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A detailed comparison and review of the C.Crane CCRadio 2E

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post and review:


Do I really need this radio? A very belated review of the C.Crane CCRadio 2E

by 13dka

Ever since my relapse into radioholism a few years ago, I had a craving for a top-notch medium wave radio. This became even more of an urge when Germany abandoned the AM BC band just like many other European countries, leaving a band full of new opportunities but little left to receive during the day, at least with all the average portables I own. When checking the options, there’s no way around Jay Allen’s website if you want to know what’s best on MW, and I learned how little choices there are on the summit of the “5-star”-radios. Over the years I kept looking for an RF-2200/DR-22 et al but they are few and far between over here, and buying a dusty old radio with an unknown history, likely in need of repairs, restoration and alignment, for an insane premium price (up to 400€!) from a stranger was not exactly a pleasant prospect for me.

The CC Radio 2E and its predecessors, successors and siblings are the only radios in the topmost 5-star bunch that can be bought new and at a reasonable price. Sadly, the best product for the European market is only a 4 1/2 star radio and I realized that I have to buy a radio clearly made for the USA only, and accept the parts that don’t make any sense over here (120V, 10kHz AM spacing only, WX band). The problem: getting one shipped to Germany was rather complicated until Amazon.com made that much easier last year.

Performance comparisons

AM Broadcast Band

After 2 weeks of gleeful anticipation it finally arrived last month and I rushed to the mall to buy plenty of ‘D’-cells, then to the dike to answer my own, most pressing question: “how much better is a top tier Jay-Allen-5-star radio than my average 3-star radios anyway?”. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 2E, partly because the videos I could find compared it with other good AM radios, or they didn’t compare it at all and sometimes the radio didn’t even get turned on. Nothing really related to the radios I have, after all they represent a whole bunch of popular radios people currently own with a similar (around average) AM performance, like the Tecsun PL-nnn, Eton Executive Satellit or Field, or ICF-7600, Zenith TO/R-7000 to name a few older types – and I was looking forward to fill that gap!

Sensitivity

Spoiler alert: the CCR2E’s sensitivity obviously bests all of my other portables. Duh! It should, because my example of the PL-660 isn’t good on AM at all, the XHDATA D-808 [read my full review here] is a 2-1/2 star radio and the Tecsun S-8800 [read my full review here] is a 3-star radio on the “Jay Allen rating scale”, even though I’d rate my examples of these radios the other way around – my D-808 has a tiny sensitivity edge over my S-8800.

So how much better is it? Here’s a cellphone video letting the radios speak for themselves, alas with plenty of wind noise (sorry, it’s usually windy here at the coast!). Make sure you watch it past the somewhat unspectacular first minute:

Click here to view on YouTube.

I hope you’ll agree that this is pretty impressive, and that’s the kind of results I was hoping for. There’s also a simple way of quantifying how much better it is in numbers: if I tune across the band in the afternoon and note all frequencies that clearly show signs of a station (not counting how well it comes in, just the pure existence of some signal that can be identified as “broadcast station”), the D-808 has 11 frequencies populated, the CCR2E has 25. That’s more than twice as much, the 2E has twice as many stars, sounds about right. Let’s also keep in mind that the XHDATA or the Tecsun represent “average”, “serviceable” or “decent” AM radios that are quite satisfactory for most people, and yet there is apparently a whole world between an average radio and the top of the heap. To be honest, I didn’t expect how dramatic the difference would turn out.

That made me curious how my battered old Grundig Satellit 400 would do, after all it was always a tad better than the other portables I have (Jay Allen might rate it 3-1/2 stars), and MW is the only thing in it that still really works. I decided to buy it the last bunch of batteries of its life and took it to the dike:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Evidently the Grundig is a bit more sensitive than my other average radios but without much benefit. Stations with some appreciable level turn out a bit better but it fails at the same stations as the other radios and the C.Crane unsurprisingly runs circles around the Grundig as well. The first and the last station recorded in this video demonstrate that nicely – my favorite low power benchmark station (1602 kHz) transmitting with 100W from a moored old pirate radio ship was just making it over the noise on the S-8800 in the previous video. The Satellit picks it up OK but with more noise. The last station is the BBC transmitter in Redmoss (Aberdeen, Scotland), which is pretty crystal clear on the CCR2E while the Satellit has only little remnants of modulation and the D-808 is at least on par with the Satellit there. That station pretty much didn’t exist on the S-8800 in the previous video either and I wish I’d know why this example turns out so extreme, why the 2E and that station like each other so much.

The closest stations in these videos are in The Netherlands, 150+ miles away and have only 100W, most of the UK stations are between 350 and 420 miles away (most of them not very powerful either), Scottish stations are around 500 miles from here and the Redmoss 2kW BBC transmitter on 1449 kHz with its beautiful signal is 490 miles. Given that this is daytime groundwave reception with no help from an external antenna, I consider this pretty darn impressive. But keep in mind that a part of the impressive results is due to the low noise location and the conductive North Sea water being only 50m from my position behind the dike, then stretching most, sometimes all of the distance between the radio and the transmitters, which definitely helps groundwave propagation a lot.

To put the benefit in some more practical metrics – my average radios pick up at most 3-4 stations in a halfway sufficient quality for continuous listening during the day, the 2E makes that at least 8-10 stations. While sensitivity is playing a somewhat lesser role at night, it’s pure fun to browse the band and discover stations that didn’t stick out of the noise enough in the past. It is undeniably an exceptionally sensitive and stunning AM receiver.

