Category Archives: FM

Gary DeBock’s 2021 Ultralight Radio Shootout!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Gary DeBock, who shares his extensive 2021 Ultralight Radio Shootout.

This is truly a deep dive featuring five popular ultralight portable radios and examining mediumwave, shortwave, FM, and AIR Band performance.

The review is an amazing 40 pages long! In order to display the entire review, click on the “Continue reading” link below.


2021 Ultralight Radio Shootout

Five Hot Little Portables Brighten Up the Pandemic

By Gary DeBock, Puyallup, WA, USA             April 2021

Introduction   The challenges and thrills of DXing with pocket radios have not only survived but thrived since the Ultralight Radio Boom in early 2008, resulting in a worldwide spread of the hobby niche group. Based upon the essential concepts of DXing skill, propagation knowledge and perseverance, the human factor is critical for success in pocket radio DXing, unlike with computer-controlled listening. The hobbyist either sinks or swims according to his own personal choices of DXing times, frequencies and recording decisions during limited propagation openings—all with the added challenge of depending on very basic equipment. DXing success or failure has never been more personal… but on the rare occasions when legendary DX is tracked down despite all of the multiple challenges, the thrill of success is truly exceptional—and based entirely upon one’s own DXing skill.

Ultralight Radio DXing has inspired spinoff fascination not only with portable antennas like the new Ferrite Sleeve Loops (FSL’s) but also with overseas travel DXing, enhanced transoceanic propagation at challenging sites like ocean side cliffs and Alaskan snowfields, as well as at isolated islands far out into the ocean. The extreme portability of advanced pocket radios and FSL antennas has truly allowed hobbyists to “go where no DXer has gone before,” experiencing breakthrough radio propagation, astonishing antenna performance and unforgettable hobby thrills. Among the radio hobby groups of 2021 it is continuing to be one of the most innovative and vibrant segments of the entire community.

The portable radio manufacturing industry has changed pretty dramatically over the past few years as much of the advanced technology used by foreign companies in their radio factories in China has been “appropriated” (to use a generous term) by new Chinese competitors. Without getting into the political ramifications of such behavior the obvious fact in the 2021 portable radio market is that all of the top competitors in this Shootout come from factories in China, and four of the five have Chinese name brands. For those who feel uneasy about this rampant copying of foreign technology the American-designed C. Crane Skywave is still available, although even it is still manufactured in Shenzhen, China—the nerve center of such copying.

Prior to purchasing any of these portables a DXer should assess his own hobby goals, especially whether transoceanic DXing will be part of the mission– in which case a full range of DSP filtering options is essential. Two of the China-brand models use only rechargeable 3.7v lithium type batteries with limited run time, which may not be a good choice for DXers who need long endurance out in the field. A hobbyist should also decide whether a strong manufacturer’s warranty is important. Quality control in some Chinese factories has been lacking, and some of the China-brand radio sellers offer only exchanges—after you pay to ship the defective model back to China. Purchasers should not assume that Western concepts of reliability and refunds apply in China, because in many cases they do not. When purchasing these radios a DXer should try to purchase through a reputable seller offering a meaningful warranty—preferably in their own home country.

One of the unique advantages of Ultralight Radio DXing is the opportunity to sample the latest in innovative technology at a very reasonable cost—and the five pocket radio models chosen for this review include some second-generation DSP chip models with astonishing capabilities. Whether your interest is in domestic or split-frequency AM-DXing, FM, Longwave or Shortwave, the pocket radio manufacturers have designed a breakthrough model for you—and you can try out any (or all) of them at a cost far less than that of a single table receiver. So get ready for some exciting introductions… and an even more exciting four band DXing competition!

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Radio Waves: Radio Survivor Covers Pirates Pt. 2, Radio Scatter and Theoretical WSPR, RIP Bob Fass, and Vatican Radio Celebrates Marconi Day

Radio Waves:  Stories Making Waves in the World of Radio

Because I keep my ear to the waves, as well as receive many tips from others who do the same, I find myself privy to radio-related stories that might interest SWLing Post readers.  To that end: Welcome to the SWLing Post’s Radio Waves, a collection of links to interesting stories making waves in the world of radio. Enjoy!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors Paul L, Pete Eaton, David Iurescia, and Troy Riedel for the following tips:


Podcast #294 – Reading the PIRATE Act / FCC & the Supremes Pt. 2

The PIRATE Act was signed into law more than a year ago, but the rules governing increased fines for unlicensed broadcasting are about to go into effect on April 26. The Act is intended to give the FCC additional tools for tamping down pirate radio activity in hot beds like Boston and Brooklyn, NY, but there are reasons to be skeptical.

Brooklyn-based writer, post-production mixer and field recordist David Goren joins to help us tease out the real-world implications. Goren is also the creator of the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map and has been monitoring and recording unlicensed radio activity in the borough for decades.

Also joining the show is Dr. Christopher Terry from the University of Minnesota. A professor of media law, he helps illuminate some of the legal and bureaucratic elements that complicate the Commission’s efforts. He also catches us up on the latest development in the battle over media ownership rules, with the Supreme Court issuing a narrow unanimous ruling in favor of the FCC’s most recent changes, but not quite addressing the decades-long gridlock in that policy area.

Click here to visit Radio Survivor.

WSPR May Hold The Key To MH370 Final Position (Hackaday)

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 after an unexplained course change sent it flying south over the Indian Ocean in March 2014 still holds the mystery of the wreck’s final location. There have been a variety of efforts to narrow down a possible search area over the years, and now we have news of a further angle from an unexpected source. It’s possible that the aircraft’s path could show up in radio scatter detectable as anomalously long-distance contacts using the amateur radio WSPR protocol.

WSPR is a low-power amateur radio mode designed to probe and record the radio propagation capabilities of the atmosphere. Transmit beacons and receiving stations run continuously, and all contacts however fleeting are recorded to an online database. This can be mined by researchers with an interest in the atmosphere, but in this case it might also provide clues to the missing airliner’s flightpath. By searching for anomalously long-distance WSPR contacts whose path crosses the expected position of MH370 it’s possible to spot moments when the aircraft formed a reflector for the radio waves.[…]

Click here to read the full article at Hackaday.

