Since its introduction in 2019, the super-tiny Belka (back then called “Belka DSP”) shortwave receiver sure gained an enthusiastic followership among SWLs and hams. The main reason for this is certainly the way how the Belka is incredibly small yet playing in a different league than the various consumer grade, Chinese mass-production radios, particularly the DSP-based ultraportables: The Belka is an all-mode shortwave communications receiver with a completely different (direct conversion SDR) architecture, developed and produced by a radio enthusiast (Alex, EU1ME) in a small mom&pop shop in Belarus.
In case you’ve never heard about it amidst all the buzz about more popular brands, here’s the skinny:
The Belka offers true allmode (including NFM and CW) reception with a proper 400 Hz CW filter and individual settings for the low and high filter slopes for AM, FM and SSB. It has an AM sync detector and comes with a 0.5ppm TCXO-controlled local oscillator for absolutely spot-on, calibration-free frequency precision and stability, which makes SSB or ECSS reception of broadcast stations a pure joy. The second iteration “Belka DX” brought a slightly extended coverage down to 1.5 MHz and an I/Q output for panadapter display and/or processing via your favorite SDR software.
All Belkas are quiet and very sensitive radios with a surprisingly robust front end, the filters are better and its AGC works like you’d expect it from a communications receiver, without the artifacts and distortion the DSP radios are infamous for, and of course smooth, non-“muting” tuning in variable steps down to 10Hz.
The Belkas have no built-in speaker (available as option tho) but really excellent audio on headphones and external speakers and they actually give my Icom IC-705 a run for its money in terms of reception quality, and they do that for up to 24 hours on a single charge of the internal Li-Ion battery. This stunning feature set is crowned by the best performance on a telescopic whip antenna ever – the Belkas have a high-impedance (>10 kOhm) antenna input optimized for this whip and taking it on a walk is (really!) like having a big rig with a big antenna in tow…
Despite all this goodness setting the Belka(s) quite fundamentally apart from most (if not all) current and former, even much higher priced portables and simultaneously putting it solidly into pricey tabletop territory, it hasn’t put Tecsun et al out of business for a couple of reasons: One reason is that it can only be obtained from Alex in Belarus, which is now often assumed to be impossible (it isn’t, more on that later). Another reason is that it doesn’t try to compete with aforementioned multiband radios from China, so there is no FM broadcast band and – until now – no AM BC band, but most owners and potential buyers particularly in the US really wished it had at least the latter. Well, Alex obviously heard us! After the Belka DSP and the Belka DX, the new Belka is just called “Belka”, so in order to avoid any ambiguity I’m going to refer to this model as “Belka 2022”.
The most prominent addition to the Belka 2022 is the extended 0.1-31 MHz coverage, the previous version only started receiving at 1.5 MHz. With LW and MW included, its “pseudosynchronous” detector (as featured in venerable radios from Harris, Racal or Drake), the great filtering and the great frequency precision for hassle-free ECSS reception are promising that the “squirrel” is now an ultra-ultraportable companion for MW DXers as well.
The second new feature is 4 additional memory slots (36 instead of 32) and a way to “preview” the memories – if you hit the [MEM] button it will let you select the memory slot as before, but if you press [PWR] after [MEM} the Belka will let you hear the memories while you browse them, indicated by a little speaker symbol in the display. Hitting [PWR] again leaves the preview mode and to change back to VFO mode, just load the memory as before or escape the memory page by hitting [MOD]. In fewer words, the PWR button dubs as a “MEM/VFO” mode toggle on the memory page, just like on most other amateur rigs.
There are also a few minor changes under the hood concerning the tuning steps: First off, the list of available tuning steps sacrificed the 10 kHz steps in favor of implementing 9 kHz steps for the region 1/3 MW band. It’s certainly easier for region 2 users to use the 5kHz steps to tune in their “even” AM frequencies than EU/AUS/AS users having to memorize the correct frequencies in the 9 kHz grid (well, actually it’s not that hard: Any region 1/3 MW frequency has a cross total of either 9 or 18!). Secondly, the predecessors memorized the tuning step setting per mode while the Belka 2022 also stores the step size in each memory slot (together with mode and sensitivity settings), so you can have memories for specific tasks (in the same mode) with a fitting step size.
Minor cosmetic changes include new rubber button caps instead of the 3D-printer caps previously used, and a slightly larger VFO knob which seems to be attached to a new encoder as well — tuning seems a little bit more sensitive. Also, the BNC jack is now attached to the side with a nut to prevent excessive forces on the PCB.
Update: There’s a little change I forgot to mention regarding the CW mode: The Belka DSP and DX radios have an offset frequency display in CW. That means if the CW station’s transmit frequency is 14,020 kHz, the radio needs to be tuned nnn Hz lower, whereby nnn is corresponding to the CW tone pitch set on the [MOD] page. Accordingly, to log a correct CW transmitter frequency you need to add what you’ve set as pitch in the [MOD] menu. A lot of ham transceivers used to work this way and some still do.
