Category Archives: Radios

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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Dan revisits the venerable XHDATA D-808 portable radio

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who shares the following guest post:


XHDATA D-808Revisiting the XHDATA: What Sangean Should Have Learned from the D-808

by Dan Robinson

Recent additions to the shortwave portable receiver market have been quite impressive, especially considering the continuing decline in the use of shortwave as a transmission method by broadcasters.

In what could be the final models from Tecsun, we saw the PL-330, PL-990x and H-501x all of which bring impressive features and capabilities to the game.  Sangean finally introduced its upgraded ATS-909×2 including an early firmware upgrade that was supposed to correct some issues with this receiver.

As I have observed in some recent reviews, the very fact that the listening community still sees any new receivers is reason for gratitude, though we also have opportunities to acquire numerous classic receivers and can still do an excellent job in today’s listening environment.

One receiver that emerged a few years ago and which took the listening hobby by storm was the XHDATA D-808.  Numerous reviews are online, including ones here on the SWLing Post, and excellent reviews by Gilles Letourneau here and here.

The 808 was and still is compared to the CCrane Skywave SSB, a much smaller and compact receiver.  Unfortunately, in my experience both suffer from soft muting.

I obtained a D-808 shortly after it appeared based on early positive reviews.  I used it once, at the beach in Florida where reception conditions were superior – comparing it to some older portables in my collection such as the SONY ICF-SW07, ICF-SW55, and the Panasonic RF-B65.

I was impressed with the sensitivity of the 808, large speaker, and inclusion of AIR band, though I noticed some digital artifacts and agree with negatives such as slight soft muting and chuffing, and slowness of the processor.

I boxed the D-808 up and stored it away where it sat until recently when I took it back out after my experience using Sangean’s ATS-909×2 – thus the title of this brief commentary.

Sangean made some basic decisions with the 909×2.  Many of them are quite positive over the old 909x.  For many users the 909×2 has more than enough features to justify the higher price of the receiver.

I came to a different conclusion after returning my ATS-909×2, and I started thinking about how the D-808 could have informed engineers at Sangean as they considered which features to put in the 909×2.  To what extent Sangean designers looked at various other portables, including the D-808, we will probably never know.

D-808 DEMONSTRATES IMPORTANCE AND IMPACT OF BANDWIDTH FILTER CAPABILITY IN SSB

AM bandwidth control on the ATS-909×2 is quite nice.  However, what leaps out is the absence of multi-bandwidth capability in SSB mode.  It’s baffling that Sangean seems not to have recognized this as a must-have feature.

Tecsun started providing this on small receivers years ago, and in the PL-880, the excellent though flawed portable that also took the listening world by storm, and in the recent 330, 990x and 501x.

Using the D-808 again after a few years reminded me that this little China-made receiver offers no less than SEVEN bandwidths, in AM mode.  Let me say that again:  SEVEN (7) bandwidths.

You don’t find that kind of selectivity capability even in a Drake R8B.  After that, you’re getting into continuously variable bandwidth control found in premium DSP receivers.

So, in AM mode you have:  6 kHz, 4 kHz, 3 kHz, 2.5 kHz, 2.0 kHz, 1.8 kHz, and 1.00 kHz

The D-808 also has fine tuning capability.  This is not the same as the Tecsuns which actually enable you to re-calibrate, and with adjustment that remains set for both USB and LSB.  On the D-808 you fine tune to zero beat, but have to repeat the correction  for LSB and USB on the frequency you’re on – it’s a bit more twiddly, but on my 808 the fine tuning is nonetheless very smooth.

Nevertheless, combined with SIX bandwidth options when in SSB, the fine tuning option on the 808 is a superb feature, not to mention that on my particular D-808 there is little to no “warbling” when carrying out the fine tune operation.

