom, bells and whistles are fine but I don’t like paying for bells and whistles that don’t work and SSB performance and sound quality overall is poor in these DSP radios. I would say the 680 has the edge on sound quality over the 660, the 660 is a great radio for SW but practically deaf on LW/MW. And of course SSB works perfectly.

        The 660 and 680 can use zero beat on SW to eliminate qrm or greatly reduce it by switching to USB/LSB and then adjusting the bfo until the sound is natural. If there’s a qrm signal up or down the frequency usb or lsb will in most cases greatly reduce or eliminate the qrm, can’t do this on the 880 and It looks like it won’t work on the 990 either unless they have a really good SYNC detector.

        Reply
    2. Mark

      Hi Robert, that’s correct, the last of the Tesuns so called performance radios are the 990 and H-501.

      I have little faith that the H-501 will be any better on SSB, I expect the 501 will be like the 880 and S-8800 same radio with some minor differences.

      The 680 is so much better than these radios and if Tecsun continue to sell these non dsp radios then it’s no bad thing. The 990/H-501 look like radios from the 90’s. DSP isn’t all bad, the 310ET is a good little radio but LW/MW performance is not good. Good on SW and good for scanning the SW bands with the ET mode.

      Reply
  3. Ron F

    Worth noting that the Si47xx DSP chips used in these radios weren’t exactly designed to support SSB (or synch. detection) by default. Those features are only available in custom vendor-specific firmwares supplied by Silicon Labs, and as far as I know the only widespread user of those firmwares is Tecsun & related companies.

    If you buy a Si4732/34/35/42/43/44/45 chip from SiLabs or a devboard from another vendor, it doesn’t support SSB or synch.

    Other radios that use the same SiLabs chipset family and support SSB – such as the Sangean ATS-909x – use a traditional BFO arrangement, before feeding the resultant IF to the SiLabs DSP. As do the PL-660 & PL-680, which are both traditional radios using an analogue AM/SW/FM chip.

    Reply
    1. Mark

      Hi Ron,

      Indeed, the PL-660 and 680 are great radios and if anyone is reading this I would give my advice to them to save the money and buy the PL-680 because it’s much more sensitive on MW/LW and it sounds really amazing, good analogue sound. The 660 and 680 don’t have the filtering that the 880 and 990 have which is more noticeable on crowded ham bands however for SW listening the fact that LW/SSb works so well it’s a very useful tool against qrm.

      I wish Tecsun stuck to traditional superhets and improved the filtering for SW/SSb and that is all that is required because the 680 is already a very sensitive radio.

      As I said though the issues on SSB are not unique to Tecsun and effect other brands, but seems to be particularly bad on the Tecsuns.

      Reply
      1. Ron F

        It’s not _unique_ to the Tecsun _brand_ – but that’s because I think all the brands/models you’ve mentioned as being affected by poor DSP SSB are all (a) based on the same SiLabs chip range with SiLabs-provided firmware (which seems to be over-extended in terms of the chip’s actual capability), and (b) manufactured by Desheng (i.e. Tecsun & related companies).

        (Nobody still thinks that Eton – to pick one – designs or makes their own radios, do they? Most (all?) of their portables are made by Tecsun etc.)

        I agree that the PL-660 and 680 are, in general, much better radios than the PL-880, S-8800, etc. That’s why I keep recommending the former two over the latter, and have repeatedly cautioned people against getting too excited over the PL-990, H-501, etc.

        Reply
  4. Mark

    Hi Ron,
    I expect the performance to reflect the price, truth be told the radios can probably be bought in China for much less than half what we would pay in the West. You might listen to AM more then SSB and so the radio might suit you better and that’s fine. But if it’s got issues why not fix them rather than release them when they are less than perfect ? Why not just ditch DSP and improve the superhet design ? I’m not being hard on Tecsun for no reason.

    Tesun have made some good radios, the PL-660 and my favourite portable the PL-680 is better again, it actually works on MW and LW , lovely receive audio and quiet receivers with non of the harshness of modern dsp radios. I had the S-2000 too and I wasn’t a fan, looked very cheap and didn’t sound great but at least it didn’t have the SSB distortion.

    I got stung with the PL-880 and S-8800 and I swore I would not buy a modern Tecsun again until the fix the distortion on SSB, they haven’t and it’s wrong to sell these radios knowing there are what I would call serious issues in performance especially at the price.

    On the PL-680 I can zero beat on SW, if there’s an interfering station on SW I can switch to LSB/USB and in most cases this eliminates the qrm or greatly reduces it. SYNC works well but sometimes USB/LSB is better, on the PL-880 and S-8800 I couldn’t do this because the sound was so bad on SSB and I expect the 990 will be the same from watching the videos here.

    My XHDATA D-808 also has a harsh sounding audio with distorted audio on SSB though it’s not as bad but it cost a lot less money. I’ve seen youtube videos of the Eton radios with the same issue, they probably all use the same flawed DSP chip.

    What bugs me is that there’s no real change to Tecsun radios, they’ve been using the same screen for many years, no RDS and the radios are mostly recycled versions of previous models.

    Indeed there will be radios available on ebay for many years to come and we have sdr now too which is a saving grace, and there’s the kiwi which I can log into from my own phone while on the move which is convenient.

    At least the PL-680 is still available to buy, I’d have no hesitation buying one again and it works amazingly well with my Bonito MA305 whip antenna mounted 20 feet up in a tree.