Bob Fass, Pioneer of Underground Radio, Dies at 87 (NY Times)

His provocative “Radio Unnameable,” long a staple of the New York station WBAI, offered a home on the FM dial to everyone from Abbie Hoffman to Tiny Tim.

Bob Fass, who for more than 50 years hosted an anarchic and influential radio show on New York’s countercultural FM station WBAI that mixed political conversation, avant-garde music, serendipitous encounters and outright agitation, died on Saturday in Monroe, N.C., where he lived in recent years. He was 87.

His wife, Lynnie Tofte, said he had been hospitalized with Covid 19 earlier in the month, but he died of congestive heart failure.

Continue reading at the NY Times.

Vatican Radio celebrates 30th International Marconi Day

The Dicastery for Communication marks the 30th International Marconi Day with a celebration at Vatican Radio’s historic broadcast station outside Rome.

International Marconi Day is held every year on the Saturday closest to the birthday of the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi, on 25 April 1874.

This year’s commemoration fell a day earlier, and saw dozens of radio stations exchange messages, including Vatican Radio, which Marconi himself helped found in 1931.

The 30th iteration of Marconi Day was celebrated at Vatican Radio’s broadcast center at Santa Maria di Galeria, outside Rome.

Day for those who love radio

According to Dr. Paolo Ruffini, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, it was “a day spent in a family spirit” for those who love the Radio and the man who invented it.

He noted that the broadcast station forms both the center and periphery of Vatican Radio, since it is the place where radio waves are emitted which carry the Gospel and the words of the Popes throughout the world.

Marconi’s favorite Radio

The 30th Marconi Day falls within the 90th anniversary year of the founding of Vatican Radio.

The great Italian inventor’s daughter, Princess Elettra Marconi, who was present for the celebration, recalled that the station was her father’s favorite, though he had founded several others.[]


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Dan reviews the Tecsun PL-368: “Large Receiver Features In Smaller Vertical Handheld”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, for the following guest post and review:


Tecsun PL-368Tecsun PL-368:  Large Receiver Features In Smaller Vertical Handheld

by Dan Robinson

It was back in 2020 that the first photos surfaced online of the PL-368 – posted on Facebook by someone attending the electronics fair in Shanghai, China.

Photos showed the successor to the PL-360/365 receivers – and also the PL-990, successor to the PL-880, as well as the new king of the hill for Tecsun, the larger dual speaker H-501.

Things looked promising, and it was pretty exciting.  Tecsun designers upgraded the PL-365 which had become a favorite of preppers and SWLs, but which was hobbled by the lack of a keypad, to the re-named PL-368.

The PL-365 and PL-360 before it were plagued by the problem of being overly sensitive to the touch – when holding the radio, reception was fine, but remove your hand and signal levels plummeted.  Usually, a full hand grip was necessary to obtain full sensitivity and any variation in grip reduced sensitivity – this was noticed mostly in shortwave mode.

Previous 360/365 models were known for the included small rotatable ferrite

AM amplified antenna which performed miracles in nulling mediumwave stations – for those who still like to listen to the AM band.  The 368 also comes with this additional ferrite antenna.

And the 365/360 (which were and still are sold by CountyComm as the GP-5) used AA batteries, making it very easy to find replacements anywhere the radio is being used in the field.  Tecsun changed that on the 368.

After the photos appeared, I contacted Benny Zhao, who had posted them on one of the Facebook groups and asked if he could send me a sample of the PL-368.  He obliged and a 368 was sent on its way.

The radio was sent without the BL-5C flat lithium battery which was prohibited in postal shipments.  It took a long, long time (3 months, apparently the package was sent by snail mail) but it finally arrived here and I have been putting it through some tests.

Tecsun PL-368

The PL-368 that I received has the notation “2020.12 VER 1” so it’s clearly a first version from 2020 production.

Tecsun PL-368

Like the models before it is a great, handy, portable to grab if you’re going on a trip.  It is lighter than the older 360/365s.  The change from three AA batteries to the flat BL-5C explains some of that.  There is a heft to the older models that the 368 doesn’t have.  I am not sure about differences in thickness of the 368 cabinet.  Perhaps we will find out more from Tecsun (see notes below regarding issue of tapping the front of the 368 cabinet).

Tecsun PL-368

The 368 retains the two multi function adjustment wheels on the right side, one for Volume, the other for Tuning.  These are also used for time and bandwidth control.

Tecsun PL-368

Tecsun PL-368 (left) and PL-365 (right)

On the 360/365 radios, I never found the tuning wheel approach to be particularly efficient since it was limited to a certain number of kHz per turn, either 5 or 1 kHz depending how fast you turned.

On the 368 it appears you can obtain up to 40 kHz from a single turn of the wheel, while on the 360/365 that was limited to 15 to 20 kHz depending on the speed you were turning.

Tecsun PL-368

Tecsun PL-368 (left) and PL-365 (right)

The antenna on the 368 is thinner, but 8 inches longer than the 360/365 models, and in the box you will find the included and very effective rotatable ferrite antenna for mediumwave that inserts in a jack on the top.

On the 368 the volume wheel has detents, whereas on the 360/365 the wheel had smooth turning.

We have gone from 14 buttons on the old PL-360/365 models to 28 buttons on the PL-368, including addition of the keypad.

UPGRADES

Tecsun PL-368

Tecsun has upgraded the 368 in line with improvements seen in the PL-990x and H-501 receivers.  There are now adjustable bandwidths – a particularly useful tool.  These bandwidths also operate in SSB, something that the new Sangean ATS-909×2 doesn’t offer.  Bandwidths are:  LW/MW 2.5, 3.5, 9.0  SW: 2.5, 3.5, and 5.0 SSB: 0.5, 1.2, 2.2, 3.0 and 4.0 kHz

Also in the 368 is now synchronous detection, a feature left off Sangean’s 909×2.  And you get the same intelligent tuning features seen in the 909x/501x models as well as the previous PL-880.