So, in SSB on on the D-808 you have:  4.0 kHz, 3.0 kHz, 2.2 kHz, 1.2 kHz, 1.0 kHz, and an amazing .5 kHz !  Imagine that:   .5 kHz

I usually remember stuff like this, but when I first tried the D-808 in Florida back in 2018 I was more focused on assessing sensitivity, audio, and issues such as its pretty slow DSP response when changing modes.

Video Demonstration of D-808 bandwidth capability in AM and SSB modes:

So, now you have to pick me up off the floor as I re-visit the D-808 and realize what an amazingly capable little radio it really is – again, see the excellent reviews by Gilles in which he pays a lot of attention to this fact.

Additional years ago, I used receivers such as SONY SW-55s and Panasonic RF-B65s in ocean side DXing.  These are fine receivers, but the 55 is limited to two bandwidths, NARROW and WIDE – similar to the SONY 2010 and SW-77, both of which also had effective synchronous detection.

One of my best DX catches at that time was Radio Rwanda on 6,055 kHz just before it’s sign off in the late afternoon eastern timed.  Using a Panasonic RF-B65 which had NO bandwidth options, I was able to hear and record a full sign off and ID.

However, had a D-808 existed at that time this would have been much easier because of the multiple bandwidths in both AM and SSB.  I imagine a SONY ICF-SW7600GR would have done a good job as well, but it too does not have the multiple bandwidth options that a D-808 has.

These days, with the number of stations on the air reduced even further, examples like this may be fewer and farther between.  But one has to observe that for AMATEUR radio listening, the amazing bandwidth capability of a D-808 really sets it apart from the pack.

Am I glad I re-discovered the D-808?  You bet.  It was on my list of TO SELL receivers.  Now, it has a reprieve and is firmly back on my keeper list.

I have to think that it is highly unlikely that there will be a new version of the D-808, unless someone out there has heard something in the receiver rumor mill that I have not.  Perhaps the folks at XHDATA/RadioWOW will take this hint.

If XHDATA were to re-design the 808, the most improvements one would hope for are obvious:  a newer and faster DSP chip to speed up mode changes, a jack for external recording.  A real long shot would be to hope for the same sort of  calibration adjustment seen in the Tecsun receivers.

When I really get to dreaming, I think of XHDATA or some other maker designing a portable like the 808 – why not call it the 1000 Super DSP – that actually has continuously adjustable bandwidth control.  This will never happen.

It’s doubtful that XHDATA or some other manufacturer will consider competing directly with Tecsun and Sangean.  But the D-808 carved out a place for itself in the small portable category, at an extremely competitive price point.

As this was not an exhaustive retro review of the D-808, I have not gone into the various negatives that every D-808 owner knows to exist.

Lack of a RECORD OUT jack is one.  A D-808x might implement Bluetooth capability as Tecsun has, and MicroSD recording capability (though that gets into issues that appear to have prevented Tecsun from doing the same).  And surely, get rid of the soft muting.

In conclusion, I go back to a question that occurred to me as I used the Sangean ATS-909×2:  what Sangean could or should have learned from the D-808.

Here was a small, well-designed DSP radio that burst upon the scene with outstanding capabilities and which even today is prized among those who own it.  Need I repeat?  SEVEN bandwidths in AM mode, and MW, and SIX in SSB and LW.

Every company that’s still manufacturing receivers makes its own decisions. It’s as important that we voice our gratitude to Sangean for its latest (possibly last) effort to revise the 909xxxx series as it is to Tecsun for offering no fewer than THREE superb world band receivers.

Sangean has received feedback from me and other reviewers about the x2.  All of that is aimed at helping the company possibly correct shortcomings in the new receiver.  I hope that this commentary is another step in that direction.

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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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New Zealand auction includes collection of 400 vintage radios

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jason Walker, who writes:

Dear Thomas,

I noticed a New Zealand news article that may be of interest to SWLing Post readers.

Approximately 400 vintage radios are to be auctioned in Nelson, New Zealand. Whilst I use more modern Tecsun radios, the article will be of interest for vintage collectors. Many of the Radios are New Zealand made and rare.