The Belka 2022 is correcting the displayed frequency for the offset in accordance to the set CW pitch. So far so good… but this also comes with a feature that when you switch modes, it sets the frequency so you get the same pitch as in the other mode. Sounds confusing? Let’s say you hear a CW station while in USB, tuned so it beeps around 600Hz (meaning the correct nominal frequency is actually 600Hz lower in SSB mode), now when you switch to CW mode the station will keep its pitch and the frequency shown will be 600Hz higher (because it’s supposed to show the CW transmit frequency).
Making it work this way is actually pretty logical, you don’t need mental math to tune in to published CW frequencies and the radio will stay tuned to the same place when you switch to CW, so this is all a plus.
Since the the impressive shortwave performance of the Belkas has been reviewed and demonstrated a lot already, I’ll focus on the performance on MW and LW compared to other radios. Well…what other radios could even be compared to the Belka 2022? After some considerations I picked the XHDATA D-808 for these reasons:
1. The D-808 is a 2 and 1/2 star rated radio on Jay Allen’s MW radio shootout page, right in the middle of the crowd. It performs better on AM than a lot of its currently popular colleagues and I have kind of reproduced this rating while doing my own shootouts between the CCRadio 2E, the Tecsun S-8800, the old Grundig Satellit 400 and the D-808.
2. That the Belka will perform brilliantly with apt external MW antennas goes without saying, but I had doubts about the performance on the whip. However, the whip is usually all it has when you take a walk or do some front porch listening, so it seems fair to compare it to an average radio with an internal loopstick antenna and the D-808 is a small enough radio that served the same purpose (“wearable shack”) before I got the Belka, so I felt the D-808 might be an appropriate benchmark.
The following “daytime/groundwave DX” audio clips were recorded via the headphone outputs of both radios into a little field recorder. Both radios were set to use the 3kHz filter, with the D-808 rotated for best reception. In each clip I switch radios every 5 seconds. As per usual, please use headphones or speakers with a good bass response if possible, to let the radios speak for themselves in all parts of the audio spectrum:
1449 kHz BBC Scotland’s Redmoss 2kW transmitter near Aberdeen, 790km/490mi. (B)*
1449 kHz again, an hour later when the station faded in a little more. (X)
1566 kHz, BBC West 1kW transmitter in Taunton, Somerset, 875km/543mi. (x)
1548 kHz Greatest Hits Radio, Skew Hill, Sheffield, 0.74kW, 679km/422mi. (X)
1467 kHz Radio Eldorado from Holland, 100 Watts, 208km/129mi. (X)
NHK via Radio Baltic Waves Internation, Viešintos, Lituania, 75kW, 1050km/652mi. (B)
When the stations are strong enough, telling the difference is a little harder. Surprisingly, the “louder” stations I recorded are among the most distant but not exactly the strongest transmitters:
1593 kHz “Bretagne 5” in Saint-Gouéno, 10 kW transmitter in 1026km/637mi. (X)
SRR Romania on 1530kHz, unclear if that’s the 15kW Radauti (1383km/859mi) or the 15kW Nufaru (1753km/1088mi) transmitter, or both. (B)
* (B) = Clip starts with the Belka, (X), clip starts with the D-808, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough. 🙂
Below the MW BC band
The D-808 does receive the NDB band but it more or less ceases to function below 300 kHz. Here’s the Droitwich transmitter on 198 kHz, I included the clip because you can hear a little bit of the Belka’s display noise (described below) on it:
Droitwich 198 kHz with the D-808 starting the clip
The D-808 does still work in the beacon band, but using the Belka’s CW filter to dig out weak NDBs is clearly something different:
NDB through the Belka’s CW filter and the D-808 “1 kHz” filter
I hope you could hear that there’s more sensitivity on LW/MW, less quirky noise and way better IF filtering with steeper slopes and a voice-friendly passband, and a generally more graceful signal processing in the Belka.
Of course the point of this comparison was benchmarking the Belka’s sensitivity on MW/LW with its 74cm/29″ short telescopic whip and not to point out the shortcomings of the D-808. To be fair, the sensitivity difference seems not that big on the low end of the MW band, the D-808’s loopstick is likely tuned towards that end to avoid even more catastrophic deafness on LW. However, even when sensitivity is equal the difference in the just as important signal processing quality remains.
I hope Jay Allen won’t mind if I adopt his ranking system and estimate the Belka 2022 to be at least in the 3 to 3 1/2 stars range. I found myself gobsmacked about the unexpected MW performance on the unusual antenna for MW. Of course, after sunset the omnidirecionality of the whip is often a disadvantage on crowded channels but for casual listening on the move it’s just fine.
