Category Archives: Shortwave Radio Reviews

A review of the lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver

The following review of the TX-500 was first published in the October 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.

Last year, a company out of Russia started dropping hints about a QRP transceiver they were developing called the Discovery TX-500.

The prototype photos looked like nothing else on the market: it was unusually thin––only 30mm thick––and sported a CNC-machined aluminum alloy body. The radio also featured top-mounted controls ideal for field use, and a high-contrast LCD backlit screen with a spectrum display.

Some of the initial photos of the prototype showed water droplets on the front faceplate indicating that the TX-500 would be water/weather resistant––certainly a first for the amateur radio market.

After the initial hints dropped by lab599, the TX-500 developed somewhat of a cult following among field-portable radio operators (like yours truly) as well as those into radio preparedness. However, after this tantalizing flurry of initial images, there was a lull, and very little information was available about the rig. Then in late July/early August 2020, we finally learned that the TX-500 would be sold in the US by Ham Radio Outlet. HRO’s product page posted a price of $789.95 with a projected availability date of mid-to-late September 2020.

Thus I felt quite lucky when I learned that a loaner TX-500 was being sent to me for one week to evaluate and review. Those of you who know me and read my reviews know that I typically prefer to spend several weeks with a radio before I feel comfortable enough writing a review. In this case, that simply wasn’t an option. I decided to push aside all of my other obligations and simply dive into this radio.

The following review is based on using the TX-500 in the shack and in the field over the course of seven days.  During this week, I managed to activate eight parks for the Parks on the Air (POTA) program, exclusively with the TX-500. I’ve taken the TX-500 to state parks, lakes, game lands, a National Forest, and a National Park. The TX-500 experienced full-on sunshine during a long operating session, and was even rained on once.

I’ve also made a number of QSOs with this radio from home, both via CW and phone. In total, I’ve logged an average of 31 CW and SSB contacts with the TX-500 each day I’ve had it.

Initial impressions

The TX-500 looked so impressively machined and designed based on the initial photos and few videos published, I honestly feared it couldn’t possibly measure up to the expectations built up about it. Would it be the rugged radio we’d heard about? Could it travel? Could it hold up in the field, under variable conditions and in fickle weather?

With the radio finally in hand, I noted the build quality and thought to myself, This rig might just do it. 

The body of this radio is absolutely solid.  It’s weighty without being heavy, and there are no loose parts––no wobbly encoders, no wonky buttons, and relatively few seams or openings that might be subject to dust or water penetration. It’s rugged, sturdy––and, I must add––beautifully engineered.

The layout is simple: there’s a backlit LCD screen on the left of the radio with four function buttons above and below it. These buttons control most of the functions and features you use while operating: CW adjustments, Receive and Transmit audio EQ, Noise Reduction, Noise Blanker, CW Memory keying, A/B VFO control, and more.

To the right of the display you find a set of buttons stacked vertically that include the power button, mode, band switching, and a menu button for making less common adjustments. The encoder is raised and feels silky-smooth to operate. There appears to be no brake control, but this is not a problem because this rig doesn’t need it: it’s well-balanced and feels of excellent quality. Indeed, tuning is adaptive and fluid; I’ve been very pleased with the lab599 tuning.

There are two knobs above the encoder which adjust the AF gain and RIT. Other buttons next to the encoder control things such as the tuning steps and speed, controls lock, and memory writing.

The low-profile side panels do protect the TX-500 front faceplate on flat surfaces.

You can tell the TX-500 was designed by an amateur radio operator because the radio is laid-out beautifully. All frequently used functions are easy to find and intuitive. There’s no need to do a deep-dive into embedded menus to, say, change the RF gain control.

There are a number of general coverage QRP transceivers on the market, so even just looking through the features and specs it’s clear how it might stack up.

This being said, the TX-500 does lack a few things you might find in other field portable QRP general coverage transceivers. We’ll start with those.

No (Built-In) Speaker

The TX-500 does not have a built-in speaker. With weather-resistance in mind, lab599 may have opted to leave the speaker out of the chassis, and instead include a speaker microphone combo with their basic package. The supplied speaker/mic is of good quality and the audio can be made incredibly loud. And, although I’m not a fan of speaker mics, I must admit this one has grown on me: in the field doing SSB, it’s much easier to bring the speaker closer to your ears when trying to work a particularly weak station.

But what about when operating CW––? In that case, the speaker mic becomes inconvenient as you are forced to port out the audio via the speaker/mic connector. It’s worth noting here that the TX-500 package being sold by Ham Radio Outlet includes an audio breakout cable so you can attach your favorite headphones or boom/mic set. My pre-production unit did not include this, so I had to use the speaker/mic and its mono audio port.

I, however, tend to operate with headphones in the field unless someone is helping me log stations. Headphones help me isolate myself from noises and distractions around me (like my dog straining on her leash, whining over her inability to chase squirrels). Headphones also improve my ability to detect and work weak signals.

When I operate CW in the field, I tend to place the TX-500 on my backpack and attach the speaker mic to the top flap. It’s worked out quite well.

Audio from the speaker microphone is tinny, but actually well-tailored for voice and Morse Code. For shortwave radio listening, however, that’s another story:  you’ll certainly want to connect a proper speaker.

No ATU

The TX-500 does not include an internal automatic antenna tuner. For those used to operating an Elecraft field radio, the Xiegu G90, or the CommRadio CTX-10, for example, this might seem like a major omission.

While it would be nice to have an internal ATU, I’m quite happy to do without one, as all of my field antennas are resonant on the bands I operate. But as a point of comparison, it’s nice when, say, my end-fed antenna isn’t ideally deployed and can’t get that 1:1 match on the 40 meter band; with my KX2, I can simply push the ATU button and the rig solves the match.

I carry a simple Emtech ZM-2 balanced-line manual antenna tuner, just for when an ATU is needed. But out of the eight field activations I’ve done thus far with the TX-500, only once did I add the ZM-2 to the mix, and just to bring the match from a 2.3:1 to 1:1. If I wanted an external automatic antenna tuner, I’d grab an Elecraft T1. It’s a gem of an ATU.

No internal rechargeable battery (yet!)

The TX-500 transceiver doesn’t have an internal rechargeable battery option like the CommRadio CTX-10 or Elecraft KX2. But like the new Icom IC-705 sports, lab599 is designing an attachable rechargeable battery pack that will fit the TX-500 beautifully. You can see the recessed battery connections on the back/bottom of the TX-500.

 

As of this time, no availability date for this future option has been announced, but I can confirm it is indeed in the works.

What makes the TX-500 unique

For some, the idea of a radio which lacks an internal speaker and ATU might lead the rapid decision to dismiss it outright. I would urge those folks to continue reading, however; the TX-500, due to some very unique features, has certainly carved out a market niche, and thus is worth the consideration.

Rugged, weather-resistant body

As I mentioned above, the TX-500 has a solid aluminium-alloy body which gives it a distinctly solid feel. There are no gaps between chassis plates, and all of the buttons, knobs, as well as the encoder are sealed to prevent water penetration.

The TX-500 design smacks of military-grade construction, but in truth is a blend of military specs and amateur radio functionality. For example, the chassis is, if anything, over-engineered for most amateur radio applications. If I owned the TX-500, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on extended hiking trips, even in dubious weather. Of course, that’s not to say I’d intentionally leave the rig out in heavy rain. But I wouldn’t worry about a sudden rain shower ruining my radio. If this were a military radio, it would have fewer controls and likely be somewhat channelized. Instead, the TX-500 has the full set of controls, features, and filters you’d expect in an amateur radio transceiver with a military-build quality.

In short, it might appear to belong to rugged military kit, but it’s very much designed for the demands of amateur radio operators.

