Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Matt Blaze, who writes:
I did another head-to-head receiver comparison, this time of two MW BCB AM portables: The C.Crane Radio 2/e vs. the Potomac Instruments FIM-41 field intensity meter.
The latter is not intended as a receiver, but rather a test instrument, but it turns out to be the among most sensitive MW receivers I’ve ever used. So I thought it would be interesting to compare its performance with that of a well-regarded modern portable.
Our two contenders with comparable portable radios: the GE Super Radio, Panasonic RF-2200, and Sony ICF-EX5MK2.
Another brilliant audio comparison, Matt! Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together! I actually believe audio comparisons, as you’ve set them up, are a fantastic way of sharing A/B comparisons.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post and review:
Do I really need this radio? A very belated review of the C.Crane CCRadio 2E
Ever since my relapse into radioholism a few years ago, I had a craving for a top-notch medium wave radio. This became even more of an urge when Germany abandoned the AM BC band just like many other European countries, leaving a band full of new opportunities but little left to receive during the day, at least with all the average portables I own. When checking the options, there’s no way around Jay Allen’s website if you want to know what’s best on MW, and I learned how little choices there are on the summit of the “5-star”-radios. Over the years I kept looking for an RF-2200/DR-22 et al but they are few and far between over here, and buying a dusty old radio with an unknown history, likely in need of repairs, restoration and alignment, for an insane premium price (up to 400€!) from a stranger was not exactly a pleasant prospect for me.
The CC Radio 2E and its predecessors, successors and siblings are the only radios in the topmost 5-star bunch that can be bought new and at a reasonable price. Sadly, the best product for the European market is only a 4 1/2 star radio and I realized that I have to buy a radio clearly made for the USA only, and accept the parts that don’t make any sense over here (120V, 10kHz AM spacing only, WX band). The problem: getting one shipped to Germany was rather complicated until Amazon.com made that much easier last year.
AM Broadcast Band
After 2 weeks of gleeful anticipation it finally arrived last month and I rushed to the mall to buy plenty of ‘D’-cells, then to the dike to answer my own, most pressing question: “how much better is a top tier Jay-Allen-5-star radio than my average 3-star radios anyway?”. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 2E, partly because the videos I could find compared it with other good AM radios, or they didn’t compare it at all and sometimes the radio didn’t even get turned on. Nothing really related to the radios I have, after all they represent a whole bunch of popular radios people currently own with a similar (around average) AM performance, like the Tecsun PL-nnn, Eton Executive Satellit or Field, or ICF-7600, Zenith TO/R-7000 to name a few older types – and I was looking forward to fill that gap!
Spoiler alert: the CCR2E’s sensitivity obviously bests all of my other portables. Duh! It should, because my example of the PL-660 isn’t good on AM at all, the XHDATA D-808 [read my full review here] is a 2-1/2 star radio and the Tecsun S-8800 [read my full review here] is a 3-star radio on the “Jay Allen rating scale”, even though I’d rate my examples of these radios the other way around – my D-808 has a tiny sensitivity edge over my S-8800.
So how much better is it? Here’s a cellphone video letting the radios speak for themselves, alas with plenty of wind noise (sorry, it’s usually windy here at the coast!). Make sure you watch it past the somewhat unspectacular first minute:
I hope you’ll agree that this is pretty impressive, and that’s the kind of results I was hoping for. There’s also a simple way of quantifying how much better it is in numbers: if I tune across the band in the afternoon and note all frequencies that clearly show signs of a station (not counting how well it comes in, just the pure existence of some signal that can be identified as “broadcast station”), the D-808 has 11 frequencies populated, the CCR2E has 25. That’s more than twice as much, the 2E has twice as many stars, sounds about right. Let’s also keep in mind that the XHDATA or the Tecsun represent “average”, “serviceable” or “decent” AM radios that are quite satisfactory for most people, and yet there is apparently a whole world between an average radio and the top of the heap. To be honest, I didn’t expect how dramatic the difference would turn out.
That made me curious how my battered old Grundig Satellit 400 would do, after all it was always a tad better than the other portables I have (Jay Allen might rate it 3-1/2 stars), and MW is the only thing in it that still really works. I decided to buy it the last bunch of batteries of its life and took it to the dike:
Evidently the Grundig is a bit more sensitive than my other average radios but without much benefit. Stations with some appreciable level turn out a bit better but it fails at the same stations as the other radios and the C.Crane unsurprisingly runs circles around the Grundig as well. The first and the last station recorded in this video demonstrate that nicely – my favorite low power benchmark station (1602 kHz) transmitting with 100W from a moored old pirate radio ship was just making it over the noise on the S-8800 in the previous video. The Satellit picks it up OK but with more noise. The last station is the BBC transmitter in Redmoss (Aberdeen, Scotland), which is pretty crystal clear on the CCR2E while the Satellit has only little remnants of modulation and the D-808 is at least on par with the Satellit there. That station pretty much didn’t exist on the S-8800 in the previous video either and I wish I’d know why this example turns out so extreme, why the 2E and that station like each other so much.
