Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Gary DeBock, who shares the following notes from his Cook Islands Ultralight DXpedition:
Cook Islands (Aitutaki) Ultralight DXpedition from April 8-13
A gorgeous environment, with thrilling long range DX! Ruth and I took this trip as the 38th anniversary of out first meeting at Victoria Peak in Hong Kong (April 10, 1980).
DXing highlights were the reception of 693-Bangladesh, 918-Cambodia and 1431-Mongolia on the 7.5 inch loopstick C.Crane Skywave SSB Ultralight and 5 inch “Frequent Flyer” FSL antenna (designed to provide inductive coupling gain equal to that of a 4 foot air core box loop, but in a much more compact size).
693-Bangladesh 1652 UTC April 10 (mention of Bangladesh at 8 second point; thanks to Chuck Hutton for listening):
Without a doubt, C. Crane Company has become an established name in our radio community as a retailer and manufacturer that focuses on the world of broadcast listening. The company’s ads, website, and blog all promote broadcast listening as a viable and important part of our evolving media landscape. Their radio products are all designed with broadcast listening in mind.
The C. Crane CCRadio 2E
Currently the company manufactures one of the most capable AM broadcast receivers on the market: the CCRadio-2E.
The CCRadio-2E, however, is a pricey portable at $170 US, perhaps overkill for the casual broadcast listener.
So, for those seeking a simpler broadcast receiver, C. Crane later developed the original CCRadio-EP, a bare-bones, fully analog AM/FM radio with a large backlit slide rule dial, designed for the listener who wants to “go old school” in their receiving.
The original CCRadio-EP also attracted mediumwave/AM broadcast radio listeners because it had fairly impressive performance characteristics supported by C. Crane’s patented Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna. In many ways, the original CCRadio-EP was somewhat reminiscent of the GE Superadio.
Yet while the original CCRadio-EP has––according to C. Crane––been a popular product, because certain vital EP components are now becoming obsolete, the company has been forced to redesign it; hence the new CCRadio-EP Pro.
The CCRadio-EP Pro: A different animal
Let’s be clear, though: unlike its predecessor, the CCRadio-EP Pro is no longer a true analog set.
Despite external similarities, internally this radio and its predecessor are very different receivers. Inside, the EP Pro is based on the Silicon Labs SI4734 DSP chip. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I consider the move to a chip a significant design change.
Crane kindly sent me a review sample of the new CCRadio-EP Pro. It’s important to note that the review unit came from a strictly limited first production run; the actual consumer rig’s first major production run is still a few weeks away. Thus this radio is not yet shipping.
I’ve had the CCRadio-EP Pro for a few weeks now, during which time I’ve given it a thorough evaluation. So, let’s take a close look at the CCRadio-EP Pro––first, in terms of performance.
Let’s face it: if you’re a radio enthusiast and reading this review, you’re likely mainly concerned with the EP Pro’s performance on the AM broadcast band. Personally speaking, that’s true for me, too.
The CCRadio-EP Pro (left) and Tecsun PL-660 (right).
Over the years of reviewing portable receivers of all stripes, I’ve learned that nothing beats a radio specifically designed for AM broadcast band performance. Without a doubt, C. Crane intends that the CCRadio-EP Pro be one of these radios. Indeed, in many ways, it’s an ideal set for broadcast listening, because it sports:
C. Crane’s Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna
A large speaker
Wide/Narrow bandwidth switch
Dedicated external antenna connections
Although beefy internal AM antennas, large speakers, and external antenna connections were relatively common in the 1970s and 80s, these are rare features among modern AM/FM portable radios. The fact is, radios with superb AM broadcast performance are becoming a rather rare breed.
External antenna connections
In other words, the CCRadio-EP Pro has many design features that position it to be a formidable AM broadcast band receiver.
So, then, how does it perform? Well…that’s complicated to explain. The CCRadio-EP Pro has some positives, but also a notable amount of negatives.
Let’s start with the good news.
Positive: AM Sensitivity
Comparing the CCRadio-EP Pro (left) with the Sony ICF-5500W (right) and the Tecsun PL-660 (middle) at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.
The CCRadio-EP Pro is quite sensitive on the AM broadcast band. When I’ve compared it with a number of shortwave portables I own, it almost always outperforms them on frequency. When my Tecsun PL-660––one of the most sensitive mediumwave receivers among my shortwave portables––is tuned to a marginal signal, it sounds about half as sensitive as the CCRadio-EP Pro.
