Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Gary DeBock, who shares his extensive 2021 Ultralight Radio Shootout.
This is truly a deep dive featuring five popular ultralight portable radios and examining mediumwave, shortwave, FM, and AIR Band performance.
The review is an amazing 40 pages long! In order to display the entire review, click on the “Continue reading” link below.
2021 Ultralight Radio Shootout
Five Hot Little Portables Brighten Up the Pandemic
By Gary DeBock, Puyallup, WA, USA April 2021
Introduction The challenges and thrills of DXing with pocket radios have not only survived but thrived since the Ultralight Radio Boom in early 2008, resulting in a worldwide spread of the hobby niche group. Based upon the essential concepts of DXing skill, propagation knowledge and perseverance, the human factor is critical for success in pocket radio DXing, unlike with computer-controlled listening. The hobbyist either sinks or swims according to his own personal choices of DXing times, frequencies and recording decisions during limited propagation openings—all with the added challenge of depending on very basic equipment. DXing success or failure has never been more personal… but on the rare occasions when legendary DX is tracked down despite all of the multiple challenges, the thrill of success is truly exceptional—and based entirely upon one’s own DXing skill.
Ultralight Radio DXing has inspired spinoff fascination not only with portable antennas like the new Ferrite Sleeve Loops (FSL’s) but also with overseas travel DXing, enhanced transoceanic propagation at challenging sites like ocean side cliffs and Alaskan snowfields, as well as at isolated islands far out into the ocean. The extreme portability of advanced pocket radios and FSL antennas has truly allowed hobbyists to “go where no DXer has gone before,” experiencing breakthrough radio propagation, astonishing antenna performance and unforgettable hobby thrills. Among the radio hobby groups of 2021 it is continuing to be one of the most innovative and vibrant segments of the entire community.
The portable radio manufacturing industry has changed pretty dramatically over the past few years as much of the advanced technology used by foreign companies in their radio factories in China has been “appropriated” (to use a generous term) by new Chinese competitors. Without getting into the political ramifications of such behavior the obvious fact in the 2021 portable radio market is that all of the top competitors in this Shootout come from factories in China, and four of the five have Chinese name brands. For those who feel uneasy about this rampant copying of foreign technology the American-designed C. Crane Skywave is still available, although even it is still manufactured in Shenzhen, China—the nerve center of such copying.
Prior to purchasing any of these portables a DXer should assess his own hobby goals, especially whether transoceanic DXing will be part of the mission– in which case a full range of DSP filtering options is essential. Two of the China-brand models use only rechargeable 3.7v lithium type batteries with limited run time, which may not be a good choice for DXers who need long endurance out in the field. A hobbyist should also decide whether a strong manufacturer’s warranty is important. Quality control in some Chinese factories has been lacking, and some of the China-brand radio sellers offer only exchanges—after you pay to ship the defective model back to China. Purchasers should not assume that Western concepts of reliability and refunds apply in China, because in many cases they do not. When purchasing these radios a DXer should try to purchase through a reputable seller offering a meaningful warranty—preferably in their own home country.
One of the unique advantages of Ultralight Radio DXing is the opportunity to sample the latest in innovative technology at a very reasonable cost—and the five pocket radio models chosen for this review include some second-generation DSP chip models with astonishing capabilities. Whether your interest is in domestic or split-frequency AM-DXing, FM, Longwave or Shortwave, the pocket radio manufacturers have designed a breakthrough model for you—and you can try out any (or all) of them at a cost far less than that of a single table receiver. So get ready for some exciting introductions… and an even more exciting four band DXing competition!
The original CC Skywave portable radio is among the pricier of my suggestions, but also packs the most features. Seen here on location in Canada.
Over the past four weeks, I’ve gotten a number of emails from first-time readers of the SWLing Post who’ve landed here because they’re searching for a new radio. While not all these readers are necessarily interested in shortwave, what they are interested in is a good, solid battery-powered radio to receive local news on AM and FM. A few have specifically asked for a radio with NOAA/Environment Canada weather radio reception. Others are looking for a self-powered or hand crank radio option, while some specifically asked for a shortwave radio to listen to international broadcasts. A common point was that no one wanted to spend a lot, inclining toward something cost-effective––understandable in these uncertain times––but they nonetheless are looking for quality, for a radio that won’t fail them, even if their Internet service does.
Radios provide local connection
The following post is my response to these questions. I’ve selected five radios under $90 USD that can fill a variety of needs, and also offer good information support in the event of an emergency. I gave priority to radios that can be powered by common AA batteries––all but one model can be powered by common AA cells. Also, three of the five radios below can receive North American weather radio frequencies.
