Guest Post: Jock explores the Tecsun PL-880’s ATS system

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


Oh, no, it’s broken – NOT! And other observations on the PL-880

by Jock Elliott, KB2GOM

 

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it: I’m an oldster, currently enjoying well over 70 trips around that Big Orange Ball in the sky. Further, I’ve been out of SWLing for a while.

Coming back into the hobby after more than a decade’s absence, has been eye-opening. Back when I wrote for Passport To World Band Radio, my main interest, equipment-wise, was tabletop communications receivers hooked to serious outdoor antennas.

Today, however, tabletop communications receivers are hard to come by (there are few new offerings), and, in my situation, serious outdoor antennas present a series of logistical problems that aren’t going to get solved quickly.

So that has brought me to today’s crop of portable shortwave receivers, and – bottom line – they are pretty darn cool, offering worthy performance on a number of levels. My latest acquisition is the Tecsun PL-880.

Like many of the current SW portables, it offers a system for scanning the SW bands and automatically storing the stations it finds into memory. On the PL-880, it’s called ATS (for Auto Tuning Storage.) Oh, you knew that. Yeah, but did you know that the PL-880 has, essentially, two ATS systems?

The down arrow activates ATS Mode A, and the up arrow activates ATS Mode B.

Check it out: If you press the DOWN arrow button (in the SW-METER BAND rectangle), the ATS Mode A system searches the band you are in (FM, MW/LW or SW, including ALL the SW meter bands), automatically stores stations it finds, and “previously stored radio stations will be replaced automatically by the newly found stations.” Each band has its own set of memories, so that SW stations will be stored in SW memories, FM stations will be stored in FM memories, and so forth.

ATS Mode B, however, behaves differently. You can activate it by pressing the UP arrow (in the SW-METER BAND rectangle). If you are in SW frequencies, ATS Mode B will search and store stations only within the current SW meter band. Further, it will NOT overwrite memories, but will start storing stations it finds, starting with the first available unused memory. Pretty neat.

You can, however, fool yourself. I ran ATS Mode A on SW frequencies one night and found a station that was broadcasting unusual stuff (Kennedy assassination, UFOs, and the like). A couple of nights later, I wanted to see what the night’s topic was on that station, so I punched the button to access memories and found . . . nothing! Oh, no, it’s broken!

Then I realized I was in SSB mode, and, it turns out, the PL-880 has a separate set of memories for SSB. (And the manual says that explicitly.) I switched off the SSB mode, and – tah-dah! – the SW memories reappeared. Sometimes it really does pay handsome dividends to read the manual.

One of the slick things about the PL-880’s memory setup is that, when you are in memory mode for a particular band, you can easily scroll through the memories simply by turning the tuning knob.

Wire antenna reels come in different styles. PL-880 (left) and CCrane Skywave SSB. But both improve performance for their respective radios.

The PL-880 has a nice long whip antenna (nearly twice as long as the CCrane Skywave SSB’s antenna), and it seems to be quite sensitive operating off the whip. But if you take the time to deploy the external wire antenna that comes with the PL-880, there is a considerable gain in sensitivity. Tuning around the 40-meter ham band, with the external wire antenna plugged into its socket, I could hear two stations in conversation, one louder than the other, but both copyable. When I tried to listen to the same pair of stations with just the PL-880’s whip antenna, the fainter station disappeared entirely, and the louder station was “down in the mud” but copyable. So the external wire antenna is clearly worth using.

So far, I am well pleased with the PL-880.

PS: Here’s a link to a really good article on extending the wire length of the reel-up antenna that came with the PL-880: https://www.hamuniverse.com/shortwavereelantenna.html

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12 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jock explores the Tecsun PL-880’s ATS system

  1. VK5014SWL

    My PL-880 has been a reliable workhorse for almost five years. I will look after it as it has looked after me. For me, the audio quality coming out of the speaker is the most vital selling point. Thank you for the article.

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      I tend to be a headphone listener, but it is great to hear that your PL-880 has been a reliable workhorse for nearly five years.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Reply
  2. Bob Colegrove

    It took a while for the bugs to get sorted out, but the units sold in recent years are great. Comparing it with contemporary models, I like the ergonomic operation of this radio best. Sensitivity and selectivity are superb. About the only down side, a common complaint, is the extremely slow AGC, particularly noticeable on the ham bands. The symptom is clipping of the initial audio each time the operator keys the mic. This is caused by the AGC adjusting to the signal level. Apart from that, they will have to pry the PL-880 out of my cold, stiff hand. This one is a classic.

    Bob Colegrove

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Bob, I agree: “This one is a classic.”

