Category Archives: Shortwave Radio Reviews

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.

The Professor reviews the XHDATA D-328

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, The Professor, who shares the following review of the XHDTA D-328:

First off, this is the best radio I’ve ever operated… that cost me less than ten dollars new. When I saw the promotion on the SWLing Post for free or half price radios, I had to bite, especially because the deal was that the first ten to respond would get a free XHDATA D-328. They told me I was the 15th caller, so I was allowed one for half price. And since they were going for just under fourteen bucks on Amazon, it felt like it was almost free.

Of course, I didn’t expect much. But as they wanted the people who received these free or very inexpensive little radios to leave reviews, I figured the Chinese manufacturers knew there were some good features radio folk might notice. And there are. And I’m not sure if I’ll post part of this brief review on Amazon, but I’ll do so here in this comment.

If you want a radio that will reliably pick up local AM and FM stations and play some MP3 files, this will work, and work pretty well. And it doesn’t sound bad at all for the size. I personally don’t have much love for these new analog-style tuning DSP radios, but I suppose people who aren’t as radio wise as readers of the SWL Listening Post won’t notice the less than poetic effects of moving between stations on these sets. Most probably tune in their desired stations and just listen to it, and this radio does this well enough.

I don’t really listen to FM much, but the XHDATA D-328 seems adequate enough. And with headphones on it sounds quite rich on FM. AM isn’t bad either, but it’s far from selective. I was able to dig out clear channel regional biggies like Zoomer Radio at 740kHz and WHAS at 840kHz in Louisville from here in Brooklyn at night, but in between often easy to find fifty-thousand watt stations like WBBM or CKLW weren’t there. The DSP tuning just defaulted to the next local station like WNYC or WABC when I turned the dial.

Shortwave was worse. Beyond the U.S. powerhouses like WWCR this radio doesn’t seem a very worthy shortwave set for those of us in North America. But I can imagine in that in third world countries where international and local broadcasters still target broadcasts that this radio might be an inexpensive way to access that programming.

I must admit that listening to MP3 music files was kind of pleasing. Again, the audio is really good for a radio at this price point. However you are listening blind, there’s no screen to tell you what you’re hearing, and no shuffle function to make a folder full of MP3s into unique sequences of songs each time. What you get are the songs in the alphabetical order of the file titles, although you do have the option to jump ahead 10 files before or after the one you are playing. So the best use of an MP3 player like this would be to listen to podcasts or whole radio programs with it. What I would do is copy the files onto the SD card and then perhaps number the filenames in the order I would like to hear the shows.

So, for the price there’s not a lot to complain about. People have already mentioned the off-center small kickstand, and that’s a little cheesy. But the tuning thumb wheel moves smoothly thru the imperfect DSP tuning function, and the volume thumb wheel is actually analog which make it much easier to get the exact volume you want out of this radio. But the sliding band selection switch under the tuning scale is a bit worrisome, as I’ve had a few cheap Chinese radios with a switch like this and just normal use eventually rendered them unable to switch bands adequately. This one feels a little bit more stable then they did, but time will tell.

All that said, there are radios that are not too much more expensive than this radio that offer much more in a number of ways. The small and inexpensive analog Tecsun radios from a few years ago are a case in point. Selling for twenty to thirty dollars, those multi-band radios are a little challenging to tune (a stiff thumb wheel on some), and the tuning scale may be a little off and they may drift a little, but the analog tuning is a much better experience. And you can DX with them. I remember listing to All India Radio with a decent signal one afternoon on my Tecsun R-9710.

There’s a lot of similar analog radios which I believe are probably just about the same radio – the Tecsun R-9012, the Tecsun R-911, the Tecsun R-909 and the Kaito WRX-911, among others. Once you get a look at these you’ll recognize other similar radios in this family. I’d say they’re the best really cheap receivers I know of. They generally run between twenty to just over thirty bucks. I believe these radios appeared on the scene in the early 2000s.

I have this fear that they’ll start turning these radios into DSP sets. That would be a real shame, but I’ve heard no mention of that. However I did notice that the marketers of the XHDATA D-328 didn’t even mention that it was based on a DSP chip. And Chinese manufacturers are notoriously not very open about how they are altering radios that they’re putting out, so be aware of that.

As far as MP3 playback, the one radio I would really recommend is the Meloson (or Tesslor) M8 (or the Meloson M7 or S8 if you can find one). It’s simply the best audio you’ll hear in a really small radio, AND you can shuffle the MP3 files in a folder with these. While it only give you the sequential number of the song in the display, it will generate a unique sequence of songs each time you shuffle. Fill a folder on a card full of songs and let it rip. It’s the perfect micro music player if you make a good folder of music. And the DSP radio in these is not bad either. It’s digital, not fake analog tuning, and most AM clear channel targets you can usually find at night in your region will show up on these. They used to go for less than thirty bucks, but right now I see they cost close to fifty dollars.

Two other radios I have that I can recommend for MP3 playback, are the Tecsun ICR-110 and the Tivdio V-115. Neither one offers playback shuffle, but they will play the files in alphanumeric order just fine. But they both have a cool feature in that you can press a button and record the broadcast you’re hearing as an MP3 file. And they both also sound great. The Tivdio has incredible sound for a tiny radio, but the ICR-110 is even more impressive. I believe it has the same speaker setup as the much more expensive Tecsun PL-880 and it also has similar warm and clear audio.