Links below include a video and news article.

https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/124587912/collectors-go-gaga-over-vintage-radio-auction

Radio and Collectables Auction
17 Hereford Street (off Songer St)
Stoke, Nelson
Saturday 10 April, 2021

AUCTION STARTS AT 11am
Viewing from 9am day of auction
and, Friday 11am – 3pm

More information: https://jwauctions.co.nz/upcomingauctions.html

Thank you, Jason. Even though this auction has been widely publicized in New Zealand, the collection is so massive, I imagine bidders will be walking away with some excellent bargains. If I lived in NZ, I would certainly be a part of the bidding. I’d love to have an NZ-made receiver.

I really like the following quote from the Stuff.co.nz article:

The widower of the man who stockpiled the radios told Walker her husband had collected the stash from all over the country.

“His wife was a wee bit disappointed she didn’t know he had half the radios because he used to keep hiding them.[“]

How many of us can relate to that last statement? Let’s face it: par for course, right!? 🙂

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A review of the Ocean Digital WR-23D WiFi, FM, DAB & DAB+, and Bluetooth Portable Radio

Readers might recall that last year, I reviewed the Ocean Digital WR-26 portable radio and was pretty impressed.

Although it turns out a number of SWLing Post readers were familiar with Ocean Digital and had purchased some of their radios, I hadn’t heard of them until an SWLing Post contributor encouraged the company to contact me.

I must say: all of my communications with Ocean Digital have been very positive and the company has also been very receptive to my frank feedback. All good things.

Ocean Digital reached out to me last month and asked if I would like to test their WR-23D portable radio. Why not? They dispatched on immediately from their Amazon stock here in the USA.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Ocean Digital sent this review sample to me at no cost and as soon as this review has been published (as in, right now), I’m sending it to one of our SWLing Post Patreon supporters I pick at random.

Initial impressions

The Ocean Digital WR-23D sports an ABS plastic body that feels very solid in the hand. Indeed, some shortwave portable manufacturers should take note–the ABS structure is so solid, there’s no give when I press into the middle of the speaker grill, for example. I feel like this radio would survive falling off of a table or shelf with no problems.

The backlit 2.4″ color display is very easy to read with crisp graphics, text, and ample contrast.

The top of the radio features a power button and three dedicated memory preset buttons. The volume control is also mounted on the top of the radio and protrudes out of the front slightly so your thumb can move it.

On the front of the radio, there are dedicated buttons for the Home screen, EQ/Local button, Favorites, and Sleep Timer.

In the center, there’s a circular navigation control and selection button.

On the back of the unit, you’ll find the telescoping whip antenna for FM, DAB/DAB+, an LED indicator for charging, a 3.5mm earphone jack, and (yes!) a USB-C charging port. I’m so happy to see a USB-C port rather than the older Micro USB variety.

Sound

The front-facing speaker delivers balanced audio. There has obviously been some attention given to the speaker enclosure because it produces a bit more bass than I would have anticipated. There are 12 EQ presets you can use to tailor the audio as well.  The WR-3D is not an audio powerhouse–in fact, the audio level stops short of allowing the speaker to splatter–do don’t expect a “boom box” response.

For listening to music or voice in your office, bedroom, or living room? Yeah, it’ll work a charm!

Portability

What I love about these Ocean Digital units is that they have a built-in rechargeable battery.

In my household, this is huge.

I often carry my WiFi radios around the house, moving from the kitchen, to my office, to outdoors near the wood shed (it’s the time of year I start splitting firewood again!).

I’ve found that not only does the battery power the WR-23D for many hours at a time, but the WiFi receiver in the unit is also robust enough that the radio can communicate with our router outside the house. With that said, the WiFi reception is not as good as it is with the recently reviewed CC WiFi 3 which actually sports an external WiFi RX antenna. Then again, the CCWiFi 3 doesn’t have a rechargeable battery either.