      As the old sports car magazines used to say: “The controls fall readily to hand.” Press a button, and you can roll through the bandwidths using the tuning knob. Press another button, and you call roll through the memories using the tuning knob. I have all the transatlantic flight controller HF SSB frequencies on a memory page, and it’s really easy to roll the knob to hear what’s active.

      The PL-880, oddly, reminds me of my old 4WD Honda Civic wagon — it wasn’t the absolute best at anything, but it a lot of things, very, very well.

      It would be nice to have an RF gain control, and I wonder what the absolute limits are in terms of gain or length of external antennas. For example, would a 50-foot longwire be too much? How about a Wellbrook loop? Maybe someone here can chime in.

      Reply
      1. Bob Colegrove

        I have never gone in much for outdoor antennas: a) maintenance issues, b) safety issues, and c) inherent laziness. Consequently, about 40 years ago I started playing around with loop antennas, which could be operated close to the radio indoors. At the time I had access to a well-stocked engineering library, and was able to distill all the pertinent theory which has come into general acceptance regarding loop antenna design. Keeping to a few simple rules, very good results can be obtained regarding sensitivity and noise reduction. I have built amplifiers from various plans, but considering the FET input circuits of modern radios, I have concluded this to be largely unnecessary. Downside is, of course, these are narrow-band antennas, which require retuning as the frequency changes. That’s part of the enjoyment of tuning up a radio. While not exactly fitting inside a backpack, they can easily be thrown into the back seat of a Corolla and taken for a ride. Bottom line: I use passive, resonant, transformer-coupled loops for LW, MW, and SW almost to the exclusion of whips and long wires.

        Bob Colegrove

        Reply
        1. Jock Elliott

          Wow, Bob, that’s intriguing stuff, particularly since I largely agree with your a, b, and c points: “a) maintenance issues, b) safety issues, and c) inherent laziness.”

          Since I have already created a large, passive HF loop — https://swling.com/blog/2021/06/jock-designs-a-horizontal-room-loop-to-cope-with-reception-issues/ — is there anything obvious that I could do to improve that loop? I have already added an LDG 9:1 Unun to get from the wires to coax. (If you would prefer to continue this elsewhere, I can be PMed on Radio Reference or good email on QRZ.)

          Reply
  3. Jack Dully

    Thanks,Jock this is Jack. Welcome back to the listener mode,while you are there ! The 880 surely has it many operating secrets,this is a new one to me,great investigating ! I have had mine about 2 years of the latest production series and do really like it.Normally run on the batteries,only.I hook it up to various antenna’s 20-30 ‘ up in the trees on a 800′ hill and not much around to block signals,very little RFI around the Racoon’s tell me,I believe them.No internet/cable,just a 50’ dipole and sloper running a different way to my rented cabin.It’s all for fun.I have a Diamond original 2-way coax switch for choosing the ant. to hear and compare.Well thanks a lot for your interesting article,I’ll have to do an on hand checker-outer

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Jack,

      Your setup sounds wonderful with the cabin, the antennas and the lack of RFI.

      How do you connect your antennas to the PL-880? Details please.

      And thanks for the kind words!

      Reply
  4. Scott Ashley (K8SEA)

    I would think that the modern equivalent to the old desktop reciever is the SDR radio attached to a computer. They are so much more powerful and flexible. There are so many good options out there with a variety of price points!

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Scott, I’ve had several people recommend SDRs attached to a computer, and looking at the waterfall displays, etc., I can understand the attraction. I haven’t yet caught the bug. Maybe I’m stuck in “real radios have knobs” mode. (And I get a charge out of the tube radio guys, talking about “hollow state” technology, although I am not that retro.)

      Nevertheless, I take your point, although I can’t envision using an SDR like this: https://swling.com/blog/2021/09/guest-post-a-horizontal-dxer-explores-the-cc-skywave-ssb-and-pl-880/

      Reply
  5. James Fields

    Hands down I believe Tecsun radios have the most flexible ATS and memory systems. Large numbers of memories in each bank let you store groups – like all the MWARA frequencies, etc. I also love that these radios give you a place for temp scans – ETM on the lower-end models, Page 0 on the high end ones, so you don’t have to worry about overwriting the painstakingly entered memories elsewhere. I love using the tuning knob to scroll memories. I also like that I can put their radios in a frequency mode for those times I want to manually enter a bunch of freqs – no having to punch extra keys for each one. The Tecsuns have their issues, but I find them generally superior in overall usability.

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      I don’t have a lot of experience with other radios, but I certainly like the flexibility of the PL-880. Thanks for your comments!

      Reply

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