The noise floor is fairly low while the audio is robust and room-filling via the EP Pro’s front-facing speaker.
Positive: No drifting
As I’ve said above, unlike the original (analog) CCRadio-EP, the EP Pro is a mechanically-tuned DSP radio. In all of my testing, I never noted a time that the radio drifted off frequency.
Crane’s internal Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna affords the listener excellent gain and nulling capabilities. In fact, I find the nulling quite sharp, a major positive for this listener.
Positive: Fine tuning control
On the right side of the CCRadio-EP Pro you’ll find a large tuning knob (top), the antenna trimmer (middle), and large volume knob (bottom)
Like the original EP, the EP Pro has a Twin Coil Antenna Fine Tuning adjustment.
This feature can help make small adjustments to received station to peak reception. This fine tune control is actually trimming the twin coil ferrite bar.
Positive: Wide/Narrow filter
The EP Pro does have a Wide/Narrow filter selection which essentially helps widen or narrow received audio. Note that this has no meaningful impact on the imaging mentioned below.
Altogether, this about sums up the CCR-EP’s positive performance capabilities on the AM broadcast band.
Now let’s look at the CCR-EP’s negatives, some of which are, unfortunately, significant.
Negative: Muting between frequencies
The original CCRadio-EP revives the joy of a purely analog radio set. When you tune up/down the bands, there’s a fluidity to the whole process. While the interface is simple, analog tuning allows your ears to pick up on the nuances––the rise and fall of stations both strong and weak as you travel across the dial.
As we mentioned earlier, mechanically-tuned DSP radios, like the new CCRadio-EP Pro, may look like analog sets, but inside, they’re entirely digital. And one drawback to all of the mechanically-tuned DSP radios I’ve tested so far is a tendency to mute between frequencies. With each 10 kHz frequency step, you’ll hear a short audio mute. If you tune across the dial quickly, audio mutes until you land on a frequency. Here’s a video demonstrating the effect:
Needless to say, muting makes band scanning a more fatiguing process. It’s really a shame this affects the AM band. I hope that C. Crane engineers can minimize this issue in future production runs, but I understand much of this is a characteristic/limitation of this particular DSP chip.
Crane actually includes a note about weak images which you might find below and/or above your target signal. Weak images are an unfortunate reality of the CCRadio-EP Pro; they’re prevalent on both AM and FM.
Here’s how you’ll experience the images by way of example: let’s say you’re tuning to a strong local AM station on 630 kHz, noting that the EP Pro has 10 kHz tuning increments. As you tune to 630 kHz, you’ll hear the station on 620 kHz, though it won’t be as strong as it is on 630 kHz. Then if you tune to 640 kHz, you’ll likely hear a weaker image of the station there, as well. In my experience, images are present on both sides of the target station if the station is strong. If it’s a weak station, you might only hear it, say, 10 kHz lower but not above (or vise versa).
The CCRadio-EP Pro is powered by four D Cells.
As you might imagine, this poses a problem for the weak signal AM broadcast band DXer. Let’s say you’re trying to snag an elusive DX station on 640 kHz; although the EP Pro might have the sensitivity required to grab that station, it’s simply not selective enough (if selective is indeed the right word) to reject the local station on 630 kHz, thus your weak DX will have local competition.
This, more than any other negative, takes the EP Pro out of the realm of the mediumwave DXer.
Negative: Inaccurate dial
I’ve also discovered that, on my unit, the top half of the AM dial is inaccurate. I estimate that the slide rule dial is off by about 40-50 kHz at the top end of the band. It’s much more accurate below 1,200 kHz, however.
Here is a few photo of the CCRadio-EP Pro tuned to 1600 kHz:
I hope C. Crane can address this in future iterations of the EP Pro. While I don’t expect slide rule dials to be extremely accurate, there nonetheless needs to be some reliability.
Note: C. Crane engineering is aware of this problem and even attempting to implement a fix on the first production run units. I will follow up when I learn more.
Negative Audio “pop” with power on
As you might have heard in the band scanning video above, any time you turn on the CCRadio-EP Pro, you’ll hear an audio “pop.” This is happening when power is applied to the audio amplifier. The pop is not soft, but fairly audible, and is present even if you turn the volume down all the way. The audio pop is prevalent via both the internal speaker and when using headphones. Fortunately, it’s much less pronounced via headphones. While not a major negative, I find it a bit annoying, and don’t doubt that other listeners will, too.