The reception with the V-115 is OK, nothing stellar, but the ICR-110 is kind of a monster on medium wave. I’ve been impressed. The ICR-110 is rather big compared to the other radios I’ve mentioned, closer to the PL-880 in size, but quite a bit lighter. The ICR-110 used to be cheaper, but can be found for around forty bucks. The Tivdio V-115 still goes for just under twenty if you look around. A bargain. Tecsun, Tivdio, Degen and other Chinese manufacturers have all sorts of inexpensive radios for sale out there, and others I haven’t used or mentioned might be quite good as well. If one appeals to you, do a little online research.

Of course, since I’m talking about small and inexpensive radios I should mention that the Tecsun digital DSP sets like the PL-310ET, the PL-360, PL-380, PL-390 and other variations are all amazing inexpensive radios that will run you around 35 to 50 bucks. The ultralight DX community loves these things, and for good reason. And there’s a version of the PL-390 that plays MP3 files from an SD card and another that offers bluetooth playback. No, none are perfect, but they’re solid sets, and all would have been dream radios thirty years ago.

So, that’s my evaluation of the XHDATA D-328, well worth fourteen dollars, but for a few dollars more you can get radios with similar features that do much more. It’s small, it doesn’t sound bad, and it’s fairly well-built. It will pick up all your favorite local stations and play all your MP3 podcasts effortlessly. Not bad. Like I said, it’s the best super cheap radio I’ve ever used.

Excellent review!  I’m impressed that the D-328 has enough AM performance to grab some  night time clear channel stations. It’s disappointing, however, that it lacks performance on the shortwave bands.

Thanks for posting your review–always great to hear from The Professor!

The XHDATA D-328 is available on Amazon.com (affiliate link).

Click here to read other XHDATA D-328 posts.

Guest Post: A review of the XHDATA D-328 portable radio

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Aaron Kuhn, who shares the following guest post:


XHDATA D-328 Radio Review

by Aaron Kuhn

Disclosure: This radio was supplied at a 99% discount by the manufacturer, costing me only $0.15.

About Me

I live in the Philadelphia Suburbs, where there’s ample FM Stations, good AM Coverage, and also a lot of noise when it comes to Shortwave. I’m mostly an AM/FM listener, who occasionally likes to dabble in Shortwave. My idea of a good radio is something I can turn on, put up the antenna, and it just works.

Initial Impressions

The Radio is boxed simply enough in a cardboard box, with a small amount of bubble wrap inside, manual, Mini-USB Cable. The Lithium-Ion Battery comes pre-installed.

Operation of the radio is mostly straight-forward, and I doubt you’ll need the manual for anything. The manual itself contains your normal badly-translated English phrases and doesn’t make sense in a lot of places (did you know this radio uses high quality PU edge big size?)

Two curious notes about the manual:

  1. It mentions you should remove the “18650 Lithium Ion Battery”, but this radio doesn’t use an 18650 battery. Instead, this radio uses a “BL-5C” Battery, which based on my research looks like it was pretty common on Nokia phones around 2004.
  2. Someone took white-out to the manual where it says “Set the function switch to the “MP3” position and insert the USB Stick or TF Card, with “USB stick” covered in white out.

The radio itself is made of a slippery, glossy plastic that doesn’t inspire confidence, but also seems to have enough structural stability it doesn’t worry me. I’d guess this radio could take a moderate drop and bounce and be OK, but it’d probably crack if dropped from above waist level.

I ran into a somewhat funny problem trying to insert the included wrist strap into the hole in the back of the radio. Unlike most radios with a wrist strap hole that’s closed off, the wrist strap instead continued down into the radio. That is, the wrist strap “loop” molded in the plastic is actually a hole into the radio. This doesn’t bode well for dirt or other junk getting pushed into the radio accidentally. I was able to eventually get the wrist strap on the loop, but it was far harder than it should have been.

Design

The Lithium Ion battery comes pre-installed in the radio, and the battery door it’s behind seems sturdy enough. Fortunately, there’s really no reason you should ever have to pull the battery out of this radio unless you need to replace it. Running the Battery model # across Google and other sites shows this should be a very cheap battery for you to replace at between $1 and $3.

Battery Door

Kickstand deployed with battery door open

Li-Ion “BL-5C” Battery

I very quickly noticed a big glaring design flaw on this radio with the poorly designed, super small kickstand located next to the battery compartment. This small, off to the left  kickstand works fine if the radio is on a perfectly level surface like a nightstand, but causes the radio to tilt over if you try to place it on a soft surface like a bed or a pillow. I would have liked to see just one large combination battery door/kickstand if possible across the back of the entire radio.

Design problem number two with the radio became very apparent when trying to extend the telescoping antenna. The antenna butts up against the plastic molding on the back of the radio, meaning you cannot prop the antenna up “Straight” when using the kickstand. This results in the antenna having to angle off at around 45 degrees, which is a bit annoying. My Tecsun PL-310ET doesn’t have this problem due to having a cut-out notch to allow the antenna to be in a more upright position.

“Upright” Antenna trouble

Tecsun PL-310ET for Comparison

The tuning knob has a satisfying amount of resistance to it, and doesn’t spin too quickly or too slow. The volume knob, while smaller, spins freely and also feels solid.

