This particular adventure began about three weeks ago with an email from CCrane. “Timeless, Easy to Use with Long Range Radio Reception” the headline read. Further, the accompanying text promised: Comes with needle and dial tuning, one button for power, one button for a bright display light, and has no clock or alarm. The radio in question was the C.Crane CCRadio-EP PRO.
The “Long Range Radio Reception” initially caught my eye, but the simplicity of an old-fashioned “needle and dial” – what I call “slide rule” – tuning” also appealed to me, so I emailed CCrane, asked them if they would like to send me one for review, which they did, without charge.
While waiting for the EP PRO to arrive, I examined the photos of the EP PRO on the CCrane website, and I noticed something peculiar: a switch on back for choosing between 9 kHz tuning steps and 10 kHz tuning steps. Whaaat?! Why in the world would you need such a thing on a radio with needle and dial tuning?
We’ll get to the answer to that question shortly, but first let’s take a tour of the CCrane EP PRO.
The case is a rectangle with rounded corners that measures 11.4″ W x 7.3″ H (8.4″ H with handle) x 2.75″ D and weighs 4.5 pounds without batteries. Starting on the left front panel, you’ll find a 5-inch speaker. To the right of that, there is the slide rule (needle and dial) tuning setup, with a small red light on the right side that illuminates when a station is found. Below that is a CCrane logo and further below is a switch for selecting AM (520 – 1710 kHz, 10 kHz steps; 522 – 1620 kHz, 9 kHz steps), FM (87.5 – 108 MHz), or FM stereo; a knob for adjusting bass, a knob for adjusting treble, and a knob for choosing between narrow (2.5 kHz) and wide (6 kHz) filter bandwidths.
On top of the EP PRO are a red POWER button, a black button for lighting the tuning dial, a flip-up carry handle, and a 36-inch telescoping antenna for FM reception. (Inside the case is a ferrite bar antenna – 12mm x 200mm (7.9″) long with CCrane’s Twin Coil Ferrite® technology.)
On the right side of the case at top is the tuning knob, below that a knob for fine-tuning the internal antenna for AM reception, and at the bottom a knob for volume. On the left side of the case, you’ll find a 1/8” stereo headphone jack, a line-in jack, and a socket for plugging in an external 6-volt AC adaptor which is provided with the EP PRO.
On the back of the radio is a hatch for installing four D-cell batteries (CCrane says it will run for about 175 hours at moderate volume with the dial light off), external antenna connections: spring loaded for AM and “F” connector for FM, a switch for selecting internal or external AM antenna, and the switch for selecting 9 or 10 kHz tuning steps.
That’s it. The EP PRO is almost Zen-like in its simplicity. There are no seek buttons, no automatic storage functions, no memories, no key pad. And there is a darn good reason for that. It turns out that the immediate predecessor of the EP PRO, the CCrane EP, was created by Bob Crane because his mother wanted a very simple radio that was easy to operate. The CCrane EP, a true needle and dial analog radio, was the result.
Bob believed that, besides his mother, there was a market for such a radio, and there was. Unfortunately, after a time, the analog chips necessary to build the CCrane EP became unavailable. As a result, the radio was redesigned internally using modern digital chips (essentially the same as those in CCrane’s model 2E and 3 radios) while keeping it simple and easy to operate. So inside what looks like an old-fashioned analog radio beats the heart of a high-performance digital radio that combines the high sensitivity needed to hear distant stations with excellent selectivity to block signals from the side.
In my view, the EP PRO is great fun to operate. In the predawn hours on a weekend morning with the rain falling softly outside, I started tuning slowly across the AM dial with the EP PRO in my lap. Near the bottom end, a couple of sports mavens were chatting about a pitcher who had a couple of rough two initial outings and then had “settled in.”
A bit further up the dial Dionne Warwick was telling me to “walk on by.” Then I ran into a music station competing with a talk show considering “the Bible, angels, and UFOs.”
Up the dial some more, apparently a good deal on a high performance car could be had at a dealership in Connecticut; then an air quality report for New York City, a female voice delivering a long discourse in French and so on up the dial.
