Category Archives: Shortwave Radio Reviews

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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Are there any tabletop shortwave receivers currently on the market?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Peter, who asks:

Two of the tabletop shortwave receivers recommended in the past are listed as discontinued by retailers. Do you have any current recommendations?

Great question, Peter. I’m guessing that you’re looking for a new tabletop communications receiver and I also assume you may be referring to the CommRadio CR-1a and the Alinco DX-R8T. Both of these have been discontinued by the manufacturer.

Fewer options than in the past

To my knowledge, there are very few dedicated, stand-alone tabletop shortwave receivers currently on the market.

The ELAD FDM-DUOr

One notable exception is the ELAD FDM-DUOr which is essentially a tabletop, stand-alone SDR. It is an excellent performer and I believe still available from ELAD for about $900 US. The FDM-DUOr is currently the best option I know of under $1,000 US.

There are still a handful of dedicated communications receivers on the market, but they tend to be wideband receivers and carry a heavier price tag than legacy HF-only receivers.

The new Icom IC-8600 at the 2017 Hamvention

One example is the Icom IC-R8600. It’s a great HF radio–click here to read the review–but it retails for around $2,200 US.

In addition, AOR still offers a variety of wideband analog and digital communications receivers, but again, the prices are all well over the $1,000 mark.

What happened to tabletop receivers?

Icom IC-705

In my opinion, two innovations pushed dedicated tabletop receivers off the market:

  1. The proliferation of high-performance, affordable software defined radios like the AirSpy HF+ Discovery and SDRplay RSPdx. Both of these models retail for less than $200 US new and offer superb performance when coupled with even a modest PC, laptop, or tablet. In addition, those seeking benchmark SDR receiver hardware and performance will invest in higher-priced models like the new ELAD FDM-S3. Click here to read Part 1 of our SDR primer.
  2. General coverage ham radio transceivers now provide performance that’s on par or even better than legacy tabletop receivers. Many shortwave listeners now purchase transceivers and simply disable the transmit function so that they don’t accidentally inject RF power into the antenna. Transceivers lack some broadcast listener features like synchronous detection, but their single sideband performance often compensates for this, in my opinion. Some current (sub $1,000 US) favorites among SWLs include the Icom IC-7300, and the Yaesu FT-891. I’m also a huge fan of the new Icom IC-705 portable transceiver, although its price point is closer to $1,300 US. Click here to read more about general coverage transceivers.

If SDRs and general coverage transceiver lack appeal, keep in mind that there are a multitude of legacy communications receivers on the used market.

I should add here that one Ohio-based manufacturer, Palstar, has mentioned that they plan to produce the Palstar R30B tabletop shortwave receiver which would be the latest iteration of their R30 series. This announcement has been out there for some time, though, and I’m not sure when or if the R30B will ever come to fruition.

More options?

To keep the scope of the original question in check, I’m leaving out a number of other viable options like larger portable radios (the Sangean ATS-909X2 and/or the Tecsun H-501 for example) and other inexpensive DSP receivers on eBay like those based on the  Si4732 chipset.

Have I missed something? Please comment if you know of other tabletop communications receivers currently on the market. Also, if you use a general coverage transceiver for SWLing, please share which make/model you like in the comments section! Click here to comment.

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Dan Robinson reviews the Sangean ATS-909X2

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


Sangean v Tecsun in the Battle of Late Shortwave Era Portables:  The ATS909x2

by Dan Robinson

Some years ago – actually more than a decade – I decided to give Sangean a shot at winning me over in the shortwave portable category.

I had and still do use numerous portables with a bias toward the classic SONY, Panasonic, and Grundig sets.  The ones that made an impression stayed, often in multiples, as anyone can see if they visit the radio shack here in Maryland.