The band selector selects between FM1-2, AM, and SW 1 through 9. The switch to move between these bands has a satisfying amount of click and feedback to it, and isn’t mushy and you likely won’t pick the wrong band. The small window displayed below each band number fills with a small, mechanical, plastic bar attached to the switch. The window and bar were slightly misaligned, making it difficult to tell at a glance which band I had selected.

The tuning bar itself moves smoothly across the band, but the metal extension piece running down the shortwave part of the spectrum tuning was not vertically straight and had a noticeable bend to the lower right.

Weight – this radio is INCREDIBLY light! The choice of a Li-Ion rechargeable battery pays off here, and when I weighed the radio it came in at exactly 160 Grams / 5.7 Ounces. The compact size of this radio and the weight would cause it to easily disappear into a coat pocket and I’d forget I was carrying it. This definitely qualifies as super-portable in my book.

The choice to use Mini-USB instead of Micro-USB on the charging is a questionable one. Micro-USB is the much more common connector you’ll recognize if you’ve bought a Smartphone in the last 3 years, or any other consumer device with a USB  connector. Based on my short research, Micro-USB despite being smaller than Mini-USB, offers a number of benefits including increased cycle-count on the number of plugs/unplugs before the connector wears out. I don’t know why XHDATA went with Mini-USB on this, and I’d suggest they move to Micro-USB for future revisions. The Mini-USB, other than being slightly easier to plug in, seems to offer no benefit and is obsolete compared to Micro-USB.

Audio Quality

Wow! While I may have had some hesitations about the radio’s design, I was incredibly surprised by both the loudness and fidelity of the speaker on this radio. The volume was incredibly loud, and the audio did not distort even when I turned this to the highest setting. While a mono speaker, voices on AM were quite clear and nice to listen to, and music on FM Sounded way better than it deserved to sound coming out of a $14 radio.

Plugging in a pair of earbuds (not included) also produced crisp, loud audio, with no noticeable whine or hiss. Volume levels should be more than adequate. Audio came in through both Left and Right earbuds, but I was unable to tell if the output was actually Stereo when listening on FM. The word “stereo” is not mentioned anywhere in documentation, so I would not be surprised to learn this radio is mono-only.

Tuning

I don’t normally use analog radios, so tuning the D-328 was a bit of a challenge. The cramped display provided little feedback, and the crooked tuning bar didn’t help either. FM Stations seemed to be needed to be tuned “high” About 1MHz from where I thought they should be, and AM Stations about 50 KH above where I thought they should land. Tuning Shortwave seemed like a total crapshoot, being fairly imprecise.

I’m mostly an FM/AM Radio listener, and all the usual local suspects popped right in and tuned easily for me. Static between stations is kept very low, and when a station locks in on FM it pops in very clearly. Selectivity between close adjacent stations can be challenging due to the small tuning dial and skewed visual feedback, but I was able to tune in every FM Station I tried.

I am located in the Philadelphia Suburbs, so my usual station for tuning in a weak signal is WPRB 103.9 out of Princeton. I’m happy to report it came in just as clear as it did on my Tecsun PL-310ET, with no trouble finding it.

AM was more of a mixed bag with tuning. Stations I did not expect to come in clearly seemed to pop in with strong signal strength, while the “go-to” AM Test station of KYW 1060 proved surprisingly difficult to locate on the dial. Audio levels on AM were noticeably wider in variance of signal, with some stations proving almost too quiet to listen to.

I’m honestly not much of a Shortwave listener most of the time, so I’m sure some other reviewers will go into much more detail on the Shortwave performance of this radio then I will. My experience tuning around on Shortwave with the D-328 was similar to AM, in that I had a lot of unexpected surprises in strong signals between 6900KHz and 9300KHz. My shortwave listening usually takes place on digital tuning with the Tecsun PL-310ET, so it’s hard to compare analog listening for something I don’t do that often. Tuning was surprisingly easy on the shortwave bands, but seemed frustratingly random where stations would show up.

MP3

Let’s get this out of the way immediately – this radio does not record MP3 files. Instead, sliding the mode selector to “MP3” will let you play files off a “TransFlash” (MicroSD) Card.

I’ll be up front here – this radio is a functional, but not fun to use MP3 player.  I tested the MP3 player by loading up a 2GB MicroSD Card I had laying around with some files in a structure similar to the following:

* Root

** File1

** File2

** Folder1

*** Subfolder 1

*** File 3

*** File 4

** Folder2

** File 5

** File 6

** File 7

The first thing you’ll notice when playing MP3s is the “MP3” Light that is Red. And blinks. And blinks. Yes, the red light blinks continuously while playing an MP3 file and you can’t turn it off. This right here would annoy me to no end if I wanted to use this feature

My second problem with using MP3 functionality is that playback without a screen is a throwback to the days of the iPod Shuffle. And if this radio had “shuffle mode”, I’d be OK with that, heck that would even be fun – but there’s no shuffle here, only sequential play.

This radio does seem to follow the expected order of my files in playing them sequentially 1 through 7 across subfolders, but the lack of visual feedback makes it very easy to forget where you’re at and what you’re playing.  Pressing and holding the fast forward button does work to fast forward, and rewind through individual mp3 files.