I was impressed at the number of stations that the EP PRO was pulling in, and it brought me back to the simple joy of tuning around to see what’s on the air.
Each time a discernible station appeared, the red tuning LED would light up. As needed, I used the antenna tuning knob and the bandwidth selection switch to tweak the signal. The needle and dial tuning gives an approximate indication of where on the band the radio is tuned, so if you want a positive ID, you need to listen for a station ID or some other clue to the station’s location.
At one point I jumped to the FM dial and found I could easily pick up many FM stations even with the whip antenna collapsed. In all, I am of the opinion that both the AM and FM sides of the receiver are pretty “hot,” and at no time did I find myself wishing for an auxiliary antenna for more signal. Further, the sound through headphones or the speaker is very pleasant indeed. In my mind, the relatively unadorned exterior of the EP PRO belies its outstanding performance. To stretch an analogy, it’s a nitro-burning funny car in the body of a Honda Civic, and you don’t have to be a genius to drive it.
If you’re looking for a high-performance radio that is easy to use and sounds good through speaker or headphones, the CCRadio EP PRO delivers the goods. For a content DXer like me, the EP PRO encourages me to tune around and discover the magic of radio all over again.
Three of the five contenders: The Degen DE32, Degen DE321 and Tecsun R-2010D (Click to enlarge)
Following is my premiere shortwave radio column for the January 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor digital magazine. It takes the form of a review–or “shoot-out,” if you will–of a few select mechanically-tuned DSP radios I’ve tested over the years.
While I’m a big fan of print publications, digital publications like TSM offer me flexibility that I can’t get in traditional print: namely, shorter time to publication (thus more up-to-date information) and especially, the ability to embed links and audio as I do here on The SWLing Post. In this case, I’m able to include audio clips which the reader can utilize to compare the radios firsthand (embedded here, as well).
Note: This being my first contribution to a brand new magazine, I thought it would be fitting to begin by explaining why I still believe in shortwave radio…I mean, how could I resist? I guess I’ll always be a shortwave evangelist at heart.
Hope you enjoy.
First: why I still believe in shortwave
While I’ve been blogging about shortwave for several years now, I simply can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an email asking doubtfully, “This seems like a fun hobby, but isn’t shortwave radio dead?”
My response? No way! Here’s why.
I once had the truly good fortune to be interviewed by Gareth Mitchell, host of the BBC World Service technology program Click. For once, I made a point of listening to this interview that featured me––always a bit embarrassing––but after all, this was the BBC World Service!
But Gareth’s lead-in to our segment about my shortwave radio-based charity, Ears To Our World (ETOW), truly surprised me: our non-profit, he said, “distributes portable battery powered devices that can stream audio in real time, all via an intuitive touch interface.”
Wow…how true. And since that interview, this is exactly how I see shortwave radio, too: not as a forgotten relic of the past century, but as a medium at home in the future with a unique, highly accessible, and yet global reach. Shortwave radio, after all, requires no apps, no subscriptions, and no mobile phone or Internet connection to deliver information worldwide at the speed of light.
All you need––in short––is a radio.
This column exists to prove to the doubtful that shortwave radio––indeed, radio in general––is not only alive and well, but loud and clear in urban as well as rural settings the world over. Here, you’ll find in-depth articles that reflect the changing state of shortwave radio: the technologies, the techniques, and the vast array of content currently available across the shortwave radio spectrum. Best yet, because SWLing (shortwave listening) is what you make of it, you can be part of it: share your input, so that I can cover (and uncover) shortwave topics you wish to discuss.
So I begin this first column with a little comparison––a shootout––between five newly-popular analog DSP radios. Let’s find out who’s left standing.
We’ll be pitting five models against each other here: the Degen DE321, the Degen DE32, the Tecsun R-2010D, the Kchibo KK9803 and the ShouYu SY-X5. With the exception of the ShouYu SY-X5, all of these manufacturers have in the past produced at least one portable with truly notable performance (the Degen DE1102, 1103, Kchibo D96L and an array of Tecsuns, including the PL 310, 380, 390, 600 and 660).
