As I mentioned in a post yesterday, I’ve been spending time with the Radiwow R-108 in an effort to give it a proper evaluation.
One quirk that has been a little hard to pin down is the occasional DSP birdie on the mediumwave band. [BTW: A “birdie” an unwanted internally-generated noise which, in this case, manifests itself as a variable squeal. Click here to learn more.]
When I first received the R-108, I noticed that each time I turned it on while tuned to the mediumwave (AM broadcast) band, I’d hear a temporary birdie/squeal that would last anywhere from two to seven seconds. After the initial noise, the squeal would go away.
During long (one hour plus) listening sessions, the squeal would sometimes reappear for a few seconds seemingly at random.
Turns out, there’s a pattern that I overlooked.
Yesterday, I turned on the R-108 and a birdie was present on 1600 kHz. Unlike previous listening sessions, the variable squeal was persistent–it didn’t go away after a few seconds. I pulled out my phone and took a quick video (moving quite far away to show that my phone wasn’t the source of noise):
Just last month, the little radio that I found most exciting this year hit the market: the C. Crane CC Skywave SSB.
Why the appeal for me? Frankly, since I do most of my portable radio listening while traveling, and since I typically travel out of one bag, having a compact radio with performance and features is an absolute must in my world. Up to this point, the original CC Skywave is the radio I often choose when traveling, as it packs so many useful features: AM, FM, Shortwave, AIR band, Weather Radio, and like any good travel radio, clock, alarm, and sleep functions, lacking only SSB mode. So it goes without saying that I was excited to see its newest edition.
The CC Skywave SSB
What follows is an account of my experience evaluating CC Skywave SSB production units, and a brief summary of their performance.
My hope is that this summary review will help readers with purchase decisions. Note that this is merely preliminary to an extensive, unabridged review that will appear in a future issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine, then in the SWLing Post the following month.
Pre-production Skywave SSB
As many readers know, I was sent a pre-production model of the Skywave SSB for evaluation this summer.
As I mentioned in my sneak peek and reiterated to a number of inquisitive readers: I never base a product review or comment upon pre-production radios. I don’t comment about the performance of the pre-production model for an obvious reason: pre-production radios are quite simply not the versions that ship to customers upon the product release.
Now that the production model has been in the wild for a few weeks, I feel more at liberty to talk about my experience with the pre-production Skywave SSB.
In short: I have been very pleased, indeed, with the pre-production model’s performance. In terms of features, it is a nice incremental upgrade from the original Skywave. In terms of performance, it’s also tweaked in the right direction. As an early adopter of the original Skywave, I’ve been truly enthusiastic about this evaluation pre-production model.
All the notes I took while evaluating the pre-production Skywave SSB were made for C. Crane so they could hopefully implement any changes or address concerns prior to starting the first production run. But the truth is, I found the pre-production model in my possession to be quite solid, so my suggestions were minor.
Putting my pre-production model aside, I ordered an actual production unit on C. Crane’s website just like everyone else.
C. Crane kindly dispatched my unit as soon as they received the first production batch from the factory so I could get to work on the full review.
Quirks with the first production units
I was eager to get started on the review of the Skywave SSB, so as soon as I received it, I did what I always do: compared it with other radios.
I make my comparisons, by the way, at least fifty yards from my house to separate the radios from any inadvertent sources of local noise.
Production Radio #1
My first comparison was with the Digitech AR-1780 and the original CC Skywave. I quickly noted that the Skywave SSB was very slightly less sensitive than the other radios. I had tested the pre-production unit enough to know that the Skywave SSB’s performance should at least be on par with the original Skywave.
Upon careful listening, I discovered the production unit had a very faint, internally-generated whine on some of the shortwave bands; when tuned to marginal signals, this whine manifested itself as variable background noise. Between signals it was audible as a faint background whine, hardly noticeable. With that said, the whine was most notable while tuning––since the Skywave SSB mutes between frequency changes, the whine was most conspicuous during audio recovery.
The pre-production unit had no trace of an internally-generated whine. Audio was very clean in comparison.
Here’s a sample of the first production radio being tuned down from 10,000 kHz in 5 kHz tuning steps:
I contacted C. Crane promptly, and to their credit, they immediately dispatched another unit from inventory, via UPS Next Day, along with a return label to send my faulty unit back to their engineering team.