Selectivity, overloading resilience

The 2E has a wisely chosen single bandwidth more on the narrow side. Given the intended purpose of this radio, I think one can live very well with the “one size fits all” setting and the intelligibility remains excellent. At night when the band is getting crowded even over here, the 2E has absolutely no trouble separating the channels.

Other reviews mentioned that its dynamic range may not be sufficient to cope with local blowtorches and I’m sure that this is true. I don’t have local blowtorches, but I tried coupling wire fences between 200 and 1000m (600-3,000′) to the loopstick antenna, and it could cope with those arrangements better than the S-8800 and the D-808: at night, both of the latter present some roar between the stations on the lower end of the band (which is of course mostly intermodulation products). Both radios then need some looser coupling from the coupling coil, on the the S-8800 I can also lose the preamp stage (“local” switch) to mitigate this, the D-808 can’t do that and has the most problems with images, for example clearly discernible images from the top of the NDB band just 100 kHz lower in the same band.

The CCR2E stays pretty quiet on the few frequencies the fence antennas leave unpopulated. In other words, its frontend may not be as good as the one in some vintage receivers, but it still takes more of a beating than e.g. the Tecsun S-8800 with its improved (over the PL-880) frontend.

AGC

Lacking really strong signals, I can’t comment much on all of the AGC action but I too think it doesn’t pull up weak signals as much as other radios. That makes the 2E appear even less noisy between stations, but being desperate to catch some transatlantic DX before sunrise (yawn!) despite the season being over, I found myself a few times with the volume knob turned up all the way to the right stop on some quiet channels, while the band was filled elsewhere with considerable signals from that 3,000′ fence. The time constants are more on the slow-ish side, thunderstorm impulses make the signal dive away for half a second and it seems to struggle with weaker stations that come with a fast fading. SDRs with fully adjustable AGC characteristics sure have spoiled me.

FM Broadcast Band

Sensitivity

FM sensitivity is excellent in all of the portables I have (S-8800, D-808, PL-660) and the CCR2E can match their performance, there are generally only very little differences between all those. As mentioned in my S-8800 review, I found its sensitivity can’t fully match the PL-660 and the D-808, even though it employs the same DSP chip type as the D-808. I briefly compared the CCR2E with the S-8800 on FM (simply because both are big radios, and I guess I wanted the 2E to win this too).

Comparing portables on FM is a bit of hit and miss though – you need to find borderline weak stations to begin with, and then you have to make sure each radio’s whip antenna is adjusted for maximum signal, and you need to put one radio at a time on the table, because otherwise the whip antennas can interact with each other and make it hard to find the optimal antenna postion/tilt/rotation. When I tried the CCR2E at the dike, a complete lack of tropo conditions limited the number of test stations a lot, and the remaining stations were not really weak enough to find a clear winner among the two. Both radios were on par most times, sometimes it felt like once the 2E gets a bit of signal it will present it a tad less noisy than the S-8800.

But then a very borderline faint Dutch station on 88.1 MHz made it over the North Sea with much noise on the S-8800. No matter what I tried with the 2E (antenna gymnastics, raising, repositioning, lifting up and tilting the whole radio and swearing at it), it picked up nothing at all. That looked much like the 2E is actually less sensitive than I thought, but as it turned out later there is a much happier explanation for this:

Selectivity

Since the day I got it, I had the impression that the 2E has a narrower FM filter than my other radios. Tuning 50 kHz next to a weak station makes it almost disappear and 200 kHz off a local station gave me much hope for letting a weaker station pass unharmed. Now when I checked the station listings for my Dutch mystery station on 88.1 MHz it turned out to be very unlikely that I received the station listed there for 88.1 – “Radio 10” in Hilversum has only 3 kW and is a bit too far away, without any tropo help anyway. What’s way more likely is that I actually heard the much closer 60 kW “NPO 2” transmitter in Smilde on 88.0, that is, its upper sideband on 88.1. To understand this you need to know that Dutch (and AFAIK French) FM stations like to plow their channels with some rather hefty FM deviation unknown in Germany. The wider filter of the S-8800 picked up so much of that extra-wide deviation that I could identify the language. I could not hear the station on its actual frequency 88.0 MHz either, because a much stronger local station on 87.9 was whacking it.

The CCR2E just didn’t pick up any of the surplus deviation from 100 kHz lower, which is a quite striking evidence for a narrower filter (<200kHz), and this might also explain why it appears more sensitive when it picks up some weak station – a narrower filter means a better SNR on FM. I did not read Jay Allen’s “FM shootout” (where the 2E is the topmost radio as well) before tried the radio and I’m not sure yet if I’d put it above all other radios too. But it’s very safe to say that the 2E is likely about as sensitive as all of the contenders in the very crowded 5-star class in the “FM shootout” and its selectivity might be giving it an advantage over other radios. Too bad such a good performer on such a short antenna doesn’t have an external FM antenna input and RD(B)S.

2 Meter – VHF and Weather Band, SSI

Short story, there is no NOAA WX band in Europe, and my local 2m repeaters don’t even seem to transmit their ID every 10 minutes anymore like they were supposed to do in ye olde days, maybe they’re gone. Analog VHF ham radio has ceased to exist around here and if we’d have some catastrophic event, all a 2m receiver could do to help you is emitting some soothing white noise.

I will use this section to talk about the signal strength indicator on the CCR2E instead. With 12 discrete bars it has a better resolution than e.g. average portables, which often try to look like they had even more bars but actually have 5 sections of 4-bar groups, in other words they just have 5 real bars. The better resolution of the 2E is certainly helpful, for example when you pair it up with some kind of tuned external antenna – but it seems to indicate levels with some delayed response and that ruins it a bit.