Note: C. Crane engineering tell me that they’ve minimized the audio pop since making the limited first production run, thus the first full production run should be improved.
Negative: AM frequency steps currently limited to 10 kHz
My initial production run EP Pro is limited to 10 kHz frequency steps. This radio is primarily marketed to North America where 10 kHz increments are standard. Of course, if you’re trying to use the EP Pro to snag Transatlantic or Transpacific DX, you’ll miss the ability to tune between those broad 10 kHz steps. But, again, due to the imaging mention above, I think the CCRadio-EP Pro is simply not suited for DXing.
Note: C. Crane engineering has informed me that future production runs of the CCRadio-EP Pro may have a 10/9 kHz switch, thus eliminating this negative. If you’re reading this review a few months after time of posting––crossed fingers––this may already be resolved.
If you’re looking for a simple AM/FM radio, and plan to spend most of your time on the FM band, you’ll like the CCRadio-EP Pro.
FM audio is very good on the CCRadio-EP Pro. I think it would be safe to say that it’s superior to most other receivers currently on the market in its $85 price range. Audio is room-filling and has good characteristics with dedicated adjustments for Bass and Treble. FM audio is reminiscent of 1970s-era solid-state receivers like the GE Superadio (a big positive, in my book). The bass is not very deep and resonant, nor the treble super-crisp, but the sound overall is very pleasant to the ear.
The EP Pro is a sensitive FM receiver. It received all of my benchmark local and distant FM stations.
Positive: No drifting
As with AM, the EP Pro does not drift off frequency (again, this is actually a DSP radio).
The FM band is less affected by some of the negatives that impact AM broadcast band listening:
Negative: Inaccurate dial
As with the AM dial, FM frequency markings are slightly off. I measured the entire FM band and found that the upper half of the dial (above 102 MHz) seemed to deviate the most. See images below comparing the Tecsun PL-660 and CCRadio-EP Pro tuned to the same FM frequencies:
Here are a few examples of the CCRadio-EP Pro and Tecsun PL-660 tuned to the same frequencies:
Note: As mentioned above, C. Crane is trying to implement a fix for this in future production runs.
As with the AM band, you will find imaging on the FM band. This bothers me less on the FM band, but I live in an area where the FM dial isn’t incredibly crowded. If you live in an urban market with stations packed into the dial, then the imaging concern will probably make the experience of listening to a weak station adjacent to a strong station quite unpleasant.
What about muting between frequencies? While you can hear frequency steps on the FM band, there is little to no muting between frequencies. It almost feels more like an analog radio.
Funny, but the weak signal images around a strong FM frequency actually help contribute to an analog-like experience during band scanning, as stations seem to rise and fall as you tune.
There is another factor that I don’t really consider a positive, but is worth noting. The EP Pro is one of the best mechanically-tuned DSP receivers to use on the FM band because the slide rule dial is wide––there’s a larger space for the needle to travel. FM band scanning would be a pretty pleasant experience if only the dial markings were more accurate.
Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget some of my initial impressions. Here is the list I formed over the time I’ve spent evaluating the C. Crane CCRadio-EP Pro.
Excellent AM sensitivity
Good audio via internal speaker
Internal Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna provides excellent gain and nulling
Excellent dial backlighting
External AM/FM antenna connections
Quiet (included) power supply
Low noise floor
Imagining on both AM and FM
Muting between frequencies on AM
Pop in audio when unit is turned on, regardless of default volume level
Dial markings inaccurate
AM frequency steps currently fixed too broadly at 10 kHz (though future units may have a 9/10 kHz toggle)
My conclusion is that the CCradio-EP Pro is simply not an enthusiasts’ radio.
If you read the list of negatives in the AM performance section of this review, you’ll know why I simply can’t recommend it…at least not yet. If C. Crane could minimize AM muting, improve imaging and fix the frequency accuracy, this radio may prove more promising. But at this point, the limited production run CCRadio-EP Pro lacks the level of refinement that I’ve come to expect from a C. Crane radio.
For what it’s worth, I have been in close contact with C. Crane regarding these issues; the company is taking them to heart and even looking to implement some fixes/adjustments prior to their full production run. As these issues are resolved, I’ll amend this review.