Production Radio #2
The second unit arrived while I was on Thanksgiving vacation, but was sent to me directly at my hotel. The day I received the replacement Skywave SSB, I put it on the air. The first listening session with it, alone, revealed that this unit did not have the internally-generated whine, however, this unit had issues with sensitivity. All of my comparison receivers were outperforming this Skywave SSB on the shortwave broadcast bands. When I compared it with the pre-production Skywave SSB unit and the first production unit, the second production unit was about four to five S-units less sensitive. Odd.
I sent both production radios back to C. Crane with detailed notes and sample recordings. Their engineering team confirmed my findings and started looking into the variations in QC and double-checking their inventory to make sure none shipped with these problems.
Production Radio #3
A few days later, I was sent a third production unit. After putting it on the air, I immediately noticed the same faint noise characteristics of my first full production unit, which is to say, the notorious whine.
Once again, I contacted C. Crane. This time, I requested that no less than three radios be sent to me, and they kindly expedite the request.
Production Radios #4, #5, and #6
Yesterday, I tested all three radios. What follows is a quick assessment of those radios:
In a nutshell, the three production units I tested yesterday performed better than my second and third production radios on all bands. Strictly in terms of sensitivity, these were on par with the pre-production unit. Very good.
But with that said, even the last three production units I received had internally-generated noises that I couldn’t help but notice. Disappointing.
At this point, I must assume these noises are prevalent throughout the first production run since all but one of the six CC Skywave SSB production units I tested have it. Meanwhile, the only one that didn’t have the noise had serious sensitivity issues.
Yesterday, I spent two full hours searching for birdies (internally generated noises) and other anomalies on the three CC Skywave SSB production units I received Monday. Each radio’s noise location varied slightly (within 20-40 kHz). The following locations are roughly the average of frequencies:
Birdies are a fairly common occurrence among sensitive receivers, and the CC Skywave SSB has about an average number. The birdies I noted are outside the space where I do my broadcast listening:
Background audio whine/tone
All of the production units (save Radio #2) have a very slight audio whine present––either via the internal speaker or headphones––on certain portions of the spectrum.
In my first full production unit, I believe this whine may have slightly affected the unit’s overall sensitivity. On the last three production units, it didn’t seem to have as much of an impact on overall sensitivity.
The whine is still there, however, and occasionally when tuned to a weak signal within one of these zones, other faint sweeping noises could be detected in the background.
Sometimes it’s even more noticeable when the broadcaster is weak and is located within one of the whine zones. Here’s an example of 10 MHz WWV time station comparing the original Skywave with the Skywave SSB. Note that yesterday we had terrible propagation due to a geo storm, so WWV was very weak indeed.
Listen for the sweeping tones:
Here are the frequency ranges where I noted the background whine:
7,830 – 8335 kHz
8,610 – 8,690 kHz (note: very faint)
9,770 – 10,415 kHz
11,585 – 11810 kHz
Another oddity is a noise I found prevalent on CHU Canada’s 7,850 kHz frequency. I’m guessing it may be due to the combination of a DSP birdie on top of a relatively strong broadcaster.
Here’s a video comparing the original Skywave with one of the production models:
I noted no birdies or noises on the mediumwave band. The FM, AIR band, and Weather frequencies perform beautifully.
Summary: The bad news––and the good
At the moment, it appears the first production run of the CC Skywave SSB has some challenging QC issues. Therefore, unfortunately, I can only recommend it at present if you’re willing to check your unit very carefully for any of the internally-generated noises I noted above.
If, however, you’ve already purchased a Skywave SSB and have noticed the noises, then please contact C. Crane. I’ve been a C. Crane customer for many years and I’m confident they will take care of your issue.
This being said, the truth is, I sympathize with C. Crane. It must be challenging to get things right and truly consistent on the first production run of a radio––especially on a tiny compact radio like the Skywave SSB. It must be especially hard to keep noises out of the audio chain when so much is crammed into such a tiny package.
I fully suspect these issues will be sorted out in the second production run which, of course, I will test and review.
But the good news, and it’s sincerely good news, is this: if C. Cranecan produce a CC Skywave SSB as good as the pre-production unit, they’ll truly have a winner. So let’s keep our fingers crossed that C. Crane can do it again…and again.