If you want to load up a MicroSD card with some old time radio episodes and play them back – this might be great. But I’d probably ask you why you’d ever want to play MP3 files on this thing. I mean, the feature is there…. But why? There’s much better devices and experiences out there for MP3 Playback rather than loading files onto a MicroSD card to play on a device with no screen. I imagine this might have some utility usages for playing MP3’s when you don’t want to sacrifice more expensive hardware, but I personally can’t see myself getting much usage out of the feature.

Conclusion

At the end of the day I have to ask myself – who exactly is this radio for? The price point and feature set seems to pit this against the very low-end of the AM/FM/SW Market such as the Analog Tecsun R-9012 at $22, and Tivdio Digital tuning units around $18. The inclusion of Shortwave, Mp3 Playback, and USB rechargeable battery gives this a leg up over budget AM/FM units, as well as the competitors mentioned.

Is the DX/radio hobbyist the target market for this radio? I don’t think so. While cheap (and we Shortwave/HAMs are a cheap bunch!), this radio lacks the sophistication or features a DX’er would want.

Is this a good “throw-away” radio for when you don’t want to risk your “Good” Radio? Absolutely. I would not hesitate to toss this in a coat pocket, keep it out in the garage / workshop, or give it away to a friend. My personal use case for this radio will probably end up being I’ll take it to Baseball games to listen to the game on AM / FM while watching the game. If it breaks, I wouldn’t be too sad and would likely shell out another $14 without hesitation for a replacement.

Is this radio for kids? I don’t think so. Given the poor build quality of this, I can’t imagine this lasting very long in a youngsters hands and surviving more than a drop or two. Analog tuning is likely to prove incredibly frustrating to a youngster, and I can’t see anyone but the geekiest of little geeks making use of the MP3 player function.

Would I use this as an emergency radio, shoved in “go-bag” or kept around for winter storms / hurricanes? Probably not. The build quality and lack of standardized AA-Batteries would give me concerns over my ability to power it (though it did work great from a USB PowerBank when I tested) More concerning is I don’t know if I would trust this to still be working when I need it in a stressful situation.

So who is this for? This radio seems more destined / designed for the low-income international market. The price point on this radio is certainly attractive to North American buyers, but I just don’t think the average American radio buyer really wants or needs MP3 MicroSD Playback or Shortwave functionality.

For $14 XHDATA has made good, but not great, little radio. My future suggestions would be:

  • Ditch the MP3 functionality – it’s of marginal usefulness
  • Seal off the wrist-strap loop hole better
  • Fix the case design so the antenna can sit more “upright”, and swing more freely.
  • Re-design the kickstand to run the entire length of the radio, possibly doubling up as the battery door if somehow possible
  • Switch from Mini-USB, to Micro-USB connector
  • The BL-5C Battery is an …. Interesting choice. It sure seems to help with weight, but I think I’d rather see a single 18650 Cell as hinted by the manual or AA’s.

Many thanks, Aaron, for sharing your fine evaluation of the XHDATA D-328! I couldn’t agree with you more regarding your “future suggestions”–sounds like the MP3 functionality has marginal utility and the chassis design could use some tweaks. I’m very surprised a radio made in 2018 still uses a Mini-USB port. And that kickstand? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one more off-center!

But as you conclude, for $13.80 US (Amazon affiliate link), it is a very inexpensive unit. Not one for the radio enthusiast, but one that could please the casual radio listener. It sounds like the audio is surprisingly robust.

Thanks again for your fine review, Aaron!

Follow Aaron Kuhn via Twitter.

A detailed review of the XHDATA D-808 and comparison with the Tecsun PL-660

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, for the following guest post:


A review of the XHDATA D-808

by 13dka

After all the recent buzz about the new XHDATA D-808 I had to get one. I got mine 3 weeks ago and I couldn’t help comparing it a lot with my PL-660. The PL-660 lends itself to such a comparison: it turned out to be the most sensitive shortwave portable with SSB in some comparison tests, so it became some kind of benchmark radio for this class of receivers and it has the same coverage as the D-808. Here are my findings, let’s start with the important stuff:

Performance

13dka’s “happy place” on the German North Sea shore.

I always try new receivers at my favourite listening post at the (German) North Sea shore, many of you know how beneficial such a location is for DXing. My favorite spot there is far away from any houses, power lines or other interference sources on the land side, so besides some sheep-made noise the man-made noise is as low as it gets, measured less than -130dBm (which is the receiver noise) on a 1/2 lambda dipole above 10 MHz.

At the same time the close proximity to the water results in somewhat boosted signals, so I can assess both reception quality at the lowest sensitivity threshold and behavior with strong signals. Sometimes it lets me find quirks that would go unnoticed anywhere else.

Here are my findings with the D-808:

Sensitivity

Longwave

Since users in the US have little ways to test that, let me assure you that all rumors you may have heard about a deaf longwave are perfectly true: the European LW broadcast band is pretty much not existing on the D-808. All those reports (e.g. many to find in Amazon reviews) indicate that really all D-808 are affected. The PL-660 is known to be very deaf on LW as well but it picks up a few stations in the evening, only some of them leave a faint clue on the D-808 and it can’t pick up BBC 4 on 198kHz even at night.