Moreover––so that you can hear the difference for yourself!––I’ve included linked audio clips for each model. They were all tuned to the same frequency, same broadcast and within seconds of one another.
But first, what is a DSP radio? And why do we need them?
The Silicon Labs DSP chip found in many of these radios.
Radio is no longer just your granddad’s medium. Several years ago, the digital signal processing chip manufacturer, Silicon Labs (SiLabs), altered the entire radio landscape with one little chip. Indeed, most new digital shortwave/AM/FM radios on the market use a SiLabs (or other manufacturer’s) DSP chip as the centerpiece of their receiver architecture.
Using a DSP chip in a fully digital radio makes sense: after all, you have a digital display, digital buttons, and digital encoder. But using a digital chip with a traditional analog display––a mechanically-tuned DSP radio––does that make sense?
SiLabs and a growing number of radio manufacturers and retailers believe the answer is a resounding “yes.” In truth, there are concrete benefits to making this addition; among them:
Decreasing production cost of radios by as much as 80%
Decreasing R&D costs of new radios dramatically
Digital signal processing with the simplicity of analog radio design
Reduced power consumption when compared with digital display radios
An avenue to make radios more affordable––especially to listeners living in poverty, such as those in developing world settings, who make up a large subgroup of listeners
When I first learned about the implementation of a DSP chip with a mechanically-tuned radio in 2010, I felt like it might be “the” way to make quality receiver performance available and accessible to many. Now, four years later, several manufacturers have produced mechanically-tuned DSP shortwave radios. All are available from sellers at a price of under $40 USD. Not bad…
Common review points for mechanically-tuned DSP radios
I’ve now reviewed enough mechanically-tuned DSP-based radios that I’m beginning to note performance commonalities that can only be attributed to the design of the DSP chipset itself, regardless of how these are implemented in each model. So, before the shooting starts, let’s take a quick look at some common review points of the contenders.
Tuning: not quite an analog radio…
I’ve got to begin with the most obvious common review point: namely, tuning.
For those of us accustomed to analog tuning, the DSP/analog combination is, well, completely different and a little quirky. Tuning a traditional analog radio is a fluid process which allows for a certain amount of play; you need not be precisely on a frequency to hear a station, and often you hear a station fade as another pops into the band pass. But when tuning analog DSP, you hear stations and static pass by in comparatively coarse 5 kHz chunks. Especially in radios with tiny analog frequency dials, it makes tuning feel somewhat “sticky” or finicky, and ironically, rather imprecise. You feel like you’re skipping over stations while band-scanning. And for those accustomed to digital tuning, instead of using buttons to tune in these 5 kHz increments, you’re using a tuning wheel, with no customary “step” response. Not what you would expect from either digital or analog radio.
But of course, you can locate your station with this method. It takes a little practice––and a measure of patience––but you’ll adjust to this different method of tuning. Note that much of this awkwardness may disappear if SiLabs produces a chip with more precise tuning increments, such as 1 kHz steps with decreased muting.
Automatic Gain Control
In all the models I’ve tested so far, the Auto Gain Control (AGC) is a little too overactive when listening to weak AM/SW stations. This results in a “pumping” sound and serious listening fatigue when set on weaker stations. However, on strong stations, all models perform quite well.
Since all of these radios are based on the same chip family from SiLabs, you can expect eight shortwave bands: two FM bands, one AM (medium wave) band, and eight shortwave bands. The frequency ranges available to the manufacturer in all bands are identical.
FM performance on each of these radios is above average, and the coverage quite wide––from 64 MHz to 108 MHZ in two FM bands. If you like listening to FM radio, you’ll be pleased with any of these inexpensive models.
And now for some action!
Now, we’ll pit these five radios against each other in an listener’s challenge that will leave the losers in the dust…and the winners clear.