Although the TX-500 is incredibly solid, it’s also lightweight. I weighed the radio with its speaker/mic and power cable. The total weight was 1 pound, 7 ounces. One of my blog readers noted that such a lightweight radio would simply break in half if they hit it over their knee. My reply? No way. In fact, I’m willing to bet such an action could break your knee cap!  Please don’t try this, you’ll surely regret it.

Connectors

One of the most frequent questions readers ask about the TX-500 is why its makers chose to include non-standard (to radio) GX12mm multi-pin aviation connectors for the rig’s power port, CAT control, data, CW, and speaker/mic…?

The answer? In brief, it’s water resistance.

GX12mm connectors allow for a watertight connection and protect the radio very well from water intrusion. And while GX12 connectors aren’t standard in the world of amateur radio, they are certainly standard in aviation, commercial, and military applications.  These connectors are widely available online and there are even mom-and-pop ham radio retailers like W2ENY selling premade TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website.

Meanwhile, the TX-500 uses a standard BNC antenna connection for antennas, which I’m very pleased to note.

LCD screen with spectrum display

 

Most of us now expect modern SDR-based transceivers to sport a full-color backlit––and sometimes touch screen––display. In the field, however, color TFT displays can be incredibly difficult to read in full sunlight.

Like the Elecraft K and KX series radios, lab599 opted for a more simple, higher contrast monochrome backlit LCD display. This pleases me to no end, because I much prefer this type of display in a POTA or SOTA field radio just because it’s so much easier to read in bright outdoor light. Also, I feel touch screens aren’t as well suited for hiking, camping, and heavy field use–they’re more vulnerable to being damaged.

The TX-500 LCD is chock-full of information and very responsive. The spectrum display (no waterfall) is fluid and useful, as effective as any full-color display.

Benchmark current drain

When operating on battery in the field, current drain in receive mode is a major factor. The more slowly you can sip from the battery while the radio is receiving, the longer play time you’ll have. I like my general coverage field radios to consume less than 400 milliamps.

My benchmark general coverage radio, the Elecraft KX2, consumes a mere 135-140 milliamps at moderate volume levels. I can operate for hours with a compact battery. The TX-500 consumes between 110-120 milliamps at a moderate volume level; yes, even a smidge better than the KX2. The company lab599 actually specs out this radio at 100 milliamps, and I’m confident one could achieve it simply by using headphones.

While there are transceivers like my MTR-3B which have even lower current drain, they’re CW-only and lack general coverage reception, large displays, and the like. Thus, the TX-500 sets a benchmark for general-coverage full-featured portable transceivers in terms of drain.

On the air

In terms of operating the TX-500 in the field, I have very few complaints. The menu system is very easy to use and is intuitive. I never needed to reference the manual––but if you do, the manual is one of the best I’ve seen from a new transceiver manufacturer (click here to download he manual and other TX-500 files).

The buttons are easy to press. They have a tactile feel and proper response so you know you’ve properly engaged a setting. The features and buttons are well spaced, too, and the thin-but-wide chassis actually provides generous surface area for the controls. One could easily operate the TX-500 with gloves on, should it be necessary in cold climates or winter conditions.

As mentioned earlier, the TX-500 does not have an internal ATU option like the Elecraft KX2 or the Xiegu G90. For some, this will be a huge negative against the TX-500. Good internal ATUs allow operators to use a much wider array of antennas in the field–including random wire antennas–and I’ll admit that I’ve gotten quite used to having one in my KX2 and KX3. But again, to get the most signal per watt, I use resonant antennas in the field these days, so very rarely need or employ an ATU.

So how does the TX-500 play? In the following sections I’ll address putting the TX-500 on the air as both a CW and SSB operator. Note that I did not have the opportunity to test the TX-500 on digital modes––like PSK-31 and FT8––as my pre-production model lacked the necessary cables, nor was building my own possible during the week of testing.

CW

Of the (very few) videos that were produced prior to the TX-500’s release, a couple of these were made by a CW operator in Russia. Unfortunately, I was able to glean little information from those videos. I was very eager to try the TX-500 in CW mode as this has become my preferred method of activating parks for POTA.

When I received the TX-500, it did not come with the same cables that Ham Radio Outlet will include. It did, however, include the 5 pin connector for the CW port, so I simply soldered a cable and connected it to the terminals on the back of my Vibroplex single lever paddle.

This way, I was able to avoid purchasing and attaching a three conductor ?” female plug. (This intervention did mean that, in the field, my key would weigh more than the transceiver–!)

But the question every CW operator has asked me is “Does the TX-500 support full break-in QSK?” Full break-in QSK allows instantaneous transmit/receive recovery time, so that even higher speed operators can hear between sent characters while operating. This means if another op wants to grab your attention while you’re operating––or, in the parlance, “break in”––you’ll hear them in the middle of sending a word.

Unfortunately, the TX-500 does not support full break-in QSK. Instead of being based on pin diodes (like the Elecraft KX series) the TX-500 uses a relay. This means that you’ll hear a relay click each time the radio switches between transmit and receive.

In the past, I’ve reviewed transceivers in which the relay click was honestly quite loud, even annoyingly so. Fortunately, the TX-500 has such a solid and well-sealed body that I find the relay sound to be the least distracting of any relay-based transceiver I’ve tested. You can still hear it, but it’s reasonably soft. So that you can hear what I mean, in this video, you’ll hear the relay clicking when I point the camera toward the rig.

The T/R recovery time on the TX-500 is quite rapid. While I can’t hear audio between characters sent within a word, I can hear between words when the relay is set to the quickest recovery and I’m operating around 17-20 WPM. If, however, you operate at higher speeds and prefer full break-in QSK, you may wish to give the TX-500 a pass.

The TX-500 comes with a full complement of CW operation adjustments, like Iambic type, straight key, weight ratios, sidetone volume, and the like. One oddity is that it doesn’t measure CW speed in words per minute. It uses a completely different scale that measures with a much wider number range. I set my speed to “97,” which I guessed might be an equivalent of about 17 or 18 WPM. While I first thought this feature odd, I soon came to appreciate this specificity because without the restriction to 1 WPM increments, as with most transceivers, it gives the op more flexibility to adjust speed.

I discovered that the TX-500 can handle dense RF environments while doing a park activation during a CWT contest. Even with a 400 Hz filter engaged (and it could have been much narrower), the TX-500 effectively blocked adjacent signals. To demonstrate, I made the following short video in the field:

Rob Sherwood recently tested the TX-500 and published the results on his excellent receiver test data table.  Although very respectable, I expected the TX-500 to sport more competitive numbers based on my “real-world” tests. Still: this is a field radio. Not a rig I’d reach for to win the CQ WW contest. In field operations, TX-500 is a brilliant performer and has better overall specs than a number of popular radios including the immensely popular Yaesu FT-891, for example.

CW ops should keep in mind that the TX-500 has no internal speaker, so to operate you’ll either need to connect an external speaker, the supplied speaker/mic, or headphones. Since I primarily operate with headphones, this will be no inconvenience to me. As there was no headphone connector with this pre-production model TX-500, I simply used the speaker mic for all operations.

When the TX-500 was first released and HRO made a product page on their website, the rig had no CW memories, which I truly rely on for field operations. CW memories allow me to manage my logging workflow, pre-format responses, and CQ calls without having to manually key everything. Lab599 must have noted this omission, and by the time I received my evaluation unit, a firmware release had been issued which added CW memories. I immediately performed a firmware update (a simple process, by the way). I even passed along some suggestions and critiques of the CW memory keyer; lab599 immediately made adjustments and fixes as needed for optimal performance.

