Category Archives: Shortwave Radio Reviews

Dave reviews the Icom IC-R30 Handheld Wide Band Receiver

The new Icom IC-R30 handheld wideband receiver at the 2018 Hamvention.

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dave Zantow (N9EWO), who notes that he has published his comprehensive review of the Icom IC-R30 handheld wideband receiver.

Click here to check out Dave’s review.

Based on Dave’s evaluation, it sounds like this is one of the better wideband radios, although like similar models, its utility in the HF and mediumwave bands is somewhat limited. He gives the R30 good marks for AGC and notes a lack of spurious emissions on MW. Unlike other wideband handhelds, he noted no mediumwave stations overloading the HF bands. With the unit connected to an external HF antenna however, intense overloading occurred on these bands.

As I tell anyone considering a wideband handheld, don’t buy it with the intention of logging weak signal DX on the HF bands–it’s just not a great receiver for this. It shines on those higher frequencies starting in the VHF band and moving up.

Thanks for sharing your review, Dave!

Gary pulls apart and examines the XHDATA D-808


Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Gary DeBock, who shares the following report of the XHDATA D-808:


XHDATA D-808 AM-LW-FM-SW-AIR Portable- Tech Report

by Gary DeBock

The XHDATA D-808 portable is an AM-LW-FM-SW-SSB-AIR band model which has already been the subject of many excellent reviews. Until recently the model was not marketed to North American purchasers, but recently a couple of Chinese sellers have started soliciting North American buyers via eBay listings.

My own interest in the model was in comparing its AM Band performance to that of the best performing Ultralight radios– specifically the CC Skywave and Skywave SSB models. Although the D-808 is slightly larger than the 20 cubic inch limit for Ultralight radios, its size and weight make it very convenient to take along as a “travel portable,” specifically as an SSB-enhanced model capable of checking transoceanic station carrier strength on exotic ocean beaches. The Skywave SSB model can also do that– but at a $169.99 list price, compared to the $112.86 (plus $10 shipping) cost of the D-808. In addition, none of the published D-808 reviews seemed to have any information about internal components like the loopstick, or Si4735 DSP chip.

My first test was to compare the stock Skywave SSB model with the D-808 in fringe AM station reception. The Skywave SSB model has a reputation of being one of the most sensitive Ultralight radios, but the D-808 clearly outperformed it on both low band fringe station (550-KARI) and high band fringe station (1700-City of Auburn TIS) reception. The D-808 couldn’t quite hang with a 7.5″ loopstick Skywave model, but that only made me curious about how the same modification could enhance the D-808. So… it was time to disassemble the D-808, and find out why its loopstick was such a superior performer.

The D-808’s 3 7/8″ (98mm) loopstick is shown adjacent to the 2 3/4″ (70mm) loopstick of the CC Skywave models. The D-808 is much easier to disassemble than the CC Skywave models, though, so enhanced loopstick transplants should prove to be quite popular in the D-808.

The D-808 loopstick is 3.7/8″ (98mm) long, while that of the CC Skywave SSB model is only 2 3/4″ (70mm) long. Other reviewers have noted the excellent performance of the D-808 on the AM band, and this is probably one of the main reasons. The SSB mode operates very similar to that of the Skywave SSB in providing a quick check of carrier strength on weak AM band targets– the LSB mode can be set to +55, and the radio tuned to different frequencies to check fringe station carrier strength. This can provide a real-time check of propagation changes during time-limited propagation openings for live ocean beach DXing with Ultralight radios or other portables (or with the D-808 itself, if desired).

The D-808’s Si4735 DSP chip was initially used in the Eton Traveler III Ultralight radio model, which was fully reviewed in the 2015 Ultralight Radio Shootout (where it won top honors for MW sensitivity). The D-808 augments that capability with a significantly longer loopstick, plus multiple DSP filtering selections. As such, the D-808 in stock form should be a very superb performer.

The Si4735 DSP chip has markings of “3560, DCUL, .738” and provides a wide range of AM bandwidth choices for the Medium Wave DXer (6K, 4K, 3K, 2.5K, 2K, 1.8K and 1K). These perform very well, and as with the other DSP-enhanced portables, the narrowest bandwidth (1K) provides the most sensitive AM band reception.

In construction very similar to that of the CC Skywave, the D-808 separates into two main circuit boards, connected together by a plug-in ribbon cable. One strange quirk is that the Si4735 DSP chip is located on the RF board (close to the center right edge). The Si4735 DSP chip is also used in the Eton Traveler III Ultralight radio, and although that model lacks the multiple DSP filter selections of the D-808, is has been the subject of highly successful 7.5″ loopstick transplant modifications– proving that such enhanced Medium Wave and Longwave loopsticks will perform very well in the new, Si4735 chip- powered D-808.