Tecsun added a control that enables activation of the light – this is located on the same button as the Step control which adjusts the tuning steps.

The 368 display now has the ability to tune in 10 Hz increments, an overdue upgrade from the 360/365 models.

Charging of the BL-5C battery can be carried out by connecting a DC 5V/0.5A adapter to the micro-USB port on the side of the radio.  The English manual notes that when charging, the charging time is displayed at the top right corner of the display while the “Charge” indicator flashes.

Adjustments for 9/10 kHz mediumwave, Longwave, and FM frequency range can be found on the 1, 2 and 3 keys.

The manual notes that in addition to the internal ferrite bar antenna, the external supplied MW/LW ferrite antenna can be connected to the antenna socket on top and rotated to obtain optimum reception.

Addition of the keypad makes the PL-368 far more useful than its predecessors for instantaneous frequency access.   This was the major drawback of the 360 and 365 receivers.  This can’t be emphasized enough.

This is a day versus night difference and vastly improves the attractiveness of the 368 over previous models.

There are 850 memory presets, 100 for FM/LW, 150 for MW, 300 for SW, and 100 each for SSB and SYNC.

ATS tuning, like the 990x and 501 receivers enables ATS within all meter bands by holding the [<] or within a selected meter band by holding the [>].  The manual also notes the ability to auto scan all stored stations within a frequency band or mode (SYNC/SSB) staying on each station for about 5 seconds before resuming.

The 368 has what Tecsun now calls Enhanced Tuning Mode (ETM+) – as explained in the manual, this allows auto tune and storing of FM, LW, MW and SW stations into ETM memory.  Unlike ATS, scanned stations will not be stored into regular memory (VM) – in this way, when in a different city or country, ETM+ can be used to auto search new stations without overwriting any previously stored stations.

FM De-emphasis Time Constant – as explained in the manual, while receiving FM broadcasts, long pressing [4] will adjust the de-emphasis setting for Europe, Australia, Japan (and most other locations), or for Americas and South Korea.

Add Seconds to the Clock – with the device powered off, press and hold [8] to add seconds to the clock.

Sleep Timer – as with its predecessors, the 368 has a Sleep Timer, with an indicator on the LCD display.

Alarm –  and like earlier models, there is also an Alarm function, which allows the radio to turn on at a preset time.  It’s possible to select a specific frequency to be used with the Alarm.

RE-CALIBRATION –  I have not been able to determine yet if the 368 has a re-calibration function as can be found on the PL-330, 909x, and H-501.

PROBLEMS

Let’s get one headline out to start:  The 368, as with the 909x and H-501 all have the useful Synchronous Detection mode.  However, SYNC continues to be hobbled, showing distortion and loss of lock.

As I have mentioned in reviews of the 330, 990x, and 501x any successful use of SYNC requires a delicate dance involving careful selection of various bandwidths while in SYNC mode and fine tuning.

The 368 manual contains 3 pages of explanation of SYNC noting that it can “eliminate distortion generated in the IF filter due to local fading, slight offset, modulation overshoot, as well as inter-channel interference and cross-talk modulation, and can also reduce noise interference.”

The problem with all of the Tecsun DSP chip receivers after the PL-880, which had a hidden SYNC feature that was the worst of the bunch, is the extent to which SYNC still suffers from distortion and loss of lock that renders the feature far less useful than it could be.

Ideally, one would want SYNC to match the capability achieved in such older receivers as SONY’s ICF-2010, SW-100S, SW-07, 7600GR.  You’re not going to get that with Tecsun receivers.

Like its predecessors, the 368 is still sensitive to touch.  I noticed this immediately on the old 360/365 receivers, especially when using the radios

at the beach.  If I was recording a station on shortwave, and left for a few minutes, I would return to find that sensitivity had dropped because the radio was not still being held in the hand, which rendered the recording useless.

I am continuing testing of the 368 to try to determine if this issue has been reduced to any extent and will update this review with any further findings. This sensitivity issue is not specific to the 368 – it can be seen on other older and newer receivers.

Many older portables (the SONY ICF-SW55 comes to mind) were constructed with robust cabinets that were less sensitive to touch.  Touching the whip antennas on some older receivers improved reception, while on others touching the whip antenna actually reduced sensitivity.

URGENT ATTENTION FOR TECSUN:  My initial testing of this particular China market unit of the PL-368 – again, it is marked as December 2020 Version 1 production – identified an additional issue.

When in SSB modes or SYNC, tapping on any area of the keypad and LCD display produces a warbling/distortion effect in the audio.  One can only surmise that this is attributable to insufficiently robust construction of the PCB board underneath.

(Video shows problem created when physically tapping front of PL-368 cabinet.)

This is NOT a problem seen with my PL-365 when it is in SSB mode.   

I hope that Tecsun gives this the attention it needs and corrects the problem in future production runs.

SUMMARY

Tecsun PL-368Were it not for the major problems detailed above, the PL-368 would be an automatic must-buy receiver in my book.

Addition of the keypad is a night and day improvement and when combined with additional features such as multi-bandwidth options and the still-to-be-perfected synchronous detection, the 368 would be a killer portable.

But as with the PL-330, 909x and 501x the problem with SYNC mode is still a major drawback on a feature that is supposed to lift Tecsun receivers out of the pack of portables that are on the market in 2021.

One can live with the issue of cabinet sensitivity – but the additional issue I identified where there is instability introduced when tapping on the front panel/keypad/LCD is a QC problem that simply must be addressed by Tecsun.

But as I have said in reviews of other Tecsun receivers, let’s back up a bit.  Imagine if we had had portable receivers with the capabilities that these have, back in the 1960’s or 1970’s.

It’s one of the great ironies of the radio listening hobby, that in 2021 any company is willing to continue producing receivers of this caliber as use of shortwave by major broadcasters continues to decline.