The Degen DE321 – Current retail: $21.00 USD
The DE321 was the first analog DSP shortwave radio on the market. The DE321 is small, slim, über-simple, and fits nicely in the hand. The analog tuning dial takes up more than half of the front face of the radio––a good thing, as the larger the dial, the easier the tuning. Performance-wise, the DE321 holds its own in this crowd; it’s quite reasonable in both sensitivity and selectivity. The DE321 is the most bare-bones radio among the five described here.
The Degen DE32 – Current retail: $27.00 USD
The DE32 is the smallest radio of the five. Unlike the DE321, the DE32 is not “just” a radio; it also sports a simple MP3 audio player and a small white LED flashlight. The DE32 has a small built-in speaker which delivers tinny and rather cheap audio, but is okay for a single listener, and fine for spoken-word broadcasts. Audio fidelity is greatly improved with headphones. Performance-wise, the DE321 is slightly better than the DE32 on shortwave.
The Tecsun R-2010D – Current retail: $39.00 USD
When I first held the R-2010D, I initially assumed I had found the holy grail among analog/DSP radios: while the R-2010D is the largest of the five radios, measuring nearly equivalent to my Sony ICF-SW7600GR (not a pocket-sized portable like the others) it nonetheless has a beautiful large analog display (a major plus!), an amply-sized speaker for great portable audio, and a fluid tuning mechanism. To top it off, the R-2010D has a small digital frequency display so that you can verify your frequency. The R-2010D’s AGC circuit handles strong stations well, but clips on weak stations. But the promising R-2010D has one major flaw: terrible selectivity. Indeed, the selectivity is so sloppy, that you will not be able to delineate two strong signals spaced 10 kHz apart from each other.
The ShouYu SY-X5 – Current retail: $27.00 USD
The SY-X5 surprised me: what makes this model stand out is the fact that it can be powered by either a rechargeable slim battery pack (found in the DE32) or three standard AA batteries. It also has a built-in MP3 player that, like the Degen DE32, uses a standard microSD card for media storage. Unlike the DE32, the SY-X5 has a bright red LED display that helps in navigating MP3 files. The SY-X5 also has surprisingly good audio from its built-in speaker, rivaling the much larger Tecsun R-2010D. The negative here? Though the SY-X5 has a fluid tuning mechanism, it is prone to drifting when trying to adjust the analog tuning needle to frequency.
The Kchibo KK9803 – Current retail: $16.00 USD
When I first wrote this review, I didn’t even include the KK9803. Why? Because, frankly, it’s one of the worst performing radios I’ve ever owned, and I would strongly discourage you from even considering it. My primary criticism of this radio is that the tuning is barely functional: the shortwave band segments are far too close to one another on the dial, hence the digital tuning steps are too narrowly-spaced to offer any sort of tuning accuracy whatsoever. Barely moving the tuning wheel, one may pass over even a strong station…undetectably. The only hint of the station’s existence may be an occasional quick blip or audio buzz. I must confess that the experience of band-scanning (tuning) this radio offers is the worst I’ve ever known in any radio. Don’t buy it. In our shootout, it’s bitten the dust before it even aims, because let’s face it: this radio just can’t.
Click on each radio model to hear a short comparison audio clips. Note that I added an audio sample of the Tecsun PL-660 to the weak signal DX examples as a benchmark.
The Tecsun R-2010D (left) produces excellent audio from its large internal speaker. The Degen DE32 (right) produces “tinny” audio via its tiny built in speaker.
All of these radios share similar qualities. After all, they’re brothers of a sort, built around the same family of DSP chips. If you’ve read the summaries above, then you won’t be disappointed by any of these that follow–especially at this modest price point. Still, I reach for different radios based on their strengths, and to help you choose, here’s a “best of” list:
Most versatile: ShouYu SY-X5
Best Audio: Tecsun R-2010D and ShouYu SY-X5
Best sensitivity: Tecsun R-2010D
Best value: Degen DE321
The ShouYu SY-X5
If I had to choose just one of these radios, it might just be the ShouYu SY-X5. It offers the most value and versatility for the performance. I think its audio is brilliant for a pocket radio, and I love the fact it has an LED display to help me navigate through the MP3 files loaded on my microSD card. However, as with any of these low-cost contenders, don’t expect to try any weak-signal DXing with the SY-X5.
