Guest Post: A “Horizontal DXer” explores the CC Skywave SSB and PL-880

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:


Confessions of a horizontal DXer and some initial impressions of the Tecsun PL-880

by Jock Elliott

Back in the day when I wrote for Passport To World Band Radio, one of my favorite things to do, while my better half drifted off to sleep, was to clamp on a pair of headphones, lean back against the pillows, and mess around with a Sony 6800W shortwave receiver.

It wasn’t a radio that was built for band scanning: you had to rotate a dial to select the megahertz segment of the bands that you wanted, tune a built-in preselector to the appropriate area, and then dial in the frequency with a tuning knob. And memories? Ha! You want memories?!! There were no stinking memories . . . you had to remember what frequencies you wanted or at least what portions of the bands you wanted to tune. The memories were between your ears.

But it was a receiver with an extraordinarily low noise floor, and many a happy evening I enjoyed programming from half a world away. Drifting off to sleep with headphones piping in a signal from a distant land was not without its dangers, though. One night I fell asleep listening to the news from Radio Australia beamed, in English, to Papua, New Guinea. I woke a while later to the same newscast beamed to Papua, New Guinea, but this time in Pidgin English. I heard some English words, but the rest did not make sense. I panicked, thinking some neurologic event had scrambled my brain, but a crisp voice rescued me: “This has been the news in Pidgin English, from Radio Australia.” Thank God!

When Passport ceased publication, I neglected shortwave radio for over a decade, busy with freelance writing and running the Commuter Assistance Net on two meter ham radio.

Earlier this year, the SWLing bug bit me again, and I fired up a long-neglected Grundig Satellit 800 and started cruising around the HF frequencies. Many of the big-gun shortwave stations were gone, or they weren’t aiming programming at North America, but there was plenty to listen to, including shortwave stations, HF ham bands, and some utility stations.

Gee, I thought, it might be great to have a radio for a little horizontal in-bed DXing before shutting off the lights for the night . . . something I could hold in my lap, turn the tuning knob, and discover hidden treasures. The Satellit 800, emphatically, was not the answer. It is a large radio, roughly the size of the vaunted Zenith Transoceanic radios, and definitely not suited for laps.

So, based on a great reputation and excellent reviews, I bought a CCrane Skywave SSB. The Skywave SSB is a powerhouse, offering AM, FM, Weather, Air, SW, and SSB in a package roughly the size of a deck of cards and perhaps twice as thick. And it delivers the goods, offering worthy performance on every band, although SW performance is greatly enhanced by attaching the wire antenna that is included with the Skywave SSB.

Two factors, I discovered, reduced the suitability of the Skywave SSB for bedside DXing. First, the tuning knob is really small, so you can’t just twirl your finger to traverse the bands. It also has click-detents on the tuning knob and muting between tuning steps, so the tuning is non-continuous, which diminishes the pleasure for me. So the drill becomes: use the automatic tuning system (ATS) to search the bands and store stations in memory and then use the keypad buttons to jump from stored station to stored station. Further, each keypad key makes a distinct “click” sound when properly depressed. And that brings us to the second factor: one night, I am attempting to explore the stations stored by the ATS when my bride, who was trying to doze off, taps me. “What?” I say. “Too much clicky-clicky,” she says. Oh, I thought; now I need to find a radio that is quiet, so long as I am wearing headphones.

Now, just to be clear: I would highly recommend the CCrane Skywave SSB (except for use next to a spouse who is attempting to sleep), particularly for traveling because it is so small and performs so well. To underscore the value of a shortwave-capable travel radio, some years ago, I spoke with a journalist who was in Russia when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place. Russian media were not reporting on it at all; he found out about Chernobyl by listening to the BBC on a shortwave radio he had tucked into his luggage, and he rapidly made plans to leave Russia.

A bunch of research eventually led me to the Tecsun PL-880, which is about the size of a trade paperback book. According to some reviewers (including Dan Robinson), the 880 is a bit more sensitive and shortwave than the PL-990. The 880 offers a bunch of bandwidths on both AM and SSB, and the tuning is butter smooth with no muting or detents. The smallish tuning knob has a bit of knurling on the edge, which make it possible to twirl the knob with one finger; you can fine-tune SSB with another knob, and, with one button-press, use the tuning knob to select filter bandwidths or memory channels. In short, if you avoid the keypad, this is a radio that can be operated in near silence next to a better half who wishes to snooze.

The performance, so far, is exemplary; using the PL-880 whip antenna, I could readily hear Gander, Newfoundland, broadcasting aeronautical weather as well as Shannon, Ireland, air traffic controllers directing aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Yes! I haven’t yet begun to explore all that the PL-880 can do, but it promises to be a lot of fun.


Click here to read more posts by Jock Elliott.

Spread the radio love

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: A “Horizontal DXer” explores the CC Skywave SSB and PL-880

  1. Franco

    Interesting review, some of these subtleties often get overlooked.

