Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Michael Ye (BD4AAQ), for the following guest post:
In the Loop: PL-990 and LA400, a Perfect Match
by Michael Ye (BD4AAQ)
I have been a happy owner of Tecsun’s PL-880 world band receivers for years. In fact I have two PL-880 radios, one sitting at home and the other staying in my car. So, after Tecsun introduced the new model PL-990 in late 2020, it didn’t take me long to decide to purchase one. In this article I will discuss the Tecsun PL-990 receiver working with loop antennas, while referencing some relevant features of the PL-880.
Overall performance of the PL-990
Merely by its model number, it is easy to regard the PL-990 as an upgraded version of the already highly reputable PL-880. As expected, the PL-990 can very much be regarded as a combination of all the existing fine radio features of the PL-880 AND the music and bluetooth additions, with a number of improvements for instance in shortwave and medium wave performance. The ergonomic design of the PL-990 looks and feels different from that of the PL-880 in a number of ways. Although I may prefer the the more slim and elegant appearance of the PL-880, the PL-990 gives a more rugged and durable feeling, among other improvements over the older PL-880.
Working with loop antennas
Living on the twelfth floor of a condominium in the crowded Shanghai, I have often been fascinated with loop antennas. As a licensed amateur operator, I have used the MFJ-1786X and have been impressed with its performance. On reception, I also find loop antennas appealing, as they are able to pull in weak signals while noticeably reducing electro-magnetic interference rampant in the urban environment. I have an unbranded shortwave loop antenna which I believe is based on and performs similarly with the AOR LA320. Despite its excellent performance, it is only good for the 5MHz – 15MHz shortwave range. So a few years ago when AOR launched the new LA400 wideband loop antenna, I bought one, which I often pair up with the PL-880 and other radios for shortwave listening, and get satisfactory results!
Antenna Switch on the PL-990
Now, back to the PL-990. When I first tried the PL-990 with the LA400, the results were generally good but not as good as as compared with using the same LA400 on my PL-880. This puzzled me for a day or so until I realised that the PL-990 actually has an antenna switch which the PL-880 does not have. The switch is used to toggle between an internal antenna (i.e. the built-in ferrite bar/telescopic antenna) and an external one (e.g. the AOR LA400). So a new PL-990 user who has often operated the PL-880 when first using the PL-990 could easily ignore the switch which should be pushed to “Ext” when plugging in an external antenna. This explains why the PL-990 may suddenly appear less sensitive than expected.
“Ext” antenna input for all bands
Contrary to the PL-880 whose external antenna socket is only good for shortwave signal input, the PL-990’s external antenna socket works with all bands, from long wave to FM. I found this to be an important and very useful change, and a pleasant surprise for my LA400, which covers a wide range of frequencies from long wave to medium wave to FM and up to 500MHz.
Once the LA400 is connected, the correct band selected, and last but not least the antenna switch turned to “Ext”, the PL-990 and the LA400 work like a charm in the indoor setting, remarkably better than the built-in telescopic antenna. With the loop connected, while there is not much to expect on the long wave band because of very few long wave stations remaining in the world, reception improves considerably on all other bands including on the medium wave and FM bands, as is also reflected on the upper right hand display of the signal strength and S/N ratio readings. Needless to say, performance on shortwave is as good as on the PL-880, if not better (again, remember to push the antenna switch to “Ext” when using it on the PL-990). Using the AOR loop on the PL-990 for FM reception is somewhat different as there does not seem to be a noticeable tuning point. Simply select the “Others” band, which appears to be broad enough for fair FM reception.
Tecsun AN-200 loop antenna
It is worth mentioning that I have a Tecsun AN-200 tunable medium wave antenna, which I have not used often. As its name suggests, it is for medium wave reception only. I tried it on the PL-990. Works great.
It is hard to tell which one, the PL-LA400 or the AN-200, fares better, as the signal strength and S/M readings are quite close. They both perform better than the radio’s internal ferrite bar antenna to varying degrees, by improving the signal strength or the S/N ratio or both. The Tecsun loop is a passive antenna, meaning no power is required, making it easy to be used “wirelessly”, by simply placing the loop close to the radio, without having to be connected to the radio via a cable.
It should be noted that in the “wireless” mode of the AN-200 the antenna switch on the PL-990 should remain at “Int” so as for its built-in ferrite bar and the loop to couple with each other.