Sound

The 2E has a quite satisfying bass and treble response for music listening on FM (if you turn up the controls). It has the biggest speaker of all of my portables and creates some audio that rather reminds me of a small home stereo than a portable radio. However it doesn’t have the power to really do “loud” and the bass may run out of breath and distort pretty soon on some music styles.

For a few days I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it didn’t put that much of a smile in my face like the S-8800 or my old Satellit 400 do, and I remembered the quite controversial ratings of the 2E’s sound I had read. I felt that it doesn’t have that special “big portable” in-your-face bass sound my other big radios have, a sound that was burned into my eardrums by all the big Grundigs and Nordmendes I had since when I was a teenager.

The answer might be quite simple though: the 2E has a much wider frequency response than those radios, it actually reaches down lower and the treble range is also extended. What we (OK, at least I) perceive as that “warm” and “big” sound in those old portables is actually “pseudo-bass”. Pseudo-bass is a psychoacoustic effect that tricks our brain to perceive louder and fuller bass when actually only the first harmonics (typically one octave higher) of bass instruments are heard, for example because the speaker is too small to actually render the fundamentals, with the “bass” tone control boosting the harmonics instead. The 2E sounds more like a small 2-way hi-fi speaker and tries to do “real bass” rather than pseudo-bass, which is much more demanding in many ways. Pseudo-bass is also much less depending on automatic loudness correction at low volumes, so the 2E seems to lack bass at “bedroom” volumes sometimes, compared to the Tecsun or the Grundig. Though once a station plays the right music and the 2E is turned up a bit, it’s getting quite obvious that it can sound even bigger than those other radios.

On AM the CCR2E can even produce too much bass that needs to be dialed back: like talk radio dominates the US AM band, its EU pendant is still reigned by pop/rock stations (usually employing lots of signal processing for extra-fat sound). On those stations, the CCR2E can be bassy to a degree where the bass is almost sounding detached from the rest of the signal, as if it’s coming from a different, stronger station. It’s a more boomy, “wet” or maybe a hint less “musical” bass sound, this is rather a wordy description of impressions and not a complaint though. It just doesn’t massage my auditory cortex the same way the other radios do, which is of course a matter of taste and “getting used to it”.

The tone controls are modern and efficient like the ones you find on the S-8800 – compared to my old Satellit, they have a steeper roll-off at well-chosen cutoff frequencies so you can eliminate just the hissy top end in the treble range or remove all that rumble below 200Hz, leaving the midrange in between untouched. On the positive end of the knob range, they just add deep bass and a nice clarity on the top, as if the 2E had a tweeter.

So it does sound great and I can see now why the successor radio, the C.Crane Radio 3 got upgraded with Bluetooth. But the 2E is a great powered speaker as well, it has an AUX input radio nuts can use to boost the audio of an SDR connected to a laptop or a small SW portable to the same level of fidelity. The manual claims that the 2E has a battery endurance of 250 hours, which would mean it should serve all day for at least a whole week as an awesome powered speaker for your other radios out in the woods, and it even might become the best speaker (with very useful tone controls!) in your home shack. This works so well that I deem this a serious (and perhaps often unconsidered) asset.

Quirks

One thing I don’t like a bit is a strange scratchy narrowband distortion that seems to come up within a certain level range. It’s independent from the station, the frequency or the noise on it (and not to be confused with multipath distortion), it’s showing up across the band and is solely depending on the input signal as it seems. It doesn’t affect stronger signals (so there shouldn’t be anything overloading) but if a station hits a certain low signal level it’s quite permanent and also quite disturbing, if there’s fading the noise will come and go when it passes through that level range. The only way to mitigate that prickly “frying pan” sound is turning the treble knob all the way down. I don’t know if that’s a bad case of demodulator distortion or some AGC related malfunction and for some reason beyond my understanding (strong out-of-band signals playing a role maybe?) this does not always happen. Still a bit of a fly in the ointment.

A rather harmless little quirk I (among others) found is happening when I recall preset stations on AM: under unknown circumstances the 2E will not tune the antenna properly so I need to change the frequency and tune back to get full signal. I assume that the coil tuner setting is saved with the preset, and when the environment of the loopstick changes (like when you saved the preset at a different place), the saved tuner setting does not fit anymore. Retuning, then saving the preset again should fix that.

Rather fast fading can have a similar effect on the tuning process, if I tune and retune to such a station, I may end up with different signal meter readings and volume every time – it seems that the integration time window used to automatically tune to peak signal can be too short in relation to the fading speed and that may lead to a less than optimal match of the coil. Admittedly, tuning to peak signal on fickle stations like that is just as hard for a human being. Since the tuner seems to rely much on locking onto a carrier, offset tuning (e.g. like DXers often do to optimize reception of a station with a strong channel neighbor) may not work as well as with regular receivers, signal and volume can drop quite dramatically when tuning 1 kHz to the side, and it sounds like this is bad for the SNR too.

Here’s a video demonstrating these issues:

Click here to view on YouTube.

My example of the 2E has a “birdie” between 99.7 and 100.0 MHz, which luckily doesn’t make any noise on FM. It doesn’t seem to harm reception much (if at all), I can still get a rather weak Danish station on 99.9 MHz but I can’t tell what effect it has on stations on the other affected frequencies.

External AM antennas

This is not a quirk, it’s rather a design decision I deem not working anymore in many (if not most) of today’s homes, or simply an oversight: the CCR2E is yet another radio that has screw terminals for an external AM antenna but no means to take the internal loopstick out of the circuit. This is not a problem as long you are using radio and antenna in an electrically quiet and interference-free environment, in which you may not even need an external antenna because the CCR2E is such a good performer. If you want to use one anyway, the 2E will benefit only from antennas with considerable gain, very lossy designs that trade gain for low noise and high SNR (like BOG, LOG, EWE…) may not even leave a clue of their existence on the 2E.