Note that while many of these models have been chosen with North American readers in mind, there are a number of similar models available in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific that have DAB/DAB+ reception. This list is by no means comprehensive, as there are literally hundreds of similar radios on the market; if you feel I’ve left an ideal radio off this list, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.
Self-Powered Radios: The C. Crane CC Solar Observer ($50)
There are a number of self-powered (hand-crank and/or solar powered) radios on the market. My favorite self-powered radio for receiving local news and weather here in North America is the C. Crane CC Solar Observer.
I like the CC Solar Observer because it’s substantial, well made by a company I trust, and has three different ways to power it (AA batteries/AC adapter, a hand crank, and solar charging). The internal rechargeable battery pack stores energy from the hand crank, solar panel, or AC adapter. In a pinch, this radio can even charge a mobile phone via a supplied USB adapter.
The backlit dial is such a thoughtful design feature: whether the power’s out or you’re just out camping, it’s good to be able to see where you’re tuning in.
And, of course, this radio performs very well, indeed. You’ll be pleased with AM, FM and weather radio reception. Audio is quite respectable via the internal speaker, and the overall build quality is excellent. The CC Solar Observer also sports an LED flashlight, and is, to my knowledge, the only self-powered radio with a very handy backlit dial!
This is not the cheapest in the line-up: new, these retail anywhere from $45 to $60 USD. Still, I think this radio is a very worthwhile investment, and really, the best of the bunch.
Other Options: The Degen DE13 DSP is much smaller, sports the shortwave band, and is less expensive (roughly $25 USD). I also like the Tecsun GR-88, which has a similar form factor to the CC Solar Observer, and also includes the shortwave bands (roughly $55 USD). Negatives for both of these radios is that many are sold from China, which could mean longer-than-normal shipping times, should you need it soon. Also, neither of these models include North American weather radio frequencies.
Simple Pocket Radios With Built-In Speaker: Sangean SR-35 ($20)
Small form factor ideal for you? I like the Sangean SR-35 because it’s such a simple, easy-to-use radio, is obviously incredibly portable, and produces respectable audio for a pocket radio. (The SR-35 is also a favorite among SWLing Post readers.) The SR-35 sports an 18” telescopic FM antenna and built-in AM antenna. Performance is fantastic for a radio in this price class. If you don’t mind an analog dial and the fact the SR-35 can’t receive North American weather radio frequencies, you’ll love this affordable little pocket radio.
I like the Sangean DT-160 because it’s a respectable AM/FM portable radio that can run on two AA batteries for an impressive 116 hours. I can confirm this because I once tested its clear-case cousin, the DT-160CL. It’s very compact, and sports excellent FM and AM performance that will snag all of your local broadcasters. Unlike some of the other selections on this page, it lacks an internal speaker and North American weather radio frequencies. Still, if you’re looking for a pocket portable with digital display that’s an incredible battery miser, look no further than the Sangean DT-160.
Other Options: I’ve only tested a handful of radios for battery performance. The DT-160 is certainly king in this category, although no doubt there are many analog models that could achieve even better battery longevity. The models that have impressed me the most both in terms of performance and battery life are the Sony SRF-59 and SRF-39FP (clear case). Sadly, neither of these models is still in production, but you can still track down used ones on eBay.
Large Portable Radios: Sangean PR-D4W ($65)
Sangean radios are a favorite among SWLing Post readers because they’re built well and typically perform exactly as they should. In fact, when I mentioned I would be writing this post, several readers immediately suggested the Sangean “PR” series radios, and perhaps my pick of this bunch is the venerable Sangean PR-D4W. I like this particular model because it receives AM, FM and North American weather radio frequencies. It even has a weather alert function. Audio from the built-in speaker is pleasing and operation is very simple. Most functions are available via one-button press. Note that Sangean also produces a PR model for visually-impaired customers that is similar to the PR-D4W, although it lacks weather radio; this is the Sangean PR-D17 (click here to read a full review). The only gripe I have with the PR-D4W (and many of the “PR” series radios) is a lack of carry handle. Unlike the other radios in this list, the PR-D4W requires four “D” cells for battery operation.
Other Options:Click here to check out the full line of Sangean “PR” series radios.
Portable Shortwave Radios: C. Crane CC Skywave ($85)
The C.Crane CC Skywave
The CC Skywave is a brilliant little radio and is certainly time-tested. It’s a fine broadcast receiver and one of the most sensitive travel portables on the market. For those of us living and traveling in North America, the CC Skywave is a veritable “Swiss Army Knife” receiver, as it not only covers AM, FM and shortwave, but is a capable AIR band receiver plus incredibly adept NOAA/Environment Canada weather radio receiver. At $90 USD, I believe it’s the best radio value in the C. Crane product line.Click here to read our full review of the CC Skywave.