The signal meter indicates that it gains some sensitivity only above 300kHz, but from there it quickly starts to beat the PL-660 – during the day I can hear all of the local NDBs, something I can’t say about the PL-660.

AM broadcast band

This continues throughout the AM broadcast range – best tested during the day and on early evenings, the D-808 lets me ID weak stations that are just not there (yet) on the PL-660. Being noticeably better than the Tecsun, I then compared it to my old Grundig Satellit 400 (which has an average sensitivity on MW) and the D-808 matches its performance perfectly. So perhaps it’s not exactly a MW DX machine with just its internal loopstick but it performs well enough to make the band enjoyable.

Trying that at night and indoors shows why the right time and a low-noise location (or alternatively proper test equipment) are so important for such comparisons: any weak station sticking out of the distant and local QRM there is not as weak as it sounds anymore, both QRM and wanted signal are now well above the sensitivity thresholds of both radios and so SNR is defined only by the QRM, not the receiver. That means both radios falsely appear to have exactly the same sensitivity.

Shortwave

Notwithstanding some duds, the PL-660 is known to be a little sensitivity monster on shortwave. When I don’t feel like putting up wires etc. for my SDR, I just take the Tecsun to the beach and through the years I own it, I’ve logged plenty of true DX (JA, VK/ZL or WWVH on a regular basis) with it there, just using the telescopic whip.

Only below 3 MHz it’s not all that great on the whip, and that’s where the D-808 beats it – listening to top band (160m) hams works surprisingly well for a 25 inch whip. Between 3 and 30MHz the D-808’s sensitivity appears to be almost on par with the PL-660, the PL-660 often wins in terms of intelligibility at the “minimum discernible signal” (MDS) threshold. For example, on a day with bad conditions Gander Radio on 6604kHz USB had a barely audible signal on both radios. But I could occasionally decipher some words on the Tecsun that didn’t make it through the noise on the D-808. These photo finish victories for the PL-660 can be observed across most bands, but it needs ridiculously weak signals to spot the difference.

This difference is partly due to the fact that the D-808 seems to be a tad more noisy and partly owed to the better speaker of the PL-660. But the PL-660 also sports the often frowned upon “soft muting” feature, thus creating an impression (or should I say illusion?) of a pretty quiet receiver. I find it hard to tell whether the D-808 is really noisier than the PL-660, or just lacking this permanent noise reduction. I think this feature potentially even increases intelligibility on SSB a tiny bit, but on AM it’s just disturbing and makes the Tecsun lose its sensitivity advantage. Bottom line is that the D-808 is at least very close to the PL-660 in terms of sensitivity on shortwave and I find that quite remarkable.

FM

Both receivers are pretty identical in FM performance on their whip antennas. Sensitivity is good enough to pick up high-power stations more than 100km away in times without any elevated conditions. Both receivers don’t need much signal to make a station intelligible, so when conditions improve a tiny bit (“marginal” indications on the Hepburn Index map) the band already gets populated accordingly. One difference is the coverage: the PL-660 can be switched to cover the Japanese FM band (76-108MHz) only, the D-808 covers the old OIRT band (64-108MHz) on top. What makes the D-808 the winner is its RDS/RDBS capability and the size, it certainly has the sensitivity needed for some ad-hoc FM-DX when you find yourself bored on a hill or in sudden tropo conditions.

By the way: RDS gets decoded sufficiently fast and starts to show on signals with an SNR of at least 12dB (see the bit about the RSSI/SNR meter below). If the station transmits date information it will set the clock automatically, but when you go on a hunt for stations it may receive some garbage data that resets the clock to a wrong time. It may be best to turn on the automatic only occasionally to set the clock, then turning it off again.

Air Band

The D-808 is at least as sensitive as my Alinco DJ-X11 scanner and skunks the rather deaf Tecsun in this band. Unlike the PL-660 and most other small receivers covering that band it has a squelch, which is by the way active on all bands.

What it lacks is the new 8.33 kHz channel spacing, the “Fast” tuning step is still 25 kHz (“Slow” is 1 kHz) and the scan searches the band in 25 kHz steps as well, so I have to tune in the new channels manually. But while it lacks the new spacing, it absolutely has the selectivity for it – the AM filters are all available on the air band as well and even the widest one is still good enough to separate adjacent channels sufficiently. My 6 times more pricey Alinco has the new 8.33 kHz channels but it can’t separate them at all.

The D-808 is a great air band receiver!

Selectivity

The PL-660 has 2 (I think unspecified) ceramic IF filters for SW, which are doing a good job serving 90% of all typical purposes for such a radio. The D-808 on the other hand utlizes the DSP for IF filtering and offers whopping 11 different bandwidths (6 on AM and 6 for SSB), this is even more than the PL-880! This sold the D-808 to me the most, for example I like to improve my very poor CW listening skills every so often, and always having an even narrower filter up the sleeve can save otherwise hopeless DX reception in the ham and broadcast bands. But are they any good?