If you’re considering purchasing the Tecsun S-8800, this is an important post.
I’ve had the S-8800 for about two weeks and had planned to have audio clip comparisons prepared and posted by now. My exceptionally busy schedule has made this difficult–and there a few other complicating factors.
First off, the good news: in terms of sensitivity, selectivity and audio fidelity, I’m very happy with the S-8800. I’ve compared it a number of times with the Tecsun PL-880 and the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and it either holds its own or even has a leg-up on both radios in terms of overall performance. I find that the S-8800’s AGC is more stable than my 1st generation PL-880.
Of course, what will be most telling is what you, dear reader, think of the performance when compared in a blind audio test.
As I mentioned, though, there are complicating factors–It’s not just my schedule which has made the S-8800 review come to a halt.
Yes, birdies. Lots of them.
At first, I thought the noises were due to the fact my mobile phone and Zoom H2N digital recorder were too close to the S-8800. I dismissed this interference as it didn’t sound like the typical steady tone/carrier birdies I’ve come to loath over the years.
As my testing continued, though, I quickly realized these variable heterodyne and digital hash noises must be internally-generated.
Quite literally, as I was outdoors testing the S-8800 and making this discovery last week, I received a message from SWLing Post contributor, Bertrand Stehle (F6GYY). You might recall, Bertrand provided us with an initial review of his S-8800e (the European version of the S-8800). He also started noticing the birdies and, like me, initially assumed they were due to an external source of RFI.
Bertrand kindly mapped out the extensive list of birdies he found on his S-8800e–he noted a total of 81 birdie/carrier locations:
14 birdies on longwave
4 birdies on mediumwave
63 birdies between 1859 – 29095 kHz
Comparing notes, there are some differences between Bertrand’s S-8800e and my S-8800:
Only 50-60% of the birdies on my S-8800 are in the same frequency locations as those mapped by Bertrand on his S-8800e
The total number of birdies, however, are likely identical–I find birdies where Bertrand hadn’t noted them
The appearance and intensity of the birdies can vary depending on listening location and the strength of any nearby broadcast signals. I’ve noticed four distinct birdie sounds: a variable carrier, a steady carrier, digital hash, and something I might describe as digital variable noises.
I’ve even noticed some change slightly as you move the radio around.
Obviously, this is a major issue for an enthusiast-grade portable.
I’m sharing all of this information with Anna at Anon-Co. No doubt, she’ll share this information with Tecsun engineering. The last I heard, projected availability of the S-8800 from Anon-Co is late March 2017. Perhaps there will be time for Tecsun to eliminate these birdies by improving internal grounding and/or shielding?
Until the birdie issue is sorted out, I’m not proceeding with audio comparisons or a full review. It goes without saying that, at present, I couldn’t recommend purchasing the S-8800. Sad, because this is otherwise a great radio.
I hope Tecsun can sort this out, though.
I will share any/all updates here on the SWLing Post.
After publishing my initial review of the Sangean ATS-405 on July 25, I contacted Sangean and requested a sample radio for comparison purposes. Back story: there were some receiver performance issues that I suspected may have been tied to my particular ATS-405 unit. Sangean kindly dispatched another ATS-405 which I received last week. The following is an update to my initial ATS-405 review.
In truth, there were two main reasons I wanted another unit to compare to my initial review radio:
I wanted to see if the new unit showed improved performance–sensitivity, selectivity, and, specifically, noise floor–in comparison with the first review unit tested
I noted strong DSP “birdies” (noises) on 800 and 1600 kHz on the test model, while several of our readers commented that their ‘405s did not feature birdies
Shortwave sensitivity/selectivity and noise
I noted in my initial review that the initial ATS-405 had an ever-present noise, a sort of low-volume static hiss. The noise floor, while not high, certainly seemed to be higher than other comparable shortwave portables, and was most noticeable when tuned to marginal/weak stations. I suspect many listeners may not notice it unless they compare it with other portables.
Fortunately, my new review unit’s noise floor seems to be slightly lower than that of my initial review unit. [Perhaps this unit’s board is better soldered–?] The noise is still there, but can be better mitigated by judiciously using narrow filters and the three-position audio tone control.