If you’ve ever saved CW memories in a radio, you may have found it frustrating to achieve the right spacing for the radio to provide a proper playback. It often takes me multiple tries, for example, to save a park number into my KX2. The TX-500, fortunately, is very forgiving and I found it very simple to set CW memories in the field.

While not on the radio I used at time of evaluation, I understand lab599 is planning to add a “beacon mode” for calling CQ, as well.

All in all, I find the TX-500 a pleasure to operate in CW mode. Indeed, 75% of all of my logged stations were made in CW mode.

Speaking of which, funny story…I activated Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of western North Carolina. I hammered out 13 logged stations from Maine, Vermont, Ontario, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida, and several states in the middle of that footprint.

On this map, all of the green pins below were CW contacts and made with one watt of power. The red pins are SSB contacts with 10 watts. The yellow star is roughly my location:

I switched to SSB mode to make a few phone contacts, and called CQ. No one heard me. I was puzzled…but suddenly I realized I had left my power setting at 1 watt! The previous day, I was running tests into a dummy load. Yes, all of those CW contacts were made with truly low power, indeed!

SSB

The TX-500 has a lot to offer the SSB operator. I’ve gotten great reports from my SSB contacts, and have even listened to my own signals via the KiwiSDR network.

The TX-500 includes all of the features a phone operator would expect, such as compression and gain control.  Of course, you can enable VOX operation if you’re using your favorite boom headset. The TX-500 allows you to not only to change the receiver EQ settings, but also transmit EQ settings. This means you can tailor your TX-500 to get the most audio punch per watt while operating phone. Very nice!

The TX-500 ships with a rugged, simple speaker microphone. I’ve been using this exclusively during the evaluation period, and have been very pleased with it. The mic even has a protected mono audio out port on the side, should you wish to attach a different external speaker.

Perhaps the only negative from my point of view as a phone operator is that the TX-500 lacks a voice memory keyer. While it has this feature for CW, it lacks it for SSB.

To put this in context: all recent Elecraft rigs have voice memory keying; the new IC-705 includes this as well. Even the Yaesu FT-891, which is one of the most affordable compact transceivers in the Yaesu line, has voice memory keying. For POTA and SOTA activators, voice memory keying is huge, as it frees you to do other things like log, eat a sandwich, or talk to others while calling CQ. It also saves your voice. For example, on the KX2, I record a CQ message like “CQ POTA, CQ POTA, this is K4SWL calling CQ for Parks On The Air;” I save the message to memory location #1, then play it back in “beacon mode.”  The KX2 will continuously transmit my voice CQ message with a few seconds between each call. When someone answers my call, I can easily pause the beacon by hitting the PTT switch or one of the transceiver keys.

I do wish the TX-500 had this handy feature, but because of a lack of internal storage, I don’t expect it will be added. This isn’t a deal-killer for me, as I could add an external voice memory keyer, but it certainly would make for ideal SSB field-radio operating.

Shortwave broadcast listening

Of course, since I’m a hardcore shortwave radio listener and the TX-500 has a general coverage receiver, I did quite a bit of casual shortwave radio listening during the week I had the radio in the shack.

What’s great about the TX-500 is that it has a very capable receiver with a low noise floor and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The preset filter bandwidths can be adjusted in all modes including AM. I have the widest setting at 10 kHz, which gives one proper fidelity with strong shortwave broadcasters.

Here’s a link to a quick video I made showing how the TX-500 sounds while tuning around the 31 meter band.  Note that the amplified speaker I use for this demo is limited in fidelity and I recorded this using an iPad. Still, I think you’ll get a decent idea how well the TX-500 plays as a shortwave receiver:

The TX-500 will tune to the bottom of the AM broadcast band as well, and I’ve spent time listening there. I did not have the time to do a deep dive, but I find that the TX-500 performs rather well in those low bands…a rarity for a ham radio transceiver.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget those initial impressions. Here’s the list I created over the time I’ve spent evaluating the TX-500.

Pros:

  • Solid, rugged chassis with weather/water resistance and built-in low-profile side protection panels
  • High-contrast LCD display that’s responsive and easy to read in the field
  • Excellent receiver sensitivity, selectivity, and low noise floor
  • Full complement of features and adjustments expected in a modern transceiver
  • Multiple adjustable filter settings
  • Very low current drain for a full-featured general coverage transceiver (100-120 milliamps)
  • GX12mm connections provide further water protection (see con)
  • CW memory keying
  • Easy firmware upgrades with supplied USB cable and lab599 firmware application
  • For US customers: a Nevada-based service center for repairs (no word yet on similar centers elsewhere)
  • Per lab599 announcement, hopefully available next year: an attachable TX-500 battery pack

Cons:

  • No built-in speaker
  • No internal ATU option
  • No full break-in QSK CW operation (although relay is quiet and audio recovery fast)
  • GX12mm connections are non-standard on amateur radio transceivers for water resistance, thus one might need to purchase or build cables for non-standard accessories (see pro)
  • No voice keyer for phone operation
  • No notch or auto-notch filters at time of publication (these may be implemented in future firmware upgrades) It does indeed have a notch filter now!
  • Fold-out feet could scratch soft surfaces, such as wood

Conclusion

Would I buy the TX-500 myself? Well, since I’m a heavy field operator, yes, without hesitation. Moreover I believe the $800 price tag is reasonable for a radio with its feature set and rugged military-spec type design.

I confess, I have been looking forward to getting the TX-500 in hand for a year now. So when HRO put up a product page and started accepting orders, without much thought, I placed mine. Yet within an hour, I was rethinking my decision, and soon I called to cancel it. Why? A bit of buyer’s remorse. For although instinct told me I’d like the rig, common sense said I was getting ahead of myself. The truth was, at that time the TX-500 didn’t have CW memory keying, and without that, I knew this field radio would not get a lot of use during my park and future summit activations. Moreover, I’ve no less than six eight QRP transceivers––not to mention an Icom IC-705 on order for review––so it wasn’t as though the need was great. Instinct or no, I felt I’d made the decision in haste, and my head said my heart should take a few beats before committing.

Yet, after receiving the TX-500 loaner, and taking it to the field––and, of course, lab599’s addition of that all-essential memory keying––all of a sudden the TX-500 became much more appealing. And I’ll admit, this radio really grew on me over that evaluation week (ah, the dangers of reviewing radios…you do often become attached). There’s also been comfort in knowing the TX-500 wouldn’t be harmed should I be caught in a pop-up shower and anxious for the safety of my equipment. But there’s something more: it turns out my initial instincts were correct. I just happen to really like this radio.  The way it feels and functions suits me as an operator and its performance exceeds expectations. And that’s a thing I couldn’t have known until I gave it a spin.

While no radio is perfect, I nonetheless suspect the TX-500 will gather a loyal customer base soon; indeed, it had a following well before anyone laid hands on it. Including me.

So now I am seriously considering purchasing the TX-500 for keeps.

Click here to check out the lab599 Discovery TX-500 at lab599.

Click here to purchase a TX-500 from HRO.

Check out W2ENY’s TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website


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Icom IC-705 blind audio tests: Let’s take a look at your choices!

Before I had even taken delivery of the new Icom IC-705 transceiver, a number of SWLing Post readers asked me to do a series of blind audio comparison tests like I’ve done in the past (click here for an example).

Last week, I published a series of five audio tests/surveys and asked for your vote and comments. The survey response far exceeded anything I would have anticipated.

We received a total of 931 survey entries/votes which only highlights how much you enjoy this sort of receiver test.

In this challenge, I didn’t even give you the luxury of knowing the other radios I used in each comparison, so let’s take a look…

The competition

Since the Icom IC-705 is essentially a tabletop SDR, I compared it with a couple dedicated PC-connected SDRs.