The lack of refinements is somewhat disheartening. Otherwise, the CCR-EP Pro would be a great mediumwave DXing machine. When on frequency, it’s quite sensitive and stable! Perhaps some mediumwave DXers could overlook the negatives above to take advantage of this. I would not, however. I’d soon find the problems frustrating and turn to other receivers in my arsenal. Sensitivity is important, but personally I would sacrifice sensitivity to have an overall better tuning and listening experience.
On the other hand––as C.Crane makes a point of stating––the CC-Radio EP Pro was designed around the needs of Bob Crane’s mother: so is essentially an effective radio for casual listening that’s utterly simple to use. In this respect, at least, the EP Pro is a success.
The EP Pro has no multi-function buttons, no menus, and no memories. The knobs and buttons are tactile and obvious. The backlit dial is also a nice touch; I love it. The EP Pro is old school design around a modern DSP chip and, in terms of audio, a hat tip to classic solid state analog radios from the 1970s and 80s.
The casual listener––especially those who use radio to primarily listen to their one favorite station––will enjoy the EP Pro. For example, I have an older friend who’s in the process of replacing his bedside radio of 30+ years. He wants a set he can tune to his staple AM broadcast station (which is not a super-easy catch) and leave it on frequency––essentially, he wants a “set it and forget it” radio. I think the EP Pro will work well for this application.
But for radio enthusiasts––like most of you wonderful people who read the SWLing Post––I would pass on the EP Pro and consider a more capable mediumwave radio instead like the original CCRadio-EP, the CC-Radio 2E, or a vintage solid state set like the GE Superadio, Sony-5500W, or the venerable Panasonic RF-2200.
I’m in the process of writing up a review of the C. Crane CCRadio-EP Pro, but a number of readers have been asking about how pronounced muting is between frequencies while band scanning.
To be clear, the CCRadio-EP Pro is not a true analog set like the original CCRadio-EP (even though it looks like an analog set). The EP Pro is based on the Silicon Labs SI4734 DSP chip, hence the frequency steps in 10 kHz increments and are not fluid/seamless as they would on analog sets.
Muting is more pronounced on the AM broadcast band than it is on the FM band. Here are two video demonstrations:
The audio “pop” that I note (when the CCRadio-EP Pro is first turned on) is bit annoying and can even be heard in nearby radios if they’re on. While doing my comparisons with the Sony ICF-5500W and the Tecsun PL-660, for example, the audio pop could be heard in both units as I turned on the EP Pro. I’m willing to bet this is only prevalent in the DSP chip version of the EP series.
On the plus side, the new EP Pro will not drift like its analog ancestor (a common complaint from EP owners).
But truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of mechanically-tuned DSP radios. Why? For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to eliminate muting between 10 kHz frequency steps on the AM band. Note here that the EP Pro is fixed at 10 kHz steps, though C. Crane tell me a future production run will have a 9/10 kHz step toggle.
Additionally, the EP Pro produces false peaks/images on either side of a strong AM or FM signal. In fact, C. Crane includes the following informational insert with the EP Pro:
This is going to be a quirky radio.
The tuning mechanism is…well…unusual…and takes some getting used to. I’ve also discovered that the top half of the AM dial is inaccurate. Here’s the EP Pro centered on WTZQ at 1600 kHz:
I estimate that the slide rule dial is off by about 40-50 kHz at the top end of the band. It’s much more accurate below 1,200 kHz, however. I plan to hook the EP Pro up to a signal generator and note the results in my forthcoming review.
Speaking of an EP Pro review, I plan to publish it within the next two weeks, so stay tuned!
Those who know me know I’m all about travel, and all the things that make the travel experience enjoyable. I like to pack light, taking only the essentials, and if I’m traveling by air, I can easily fit two weeks of fun into one small carry-on. To me, the idea of lugging a huge suitcase, being subject to lost check-in luggage, and fretting over finding room in an overhead bin to squeeze in a huge bag simply has no appeal. Even though I often opt for the budget ticket, which means loading later, I know I can literally be the last one on board without fear because my travel bag is so compact that, if nothing else, it will fit underneath the seat in front of me.
Yet even though I travel light, I never ever travel without a radio. That’s a given in my bag. Since packable real estate in my carry-on is at a premium, I opt for the most bang-for-buck I can manage in a portable radio.
My radio travel partners
To date, I have a few favorite full-featured travel radios and know quite well both their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a list with some notable pros and cons:
Pros: A 1990s era marvel of compact technology, it sports SSB mode, sync detection, headphone and audio out jacks, external antenna jack, and long life on two AA batteries. It has excellent sensitivity and selectivity. No muting between frequencies spoils listening pleasure.
