Thanks to all who participated in our ultra-portable shoot-out! A little over a week ago, I posted recordings of shortwave broadcasts, weak and strong, in an attempt to evaluate which recording–thus which radio–our listeners prefer. I conducted this test on the three radios pictured above: the Tecsun PL-310ET, the CountyComm GP5/DSP (Tecsun PL-360), and the Tecsun PL-380–among the most popular ultra-portables currently on the market. This test was “blind” in the sense that all three radios evaluated were merely labeled “Radio 1,” “Radio 2,” and “Radio 3,” respectively.
To refresh your memory, I’ve embedded the audio samples below for you to hear; but if you haven’t yet heard them, I encourage you to read our previous post before doing so. (If you’re already heard the recordings, simply skip this section.)
Global 24 – 9395 kHz (Strong)
ERT Open/ Voice of Greece (Relatively strong)
Radio Riyadh (Weak)
Rádio Bandeirantes (Very weak)
And now…the results!
The following chart shows how each radio scored out of a total of 106 (wow!) survey responses:
Let’s start with the radio that scored lowest in this contest…
Radio 3: the CountyComm GP5/DSP (a.k.a., the Tecsun PL-360)
Interestingly, the GP5/DSP consistently came in last in every category. I think a few factors outside of receiver performance led to this.
For some reason, the recorded audio of the GP5/DSP sounds out-of-phase. Several of you noted this. The resulting sound almost mimics a “stereo” effect. No matter how many times I made recordings on the GP5/DSP, this feature predominated, and I eventually assumed it to be characteristic of this radio’s DSP.
But I’m wondering now, however, if there might be oxidation on one of the headphone jack conductors, or if the headphone jack on my unit is somehow faulty–? Because of this, before conducting the medium wave shoot-out, I’ll try to clean the conductors with a little Deoxit to see if it makes a difference.
Unlike the PL-310ET and PL-380, the GP5/DSP can’t change AM bandwidths. On the strong recordings, I widened the bandwidths of the PL-310ET and PL-380 to 6 kHz; this improved their audio fidelity. On weak signals, I narrowed the bandwidth to 3 or 4 kHz, keeping both at the same level as I did so. While the GP5/DSP’s fixed bandwidth is well chosen, it simply couldn’t compete with the wider filters of the other two radios on strong signals.
Though the GP5/DSP (Tecsun PL-360) came in last, the irony is that most people who made comments on the survey form actually mentioned that the GP5/DSP was also a strong contender. Here are a few responder’s comments:
“The bassiness of Radio 1 was pleasing to listen to, but the clarity of radio 3 was also pleasing. All three sounded very good.”
“I was divided–Radio 1 seemed to provide the better audio on the stronger stations (not as muddy) yet Radio 3 beat it out on the weak stations and seemed to hold the station steadier (less fading) thereby providing a better audio to hear and understand.”
“I think if I were to place these three radios in order of “listening pleasure” based on the provided samples, my order would be 3, 1, 2.”
“By a small margin Radio 3 seemed to have the best signal to noise ratio and general audio quality across the range of signal strengths.”
Also notable: the GP5 has one very distinct advantage over the other two radios, something that wouldn’t have been noticed in this test: its ETM function, which scans the whole band then automatically stores stations to temporary memory, is almost two times faster that that of the other radios. It also seemed to be equally accurate.
So, who would buy the CountyComm GP5/DSP (Tecsun PL-360)? Someone who likes this radio’s form factor, it’s stable AGC, and quick ETM scanning. Keep in mind, we are comparing this model with two of the best radios under $60, in my opinion. Had we compared the GP5 with most other sub-$60 radios, it might have won that shoot-out, and with ease.
The Tecsun PL-380 came in a very consistent second place in this shoot-out.
The ‘380 is one of my favorite portables on the market; for many years, it has been my go-to radio for one-bag travel.
Before recording the shoot-out, I guessed that the PL-380 might take first place. But up to this point, I had never actually compared it with either of the two other radios in this shoot-out. Listening to the blind samples, I tend agree with the results. Still, the PL-380 is a great value and a fun little radio, one I can still easily recommend for travel.