Internet Radio

The Ocean Digital WR-23D uses the Skytune radio station aggregator to search for Internet radio station streams.

In short: I like Skytune. It’s easy to search, they’ll add streams if they’re missing any, and it’s well-organized. Instead of reviewing the aggregator again, I’ll point you to the Ocean Digital WR-26 review for more detail as the navigation is identical other than the WR-23D has a nice color screen to display information.

Of course, I’m sure a number of readers have been put off by the whole idea of a dedicated Internet appliance for listening to radio in the wake of Reciva’s announced closure. For more on this topic, I’d strongly encourage you to read my thoughts in the CC WiFi 3 review (note that the CC WiFi 3 also uses the Skytune aggregator).

On Internet appliances like the WR-23D, one does worry about WiFi radio functionality failing if the station aggregator disappears. We recently posted a way you can hack some Grace Digital and C.Crane radios that use Reciva.

In the case of the WR-23D, WR-26, and CC WiFi 3 (basically all of the Skytune receivers I’ve reviewed) you can actually program your favorite radio stations manually. In fact, it’s very easy. You simply find the radio’s IP address on your network (the manual describes how to find this in the Configuration menu selection). Then, enter the radio’s IP address in a browser on a computer or device that is connected to the same WiFi network. You’ll get a window that looks like this where you can add your own streams, organize memories, and even perform basic control of the radio:

But, again, if the whole idea of an aggregator-tied device like the WR-23D is unappealing, I get it. You might simply pair your smartphone or tablet with a Bluetooth speaker and use a system like Radio Garden or TuneIn to cruise the world of online radio stations.

Bluetooth

Speaking of Bluetooth speaker, yes, the WR-23D is one of those, too! Simply select “Bluetooth” from the home menu and pair it with your favorite device. Couldn’t be easier!

FM radio

The WR-23D has a very capable FM radio. I had it scan my local FM dial and it automatically picked up all of the stations I would have expected. The radio has both auto and manual tuning.

In addition, the WR-23D displays RDS information on the screen. This is a feature I love especially when travelling as it helps me ID the station I’m tuned to.

DAB/DAB+

Unfortunately, we have no DAB/DAB+ stations in the US, so I was unable to test this functionality.

Summary

As I mentioned, I really appreciate the matte finish ABS chassis. I like to know that my portables can survive a fall.

I’ve been using the WR-23D here at SWLing Post HQ for about one month and only have a few minor/personal complaints. For example, I wish the headphone jack was on the side of the radio instead of the back. Also, I wish the telescoping whip antenna fit into a recess on the chassis rather than being fully mounted on the outside. I would like to see a fold out tilt stand on the back of the unit (I’ve actually used the antenna to prop this radio at an angle, but that’s not ideal).

If you’re looking for a truly portable WiFi radio and Bluetooth speaker with a proper FM and DAB/DAB+ receiver the Ocean Digital WR-23D is a solid choice.   Amazon’s current price is $79.99 US with shipping and free returns–I feel like this is a value for all this radio has to offer.

I can say this: the SWLing Post Patron who wins this WR-23D will really enjoy it! I have.

Click here to check out the Ocean Digital WR-23D at Amazon.com (SWLing Post affiliate link!)

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Nick acquires a Harris RF 505A receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Nick Booras, who writes:

I just picked up a Harris 505A and I made a couple videos your viewers might like.

This radio is extremely sensitive as you can see in the comparison videos. I am very lucky to have picked it up. I will add that in the comparison to the Kenwood TS890 I didn’t try the 15 kHz filter on video. I did try it afterwards and I was surprised to receive the weak 6.085 signal with similar results to the 505. I thought for sure that that huge width would only let in more noise but I was wrong. I learned something new! But the 505A is still a super sweet machine.

Thank you for sharing this, Nick! What a wonderful addition to your radio collection. I’ve always loved the incredibly simple design of the 505A and have assumed it would have a very low noise floor.

Thanks again!