If you live in the city, in an apartment building, a crowded neighborhood or just a modern home and want to let your family use computers, appliances, switching-type wall warts and so on while you listen to distant stations, an external antenna may be the only way to enjoy the radio’s performance but even an antenna with lots of gain will not help getting rid of the hash and noise of the digital world. It may increase the signal a bit to improve the SNR, but the noise level will stay the same because it’s being picked up and added back by the internal loopstick. I think that any ambitious modern receiver should take the ever-worsening noise situation into consideration. Paradoxically, back in the 50s and 60s local noise was much less of an issue but a lot of radios had switchable loopsticks. They were all tabletops though and to be fair, I know only one portable radio with that feature (and that’s a scanner which sucks on AM).

The hardware

First off, using this radio is generally very straightforward. The only thing I needed to learn from the manual was how to keep the frequency on display, which is only possible with newer versions of the firmware. My radio was manufactured in January 2018 and it has this option, plus an updated version of the printed manual, now describing that (and the antenna calibration) procedure. (Just hold the “Clock” button, then immediately hit the ‘1’ memory button on top. The radio should emit a beep and from then on the display will show the frequency.)

You may want to think twice about buying the “Titanium” version of the radio. The product photos on Amazon were showing the radio with somewhat different and darker hues between grey and champaign, so I spontaneously decided to not buy yet another black radio. What I pulled out of the box was blindingly silvery and yelling “plastic” though, so don’t let any pics fool you – “Titanium” is just a fancy name for the same old standard “light grey-ish/silvery plastic” seen on a billion products from the Far East in the past 50 years. A matter of taste of course.

If it wasn’t obvious to everyone already – this bulky radio is more like a “portable tabletop”, it’s only little more “portable” than a big old Transoceanic or Grundig Satellit with a broken handle. New radios get lighter and lighter even when they get big (like the S-8800), the CCR2E brings gravity back into the game, so on the plus side it will stay put on the table when you push a button, or when there’s an earthquake.

While it does radiate some quality feel (nothing is loose, wobbly or rattling), the tuning knob is the exception: it has a tiny bit of play and it feels and sounds like it had a former life as a hairspray can cap. The stepping/rasterization of the encoder resonates in that cap and if you want to tune to a distant frequency on the dial you just need to say “rien ne vas plus” before you turn the knob to create a great acoustic impression of a roulette table. On the other hand, the solid steps of the encoder causing that sound are very precise and the sound helps me counting the 9 steps I need for hitting the next channel in the European AM BC band. Some reviews also complained about the flimsy FM whip and I used to think the D-808’s whip is flimsy, but this one has a top segment with a diameter of one millimeter, the antenna is the shortest of all my radios and looks exactly like the whips I’ve seen on most of the cheapest (<$20) radios I came across. But that doesn’t affect its function of course – that is, while it lasts.

Now that’s even more a matter of taste, but I just can’t leave the design uncommented. I’m still undecided whether it looks more like a hi-tech humidifier than a radio or not, luckily it says “Radio” in red letters on the speaker grille but still… I don’t know if it’s the complete lack of “retro style” and its sober, “senior-friendly” approach or just the color – whichever way I look at it, it ain’t the most handsome radio of the pack. I think I can get over it, provided I never watch any of Thomas’ videos featuring his gorgeous RF-2200s again. So all it can do to win my heart is working well, that is, very, very well. Let’s see if it succeeded:

Summary/Verdict

The C.Crane CC Radio 2E is an extraordinarily sensitive radio on AM and certainly among the best on FM. It puts some effort in picking up AM stations that most other portables won’t and that’s what it really does as advertised. Like any other radio (so that’s not Bob Crane’s fault like some disappointed Amazon reviews allude), it will not be able to do that in noisy, interference-infested environments and not even an external antenna might help much with that, because the internal loopstick stays on. In an electrically quiet environment though, it’s nothing short of marvelous.

It has a great sound and to my own surprise, I found its qualities as a powered (also long-lasting battery-powered) speaker for other radios a serious asset. It’s simple and easy to use but that also means it lacks all advanced features that would help in difficult, “hardcore DX” reception cases. With its bulky form factor, the built-in power supply, the 4 D-cells, the weight that all brings and the lack of a proper handle, it might not fit into everyone’s understanding of “portable” and its specs are rather meant to cater the needs of American homes. However, importing it to Europe can make sense even with the extra taxes and shipping (which means a 40% markup in Germany), at least for AM radio lovers who want top performance and avoid the problems vintage portables can bring. It’s at any rate a sensible choice if your favorite station is somewhat beyond the range of average radios, if you just want more stations to choose from, or if you enjoy general daytime groundwave DX, all without making an external antenna a necessity.

Of course the CCR2E is not the mythical “perfect radio” either. The muting and automatic loop-tuning when browsing the band isn’t great, it has a few quirks, a flimsy whip antenna and a tuning knob with a cheap feel to it but then again, it’s not an overly expensive radio either and its price/performance ratio is certainly appropriate and attractive. It may not be much to look at but I like it anyway because – among all the all-rounder radios I have – it’s the specialist doing that one thing really well: making AM radio feel like it used to be.

So do I really need this radio? Maybe I don’t, but now that I’ve learned how excellent it really is, I know that I really, really wanted it!