I suspect this is a noise somewhere in the audio amplification chain, because I find it less noticeable with headphones, and more pronounced via the ATS-405’s internal speaker.
In terms of sensitivity and selectivity on the shortwave bands, I believe my new unit is identical to that of the initial review unit. That is to say, the ATS-405 is not an especially sensitive shortwave receiver, but fairly average, and thus will fit the bill for most but not for the discriminating weak-signal hunter. Frankly, even my $46 Tecsun PL-310ET does a better job of pulling in weak stations.
I’ve tried tinkering with the AGC settings and soft mute–very cool features!–in an attempt to improve sensitivity, but alas, these only help the quality and stability of the received signal.
Immediately after opening the box of the new ATS-405 sample, I popped in a fresh set of AA batteries and tuned the Sangean to 1600 kHz AM. [If you read my initial review, I noted a strong DSP birdie on 1600 and (to a lesser degree) on 800 kHz].
At first listen, I was happy to note that the new unit lacks the wild DSP noise that overwhelmed my favorite local station on 1600 kHz.
As I listened more carefully, though, I did note a metronomic “chick” sound that was also present but partially buried in the noise on my initial ATS-405.
Below, I’ve embedded audio comparing the two receivers:
Initial review unit:
New review unit:
Listening to these samples, I realize I may have had the filter set to the middle position on the first sample and the wide setting on the second (hence, the brighter tone).
To further demonstrate the difference between the two, I made this short video; I start with my initial review unit, then switch to the new review unit provided by Sangean:
Note that this was recorded at least 100 feet from my house on the tailgate of my pickup truck. DSP birdies on 800 kHz sounded very much like the 1600 kHz sample, save the noise level on the latter is slightly lower and there are no broadcast stations in the background.
None of my other portables have digital noises or birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz.
So, the bad news: I do still hear a noticeable (and slightly annoying) internally-generated noise on the new review unit. The good news: it isn’t as objectionable as that on my initial review unit.
While the new ‘405 review sample seems to perform better than the initial ‘405 sample, I find the discrepancy somewhat marginal, especially since I spend the bulk of my time on the shortwave and mediumwave bands.
I’m not a fan of production runs where units vary so greatly from one to another, making accurate testing difficult. Therefore it’s quite possible you might receive a unit that performs better than those I tested…but unfortunately, the opposite is also true.
So, if you’re a Sangean fan, if you don’t mind the birdies on mediumwave, and if you mostly listen to strong shortwave stations, you may entertain purchasing an ATS-405. The keypad layout is almost identical to previous Sangean models.
To be clear, of course, this radio’s negatives above have been viewed under a microscope; the ATS-405 is not a “bad” receiver, it’s just not that exceptional. Other than the added mute/AGC/squelch features, when compared to its predecessors, it’s really not a better iteration.
Just last week, I received the new Sangean ATS-405 on loan from Universal Radio. Though I’ve only had the radio for a week, I thought I’d share a few un-boxing photos (by request) and my initial impressions/review of this radio.
The ATS-405 comes with a thick owner’s manual (in five languages), a 7.5 volt AC adapter, and a soft radio case. The package does not contain rechargeable batteries nor a clip-on wire antenna (like many Tecsun products do, for example).
Overall, the packaging accommodates the radio and accessories efficiently and would probably ship safely even if the carrier doesn’t handle it with particular care.
The first thing I noticed about the ATS-405 is the near-identical design and layout Sangean has used in their design of past shortwave radios. If you’re a Sangean fan, you’ll find all of the functions, buttons, and labels pretty much in the same place; virtually no learning curve.
Performance: first impressions
After unboxing the ATS-405, I installed a fresh set of AA batteries in it and turned on the radio…
Like most Sangeans, the display is crisp, clear and can easily be read straight-on or at low angles, like when the radio is resting on its back stand, for example. If you look at the display from a higher angle, however, you’ll find that the LCD digits nearly disappear.
Back-lighting is perfect: it’s soft and consistent across the display, very much like the ATS-909X.
Audio from the internal speaker is good. It’s in the same league with most similarly-priced competitors.