Disassembly of the D-808 model is fairly straightforward in comparison to the CC Skywave models, and the technician doesn’t need to memorize a detailed reassembly protocol in order to perform a routine loopstick transplant operation. Neither C.Crane nor XHDATA are likely to show any sympathy to someone botching up an antenna transplant, so you need to be confident that that your skills are superior to those of the company technicians before taking the plunge. In the CC Skywave and CC Skywave SSB models various parts fit together like a puzzle, but the D-808 isn’t like that. It should prove to be a fairly popular model for enhanced MW and LW loopsticks.

Those considering a purchase of the D-808 should be advised that its type 18650 Li-ion 3.7v battery is not commonly available at most stores, and that Postal regulations supposedly forbid shipping these batteries through the mail. One of the eBay sellers (harelan ecommerce) did manage to ship me two of the standard XHDATA type 18650 batteries through the mail (along with two new D-808 models) but if your seller won’t do this, you can still purchase the batteries on eBay. Some of the 18650 batteries sold on eBay have a flat positive terminal which won’t contact the D-808 cabinet’s positive battery connector terminal, but in such a case you can simply insert a #8 lockwasher in between the two, and the arrangement will be very secure. From that point on you can simply recharge the battery with a USB terminal connector.


Thank you for sharing this technical overview of the XHDATA D-808, Gary! I’m looking forward to the antenna mods you’ll no doubt make to this compact DX machine!

Click here to read other posts about the XHDATA D-808 and here to read posts by Gary DeBock.

A review of the SDRplay RSPduo 14-bit dual tuner SDR

The new SDRplay RSPduo

Moments ago, I posted a press release from the UK-based software-defined radio manufacturer, SDRplay, announcing their latest product: the RSPduo: a 14-bit Dual Tuner SDR.

I should start with the disclaimer that, not only was I sent an RSPduo to review and evaluate, but SDRplay has been a supporter of the SWLing Post for a few years now.  You’ve no doubt seen their ads in the upper right corner of our site. After I reviewed their first SDR (the RSP1) I discovered that SDRplay––all of their staff and supporters––welcome constructive criticism and even invite frank discussions. They’re a company with integrity.  No doubt, this is why I agreed to alpha- and beta-test their SDRs. Fortunately, I’ve not been disappointed.

As a company, moreover, SDRplay breaks the mold––and in very good ways:

  • SDRplay is a small company that employs actual radio enthusiasts. Their designs and software cater to DXers, SWLs, hams, scanner enthusiasts, amateur astronomers, experimenters, and makers, among others.
  • SDRplay designs and builds their products in the United Kingdom. No doubt they could increase their profit margin by using manufacturing centers in China, but they choose not to do so, to the benefit of their products.
  • The quality of the company’s products is, at least to date, excellent.
  • SDRplay’s product pricing is nonetheless quite affordable

That last item, in particular, is a head-scratcher.  Considering these facts, how does SDRplay still manage to keep their pricing so competitive? I only wish I knew.  When the company released the RSP1A last year, I had already spent a few months with alpha and beta units, mulling over their respective merits (and there were many).  So I was simply gobsmacked when they announced that the price would be just $99 US. I rather figured the company was leaving money on the table, although I was pleased to announce this price to my readers here.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago: I received the new RSPduo to review. And the price this time? $279 US. While this is currently the priciest product in the SDRplay line, let’s go over what makes this SDR special…and why I still think SDRplay may be leaving money on the table.

Introducing the SDRplay RSPduo

 

The RSPduo is unlike any other SDR in the SDRplay product line, and, indeed, unlike most of the budget SDRs currently on the market.

As “duo” implies, this RSP features dual independent tuners, both piped through a single high-speed USB 2.0 interface. With the RSPduo, you can explore two completely separate 2 MHz bands of spectrum anywhere between 1kHz and 2GHz.

SDRplay lays out several use-scenarios in their press release:

  • The ability to simultaneously receive on two totally independent 2 MHz spectrum windows anywhere between 1 kHz and 2 GHz
  • Simultaneous processing from 2 antennas enables direction-finding, diversity, and noise-reduction applications
  • Ideal for cross band full-duplex reception, e.g. HF + VHF, or VHF + UHF
  • Simultaneous Dump1090 and VHF ATC reception
  • Simultaneous monitoring and recording of 2 ISM bands
  • Use SDRuno to seamlessly control and manage the dual tuner in a single environment.

