SWLing Post reader, Pete Jernakoff (K3KMS), writes:
“I purchased two PL-880 radios from Amazon about a year ago and before the soft muting issue became a hot topic. Both of my radios (8819 firmware version) suffered from this most annoying problem but it wasn’t until I started reading your excellent blog that I learned of the cause.
About two weeks ago, I called Kaito Electronics USA and asked if they could upgrade the firmware on my two radios to the 8820 version. The person I spoke to said (paraphrasing) “Sure! Send them to us any we’ll perform the upgrade for free. All you do is pay for the return shipping.”
So off the radios went to Kaito. About 10 days later I had them back with the new firmware installed. The return shipping was $10. Weak MW and SW signals are now easy to listen to: no soft muting issues at all. Kudos to Kaito for agreeing to perform the upgrade for me. My dealings with them were thoroughly pleasurable.”
Thanks for sharing that great experience, Pete! You’re right–the 8820 upgrade is certainly worth the shipping costs and I’m happy to hear Kaito makes the process so easy.
On a side note, I suppose I should mention that I was pretty disappointed with the DE1129 because I had hopes it would make for a great all-in-one portable radio recorder for ETOW. While the DE1129 could record FM/AM and SW radio directly, it had serious problems: it auto-adjusted the volume level during recording (one could not turn off the internal speaker), it degraded audio quality in recording, and medium wave was plagued with a “ticking” sound every 10 seconds. It produced digital hash on various meter bands. My summary of the DE1129: fine concept, poor engineering. Read my full review of the first version of the DE1129 here.
The Kaito KA29: First impressions
The Kaito KA29 is a cute little portable. Mine has a black body with orange band encircling the diameter. That orange band is actually a nice addition–it helps the radio show up a bit better and makes the ports a little easier to see when lighting is low.
The overall quality of the radio feels fine: the hard plastic body has a smooth matte quality and the buttons have a very tactile response. The telescopic whip antenna is long for the overall radio size, but is still a little on the short side for good HF gain. Oddly, unlike most radios, the antenna cannot swivel at its point of attachment to the chassis; it can only be extended and tipped side-to-side–but not front to back, or back to front. Like the DE1129, the KA29 lacks a back stand–a big negative in my book–but admittedly a back stand would be of little use while SWLing with this rig because the antenna can’t be swiveled or tipped into a useful vertical position. Hm. Also like the DE1129, the KA29 uses a slim rechargeable battery pack.
When I first turned on the KA29, I thought I had received a faulty unit: I pressed and held the power button for a second, the display lit up a bright green, I released the power button…and the unit turned off. After a little trouble-shooting, I realized that the KA29 requires holding the power button a full two seconds, until the “Kaito” brand name appears on the display.
Unfortunately, the KA29 antenna does not swivel.
This sluggish power-up response is truly an indicator of most functions on the KA29. It’s as if every function is controlled by a slow processor–which I’ve no doubt is the case.
As far as I can tell, all the menu functions are the same on the Degen DE1129; obviously, they’re built on the same firmware. Indeed, Kaito is the North American brand for the Chinese manufacturer, Degen; the Degen model number for this radio is DE29. In this sense, most functions are familiar to me.
The one added feature of the KA29 that my version of the DE1129 didn’t have is a number pad, useful for direct entry of radio frequencies. I should note here that I (typically) toss the owner’s manual aside when I first get a radio, in order to test how intuitive its functions are. I spent quality time with the KA29 while traveling a few weeks ago, and as I didn’t bring the manual, I had to learn its functions via trial and error. It wasn’t until I returned that I learned how to use direct frequency entry; the is answer clearly stated in the manual: just key in the frequency, then press the appropriate band (AM/FM/SW) to go to that frequency. Pretty simple, actually. The response time for the radio to start playing the frequency you enter is only about one second.
Use of the tuning knob (located on the right side of the radio) is easy and straightforward–tuning up and down will move the needle 5 kHz steps between frequencies. Unfortunately, as on the DE1129, 5 kHz is the smallest tuning step available. The KA29 briefly mutes between frequency changes, so when tuning slowly it’s very noticeable. If you tune quickly, the KA29 will produce snippets of audio as you pass signals, but I find it often skips over even very strong signals. In short? Though I suppose it could be worse, I do not like tuning the KA29.
I should also mention that the KA29 has no adjustable bandwidth; I’m guessing the AM bandwidth is stuck at around 6 or 7 kHz.
While I no longer have the DE1129 in hand for side-by-side comparison, my impression is that performance between the two radios is very similar.
Herein lies the strength of the KA29. It obviously uses the same speaker technology (with an acoustic chamber) that the DE1129 uses. You will be favorably impressed with the audio from this wee radio–it is quite robust for a pocket radio of this size, and in a small room, almost room-filling. It sounds fantastic on FM and AM alike–you can even hear a hint of bass. One day, I tuned the KA29 to a local AM station and listened quite comfortably in another room. Impressive.