The closest stations in these videos are in The Netherlands, 150+ miles away and have only 100W, most of the UK stations are between 350 and 420 miles away (most of them not very powerful either), Scottish stations are around 500 miles from here and the Redmoss 2kW BBC transmitter on 1449 kHz with its beautiful signal is 490 miles. Given that this is daytime groundwave reception with no help from an external antenna, I consider this pretty darn impressive. But keep in mind that a part of the impressive results is due to the low noise location and the conductive North Sea water being only 50m from my position behind the dike, then stretching most, sometimes all of the distance between the radio and the transmitters, which definitely helps groundwave propagation a lot.
To put the benefit in some more practical metrics – my average radios pick up at most 3-4 stations in a halfway sufficient quality for continuous listening during the day, the 2E makes that at least 8-10 stations. While sensitivity is playing a somewhat lesser role at night, it’s pure fun to browse the band and discover stations that didn’t stick out of the noise enough in the past. It is undeniably an exceptionally sensitive and stunning AM receiver.
Selectivity, overloading resilience
The 2E has a wisely chosen single bandwidth more on the narrow side. Given the intended purpose of this radio, I think one can live very well with the “one size fits all” setting and the intelligibility remains excellent. At night when the band is getting crowded even over here, the 2E has absolutely no trouble separating the channels.
Other reviews mentioned that its dynamic range may not be sufficient to cope with local blowtorches and I’m sure that this is true. I don’t have local blowtorches, but I tried coupling wire fences between 200 and 1000m (600-3,000′) to the loopstick antenna, and it could cope with those arrangements better than the S-8800 and the D-808: at night, both of the latter present some roar between the stations on the lower end of the band (which is of course mostly intermodulation products). Both radios then need some looser coupling from the coupling coil, on the the S-8800 I can also lose the preamp stage (“local” switch) to mitigate this, the D-808 can’t do that and has the most problems with images, for example clearly discernible images from the top of the NDB band just 100 kHz lower in the same band.
The CCR2E stays pretty quiet on the few frequencies the fence antennas leave unpopulated. In other words, its frontend may not be as good as the one in some vintage receivers, but it still takes more of a beating than e.g. the Tecsun S-8800 with its improved (over the PL-880) frontend.
Lacking really strong signals, I can’t comment much on all of the AGC action but I too think it doesn’t pull up weak signals as much as other radios. That makes the 2E appear even less noisy between stations, but being desperate to catch some transatlantic DX before sunrise (yawn!) despite the season being over, I found myself a few times with the volume knob turned up all the way to the right stop on some quiet channels, while the band was filled elsewhere with considerable signals from that 3,000′ fence. The time constants are more on the slow-ish side, thunderstorm impulses make the signal dive away for half a second and it seems to struggle with weaker stations that come with a fast fading. SDRs with fully adjustable AGC characteristics sure have spoiled me.
FM Broadcast Band
FM sensitivity is excellent in all of the portables I have (S-8800, D-808, PL-660) and the CCR2E can match their performance, there are generally only very little differences between all those. As mentioned in my S-8800 review, I found its sensitivity can’t fully match the PL-660 and the D-808, even though it employs the same DSP chip type as the D-808. I briefly compared the CCR2E with the S-8800 on FM (simply because both are big radios, and I guess I wanted the 2E to win this too).
Comparing portables on FM is a bit of hit and miss though – you need to find borderline weak stations to begin with, and then you have to make sure each radio’s whip antenna is adjusted for maximum signal, and you need to put one radio at a time on the table, because otherwise the whip antennas can interact with each other and make it hard to find the optimal antenna postion/tilt/rotation. When I tried the CCR2E at the dike, a complete lack of tropo conditions limited the number of test stations a lot, and the remaining stations were not really weak enough to find a clear winner among the two. Both radios were on par most times, sometimes it felt like once the 2E gets a bit of signal it will present it a tad less noisy than the S-8800.
