Man on the run thrillers, like The 39 Steps by John Buchan* and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household hold a special fascination for me. Give me a yarn about someone being pursued by the bad guys, and I am enthralled. (Incidentally, there are a couple of good lists of these thrillers. Here and here).
Sometimes I like to play the mental game of: if I were that guy trying to stay ahead those who wished me evil intent, what radio(s) might I want with me?
The other day I realized I had the perfect combo, a pair of radios that cover a huge swath of spectrum, will fit in a couple of pockets (or one big pocket) and weigh just 14 ounces combined. Further, both will run off ordinary AA batteries, which are widely available.
Candidate number one is the C Crane Skywave SSB, which measures 3 inches by 4.75 inches by 1.1 inches. It receives AM, FM, shortwave (1711-29999 kHz), VHF aviation and NOAA weather radio with alerts. Because it receives single sideband (SSB) on HF frequencies, it can tune in aeronautical, marine and amateur radio stations that transmit in the SSB.
The Skywave SSB comes with a pair of ear buds that fit my ears well and offer pleasing audio. In addition, the SSB comes standard with an auxiliary wire antenna that can be deployed and clipped to the SSB’s whip antenna to boost signal-to-noise. Perhaps most useful for the man on the run, the SSB has excellent “signal seek” functions that can be used on any band. In fact, if you put the radio in SSB mode and activate the signal scan, it will search the ham bands and automatically switch from upper sideband to lower sideband as appropriate.
For the man on the run who can “hole up” for a while, I’ve tried clipping a 50-foot long wire to the SSB’s whip and antenna, and I was amazed at how well it can pull in faint ham signals. It’s the “little radio that could.” About the only thing that I wish I could change on the Skywave SSB is that it mutes between tuning steps when using the tuning knob.
But suppose our man on the run needs to monitor signals above the coverage of the Skywave SSB? Candidate number two is the Icom R6. Measuring just 2.3 inches by 3.4 inches by 1.2 inches, the diminutive R6 covers from 100 kHz to 1309.995 MHz (less cellular and gaps) in AM, FM Narrow and FM wide modes (no SSB). It has 1300 alphanumeric memories, search-and-store capabilities, and rapid scanning of memory channels.
For high stealth, there is a setting that allows the R6 to use the wire that connects headphones or ear buds to the R6 as the antenna instead of the usual antenna. For a non-stealth application, using an aftermarket antenna like the Comet W100RX 25MHz-1300MHz Handheld Scanner Antenna, the R6T does a surprisingly good job of receiving shortwave stations. This antenna has markings on the side so that it can be set to the right length for various frequencies.
As you can see from the photo, the R6 has only a few buttons on its face and two on the side. Every button has multiple functions, and I found trying to program memory channels using the buttons to be a trial. As a result, I can highly recommend the RT Systems cable and programming software for setting up memory channels. In addition, some very useful notes for setting up and using the R6 can be found here: https://forums.radioreference.com/threads/icom-ic-r6-notes.442112/
Finally, I know that there are several tiny ham transceivers that might fill the bill, including the Yaesu VX-6R, although I am not aware of any that can receive single sideband. Besides, if you had the ability to transmit, “they” might be able to direction-find you . . . and we wouldn’t want that, would we?
*For sharp-eyed readers: yes, I know that The 39 Steps is set in a time before radio was widespread, but it is still one of my favorites.
The following review originally appeared in the SEptember 2016 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.
Over the past year, I’ve received a number of inquiries from readers who are considering purchasing a handheld wideband receiver. This is a market I’ve never truly explored because, to be honest, I’m partial to the HF part of the spectrum, and wideband receivers have always seemed more akin scanners than to shortwave receivers.
But lately, readers have specifically asked about the Icom IC-R6, a compact handheld receiver that covers from 100 kHz to 1309.995 MHz. What makes the IC-R6 appealing is that––at just $175 US––it is one of the least expensive wideband handhelds/scanners on the market that not only covers the shortwave bands, but also the AM broadcast, Longwave, FM broadcast, & NOAA weather frequencies.
Over the years I’ve read numerous reviews of the IC-R6 and other wideband receivers. Reviewers of this handheld receivers typically gloss over shortwave and mediumwave reception, and for good reason––it’s generally known that you just can’t have the best of both worlds in the sub-$300 price range. This makes sense, as there are invariably performance compromises when you pack wideband reception into such a tiny package: manufacturers usually put a performance emphasis on the VHF/UHF bands rather than on HF or mediumwave.
Still, I was curious enough about the IC-R6 to want to put it through its paces on shortwave and mediumwave, so I contacted Icom, who generously sent me an IC-R6 on extended loan for the purpose of this review
Here I need to throw out a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of handheld radio (Handy Talky) ergonomics.
The IC-R6, like most other tiny handhelds, has a spartan array of buttons, all of which have multiple functions. Like its compact competitors, it also lacks a direct entry keypad-––after all, there’s simply no room for a keypad, and if there was one, it would obviously be too small to use.