By the way, if the Tecsun R-2010D simply had better selectivity and weak signal gain control, it would win this contest, hands down. In fact, I actually sent feedback to Tecsun engineering regarding the R-2010D selectivity shortcoming in the hope that they’ll fix this problem in future production runs. You might do the same.
In conclusion, mechanically-tuned DSP portables may not pack DXer-grade performance, but they are priced so that everyone can afford to experiment. And for your buck, that’s pretty good radio bang!
The Shouyu SY-X5 mechanically-tuned, DSP portable radio. (Click to enlarge)
The ShouYu SY-X5 shortwave radio came to my attention only a few weeks ago. It is yet one more mechanically-tuned, DSP based, portable shortwave/AM/FM radio. I have reviewed several other models based on the same DSP chipset: the Silicon Labs SI4844–see my reviews of the Degen DE321, Degen DE32, and the Kichbo KK-9803. I also recently reviewed the Tecsun R-2010D, though it is based on a slightly newer, though similar, SiLabs DSP chipset.
What makes the ShouYu SY-X5 stand out is the fact that it can be powered by either a rechargeable slim battery pack (found in the DE32) or three standard AA batteries. It also has a built-in MP3 player that uses a standard microSD card for media storage. Why are these features of particular note for me? I have been searching for a shortwave radio/mp3 player for use by my charitable non-profit, Ears To Our World. ETOW works in parts of the world where people lack mains power as well as access to the Internet (or else simply can’t afford Internet service). In such settings, radio allows teachers and school children to hear up-to-date international news via shortwave, and through pre-recorded educational material, they can play (and replay) MP3 content as needed.
Therefore, I immediately ordered an SY-X5 for review here, hoping to donate it for use in the field care of Ears To Our World.
Degen DE321 (left) Shouyu SY-X5 (right)
The ShouYu SY-X5 is a small radio, almost exactly the same size as the very portable Grundig G6 and only slightly larger than the Degen DE321 (see left). It feels sturdy and even slightly heavy in your hand (no doubt, due to the number of batteries it holds). The antenna is rotatable and feels more robust than other radios in its price class.
The SY-X5 has a back stand that likewise feels sturdy enough. Note: to open the battery compartment, you must lift up the back stand.
The overall quality is better than one might expect for $27 (US), with one notable exception: the printed frequency display behind the analog dial on my unit is positioned slightly off-center and not level, making needle position on the dial, well, frankly ambiguous.
Without a doubt, the greatest aspect of the SY-X5 is the audio delivered from the built-in speaker. It is exceptional for this size radio, full and with impressive bass characteristics. It very much reminds me of the Melson M7 (not yet reviewed here) and the Degen DE1129.
(Click to enlarge)
I’ve reviewed enough of these mechanically-tuned DSP-based radios now that I’m beginning to note performance commonalities that can only be attributed to the design of the DSP chipset itself (regardless of how they are implemented in each model of radio).
At risk of sounding like a broken record, this radio’s sensitivity, selectivity and AGC performance is nearly identical to the Degen DE321 on every band; here’s a summary:
sensitivity is mediocre–expect to hear all strong stations
AGC circuit has difficulty coping with weak station and fading
selectivity is mediocre
Medium Wave (AM)
strong daytime stations sound great
the SY-X5’s AGC circuit struggles with night time conditions, even with some strong stations
selectivity is mediocre
FM performance is quite good
Both selectivity and sensitivity are great for the price–in this case, $27 US
(Click to enlarge)
Between the two FM bands, the SY-X5 should easily accommodate world-wide FM broadcasts (even Russia). The two AM (medium wave) bands are almost identical in frequency allocation, but have been set up so that one is on 9 kHz spacing and the other on the 10 kHz spacing typically used here in North America (nice touch).