The obvious other killer feature to include in portables such as this would be to somehow integrate DRM into them.  However, I have a feeling that will never happen

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Sangean ATS-909X2: Dan’s final evaluation post firmware upgrade

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, DanH, who provides his final evaluation of the new Sangean ATS-909X2:


This should be the last update for my multi-part introduction to the new Sangean ATS-909X2. I am not expecting major new factory revisions or modifications for this fine radio. I received the 909X2 from Amazon on Sunday, February 21, 2021. This radio had VER 070 firmware installed. About a month later Sangean America offered a free upgrade to VER 073. I packed up my 909X2 and sent it away on March 29. My original radio with the original serial number was returned to me on Friday, April 9 following the firmware upgrade.

The 909X2 was away from home for eleven days but I had the 909X to keep me busy on shortwave. Time after time I reached for the new bandwidth controls on the older radio which were, of course, not there. This told me a good deal about how quickly I had become dependent upon some of the new 909X2 features.

As of this writing I have listened to the 909X2 VER 073 for several days. Let me tell you that in spite of my best efforts I could not find many differences between the two firmware versions. The later version was reported to correct some bugs encountered while using memory features. I can’t confirm this. I deliberately avoided making memory entries with my 909X2 VER 070 before I returned it as I understood that those presets would be lost with the firmware update. I gave the 909X2 memory a real workout last weekend but experienced no bugs during this mostly repetitive inputting session. More about that later.

One of the oddities of VER 070 firmware was a nice feature, actually. Cycling the INFO button would bring both radio signal strength (RSSI) and signal to noise ratio (SNR) up on the display at the same time. This feature was not described in the instruction book. With VER 073 you can toggle between one or the other but can’t see both at the same time. You can see this deleted feature below and watch it on my video:

I have tried to bring this feature up on VER 073 without success.

I found one small gremlin that seems to thrive on both 909X2 firmware versions. 909X2 indicates selection of fast or slow tuning rates by showing delta symbols on the display. Switching shortwave bands with the SW button followed by selecting a BAND button will result in a band change and disappearance of the delta symbols. Using the tuning STEP button will make the delta symbols return. Switching shortwave bands by using the “F” frequency button followed by number key entries and the ENTER button is slower for changing bands but does not cause the tuning step indicators to disappear.

909X2 charging and power supply design was much improved for the 909X2. 4xAA NiMH cells are individually charged and monitored. Charge times are faster, as well. The radio will identify cells that are defective, aging or wearing out. Each cell now has a separate slot in the battery bay. This contributes to longer battery life cycles, less waste heat production and improved rechargeable battery safety. This is a worthwhile but not very obvious upgrade from the 909X. The most noticeable outward change is the wider battery bay door.

Early production 909X wall wart power adapters are AC/AC center pin negative. Late 909X and 909X2 adapters are AC/DC center pin positive and feature in-line RF chokes. Both of my 909Xs contributed more RFI to shortwave reception when operated with AC power than the new 909X2. The upshot was that when I listened to shortwave at the desk with a 909X I would run it off batteries even if a wall outlet was handy for running AC power, much like any other multiband portable with shortwave. The 909X2 on AC power is so quiet that I usually have it on AC power when I have it at the desk. I can hear a little hum when using 909X2 under AC power when an external antenna and headphones (Sennheiser HD 280 Pro) are in use. I don’t hear this hum at all when using 909X2 speaker audio probably owing to the better bass response of my ‘phones. 909X2 will not initiate battery charging after every use. It charges only when needed. I now disconnect the 909X2 from AC power only when listening to shortwave with headphones or when using it as a cordless portable.

I have written earlier about the 909X2 MANUAL/AUTO bandwidth features. I normally use manual bandwidth filter selection for shortwave but with rough voice signals I sometimes find that 909X2 auto bandwidth plus the correct audio filter choice can do a better job than ECSS… and the 909X2 does ECSS and SSB very well. Auto bandwidth is excellent for less demanding conditions too, like keeping a radio tuned to a local MW or FM station that may fade lightly over the course of a day.

For FM the combination of great audio quality, RDS and now auto bandwidth makes the 909X2 hard to beat by any other multiband portable with shortwave.

The 909X2 is not my first radio with bandwidth filters provided by Silicon Labs DSP. I have long suspected that these filters are actually much wider than described by most manufacturers of portable multiband radios. The widest filter available for shortwave on 909X2 is identified as a 4 kHz bandwidth filter. This surprises me because the filter actually seems to accomplish attenuation somewhere between 3 and 4 kHz away from the carrier. This means the widest filter for shortwave is actually 6 to 8 kHz wide. This makes complete sense to me as to my ears this filter sounds closer to an 8 kHz bandwidth, which isn’t a bad choice for strong SW stations without interference.

I am an enthusiastic user of shortwave station memories. The 909X memory capacity is nearly too small for my current usage. The 909X2 has many more memory presets available and divides those into three memory banks. Something that many people did not understand about the ATS-909X is that when released in 2011 it never featured ATS for shortwave because it lacked the memory to do the job. Now, 909X2 memory banks may be reserved for favorite station pages or set aside for ATS scans.

Manual entry of shortwave pages and presets is relatively easy and fast on the 909X2 and is substantially unchanged from 909X. You may title pages alphanumerically any way you wish. 909X2 adds an additional feature: you may now change the position of a memory preset to another position on the same page or another page.

Setting up the new memory for the 909X2 took me the better part of an evening but good memory function is a huge advantage for anyone wanting to do shortwave station searches. There are many sample shortwave memory presets provided with the stock 909X2. If you enter your own pages and presets into 909X2 memory I suggest deleting all of the sample entries first (page names and presets) before starting your inputting. This will save you a great deal of time.
Each of my custom memory pages has a shortwave broadcaster name followed by a letter if I use more than one page for a single broadcaster. The 909X2 can scan preset frequencies on each page individually and land on the frequency with the strongest signal. If the location of saved station entries in specific memory banks isn’t sufficient deterrent for accidental erasure (like running an ATS scan on top of preset stations) the new 909X2 MEMORY LOCK feature will allow you to lock presets individually.