But then a very borderline faint Dutch station on 88.1 MHz made it over the North Sea with much noise on the S-8800. No matter what I tried with the 2E (antenna gymnastics, raising, repositioning, lifting up and tilting the whole radio and swearing at it), it picked up nothing at all. That looked much like the 2E is actually less sensitive than I thought, but as it turned out later there is a much happier explanation for this:
Since the day I got it, I had the impression that the 2E has a narrower FM filter than my other radios. Tuning 50 kHz next to a weak station makes it almost disappear and 200 kHz off a local station gave me much hope for letting a weaker station pass unharmed. Now when I checked the station listings for my Dutch mystery station on 88.1 MHz it turned out to be very unlikely that I received the station listed there for 88.1 – “Radio 10” in Hilversum has only 3 kW and is a bit too far away, without any tropo help anyway. What’s way more likely is that I actually heard the much closer 60 kW “NPO 2” transmitter in Smilde on 88.0, that is, its upper sideband on 88.1. To understand this you need to know that Dutch (and AFAIK French) FM stations like to plow their channels with some rather hefty FM deviation unknown in Germany. The wider filter of the S-8800 picked up so much of that extra-wide deviation that I could identify the language. I could not hear the station on its actual frequency 88.0 MHz either, because a much stronger local station on 87.9 was whacking it.
The CCR2E just didn’t pick up any of the surplus deviation from 100 kHz lower, which is a quite striking evidence for a narrower filter (<200kHz), and this might also explain why it appears more sensitive when it picks up some weak station – a narrower filter means a better SNR on FM. I did not read Jay Allen’s “FM shootout” (where the 2E is the topmost radio as well) before tried the radio and I’m not sure yet if I’d put it above all other radios too. But it’s very safe to say that the 2E is likely about as sensitive as all of the contenders in the very crowded 5-star class in the “FM shootout” and its selectivity might be giving it an advantage over other radios. Too bad such a good performer on such a short antenna doesn’t have an external FM antenna input and RD(B)S.
2 Meter – VHF and Weather Band, SSI
Short story, there is no NOAA WX band in Europe, and my local 2m repeaters don’t even seem to transmit their ID every 10 minutes anymore like they were supposed to do in ye olde days, maybe they’re gone. Analog VHF ham radio has ceased to exist around here and if we’d have some catastrophic event, all a 2m receiver could do to help you is emitting some soothing white noise.
I will use this section to talk about the signal strength indicator on the CCR2E instead. With 12 discrete bars it has a better resolution than e.g. average portables, which often try to look like they had even more bars but actually have 5 sections of 4-bar groups, in other words they just have 5 real bars. The better resolution of the 2E is certainly helpful, for example when you pair it up with some kind of tuned external antenna – but it seems to indicate levels with some delayed response and that ruins it a bit.
The 2E has a quite satisfying bass and treble response for music listening on FM (if you turn up the controls). It has the biggest speaker of all of my portables and creates some audio that rather reminds me of a small home stereo than a portable radio. However it doesn’t have the power to really do “loud” and the bass may run out of breath and distort pretty soon on some music styles.
For a few days I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it didn’t put that much of a smile in my face like the S-8800 or my old Satellit 400 do, and I remembered the quite controversial ratings of the 2E’s sound I had read. I felt that it doesn’t have that special “big portable” in-your-face bass sound my other big radios have, a sound that was burned into my eardrums by all the big Grundigs and Nordmendes I had since when I was a teenager.
The answer might be quite simple though: the 2E has a much wider frequency response than those radios, it actually reaches down lower and the treble range is also extended. What we (OK, at least I) perceive as that “warm” and “big” sound in those old portables is actually “pseudo-bass”. Pseudo-bass is a psychoacoustic effect that tricks our brain to perceive louder and fuller bass when actually only the first harmonics (typically one octave higher) of bass instruments are heard, for example because the speaker is too small to actually render the fundamentals, with the “bass” tone control boosting the harmonics instead. The 2E sounds more like a small 2-way hi-fi speaker and tries to do “real bass” rather than pseudo-bass, which is much more demanding in many ways. Pseudo-bass is also much less depending on automatic loudness correction at low volumes, so the 2E seems to lack bass at “bedroom” volumes sometimes, compared to the Tecsun or the Grundig. Though once a station plays the right music and the 2E is turned up a bit, it’s getting quite obvious that it can sound even bigger than those other radios.
On AM the CCR2E can even produce too much bass that needs to be dialed back: like talk radio dominates the US AM band, its EU pendant is still reigned by pop/rock stations (usually employing lots of signal processing for extra-fat sound). On those stations, the CCR2E can be bassy to a degree where the bass is almost sounding detached from the rest of the signal, as if it’s coming from a different, stronger station. It’s a more boomy, “wet” or maybe a hint less “musical” bass sound, this is rather a wordy description of impressions and not a complaint though. It just doesn’t massage my auditory cortex the same way the other radios do, which is of course a matter of taste and “getting used to it”.