WinRadio Excalibur SDR

The WinRadio Excalibur

I consider the WinRadio Excalibur to be a benchmark sub $1000 HF, mediumwave, and longwave SDR.

It is still my staple receiver for making off-air audio and spectrum recordings, and is always hooked up to an antenna and ready to record.

In the tests where I employed the WinRadio Excalibur, I used its proprietary SDR application to directly make recordings. I used none of its advanced filters, AGC control, or synchronous detection.

Click here to read my original 2012 review of the WinRadio Excalibur.

Airspy HF+ SDR

The Airspy HF+ SDR

I also consider the Airspy HF+ SDR to be one of the finest sub-$200 HF SDRs on the market.

The HF+ is a choice SDR for DXing. Mine has not been modified in any way to increase its performance or sensitivity.

In the test where I employed the HF+ I used Airspy’s own SDR application, SDR#, to directly make recordings. I used none of its advanced filters, AGC control, noise reduction, or synchronous detection.

Belka-DSP portable receiver

The Belka-DSP

I recently acquired a Belka-DSP portable after reading 13dka’s superb review.

I thought it might be fun to include it in a comparison although, in truth, it’s hardly fair to compare a $160 receiver with a $1300 SDR transceiver.

The Belka, to me, is like a Lowe HF-150 in a tiny, pocket package.

Elecraft KX3 QRP transceiver

The Elecraft KX3

The KX3 is one of the best transceivers I’ve ever owned. Mine has the CW roofing filter installed (only recently) and is, without a doubt, a benchmark performer.

Click here to read my full review.

If you check out Rob Sherwood’s receiver test data table which is sorted by third-order dynamic range narrow spaced, you’ll see that the KX3 is one of the top performers on the list even when compared with radios many times its price. Due to my recording limitations (see below) the KX3 was the only other transceiver used in this comparison.

Herein lies a HUGE caveat:

The WinRadio application

As I’ve stated in SDR reviews in the past, it is incredibly difficult comparing anything with PC-connected SDRs because they can be configured on such a granular level.

When making a blind audio test with a stand-alone SDR radio like the IC-705–which has less configurability–you’re forced to take one of at least two paths:

  • Tweak the PC-connected SDR until you believe you’ve found the best possible reception audio scenario and use that configuration as a point of comparison, or
  • Attempt to keep the configuration as basic as possible, setting filters widths, AGC to be comparable and turning off all other optional enhancements (like synchronous detection, noise reduction, and advanced audio filtering to name a few).

I chose the latter path in this comparison which essentially undermines our PC-connected SDRs. Although flawed, I chose this approach to keep the comparison as simple as possible.

While the IC-705 has way more filter and audio adjustments than legacy transceivers, it only has a tiny fraction of those available to PC-connected SDRs. Indeed, the HF+ SDR, for example, can actually be used by multiple SDR applications, all with their own DSP and feature sets.

In short: don’t be fooled into thinking this is an apples-to-apples comparison. It is, at best, a decent attempt at giving future IC-705 owners a chance to hear how it compares in real-word live signals.

Recordings

The Zoom H2N connected to my Elecraft KX2.

Another limiting factor is that I only have one stand-alone digital audio recorder: the Zoom H2N. [Although inspired by Matt’s multi-track comparison reviews, I plan to upgrade my gear soon.]

The IC-705 has built-in digital audio recording and this is what I used in each test.

The WinRadio Excalibur and Airspy HF+ also have native audio recording via their PC-based applications.

With only one stand-alone recorder, I wasn’t able to simultaneously compare the IC-705 with more than one other stand-alone receiver/transceiver at a time.

As I mentioned in each test, the audio levels were not consistent and required the listener to adjust their volume control. Since the IC-705, Excalibur, and HF+ all have native recording features, the audio levels were set by their software. I didn’t post-process them.

Blind Audio Survey Results

With all of those caveats and disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look at the survey results.

Blind audio test #1: 40 meters SSB

In this first test we listened to the IC-705, WinRadio Excalibur, and Belka-DSP tuned to a weak 40 meter station in lower sideband (LSB) mode. Specifically, this was ham radio operator W3JPH activating Shikellamy State Park in Pennsylvania for the Parks On The Air program. I chose this test because it included a weak station calling CQ and both weak and strong stations replying. There are also adjacent signals which (in some recordings) bleed over into the audio.

Radio A: The Belka-DSP

Radio B: The WinRadio Excalibur

Radio C: The Icom IC-705

Survey Results

The Icom IC-705 was the clear choice here.

Based on your comments, those who chose the IC-705 felt that the weak signal audio was more intelligible and that signals “popped out” a bit more. Many noted, however, that the audio sounded “tinny.”

A number of you felt it was a toss-up between The IC-705 and the Belka-DSP. And those who chose the WinRadio Excalibur were adamant that is was the best choice.

The WinRadio audio was popping in the recording, but it was how the application recorded it natively, so I didn’t attempt to change it.

Test #2: 40 meters CW

Icom IC-705In this second test we listened to the Icom IC-705 and the Elecraft KX3 tuned to a 40 meter CW station.

Radio A: Icom IC-705

Radio B: Elecraft KX3

Survey Results

The Elecraft KX3 was preferred by more than half of you.

Based on your comments, those who chose the KX3 felt the audio was clearer and signals had more “punch.” They felt the audio was easier on the ears as well, thus ideal for long contests.

Those who chose the IC-705, though, preferred the narrower sounding audio and felt the KX3 was too bass heavy.

Test #3: Shannon Volmet SSB

In this third test we listened to the Icom IC-705 and WinRadio Excalibur, tuned to Shannon Volmet on 8,957 kHz.

Radio A: WinRadio Excalibur

Radio B: Icom IC-705

Survey

The Icom-705 audio was preferred by a healthy margin. I believe, again, this was influenced by the audio pops heard in the WinRadio recording (based on your comments).

The IC-705 audio was very pleasant and smooth according to respondents and they felt the signal-to-noise ratio was better.

However, a number of comments noted that the female voice in the recording was actually stronger on the WinRadio Excalibur and more intelligible during moments of fading.

Test #4: Voice of Greece 9,420 kHz

In this fourth test we listen to the Icom IC-705, and the WinRadio Excalibur again, tuned to the Voice of Greece on 9,420 kHz.

Radio A: Icom IC-705

Radio B: WinRadio Excalibur

Survey

While the preference was for the IC-705’s audio (Radio A), this test was very interesting because those who chose the Excalibur had quite a strong preference for it, saying that it would be the best for DXing and had a more stable AGC response. In the end, 62.6% of 131 people felt the IC-705’s audio had slightly less background noise.

Test #5: Radio Exterior de España 9,690 kHz

In this fifth test we listened to the Icom IC-705, and AirSpy HF+, tuned to Radio Exterior de España on 9,690 kHz. I picked REE, in this case, because it is a blowtorch station and I could take advantage of the IC-705’s maximum AM filter width of 10 kHz.

Radio A: Icom IC-705

Radio B: Airspy HF+

Survey

The IC-705 was preferred by 79% of you in this test.

Again, very interesting comments, though. Those who preferred the IC-705 felt the audio simply sounded better and had “punch.” Those who preferred B felt it was more sensitive and could hear more nuances in the broadcaster voices.

So what’s the point of these blind audio tests?

Notice I never called any radio a “winner.”

The test here is flawed in that audio levels and EQ aren’t the same, the settings aren’t identical, and even the filters have slightly different shapes and characteristics.

In other words, these aren’t lab conditions.

I felt the most accurate comparison, in terms of performance, was the 40M CW test with the KX3 because both employed similar narrow filters and both, being QRP transceivers, are truly designed to perform well here.