While the “feel” of the tuning wheel on the right side of the radio seems smooth, in reality it is not. The tension or actual mechanics behind the analog tuner are problematic; I find that upon tuning in even a strong station, when I let go of the tuning wheel, it immediately moves off-frequency. It’s most annoying. Over the course of several days of use, it doesn’t seem that the mechanism has broken in at all as I had hoped. This is perhaps the biggest negative of the ShouYu SY-X5; it is just not easy to accurately tune it.
(Click to enlarge)
While I haven’t spent hours using the MP3 player, I find that it’s simple, yet quite effective. Most notably, it lacks fast-forward and reverse controls, though it does have buttons for ten-second skips both in the forward and reverse directions. Of course, you can pause, stop and skip to next/previous MP3 files.
The SY-X5 has a dedicated MP3 player red LED display; it is very bright–almost too bright, in fact, for low light conditions–and quite simple, offering only basic functions (no alpha-numeric tags, for example). Unfortunately, I find that the LED display does inject a little noise into the audio, but it’s nothing that would deter me from using it with the built-in speaker.
(Click to enlarge)
Every radio has positive and negative attributes; below are the pros and cons I noted from the moment I unpacked the SY-X5:
Audio from internal speaker excellent for size
Integrated digital audio player
Uses standard Micro SD card for storage
Very bright red LED display (see con)
Dedicated, tactile buttons for basic MP3 functions
Multiple power sources
Internal rechargeable slim battery pack
Standard AA batteries
Charged/powered via standard mini USB cable
Relatively sturdy construction
Good FM sensitivity
Tuning indicator light
(Click to enlarge)
“Sticky” tuning wheel/dial results in immediate and annoying digital “drift” off-frequency
Sloppy selectivity (typical of this class of mechanically-tuned DSP radios)
MP3 player’s LED display almost too bright for low light settings; the LED does inject some slight noise into the headphone amp chain
Shortwave and medium wave sensitivity is mediocre, typical of other SiLabs SI484X radios
MP3 capabilities are only as a player, the SY-X5 cannot record in any capacity
Analog dial is small enough to make tuning accurately quite difficult
The dial’s printed frequency display in my unit is positioned off-center and tilted, resulting in ambiguous needle alignment
The ShouYu SU-X5 is very similar, performance-wise, to the Degen DE321. Out of all of the mechanically-tuned DSP portables reviewed thus far, the SY-X5 may have the best audio fidelity via its built-in speaker (save the Tecsun R-2010D). Also, like other similarly sized and priced models in this family, the SY-X5 has tuning issues; in its case, a tuning wheel that will not stay on frequency without practice.
(Click to enlarge)
I’ve decided to take my SY-X5, on behalf of Ears To Our World, to inner Belize City in the near future. I’m going to offer this radio–together with a microSD card packed with VOA Special English programming (and a host of other English language educational materials, music and stories)–to a visually-impaired, economically-disadvantaged school child who will hopefully give this basic little radio lots of use, and perhaps even maximize its potential. While the SY-X5 has shortcomings, for this particular use–serving an individual who will not rely primarily on sight, but on tactile response, to operate it–I think it may serve its purpose. Perhaps this will be the best litmus test for the SY-X5’s utility and longevity: I may post an update when I receive feedback in approximately one year, as to whether this radio has required repair, replacement, or has offered (as I sincerely hope!) some measure of benefit to the child-owner.
Thanks to Paul, I just found out about the ShouYu SY-X5: a new analog DSP-based shortwave radio with built-in MP3 player. Like the Degen DE321, DE32, Kchibo KK-9803 and the recently released Tecsun R-2010D, the SY-X5 has a mechanical tuning mechanism powered by a Silicon Labs DSP chip.
At a low price of $27 US, my expectations will be adjusted accordingly. My hopes are somewhat higher for the Tecsun R-2010D as Tecsun tends to do a better implementation of DSP chips than their competitors. Since I’ll be receiving both units within days of each other–and I still have the DE321 and DE32–I will certainly compare them.
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