These include, for those interested:  the Panasonic RF-B65, SONY ICF-SW77, ICF-2010, ICF-PRO80, ICF-7600D, ICF-7700, ICF-SW1000T, ICF-SW55, ICF-SW100s, ICF-SW07, Grundig Satellit 500, to which were added in more recent times the Toshiba  RP-F11, XHDATA D-808, and Tecsun portables ranging from the PL-365 and new PL-368 to the PL-880, PL-990x, H-501x, and S-8800.

Sangean has generally not been on that list. There’s a good reason – I just never considered Sangean to be competitive when it comes to portables, though they did have some excellent larger sets such as the ATS-803A that made the first forays into multiple bandwidth options.

My last experience with Sangean was with the ATS-909.  I liked the looks and capabilities of that receiver, and even went to the point of having mine modified by Radio Labs.  But those mods were underwhelming, in my view, and the original 909 always seemed to me to be deaf when using the whip antenna.

That issue continued unfortunately with the 909x.  Some of you may have seen a video I did a few years ago in which I set a 909x against a SONY SW-07 and Panasonic RF-B65.  This was done barefoot with only the whip antennas, but near a window.  In short, the other two radios wiped the floor with the 909x.

It took a surprisingly long time for Sangean to update the 909x with the 909×2, during which companies asked valid questions about the need for further development of world band portables.

Eton turned the market on its head when it introduced the still superb E1/XM which competed with the very end of SONY portable production, and co-designed with R.L. Drake added such superb features as Passband Tuning and three selectivity positions.

Meanwhile, Tecsun plugged away, introducing an impressive array of portables including the PL-600 series, then the 880 and now the 990x and H-501 portables.

So, now the 909×2 is here and with its 073 firmware upgrade has become a bit of a holy grail for portable receiver users.  There have been a number of excellent reviews, including Dave Zantow’s deep dive, and some others here on SWLing Post.

I’m going to give you my impressions, using the really detailed Zantow review as a base.  I received my 909×2 from Amazon just today – it is a 073 firmware which confirms that new supplies have the upgrade.

SENSITIVITY ON WHIP

First, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way.  Although I have not undertaken detailed technical testing of the 909×2 – nor do I have the equipment to carry this out – it does seem that Sangean may have finally tackled this crippling flaw that rendered the old 909x nearly useless when using it only on the whip.  I’ll undertake further testing and comparisons with some of my other portables to confirm this.  The whip antenna itself is robust – solid and long, something that Tecsun could take note of.

AIR BAND

Inclusion of air band on this radio is a major selling point for those interested in this type of monitoring.  My initial tests showed the 909×2 to be quite sensitive and useful – I managed to pick up no fewer than five airport comms frequencies in my area here in Maryland.

SELECTIVITY / AUTO-BANDWIDTH

The 909×2 really shines with FIVE available selectivity options that are easily selectable in shortwave mode.  It would have been nice to be able to actually see the values of each filter as one scrolls through, but that’s a minor point.  Think about it – in shortwave AM mode, this is the number of selectivity positions that one finds on such power house communication receivers as a Drake R8.  Amazing that we now have that in a portable.  On the negative side, I find the auto-bandwidth feature on the 909×2 to be nearly useless, as useless as the similar feature found on Tecsun receivers. The automatic switching is distracting and annoying. My advice to users: forget this, and stick with manual bandwidth control.  My advice to Sangean – I wish they had left this feature out but given us multiple bandwidths in SSB.

LCD AND BRIGHTNESS

Sangean hits it out of the park with this multi-stage lighting for the display.  Simply superb and the kind of quality we could only hope for from other manufacturers.

MAIN TUNING / DETENT CONTROL

I found the detents on the old 909x to be annoying – indeed, modifications have been available that could remove this feature.  But Sangean being Sangean, the detent wheel remains in the 909×2 and it is not a deal killer.

AUDIO QUALITY

The radio retains the excellent audio of the 909x – I am not sure the 909×2 exceeds what one hears from a Tecsun 990x or H-501x but it’s right up there and competitive.