    Reply
  5. Ron

    Without sounding too harsh I think we’ve all got a little too used to getting everything we want for nothing.

    When Tecsun started bringing us little DSP portables from China everyone kind of went ape poop crazy. So cheap, yet so much better than anything even near the price.

    Now we expect each new radio to outdo the previous one and be at least as cheap.

    The same people I hear complaining about China and things being made there are the same ones buying stuff from China and driving the market towards the cheapest lowest quality product thus making it hard for domestic manufacturers to compete.

    Do I hear an amen?

    Tecsun is one of the only shortwave radio manufacturers left that offers a wide variety of receivers. I think I heard once here that these may be their last shortwave radios. We should actually feel pretty dang lucky they’re still around. As shortwave listeners we are in the minority. Soon there will be no new portables and we’ll be searching eBay for used ones. Mark my words.

    I’ve been looking at the comparison videos and think the PL990 might actually be a good one for me. This winter I hope to go ice fishing again. I like the idea of a radio with good audio, good shortwave, FM and AM and a 16GB card I can put podcasts on. No cell reception there so I can load a months worth of audio books on it! A score for me. Might wait to see if the H-501 comes out before my trip.

    Thanks Tecsun for continuing to provide us with new shortwave radios!

    Reply
  6. Robert Richmond

    I might be missing something, but the venerable Tescun PL-660 can be purchased new for half or less the price of a PL-990. Sure, it is a superhet without modern DSP features, but it still fulfills lots of checkboxes for a competent SWL portable at a reasonable price point. SSB sounds decent, and sync even generally works.

    Suppose I will continue muddling along with my Grundig G3 and RS-branded Sangean ATS-505 receivers for portable reception…. for now. I keep thinking about acquiring a Belka-DSP.

    BTW, anyone know when the H-501 export model is slated for release? I like the overall design idea, but at this point I am concerned it might be little more than a PL-990 with two speakers.

    Reply
  7. Old SWer from Way Back

    Thanks for reviewing these two Tecsuns. Unfortunately, there is so little good programming on shortwave these days I will not be buying another SW radio when my current one dies. Between the WBCQ nazis and WBCQ flat earthers and the WBCQ Brother Stair programming–there really is a lot of crap out there. Did I mention WWCR, WHRI, WRMI?

    Reply
  8. Mark

    Thanks for testing the 990 on SSB, I really appreciate your time and effort!

    Another epic fail from Tecsun, I had high hopes for this radio but too good to be true, there’s no way in hell I’d pay 50 USD for this radio, 220 ? Your dreaming Tecsun, I got bitten twice with the 880 and S 8800, an expensive mistake. Luckily I could sell them but still lost money.

    There’s no excuse for having so many years and using the same crap DSP chip there’s no one with a ham radio license that would tolerate such rubbish quality on ssb and again the 4 kHz filter clearly doesn’t work.

    Why can’t they have just made a good superhet and forget about this DSP junk ?

    The PL-680 was the last good portable radio Tecsun made, its wonderful compared to this DSP rubbish with wonderful audio. I really like it.

    Why Tecsun? Why ?

    Reply
    1. Norm Lee

      Wow! That is one angry owner! Tecsun is an “all things to all men” radio, it is small enough for me to throw into my hand-luggage on the plane. It is not – NOT – a communications receiver, so the DSB/sideband issues are irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. I’m a radio ham and have comms equipment coming out of my ears, the Tecsun was never intended to compete with NRD or Racal or Collins. It is what it is, and The 880 does its job very well indeed. Stop moanin’ !

      Reply
  9. Dave

    It’s time for Tecsun to get out of the radio market if they have no intention of actually improving serious faults in their radios. The PL-990 appears to be just another half baked product which will be snapped up by the faithful but rejected by the real SW enthusiast with an eye for quality and performance.

    I’m tired of the colossal garbage coming out of China and being flogged to the rest of the world. This radio – The PL990 – is not exactly cheap and it’s just too much to pay for a radio with beta level quality.

    I see that Tecsun radios Australia are flogging this radio for A$550 and that includes a few extras like an external antenna, wall wart and a usb cable. That does not represent good value and is far too much to pay for a SW portable with no digital decoding capability.

    The lack of important features like an RF-Gain, a working AGC, RDS, usable filters, a strong front-end, and even Alpha Tags makes one think that Tecsun isn’t trying very hard at all. Maybe it’s a communist thing where striving for quality is not important

    No sale for me

    Reply
  10. Ad Dieleman

    The PL-990 still has that distortion with sudden signal strength increments like SSB speech after silence. In CW it’s also audible and even the WWV recording is affected by this. Disappointing. Thanks for making these clips, I almost would have ordered the PL-990x but I’m going to refrain for now; maybe they’ll improve on it in the future by a firmware update.

    Reply
    1. Babis

      yes should try adapt via the micro sd card ? firmware upgrade ? for such issues of software problems (maybe better handle of the agc etc)

      Reply
  11. 13dka

    The PL-990 sounds a lot like the S-8800 in CW and SSB, the same AGC behavior and the very same noise footprint/filter sound I became so familiar with (also because I’m currently hearing it a lot, doing the last tests and touches on a Belka DSP review, comparing it with my Chinese portables)..

    In the short WWVB example the mic position and fading ( – the meter seems to indicate a substantial difference (10dB/notreallymicrovolt less) in level on the 880 – ) may have exacerbated this but the PL-990 sounds a lot less noisy in this example than its predecessor.

    Reply

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