This may be the last update that I will post for the new Sangean ATS-909X2 but I will check the box at SWLing Post that allows me to see notifications of comment activity for this post for the foreseeable future. I’ll be happy to answer any questions regarding the Sangean ATS-909X2 addressed to me in the comments, if I can. For more 909X2 videos, see my YouTube channel at: Willow Slough DX

I will be adding to these as the new shortwave season advances. Happy listening!

DanH


Thank you so much for sharing your final evaluation, Dan!

If you would like to read all of DanH’s notes and reviews of the Sangean ATS-909X2, click here.

Sangean ATS-909X2 Retailers:

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Dan’s review of the flagship Tecsun H-501x portable shortwave receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, for the following guest post and review:


The H-501:  Jewel in the Tecsun Crown, With Some Attractive Features

by Dan Robinson

Since 2020, there has been one Tecsun receiver I have been most looking forward to reviewing, and that is Tecsun’s H-501.

Videos showing the pre-production and mainland China versions of the 501 started appearing online at least a year ago.  There are also numerous videos showing comparisons between the H-501 and PL-990x as well as the PL-330.

What I will do here is provide an assessment of the 501 informed by my use of a H-501 just received, the other two Tecsun receivers, and my decades of experience using a wide range of portable receivers.  This review is based on initial tests of a H-501x, among the first production units.

Video: Unboxing

HOMAGE TO RECEIVERS OF THE PAST

The elephant in the room with the 501 is, of course, its two large left and right speakers.  This reminds one of another Tecsun DSP portable, the PL-398BT with a similar left-right speaker arrangement.

On the left of the H-501, from the top, are the Volume, Treble, and Bass knobs which like the PL-880 and 990x has obvious lineage back to the famous Grundig portables of the 1990’s – the Satellit 500 and 700.  Both of those were limited to two bandwidths.  Only the 700 had anything approaching usable synchronous detection.

Each of the left hand control knobs on the 501 contains a dot to indicate where you are in the Maximum/Minimum range.  At the bottom of the left side is a micro-USB port for when the receiver is used as a computer speaker – quite a nice feature!

On the right side of the 501 you find ports for AM and FM antennas, each with a rubber traction cap, similar to what is found on the PL-990x.  There is also a three position sensitivity sliding switch for Local, Normal, and DX modes – that’s one more than usually found.

Knobs on the right side are the Main tuning and Fine tuning, again similar to the PL-990x.  At the very bottom of the right side is the 5v 1.0 amp micro-USB charging port.

ERGONOMICS

NEGATIVE:  Here I discuss one of two major negatives with the 501.  The tuning knobs are embedded quite far into the radio body.  Each has a round piece of rubber covering on the knob end surface designed obviously to provide traction, possibly also as a protective measure.

The reality is that on the 501, more seriously on the PL-330, embedding of the knobs so far into the cabinet makes it virtually impossible to undertake rapid tuning using those knobs if you are just placing your finger on the top barrel part of the knob itself!

As you will see in photos and video accompanying this review, holding a finger against the rubber on the end of each knob, or closer to the center, to achieve more rapid tuning.  But it’s kind of annoying.  On the PL-990x the knobs are somewhat different – extending a bit farther out of the cabinet, but also with the rubber coverings.

So, this is a design point for Tecsun to consider.  Surely, it should be possible to come up with slightly different knobs for the 501 that make it more comfortable to achieve rapid tuning.  As it is, the knobs on the 501 barely extend beyond the cabinet edge, including the end and rubber cap.

The same goes for the PL-330 – which has knobs that only one half inch in depth, and extending only about 1/16 of an inch beyond the cabinet edge.  Part of the attractiveness of the 330 is its compact size and I doubt Tecsun will be moving to put slightly larger knobs on that radio anytime soon.  But as it is, using the main and fine tuning controls on the 330 gets you maybe 10 kHz in tuning range.

[UPDATE]  I realized after further use of the 501x that Tecsun clearly intended for the rubber knob cap covers to act as traction for tuning.  The problems I see:  after significant use over time, those rubber covers will lose their stickiness and thus their ability to help tuning will be reduced.  Also, the fine tuning knob is smaller — and even using the rubber cover on the knob for more traction, it is somewhat difficult to achieve rapid tuning in 1 kHz mode.  Tecsun could help 501x owners on the issue with the tuning knobs by including spare rubber knob caps.  But it’s uncertain how the existing rubber knob covers are attached to the original knobs and how easy it would be to replace them when they lose their stickiness.

H-501 IMPRESSIVE FRONT PANEL 

At the top of the H-501 radio above the LCD display can be found the Display/Snooze/Lock button.  On an older Tecsun radio, the PL-880, this button doubled as the calibration adjust control.  On the PL-990x this triple function button is located on the top of the radio.

LCD DISPLAY

POSITIVE:   One of the big positives of the 501 is the large LCD display.  The number digits are absolutely huge and make it easy to read frequencies.

Thanks Tecsun!  The display contains numerous bits of information about receiver operation, the signal strength meter, etc.

Below the display is the keypad, with special dual keys for 9/10 kHz mediumwave, Longwave activation, and FM range adjustment.  Backlight activation is on the 5 key.  At the bottom you have the VF/VM key to select between frequency tuning and memories.  To the right are the FM, MW/LW, and SW + and – buttons.  These put the radio into shortwave mode and as is the case with the PL-990 and other receivers, activate ATS/ETM tuning.

At the very bottom of the front panel can be found PLAY/PAUSE, RR, and FF buttons for control of SD card audio when using the microSD card, which like on the 990x is located on the bottom of the receiver.  According to the manual, by the way, the microSD slot accepts cards of up to 128 GB.  Included in the box is a 16 GB SanDisk Ultra card.  A reset hole is also on the bottom of the radio.

Finally, at the bottom of the 501 face are rubber covered input ports for Earphones, Line In, and Line Out.

METAL TILT BAIL

POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE:  On the back of the receiver, you find the metal tilt bail which folds down and locks into two plastic tabs and can be lifted easily with a finger from an indentation in the cabinet.