Wow!  What a brilliant review! I absolutely love the details you fit into your evaluation and your wit, too (especially that bit about the tuning knob possibly having “a former life as a hairspray can cap”–!). Ha ha!

No doubt the CCRadio 2E is a solid performer and among the best AM portables currently available. While the CCRadio 2E has been replaced by the CCRadio 3, many 2E models can still be found on Amazon (note this is an affiliate link), and eBay (partner link).

The CCRadio 2E is still available new on C. Crane’s website, but you should also check out C. Crane’s Orphan page for the occasional discounted unit. 

Thanks again for a thoroughly enjoyable and informative radio review! I, for one, can’t wait to read your next review! 

Click here to read 13dka’s previous posts and reviews.


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XHDATA D-808 and C.Crane CC Skywave SSB size comparison

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who left the following comment on my post about coastal SWLing:

Nice weather and pics! Hmmm… it wasn’t so obvious to me before but it looks like the Skywave SSB is even smaller than the D-808. Now I’m jealous! ?

I find it pretty amazing is that just a few wavelengths away from the water, the signals seem to be tapering off a bit already, so standing IN the water and holding a portable is certainly getting the absolute best out of the radio. When I moved here (to the coast) I took a portable with a relatively stable station tuned in and drove to my beach listening post with it, then I headed back home right away. It seemed pretty obvious how the proximity to the water gradually improved the signals but of course that was a pretty unscientific test. I should repeat that with an SDR rigged up on the passenger seat and do that a few times in a row.

I’m off now to check how I can get a Skywave SSB to Europe.

It is quite amazing how large bodies of salt water enhance reception! 🙂 Although my home in the mountains has very little RFI, the ground conductivity is poor. Those who live on the coast get much better mileage from their antennas!

Regarding the size of the CC Skywave SSB and XHDATA D-808, based on my measuring tape, the D-808 is about 1.25″ wider, 0.5″ taller and perhaps 0.125″ deeper than the CC Skywave SSB. Here are a few photos:

Not a massive difference in size by any means, but the Skywave SSB is smaller in every dimension. Since I typically do one-bag travel, I always choose the smaller radio. Of course, the D-808 is more affordable than the Skywave SSB and is easier to purchase outside the US.

I don’t know of a C. Crane distributor in Europe.  Perhaps Post readers might comment with suggestions?

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A detailed review of the Tecsun S-8800 and comparison with the Tecsun PL-660 & XHDATA D-808

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


Tecsun S-8800 Review

by 13dka

Looking for a new toy again I recently revisited the Tecsun S-8800, which looked like it could replace both my battered old Grundig Satellit and my Tecsun PL-660.  Being in production for a few years now, and with the “birdies” situation ironed out long ago, the S-8800 has gathered much acclaim by now but also a few somewhat contradicting reviews.  For example, one review reports that the S-8800 can cope with larger antennas, another one states the exact opposite, one praises the MW performance, another one attests only average sensitivity, and only one mentioned an unpleasant detail I’m going to emphasize on in a bit.

All reviews touted the improved SW performance in AM and SSB though, and that was reason enough to make my own experiences.  Testing it turned out to be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster though.

I hope I can share more than only redundant bits of information about the radio, and I’ll skip most of the general information you can read in most other reviews.

Off to the 13dka radio test site at the dike!

13dka’s SWL Happy Place

General

Like the technically somewhat similar Tecsun PL-880, the S-8800 is a triple conversion receiver and has 2 conventional IF stages, the third IF stage is using a Si4735 DSP chip again, providing the  filters and all that jazz.

Tecsun seems to have thrown a lot more parts into it than in previous radios, plus a pretty big ferrite rod (covering 8-9/10th of the radio’s width) with individual LW and MW coils (most of the smaller receivers have only one coil), a 108mm telescopic whip and of course the “gun metal” knobs.  Designing a radio with a rather simple front panel and making a remote control an integral part of the operation concept (like it is reality with TVs for a long time) is a charming oddball approach, in a way reviving an utmost luxurious feature of 1930s high-end radios.  So let’s cut to the chase and talk performance:

Longwave and Mediumwave

On LW and MW, I first compared the S-8800 with my old Grundig Satellit 400 at home.  The old clunker has similar dimensions, a big old speaker bass/treble controls and it was known to have an average sensitivity on the AMBC band in its time, when all the great, now vintage AM performers were still ubiquitous, so that’s rather a “Jay Allen average” than an “average of the mediocre AM radios of this millenium”.  I think Jay Allen might rate it 3 stars.

Longwave

The first station I tuned in was the BBC LW transmitter network on 198kHz and it turned out a tad more noisy on the Satellit.  Great!  I could also pick up Medi1 and Kalundborg a smidge better than on the Grundig, and in the early evening, out at the beach I was picking up stations on all still populated channels on LW (minus 180kHz where it has one of the remaining birdies).  The other new portables I currently own (PL-660, D-808) are far away (PL-660) and far, far, far away (D-808) from that kind of performance.

Mediumwave

Unfortunately that good impression vanishes gradually when leaving the long wave for the NDB band (still good) and finally medium wave.  Before I left the house to test the radios on the electrically quiet beach again, I was checking out one of my favorite border case stations (low power station from The Netherlands on 1602kHz, whatever their name is this week) and that made very clear already that the S-8800 can’t hold a candle to the Satellit, at least not on the top end of the MW band.  Despite all the noise indoors, on the Satellit I could easily recognize the song being played while the S-8800 didn’t pick up anything at all.