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Guest Post: Mark’s review of the Yaesu FT-891 as shortwave broadcast receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, who shares the following guest post:


Using the Yaesu FT-891 for SWLing

by Mark Hirst

Woodland Operation in North Hampshire

Introduction

While I have a small collection of portable shortwave radios for outdoor listening, I’ve been looking to fill a gap in my amateur radio lineup for a while. Outdoor operation has become important in recent years as solar cycle conditions deteriorated along with rising levels of QRM in urban neighbourhoods. The ICOM IC–7200 with Wellbrook loop stays at home fighting a losing battle with PLA noise, while the very portable FT–817ND does occasional data modes contacts and outdoor listening. Somewhere in the middle, the FT–891 promised to provide a modern and more powerful data modes station, a radio to take on holidays, needing external batteries, but portable enough for walks into the country side. Earlier this year, I bought one new from my local ham radio store, and what follows are my findings and observations so far on shortwave listening.

Audio Characteristics

I’ve accumulated hundreds of recordings of VOA Radiogram and Shortwave Radiogram since 2013, so a recent woodland expedition with the FT–891 was an opportunity to compare a recording made with it against those of other radios I’ve used.

The most striking difference is the lack of frequencies in the lower part of the audio spectrum along with a distinct cut off at around 5kHz.

This is easily visualised in the following comparison between the FT–891 and the Tecsun PL–680. Note the conspicuous pillar associated with MFSK32 from these Shortwave Radiogram broadcasts, and interfering RTTY on the FT–891 recording:

Audio Frequency Analysis

While this audio profile may not be to everyone’s taste, the extra sparkle yields voice audio that is clear and distinct. I find those low frequencies make the audio muddy and tiring to listen over long periods, so I’m quite happy with this.

When listening to speech based broadcasts through the top mounted speaker, the audio is also precise and intelligible, and provides more than enough volume.

You can judge for yourself from this 2 minute video I made recently:

Headphones, External Speakers and Recording

You also have the option of connecting an external speaker or headphones to a socket on the side of the radio. Be aware that the audio level is different for headphones, and is controlled by a small switch hidden behind the front panel. I expect people may go for one option such as headphones and then stick with it, rather than continually detaching the front of the radio and moving the delicate switch back and forth.

If you turn the volume right down you will hear a hiss, although its really only noticeable if you face the speaker directly and get close. Listening outdoors with the sounds of nature around you? It’ll be fine. There’s no way to avoid it with headphones of course, with forums suggesting inline resistors or high impedance headphones as solutions.

Audio recordings can of course be taken from the headphone socket, but you will get better results from the data port on the back. I use a UD04YA cable which provides 3.5mm audio in and audio out jacks, plus a USB cable to provide PTT functionality. It’s meant for data modes operation with the FT–817, but I have used it successfully with the FT–891 for PSK contacts using fldigi, eliminating the need for CAT control through a second cable to the radio’s USB port.

Customising for SWL

The advanced manual for the FT–891 helpfully provides a section called ‘Tools for Comfortable and Effective Reception’, so I began configuring the radio using the guidance there.

First up was re-configuring the front panel RF/Squelch knob to only control RF gain (Menu 05–05). I use the same configuration on my FT–817ND to dial back RF gain, allowing the AGC to pick up the slack.

Next was enabling the awkwardly named Insertion Point Optimisation (IPO) which switches out the pre-amplifier. It’s interesting to note that this setting can be associated with a stored memory channel, which became relevant later when I used CAT control to program some favourite frequencies.

The radio has an attenuator, although I’ve not found a need for it so far.

The AGC can be configured as Auto, Fast, Mid, and Slow. Since it is not a ‘set and forget’ setting like the RF control or IPO options, it might be a good candidate for assigning to one of the three user definable buttons below the LCD screen.

Audio can be fine tuned using four menu options (06–01 to 06–04) to control high and low frequency cutoff, but after some experimentation I have turned these options off.