This was a good design move by Tecsun, with the following observations:  there are no incremental positions on the metal bail as you find on, say, a Microsoft Surface or similar tablet type PC.  The only fully stable position is to have the metal bail fully extended back. That places the 501 in a great position if you’re standing or even sitting to a degree.  But if you try to place the bail in any middle position you’re in danger of having the radio become unstable.  Tecsun should definitely give some thought to a re-design, though the bail is better than the flimsy plastic stands found on the PL-990 and PL-880 and some older portables.

Still on the back of the radio, intelligently, Tecsun marks a screw hole which can be used to remove the telescopic antenna (marked as ANT SCREW).  The other screw holes for removal of the back of the radio are also clearly marked.  Thanks Tecsun!

However, one additional partial negative – there are no rubber pads on the bottom back edge of the 501x which will be contacting whatever surface the radio is sitting on while the metal bail is in use.  So, if you don’t want that bottom back edge to be scratched, place the radio on something to cushion it.

BATTERY CHARGING

POSITIVE:  Another interesting feature not found on other radios:  Tecsun has created a dual charging system for the 501 which uses two 18650 batteries.

In viewing numerous videos, I have not seen this discussed much.  Basically, this enables you to use the receiver’s internal charging capability to choose which battery you are charging.  The manual states that the battery contains space for a “spare” battery.  The charging indicator on the LCD display will flash while charging is underway – there does not appear to be a separate display for battery A or B.  However, and this is quite a unique capability – while you are using the 501x, the switch changes which battery the radio is using.

It’s not clear to me whether the receiver while powered on is taking energy from one or both batteries simultaneously.  As I note in my reviews, and this is amplified in the manual, do not expect to be able to charge a battery internally and listen to the radio at the same time because there WILL be noise.

HUGE WORLD MAP AND RADIO DIAGRAM INCLUDED

Tecsun includes a huge – and I mean HUGE – World Amateur Radio map in a plastic pouch with the manual.  On the back of this is a large photo of the 501 with clear English guide points to each and every feature of the radio.  In this, Tecsun is really going out of its way to make owning the 501 a special experience.

In the box (see photos) Tecsun includes 2 18650 lithium batteries, a 5 volt double USB A charging cube, a mini to mini cord, a USB charging cable, and to boot, a pair of fairly high quality wired earphones complete with spare ear tips.

PERFORMANCE

Anon-co advises that the H-501x uses a different IC than the PL-990x.  No further details were available as of the time of this writing.

This is clearly a sensitive radio, as is the PL-990X.  In these days of declining use of shortwave, almost any receiver is going to be able to hear “stuff” all over the bands and the 501x and 990x as well as the 330 are all quite capable in this regard.

In the video, I tune some familiar stations, including Voice of Greece and BBC

and move through the excellent bandwidth options.  This is where the 501, with its large dual speakers, excels because if you’re on a strong station – Greece is a great example because of its great music programs – and you have that wider option, it’s really pleasant to listen to.

NEGATIVE:  However, one has to puzzle over the decision to limit bandwidth to 6 kHz when in shortwave mode.  On mediumwave (AM) you have a 9 kHz option which provides some fine listening.  Perhaps Tecsun felt that there are few stations using shortwave these days that would benefit from having a significantly wider option?  I would urge Tecsun to make 9 kHz available in shortwave.

SYNCHRONOUS DETECTION

NEGATIVE:  I really had some hope that Tecsun would go farther toward

solving the problem of unstable/distorted SYNC mode with all of these recent radios.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Using SYNC on these radios – though this was not the case with the PL-660 and 680 – involves a delicate dance, requiring using a combination of bandwidth filters and LSB/USB.  SYNC works fairly well with some stations, but it really depends on signal level, and to an extent signal level of any station close to the frequency you are on.

There is a 1 kHz fine tune spread when using SYNC after which lock is lost.  And still, lock is often lost even when you’re on center frequency and not using

fine tune in SYNC – the signal just becomes distorted.  Not fun.  The PL-990x has the same issues.

Now, Tecsun has definitely made progress since the horrendous implementation of SYNC on the PL-880, which wasn’t even an official feature.  But it’s disappointing that given the design features in the 501, especially the wonderful dual speakers, a way has not been found to resolve this issue which obviously involves the DSP chip that is the brain of the receiver.

Video: Detailed testing of Tecsun H-501x

ANTENNA

NEGATIVE: One of the things the folks at SONY, Panasonic and some other manufacturers did so well was design radios with antennas that nested inside the radio and could be pulled up and out of the cabinet, and because of this, there was clearance from the top of the radio so the antenna can achieve vertical position.   Tecsun has not done the same.  Antennas on the H-501x, PL-990x, PL-330 swivel but cannot take up vertical position, and of course they are nested on the top of the radio.  One would have thought that after years of producing portables, and coming to dominate the portable market, someone at Tecsun would have recognized the importance of antenna re-design.  NOTE:  the antenna on the 501x is sufficiently long, but on the PL-330 for example, seems to be not long enough.

BLUETOOTH

POSITIVE:  Hooray for Tecsun in integrating BT capability into the 501x and 990x.  This was such an obvious move and thanks to Tecsun for really hitting it out of the park. Unfortunately, we don’t get the ability to record audio from the radio on to microSD cards – that would truly have been a major step forward

CALIBRATION

The H-501 has the same re-calibration adjustment feature as is seen in the PL-909x and the PL-330.  This involves going into LSB or USB mode, holding down the USB or LSB keys until a flash appears, then using the Fine Tuning knob to achieve zero beat on WWV or strong station that is known to be on frequency, then holding down USB or LSB again to have the radio re-zero itself.  This is a fine feature that we have seen since the PL-880.

When I first received the H-501 it appeared that the receiver was fairly on zero beat from mediumwave up through 25 meters shortwave.  Further testing revealed that re-calibration was necessary, but the degree of error from mediumwave up through 19 meters was not as significant as I have seen on the PL-990x.  Re-calibrating at a mid-point of 25 meters appears to be a good mid-point choice, but inevitably, doing re-calibration on shortwave will throw the receiver off by a bit down on mediumwave.