I essentially crippled the WinRadio Excalibur and Airspy HF+ by turning off all all but the most basic filter and AGC settings. If I tweaked both of those SDRs for optimal performance and signal intelligibility, I’m positive they would have been the preferred choices (indeed, I might just do another blind audio test to prove my point here).

With that said, I think we can agree that the IC-705 has brilliant audio characteristics.

I’ve noticed this in the field as well. I’m incredibly pleased with the IC-705’s performance and versatility. I’ll be very interested to see how it soon rates among the other transceivers in Rob Sherwood’s test data.

The IC-705 can actually be tailored much further by adjusting filter shapes/skirts, employing twin passband tuning and even using its noise reduction feature.

If anything, my hope is that these blind audio tests give those who are considering the Icom IC-705 a good idea of how its audio and receiver performs in real-word listening conditions.


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Matt compares the Tecsun PL-990 to the Icom IC-R9500 on an external antenna and the results are surprising

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Matt Blaze, who shares the following comparison of the new Tecsun PL-990x and the benchmark Icom IC-R9500 communications receiver.

Matt’s excellent comparison  is in audio form. I highly recommend listening with headphones or, at least, an audio device with separate left/right channels as his comparison takes advantage of this.

I love not only how he set up this comparison with both radios sharing an identical antenna, but his evaluation also explores how well the PL-990 handles a proper external antenna via its external antenna jack.

Click below to listen to Matt’s piece, or right click here to download the audio:

Thanks for sharing this, Matt. You’ve inspired me to do similar narrated audio comparisons!

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Tecsun PL-330: Initial impressions, overview of functions, and operation


Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jaap de Goede, for the following guest posts:


Operating the TECSUN PL-330 without an English manual

by Jaap de Goede

Introduction

Inspired by my father, I like listening to radio transmissions for the last 60 years. That includes listening to shortwave transmissions. In my collection there are a number of radios including computer based SDR-receivers. The TECSUN PL-330 is a shortwave portable radio with SSB and digital readout.

I’d like to share my operating experience of the PL-330 and throughout I will now and then compare this radio to similar radios in my collection:  Eton Satellit, XHDATA D-808 and CountyComm GP5-SSB (AKA Tecsun PL-365).

To be clear the PL-330 used here is a Chinese domestic version, probably manufactured in July 2020. An English manual was not available at the time of writing. In the meantime, the English manual of the Tecsun PL-990 helped to figure out a number of the features of the PL-330. Newer manufacturing batches might contain other firmware and that could change the way of operating.

Size and sound

With a volume of about 18 cubic inches the PL-330 is less than 20 cubic inches. It easily fits the pocket of my jeans. 20 cubic inches (unofficially) classifies it as an Ultralight DX radio. The smallest radio of the four is the GP5-SSB with 14 cubic inches. The Satellit is the largest of the four and the size of these radios can be determined by the eye but by the ear as well.

The PL-330 has digital VOLUME control and the volume level is indicated on the display. In contradiction, the three other radios have analog volume control. All radios have a 3.5 mm socket for a stereo headset. A nice feature of the PL-330 is that the FM stereo decoder only works with a plugged-in headset. Else FM remains in mono.  I think that’s a very clever feature because why would the stereo decoder degrade the mono-sound through the speaker in case of poor FM stereo reception?

Personal audio quality ranking from best to worst:

  1. Satellit
  2. PL-330 and D-808
  3. GP5-SSB

Power and Batteries

The PL-330 is supplied with a BL-5C battery of 1000 mAh. The battery can be charged in the radio through though a micro USB port. The display permanently shows battery status, regardless whether the radio is on or off. USB makes it very easy to charge from any external USB charger or an external USB battery. Here a quick comparison of the powering of the four radios:

Radio Battery Charging Port
Tecsun-PL-330 1 x BL-5C Micro USB
CountyComm GP5 3 x AA NiMH Mini USB
XHDATA D-808 1 x 18650 Micro USB
Eton Satellit 4 x AA NiMH Bus

 

I don’t have runtime figures. I just charge when indicated on the radio’s display and carry a spare USB battery to charge the radio in case.

Antenna and Backlit

All four radios have an extensible whip antenna (what else would you expect). Also, all four radios have a 3.5 mm socket for an external antenna. The only radio with an antenna attenuator switch is the Satellit.

All four radios have backlit. But a feature that none of the other radios has is the ability with the PL-330 to toggle the backlit between “always on” or “automatic off”. Just hold and press the 5 button to toggle between the two modes. For comparison, the Satellit has the nicest illuminated display of all four, while the D-808 is way too bright.

Supported Radio Bands

The PL-330 supports the following radio bands:

  • Long Wave (153-513 kHz)
  • Medium Wave (520-1710 kHz or 522-1620 kHz)
  • Short Wave (1711-29999 kHz)
  • FM broadcast (64-108 MHz)

Radio Band and Demodulation Selection

To enable or disable the LW-band you must long press the 2 button when the radio is powered off. When the radio is powered on and LW has been enabled you can select between LW and MW by short press of the MW/LW button.

The American or Rest of World MW-band plan can be toggled by long press the 3 button when powered off. When the radio is powered on you can select between MW by short press of the MW/LW button.

To select the regional FM-band plan you should long press the 0 button when the radio is powered off. When the radio is powered on the FM-band can be selected by short press FM/ST. button.

When the radio is powered on the SW-band can be selected by short press < or > button.

In LW, MW and SW bands de-modulation can be AM, SSB and AM synchronous (SYNC). A short press of the SSB button toggles between AM and SSB. A long press of the SSB button toggles between AM/SSB and AM synchronous mode.

A nice feature within the SW band is that you can quickly skip to pre-determined broadcast or HAM bands. In AM and SSB mode you can skip to the desired band by pressing < or > button. The following bands can be selected and indicated in the display:

  • AM (broadcast) bands: 120m, 90m,75m, 60m, 49m, 41m,31m25m, 22m, 19m, 16m, 13m, 11m
  • SSB (HAM) bands: 160m LSB, 80m LSB, 60m, LSB, 40m LSB, 30m USB, 24m USB, 20m USB, 17m USB, 15m USB, 12m USB, 10m USB

Manual Tuning and Step Sizes

There is one (digital) TUNING dial for all tuning operation in any radio band. It only tunes up and down the bands and has no other function. (That makes tuning with the PL-330 so easy compared to the other three radios with multifunction dials.) Depending on the selected band and de-modulation the tuning steps can be altered by the STEP button.

In the LW and MW bands for AM demodulation the step size can be toggled between 1 kHz and 10/9 kHz by short press of the STEP button.

In SW for AM demodulation the step size can be toggled between 1 kHz and 5 kHz by short press of the STEP button.

In the SW band for SSB and synchronous mode the step size can be toggled between 10 Hz, 1 kHz and 5 kHz by short press of the STEP button. My other three portable radios, but only plus or minus 1 kHz of the actual frequency in steps of 10Hz. The PL-330 has continuous fine tuning in SSB; you can tune the entire SW band up and down in steps of 10 Hz. However, I noticed that the step size can change from 10 Hz to 50 Hz in case you turn the TUNING dial fast.

In the FM band the step size can be toggled between 100 kHz and 10 kHz by short press of the STEP button.

Bandwidth Settings

For AM and SSB you can change the bandwidth by pressing the AM BW button, turn the VOLUME dial to the desired bandwidth and press the AM BW button again.