Other Options: Although it lacks North American weather radio reception and no AIR band like the CC Skywave, the Tecsun PL-310ET is a time-tested benchmark portable radio. At $48 shipped (via Amazon), it’s a bargain. An even less expensive option is the Retekess V115, at $29.99 shipped, and though its performance is pretty impressive for the price, I prefer the overall quality of the Tecsun and C. Crane better.
If you’ve found this post because you’re looking for a reliable AM/FM radio, I hope the selections above will give you some guidance. There are so many AM/FM radios on the market, we can’t cover them all. But these solid radios are time tested, and in my view, among the best; they’re not likely to let you down when you need them most.
Thanks for the tip, Chris! Happy to see RadioWorld still have this sale available! At time of posting, eBay claims they’re 74% sold.
Original CC Skywave
Additionally, I just received an e-flyer from C. Crane. They’re having an inventory reduction sale which includes some “Orphaned” CC Skywave units.
C. Crane orphaned radios are typically open box units that have been checked over carefully by C. Crane technicians and carry a full warranty. I’ve purchased their orphaned products in the past and would hesitate to jump on this deal if I didn’t already have the original CC Skywave.
It is made specifically for the Skywave(s) and fits like a glove. I believe one could kick it across a parking lot and never worry about any damage to your radio it’s so well padded. I put the earbuds and a clip lead for attaching to a reel antenna into the pouch in the cover. Not much else is going to fit.
I know that you are also a “bag geek” so I’ve sent the Amazon link for you to peruse.
[…]The only slight negative that I could say is that the cased radio is approximately twice the thickness of the radio alone, if tight packing is an issue.
I just thought I’d pass this along as I don’t recall ever seeing anyone mentioning it. At $14.99 it’s cheap but good insurance if you travel where things “take a beating.”
73, Happy Holidays and thank you for all your reviews and articles.
We actually have mentioned this on the SWLing Postbefore, but obviously the article is rather buried at this point. Thanks for the reminder.
Like you, I do see the negative that this case effectively increases the size of the CC Skywave for one bag travel, but it would certainly do a fine job protecting the Skywave in transit. Indeed, I believe that’s a pretty acceptable compromise. I especially like the fact that the earbuds will also fit in the case. I might pick one of these up with some Christmas credit I have at Amazon.
Afterall, the CC Skywave SSB is a $150 radio–! I suppose since I buy $15-$20 protective cases for my $150 smartphone, my radio should at least get the same treatment! It’ll certainly outlast my smartphone!
Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Jim T, who writes with the following inquiry:
Wondering if you can give me some guidance re: NOAA weather radios.
We’re looking to be better prepared for disasters, bad weather etc. and have narrowed our radio candidates to CC Crane, Sangean and Kaito.
AM/FM would be nice, hand cranking and solar as well, but just want to get NOAA alerts should we have an earthquake here in the NW. Willing to spend $50-100 for something quality with relevant features to it. Your thoughts would be appreciated!
Thanks for your message, Jim. There are dozens of inexpensive weather radio models on the market, but I know a few good options based on my personal experience.
If you’re looking for a weather radio to plug in and continuously monitor weather alerts through the S.A.M.E. system, I recommend a dedicated weather radio like theMidland WR120. These radios don’t typically have AM/FM functions, but are entirely devoted to the seven weather radio frequencies in the US and Canada (162.400, 162.425, 162.450, 162.475, 162.500, 162.525, and 162.550 MHz). They plug into mains power and the better ones have battery backup in case of power outages.
I have family that own the Midland WR120. They’ve used it for years and it’s worked flawlessly. Once you set up the radio with your preferred NOAA frequency and SAME alert regions, it will alarm and automatically play NOAA weather radio alerts when they’re issued for your area. My family use this for tornado and storm alerts.
The Midland WR120 uses three AA alkaline cells for emergency power back-up. It’s very much a “set it and forget it” radio and, in my opinion, a bargain at $29.99.
As with any SAME alert radio, be aware that sometimes the alarm can be annoying. Depending on where you live and how the alert system is set up, you might get notifications for isolated weather events on the other side of your county–the S.A.M.E. system cannot pinpoint your neighborhood.
Still, I believe S.A.M.E. notifications are worth any extra inconvenience, especially if you live in an area prone to sudden storms and earthquakes.