POWER SUPPLY

As others have noted, thanks to Sangean for sticking with AA cells.  Together with internal charging when using Ni-Mh cells this is a major selling point.  On the other hand – competitor Tecsun went a step farther with its H-501x which though it uses 18650 lithium batteries, has dual batteries, one of which can be held in standby, and switchable charging.  That’s a design feature that you really have to respect.

VARIABLE RF GAIN

Again, as noted by others Sangean retained the extremely useful thumb wheel RF gain control.  This is an excellent feature.

KEYPAD

Another home run for Sangean when it comes to the keypads on the 909×2, which can be compared in this respect to the Tecsun H-501x which itself improves upon the 990x when it comes to front panel control.  Time will tell, however, and we shall see if the keys on these radios hold up in heavy use.

UP/DOWN SLEWING

These controls which sit outside the circular main tuning knob are excellent, and reminds one of the slewing buttons on the SONY 7600GR, SW1000T and SW100.

S-METER / DISPLAY

RSSI and SN Digital Signal Strength Information are provided on the beautiful 909×2 display.  This is an improvement over the Tecsun signal strength/SNR meters that I wish would be redesigned, if in fact Tecsun has any intention of future modifications to their portables.

NO SOFT MUTING

Thank goodness we don’t have to deal with the annoying soft muting issue that is still seen in some other portables (the XHDATA D808 comes to mind along with the Eton Executive).  Soft muting quite simply ruins a listening session and it’s baffling that any manufacturer still puts it in.

NEGATIVES (I AM IN TEARS)

OK, close all airtight doors and prepare to dive!  Here are the negatives I see with the 909×2.  I held off obtaining one of these radios because I knew there would be issues.  And I was disappointed enough in the past with the 909x and 909 before it that I had almost decided not to go for it.

SIGNS OF LONGWAVE RECEPTION PLAGUED BY CROSS-MOD FROM MEDIUMWAVE 

On my particular unit – it remains to be seen whether this is true for others – long wave seems to be near useless.  The band is filled with mediumwave stations bleeding through.  Turning down the RF obviously helps but I still hear AM stations here in the DC area, when I am in LW mode.

SSB PERFORMANCE

ALERT FOR SANGEAN AND ALMOST A DEAL BREAKERas mentioned in the Zantow review, and in other comments I have seen on the 909×2, the drop in level from AM to LSB is a killer negative.

This is less noticeable in MW.  But if you are in shortwave and have turned your volume up on any particular station, say a strong one such as Greece on 9,420 kHz or Spain, or an AM station, and you then switch to LSB it is like you have almost lost the signal.  This simply needs to be fixed.  Level on USB seems fine and acceptable, but LSB on shortwave requires immediate upwards adjustment of volume, only to have to reverse the process when returning to AM mode.  I find this problem to be sufficiently serious that I would recommend against obtaining a 909×2 until Sangean finds a way to fix it.  This issue is on the same level of BAD as the still unsatisfactory SYNC mode in all three of Tecsun’s shortwave portables.  In fact, I may return the 909×2 I obtained and wait until a fix for this emerges.

Example Video

In this video, I demonstrate the extent of the problem as seen on this particular unit of the 909×2, which carries a serial number dk201043181.

Dave Zantow says his unit does not have this issue, so there is a possibility this is due to unit to unit variation. As you can see, with a strong signal such as 12,160 kHz — switching from AM to LSB instantly reduces listenable level, and signal as measured on the 909×2 drops to zero bars or near zero. In USB, the reduction is less severe. Regardless, having to perform adjustments with main volume just to struggle to hear any signal in SSB is a bit ridiculous. This kind of thing is not seen on the Tecsun H-501x or 990x though as Dave correctly points out, Tecsun receivers are not exactly great performers in SSB. On Tecsun receivers, there is a slight processor pause while the receiver makes the switch into LSB or USB, without the sharp reduction in listenable level.