  • LW/MW band, AM bandwidth selection: 2.5 kHz, 3.5 kHz, 5.0, 9.0 kHz kHz
  • SW band, AM bandwidth selection: 2.5 kHz, 3.5 kHz, 5.0 kHz
  • SSB bandwidth selection: 0.5 kHz, 1.2 kHz, 2.2 kHz, 3.0 kHz, 4.0 kHz

Easy Tuning Mode or ETM and Memories

I decided to purchase the PL-330 because of my good and bad experience with the GP5-SSB (PL-365). The PL-365 is super portable and I think ETM is great for occasional shortwave listening. However, without direct frequency entry the GP5-SSAB is a nightmare to operate just now and then. Now the PL-330 has an enhanced version of ETM:  ETM+. No other radio has such a feature and I think ETM+ is fantastic.

ETM + provides 24 ETM banks that are chosen automatically based on the hour. Every hour you can press and hold the ETM button to initiate a (new or renewed) shortwave scan. It will display “E” plus the hour in 24 hours format like E00 to E23 depending on the time. When you quick press the ETM button it recalls the memory bank according to the time. As an example, when you quick press the ETM button at 15:24h it will recall bank E15. Then you can select the memory locations stored in the bank by turning the TUNING dial.

To toggle between ETM and Tuning mode press the ETM button.

In addition to ETM memories, the PL-330 has a lot of memories but lacks alpha tags. I really have difficulties remembering what I put in those memories. I hardly use them. The only one of the four that has alpha tags is the Eton Satellit, that makes things a lot easier.

Memories can be automatically populated in a bank separate from the ETM banks by using the Automatic Tuning and Storage (ATS) function. All four radios have ATS and I think it’s only convenient for FM. It works like:

  1. Press FM/ST. to select FM Band
  2. Press and hold FM/ST. to start ATS
  3. Use the TUNING dial to select from the stored FM stations

To toggle between Memory and Frequency tuning mode simply press the VM/VF button.

Bugs or Features

With the DISPLAY button you can change the upper right part of the display between:

  • Signal strength
  • Clock
  • Preset (only in VM Mode)
  • Alarm time

The display always returns to signal strength after a few seconds. Except if time is chosen with a long press of the DISPLAY button. Nevertheless, the display returns to signal strength after applying any operation, including volume change. I’m not sure if this is a feature or a bug.

When using a headphone and changing volume, sometimes the sound is cut off. By changing the volume again, it comes back. Seems like a bug, not a feature.

I tried AM synchronous mode. It works like on the Satellit: poor. I would recommend to make this mode hidden or make it work well.

Universal Serial Bus

When connecting the radio with an USB cable to a PC, its operating system does not show any connection information. If the radio would have USB logic apart from charging, connection information would have showed up. I assume there is no way to update firmware via USB.

Hidden Features

Without an English manual, and maybe even with a Chinese manual I couldn’t understand all functions.

When the radio is powered off:

  • Press and hold VF/VM shows all items of the display.
  • Press and hold 8 toggles display clock in “HH:MM” and “HH:MM: SS”
  • Press and hold 3 in MW/LW band toggles between internal ferrite and external whip antenna
  • Press and hold Enter shows “dEL ALL”, probably delete all (except what is all)?
  • Press and hold M shows numbers, no idea.
  • Press and hold 0 shows “PO []”, no idea.

There seems to be a combination to show the firmware version.

Missing Features

RDS display would be welcome. Even though the PL-330 shares the radio chip with the D-808 and the Satellit, the PL-330 does not display FM Radio Data System (RDS) on its display. Backlit buttons would be a welcome for operation in the dark. (Although you’ll quickly get used to the button layout.)

Features I didn’t miss

None of the four radios has DAB+ or HD radio. For DAB+ reception I use a Sony XDR-S41D and I can’t receive HD radio in Europe. DAB+ and HD radio could make the radio way more expensive and I prefer good SW performance anyway.

The possibility to upgrade firmware would be convenient. But I understand constraints of costs and the liability of bricking the radio.

The Satellit and D-808 support the Air band (108-135 MHz). That is ok for occasional listening to one single channel, but forget about channel scanning. I have my Bearcat UBC XLT125 VHF/UHF scanner for that purpose.

Conclusion

Like I started, I’m an occasional shortwave listener. I couldn’t really tell the difference in radio performance between the four radios. Of course, the best radio is the one you have with you. And because of its size, easy operation with a single tuning dial and features like ETM+, the PL-330 is probably the best portable shortwave receiver at the moment (for me ?). Thanks to Tecsun!

Jaap de Goede

October 2020


Many thanks, Jaap, for taking the time and care to put together this excellent overview of the Tecsun PL-330! This will serve nicely as an operation manual. Your father would be proud of you! 🙂

Readers: Please note that you can also download Jaap’s PL-330 guide as a printable PDF document by clicking here. The PDF has even better formatting as Jaap has used operation manual styled fonts to indicate button labels and functions. 

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Tecsun PL-990x vs. PL-880: Comparing SSB audio characteristics and pre-production/production PL-990 models

A number of SWLing Post readers have been asking about SSB audio characteristics on the new Tecsun PL-990.

Earlier this week, I took a moment while visiting family to make a few quick comparison videos with the PL-880 outdoors and away from RFI.

As I mention in the videos, there are a lot of cicadas singing in the background and you can also hear a bit of road noise–not ideal for audio, but I had to take advantage of a break in the weather!

You should also note that this isn’t a sensitivity comparison. The radios were pretty close together–if measuring sensitivity, I would have spaced them much further apart. Rather, I hope these videos give you an idea of the audio characteristics in SSB (both CW narrow and voice) and one comparison in AM. If you’re curious about sensitivity and how the PL-990x compares, check out Dan Robinsons initial evaluation.

CW Audio: .5 kHz filter on the 80 meter band

CW Audio: .5 kHz filter on the 30 meter band

SSB audio: 75 meter band

AM Audio: 5 kHz filter WWV 10 MHz

My thoughts

While these videos are far from ideal, they should give you a real-word impression of audio characteristics.

Personally, I think the PL-990x is a much better performer in single sideband. The noise floor is lower, but I think that may have more to do with better filter implementation. I’ve always felt that the PL-880 audio sounds “wider” than the selected filter in the more narrow SSB selections.

In addition, the PL-990x exhibits better SSB stability that’s especially noticeable in CW. The PL-880, at times, almost sounds garbled in comparison.

I also mentioned in the last video that the audio sounds better on the PL-880. I should have qualified that statement a bit better.

In general, yes, the PL-880 audio sounds better because its built-in speaker has slightly better audio fidelity that’s most noticeable when listening to music on the FM band, or a strong local AM station. On shortwave, I feel like I actually prefer the PL-990 audio for all but the strongest stations although I do wish the PL-990 filter could be widened to 9 kHz like the PL-880.

PL-990x (pre-production) vs. PL-990 (production model)

Tecsun Radios Australia reached out and kindly sent me one of their PL-990 production model radios to compare with the PL-990x pre-production model from Anon-Co we’ve been testing up to this point. This has been incredibly helpful as I put together my PL-990 review for the 2021 World Radio TV Handbook.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I feel it can be problematic using a pre-production model radio for review only because there can be differences in quality control when a small number of pre-production units are manufactured compared with a proper first production run (remember this case?).

I’ve only had the production model PL-990 for a few days and most of that time we’ve been dealing with the remnants of hurricane Sally moving through our area dumping torrential rains.

Last night, however, a massive tree fell across our road knocking out power for the better part of 5 hours. This gave me a perfect excuse to start my comparison indoors while rain continued outside.

Based on my comparisons last night, it appears performance is nearly identical between the production and pre-production models. I’ve still more testing to do, but my initial impressions are most positive. Very happy quality appears to be consistent.

Many thanks again to Tecsun Radios Australia for making this comparison possible.

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Tecsun PL-990x Initial Assessment

SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, and I have been evaluating a pre-production model of the Tecsun PL-990x portable shortwave radio–the same model which will be soon sold by Anon-Co.