As an aside, I found the LCD backlight, button illumination and TX/Busy lights too bright for indoor use, so dialed them back to their minimum values.

Listening Tools

The radio provides some additional tools as part of its IF DSP. The features of particular interest are Digital Noise Reduction (DNR), Noise Blanker, IF Notch Filter, Digital Notch Filter, and Narrow IF filter. Contour, IF Bandwidth, and IF Shift are not available in AM mode, and you must resort to SSB to get them. More about SSB in a moment.

Out of this wide array of options, I’ve only explored Digital Noise Reduction and the Narrow IF filter so far, as they offer fairly immediate gains without too much configuration.

Narrow filter simply reduces the total IF bandwidth from 9kHz to 6kHz, which gives some immediate relief to higher frequency noise. In tougher conditions at home tackling QRM, the harsher sound it causes has sometimes been counter productive.

At the outset, it’s obvious that the DNR capability of the FT–891 is a powerful feature. Rather than providing a level of processing that varies from a little to a lot, the radio provides 15 different ‘algorithms’ which can be selected for best results. This means you will tweak the DNR setting to address signals on a case by case basis.

Comparing it with the IF noise reduction of my ICOM IC–7200, the ICOM has a scale of diminishing returns as the DSP level is turned up, whereas the FT–891 seems to start strong and it’s more about picking the algorithm that sounds best.

After testing the DNR on AM broadcast stations away from the noise at home, voice audio sounds distant and words can be clipped, which is fine for SSB amateur radio contacts, but makes me think it’s not a feature of first resort when trying to improve broadcast reception. In those circumstances, the narrow filter might be a better option.

The Trials of Single Side Band

On the matter of SSB and using it to combat adjacent or co-channel signals, the radio offers a single SSB option in the mode menu, picking USB or LSB for you automatically based on the current band. When tackling broadcast band interference however, you want the option to go in either direction. The radio also changes the current frequency by 700Hz when SSB is selected, which then has to be corrected with the main dial.

You would begin by switching to SSB mode by pressing and holding the band button. If you’re lucky, the default setting is the one you want.

If it isn’t, activate the settings menu with a long press of the F key, go to the menu option SSB BFO (11–07), select it and use the multi-function knob to change the mode away from Auto to LSB or USB.

As you are doing this, the VFO will change to LSB or USB too. Leave the setting on the option that suits your needs.

If you exit the menu option without saving (pressing F), the mode will remain changed, but the override is not saved. This can be a useful quirk because next time you turn the radio on, it will be back in auto mode.

If you commit the override by pushing the multi-function knob instead, the radio will stay in manual mode until you remember to return to the menu and restore automatic behaviour again.

It’s a needlessly complicated system, as I discovered recently while recording another Shortwave Radiogram broadcast. Even after testing the procedure previously for this article, the radio was determined to stay in LSB no matter what.

Memory Programming

Since the radio has no keyboard for direct frequency input, an early priority for shortwave listening was to program some of the 99 memories available. My plan was to have some favourite broadcast stations, along with WX, Volmet, GMDSS, and some data mode frequencies. To handle ad-hoc stations however, I wanted a way of moving quickly across the main shortwave bands without excessive use of the main tuning dial or multi-function knob.

Taking the official definitions of the broadcast bands between 60m and 16m, and combining those with frequency schedules, I came up with a series of frequencies 150kHz apart across each of those bands, guaranteeing that no broadcast was more than 150kHz away.

The combined list of favourites and the 150kHz stepping stone frequencies resulted in 70 memory channels in total. As I wanted to apply alphanumeric tags to those channels, and didn’t relish the prospect of entering them manually, my next port of call was the CAT control manual to see how those memories could be set programmatically.

While there is commercial software available for the FT–891, I only needed to set up the memory channels, so decided to adapt some PowerShell I’d written for another radio, sending the necessary serial port commands to configure my list.