On the beach it turned out that – despite the ferrite rod being twice the size – I find it only marginally better than the PL-660, and not close enough to the little XHDATA D-808 (if you’ve read my D-808 review you already know that this little radio is almost on par with the Grundig on MW):

Timeline: 0:00: D-808 0:07: S-8800 0:11: D-808

Click here to download audio.

Of course I have read Thomas’ assessment of the AM performance so I was prepared to be underwhelmed.  But at least you can connect some high gain MW antenna to make up for the missing sensitivity and be happy again, or can you?

A not so nice surprise

The unpleasant detail I mentioned before is:  the Int/Ext Antenna switch does not turn off the internal ferrite bar antenna.  Jay Allen mentioned it in his review, it was the only review with that detail and unfortunately I overlooked it.  How does that matter?

The main issue is this: if you’re (like me) forced to use outdoor antennas to escape high indoor noise levels, the internal loopstick just won’t let you.  The external antenna will just increase the SNR a bit when the station is strong enough anyway.  Even in a low noise environment, the internal loopstick will needlessly add noise to the signal received from a high-performance active loop or FSL antenna.

That also explains a paragraph in Thomas’ S-8800 review:

“I also hooked up the S-8800 to my large horizontal loop antenna. This certainly did improve MW reception, but not as dramatically as I hoped. Additionally, it seemed to be very sensitive to RFI in my shack even when hooked up to the external antenna.”

There’s more external antenna idiosyncrasy:  only the BNC jack is wired to the “Ext” position of the antenna switch,  the “hot” (red) Hi-Z terminal is active when the switch is in the “Int”-position, it just seems to save you an alligator clip on the whip.

The dedicated “AM antenna” terminal was in part what sold the S-8800 to me.  The label made me assume this would be specifically wired to the AM circuit but as it turns out it’s just a generic high impedance input and I really didn’t anticipate that the internal loopstick remains always active (or in case of the Hi-Z terminals, the retracted whip).  Yes, technically you can connect an external antenna for MW, practically…YMMV.

To conclude this section, the final outcome of this antenna connector issue plus the not so brilliant MW sensitivity was that not even my active ML-200 loop (connected to the BNC-jack) could improve reception on 1602kHz enough to make the S-8800 get at least a bit into the ballpark of the Grundig with its loopstick antenna.  The currently mounted small 80cm rigid loop on the ML-200 just couldn’t produce enough signal to lift the station over the noise that much.

Shortwave SSB

As the other reviews reported already, Tecsun has obviously worked on the AGC issues their former products had.  I can confirm this so far, the AGC does not show the distorted onset of leveling anymore – unless the signal is very strong.  But the leveling happens much faster than e.g. on the PL-880 so the remaining blasts of distortion are quite short:

Click here to download audio.

A more relaxed AGC release time would save us most of those too.  I noticed AGC pumping effects from strong signals in the spectrum neighborhood only with a big antenna connected.  But unfortunately there is more…

Stuff you have to live with:

In his great review, Thomas mentioned the auto mute sometimes interfering with reception. I noticed this too (with all bandwidths on SSB) and I credited this to very low noise figures. When the bandwidth is narrow (=less noise) or if you have a very low noise floor anyway like when tuning through 25-30MHz, the receiver gets muted over the entire chunk of spectrum, just to intermittently and pretty suddenly pass the noise again.  Sounds like a broken antenna cable and has some potential to confuse people:

Click here to download audio.

Then I made some experiments with ECSS, destroying my “noise floor” theory.  It doesn’t always happen but under circumstances that may sound like this:

Click here to download audio.

Too bad that setting auto mute to ’00’ doesn’t actually turn it off in SSB mode so there’s likely no remedy for that.

On my example, there is absolutely no difference between the 3kHz and 4kHz SSB filters.  A working 4kHz filter would have been a good choice for ECSS reception.

Another remaining quirk at least on my specimen of the S-8800 is a slight FM modulation of an oscillator in SSB, particularly with strong signals.  You can hear it best if you create a heterodyne or listen to CW, the tone sounds a bit hoarse, so do voices and I’m not sure whether or not this could affect narrow-bandwidth digimiode decoding.  The front panel (namely the bandwidth knob area) is quite susceptible for “hand capacity”, the frequency varies a bit when you move your hand in front of the S-8800.  This is not uncommon with portables of course, but my D-808 for example has its “Theremin playing area” on the back of the radio.

In this clip you can hear both the “hoarse” modulation and my hand waving  to you.

This leads me to calibration and frequency drift.  The S-8800 can be calibrated on SSB (see the “Hidden features” section below), however this turned out to be a (too) fast moving target.  I don’t know if it’s the VFO or the BFO but it is so temperature-dependent that 6°C temperature difference equates to a quite substantial (for SSB) drift of 150Hz.  Whatever oscillator it is, it seems to lack any temperature compensation measures, with all the implications that may have on relaxed SSB listening, digimode decoding and ECSS reception when the temperature isn’t quite stable where you want to use it.  After calibrating it, it’s often slightly off again within the same minute.  My cheap little D-808 won’t drift even when I take it from an overheated apartment into a -5°C cold winter storm.

The good stuff

Now to the fun part!  When I compared the SSB performance of the S-8800 with my PL-660 the first time, I found them very close for some reason.  I could find only one weak station that came in noticeably better on the S-8800 and while I was happy that it wasn’t worse than the PL-660 I was also a bit disappointed.

Timeline: 0:00: PL-660, 0:10: S-8800 receiving the “Gander Radio” VOLMET.

Click here to download audio.

Then I repeated the test a few days later, this time a bit more into the evening and the outcome was very, very different.  The S-8800 won every single weak signal comparison with ease and sometimes in a way that made me think my PL-660 must be broken.

