Many thanks to SWLing Post reader “RCXB” who comments:
“Another radio deal, if you don’t mind the writing in Chinese, you can get a Tecsun R-911 for just $15.80… A couple dollars cheaper than its already-cheap re-branded Kaito WRX911 namesake that everyone raves about.”
While the “911” series of analog shortwave receivers (i.e. Tecsun R-911, Kaito WRX911) isn’t going to win any awards for outstanding performance, they are capable little radios for the price.
I have a Kaito WRX911 (above) and often use it as a low-end benchmark for inexpensive portables like the DE321. The WRX911 is a decent little mediumwave receiver as well; I especially love the fact that it does a decent job nulling unwanted signals as you turn the radio body.
Perhaps the best thing about the ‘911 series is that they’re dead simple to use. No manual needed. Just turn it on and tune around!
One of the most popular posts on the SWLing Post each year is the annual Holiday Radio Gift Guide. I started this annual post in 2010 when I realized that it would be easier than answering an in-box full of individual emails from people seeking the perfect shortwave radio for their friend or loved one.
In the following, you’ll find a handful of select radios I recommend for this gift-giving season. I’ve arranged this selection byprice, starting with the most affordable. I’ve included a few promising new radios that have recently been introduced to the market, along with models that have proven their reliability and are on their way to becoming classics.
For the benefit of those with less radio experience, this quick guide is basic, non-technical, and to the point. For more comprehensive reviews, please consult our Radio Reviews page.
Updated for the 2012-13 holiday season on 22 November 2012.
Simple, affordable and portable
The Kaito WRX911 is a classic, no-frills analog radio. Turn it on and tune. That’s its game.
Kaito WRX911 or Tecsun R-911 ($33)
I’ve owned this little radio for years. It has been on the market a long time and I know exactly why: it’s affordable and very simple to operate. While it has no tone control, bandwidth control or digital display, the WRX911 performs better than other radios in its stocking-stuffer price range. I find its medium wave (AM band) reception above par–especially its ability to null out interfering broadcasts by simply turning the radio body. The WRX911 is also a great radio to keep in the glove compartment of your car. (Another similarly-priced radio to consider is the DE321, which we recommended last year–also check out our review.)
No matter where you live,you should have a self-powered radio in your home. The Eton FR160 is like a Swiss Army Knife when power fails.
Eton FR160 ($34 US)
A good friend recently sent me a message: she had been without power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy for two full weeks. She also added that her little FR160 kept her family informed and provided comfort in the dark days following the hurricane.
The Eton FR160 is a sturdy and useful little radio. This radio features AM/FM and the NOAA weather radio bands (at least, the North American versions do; international versions may have shortwave instead of weather frequencies). The FR160 also features a very bright white LED flashlight and even sports a small solar panel that can effectively charge the internal battery pack. The FR160 also features a USB port that you can plug your mobile phone, iPod or other USB device into for charging. (Note that it takes a lot of cranking to charge a typical cell phone, but I can confirm that it does work in a pinch.)
Over the past few years, these radios have become ubiquitous. I’ve seen them in sporting goods stores, RadioShack (Tandy in some countries), BestBuy, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond–indeed, they’re in practically every North American big-box store and in many mail order catalogs besides. Of course, Universal Radio sells them, too.
The CC Solar Observer has everything you need to weather a power outage
CC Solar Observer ($50 US)
Like the FR160, the CC Solar Observer is a wind-up/solar emergency radio with AM/FM and Weather Band, and an LED flashlight built into the side of the radio. It’s perhaps a nicer option for those who want bigger audio out of their emergency radio. The Solar Observer is rugged and well-designed, like many C.Crane products.
When coupled with another Bluetooth device, this radio doubles as wireless remote speakers
The Tecsun PL-398BT($100)
The Tecsun PL-398BT is a very unique shortwave radio. In fact, it may be the perfect gift for a radio enthusiast who is also very tied to their computer or smart phone. Besides being a very capable shortwave/AM/FM receiver in its own right, when put into Bluetooth mode and connected to a smart phone, PC, or other device, the PL-398BT’s speakers act as its wireless stereo speakers. I believe this may be an ideal way to listen to internet radio from your iPhone, for example. Of course, the PL-398BT comes from a legacy of great receivers, so the AM/FM and shortwave performance will not disappoint. It’s a little on the pricey side for a shortwave radio that lacks the SSB mode (for listening to utility and ham radio transmissions), but the Bluetooth function more than makes up for it, in my opinion. Some people may definitely prefer this function.