But what about receiver performance?
FM performance is quite good. I’ve used the KA29 in two different cities, and found that it could detect most of the same FM stations my other portables picked up.
I was pleasantly surprised to note the absence of the annoying ticking sound I heard in the DE1129; it appears Degen engineers have succeeded in eliminating this distraction. In general, I believe the KA29 performs acceptably on medium wave for basic local and nighttime clear channel broadcast listening. The AGC circuit is not ideal, though, for any sort of medium wave DXing; don’t consider the KA29 for MW DX.
If the KA29 is better than the DE1129 on the shortwave bands, the improvement is negligible. You’ll be fairly happy with the KA29 while listening to strong shortwave broadcasts. During my review, I listened to the new Global 24 a few hours on 9,395 kHz–an easy catch on the east coast of North America–and the KA29 was fairly stable, producing rich audio.
Here are the cons on shortwave:
Automatic Gain Control
While listening to weak stations, you’ll discover the KA29 to be somewhat sensitive, but again, the AGC circuit is just too active to listen comfortably for very long.
The noise floor is more obvious while listening to weak signals: I believe much of the noise is coming from the internal electronics of the KA29. It produces an audible digital hash sound that makes weak-signal listening a bit of a chore.
Quite often as I tuned around the shortwave bands, I noticed that FM stations bleed through the audio. Check out this audio sample as I attempted to listen to Radio Ryhad:
Indeed, even if the shortwave station has a relatively strong signal (like this recording of Global 24) you can often hear noise:
Fortunately, several of the recording problems I noted with the DE1129 are no longer an issue with the KA29.
The DE1129, when recording radio, had the exceedingly annoying habit of automatically setting the internal speaker’s volume to a high level. While recording, this could not be changed.
Fortunately, this problem has mostly been addressed in the KA29, which does not increase the volume while making a recording, but still fixes the volume at the level set at the recording’s start. I didn’t find this to be much of a problem.
The recording performance is better than that of the DE1129, which produced noisy, muffled recordings. The KA29 will produce fair audio recordings on AM, on FM, and on shortwave. One drawback: you will note a low-volume, high-pitched static noise–a hiss, to be specific–inherent in every radio recording, regardless of band. While it’s not too offensive, nor enough to deter me from making direct radio recordings (at least of strong stations), there is still much room for improvement. Obviously, I can use the headphone jack and an external digital recorder to make better radio recordings. But the convenience of an all-in-one recording device plus radio outweighs the slight hiss in the internal recordings it produces.
All in all? I’m reasonably pleased with the radio recording capabilities of the KA29, and the improvements it’s made over its predecessor. If the Degen engineers could lower the KA29’s noise floor and fix the imaging problems, and add 1 kHz tuning increments, this could be a good value all-in-one radio, a real contender.
Ever radio has its pros and cons. The following is a list I made while reviewing the KA29:
Great audio for a tiny radio
FM reception quite good
MP3 playback audio is good
Onboard radio recording acceptable (see con)
9/10 kHz select-able medium wave steps
Sluggish response to most actions; if (for example) volume control has been used, you must wait nearly 4 seconds before using another function
Awkward menu to navigate
No bandwidth selections
Imaging on SW bands
Fixed 5 kHz steps on shortwave
No adjustable bandwidth
Digital noise on portions of MW and SW bands
Low audio hiss present in all internal radio recordings (see pro)
No back stand
Antenna does not swivel 360 degrees for optimal placement
If you’re looking for a pocket radio to make local radio recordings on-the-go, and the quality of your recordings is not a major concern, you might give the KA29 a try; chances are you’ll be fairly pleased with the affordable KA29.
If you’re a shortwave radio hobbyist or DXer of any stripe, however, don’t waste your time or money on the DE1129. Instead, pitch in $10 more and buy a Tecsun PL-310ET–it has no MP3 recording or playback, but it will receive circles around the KA29.
Fortunately SWLing Post reader, Tim, has been working directly with Kaito in California. Yesterday, he visited their headquarters where they updated his PL-880 from firmware version 8819 to 8820.
“Just got back with my PL-880 from Kaito. It took about 5 seconds to update the firmware (they let me watch). Tecsun sent them a little silver box with a cord that plugs into the radio just below the LCD screen. After removing the face plate, they merely plug in the cord, press a button and voilà, the firmware is upgraded to 8820, and no more soft mute problems. They told me mine is the first one to get the update and it seems just great so far!
I asked if they will be updating new radios before they ship, and they said, “of course, by all means.” [T]hey are now selling the radio with 8820 firmware. People who bought the radio before are also welcome to send theirs back for the upgrade.”
The review of the Tecsun PL-880 we posted two weeks ago was purchased from Anon-Co and has the newer 8820 firmware version.
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
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