That being said, however, I must say that Icom has done a surprisingly good job of making the IC-R6 usable in the field.
If, like me, you’re the type of person who typically ignores the owner’s manual when you first receive a new radio, the IC-R6 may prove frustrating. Fortunately, the Icom user manual is superb, and well worth the read. It’s very well written, and takes you through each function step by step. The 80-page manual is entirely in English (the US version, at least) and even has a cut-out pocket guide in the end. Brilliant!
Once I spent a few minutes reading through the IC-R6 manual’s outline of its basic functions, I found most operations are simple and relatively easy to remember.
What makes each operation handy is that the Function key––which helps toggle the four multi-function buttons––is located where the PTT (push to talk) button would be on an amateur handheld transceiver. It’s actually a great location for the button because it allows one hand to hold the radio and push the function button, permitting the other hand to push a front panel button. Though I initially felt I was keying up to “transmit” on an HT, it soon became apparent that this is a very logical key placement.
Tuning with the IC-R6 is relatively easy and straightforward.
Simply select a band with the BAND button. Next, adjust the volume with the UP/DOWN arrow buttons, and the squelch (if needed) by holding the squelch button and turning the tuning knob. Then you may use the tuning knob to tune up and down the band.
If you want to quickly skip to another part of the bands, hold down the function key while turning the tuning knob, and the R6 will tune in 1 MHz steps. I’ve found that this helps to move across the spectrum quite quickly and compensates for the lack of a direct entry keypad.
You can also easily change the tuning steps by pressing the TS button and using the tuning knob to cycle through selections (a total of fourteen possible step selections are available between 5 kHz and 100 kHz).
Over the course of a few months of using the IC-R6, I’ve learned a couple of methods to adapt to its lack of a direct-frequency entry keypad:
using the 1 MHz tuning steps, as mentioned above
loading the memory channels with band edges and your favorite frequencies (with 1300+ memory slots, there are many ways to manage your tuning)
Mediumwave/AM Broadcast Band Performance
Surprisingly, the IC-R6 has a tiny internal ferrite bar antenna for mediumwave/AM broadcast band reception. This is a welcome feature because there’s no need to remove the supplied rubber-duck antenna to connect an external antenna for broadcast listening.
In terms of AM performance, I was happy with the IC-R6. I’m able to receive all of my local AM broadcasters with decent signal strength. I’m even able to reliably receive one 25-mile-distant daytime broadcaster; this truly surprised me, especially since the internal antenna must be minuscule.
Is the IC-R6 a good choice for a mediumwave DXer? Unfortunately, no. The AGC struggles with weak nighttime conditions, and frankly, with such a small ferrite bar antenna, nulling capabilities are minimal. If you’re a MW DXer, I would suggest carrying a small ultralight portable along with the IC-R6.
The IC-R6 also covers the longwave bands, but I would never use it even for casual longwave listening as the tuning steps are limited to 5 kHz increments.
Still: to have a respectable little AM receiver in a handheld scanner––? It’s great!
Shortwave Performance: Sensitivity
As I said, most reviewers gloss over shortwave reception on handhelds. I thought I’d put the IC-R6 through a more thorough test.
Note that, being fully aware of its limitations, I never used the stock rubber-duck antenna to test shortwave reception; instead, I used a long piece of thin co-ax attached to five- and ten-foot sections of wire. I tried longer and shorter pieces of wire, as well, but found that 5-10’ seemed to hit the sweet spot in terms of sensitivity.
To be honest, I had fairly low expectations of the IC-R6. I knew that the shortwave/HF bands are truly just an added feature on this rig, and realized that the R6 is more akin to a scanner rather than a shortwave radio. But in terms of sensitivity, I found I was rather impressed with the IC-R6.
The first morning I tested shortwave reception, propagation was, at best, mediocre. Yet I was able to copy WWV on 10 and 15 MHz without much trouble. I could receive all of the strong North American private broadcasters, like WTWW, WRMI and, of course, most frequencies occupied by Radio Havana Cuba and China Radio International––all of these are broadcasters that my shortwave portables can readily receive here in my region. Moreover, in the mornings, I’ve also been able to receive one of my staple shortwave broadcasters on the R6: Radio Australia. It’s nice to imagine that if I were camping, the little R6 could serve up my morning dose of news from Down Under.
All in all, I’m fairly pleased––and surprised!––by the IC-R6’s sensitivity.
Here’s an example of reception when tuned to WRMI, a strong station in my region. [Fun side note: I had no idea that, as I was recording, I would hear my buddies Mark Fahey and Jeff White on the air!]
Shortwave Performance: Selectivity
On the flip side, the IC-R6’s selectivity is unfortunately quite poor. I anticipated this.
Almost any of the strong signals I receive can be heard with equal fidelity when tuned off-frequency 5 kHz to either side of the carrier. You can pretty much forget discerning between two adjacent signals that are only spaced 5-10 kHz apart.