As you can see from the graph, the Tecsun PL-310ET won our shoot-out in every category–and by a fairly wide margin:
While comparatively few participants’ comments were specific to the PL-310ET (“Radio 1”), it’s interesting that these most often made note of this radio’s very close resemblance to the PL-380 (“Radio 2”).
The PL-310ET had only a slight advantage over the PL-380 to my ear, but it was enough; so along with most survey respondents, I took note of that advantage.
Now, I know this much: when people ask me whether they should purchase the PL-380 or PL-310ET, I think I’ll suggest the PL-310ET. In the end, it makes for a better travel radio because it also has an external antenna jack, one of the few sub-$60 radios that has this useful feature.
When I find the time in the next month or so, I plan to test the same radios in a medium wave (AM) shoot-out. Weak-signal medium wave will put AGC circuits and internal ferrite antennas center stage. Please be patient, however, as these tests actually take time to put together and evaluate. Again, your participation will be most welcome!
This particular trip afforded me a bit of time to test these wonderful little portables in a relatively scenic environment, on balcony overlooking the Atlantic. And even though propagation has been somewhat dismal this week, I had so much fun recording these samples, I recorded several for comparison.
Which of the three radios do you prefer? Listen to the recordings, then vote! You’ll find a survey form at the bottom of the page that will allow you to cast your vote for your favorite with weak signals, with strong signals, and your favorite overall.
We’re using a form this time to make it easier to tally the results.If you enjoy this contest–or have any problems–simply comment below.
Stay tuned for a medium-wave shootout in coming weeks!
Note: I will close this survey at 00:00 UTC on Saturday, November 22, 2014.
I have the CountyComm GP-5/DSP (a.k.a. Tecsun PL-360) and recommend it in my radio travel guide. I especially like the unique external ferrite bar antenna that attaches (and rotates) on top of the radio. Medium wave sensitivity is quite good when the external antenna is attached; best part is you can rotate the antenna to null out unwanted signals.
If the new GP5/SSB has similar receiver performance, this will be an excellent, low-cost portable with SSB mode.
With availability in late November, the GP-5/SSB could be a great radio to give as a gift this holiday season. If time allows, I’ll try to review one in early December.
With spring around the corner, my thoughts drift toward the outdoors…and especially, toward travel. Those who know me know that I love travelling, anywhere and everywhere–and that I prefer to travel light, with only one bag. In fact, I can easily live for two weeks out of a convertible shoulderbag/backpack (the Timbuk2 Wingman) that’s so compact, I can fit it under the the seat of even the smallest, most restrictive aircraft. I never have to check luggage unless the nature of my travel requires extra supplies (I run Ears To Our World, a non-profit that donates radios and other technologies to powerless regions in the developing world).
My Timbuk2 Small Wingman is very compact, yet holds everything I need for two weeks (or more!) of travel.
So, why not pack everything you could possibly ever want on a journey? While this remains an option, travelling light has many advantages over the take-it-all traveler’s method. First, it gives one incredible freedom, especially when travelling by air or train. I never have to worry about being among the first to be seated in an aircraft, nor do I worry about my luggage not making a connection when I do. Second, it’s kinder on the back and shoulders, and easier to maneuver wherever I go–no wheels required–whether in a busy first-world airport or bustling third-world street market. Third, I always have my most important gear right there with me. And finally (I must admit) I find light travel to be fun, an entertaining challenge; the looks on friends’ faces when they meet me at the airport to “help” with my luggage is, frankly, priceless. Seeing me hop off a flight with my small shoulder bag, friends ask in bewilderment, “Where’s your stuff?” It’s music to my ears.
You would think that having such self-imposed restrictions on travel–carrying a small, light bag–would make it nearly impossible to travel with radio. On the contrary! Radio is requisite, in my book–er, bag. I carry a surprising amount of gear in my small bag: once at an airport security checkpoint, an inspector commented, “It’s like you have the contents of a Radio Shack in here–!” But more significantly, each piece–and radio–is carefully selected to give me the best performance, durability, versatility, and reliability.