The Grundig G3 has a solid reputation and at $100, great value for the performance.
The Grundig G3 ($100 US)
Simply put, the Grundig G3 offers the best bang for your buck in 2012. I have a lot of portable radios, but the one I probably reach for the most–for recreational shortwave radio listening–is the Grundig G3. I wrote this review three years ago and even recently posted this update. Read them and you’ll see why I like the G3. At $100, the G3 will please both the shortwave radio newbie and the seasoned listener.
The Grundig G3 can be purchased from Universal Radio or Grove. Some local RadioShack stores also keep the G3 in stock (though unfortunately, less often than they used to).
If $500 is within your budget, and you’re buying for someone who would love combining their radio hobby with computer technology, a software defined receiver (SDR), like the RFSpace SDR-IQ, will certainly exceed their expectations. There are many SDRs on the market, but the SDR-IQ offers the most bang-for-the-buck in the SDR line (though the WinRadio Excalibur ($900 US)–which we recently reviewed–and the Microtelecom Perseus ($1,000 US) are certainly pricier benchmarks worth considering).
The RFSpace SDR-IQ is available from Universal Radio and is manufactured in the USA.
The Bonito RadioJet
The Bonito RadioJet ($700 US)
The Bonito RadioJet is new to the North American market in 2012. I reviewed the RadioJet this summer and even traveled with it extensively. I was thoroughly impressed with its portability, performance, and it did not task my PC as much as SDRs do. Like the SDR-IQ, it’s a small black metal box that hooks up to your PC to unlock its impressive features. The RadioJet, though, represents cutting-edge IF receiver design, and comes with an amazingly versatile software package. If you’re buying for someone who likes versatility and raw performance–and likes being an early adopter–the Bonito RadioJet may well be the perfect fit.
The Bonito RadioJet can be purchased from Universal Radio and is manufactured in Germany.
We featured the Alinco DX-R8T in last year’s holiday gift guide. We also gave it a full review–in short, this radio thoroughly impressed us. It’s full-featured, performs well, and comes at a very affordable price. If you’re buying this for a ham radio operator, they’ll understand the reason why the Alinco DX-R8T needs a 12 volt power supply and an external antenna. It’s a receiver version of a ham radio transceiver, and as such, does a fine job on SSB modes.
The Degen DE321 is the first of a new type of radio hitting the market–a DSP-based receiver with an analog tuning dial. I was very intrigued by this radio since both it and the future Tecsun R-2010 are the newest of their kind. We’re still waiting for the R-2010 to hit the market, but the DE321 was introduced just a few weeks ago.
So, keep in mind that the DE321 I describe is not technically analog, although the dial and face appear to be.
The Degen DE321 is slightly thinner than the Kaito WRX911.
My first impressions of this radio are very positive. The DE321 is small, slim, and fits nicely in the hand. While holding it the first time, I even noticed a small indentation where my index finger fits on the back of the radio underneath the telescoping whip antenna. Nice touch!
The DE321 also feels durable. It’s slightly thinner than the venerable WRX911–the radio I believe it best compares with in the analog world. It’s the first SW radio I’ve owned that can actually comfortably fit into the pocket of my jeans. Indeed, its size and form are fairly comparable to the typical smart phone.
For a very tiny built-in speaker, the DE321 has unexpectedly decent audio. In fact, it is easily superior to the WRX911–its tones are more mellow and there’s even a hint of bass response. I’m sure the DSP chip has been tweaked to produce audio suitable for this application.
The DE321 has a nice, sturdy back stand for tabletop listening. However, it takes quite a lot of pulling force to get it to pop out of its closed position; I keep fearing that I will break the stand when opening it up. For what it’s worth, I prefer this tension to radios that have floppy, lose back stands.
The DE321 has a tiny red tuning light that works well when you receive a strong signal.