Cons: Speaker audio is poor, no FM RDS, no weather radio, no AIR band, the battery cover may be easily broken, ribbon cable can break (in early models) and the clamshell design, while a cool feature, isn’t always practical and makes the unit feel prone to damage. Plus, the SW100 series is no longer manufactured and, due to desirability, typically have a price point well above the competition.
Pros: A compact, ergonomic full-featured radio which sports SSB mode, AIR band, external antenna jack, reasonable audio from internal speaker, very good shortwave and mediumwave performance for the size. No muting between frequencies.
Cons: Rubberized coating becomes sticky as it deteriorates, no weather radio, no audio-out jack, no RDS, and it’s no longer manufactured.
Pros: Very affordable (typically $40-50 shipped), excellent shortwave, mediumwave and FM reception, external antenna jack, average audio fidelity from built-in speaker, internal battery charging, common 5V mini USB plug, reasonably durable.
Cons: No SSB mode, no weather radio, no AIR band, no RDS, no dedicated audio-out jack, limited shortwave coverage compared with other portables 2.3 – 21.95 MHz
Pros: SSB mode, great shortwave, mediumwave, fm reception, vertical form factor great for handheld listening while walking/hiking, external ferrite bar antenna enables excellent AM/mediumwave reception.
Cons: Vertical form factor means it’s prone to fall over if placed on a bedside table, no direct entry keypad for frequencies, tinny audio from built-in speaker, no RDS, no AIR band, detachable external ferrite bar antenna is an extra piece to keep up with while traveling.
Pros: Overall excellent performance on shortwave, mediumwave, and FM. AIR band, North America weather radio (excellent sensitivity) with alerts, squelch control, common 5 VDC USB mini power port with charging capability, a great value at $89
Cons: No SSB mode, no external antenna jack, no RDS,
What radio I decide to pack really depends on the type of trip I’m taking.
If I really want SSB mode to listen to HF pirates, ham radio, or utility stations, I tend to grab the Sony ICF-SW100, the Grundig G6, or more recently, the Digitech AR-1780 [and now the XHDATA D-808].
If I plan to do extended hiking or walking during my trip, I might grab the CountyComm GP5-SSB.
If I only plan to listen to AM/FM/SW broadcasts, and it’s a short trip––or one during which the radio might receive rough treatment––then I might grab the Tecsun PL-310ET. If I leave the PL-310ET in a hotel or drop it, I’m only out about $40. I’ve even been known to simply give one of these to someone, like a kid for example, who shows a fascination in shortwave radio.
If I plan to do off-air audio recordings during my travels, then the Sony ICF-SW100 because it’s the only radio with a dedicated audio-out port. Plus, it’s a great performer.
If I’m travelling by air, however, I almost always choose the CC Skywave: its unique combination of AM/FM/SW coverage, NOAA weather, and AIR band are simply hard to beat. It’s compact, durable, and gets the job done. Plus, the Skywave seems to operate for ages on a set of AA batteries. C. Crane really knocked it out of the ballpark with the CC Skywave.
But there was one glaring omission on the original CC Skywave: Single-sideband (SSB) mode.
Enter the CC Skywave SSB
Earlier this year, I learned about a new radio in development at C. Crane: the CC Skywave SSB. I saw a Beta unit very early on and a few weeks later, knowing how much I appreciate the original Skywave, C. Crane asked me to help test the new Skywave SSB. I was happy to do my bit.
I actually do quite a bit of alpha- and beta-testing for manufacturers. While it’s time-consuming volunteer work, and requires meticulous attention to detail––even seemingly minor details––it gives me an opportunity to have meaningful positive impact on an upcoming product. Manufacturers that actively involve enthusiasts in their testing phase tend to produce better quality. I wish all manufacturers did this (yes, Tecsun, I’m looking squarely at you!).
After the Skywave SSB arrived, I started putting it through its paces. Typically, pilot run units have quirks and glitches buried in non-standard operating procedures. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any on the Skywave SSB. I’ve since learned that C. Crane invests heavily in pre-production testing; I saw their full list of iterative notes, and they were incredibly detailed. Result? No obvious problems. I’ve always believed that while C. Crane doesn’t always produce the most affordable products––nor do they stuff every bell-and-whistle into them––what they do produce is well thought out, user friendly, well documented, and performs at or near the top of its class.