I have briefly compared the Belka DX and the Belka 2022 on some indicator stations and as expected, I couldn’t find any noticeable differences. For comparisons between the Belka DSP and other radios (including the D-808), overload test etc. please refer to my 2020 review of the Belka DSP. Just so much — none of my portables (Sat 400, S-8800, PL-660, D-808) are capable of delivering such clean (particularly SSB) audio paired with that kind of sensitivity in any band, now including MW/LW.
However, here’s a short clip I recorded while I was out there, I think it is exemplary for the difference between the typical DSP-based ultraportables lacking a way to control gain to mitigate their problems with the AGC, and the Belka. I used the Belka’s sensitivity control to let the AGC work less hard, resulting in an even quieter and more relaxing listening experience, a tip that works with many radios with an RF gain control:
Shannon Radio 13264 kHz with the D-808, then the Belka.
That both radios hear any of the 14,000km/8,900mi distant Australian IBP beacon on 14 MHz is certainly owed to the location (my coastal listening post #2) and good condx, the Belka even has the 10W-dash briefly flaring up:
100W from western Australia: First the Belka in CW mode, then the D-808 with the 500Hz setting.
Quirks, issues and observations
The Belka DSP debut was a bit riddled with birdies but the majority of them was so very faint and narrowbanded that they were not a deal breaker in any way. The “DX” model got rid of most of them, particularly those that showed up in the ham bands. The Belka 2022 seems to to be no different. That being said, any super-sensitive wideband radio has some birdies and if you don’t go on a hunt for them you’ll probably never know all of them, so I’ll leave it at that. Also, some (if not most) of these birdies do not show up when you use an external antenna, because they are caused by the display:
The display can cause a bit of noise, the likelihood increasing with decreasing frequency so this is mostly affecting LW/MW. Now this is an issue pretty much any radio with some kind of fancy display has – for example, the same has been reported about the $2,000 Reuter Pocket when it’s used with the provided whip. On the Belka, it doesn’t show up when you hold the radio in your hand but as soon as you let go, there may be some characteristic noise on weaker stations…except under other circumstances the opposite may happen.
Tip: If you wear the Belka in a breast pocket, make sure the display is facing away from your body to avoid this noise, or just turn the display off by pressing the [MOD] button for 2 seconds. If you have locked the VFO knob, the [MOD] button blanks the display immediately. Of course, this isn’t an issue at all with external antennas.
While verifying the battery stamina I understood why some people have uttered doubts about the specified 24h endurance: The battery indicator looks “empty” after maybe ~8 hours, but the radio keeps going and going… for 16 more hours. If you look closely, most of that time it actually shows a single, narrow line of remaining charge that only disappears when it’s really an hour or so before shutting down. By the way, a full charge from there takes ~4 hours on a regular (500mA) USB-port. Update January 2023: Only the very first batch of the new Belkas had this battery meter quirk. I purchased a second one in December and that has a more “linear” charge indication. Again, if you want to maximize the battery lifetime, avoid discharging it until it shuts down and do not keep the battery fully charged over longer periods of time. For long-term storage, charge it to 50-60% only.
Made in Unobtainia? No!
Some people think that the Belka can’t be ordered currently due to the sanctions. Indeed, when I wanted to order a second Belka DX in summer my German bank confirmed that wire transfers to Belarus are not possible, however it seems a different big German bank still does wires to Belarus, so maybe that’s really depending on the bank? But credit card payments work (except for Denmark and Sweden unfortunately, which bounce goods from Belarus): I used the second option (BelSwissBank) on the belrig.by purchase page and it worked without problems, I received the new 2022 Belka after 8 days (including a few days in customs) and Alex reported that 90% of payments from the US come through. Shipping to the US may take a few weeks longer though.
Summary and verdict
With the added LW/MW coverage, the 4 additional memory slots are a most welcome addition and the memory preview function adds effectively a “MEM/VFO” mode switch, making the new Belka an even more complete and versatile radio. Once again I underestimated what this tiny thing can do, the performance on MW with just the whip is just as outstanding as on the other bands, and paired with a good MW antenna it should be also one of the best and certainly the smallest option for MW DXers now.
Wildly changed currency exchange rates likely contribute to the price having increased some dollars for the new version, so it could be had for maybe $170-180 including shipping to the US, a little less in the EU (but taxes/customs fees may be due). Considering the conceptual and mechanical quality of this tiny “spy radio”-sized communications receiver, the added bands/functions and how its performance rivals some famous tabletop receivers, this remains the same mind-boggling value for the price. I really don’t like walks but since I have a Belka I’m taking walks to escape the RFI at home and play radio in a way I never deemed possible. If you want such a wholesome radio too, you can order it here: https://belrig.by
Edit: You can read more about MW reception with the Belka, a review of an active ferrite antenna for the Belka and a short comparison with the CCRadio 2E in part 2 of the MW shootout (click!).