SSB: 500 Hz, 1 kHz, 1,2 kHz, 2,2 kHz, 3 kHz, 4 kHz

The 500 Hz “CW filter” seems to have a rather slow cutoff, unlike a true 500 Hz CW-filter it leaves voice communication almost intelligible. Still beats trying to hear CW through a regular SSB filter though! The 1 kHz filter seems to be the only one with an offset lower skirt (=less bassy sound), which can be useful in some cases. I’m not quite getting the purpose of the 1.2 kHz filter, I think I’d prefer a 1.8 kHz filter for a step between 1 and 2.2 kHz. The 1.2 through 4 kHz filters have the steeper cutoff you’d expect from DSP filtering and serve their purpose pretty well. In the “Gander Radio” example above, the narrow filter on the PL-660 couldn’t keep 4XZ’s CW signal on 6607kHz in check, while the D-808’s 2.2kHz filter eliminated the CW signal completely. I’d still take the bandwidth figures with a grain of salt though.

AM: 1 kHz, 1,8 kHz, 2 kHz, 2,5 kHz, 3 kHz, 4 kHz, 6 kHz

Oddly, the published bandwidth for the AM filters seem to be “audio bandwidth” (or “per sideband”) figures rather than IF-bandwidths, so they equate to classic IF filters with 2/3,6/4/5/6/8 and 12 kHz bandwidth. The only overlap is 4 kHz, hence I say it’s 11 different bandwidths, not 10. I think these AM bandwidths should cover all requirements that might come up, on top of those you can try ECSS reception with the SSB filters.

SSB Reception

On pretty much all of the tiny shortwave portables, SSB reception comes with some tradeoffs and the D-808 is no exception. When the PL-880 hit the market a few years ago, the amount of filters for SSB offered by the Si4735 DSP raised my hopes for improved SSB, but unfortunately the D-808 has the same problem that kept me from buying the PL-880 back then, and some on top:

AGC distortion

Like the PL-880 (at least some of them), the D-808’s AGC has a way too slow attack rate, the first portion of any strong SSB/CW signal is distorted before the AGC levels back, and it increases gain fast enough that even short talking (or keying) pauses make the next syllable distorted again. This seems to plague most (if not all) Si4735-equipped radios, so that might be actually a bug of the DSP.

Tuning

The chuffing noise is making tuning through the band quite bad in SSB mode, it’s even worse than the early digital “keypad”-style radios in the 1980s: every tuning step is causing first a short muting of the signal, then audio comes back with a loud “chuff” from the AGC kicking in with full gain – tuning sounds like a model railway steam engine sound chip gone mad. Luckily, fine tuning with the thumb wheel doesn’t have this issue.

Filter dropouts

Another issue is an occasional effect that sounds and feels like the filter drops out when you tune through the band. The chuffing sounds different and the background noise sounds wider with more hiss, then after a while (this can take several seconds) the filter pops back in with the regular puff from the AGC.

Slow mode switching

When switching to SSB a “loading bar” shows up first, the entire process between hitting the “SSB” button and getting reception again takes 5 seconds. Actually, these radios basically consist of a “radio-on-a-chip” and a microcontroller so it really might be a loading bar we see there. This controller seems to be not exactly fast in the D-808 anyway, so even using the tuning knob comes with occasional hesitations – I advance the main tuning encoder one indention and the frequency changes only 1-2 seconds later. Changing bands is not exactly fast either but at least toggling between USB and LSB works instantaneously.

In comparison, the PL-660 has none of these issues – tuning is smooth and fast, and the AGC is less borked. So tuning the D-808 isn’t elegant and it doesn’t sound exactly beautiful on SSB. On the other hand it has great frequency stability, great selectivity and sensitivity and I can hear what I want to hear anyway. At 1/3 of the price for a PL-880 and pocket-friendly 2/3 of its size I decided to avoid overrating the quirks.

AM Reception

… is fortunately less odd. The chuffing gets replaced by less annoying muting when tuning in AM mode, the ability to quickly scan a band with the main tuning knob seems to be less hindered by that. The PL-660 has a mediocre sync detector and the D-808 has not, but it can score with easier ECSS reception through its much less fiddly fine tuning in 10 Hz-steps (range +/- 990 Hz with the last digit omitted in the display) and the choice of filters is a clear advantage over the Tecsun’s 2 bandwidths in tricky DX situations. As mentioned above, the Tecsun is also losing its sensitivity advantage due to the soft muting on AM, so its remaining big plus is the more pleasant speaker sound.

Signal handling capabilities

As mentioned above, signals can increase quite a bit in very close proximity to the water. When conditions were good, I’ve witnessed occasional overloading even with just the whip antenna on the PL-660 there. But the Tecsun has a 3-position sensitivity switch that first turns off the input amplifier and then adds an attenuator, so it can manage these situations by turning off the preamp and it happily digests signals from full size dipoles, long wires and active antennas with the built-in attenuator in the signal path.

The D-808 has no such thing and that makes it at least as vulnerable to overloading from good conditions or big antennas as the PL-660 without attenuation. At the beach it exhibited very faint intermodulation even at propagation conditions that were just “not quite as crappy as the current record low” when the Tecsun did not. They were so soft that I think this can’t be heard when the noise level is a bit higher, still a bit strange. Intermodulation products seem to show up most prominently around 7MHz, 10MHz and in the 15m ham band first.