The CC Skywave SSB comes with a surprising amount of features for such a compact radio. Many of these features are also found on the original CC Skywave.
I’ve placed upgraded features in bold:
AM, FM, NOAA Weather band plus Alert, Shortwave (1711-29.999MHz) with SSB mode, and Airband
Frequency direct entry, plus auto scan and store
Lighted LCD display
Selectable fast or fine tuning (on all bands except weather)
Dedicated fine tuning control, selectable on front panel
400 memory presets
Runs on 2 AA Alkaline batteries (not included)
(Optional) CC Skywave AC power adapter w/ mini USB plug required for charging NiMH batteries.
Stereo headphone jack and fold-out back stand
Clock with 12/24 hour format and alarm
Rotary volume knob
High quality CC Buds Earphones and radio carry case included
Run Time (on batteries––approximate):
± 70 hours (earbuds)
± 60 Hours (built-in speaker)
10 Aviation Memories can be scanned for activity
You’ll notice there are actually very few obvious upgrades from the original Skywave to the Skywave SSB: just SSB mode, expanded HF coverage (from 1,711 to 29,999 kHz), and dedicated fine tune button/control. I’ve also learned that aviation band scanning is much faster on the newer model than on the original Skywave.
Other than those items, in terms of features, it’s very similar to the original CC Skywave.
CC Skywave SSB (left) and the original CC Skywave (right)
The original Skywave and Skywave SSB are nearly identical in terms of form factor; overall dimensions are identical (4.8″ W x 3″ H x 1″ D), although the Skywave SSB weighs 1.2 oz more than the original––a difference that’s scarcely detectable.
The tuning knob, volume control, power port, and headphones jack are in the same places on the SSB. The chassis color is different, however; the original Skywave is black, whereas the new Skywave SSB is grey––a dark warm or “dim” grey,” to be accurate.
Original CC Skywave (left) and CC Skywave SSB (right)
Where one finds the true difference between the new Skywave SSB and its predecessor is on the front panel. The Skywave SSB has dedicated buttons to enable both SSB mode, select upper or lower sideband, and a fine-tune control. The Skywave also has a dedicated backlight button. This accounts for a total of four additional buttons compared with the original Skywave.
In a rather nice touch, both the SSB and fine tune buttons have tiny red LED indicators to let the user know when they’re engaged.
The CC Skywave SSB also has a redesigned speaker grill which more closely resembles the grill on their CC Pocket radio. Much to my surprise, once I shared detailed photos of the CC Skywave SSB, many of my readers expressed their disappointment with the speaker design. Many claimed it looked “cheap” as compared with the original Skywave and thus felt the chassis might be more subject to breakage. Some even got the impression that the speaker grill was raised in a way that it would lend itself to harm.
Actually, this is not accurate. Though it may appear that the speaker grill is elevated in photos, it’s actually in a recessed portion of the chassis and surrounded by an absorbent rubber ring, rising only ? 1 mm above the chassis, if that. And the hard plastic case feels as solid and robust as any portable I’ve tested. I wouldn’t hesitate to toss it in my pack.
Personally, I think the Skywave SSB is a handsome little radio! Perhaps I’m not as sensitive as others about chassis design, but I’m actually happy it’s not a clone of the original Skywave, making it much easier for owners of both models to distinguish them when packing!
From Pilot/Beta to production
While C. Crane allowed me to post a number of photos once the product announcement had been made, I would not publicly comment on performance. Indeed, I never post performance comments about pre-production units since I wouldn’t be evaluating the same product that hits the store shelves.
So once C. Crane posted an ordering page for the Skywave SSB, I placed an order, just like everyone else.
In truth, I was told there were only minor differences between the pilot unit and the production unit: some silk screening and other very minor changes.
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, if not a little better than, the original Skywave.
Upon careful listening, I discovered the production unit had a faint, internally-generated whine on some of the shortwave bands; when tuned to marginal signals, this whine manifested in the form of 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 between steps.
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 that they kindly expedite the request.
Production Radios #4, #5, and #6
I tested all three radios from this final batch of production units. What follows is an assessment of those radios.
First production run noises
I spent two full hours searching for birdies (internally generated noises) and other anomalies on the three CC Skywave SSB production units I received that Monday. Each radio’s noise location varied slightly (within 20-40 kHz).
