If you’re driving through the greater Ravenswood area and tune your radio dial to 87.9 FM, you might just enter a sort of radio twilight zone. On tap? Old timey, crime-thriller radio dramas, complete with sleuthy melodramatic music, damsels in distress and classic radio sound effects – footsteps, doors slamming, the gun going off.
There are no call letters or DJs, just “audio noir” floating out over a two-square-mile sweet spot on Chicago’s North Side.
It’s all broadcast illegally out of a nondescript two-flat on a residential block. There’s a spindly antenna on the roof, visible mainly from the alley, and a 50-watt transmitter in the upstairs apartment. And there’s Bill, a retired computer and audio engineer who’s been operating this illegal station for some 15 years. He asked us not to use his last name for fear of “FCC prison.”
“People on the lakefront up in the high rises can hear it,” said Bill. “And they used to listen at Lane Tech somewhere on an upper floor. So it gets out a little ways, but not that far.”
U.S.-backed news outlets and Ukrainian activists use Cold War techniques and high-tech tactics to get news about the war to Russians.
WASHINGTON — Using a mix of high-tech and Cold War tactics, Ukrainian activists and Western institutions have begun to pierce the propaganda bubble in Russia, circulating information about the Ukraine war among Russian citizens to sow doubt about the Kremlin’s accounts.
The efforts come at a particularly urgent moment: Moscow appears to be preparing for a new assault in eastern Ukraine that could prove devastatingly bloody to both sides, while mounting reports of atrocities make plain the brutality of the Kremlin’s tactics.
As Russia presents a sanitized version of the war, Ukrainian activists have been sending messages highlighting government corruption and incompetence in an effort to undermine faith in the Kremlin.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded but independent news organization founded decades ago, is trying to push its broadcasts deeper into Russia. Its Russian-language articles are published on copies of its websites called “mirrors,” which Russian censors seek out in a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole. Audience numbers have surged during the war despite the censorship. Continue reading →
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Andy (G0FTD), who writes:
Not sure if you’ve come across this, but earlier when I was cleaning my Tecsun PL660 and took the main tuning knob off the spindle, I discovered what looked like 4 holes of a hidden connector behind it !
I just did a quick search around and I came across a piccy of the PCB on a blog page here and yes there appears to be what looks like a small USB connector of some sort poking out the PCB where the VFO knob is. [Andy clarifies that he was trying to point out the area to look, but the pic appears to be from the opposite side, so you can’t see it.]
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen reference to it.
Maybe you or your readers might know ?
73 de Andy G0FTD
Thanks for sharing this, Andy. I am curious if that might be the port they use for firmware updates? Perhaps someone here can verify? I gave my PL-660 to a friend and no longer have it here for reference. Please comment if you have some info about this port.
This is a question that has circled around on the fringes of my consciousness for years now, but one that I’ve never quite found time to test. And it is a simple question: When using a random wire antenna with a portable shortwave receiver, is it better to string the wire vertically or horizontally, or does it even matter? Mostly this is a question when out camping, because arranging a 19′ wire vertically is usually a good bit more involved than just stringing it out along some nearby bushes.
Before going any farther, I want to point out that this is an exercise in ordinary backyard shortwave listening with relatively inexpensive equipment. There are many, many better-engineered and more costly solutions to the technical challenge of shortwave scanning, and this does not address any of those sophisticated approaches. This is for the person who opens up the box and wonders about the best way to hang the included long-wire auxiliary antenna.
Equipment: Tecsun PL-660 SW/AM/FM/Air Band receiver, with its included 19′ random-wire antenna. Internal battery power used.
Conditions & Time: Clear local weather. hamqsl.com’s nowcast of band conditions were fair from 3.5-14.35 MHz, and poor for higher frequencies, with SFI = 72, SN = 26, A = 5, K = 1. Time was 21:00-21:30 UTC, or 4-4:30 pm local CDT.