And yet while this would be a deal-breaker for me on a dedicated shortwave portable, this wouldn’t stop me from purchasing the IC-R6. Since we don’t have the crowded shortwave landscape we used to, selectivity is much less of an issue these days.
So, for some casual SWLing while say, backpacking? The IC-R6 does the trick!
The IC-R6 runs efficiently on a set of two standard AA cells.
I should note here that I never connected the IC-R6 to any of my large outdoor antennas. First of all, I didn’t want to risk damaging the front end of the receiver (especially since this is a loaner), and secondly, I knew the IC-R6’s poor selectivity would only be exacerbated if gain were significantly increased. I also want to caution readers from doing this, as I suspect the IC-R6’s front end will seriously overload on a large antenna.
Auto-Memory Write Function
The IC-R6 has a very cool scanning function similar to the ETM auto-scan on Tecsun portables, known as the “auto-memory write function.” Here’s how it works:
Simply select the band you wish to scan.
Set squelch level.
Select the scanning range. There are several options here:
Full scan, which scans the entire frequency range of the IC-R6 (you’ll want to grab a cuppa coffee, as this will take a while)
Selected Band Scan, which only scans all of the frequencies with the band’s edges
Programmed Scan, which scans between two user-programmed frequencies
Finally, press the SCAN/MODE button to start the scan and the V/M button to engage the auto-memory write function..
The radio will then scan according to your selected scan mode, pausing for an interval of about five seconds on each signal it finds, and writing it to one of the auto-memory write channel groups (000-999) for your convenient access.
To recall the auto-memories once scanning ends, simply press the V/M button to enter the memory mode, select the band with the BAND button, then use the tuning knob to scan through the signal catches.
Once you’ve experimented with this process a couple of times, it becomes second nature, and is very handy.
One negative: since the IC-R6’s HF selectivity is lacking, you could possibly get double or triple auto-memory writes for really strong broadcasters.
Programming software and cable
I’ll be frank here: if you plan to purchase an IC-R6 and load it with memory channels, you’ll be well-served to purchase programming software and a cable as well. Entering frequencies by hand is tedious, especially if you want alpha-numeric labels.
I’m very partial to the cables and software offered by RT Systems. Besides having the most user-friendly programming software I’ve personally used, RT Systems also offers consistency in terms of set-up and application user-interface across their whole product line. For example, I own a Yaesu VX-3R which I’ve programmed with the RT Systems software; when I want to import all of my VX-3R frequencies into the IC-R6, it’s a simple process with the aid of RT Systems software.
RT Systems supports almost all programmable amateur radio transceivers and receivers on the market, which means that it makes for a great cross-manufacturer link between all of your gear.
Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here’s a list of my notes from the moment I put the Icom IC-R6 on the air:
Very compact, handy size with respectable ergonomics
Frequency/Memory scanning very fast
Quickly scans AM/SW/FM/VHF/UHF bands
Acceptable shortwave sensitivity for most regionally-strong broadcasters (see selectivity con)
Great Auto Squelch function that seems to be effective even on the HF bands
Attenuation setting which helps the front end from overloading
Wide array of scanning options
Long operating time with AA batteries
Very difficult programming without external software/programming cable
No keypad for frequency direct entry
Audio, via built-in speaker, is tinny; headphones help, but audio output is mono
Almost non-existent shortwave selectivity (see sensitivity pro)
Tuning steps are limited to 5 kHz increments, which may be insufficient on SW/MW and LW
No SSB mode (though no other wideband receiver in the under-$300 price range offers SSB)
The Icom IC-R6 is one little powerhouse receiver with many, many listening possibilities. With this one radio, you can listen to everything from local VHF/UHF repeaters, to local law enforcement and emergency services, aviation frequencies, NOAA weather radio, the FM broadcast band, AM broadcast band––and, yes, even shortwave.
If you’re looking for an all-in-one receiver to take on hikes, to put in your 72-hour emergency (BOB) bag, to carry in your briefcase, or even to simply carry in your pocket, the IC-R6 is a great choice. Remember, if you do invest in one, you should also invest in programming cable and software to help you along.
This review focuses on broadcast listening with the IC-R6. While I didn’t cover traditional scanner functionality, I should note that the IC-R6 is not a trunking scanner. If you live in one of the many cities, counties or even even entire states/provinces in the U.S. and Canada that employ “trunking” radio systems for public safety communications, you’ll need a different receiver for this purpose.
Additionally, if you’re looking for a top-notch shortwave portable, you’ll want to buy a dedicated shortwave receiver, instead: they’re built with only HF reception in mind and will cost you much less, for better overall performance and more modes (SSB).
Of course, the IC-R6 is so modestly-sized that you could always carry it plus an inexpensive compact shortwave receiver (like the Tecsun PL-310ET, or the PL-380), and then…well, you’ll suddenly have the best of both worlds!