Externally, the RSPduo bears a strong resemblance to the RSP2pro. Internally, however, it’s quite different.

Besides featuring a second independently controlled tuner, the RSPduo also sports 14 bit ADCs and a completely re-designed RF front end, which enhances receiver selectivity and improves dynamic range.

In short, the RSPduo is like having two SDRs in one.

Performance

I received the RSPduo during a very busy time of the year: the build up to the Hamvention in Xenia, OH.

One of the first things I noticed about the RSPduo is its weight. When I picked up the package from SDRplay, I could tell it weighed at least twice that of the RSP1A. One reason for the extra heft is that the RSPduo, like the RSP2 Pro, has a metal enclosure. I’m willing to bet the RSPduo also has more shielding––adding even a little extra weight.

I’ve had the RSPduo on the air for more than a week now, and have checked out all of its major functions and begun to learn the nuances of navigating the dual receivers in the latest version of SDRuno.

SDRplay will, I feel sure, post a primer video on using the various dual tuner functions in the coming weeks.

 

Installation of the software, even in pre-production, was totally a “plug-and-play” experience. Simply install the SDRuno software package with the RSPduo disconnected from the USB port.  Plug in the RSPduo, and wait for the USB driver to load, then open SDRuno. That’s it. You’re on the air!

 

As I’ve indicated, the RSPduo is really like having two RSP1As in a single RSP2 Pro package. One of these dual receivers––the master––can utilize either a standard 50 ohm SMA antenna port, or a Hi-Z port. The second receiver uses one 50 ohm SMA antenna port just like the RSP1A.

I much prefer using the Hi-Z port for everything longwave and mediumwave.  I did hook up both antenna ports on the master receiver, however, and switched back and forth between the two. At least in my antenna setup, I feel like the Hi-Z option lends itself to improved sensitivity on these bands. It’s not a dramatic difference––indeed, looking at the spectrum display one barely notices the difference––but my ears told me the noise floor was lower and signal strength slightly better with the Hi-Z port. Above 2 MHz, the Hi-Z port is not prefered since it lacks the same level of RF pre-selection as the 50 ohm ports provide.

Unlike the Hi-Z port with the RSP2, the RSPduo treats the Hi-Z port more like an auxiliary antenna port. When I employed the Hi-Z port in the HF bands, I did notice small spurious noises, but this might have been due to my antenna port configuration here in the shack (my Hi-Z connector is simply attached to the shield and center conductor of my coax).

Again, however, for anything above 2 MHz, SDRplay suggests using the 50 ohm ports.

How to set up dual receivers on one screen/monitor

Listening to the FM broadcast band on the main receiver and Voice of Greece shortwave on the second receiver.

One of the first things I was eager to do was to run the dual receiver functionality on one monitor.  Although SDRplay makes this a pretty simple process in the latest version of SDRuno, I still stumbled a bit as I learned to navigate the controls.

Here’s a quick primer to get both receivers on the air on one monitor/screen:

  • First, open SDRuno in “single receiver mode” (the typical SDRuno default).

  • Next, click on the “RSPduo mode” button and select one of the modes.  In this case, I’m not running the ADS-B application, so I’ll choose “DUAL (NORMAL)”.

  • Now, to format the “Master” receiver windows so they only use the top half of the monitor, click on the OPT button.

  • Select “Auto Layouts” and “RSPduo Master.”

If you’ve followed these steps with me, your screen should look something like this:

Now you’ll want to start the second receiver. Do this by opening the SDRuno application again (as if you were opening SDRuno for the first time). Make sure you’ve selected your RSPduo if you have more than one RSP connected.

The new instance of SDRuno will fill the entire screen by default, so you’ll need to format it to occupy the lower half of the screen.

Simply click on the OPT button again, select “Auto Layouts,” and “RSPduo Slave.”

Your full screen should now look something like this:

Now you can start using both receivers, but you’ll have to always start the “Master” receiver first. In fact, the “Master” receiver must always be active in order to operate the “Slave” receiver. You can always close the “Slave” receiver without affecting the “Master” receiver; however, if you close the “Master” receiver, you will effectively close both receivers.

Again, I fully expect SDRplay will soon produce a demonstration video showing how you can navigate SDRuno’s new dual-receiver functionality.

Comparisons

As I’ve mentioned in most previous SDR reviews, I do like to take a considerable amount of time to set up SDR comparisons.

Herein lies the difficulty of reviewing an SDR’s performance. Because the user has so much power to control variables and thus shape the receiver’s function, it’s actually quite hard to make an “apples-to-apples” comparison––insuring that all important filters, gain controls, DSP, etc., are as close to identical as possible.