Dan has just completed his initial assessment and included a long-format video. Many thanks to Dan for sharing the following:


Tecsun PL-990x:  An Initial Assessment

by Dan Robinson

Recently, Thomas Witherspoon posted the first photos of the Tecsun PL-990x – we both received units from Anon-co in Hong Kong for testing.

I was able to spend some time outside my house here in Maryland, running the 990x and comparing it to the older receiver by Tecsun, the PL-880.

Tecsun undertook a thorough re-design of the PL-880, which among other things was known for its superb sound through a large speaker.

The 880 was available both on its own, or in a hard-case kit that also included (or includes assuming these are still purchasable) a separate Tecsun-branded solid state recording device, spare knobs and other accessories including Li-ion batteries.

So, the long-awaited PL-990, which we have been seeing in YouTube videos being tested by various individuals who purchased pre-production versions from Asian sites such as AliExpress, is finally here – or will be in coming weeks and months.

Those who view my videos know that I like to do fairly long hands-on tests of receivers, and this is no exception, at about 50 minutes.  My test did not include medium wave or FM, focusing only on shortwave performance and using only the telescopic whip antenna.

Throughout the video, I do put the 990x up against the older PL-880, which had the well-known issue of poorly-implemented synchronous detection (SYNC was not an official feature in the older receiver).

IMPORTANT NOTE:   On the 990x, hitting the “4” key while the radio is powered on activates DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) which then activates auto-bandwidth switching, a feature I found quite annoying in the PL-880 and would no doubt find just as annoying in the 990x.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want bandwidths auto-switching on their own.

I always tell people who come to me for advice about radios that you don’t always have to have the latest receiver to enjoy what’s left of shortwave.

I am a big fan of classic older portables such as the SONY ICF SW55s, 7600GRs, SW100s, SW-07s, SW-1000Ts, SW-77s, etc along with other classics such as the Panasonic RF-B65.  I own one or more of most of these – they’re a joy to use assuming they are in good condition.

One more thing – I did not compare the 990x to the Tecsun S-8800.  I think they are really different radios – the 8800 has that gorgeous remote control and fantastic audio . . . I really don’t put it in the same category as the 880/990s or even the 600 series Tecsuns.

I will leave extensive tests of the 990x on medium wave and FM to others – there are already quite a few YouTube demonstrations online showing this.  In the tuning I did on MW and FM, the radio did seem quite sensitive.  I noted that whereas the 9 kHz bandwidth is not visible on shortwave, it is on MW.

Here is my list of high points and low points for the 990x.  Since this receiver, and the still-to-be-released H-501, may in fact be the last we will ever see from Tecsun, it’s up to the individual to make a judgment as to whether to buy.

PL-990x High Points

  • A thorough physical re-design of the old PL-880
  • Tecsun has mostly fixed the problem with synchronous mode which is now a regular as opposed to a hidden feature.
  • Selectivity options are still excellent.
  • Calibration function retained (but see below)
  • Audio is fairly full and powerful.
  • Sensitivity seems good
  • Tecsun has added mp3 play capability and a microSD slot
  • Tecsun has added bluetooth capability (NOTE:  This is activated by pressing the RADIO/MP3 key in powered off state, and then toggling Bluetooth on or off with the PLAY/PAUSE button).
  • Tuning and other knobs remain of high quality as on the PL-880
  • Bandwidths given their own separate buttons
  • Line out retained and hidden feature can adjust line out level
  • Claimed “Triple Conversion” in AM mode
  • Timer functions
  • ATS (automatic station tuning) retained
  • Nice faux-leather case retained

PL-990x negatives:

  • Re-design appears to have come at expense of speaker real estate.
  • Synchronous mode improved, but there still seems to be some distortion which is more noticeable on some frequencies and in some reception situations than others.
  • PL-880’s wide AM bandwidth of 9 kHz is no more at least on SW, but it does appear when using MW.
  • Sensitivity seems good BUT in some situations, PL-880 sounded better and seemed to bring in stations better
  • MicroSD capability does not provide recording from broadcasts (likely due to copyright issues)
  • Method for re-calibrating radio is puzzling – more information needed on this
  • Birdies are present
  • Top element of telescopic antenna is VERY thin, vulnerable to bending and breaking
  • Number keys seem to be not as good as they could be – the white paint on the keys is certain to fade over time.  On my test unit part of the “W” on the MW/LW key was already beginning to disappear.

Selectivity comparison of the PL-990x and PL-880

PL-990x

Selectivity Options on SW:

2.3, 3.5, 5.0, 6.0

Selectivity Options LSB/USB:

0.5, 1.2, 2.3, 3.0, 4.0

Selectivity Options LW/MW:

2.3, 3.5, 5.0, 9.0

PL-880

Selectivity Options SW/LW/MW:

2.3, 3.5, 5, 9

Selectivity Options LW/MW:

0.5, 1.2, 2.3, 3.0, 4.0

Video


Many thanks, Dan, for sharing your initial review with us. As always, your expertise as an experienced DXer is incredibly valuable. 

I’ve tested every function on the PL-990 save some of the hidden features (yes, there will be hidden features). Dan and I are both trying to sort out the calibration sequence so that when these units hit the market, there’ll be a documented procedure in place. 

We’ve been comparing notes along the way and are in agreement on all of the major points with this radio. Still more testing to do, but updated with be posted here with the tag: Tecsun PL-990x


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George reviews the new Tecsun PL-990

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, George Joachim, who shares the following review of the Tecsun PL-990.

AS George points out, the PL-990 in the following review is not the “export” model Anon-Co will eventually offer for sale later this year. It might be nearly identical in every respect, but at time of posting Tecsun is addressing some final firmware updates the the “export” version prior to starting a full first production run. As we learn more about the various versions of the PL-990 in the wild–compare serial numbers, etc.– we will eventually sort out any nuances between versions.

George purchased this PL-990 on AliExpress and I am incredibly grateful to read his review of this model:


Review of the Tecsun PL-990

by George Joachim

Introduction

The Tecsun PL 990 is one of the three new radios offered by Tecsun and according to the news from the company these may be the last developed.

The other two radios are the Tecsun H-501 and the PL-330. The H-501 is the largest with dual speakers and the PL-990 is of a similar size to the PL-880, PL-680, PL-660 and PL-600. The PL-330 is the smallest and is similar to the PL-310ET and PL-380.

The Tecsun PL-990 is a medium sized portable multi-function radio. It has the following features:

  • Shortwave (SW)
  • Medium Wave (AM)
  • Frequency Modulation (FM)
  • SSB (LSB and USB)
  • Bluetooth connectivity (BT)
  • MP3 playback from a microSD port
  • Clock and two Timers with Alarms
  • Auto Sleep
  • powered by a single 18650 rechargeable 3.7V Lithium Ion Battery, unbranded and supplied.

The radio is a refinement of the PL-880 with styling similar to the PL-680. It is matte black with a hint of grey, finished in a quality plastic case and it is ergonomic with a good weight and feel, just like the PL-880.

Background

This is my fourth portable radio of this size. I had owned the analogue Sony ICF-7601 back in the day and then the PL-660 and PL-880. The Sony was destroyed by me doing naughty electronic experiments and both the PL-660 and PL-880 were gifted to my family members.

Having no such radio, I considered the purchase of a new PL-880. I had contacted Ms Anna from the Anon Co. in HK and she was very helpful and also mentioned that Tecsun is developing a couple of new radios, but these are not yet available. This got me interested in the PL-990 and the H-501. I had also considered the H-501, because I liked the fact that it has two speaker sets, however the radio did seem a big bulky for my needs. I have a few desktop radios, but I needed something to be on my lap or by the bedside. Usually I fiddle with these portable radios lying on my chest until I find something nice to listen to then let it play on auto sleep until it puts me to sleep. I am sure some of you guys do this too. I imagine the H-501 would be a bit big for this.