The tone controls are modern and efficient like the ones you find on the S-8800 – compared to my old Satellit, they have a steeper roll-off at well-chosen cutoff frequencies so you can eliminate just the hissy top end in the treble range or remove all that rumble below 200Hz, leaving the midrange in between untouched. On the positive end of the knob range, they just add deep bass and a nice clarity on the top, as if the 2E had a tweeter.
So it does sound great and I can see now why the successor radio, the C.Crane Radio 3 got upgraded with Bluetooth. But the 2E is a great powered speaker as well, it has an AUX input radio nuts can use to boost the audio of an SDR connected to a laptop or a small SW portable to the same level of fidelity. The manual claims that the 2E has a battery endurance of 250 hours, which would mean it should serve all day for at least a whole week as an awesome powered speaker for your other radios out in the woods, and it even might become the best speaker (with very useful tone controls!) in your home shack. This works so well that I deem this a serious (and perhaps often unconsidered) asset.
One thing I don’t like a bit is a strange scratchy narrowband distortion that seems to come up within a certain level range. It’s independent from the station, the frequency or the noise on it (and not to be confused with multipath distortion), it’s showing up across the band and is solely depending on the input signal as it seems. It doesn’t affect stronger signals (so there shouldn’t be anything overloading) but if a station hits a certain low signal level it’s quite permanent and also quite disturbing, if there’s fading the noise will come and go when it passes through that level range. The only way to mitigate that prickly “frying pan” sound is turning the treble knob all the way down. I don’t know if that’s a bad case of demodulator distortion or some AGC related malfunction and for some reason beyond my understanding (strong out-of-band signals playing a role maybe?) this does not always happen. Still a bit of a fly in the ointment.
A rather harmless little quirk I (among others) found is happening when I recall preset stations on AM: under unknown circumstances the 2E will not tune the antenna properly so I need to change the frequency and tune back to get full signal. I assume that the coil tuner setting is saved with the preset, and when the environment of the loopstick changes (like when you saved the preset at a different place), the saved tuner setting does not fit anymore. Retuning, then saving the preset again should fix that.
Rather fast fading can have a similar effect on the tuning process, if I tune and retune to such a station, I may end up with different signal meter readings and volume every time – it seems that the integration time window used to automatically tune to peak signal can be too short in relation to the fading speed and that may lead to a less than optimal match of the coil. Admittedly, tuning to peak signal on fickle stations like that is just as hard for a human being. Since the tuner seems to rely much on locking onto a carrier, offset tuning (e.g. like DXers often do to optimize reception of a station with a strong channel neighbor) may not work as well as with regular receivers, signal and volume can drop quite dramatically when tuning 1 kHz to the side, and it sounds like this is bad for the SNR too.
My example of the 2E has a “birdie” between 99.7 and 100.0 MHz, which luckily doesn’t make any noise on FM. It doesn’t seem to harm reception much (if at all), I can still get a rather weak Danish station on 99.9 MHz but I can’t tell what effect it has on stations on the other affected frequencies.
External AM antennas
This is not a quirk, it’s rather a design decision I deem not working anymore in many (if not most) of today’s homes, or simply an oversight: the CCR2E is yet another radio that has screw terminals for an external AM antenna but no means to take the internal loopstick out of the circuit. This is not a problem as long you are using radio and antenna in an electrically quiet and interference-free environment, in which you may not even need an external antenna because the CCR2E is such a good performer. If you want to use one anyway, the 2E will benefit only from antennas with considerable gain, very lossy designs that trade gain for low noise and high SNR (like BOG, LOG, EWE…) may not even leave a clue of their existence on the 2E.
If you live in the city, in an apartment building, a crowded neighborhood or just a modern home and want to let your family use computers, appliances, switching-type wall warts and so on while you listen to distant stations, an external antenna may be the only way to enjoy the radio’s performance but even an antenna with lots of gain will not help getting rid of the hash and noise of the digital world. It may increase the signal a bit to improve the SNR, but the noise level will stay the same because it’s being picked up and added back by the internal loopstick. I think that any ambitious modern receiver should take the ever-worsening noise situation into consideration. Paradoxically, back in the 50s and 60s local noise was much less of an issue but a lot of radios had switchable loopsticks. They were all tabletops though and to be fair, I know only one portable radio with that feature (and that’s a scanner which sucks on AM).