One tool that helps me do this is SDR Console, since it can control a number of SDRs and receiver parameters can be set up identically.  Unfortunately, the RSPduo is so new, SDR Console doesn’t yet support it.

I did use SDRuno to compare the RSPduo with the RSP1A. Fortunately, I could actually run two separate instances of SDRuno simultaneously (and on different monitors, in my case). Both were hooked up to the same antenna via my ELAD ASA15 antenna splitter amplifier.

The RSPduo’s improved dynamic range gives it an advantage in terms of noise floor, sensitivity, and selectivity.

The improved performance is not dramatic––but I understand it might be especially detectable to those who want a receiver with a more robust front end.

In fact, the RSPduo’s 50 ohm coaxial ports have quite an array of automatically configured front end filters:

Low Pass

  • 2 MHz Band Pass
  • 2-12 MHz
  • 12-30 MHz
  • 30-60 MHz
  • 60-120 MHz
  • 120-250 MHz
  • 250-300 MHz
  • 300-380 MHz
  • 380-420 MHz
  • 420-1000 MHz

High Pass

  • 1000 MHz

And an array of notch filters

FM Notch Filter:

  • >30dB 77 – 115MHz
  • >50dB 85 – 107MHz
  • >3dB 144 – 148MHz

MW Notch Filter:

  • >15dB 400 – 1650kHz
  • >30dB 500 – 1530kHz
  • >40dB 540 – 1490kHz

DAB Notch Filter:

  • >20dB 155 – 235MHz
  • >30dB 160 – 230MHz

The thing is, I live in an RF quiet area, so I can’t fully take advantage of the SDRuno’s more robust front end.

In head-to-head comparisons with the RSP1A, the RSPduo’s performance edge is discernible. Again, I suspect it would be a bit more obvious if I lived in an urban setting with blowtorch stations in the neighborhood. Using the Hi-Z antenna port in the mediumwave portions of the band, the RSPduo has a performance edge over the RSP1A, as well.

Should you grab the RSPduo?

The new SDRplay RSPduo

Anytime a new product hits the market, I ask myself if this is the sort of product that would tempt me to reach for my hard-earned cash.

The short answer?  Absolutely! Take my money, please!  There is no other sub-$300 SDR on the market currently that has the dual tuner functionality of the RSPduo. Thing is, I’ve only had the RSPdup a couple of weeks–there’s so much yet I want to explore here–especially diversity reception!

But what if you already have an SDRplay SDR? Afterall, the RSP1A was only released a few months ago, and the RSP2 series only a year before that.

Here’s my opinion:  If you’re an RSP1A or RSP2 owner who is pleased with this SDR’s performance, I wouldn’t necessarily urge you to purchase the RSPduo simply for the modestly enhanced performance characteristics. SDRplay hasn’t retired the RSP2 and RSP1A designs because each model still holds its own, has a purpose, and obviously enjoys a healthy market.

The RSP1A is the affordable yet high performance entry model in the SDRplay product line. It’s really the best value in the radio world, in my humble opinion, at just $99 US.  Som enjoy.

The RSP2 and RSP2pro provide excellent performance, three software-selectable antenna inputs, and clocking features, all of which lend it to amateur radio, industrial, scientific, and educational applications; it is a sweet SDR for $169 or $199 (Pro version). I know of no other SDRs with this set of features at this price point. If I liked the characteristics of the RSPduo, but didn’t really need a dual receiver for my application, I’d probably reach for the RSP2 Pro.

But if you have the original RSP, and like SDRuno and the SDRplay community, then I would certainly consider this an opportunity to upgrade. For $279, you’re getting a dual receiver SDR with excellent performance characteristics that will easily surpass the original RSP––considering that you’re essentially getting two very good SDRs in one.

And if you’re all over the spectrum (aren’t we all a bit––quite literally?) in terms of usage, the RSPduo is a fascinating machine for running, say, an ADS-B receiver while independently using the same SDR box to monitor other parts of the spectrum. Or one can listen for FM DX on one receiver while trying to snag elusive LW DX on the other.

Better yet, the RSPduo only uses one USB port––an important factor if you’re using a laptop or tablet. Of course, having two receivers on two different antennas, while sharing one data port, means syncing them for diversity reception is especially effective. This alone will sway many SDR experimenters in favor of this rig.

I have yet to compare the RSPduo with the brilliant little AirSpy HF+. The AirSpy HF+ is not a wideband receiver like the SDRplay RSP series; it only covers 9 kHz to 31 MHz and 60 to 260 MHz. But if your primary concern is HF performance, the HF+ and its excellent dynamic range will impress you, if you’re anything like me. It’s also a bargain at $199––very hard to beat!