Procedure: Out in the backyard (typical residential neighborhood, well-spaced ~150′ between houses, above-ground power lines 125′ away), suspend random wire from ground to its full length. This was achieved using a length of paracord over a tree limb, with the tree trunk ~30′ from the radio’s location. With the PL-660’s antenna gain control set to “Normal” (i.e., the mid-setting of Local-Normal-DX) and the bandwidth set to narrow, use the receiver’s automatic scan function to see how many stations were received. Make notes of the number of transmissions detected, reception characteristics and quality, and any perceived noise levels. Re-orient the antenna to a low horizontal position, over two sawhorses approximately 3′ high (see picture), and repeat.
Sawhorses spaced ~17′ apart. Radio and notepad can be seen on ground in front of the near sawhorse.
Results: For the vertical antenna orientation, 32 stations were detected between 5959 – 15730 kHz. Nearly all were intelligible, with those at the lower end more steady and those a the higher end much more variable in strength. For the horizontal antenna orientation, 21 stations were detected between 9265 – 1570 kHz. Similar overall signal quality was heard for the received stations in either antenna orientation. More noise was noticeable at the lower frequencies between the stations for the vertical antenna orientation. However, this was significantly below the received signal levels, and not an issue in the overall listening quality.
Conclusions & Discussion:Suspending the wire antenna vertically worked better, especially at the lower frequencies. Getting a wire up 21’+ vertically is usually not as convenient as stringing it horizontally, but it may be worth the extra effort, depending on the location, campsite, nearby trees, etc. The overall conditions were typical for fall camping weather, with fair-to poor radio propagation conditions, so this result should be broadly applicable for how SW portables are often used. This result may change with propagation and radio noise conditions, both for atmospheric and local noise sources. Testing will continue as propagation conditions improve with solar cycle 25 getting underway.
Addendum, 10/12/20: While writing this up yesterday evening, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tested the PL-660’s built-in whip antenna. This comparison is important, because sometimes the wire antenna is too cumbersome to deploy. So, how does the whip antenna compare?
Conditions & Time: Overall, very similar to yesterday. hamqsl.com reports fair conditions from 3.5–14.35 MHz, and poor for higher frequencies. SFI = 72, SN = 26, A = 3, K = 1. Same time of day as yesterday’s testing.
Procedure: Repeat of yesterday, with the whip antenna added to the test. The whip was oriented vertically.
Results: For the vertical 19′ wire, 31 stations were found by the auto-scan function between 2380 – 15770 kHZ. Electrical noise was low but audible in the 3 MHz region, fading to none at higher frequencies, and not a significant source of interference with any stations. For the horizontal wire, 15 stations were found between 9265 – 13630 kHz. Electrical noise was barely audible. With the whip in use only 1 station was found. Switching the antenna gain to its DX (most sensitive) setting, 6 stations were found.
Revised Conclusions: Adding to yesterday’s conclusions, the whip antenna functioned but was vastly inferior to the wire antenna in either configuration, even with the gain set to DX. Today’s results with the wire antenna were, unsurprisingly, very similar to yesterday’s, given that the ionospheric and weather conditions were nearly identical. Noise was not a factor in receiving for any of these antennas or configurations, but did noticeably increase for the vertical wire antenna.
Thank you for sharing this, Rob! It’s experiments like this that help us determine, especially, what antenna setups work at our own particular locations since RFI characteristics can vary so much. I’m guessing had your horizontal wire been elevated to even 20′ off the ground it might have produced better results, but sometimes this can be difficult to achieve. I like how you used the auto search function to determine the number of stations you could receive with each setup and it was a great addition to include the built-in telescoping whip.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Marty Kraft, who asked that I share the following question with our community:
I’m still working on a receive-only passive hula loop magnetic antenna for my Tecsun PL-660.
After viewing thousands of YouTube videos (LOL), I built the PVC-pipe structure [you can see in the photo below].
But I need some tech help to finish…
The antenna is 90 inches tall; large loop diameter is 40 inches; and small loop diameter is 17 inches. The wiring is 14 gauge braided.