For a guy who was raised on analog tuning, yet now almost exclusively uses digital portables, the DE321 is a strange animal. When I first started tuning the radio, I noticed that the tuning wheel feels slightly “sticky.” At first, I thought the stickiness of the analog encoder was causing the tuning to skip over stations, as the action was not as fluid as most analog-tuned radios. Upon further investigation, I realized that it’s not the slightly sticky tuning wheel producing the tuning “skips,” rather, it’s the fact that the tuning is actually digital, thus I was hearing the “steps” between frequencies, which tricked my brain, translating into the sensory experience of wheel stickiness. Still, since the tuning wheel isn’t terribly fluid, I am not discounting some real frequency skipping at times.
I’m guessing that the steps are near 5 kHz on the shortwave bands, and that the single bandwidth is rather wide. The tuning steps on medium wave and FM seem to be appropriate for international use.
On a side note, the tuning experience is exactly opposite to that of the Grundig S350DL–an analog-tuned radio with digital display. The S350DL’s tuning feels sloppy and flexible, and the receiver is prone to drifting. The DE321, on the other hand, has a vague analog tuning display, but with precise, incremented tuning behind the scenes.
I’m pleased to note that the DE321’s stability is rock-solid and does not drift.
For casual band scanning, I find that the bandwidth and tuning steps are well placed. Happily, there is no noticeable muting between tuning steps.
The Degen DE321 with its older analog cousin the Kaito WRX911 in the background.
For this review, I compare the DE321 to the analog Kaito WRX911. The two have the same approximate size and price. In the near future, I’ll also compare reception with SiLabs DSP-based radios like the Tecsun R-2010 and the Tecsun PL-380. (Check back for these comparisons soon.)
On the shortwave bands, I feel that the sensitivity and selectivity are well-balanced. When I compare reception with the WRX911, the DE321 seems to pull in faint signals out of the murk a little better than the WRX911. However, I do notice some “pumping” as the AGC tries to cope with faint signals; it reminds me a bit of the Tecsun PL-310 in this respect. Sometimes I also notice that faint signals can range from being very faint to stepping up to clear and strong very quickly–the switch sounds like the DSP moving from not having enough signal to digest, to having enough to do its job. This can be a little frustrating as broadcasts may sound strong one minute, become weak within a fraction of a second, then pop back up again. I only observed this phenomena, however, when processing weak signals. Normal broadcast stations come in quite clearly.
Though I chose not to spend much time evaluating FM and AM (please comment if you have done so), I found the FM and AM (MW) performance to be on par with other radios using the SiLabs DSP chipset. I may expand upon this in the review later. (Update 16 Mar 2012: With more time spent on AM (MW) I realize performance on this band is sub-par–see comments).
For a tiny speaker, the sound is surprisingly full
Sensitivity and selectivity are both good
Nice form–slim, and easily fits in the hand
Simple (see negative)
Exceptionally wide FM bands (64-108 MHz) (see negative)
Unlike its analog counterparts, has absolutely no frequency drift
Back stand hard to pop open–though sturdy, it feels vulnerable as a lot of force is needed to open it
Tuning wheel feels slightly “sticky”
Absolutely no bells and whistles (see positive)
FM is in 2 bands, FM 1 and 2 (see positive)
AM (MW) performance is very weak
Though it looks analog, digital tuning produces slight “stepped” sound/ sensation, unlike the fluid experience of tuning a true analog radio
In conclusion, I think the DE321 is a great buy. It’s certainly a steal at $21 US, shipped. Though I simply find the idea of a rather vague analog encoder and display combined with the precision of a digital tuner a tad quirky–even backward–at the end of the day, the audio is very pleasant and the form perfect for slipping into your pocket.
I’m very eager to see how it stacks up against the soon-to-be-released Tecsun PL-2010. Stay tuned as I compare these in the near future…
Like most Degen (and Tecsun) radios, the DE321 is only available from eBay sellers in China/Honk Kong. I would normally call this a negative, since there is no real warranty for those of us living outside the country of origin. Still, I’ve been most impressed with purchases I’ve made from these highly-rated sellers. I believe they would help you if a problem were to arise and my experience is that they do a second QC (quality check) of their own, prior to shipping. The Degen DE321 in this review was purchased from eBay seller