Other than that, it seems to abide <10m/30ft of wire just fine and it gets along with my ML-200 active loop, currently indoors with a rigid 80cm aluminum loop, unless the RRI transmitters populate 49 and/or 41m after midnight. That station occasionally hits the 9+60 mark on my SDR with a dipole and when they’re on, the D-808 has to be tuned far away from these bands or disconnected from the loop to stop the pumping, desensitizing and intermodulation products. Interestingly, strong signals often make the filter drop out (as described under “SSB reception”) as well. A theory could be that this happens when an off-band signal (and/or the AGC causing “clipping”) makes an AD-converter run out of bits.

That even regular good signals outside the filter passband can trigger unwanted AGC action might be more or less common with most of those DSP radios. The massive worldwide contest activity on March 24/25 was a nice opportunity to test that. Even though I fled to the less crowded upper region of the 20m-band and it was an hour after sunset so the band was closing, I noticed the AGC was pumping a lot while listening to a contester with a moderate signal. It could be the the ceramic filters (which are said to have better out-of-band rejection) or just the way my Tecsun’s AGC works (or malfunctions) differently, however this effect is much less pronounced on the PL-660.

Frequency stability, accuracy, birdies, quirks

Both receivers are generally very stable and don’t exhibit a noticeable warm-up drift. Just to see what happens, I took the D-808 from a very warm apartment into cold (-5°C/28F) and stormy weather outside. The internal (and very slow changing) thermometer of the D-808 indicated an internal temperature drop of 12°C within 10 minutes and if there was a drift at all, it drifted less than 10Hz.

Comparing the BFO frequency accuracy (using RWM on 4996 and 9996 kHz) brought up some slight offsets across the coverage range, with different curves for LSB and USB:

4996: USB=-160 Hz, LSB=+110 Hz
9996: USB=-190 Hz, LSB=-300 Hz

So particularly on LSB, the offset on my D-808 varies quite a bit over the entire coverage range but I think this is within the allowable tolerance for such a radio. The PL-660 has slightly better results but it also has a center-indented fine-tuning knob making small corrections quite difficult. In AM mode they are both spot on.

So far I couldn’t find birdies anywhere on the D-808. The PL-660 is pretty clean on shortwave too, but it has hefty birdies around 100, 200 and 970kHz, despite the efforts Tecsun has put into shielding and clean PCB design.

SWLing Post reader Mike reported a loud “pop” when changing bands. I can replicate that but it’s not that loud here. I’m getting a much louder pop (independent from the volume setting like Mike’s pop) when using the band scan function though. If I’m tuned to a station and another station (strong enough to stop the scan) is quite close (10-15 kHz) to the station where the scan was started, a loud pop will be heard when the scan stops at the other station.

Operation/Ergonomics

Both receivers have some “thin plastic” feel to me, but while my PL-660 has some slightly rattly and wiggly buttons and knobs rubbing against the casing, the D-808 has none of those and feels a tad more solid. The tuning knob and the fine-tuning thumbwheel have quite strong detents, so they are not very prone to unintentional detuning. The D-808 lacks the weight and the tiny rubber feet that keep the Tecsun fixed on the table.

Control

I’ve seen quite a few complaints/misunderstandings about the D-808’s operation and I think this is due to the fact that there is a fundamental difference between e.g. many Tecsuns and the D-808 in terms of keypad usage: the PL-660 is prioritizing direct frequency input and the D-808 makes memory operation easier. It couldn’t be any easier indeed – depressing a number button on the keypad for more than 3s stores a frequency, hitting it shortly loads that frequency. “Page” button, then number key loads the memory pages 0-9 on each band (so each band has 100 memories). Like the PL-660, the memories store frequencies only, not the mode and also not the bandwidth (despite the manual claims they do). Also differing from the manual, the selected bandwidth stays put per mode and doesn’t reset to a default setting.

Direct frequency input needs to be initated with the “Freq” button though, and in some cases (shortwave frequency <10,000kHz) you need to hit it again to enter the frequency. The D-808 has up/down buttons in addition to the main tuning knob, they are stepping through the bands in the “Fast” step width so you can pretty much always leave the tuning knob on “Slow” . Pressing these buttons longer than 3s starts the band scan. Holding each of the left side band buttons starts the “ATS” scan-and-save-to-memory automatic.

The D-808 shares the “power off” settings scheme with the Tecsuns – some functions like LW on/off, the FM band coverage and so on are set when the radio is off. These functions are labeled in orange above the corresponding buttons and I share the criticism about the color scheme, which is really hard to read in less than optimum lighting conditions. Also, some of the labels are actually “power on” functions marked in the same color, like the “METER” function on the SW band button (hit the SW button repeatedly to step through the broadcast bands) or the USB/LSB switching and key lock functions activated with the “Info” button.

Display/Backlight

Despite the size difference, readability of the display is fine on both receivers. Backlight control is fundamentally different tho: You can turn off the automatic backlight on the PL-660 but you can’t turn it permanently on, the D-808’s light button toggles between “permanently on” and off but you can’t turn off the automatic. The backlight is objectionably bright on the D-808, the upside is that it serves well as a reading light and the light reflected off your hand can illuminate the buttons sufficiently to substitute the missing button lighting.

Some random things I like:

RSSI/SNR meter

Like the PL-880 and some other Tecsun radios, it has a somewhat odd “dB over 1 microvolt”-like signal indicator. It lacks the negative figures needed to properly represent the ~S0-S3 range, it just goes from ’00’ to ’99’ and it’s strangely labeled as “dBu” but technicalities aside, it is a signal indication in 100 steps which is certainly more useful than a 5 bar indicator. According to reports, other receivers with this RSSI don’t seem to use the entire display range and end at ’75’ or less. However I can see the D-808 showing ’99’ when I’m at our airstrip and the tower transmits.