So what do I look for in a travel radio? Let’s take a closer look.
Travel Radio Features
The CountyComm GP5DSP has three different ways of auto tuning stations quickly, an alarm function and the display will even indicate the current temperature. Its unique vertical, thin body might be easier to pack at times, depending on your travel gear.
In a travel shortwave radio, I search for features I wouldn’t necessarily pick for home use, where I’m mainly concerned with raw performance. I don’t want to carry an expensive receiver while traveling, either: $100.00 US is usually my maximum. This way, if I accidently break the radio (or my gear gets stolen), I won’t feel like I’m out very much money. I also prioritize features that benefit a traveler, of course; here are some that I look for:
Small size: Naturally, it’s sensible to look for a travel radio that’s small for its receiver class for ease in packing.
Overall sturdy chassis: Any travel radio should have a sturdy body case that can withstand the rigors of travel.
Built-in Alarm/Sleep Timer functions: While my iPhone works as an alarm, I hate to miss an early flight or connection, so it’s extra security when I can set a back-up alarm.
Powered by AA batteries: While the newer lithium ion battery packs are fairly efficient, I still prefer the AA battery standard, which allows me to obtain batteries as needed in most settings; a fresh set of alkaline (or freshly-charged) batteries will power most portables for hours on end.
Standard USB charging cable: If I can charge batteries internally, a USB charging cable can simply plug into my smart phone’s USB power adapter or the USB port on my laptop; no extra “wall wart” equals less weight and less annoyance.
ETM: Many new digital portables have an ETM function which allow auto-scanning of a radio band (AM/FM/SW), saving what it finds in temporary memory locations–a great way to get a quick overview of stations. (As this function typically takes several minutes to complete on shortwave, I usually set it before unpacking or taking a shower. When I return to my radio, it’s ready to browse.)
Single-Side Band: While I rarely listen to SSB broadcasts when traveling, I still like to pack an SSB-capable receiver when travelling for an extended time.
RDS: Though an RDS (Radio Data System) is FM-only, it’s a great feature for identifying station call signs and genre (i.e., public radio, rock, pop, country, jazz, classical, etc.)
External antenna jack: I like to carry a reel-type or clip-on wire external antenna if I plan to spend serious time SWLing. Having a built-in external jack means that the connection is easy, no need to bother with wire and an alligator clip to the telescoping whip.
Tuning wheel/knob: Since I spend a lot of time band-scanning while travelling, I prefer a tactile wheel or knob for tuning my travel radio.
Key lock: Most radios have a key lock to prevent accidentally turning a radio on in transit–but with a travel radio, it’s especially important to have a key lock that can’t be accidentally disengaged.
LED flashlight: Few radios have this, but it’s handy to have when travelling.
Temperature display: Many DSP-based radios have a built-in thermometer and temperature display; I like this when I travel anytime, but especially when I’m camping.
While I don’t have a portable that meets 100% of the above travel radio wish-list, I do have several that score very highly. I also rank my travel radios by size, as sometimes limited space will force me to select a smaller radio.
Here are a few of the radios I’ve used and/or evaluated for travel–I’ll break them down by size. Note that all portable radios have alarm/timer functions, unless noted otherwise.
I often grab the Tecsun PL-380 for travel. It’s an ultra-portable that truly performs and even has a selection of six AM bandwidths.
Sangean ATS-909X • Pros: Good performance, RDS, nice display; • Cons: priciest of the full-featured radios
Sony ICF-SW7600GR • Pros: Study chassis, great performace • Cons: no tuning knob, poor ergonomics
I have also been known to travel with an SDR (software defined radio), especially if travelling to an RF-quiet location where I could make spectrum recordings. While SDRs all require a computer (laptop) to operate, those best suited for travel derive their power from the same USB cable plugged into the PC. Neither of the SDR models below require a power source other than what’s provided by their USB cable.
The RadioJet is an excellent travel radio: it’s an excellent performer, über-rugged and is powered by one USB cable.