The RSPduo is a good value, in my opinion––and an inexpensive upgrade to a proper dual receiver SDR––so if that’s the sort of thing you’d like to add to your shack, go ahead and bite the bullet!

In fact, I suspect SDRplay will quickly sell out of all of the units they bring to the 2018 Hamvention (SDRplay: pack some extras!). I’m happy to see the company continue to push the price and performance envelope to such exceptional ends. I’m also looking forward to the many applications SDRplay customers (and our readers) find for the RSPduo.

Stay tuned! I plan to post more comparisons in the future.

And if you acquire an RSPduo and find some new and fun applications for it, please share!

Click here to check out the RSPduo at SDRplay.com.

Recommending the Tecsun PL-880 over the Sangean ATS-909X

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Direwolf131, who recently commented on one of the Sangean ATS-909X reviews in the Post archives.

Direwolf131 writes:

I’m a few years after Steve’s comments but I will have a go at it, at least anecdotally speaking. I’ve owned a half dozen Sangean ATS-909’s, which includes two of the 909X’s, and one super-909 from radiolabs. The 909X is the finest looking portable I have ever seen or lain hands upon, and that includes several Sony’s that I still think of as neat looking, I had the white cabinet 909X first and then the much more striking (to my eyes) black cabinet 909X after returning the first one due to rock hard buttons.

They are both extremely attractive, and exceptionally well made, especially by today’s cheap Chinese standards. I must confess that I also still find the original 909’s almost equally neat looking, though not quite sporting the same robustness of build.

The 909x’s sound wonderful on MW & FM, and its a decent performer reaching out to fairly distant FM stations. Unfortunately that is largely the best of the radio, its performance on MW & SW is best described as pathetic, and not just due to being deaf, it has a lot of noise, even when attached to the superb RF systems tuned EMF antenna. The older 909 is also to my experience substantially better then the 909X when matched up to a serious outboard antenna, such as the above EMF, I found this difference especially surprising, its not even close.

The PL-880 from Tecsun blows it away on SW and MW sensitivity, while also offering the superb advantage of genuinely ECSS tuning anything on MW & SW, you cannot decently receive any MW or SW signal via ECSS with the 909X as its SSB can only be fine tuned to 40 Hz, which is terribly disappointing, you can zero beat the little Tecsun easily. serious ECSS capability is to my mind a much more attractive option then a sync circuit, and unfortunately with the beautiful little Sangean 909X you get neither.

I do hope anyone who happens upon this pays attention, because for the money the PL-880 is far and away the better performer, in fact my little 1103 from Degen/Kaito out performs the 909X, as does my Grundig Yacht Boy-400, and my Sangean ATS-803A. Its my great hope that Sangean seriously upgrades these deficiencies in the otherwise gorgeous 909X, its circuitry is noisier than the old 909 and its not nearly not as sterling a performer hooked up to household current and a decent outboard antenna as the old 909, its 40 hz tuning SSB once a great reason to buy a 909, is no longer competitive, especially against the superb PL-880 which again is capable of excellent ECSS even by Icom R75 standards, Sangean would do well to drastically improve the SSB performance of the 909X.

I hope this helps, I liked the original review up top, but again its several years old, and the ATS-909X is now known to be clearly outclassed by the more affordable Tecsun, actually by the PL-660 to boot, I really hope Sangean addresses the issues, its such a beautiful receiver, you just want it to be as good as it looks, unfortunately it’s not!

Thank you for sharing your evaluation and comments!

The Sangean ATS-909X is an interesting radio indeed. Almost everyone loves the design, audio and overall quality of the 909X.  Yet performance reviews are somewhat polarizing: some 909X owners claim the 909X has strong performance characteristics on shortwave, while others believe it’s almost deaf. Your findings coincide with mine from the Mega Review where I pitted the ATS-909X against the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660 and Sony ICF-SW7600GR. In that review, where I relied on a whip antenna, the 909X was noticeably less sensitive than the other three competitors. Based on the premium one pays for the 909X, I was surprised.

I have learned over the years, however, that the 909X can handle larger outdoor antennas and doesn’t easily overload. Additionally, the 909X requires a fresh set of batteries for optimal performance/sensitivity. Some users have even modified the radio with a 4:1 impedance transformer–click here to read a post/comments about this mod.

I would love to see Sangean produce an updated/upgraded version of the 909X, but at this point I’m not exactly holding my breath. I’ve heard that they’re slowly pulling out of the market. Hope I’m proven wrong because I’d love to see a new shortwave set from Sangean.