But then I could help the PL getting a lot closer by simply holding it in my hand, the difference was that I had placed the PL-660 differently so I could record both radios easier.  The factor I forgot to put in the equation was that the S-8800 is absolutely not depending on anyone holding it to give it some counterpoise – that and the long whip is certainly a part of its advantage, and the receivers would be much closer when used with the same external antenna.  With the radios just standing there tho (and that’s what most people will do with their radio instead of holding it in their hand), the difference is remarkable nonetheless and I also learned that you should always look and listen twice when testing radios!

Timeline: 0:00 D-808, 0:03: S-8800, 0:08: D-808, 0:10: S-8800

Click here to download audio.

Timeline: 0:00: PL-660, 0:05: S-8800, 0:10: PL-660, 0:16: S-8800

Click here to download audio.

When I repeated the test yet again but granted the PL-660/D-808 the litte bit of counterpoise they seem to need (I let them rest on the car door instead of holding them), the results were not that unequivocal anymore.  However, the receivers were 50% on par, the S-8800 was clearly better the other 50% and overall the other two receivers could not score a single point for them.  I think that shows that the S-8800 really is a hair or three better.  Beyond the increased sensitivity and minus the frequency drift, SSB reception feels more mature, the the S-8800 behaves more like a regular communications receiver now and the big speaker is a big plus.  Of course that means there should be also an improved reception of…

Shortwave Broadcasts

I know that the S-8800 has inherited the “Enjoy broadcasting” and “BCL RECEIVER” lettering from the cheap S350, but after stepping the PL-660 and the S-8800 through all shortwave broadcast bands, I felt that’s exactly hat it was made for, and it shows!

There is no doubt that a big speaker can create the illusion of better reception, but I think I don’t fall for that easily and rather listen to the background noise and how intelligible the “content” is.  While the comparison with the PL-660 often ended up in a tie when I subtracted the impact of the speaker in my mind, there were indeed some stations where the S-8800 had remarkably less noise than the PL-660.  But of course the big speaker is giving the S-8800 a permanent edge on all reception cases, and it’s a real joy to listen!  Combined with lower noise and a generally more stable signal (through better AGC) this made quite a difference between the two.

Bottom line is that when listening to shortwave broadcasts, the S-8800 gives you the warm and lush sound of yesterday’s famous receivers while it technically delivers the best performance of all Tecsun portables so far.  If you fancy music programs on shortwave and if you don’t mind the price for the luxury and performance, you’ll enjoy this radio a lot.

FM

Short story: my specimen of the S-8800 lacks the very good FM band sensitivity of the PL-660 or the XHDATA D-808.  While the latter radios present my favorite marginal case station 100km away  fairly with some noise at sea level, the S-8800 just doesn’t receive that station at all, no matter how I position the whip.  It’s not exactly worlds between them but considering that (assumedly) most of the FM receiver is in the Si4735 chip that it shares with a couple of great FM performers from the same company, this is a bit surprising.

Signal handling capabilities

The S-8800 is said to have a pretty robust frontend, which I found true but I want to put that a bit into relation.  My “lonely beach/dike listening post” sports 2 abandoned steel flag poles of 6 and 8m height.  They can serve as support for wire antennas, or easily be used as an antenna themselves by inductively coupling them to the receiver – IOW by winding a wire 2-4 times around the pole (you could use the Eiffel tower as an antenna this way) and connecting the other end to the radio.

For some reason this contraption produces quite massive output voltages, but I could always use it for a quick and thorough (and due to the location QRM-free!) reception improvement with my PL-660 anyway.  Why?

The PL-660/880 have a 3-position (DX, Normal, Local) switch. I think it turns off the input preamp in the “Normal” postion and adds a simple attenuator circuit in the “Local” setting.  The latter is sufficient to tame the output of all sorts of antennas (including the flag pole) enough to make my PL-660 work just fine with that on all bands.

The S-8800’s sensitivity switch on the other hand has only 2 positions and telling from the results it really only turns off the preamp.  Now it actually acts up much less on the flag pole than the PL-660 in its comparable “DX” and “Normal” positions, so obviously Tecsun has put some effort into making the frontend more robust indeed.  But it seems they thought “that should do, let’s ditch the 3rd (attenuator) position and save 3 resistors” and that left me with many (but tolerable) images across the entire shortwave above 3 MHz, and a heavily image-infested 160m band.  BTW, a few soft images from (I guess) 49/41m blowtorches could be heard around 29MHz with only the whip.

A word on the audio

I believe that the “legendary” status of the Grundig and Zenith lines of world band receivers is partly owed to their big sound.  They had their music loving and program listening audience in mind, and Tecsun’s choice of casing, big speaker, the bass and treble controls are certainly taking the same line.

Compared to my Satellit 400 (80s model, but still has much of that “legendary” sound), the Tecsun sounds a bit more boomy in the lower mids while having a less super-deep bass response than the Grundig, which also sounds more neutral.  Besides these very unimportant distinctions, the S-8800 does sound big and that also helps reception – lacking low mid/bass content can impair intelligibility as well, and it causes more fatique on long DXing sessions.

The bass/treble shelving EQ is certainly more sophisticated than the Grundig’s, it has quite sharp cutoffs at very sensibly chosen frequencies, so turning the knobs down will leave the main chunk of the mid range completely unaffected and just helps removing rumble or the 5kHz beat frequency from a band neighbor, or add some nice hifi-highs and beefy low end when you turn them all the way up.  In other words you can continuously blend the speaker sound from perfect “voice communications” style to “dad’s big old radio”.