Birdies are a fairly common occurrence among sensitive receivers, and the CC Skywave SSB has about an average number. Fortunately, 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) had a very slight audio whine present––either via the internal speaker or headphones––on certain portions of the spectrum.
In the first full production unit I received, I believe this whine may have slightly affected the unit’s overall sensitivity. On the last three production units I received, the whine didn’t seem to have as much of an impact on overall sensitivity.
The whine is still there, however. And occasionally when the unit is tuned to a weak signal within one of these zones, other faint sweeping noises can 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 at the time this was recorded we had terrible propagation due to a geo storm, so WWV was very weak, indeed.
I noted no birdies or noises on the mediumwave band.
I’ve no doubt, C. Crane will tackle these issues and solve them by the time the second production run ships.
In the meantime, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the CC Skywave SSB, having evaluated a total of seven models and spending more time evaluating them than I have any other portable.
Let’s take a look at what we can expect from the CC Skywave SSB with these first production quirks aside.
Like its predecessor and many other travel radios (the Digitech AR-1780 and XHDATA D-808 being notable exceptions) the Skywave SSB’s audio from the internal speaker is adequate. It’s just shy of what I would call “tinny” because it does cover the mid-range . For spoken word content in AM and SSB, it does the job quite well. With music, you simply can’t expect any bass notes or room-filling audio. But then again, in a compact radio, my expectations are simply lower. The Digitech AR-1780 and XHDATA D-808 have the best audio of my compact travel radios, but they’re also the largest, so have a slightly bigger speaker.
I did note a minor amount of background hiss present somewhere in the audio amplification chain on the first production run units–most noticeable via headphones.
With the supplied CC Buds, you’ll be a happy camper.
Audio sounds rich via the headphones jack.
Of course, what we all want to know is how well the CC Skywave SSB performs. In a nutshell (spoiler alert!) it’s very similar to the original Skywave.
I break this down band-by-band below, starting with my favorite band.
Keeping in mind the frustrating experience with quality control, when I received the final three production units, I was very pleased with performance on the shortwave bands. The AGC characteristics are relatively stable, making weak signal listening a pleasant experience. Even though the Skywave SSB lacks a synchronous detector, I found that stability––even with periods of notable selective fading––is impressive.
In the realm of compact travel radios, both my pre-production and (better functioning) production models are strong performers. The Skywave SSB is slightly less sensitive than my larger, full-featured portables like the Tecsun PL-660, PL-680, PL-880, and Grundig Satellit. All of these radios, however, have longer telescoping whip antennas. If I add the gain from the included CC Reel antenna, the Skywave SSB can even hold its own with many of these.
I’ve been very pleased with the original Skywave for broadcast SWLing for a few years now. I’m happy to report that the Skywave SSB offers an incremental improvement over the original Skywave.
Much like other modern DSP portables, FM performance is stellar for such a compact radio. The Skywave SSB was able to receive all of my benchmark FM stations. While audio fidelity from the Skywave SSB’s internal speaker is not a strong point, via headphones you’ll be quite pleased.
I’ve found the Skywave SSB to be capable mediumwave receiver. Performance characteristics are very similar to the original Skywave and the AGC settings even make MW DXing a pleasant experience. Since the internal ferrite bar isn’t terribly large, better performance can be achieved by coupling the Skywave SSB to an inexpensive loop antenna, like the Grundig AN200 AM Antenna.
Like the original Skywave, the Skywave SSB is an impressively capable weather radio receiver. From my home, I’m able to pick up a marginal NOAA weather radio frequency that most of my other weather radios cannot. The Skywave SSB also includes a handy weather alert feature that will monitor your chosen NOAA/Environment Canada frequency and wake up the receiver if an alert is issued.
Note that the weather alert feature works on a timer and, most importantly, if operating from battery, drains batteries as quickly as if you were monitoring a live station with the squelch open.
While I didn’t compare performance with a triple conversion scanner, I’m favorably impressed with AIR band performance. During my tests, I noted no imaging or overloading on the AIR band, a very good thing. Additionally, the Skywave SSB offers improved scanning features for the AIR band, making it easier to monitor ground, tower, and even approach/departure frequencies at larger airports. When employing the squelch feature, you almost get the impression you’re holding a scanner, rather than a shortwave portable, in your hands.
Like the original CC Skywave, the SSB does not cover the longwave band. In North America, there is very little to listen to on longwave, so many consumers will never take notice. I’m sure longwave DXers will wish it was a part of the package, however. Admittedly, when I’m traveling in Europe and other parts of the world where there are still stations on longwave, I’ll certainly miss the band.