Now that is done, I can fast travel using the stepping stone memories to the closest point in a band, then use the fast mode of the main tuning dial to move quickly to my final destination.

The following table lists my current stepping stone channels in kHz:

60m 49m 41m 31m 25m 22m 19m 16m
4750 5900 7200 9400 11600 13570 15100 17480
4900 6050 7350 9550 11750 13720 15250 17630
5050 6200 7500 9700 11900 13870 15400 17780
7650 9850 12050 15550 17930
7800 15700

Memory Access

An obvious way to access the memories is to toggle memory channel mode with the V/M button, then cycle through the memories using the multi-function knob. Depending on your memory choices, you will hear relays clicking as the radio jumps back and forth between widely spaced frequencies and bands. You will also need a good memory of your memories, so you know which way to turn the multi-function knob.

An alternative and perhaps faster method is to press the M>V button. This brings up a multi-line listing of memories that can be scrolled through using the multi-function knob. Pressing the M>V button again copies the selected memory to the VFO and leaves you in VFO mode. This avoids the radio flipping across bands and the associated relay activity.

Although it is not documented, if you push the multi-function knob on a selected memory channel in the multi-line listing rather than using the M>V button, the selected memory is activated and the radio is left in memory channel mode displaying the memory tag.

Disabling Transmit

At the time of writing, I haven’t discovered a way of formally disabling transmit, and the minimum transmit power goes no lower than 5W. Since my main interests are around shortwave listening, utility stations and an occasional data mode QSO, I have not fitted the microphone to the radio. In that configuration at least, there is no danger of me manually transmitting into a receive antenna by accident.

Outdoor Power

Reports vary on the power consumption of the FT–891. It certainly isn’t as high as the 2.0A documented in the user guide.

While some sources claim values in the region of 1.0A, my power supply shows around 0.4A at 13.8V when receiving a typical HF broadcast. You will notice where some of that power goes quite quickly, as part of the radio gets warmer.

To save weight, my preferred power supply in the field is usually a lithium battery designed to jump start smaller engined cars. This versatile 12V battery also supplies 5V USB power to phones and tablets, and can even charge laptops.

In Conclusion

Control ergonomics and screen size are factors that can detract from shortwave listening on these kinds of radios, with smaller speakers and menu options for features normally at your fingertips.

Despite this, I’m happy with the audio, and I like the emphasis on mid-range frequencies in its audio spectrum. The digital noise reduction is impressive and can tackle significant QRM environments, but for outdoor listening may not be your first port of call.

Memory presets can make tuning less laborious, while assigning key listening tools to the customisable front panel buttons should reduce the need to access menus. I may consider defining some stations with known co-channel issues to memory with preset LSB and USB variations, to allow rapid responses to interference in future.

In good conditions, I suspect there is little difference between the FT–891 and FT–817ND for general listening. The FT–817ND has produced some of my best recordings of Shortwave Radiogram. The newer radio however brings many advanced tools to bear on more difficult signals, while its band scope and full sized VFO tuning dial enable desktop style shortwave exploration.

The ICOM IC–7200 is constrained by interference at home, biding its time for when the solar cycle swings back. When it’s been out on field days, it has always been a strong performer for broadcast listening. All the important controls are upfront, but is not a trivial thing to transport on foot. While the FT–891 has impressive DNR chops, I think I prefer the ability of the IC–7200 to apply noise reduction in incremental steps. Perhaps the algorithm approach will grow on me in time.

Any amateur radio operator using the FT–891 should have no trouble using it for shortwave listening. It attracts a lot of positive reviews for its ham radio capabilities, and it looks like those features carry across for listening to the world too.


An excellent review, Mark! Thank you for sharing. 

The Yaesu FT-891 must be the most popular HF transceivers Yaesu sells today. So many of its users rave about its performance and audio characteristics. Mark, thank you for sharing your experience with the FT-891 as an SWL!

Click here to check out the affordable IP67 rated case Mark uses to house his FT-891.

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