First off, using this radio is generally very straightforward. The only thing I needed to learn from the manual was how to keep the frequency on display, which is only possible with newer versions of the firmware. My radio was manufactured in January 2018 and it has this option, plus an updated version of the printed manual, now describing that (and the antenna calibration) procedure. (Just hold the “Clock” button, then immediately hit the ‘1’ memory button on top. The radio should emit a beep and from then on the display will show the frequency.)
You may want to think twice about buying the “Titanium” version of the radio. The product photos on Amazon were showing the radio with somewhat different and darker hues between grey and champaign, so I spontaneously decided to not buy yet another black radio. What I pulled out of the box was blindingly silvery and yelling “plastic” though, so don’t let any pics fool you – “Titanium” is just a fancy name for the same old standard “light grey-ish/silvery plastic” seen on a billion products from the Far East in the past 50 years. A matter of taste of course.
If it wasn’t obvious to everyone already – this bulky radio is more like a “portable tabletop”, it’s only little more “portable” than a big old Transoceanic or Grundig Satellit with a broken handle. New radios get lighter and lighter even when they get big (like the S-8800), the CCR2E brings gravity back into the game, so on the plus side it will stay put on the table when you push a button, or when there’s an earthquake.
While it does radiate some quality feel (nothing is loose, wobbly or rattling), the tuning knob is the exception: it has a tiny bit of play and it feels and sounds like it had a former life as a hairspray can cap. The stepping/rasterization of the encoder resonates in that cap and if you want to tune to a distant frequency on the dial you just need to say “rien ne vas plus” before you turn the knob to create a great acoustic impression of a roulette table. On the other hand, the solid steps of the encoder causing that sound are very precise and the sound helps me counting the 9 steps I need for hitting the next channel in the European AM BC band. Some reviews also complained about the flimsy FM whip and I used to think the D-808’s whip is flimsy, but this one has a top segment with a diameter of one millimeter, the antenna is the shortest of all my radios and looks exactly like the whips I’ve seen on most of the cheapest (<$20) radios I came across. But that doesn’t affect its function of course – that is, while it lasts.
Now that’s even more a matter of taste, but I just can’t leave the design uncommented. I’m still undecided whether it looks more like a hi-tech humidifier than a radio or not, luckily it says “Radio” in red letters on the speaker grille but still… I don’t know if it’s the complete lack of “retro style” and its sober, “senior-friendly” approach or just the color – whichever way I look at it, it ain’t the most handsome radio of the pack. I think I can get over it, provided I never watch any of Thomas’ videos featuring his gorgeous RF-2200s again. So all it can do to win my heart is working well, that is, very, very well. Let’s see if it succeeded:
The C.Crane CC Radio 2E is an extraordinarily sensitive radio on AM and certainly among the best on FM. It puts some effort in picking up AM stations that most other portables won’t and that’s what it really does as advertised. Like any other radio (so that’s not Bob Crane’s fault like some disappointed Amazon reviews allude), it will not be able to do that in noisy, interference-infested environments and not even an external antenna might help much with that, because the internal loopstick stays on. In an electrically quiet environment though, it’s nothing short of marvelous.
It has a great sound and to my own surprise, I found its qualities as a powered (also long-lasting battery-powered) speaker for other radios a serious asset. It’s simple and easy to use but that also means it lacks all advanced features that would help in difficult, “hardcore DX” reception cases. With its bulky form factor, the built-in power supply, the 4 D-cells, the weight that all brings and the lack of a proper handle, it might not fit into everyone’s understanding of “portable” and its specs are rather meant to cater the needs of American homes. However, importing it to Europe can make sense even with the extra taxes and shipping (which means a 40% markup in Germany), at least for AM radio lovers who want top performance and avoid the problems vintage portables can bring. It’s at any rate a sensible choice if your favorite station is somewhat beyond the range of average radios, if you just want more stations to choose from, or if you enjoy general daytime groundwave DX, all without making an external antenna a necessity.
Of course the CCR2E is not the mythical “perfect radio” either. The muting and automatic loop-tuning when browsing the band isn’t great, it has a few quirks, a flimsy whip antenna and a tuning knob with a cheap feel to it but then again, it’s not an overly expensive radio either and its price/performance ratio is certainly appropriate and attractive. It may not be much to look at but I like it anyway because – among all the all-rounder radios I have – it’s the specialist doing that one thing really well: making AM radio feel like it used to be.
So do I really need this radio? Maybe I don’t, but now that I’ve learned how excellent it really is, I know that I really, really wanted it!
Wow! What a brilliant review! I absolutely love the details you fit into your evaluation and your wit, too (especially that bit about the tuning knob possibly having “a former life as a hairspray can cap”–!). Ha ha!