CALIBRATION ISSUES WITH NO WAY TO ADJUST

Imagine my joy when I first began using the x2.  Initially, it seemed to be smack on frequency – I tried this on WMAL, the powerhouse local AM station here in the DC area, and then again with stronger stations on shortwave, such as 12,160 kHz.  Ah, I said to myself, Sangean has some decent QC and paid attention.  About 30 minutes later, however, what I found matches the Zantow review.  Stations are consistently low of the tuned/displayed frequency by as much as 300 Hz.  The reason this is so disappointing is that I feel Sangean could have taken a clue from Tecsun and provided a re-calibration function (unless it exists and we aren’t being told about it).  On Tecsun radios, the re-calibration capability is the major counter-punch to poor synchronous mode – in my view, one can live with flawed SYNC on a 990x or H-501 or PL-330 as long as you can adjust and at least have zero beat or close to it across frequencies.  At the same time, as Zantow points out, no one should be expecting TCXO level performance from portables such as these.  However, it is a bit disappointing that after all these years and redesign of the 909x to add some really nice features, they’re still landing up to 300 Hz from a tuned frequency.  On the other hand, is this really any worse than one would see from an off-tuned SONY ICF-2010?  No, and adjusting those older receivers required surgery.

CONCLUSIONS

I really like the 909×2.  There simply is something about this design that Sangean knew was a winner when it first arrived on the market years ago, so it’s not surprising that Sangean stuck with it.  It’s clear that some hard thinking went into the step up from the old 909x, notably the larger LCD, addition of finer step tuning to make SSB easier, the robust antenna and the still pretty darn good audio through the wonderful speaker.  The 909×2 is a radio that you can imagine guests would comment on if it were sitting on your coffee table – it just looks THAT GOOD.

But then here in 2021, so does a Tecsun H-501x LOOK THAT GOOD.  As I noted above, where the Tecsuns fall down – with their still challenged synchronous mode – they make up for with the ability to re-calibrate.

That is a huge feature and one that Sangean struck out on, though surely Sangean designers had to know the 909×2 would appeal both to listeners and to hobbyists with obsessions about frequency accuracy.

To repeat, I really (really) like the 909×2.  But another area where the receiver strikes out is the problem with sharp reduction in LSB mode.  Seriously – you have to crank the volume control up to at least 50 percent to hear ANYTHING when you’re in LSB, whereas USB requires going only up to about 30 percent.  Then when you’re completing your carousel back to AM, you have to be sure not to still have the audio up at 50 percent or more to avoid blowing your speaker.

Again, as I said above, the calibration/drift issue on the 909×2 can be lived with.  The problem with LSB, in my opinion, cannot or should not be tolerated.  So, the question is, do you want to purchase a 909×2 now that still has that LSB audio issue, or wait a while until Sangean gets its act together?

These and other earthshaking questions are before us here in 2021.  We have some of the best portables ever made by anyone in a time of sharply declining shortwave use, but they each have their flaws.

I don’t usually do a star rating or RECOMMEND / NOT RECOMMEND for radios.  This time, I am going to make an exception and it links directly to the issue of the LSB problem on the 909×2.  These radios simply should not have been allowed to enter the market with this being as serious a problem as I think it is.  For that reason, I honestly cannot recommend a Sangean 909×2 until this is corrected.

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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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Dave’s review of the Sangean ATS-909X2

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who notes that Dave (N9EWO) has posted his review of the Sangean ATS-909X2. Click here to view.

I must admit: as I put the Sangean ATS-909X2 through the paces, I’m impressed with this fine machine. While no radio is perfect, the ‘909X2 has enthusiast-grade characteristics.

The ATS-909X2 truly smacks of a shortwave portable from the 1990s–the halcyon days of digital portables, in my opinion. I personally love the ergonomics, display, audio, tactile front panel, numerous connections, and the quality chassis. It’s a pleasure to operate.

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