“Black box” radios (SDRs & PC-controlled radios):
RFSpace SDR-IQ • Pros: Small size, works on multiple operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux) • Cons: front end can overload if close to strong signals
Bonito RadioJet • Pros: Great performance, low noise floor, good audio, flexible graphic interface; • Cons: Windows only, limited bandwidth on IF recordings, no third-party applications (note that the RadioJet is technically an IF receiver). Check out our full review.
The CommRadio CR-1
Seriously? A travel-ready, full-featured tabletop–? Until last year, I would have argued that it was impossible to travel lightly with a full-featured desktop radio in tow.
My view changed when I got my hands on the CommRadio CR-1 tabletop SDR. Indeed, other than it being pricey ($600, as compared with $100 portables) this rig is ideally suited to travel!
The CR-1 has an array of features–most everything you’d expect from a tabletop radio–and even covers some VHF/UHF frequencies. Its built-in rechargeable battery not only powers it for hours at a time, but meets the strict airline standards for battery safety. The CR-1 can also be powered and charged via a common USB cable. It’s also engineered to be tough and is almost identical in size to the Tecsun PL-880.
Though I’ve never needed to do so, you can even remove its resin feet to save still more space. Its only less than travel-friendly feature is the fact that it’s quite possible to accidently power up the CR-1 by bumping the volume button during travel–a problem easily remedied, however, by simply twisting an insulated wire around the stem of the volume knob (see photo).
The importance of a Go-Bag
The Spec-Ops Pack-Rat
I keep a dedicated “go-bag” with radio and supplies–specifically, the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat–packed and ready to travel, at the drop of a hat. Why? First of all, I know exactly what I’ll be taking, no need to ponder if I have everything.
If something’s missing, there’s an obvious blank spot in my bag. I also know exactly where and how it fits into my carry-on bag, so if it’s missing, it’s conspicuously missing. Since I’ve been using this go-bag, I’ve never left anything from my pack behind. Incidentally, this is how I pack the rest of my bag, as well: everything has its place, and any gap will draw my attention to exactly what’s missing.
There’s another benefit to having a dedicated go-bag: when flying, before I place my carry-on under the seat in front of me or in an overhead compartment, I can pull the go-bag out of my carry-on and have my Android tablet close at hand with other electronics. As an added bonus, when going through airport security, all of my electronics can be easily removed from my flight bag by taking out just this kit.
I’ve had many versions of the Go-Bag over the years, and they’ve all done a great job. What I love about the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat, though, is the fact that it’s military grade–very durable–opens with all of the main storage pockets on the inside, has a bright yellow interior which makes it easy to see the contents (even in the dimness of a night flight), and it’s just the right size to hold my usual travel gear. The Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat also carries a lifetime, no-matter-what, guarantee.
There are thousands of similar packs on the market, and you may already have one, but you should look for something with multiple storage pockets. Small packs I’ve used in the past that only had one or two main compartments made it easy to leave something out when packing.
The travel radios I reach for most often. Top Row (L to R, Top to Bottom) Tecsun PL-380, Sony 7600GR, CommRadio GP-5DSP, Grundig G6, Tecsun PL-660, and the CommRadio CR-1 (Click to enlarge)
When I spent a year in France during my undergraduate studies in the early 1990s, shortwave radio was my link with home. I would listen to the VOA–the only source of English I permitted myself to hear–like clockwork, each week. Today, although I travel with a smartphone which can tune in thousands of stations, I always choose to listen to radio. Besides, if the Internet goes down or if–heaven forbid!–your trip takes you into a natural disaster, it’s radio that you will turn to to stay safe and informed.
If you take anything away from this reading, I hope it’s that even when you’re presented with travel restrictions, you won’t hesitate to take your hobby, in the form of a portable radio and a few accessories along. It contributes measurably to the fun of travel, as I’ve discovered when I’m able to tune in local and international stations so different from those I hear at home. Or sometimes, it’s just the opposite–it’s the chance to pick up a favorite broadcaster or program while you’re on the road.
After all, for me and other travelers like me, the world’s familiar voice is radio.