The second pair of digits is a crude calculation of receiver (not audio!) SNR, which can be useful in conjunction with the signal strength meter, e.g. for adjusting or comparing antennas and so on, and it works best with AM and FM signals.

Battery Endurance

“18650”-batteries have a very high energy density at a very low weight, and in the D-808 they meet a radio with a very moderate power consumption. As a result, the provided 2,000mAh battery powered the radio continuously for remarkable 32 hours, 14 of them with the display light on! For comparison, the heavier (and more expensive) 2,500mAh Ni-MH batteries in my PL-660 last for 24 hours only.

It seems the quality of the packaged battery is all over the place though, one user reports “have to charge every day”, another one “28 hours”. If in doubt, a Panasonic 3,400mAh battery (this is the current technical limit for 18650s, don’t fall for fake “10,000mAh” offers seen on Amazon and eBay!) should last for a long weekend even if you’re listening all day. Make sure you buy the “protected” type, the other flavor (used e.g. in electric cigarettes) doesn’t work. If you happen to be a high-performance flashlight fan, you may already have a bunch of batteries to keep the D-808 going forever.

The manual claims that the D-808 can’t be charged when it’s on but I found that’s not quite true–it sure takes much more time but I could top off a slightly discharged battery just fine.

Charging it from a USB charger or laptop USB port introduces some additional noise on AM/SW of course, trying a cheap power bank worked out much better in this regard.

A true “Walkman” for SWLs

The PL-660 fits in some big pockets only and weighs more than a pound. The D-808 has only 2/3 of the Tecsun’s size and I can stuff it conveniently into all of my jacket’s side pockets (tuning knob ahead) so the whip can stick out easily without getting into my way at all. It has at most half the weight of the Tecsun, it weighs less than my smartphone!

This is making an old dream come true for me – a full-featured “communication receiver” (well, almost) that’s “wearable”, one that allows me to enjoy hands-free and hassle-free full shortwave reception on all bands without compromises (particularly in sensitivity) when I do the boring walks the doctor prescribed!

Outsides where the noises of the digital world are gone, the D-808 presents all bands almost as filled as my dipole at home and so there’s always an interesting QSO or some overseas radio program to enjoy. To give you an idea on what I mean by “no compromises”: my companion on today’s walk was NY2PO from upstate NY (3,728mi/6,000km away) on 40m, constantly coming in with a signal allowing for convenient listening, despite the bad conditions (SFI=68 A=10).

I think this may be the first time a radio with so many features and such a high sensitivity comes in such a small package – all handheld scanners with SW and SSB were an expensive atrocity on shortwave, the late ICF-7600 was slightly bigger, less sensitive and SSB was not its strength. The only radio with even more features and similar dimensions would be the “Reuter Pocket” SDR but that might be less sensitive on a whip, it lacks the air band, it has a 1-digit battery runtime and a 4-digit price tag. The only other affordable radio that could fit that bill would be the even smaller Tecsun PL-365 SSB, but it lacks an SSB filter, it has no RDS and no air band and I’d be curious if it can match the sensitivity of the XHDATA.

Verdict

The D-808 can score in 3 bands (Air, FM (due to RDS) and AM) with its sensitivity, the PL-660 only on LW (due to the fact it actually receives something there) and by a narrow margin on shortwave. The Tecsun’s (perceived) lower noise floor, better speaker sound, better tuning and built-in attenuator is countered by a much wider choice of filters, better fine tuning control, better portability and the better battery endurance of the D-808. The latter also has a number of less important features the former lacks, on the other hand the Tecsun lacks the many quirks of the D-808. It’s up to you to weigh the advantages of each to find your personal favorite, the D-808 struggled a bit to become mine but at the end I couldn’t help enjoying this little radio a lot.

There is much room for improvement though – for example the slightly borked control of the DSP, the chuffing/tuning and AGC issues on SSB let the D-808 miss the title “most stunning cheap little radio ever” by a hair.

For me, the unique combination of size, sensitivity and selectivity is making up for the shortcomings, it certainly remains a very interesting radio and I can’t remember carrying one around that much, ever.


What a brilliant, detailed assessment of the D-808! Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m absolutely jealous of your North Sea listening location–looks to be idyllic! 

Check out the XHDATA D-808 on Amazon.co.uk (affiliate link) and AliExpress.

Dave’s review of the AOR AR-DV1 Digital Voice Receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dave Zantow (N9EWO), who has recently posted his review of the AOR AR-DV1 digital voice receiver.

As with many of Dave’s reviews, this evaluation takes a close look at HF and mediumwave performance which isn’t the AR-DV1’s strong suit. Dave notes:

“[Though] not what the receiver was designed for, RF performance on MW / HF bands (and the terrible audio quality) are mediocre at best.”

Click here to read Dave’s review.

Thanks, Dave! Your review reflects comments I’ve received from some Post readers who’ve purchased the AR-DV1 as well. Many were particularly upset with the audio quality. Of course, the AR-DV1 is marketed as a digital voice receiver, thus audio likely favors “narrow” voice audio.