After reading articles on the SWLing Post and despite the warnings about Pilot run versions and Chinese versions, I decided to risk a purchase from AliExpress. This has been my one and only purchase on AliExpress so far.

Purchase

My radio was supplied by a company called Li Jia Shops in AliExpress. It cost a steep US$400 and US$157 DHL shipping. Totally expensive and risky in my opinion, but I am known to be reckless with my online purchases.? Besides, I wanted a new toy!

As this was my first purchase from AliExpress, I was a bit apprehensive, as I mainly use eBay. Also buying electronic items from China is a bit risky. One may end up not getting the item, or getting it after some significant delay. As you all know, electronic items exported from China is the largest electronics export operation in the world, so there is congestion in logistics and Covid-19 also adds to that. Selecting DHL to ship the item was very expensive, but I believe necessary. Waiting for an expensive electronic device for two months is a painful experience, at least from my perspective. Using DHL took a mere 12 days. The main delay originated from the shippers. They give the shipment information to DHL well in advance, but they do not actually take the item to DHL unless it suits their facilitators who they assign. The shipment shows as shipped and DHL status is ‘shipment information received’, but in reality the item is still with the shippers. Once it does actually get to DHL, then it is quite fast. Usually the shippers are located in the Shenzhen area and DHL is in Hong Kong. AliExpress will not release the payment unless the buyer confirms receipt of the item as described, so there is some safety for the buyer.

Overall, I was satisfied with the purchase and shipping process. But it was expensive and it was risky. It would be better to approach Anon Co in HK for your purchases rather than AliExpress and Bangood, but ultimately it is the buyer’s decision. For the English Export Version you must wait a bit I think.

The Export Version, the Chinese Version and the Pilot Run Version

This aspect is a bit confusing. From what I understood, and I could well be wrong, the versions are as follows:

Pilot run: this has the buttons as TIME DISPLAY and ALARM (this is also slightly cheaper on AliExpress and Banggood)
Chinese version: TIME TIMER A and TIMER B, but with Chinese manuals (what I have acquired)
Export Version: TIME TIMER A and TIMER B but with English manuals. (there may be further changes / improvements, as these units are still not available)

I am not sure about the firmware. My unit is presumably a later Chinese Version. And everything works properly as per the Firmware. The serial number of my unit indicates a possible manufacture date of July 2020, although this could be wrong.

Review

The review will be based on the different functions of the radio.

FM reception

In the UAE we are blessed with several English language FM radio stations with good music and limited advertisements. Each station caters to particular tastes, such as 90s music, modern and classic hits. Reproduction was crisp and in full bodied stereo. The speaker is powerful and not unlike the speaker of the PL-880.

MW reception

I do not usually listen to AM or MW. However, the radio does a good job receiving these stations with a deep sound and minimal crackling.

SW reception

Shortwave is still out there folks, although its variety and abundance is greatly reduced. I do receive quite a few broadcasts using the telescopic antenna. Activity is concentrated around the 16m band, the 31m band and the 49m band, although occasional broadcasts can also be found in the 22m, 19m and 41m bands. The SYNC function holds on to weak broadcasts and makes them intelligible. I am sure that the Radio would do a commendable job if one could use a time machine to take it back to the SW hay-days of the 80s and 90s. I wonder if they have any time machines up for sale in AliExpress? 🙂

SSB Reception

Right out of the box I was able to fine tune into 14,182.10 kHz on the USB and hear HAMS ‘doing their thang’. It was excellent and far better than what similar attempts resulted in my previous Tecsun radios. I do think that Tecsun has improved the SSB reception with this receiver. I am not a very capable SSB chaser, but if there is something SSB out there, the PL-990 should able to pull it in. One needs to know where and when to tune and luck also plays a role.

LW Reception

Yes it is there, but no, I have never heard anything in there using the PL-990 and all my previous radios. I do wonder if submarines transmit in the LW band? I don’t know.

MP3 Playback

A lot of listeners are not interested in MP3 listening, but I am. Especially with SW being so sparse nowadays. MP3 was a feature missed from previous Tecsun radios. I enjoy compiling a list of favourite tracks and listening to them, while engaged in a barbecue or in car maintenance or cleaning. I am also a train modeler and like to listen to MP3s while running my trains. Tecsun has even supplied a Sandisk micro SD card of 16GB with various Chinese and international tracks, which I think was nice of them.

Bluetooth

There is no Bluetooth button, but by pressing the RADIO/MP3 button an indication will come on the display as BT. The radio can then be conveniently paired with a mobile phone to transfer the audio from a you tube clip or similar to the radio, although I wouldn’t see the need for that. I am not sure if files can be transferred to the radio this way, I believe the function is only for audio playback.

Presentation and packaging

Much like the PL-880, the radio comes superbly packaged. The cardboard box functions as a glossy display of the radio and its features. Inside there are foam holders and there is a sturdy grey plastic toolbox case. In the toolbox case there is the radio, within a nylon bag inside its light brown faux leather pouch. The radio as well as the pouch have a carrying strap. In the toolbox there is a black foam case that contains:

  • A blue 18650 3.7 V Lithium Ion Battery
  • A long wire antenna in its real
  • A short(ish) charging cable
  • A UK style plug adaptor
  • A Chinese style charger with 2 USB outputs
  • A Chinese language operation manual
  • A Poster containing the map of the world and country Radio codes
  • On the other side of the Poster is a detailed view of the PL-990 with illustrations in Chinese

Batteries

The radio uses one Li-Ion type 18650 3.7V battery. The included type is a blue generic unbranded type, I would have preferred a Tecsun-branded battery. I have a couple of vape equipment batteries –Golisi S30, which I believe are superior to the unbranded battery. (No, I am not a Vaper).

Concluding Remarks

The latest Tecsun offering is a great conclusion to their series of multi-function portable radios. It offers some advantages over the PL-880, such as:

  • Styling
  • MP3
  • Much improved SSB reception
  • Superb FM reproduction
  • Bluetooth

Apart from the above I don’t see a compelling reason to acquire the radio unless, SSB or MP3 is important for you. Or like me, you just must have the latest.

Score

Style: 90%
FM: 100%
SW: 90% SYNC available
SSB: 95%
MW: 85%
LW: 80%
Battery Life: 70% for the provided battery 8/10 for externally sourced batteries
Display: 70% (the display is good, but it hasn’t really changed from previous displays)
Buttons: 85% Sturdy and precise, no wobbly buttons here.
Dials: 90% hard and precise with excellent indentations
Ports: 90% strong a tight female ports with protection plugs
Packaging: 95% anything you could wish for.
Documentation: 100% for Chinese speakers
Antenna: 60% normal telescopic antenna, should be a bit more shiny IMO.
Stability: 70% Stands well and has the rear bracket as the PL-880, however, would be easy to snap if pushed.
Sensitivity: 95% if it is there it will receive it and improve the signal over listening time.

Overall Review Score:
85.3%

Final thoughts:
Go get one, if you must, but better wait for the full export version.

George Joachim
11 AUG 2020


Many thanks, George, for sharing your review of the PL-990!

So far, the PL-990 sounds like it has iterative improvements over the PL-880 which is, I suppose, what I would expect. The PL-880 is a great portable, so I believe even minor performance upgrades–especially in terms of synchronous detection–could be very beneficial to some SWLs.  And thanks for taking the deep-dive and grabbing one of the models on AliExpress! It’ll be interesting to compare notes once the “export” PL-990 is released.

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