    For late night listening I’m not a fan of the muting and chugging whilst scrolling around the bands that a lot of DSP receivers suffer with, or bright digital displays.

    I found the Tecsun 9700DX the most pleasant to use. It’s based on an old school analog receiver with a full light up dial, tuning is slow but smooth with a sunken tuning wheel on the side of the unit and it’s a sensitive receiver.
    There is a click when you move the slider switch to change band but it is subtle if done gently and obviously it doesn’t have SSB mode or many other features other than dual conversion.

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Franco,

      Thanks for your comments. The R-9700DX looks like a very interesting alternative for late-night DXing if you don’t need or want SSB.

      Reply
  2. Carl Perez

    I, too, am a lazy, horizontal SWLer….

    Great to see that Mr. Elliott, who had presumably gone the way of Bigfoot, has surfaced again on Swling.com. I recall a discussion with John Figliozzi, once upon a time, in which we considered contacting you to form a local SWL group as we all lived in same area (upstate NY). We chickened-out since, as you know, all SWLs are loner-geeks who hate to meet people and/or go out of the house.

    Nice to hear from a former-editor of Passport!….I wonder whatever happened to the Grand Wizard of SWL, Larry Magne… I rabidly consumed all his radio reviews endlessly from the mid-80s until publication of Passport ceased… I often conjecture what he (or you) would think of all the advances that have occurred in radio since Passport’s demise (SDRs, etc.)….

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Carl, thanks for the kind words. Are you still in upstate? Anybody else around? Maybe we could get together with Bigfoot for coffee . . .

      I communicated with Larry Magne about a month ago; he’s alive and well. As to the modern advances, I certainly am blown away by the Skywave SSB and the Pl-880. These radios have more tricks than a bridge tournament.

      Reply
    2. Jock Elliott

      I got to thinking, if there were an upstate New York DX group, what their logo might look like. Here’s my small effort:

      Upstate DX

      That, by the way, is a Fennec Fox, denizen of the Sahara, and the ears really are that big. Supposedly, they help to provide cooling. My guess is that they can hear pretty well!

      Reply
      1. Carl Perez

        Jock,

        Apparently the tidal wave of desire to form an upstate NY SWL group can no longer be contained.
        Last I heard, John Figliozzi retired and moved to Florida, so he’s out… He was living in a condo with so much RF interference that he could only listen to portable radios at beachside.

        I know of no one else who might be interested in SWL meeting… I sometimes try to talk about SWL with wife, but it’s like talking to a frequency-jammed radio.

        I am still in Albany area, retired, and would love to meet with you and anyone else for coffee and SWL discourse. We could title the meeting “Bigfoot meets Bigmouth”… I’ll be Bigmouth…

        Fair warning: I am not in your SWL league. I am the laziest of SWLs… drifting in and out of the hobby over 35 years. I think I might be a bit intimidated meeting with you/others, but I think it might be fun to share my evolution as an SWL and Passport reader….

        How to proceed…?

        Reply
  3. Francisco Pires de Camargo

    Gostei do artigo também gosto de ouvir rádio na cama tenho vários mas a experiência descrita do PL 880 me parece interessante muito bom artigo descrever o sistema da antena de uma forma simples sem dados técnicos seria muito bom abraços

    Reply
  4. Bill Hemphill

    Jock,

    Glad to see others that like to listen to the radio in bed. Many years ago, I would always listen in bed to the Happy station Program from the Netherlands. While there seems to be fewer stations now, there still are some very interesting programs to listen to.

    Like you, I have settled on the Tecsun PL-880. I find that the controls just naturally fall under my fingers. The only thing that’s a little awkward is the antenna. If I lay stretch out with the radio on my stomach, then the antenna slopes away from the radio instead of going straight up at a right angle. I wish they would put an antenna that you could pull out of the case about half an inch. Then it could go straight up. I know I have had radios that did this.

    In fact, I just checked around the house and found that my old Realtone AM/FM radio’s antenna does just that.

    Thanks for the nice article. Happy listening.

    73
    Bill WD9EQD
    Smithville, NJ

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Back at ya, Bill: Happy listening! I agree with you about the antenna on the 880; it can require careful maneuvering. I must measured: the 880’s antenna is about 38.5 inches long. By contrast, the antenna on the Skywave SSB is 21.5 inches.

      Reply
  5. Noel Waddoup

    Thanks for the article, Jock. Like Robert I really miss Passport. I far preferred it to WRTH. And the 880 is a great radio.

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Thanks for the kind words, Noel. These modern generation radios — the 880 and Skywave SSB — continue to amaze me with all that they can do. Perhaps “further on down the log book,” I’ll have another guest post about my further adventures with the 880.

      Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Robert, thanks for the kind words. Yes, I miss Passport too. I always felt it was the best resource for the non-professional shortwave listener. It was great writing for Passport as well.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.