A cautionary note:  when undertaking this calibration function be sure to give the radio time to confirm it’s in calibration mode with the FLASHing LCD. Sometimes, the readout will jump a full 1 kHz above or below the frequency you’re zeroing on – if that happens use the MAIN TUNING knob to get yourself back (i.e. 9,704 to 9,705.00) and complete the zero beat operation with the FINE TUNING knob, then hold down LSB or USB to complete.

All of this may be overkill for most people – I am just among those who obsess over having receivers as exactly on zero beat as possible.  That’s more difficult or impossible to achieve with older receivers that have no calibration function, such as the ICF-2010 or SW-55 without literally taking those radios apart to access internal points of adjustment.  The fact that Tecsun provides this capability in these portables is something we should all be very grateful for.

CIRCUIT LOCKUP

All of the Tecsun radios have a “reset” hole to be used if the receiver is not functioning properly.  I had one occasion of lockup with this sample of the H-501x.  Rather than using the reset hole, I decided to remove one of the two 18650 batteries, which of course reset the receiver.  I have alerted Anon-co to this issue, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s a major problem without having other H-501 units to compare to.

CARRYING CASE

POSITIVE:  The H-501 that I received for review from Anon-co came with a beautiful faux leather case complete with a convenient carrying handle.  My understanding is that this matches mainland China versions that have been widely seen in videos online.

Anon-co advises that the first batch of 501x to be carried by them will come in a gift box with this PU leather case, possibly to be followed at some later point by a hardcover carrying case.  Indeed, a photo can be found online showing the H-501 in a hardcover carrying case similar to the cases for the PL-880 and PL-990x kits.

As of early April, Anon-co advises that while the price for 501x is not set yet, it’s expected to be somewhere in the $310 – 330 range including shipping to the U.S.

AM/MEDIUMWAVE AND FM PERFORMANCE

Not much to say here – I find FM performance on the 501x to be superb, and mediumwave reception is more than satisfactory.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

As I noted earlier, these days amid declining use of shortwave by remaining broadcasters, almost any DSP or older portable receivers are capable of producing excellent results for shortwave listening.

Facebook groups devoted to shortwave (they have become the new gathering place and information exchanges for those of us who still love the hobby) are

full of newcomers inquiring about which Tecsun, Degen, or other portables are best.

Often, my advice is to consider older portables that are still quite competitive, especially considering the reduction in the number of stations still on shortwave.  These would include such classics as the Grundig Satellit 700/500, the SONY

ICF-2010(2001D), SONY ICF-SW77, and ICF-SW55, along with the venerable Panasonic RF-B65 and SONY ICF-SW100S in the smaller category.

What Tecsun has done with what we have to assume may be the final group of DSP receivers it produces is come up with small (PL-330), medium (PL-990x), and large (H-501) radios that combine extremely attractive features and excellent audio.  The H-501x, in effect, is a Grundig Satellit 700 re-born for the 21st century and the path to it was paved by the PL-880.

Though implementation of SYNC in each of these receivers still leaves much to be desired, having this feature is enough to push prospective buyers to choose one or more of these Tecsun units over older portables.

Note that Sangean, which is now producing its ATS-909×2 (though the radio has growing pains and is having its firmware updated by Sangean) seems to have taken note of Tecsun’s dominance of the market and provided multi-bandwith capability, and an improved and enlarged LCD display on the 909×2 along with finer frequency resolution.

In a strange but perhaps understandable decision, Sangean left SYNC mode off of its new flagship receiver.  Whether this had more to do with production costs or a decision that synchronous detection really brings little to the game these days, or both, along with other factors, remains a puzzle.  It does appear, from early reviews, that Sangean may have improved sensitivity on the 909×2, though this too remains unconfirmed.

But again, even with the negatives I noted here about the H-501x, what Tecsun has accomplished is significant.  It has given remaining potential buyers of multi-band portables three superb receiver choices. There are others in the Tecsun line such as the S-8800 and S2000, but of these only the S8800 is something I would recommend.

As I noted in a recent review of the PL-330, had we enjoyed a situation back in the golden days of shortwave in the 1960’s/1970’s/1980’s where a portable provided multiple bandwidths, advanced memory operations, and synchronous detection, DXing would have been even more of an enjoyment than it was.  Certainly those Country Heard/Country Verified totals would have been higher!

The H-501x could easily be considered the crown jewel in the Tecsun group with its killer looks, large speakers, and performance equaling the PL-990x.  Each of these receivers is arguably an easy choice as a “daily driver” for traveling, though where air travel and TSA issues are concerned, the PL-330 would be a better choice.

RECOMMENDATION:  Of the negatives I discuss in this article, only one I would consider fairly huge, and that is the ongoing issue with synchronous detection.  If the 501x, like the 990x and 330, were to have this issue resolved that would make it easy to recommend any of the three radios.  As it is, the attractiveness of the 501x lies with its beautiful two speaker design.  Even with the annoying SYNC  issue, I would recommend the radio to anyone who understands the SYNC issue and doesn’t mind and who wants a nice, larger version of the 909x.

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The Sony FX-300 Jackal: A Holy Grail technological marvel of the late 70s

I’m a child of the 1970s and I’m glad I never knew about the Sony FX-300 “Jackal 300.” It would have been the ultimate unobtainable machine of my dreams…this, even despite the lack of shortwave.

I was browsing eBay yesterday when I saw one of these pop up in the search results.

Somehow, this radio made it past my RADAR. How? I’m guessing it’s because this model was primarily sold in Japan–?

The FX-300 sports:

  • A mini CRT television screen (to watch Voyagers!, Space 1999, G-Force, and Ultraman)
  • Precision analog tuning
  • Top-Mounted cassette player/recorder
  • AM/FM reception
  • Built-in speaker
  • Earphone/Mic external ports
  • And let’s face it: a killer design that smacks of the Apollo era 

Other than the Panny RF-2200, I’m not sure if a radio could possibly satisfy more of my design cravings.  Here are a few images I’ve unashamedly swiped from eBay:

What a Holy Grail machine, indeed! I love the tactile mechanical switches, analog dials, speaker grills, selection switches, and even (especially) the metal stand off bar at the top to protect those brilliant cassette controls.