Hidden functions

Of course the S-8800 has some unofficial “power off” and “power on” extra functions assigned to the number keypad on the remote (they all work by pressing and holding a number key for up to 10 seconds).  Some are identical to the PL-880, some are different:

0.) I found calibrating the S-8800 on SSB works with the same method used on the PL-880:  Tune to a station with a known frequency, switch to USB or LSB and use the fine tuning knob to tune for best audio/music playback. An alternative way of doing this is downloading a free spectrum analyzer app for your smartphone (“SpecScope”), tuning the radio 1kHz off frequency so you get a nice heterodyne tone on USB or LSB, then using the fine tuning knob to tune the tone to hit exactly the 1kHz mark on the analyzer display.  Your last 2 (Hz) frequency digits will now show an offset frequency.

1.) Then press and hold the ‘0’ button until a ’00’ appears in the top right corner of the display and the last 2 digits of the frequency readout start flashing.  Release the button and quickly use the fine tuning knob to reset the last frequency digits to ’00’ (the number on the top right corner should be changing while doing that), then immediately hold the ‘0’ key again to confirm – tadaa, the offset should be gone while the last 2 frequency digits show ’00’ now.  This all needs to happen pretty quickly and with the right timing, so it may take a few attempts to get it right.

2.) With the radio off, button ‘2’ turns the LW band on/off.

3.) Press and hold the ‘3’ button while the radio is off to toggle between permanent and “intelligent” display illumination.

4.) When the radio is turned on, this button enables access to the extra functions of the number 6 and number 9 keys.  The display will read “On” when you perform this the first time, doing it again will turn it off again.

5.) Radio on, set to FM band: this toggles between 75 (US) and 50 (anywhere else) microseconds deemphasis on FM.

6.) Radio on: When enabled using the ‘4’-button as described before, holding the ‘6’ will toggle the (annoying) dynamic bandwidth feature off and on.  You can set this independently for AM and SSB.  Ideally to zero, because it automatically resets your bandwidth setting and since this is happening in steps, it sounds quite strange.  The PL-660 uses a stepless dynamic envelope following low pass filter (which is I believe what they called “DNR).

7.) This is still a mystery to me.  On the PL-880, this button apparently controls the line out level on FM.  On the S-8800 it (ostensibly) seems to control the S-meter bias with numbers running from ’00’ to ‘+99’ and ‘-99′ for all bands.  Positive values reduces the S-meter display which made me curious if it rather controls AGC level or gain at some stage, but it really seems to affect the S-meter display only.

8.) Radio off: Toggles the seconds display on the main clock (when the clock is displayed instead of frequency).

9.) Another important one: this controls the threshold of auto squelch/soft mute.  If you want to turn that off, turn it down to ’00’ with the main tuning knob, then hit the ‘9’ key again.  You need to do this for AM, FM and SSB separately.

Random stuff

  • The S-meter was indicating a permanent base level of 2 bars even at my remote beach listening post.  But even though it can apparently be “calibrated”, a 5-bar indicator is quite a step backwards from the 99-step RSSI meter of the PL-880.
  • After an initial discharge and recharge cycle, the 2x2000mAh “18650” batteries gave me a continuous runtime of 21 hours.  When you connect the charger and then turn on the radio, it stops charging unless – and this seems odd – you are in FM mode.  A full charge while listening to FM radio took 4:41.

Verdict

I had a pretty hard time making my mind up about this radio.  It has so elaborate details, so much design improvement and costly parts went into it but I feel like it doesn’t quite meet the expectations Tecsun created with this radio.   Sadly, it has a few things that were started ambitious and ended underwhelming.

It got a huge 2-coil loopstick and somehow they managed to make it perform slightly worse than a 70€-radio with not even half of that loopstick size, they gave it 2 external antenna ports but they disappoint MW enthusiasts right again by keeping the loopstick always active, and how FM could turn out less sensitive than many radios with the same Silicon Labs chip (including their own models) is beyond me.

They improved the front end but then they dropped the attenuator, which costs the overall flexibility and better overloading-resilience their other radios have, they fixed the SSB issues of the predecessors and introduced a free-floating BFO with a mind of its own.

The price tag is making these downers certainly weigh heavier, and I think without them this radio may have turned out to be a real classic.

On the plus side I found a radio that really excels on shortwave. Shortwave program listeners can feast on a most sensitive, selective, luxurious and well-behaved portable with a big sound and I think there’s probably no current portable that could compete with that.

Ham radio aficionados get improved SSB reception and if there wouldn’t be this “cheap 70s receiver trademark” unstable oscillator, it would come close to communications receiver performance levels (minus the frontend needed for big antenna voltages).

That the price reaches into the ballpark of pre-loved high-end(-ish) JRC/Icom/Yaesu communication receivers or buys you a mint-condition ICF-2010/2001D may seem like a problem too.  But then again, none of those radios is perfect either, and only the Sony is a portable.

Despite the quirks, the S-8800 is still a great, valuable radio that revives an out-of-fashion style of radios in a pretty unique and modern way.


What a brilliant, critical review of the Tecsun S-8800!  Thank you so much for taking the time to properly test and compare the S-8800 with the venerable PL-660 and the XHDATA D-808 (readers, also check out his review of the D-808).

You’re right, too, in that I’ve noticed some contradictions in reviews–I do wonder if part of this might be variations between US and EU versions of the radio, or perhaps small quirks in production runs.

No doubt, however, that the Tecsun S-8800 is a champion of the shortwave broadcast bands and its audio fidelity is in a class of its own.

Click here to view the Tecsun S-8800 at Anon-Co or here to search eBay.

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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.

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