Keeping in mind that I’ve only logged a few days of listening time on the ATS-405, I do have some initial impressions about receiver performance across the bands:
Right side view (click to enlarge)
On a positive note, I believe FM performance is quite good. Perhaps not in the same league with my PL-660 or PL-680, but still the Sangean offers above-average sensitivity. I was able to pick up my distant benchmark FM stations with ease, though to help with the signal lock, I had to switch from stereo to mono reception.
AM reception is a bit of a mixed bag. I find that the ‘405’s overall sensitivity and selectivity are quite good for broadcast band listening.
When I first tuned around on the AM broadcast band, however, I found the noise floor a little too high. Regardless of whether I was tuned in to a station or not, there was an ever-present high-pitched hiss, like static. It was quite disappointing, especially since I read a review by Jay Allen that really complimented the AM performance on the ATS-405.
I trust Jay’s reviews, however, so I promptly contacted him. Jay pointed out that the problem may be that I was listening in the default “wide” filter setting on AM. And indeed, he was right–though I had changed filter settings a few times while tuned to local stations, I had moved it back to wide and didn’t make note of this. (The ATS-405, by the way, has three filter settings: wide, medium and narrow.)
Left side view (click to enlarge)
But the wide setting is really too wide, and was certainly the source for the bulk of the high-pitched hiss I heard. The best filter setting for most broadcast band listening is the middle position, which sounds like a 5-6 kHz filter. In the middle position, noise is decreased significantly. I also believe selecting the “music” audio tone setting helps dissipate some of the noise.
Regarding the noise floor: to be clear, I still feel like the noise level is slightly more noticeable, to my ear, on the ATS-405 than on the PL-660, PL-600, and PL-310ET when band-scanning or weak signal listening. This is most likely some internally-generated noise that somehow still meets Sangean’s engineering spec.
Local AM stations sound fantastic, and the ATS-405 can detect all of my benchmarks. AM audio fidelity is better than that of my PL-660 and, even, PL-310ET. When locked on a local station, the noise floor also seems to disappear. For some reason, I even find that the ATS-405 does a better job receiving local AM stations from indoors–even near noisy electronics–than other sub-$100 portables with which I’m familiar.
The most disappointing discovery I made on the Sangean’s AM broadcast band is that it has DSP birdies. Birdies are internally-generated noises resulting from the outputs of the oscillators that form part of the DSP receiver circuit. While almost all receivers do have birdies somewhere in the receiver’s reception range, radio engineers try to keep them out of the way of the important parts of the band.
Unfortunately, my ATS-405 has strong DSP birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz. This is a big negative for me, since my favorite regional AM broadcast station is located on 1600 kHz (WTZQ). Rather than attempting to describe what the birdies sound like, here are a few audio clips that will give you an idea–I start with 1350 AM, which has no birdies and is representative of good AM reception:
WZGM 1350 kHz (broadcast sample with no birdie):
800 kHz (birdie on frequency with no broadcast signal):
WTZQ 1600 kHz (birdie on broadcast signal):
The ATS-405’s birdies almost sound like a jamming signal on 1600 kHz. Indeed, if this station were only located on a different frequency, I’m sure it would be quite audible on this radio…too bad.
Birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz may very well be deal-breakers for many of us. Again, since one of my favorite regional independent broadcasters is on 1600 kHz, it’s a deal-breaker for me.
Jay specifically mentioned a lack of birdies on the AM broadcast band in his review. It could very well be that he doesn’t hear them on his particular receiver–variations in quality control on a radio production line are certainly a real phenomena (the Grundig G3 is a case in point). This could indicate that some units may have pronounced birdies while others don’t. If you purchase an ATS-405, I would check to see if your unit has birdies after powering it up.
When I contacted an engineer for Sangean North America, and described my listening experience, he confirmed that he believed these are, indeed, DSP birdies. I may ask Sangean if they can send another ATS-405 for comparison.
On a more positive note, I checked harmonics in the HF/shortwave bands and heard no DSP birdies there.
Country of origin?
Bottom view with charge and keylock mechanical switches (click to enlarge)
One additional question I posed to Sangean: where is the ATS-405 made? One reader told me the radios are produced in both Taiwan and China. Thinking variations in quality control may be accounted for by two different production lines, I checked my radio to see where it was made. Unfortunately, my unit has no mention of country of origin; not on the radio, the box, the manual, behind the battery cover, nor on the back stand. It’s possible it could be marked internally, but I didn’t want to take apart a receiver I’ve been loaned.