I’m very curious if any SWLing Post readers have ever owned (or still own) a Sony FX-300. (Kei Niigata, I’ll be terribly disappointed if I learn you’ve never owned one!)

Please comment!

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Radio Waves: Waves of Hope Presentation, More Radio Post-Pandemic, RTÉ to cease radio over DAB network, and Saving VOA Delano Relay DL-8

Radio Waves:  Stories Making Waves in the World of Radio

Because I keep my ear to the waves, as well as receive many tips from others who do the same, I find myself privy to radio-related stories that might interest SWLing Post readers.  To that end: Welcome to the SWLing Post’s Radio Waves, a collection of links to interesting stories making waves in the world of radio. Enjoy!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors David Iurescia, William Lee, and Radio Ado for the following tips:


Waves of Hope at Nutley Public Library (Tap Into Nutley)

Saturday, March 27 at 2:00 p.m. via Zoom – Learn the true and inspiring story of centenarian Agnes Joan Negra.  During World War II, using her shortwave radio from her home in Nutley, NJ, Agnes listened to Radio Berlin each night and notated the names of U.S. Prisoners of War as they were announced.  Agnes then went on to send personal letters to each family to inform them that their loved ones were still alive.  Author, Nutley native, and Son of Agnes, Ronald along with his wife Valerie, will discuss the creation of this book and this inspiring story of his mother.  You must register in advance at nutleypubliclibrary.org/waves-of-hope to attend.  When registering you will receive a confirmation and one day before the event you will receive an email with log-in instructions through Zoom.[]

People will be listening to more radio when the pandemic is over: Ciaran Davis (RadioInfo)

“People have learnt that they can listen to radio in new ways and they will be listening to more, not less, when the pandemic is over,” according to HT&E chief executive Ciaran Davis.

Speaking to radioinfo this week, Davis explained that the company had “a very tough second quarter” in 2020, but the rest of the year turned out better than expected.

“There was a huge improvement in quarters 3 and 4, compared with that horrible quarter 2 where radio revenue was back 46%,” said Davis.

With about 30 people losing their jobs at the height of the pandemic, “regular communication and honesty was important in getting the staff through the worst of the pandemic.” It was “a very unsettling time” but the company “kept people involved and focused on the positive,” which kept the company performing well despite the tough economic conditions.

After early pay cuts, salaries have now returned to normal. “The revenue book was empty, so we had to take the decision to cut pay, but radio listenership and advertising has come back strongly and more quickly than we thought it would then… we were looking at some troubling numbers if the pandemic had of kept going.”

Luckily, the worst fears were not realised. HT&E revenue was 22% down on the previous year, but could have been a lot worse. The outlook seems positive for 2021.

“I think there was a perception that radio would suffer the same fate as out of home because people were not listening in the car during lockdowns, but it didn’t.

“We in the industry knew that our content is engaging enough, strong enough, local and live enough to be resilient. The emotional bond between listeners and their favourite stations and personalities meant that they easily switched to new platforms when they were at home. It took some convincing for the ad market to understand that this had happened, but they understood in the end.

“This is an exciting time. I think people have learnt that they can listen to radio in new ways and they will be listening to more not less when the pandemic is over.”[…]

Read more at: https://www.radioinfo.com.au/news/people-will-be-listening-more-radio-when-pandemic-over-ciaran-davis © Radioinfo.com.au

 

RTÉ to cease radio transmission on DAB network (RTÉ)

RTÉ is to cease transmission of its radio services on the Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) network on 31 March.

However, its digital radio services, RTÉ Gold, RTÉ 2XM, RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, RTÉ Pulse, and RTÉjr Radio, will remain available on other platforms.

In a statement, the broadcaster said the move to cease DAB transmission was driven by three main factors – the fact that DAB was the least utilised platform in Ireland; that RTÉ is the only Irish broadcaster on the DAB system, and cost avoidance.

A public information campaign will be held to show customers how they can continue to access the digital stations.

In 2019, RTÉ had announced that its digital radio services would cease transmission as part of cost cutting measures.

However, although the DAB service will stop in March, the stations will now still be available on other platforms.

The broadcaster said this is due to the value audiences still derive from them.

The latest JNLR report, Radio in a Digital World, compiled by Ipsos/ MRBI, found that while 8% of the population in Ireland (330,000 people) are accessing radio stations via digital means, the smallest number in this cohort opt for DAB.

According to the report, just under 5% of adults in Ireland listen to radio via a mobile device, 2% listen on a PC, around 1.5% listen on a smart speaker, 0.6% listen on a TV set and 0.5% DAB. 77% of adults in Ireland listen to radio on FM.

For details on how to continue to listen to RTÉ digital radio services visit www.rte.ie/keeplistening 

One Megawatt of Peak AM Power – Saving the Voice of America Delano Relay DL-8 (YouTube)

In 2007, the Voice of America ceased operations at the Delano Relay site in Central California. The site is destined to be bulldozed along with several relics of Collins Radio Company’s Broadcast Communications Division. The Collins Collectors Association, with assistance from the Antique Wireless Association, hatched a plan to retrieve one of the Collins 821A-1 250 KW Shortwave Transmitters from the site and place it on display for all to see. This presentation gives some history of VoA and the Delano site and follows the disassembly and relocation of Delano Relay DL-8.

Dennis Kidder, W6DQ, is a retired Aerospace Engineer, having spent nearly 45 years in System Engineering. His career spanned many fields – from building and operating large scale sound systems, computer systems used to publish newspapers and control communications satellites, 4 years as the Chief Telecom Engineer during the construction of the New Hong Kong International Airport, and finally, air defense radar systems and networked radio communications systems used by the military. First licensed as WN6NIA then WA6NIA over 50 years ago, Dennis was granted the callsign of one of his High School Elmers, Chek Titcomb (SK), W6DQ. Amateur Radio has been a nearly life-long passion.


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