C. Crane CC Skywave: A portable shortwave radio with excellent NOAA weather reception
The C.Crane CC Skywave
If you’re looking for a battery powered radio to use during emergencies that has much more than NOAA weather radio, I’d recommend the C.Crane CC Skywave. Not only is it a full-fledged AM/FM/Shortwave and Air band radio, but it has exceptional NOAA weather radio reception with a weather alert function. The CC Skywave is a great radio to take on travels or keep in the home in case of an emergency. It’ll operate for ages on a set of two AA batteries, though I always keep a pack of four on standby just in case.
C. Crane CC Solar Observer: A self-powered AM/FM NOAA weather radio
There are a number of self-powered NOAA weather radios out there, but frankly, many are very cheap and the mechanical action of the hand crank are prone to fail early.
I believe one of the best is the CC Solar Observer by C. Crane. It’s durable, and can also run on three AA cells, and is an overall great radio in terms of sensitivity on AM/FM as well. Unique in the world of self-powered radios, it also has a backlit display (which can be turned off or on)–a fantastic feature if the power is out.
Like other self-powered analog radios, the CC Solar Observer has no S.A.M.E. alert functionality.
The Eton FRX5 sport weather alert, a digital display and futuristic design.
I would also encourage you to check out the wide selection of self-powered weather radios through Eton Corporation.
Many are digital and even have S.A.M.E. weather alerts. I haven’t commented on performance since I haven’t personally tested the 2016 and later models.
Eton typically packs a lot of features in their self-powered radios–having manufactured them for well over a decade, they’ve implemented iterative improvements along the way.
I have tested previous models extensively.
I particularly like the Eton FRX5 although being a digital radio, you get less play time per hand-powered crank–that’s why I prefer analog self-powered radios. The CC Solar Observer, for example, will yield roughly 40 minutes of listening time (at moderate volume levels) on 2-4 minutes of cranking.
Still, if charged fully in advance, I’m sure the FRX5 will play for hours. Note that using S.A.M.E. functionality in standby mode will deplete batteries more quickly.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Troy Riedel, who notes that C. Crane is shipping a free AC Adapter with their CC Skywave portable (see image above). The total package price is $89.99.
Note that this is for the original CC Skywave, which I think is a brilliant little radio and one of my favorite travel companions. Note, too, that all CC Skywave models include a set of CC Buds–the best earphones any manufacturer includes with a radio.
This promotion does not include shipping, which adds an additional $12.99 to the total price.
To be clear, this deal is for the original CC Skywave. The new CC Skywave SSB should start shipping in early November. At $169.99, it costs almost double the price of the original CC Skywave. If SSB mode isn’t important to you, you might jump on this original CC Skywave.
Tuesday afternoon, I took a number of portable radios to the field: the Tecsun S-8800, Tecsun PL-880, Digitech AR-1780, C. Crane CC Skywave and the new C. Crane CC Skywave SSB.
Last week, I received a pilot run (pre-production) CC Skywave SSB from C. Crane to test and provide feedback. My unit, of course, is still subject to cosmetic changes and engineering tweaks.
Since this is not a final iteration of the product, I won’t comment or review performance other than to say that if you like the original CC Skywave, you should love the new CC Skywave SSB.
C. Crane has kindly given me permission to post a few preview photos.
CC Skywave SSB Photos
First thing you’ll notice is that the CC Skywave SSB is essentially identical to its predecessor in size and shape.
Indeed, the CC Skywave SSB fits the original Skywave’s carry case perfectly. If you’ve purchased a custom protective case–like this one— for the original Skywave, it’ll fit the CC Skywave SSB like a glove. As you can see above, the front panel design has changed, though. The CC Skywave SSB accommodates four additional function buttons and sports a re-designed speaker grill (similar to the CC Pocket Radio). Nice touch! C. Crane thought to use that little piece of real estate behind the backstand.
Listening to the 2016 BBC Midwinter Broadcast to Antarctica while traveling in Canada with the CC Skywave.
The original CC Skywave has pretty much been my go-to travel radio since it was released. I’ve taken it everywhere.
I’ve also taken the amazing Sony ICF-SW100 and the full-featured Grundig G6 (which even includes the AIR band) on trips when I wanted access to single sideband mode–something the original CC Skywave lacked. (Note that both of these radios are now discontinued.)
But when traveling in North America or by air, I really appreciate the Skywave’s excellent NOAA weather radio and access to aviation frequencies on the AIR band. Very handy features for the traveler who likes to stay informed.
By adding single sideband mode to an already capable ultra-compact travel radio, C. Crane has created a welcome radio traveling companion indeed.
Spread the radio love
Please support this website by adding us to your whitelist in your ad blocker. Ads are what helps us bring you premium content! Thank you!