Comparing to other compact travel radios
Trying to decide if the CC Skywave SSB will have the performance characteristics to displace my other travel portables, I compared it with the radios I mention at the beginning of this article.
In terms of overall sensitivity and selectivity, the CC Skywave SSB essentially runs neck-and-neck with, or in some respects slightly edges out, the Tecsun PL-310ET, Grundig G6, and CountyComm GP5-SSB.
However, both the Sony ICF-SW100 and the Digitech AR-1780 are more sensitive than the Skywave SSB. The Digitech AR-1780 has the best audio characteristics of the competitors, but is also slightly larger and heavier than the others.
Note, too, that the Sony ICF-SW100 and Grundig G6 are the only radios in this comparison that don’t mute between frequency changes. They’re the best band-scanning receivers.
And how does the Skywave SSB compare with the original CC Skywave? I find that the Skywave SSB has a slightly lower noise floor which is perhaps helped even further by better audio/tone characteristics. Sensitivity is about the same, but signals pop out of the background static better on the Skywave SSB.
In terms of features, the Skywave SSB likely offers the most for the traveler.
Every radio has its pros and cons, of course. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget my initial impressions. Following is the list I’ve formed over the time I’ve been evaluating the CC Skywave SSB:
Overall well thought out, considerate design
Excellent form factor for travel
Very good sensitivity and selectivity for a compact radio
Faster AIR scanning compared with the original Skywave
Better HF frequency coverage than the original Skywave (1.711-29.999 MHz, compared to 2.300-26.100 MHz)
Pleasant SSB audio
Multiple bandwidths in both AM and SSB modes
No overloading noted
Well-written operation manual
Excellent weather band reception
Nice red LED indication lamps for SSB and Fine Tune engagement
a quality external reel antenna
CC Buds earphones
Soft case with Velcro closure
Excellent battery life from two AA cells (AA cells are a plus for travelers as they’re so ubiquitous)
Inconsistent quality from initial production run (likely corrected in future runs)
Mutes between frequencies while band-scanning
Engaging SSB mode requires 2-3 seconds of delay (common for this DSP chip)
Some ticking noise in audio when pressing buttons (identical to the Digitech AR-1780)
No audio-out jack
No longwave reception
ATS Scanning in 1st production run stops at 26,100 kHz
No synchronous detection (though not expected in this class of compact portable)
Shortwave ATS tuning time about half as fast as the original Skywave (original is quite speedy!)
$149 price is at the top of its class
I love the CC Skywave SSB. Sure, I wish it had RDS, an audio-out jack, didn’t mute between frequencies, and was a little less expensive. But overall, it’s a fantastic package. I’m impressed with the amount of performance the Skywave SSB provides with such a short telescoping antenna.
Most reading this review will be scratching their heads wondering if: a) having SSB mode is worth the $60 premium over the original Skywave ($89 vs. $149)? and b) is any compact radio, for that matter, really worth $149––?
Because of how I travel, I would say that I easily use ultra-compact portables like the Skywave SSB about 70% of the time I’m found listening to portables.
When the Skywave SSB was first placed on the C. Crane website, they posted a price of $169––when the units started shipping, they reduced the cost to $149, and reimbursed those who had placed an order with the higher price.
Though the initial $169 price made me wince a bit, I still ordered one. Why? Because to me being a traveler who loves an ultra compact, having an ergonomic, full-featured, durable, compact travel radio with SSB, AIR and NOAA weather radio is worth it!
Therefore, the CC Skywave SSB will be my travel radio of choice going forward––it’s essentially a Swiss Army Knife of a travel radio.
There’s another factor, too: I trust C. Crane. Despite the frustrating quirks I experienced reviewing my first production run units, I know C. Crane takes care of their customers in the long run, and will replace any faulty units without hesitation. They’ve taken every item of feedback I’ve provided directly to their engineers and quality-control specialists, and the work continues to resolve this radio’s concerns. If you have a Skywave SSB with noise, don’t hesitate to contact C. Crane about it.
Overall, I am optimistic about this radio. I expect the second production run will produce radios performing as they should––like the final production units I tested, but without the internally-generated noises. And if this occurs as I expect, you can expect good performers.
At any rate, I know this: I’ll be one of the first to test units of their second production run…and to let you know just what I find. (Bookmark the tag CC Skywave SSB for updates.)