Sangean came back with a firm answer:
“I can confirm that the ATS-405, along with all our radios, are manufactured in China. We have an office in Taipei for engineering, sales, marketing and customer support.”
Not a big surprise here; I expected China was the country of origin.
To sum up AM performance: if you aren’t bothered by the birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz, or if your unit isn’t producing them, you’ll find the ATS-405 a capable little AM broadcast band receiver.
Our HF propagation conditions since last Friday (when I first turned on the ATS-405) have been poor. Other than a few short band openings, I’ve struggled to hear anything other than the normal blow-torch broadcasters we hear in North America. Still, bad propagation conditions are actually good for reviewing some aspects of a shortwave receiver, so I used the opportunity.
In terms of sensitivity on the shortwave bands, I think the ATS-405 is mediocre. It lags behind my Tecsun PL-660, PL-600, PL-310ET, and CC Skywave. Adding a clip-on wire antenna to the telescoping whip (there is no aux antenna port) does help in terms of sensitivity.
Since I do most of my listening on the shortwave bands, this, too, is a deal-breaker for me. If you primarily listen to stronger shortwave stations, or spend most of your time on the FM/AM bands, then you might still consider the ATS-405.
The ATS-405’s selectivity seems to be on par with my other DSP-based portables. In truth, though, band conditions have been so unfavorable, I don’t feel like I’ve had ample opportunity to test selectivity. I’ll likely follow up this initial review with an update.
And as on medium wave, the noise floor on the shortwave bands seems a little high to me–especially with the filter set to the “wide” position.
Cool, innovative features
While I clearly haven’t been wowed by the ATS-405’s shortwave performance, I have been more favorably impressed with some of its innovative features: specifically, the ability to control squelch, tuning mute, and soft mute.
Using the menu button (see image above), you can engage or disengage the tuning mute and soft mute by pressing the “2” or “3” buttons on the keypad, then using the tuning up/down buttons to toggle these features on and off. Squelch works the same way, using the “1” button and volume control to set the threshold.
This menu control works regardless whether the radio is turned on or off.
Of course, by using the menu button and the keypad, you can also control the ‘405’s tuning steps, AGC, clock, and backlighting functionality; each of these are marked in green next to the appropriate button on the keypad (see image above), a very useful feature.
I wish other radio manufacturers would give users the ability to control some of the DSP chip’s built-in functionality, as the ‘405 does with the muting–especially since over-active soft muting has been the downfall of several DSP-based radios. Thanks for trail-blazing, Sangean!
Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here is a list of my notes from the moment I put the ATS-405 on the air:
Improved features and controls:
Crisp, clear display
Good travel size, similar to the Grundig YB400
Good AM/mediumwave sensitivity
Three audio/tone settings: Music, Norm, and News
Good FM sensitivity
Dedicated mechanical switches for keylock, audio tone, FM stereo/mono, and charging.
Lackluster shortwave sensitivity
DSP Birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz
Higher SW/AM noise floor (especially in wide filter setting)
No tuning wheel
No AUX antenna port
No shortwave SSB reception (AM only)
No audio line-out port
I’m going to hold onto the Sangean ATS-405 for a few more weeks, as I’d like to give it a more thorough test on the shortwave bands. I hope to follow up with a post offering a few representative recordings.
My nutshell opinion of the ATS-405 so far is that it’s a decent little radio with a lot of functionality and features for a rig in its price class. But overall, its performance seems to me rather mediocre. If you primarily listen to FM, you’ll be pleased. If you’re a mediumwave listener, you’ll be pleased only if you don’t mind the 800/1600 kHz DSP birdies. If you’re primarily a shortwave listener, you’ll need to carry a clip-on wire antenna to bring the sensitivity up to the level of similarly-priced receivers.
In short, I do want to like this radio unreservedly. But it appears that Sangean may need to pull up its socks on their quality control. Readers: please comment if you’ve purchased the ATS-405–I’m very curious to learn whether there are QC discrepancies in performance from one unit to the next.
PLEASE NOTE: After publishing this following review, Sangean kindly agreed to dispatch a second unit for comparison.