I plan to put the antenna outside on the porch. Then I’ll run coax from the small loop to the receiver inside and use a 365 pF air variable capacitor to tune the large loop.
My first question is, what’s the best coax to use for the 10-ft run from the small loop to the radio inside? Second, will that 365 pF cap tune the entire 3-30 MHz range?
It’s hot here in Louisiana, so I’d really like to tune the capacitor from inside my apartment, also using coax to connect the cap to the large loop. Will that work? Or does the cap have to connect directly to the large loop?
Any other tips or suggestions? Thanks for the help!
SWLing Post contributor, Klaus Boecker, sports a homebrew magnetic loop antenna on his balcony in Germany.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Marty, who writes:
I have a question about loop antennas; specifically which type is “better,” passive magnetic loops or active electric loops?
I know, “It depends.”–?
I live in a ground-floor apartment, with a small porch, lots of RFI and restrictions against visible antennas. Also there are no trees within 75 ft of my porch, which faces on a parking lot. My radio is a Tecsun PL-660, which works okay inside with my 10-ft bare wire antenna hidden on the porch.
With a loop antenna, I’d like to mount the antenna on the porch at night and have a remote tuner/control inside because it’s very hot n humid here in Louisiana even after dark.
No doubt there are a number of magnetic loop antennas that could serve you well in your situation, Marty.
To answer your first question, though, you should search for a wideband amplified loop antenna since you’re only concerned with receiving.
Passive loops are great antennas on the shortwave bands–and easy to build–but they best serve ham radio operators who wish to transmit. Passive loops typically have a very narrow bandwidth that requires the operator to constantly tune the antenna when they tune the radio a few kHz. Most amplified wideband loops need no separate tuning mechanism.
Last year, I posted an article about choosing the right loop antenna for situations like yours where one has limited installation options.
I do hesitate to encourage you to invest in an amplified loop antenna when your only receiver is a Tecsun PL-660. Some portables don’t handle amplified antennas well–they can easily overload and I imagine you can even damage the front end of the receiver.
I’m well aware, however, that there are a number of readers here who do couple their portable radio to an amplified loop. I have connected a number of portables to large wire antennas and found they could easily handle the extra gain, so I imagine an amplified loop would perform as well; the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, Tecsun S-8800, and Sangean ATS-909X come to mind.
But the PL-660 is a hot little receiver even with the built-in telescopic antenna–I’m not sure if amplification would help or hinder.
Please share your experience
This is where I hope the amazing SWLing Post community can pitch in and help us out here!
Does anyone here regularly connect their PL-660 to an amplified loop antenna? If so, what model of antenna are you using? Are there other portables out there that you regularly connect to amplified loops? Please share your notes, thoughts and experience in the comments section.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, for the following guest post:
Tecsun S-8800 Review
Looking for a new toy again I recently revisited the Tecsun S-8800, which looked like it could replace both my battered old Grundig Satellit and my Tecsun PL-660. Being in production for a few years now, and with the “birdies” situation ironed out long ago, the S-8800 has gathered much acclaim by now but also a few somewhat contradicting reviews. For example, one review reports that the S-8800 can cope with larger antennas, another one states the exact opposite, one praises the MW performance, another one attests only average sensitivity, and only one mentioned an unpleasant detail I’m going to emphasize on in a bit.
All reviews touted the improved SW performance in AM and SSB though, and that was reason enough to make my own experiences. Testing it turned out to be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster though.
I hope I can share more than only redundant bits of information about the radio, and I’ll skip most of the general information you can read in most other reviews.
Off to the 13dka radio test site at the dike!
13dka’s SWL Happy Place
Like the technically somewhat similar Tecsun PL-880, the S-8800 is a triple conversion receiver and has 2 conventional IF stages, the third IF stage is using a Si4735 DSP chip again, providing the filters and all that jazz.
Tecsun seems to have thrown a lot more parts into it than in previous radios, plus a pretty big ferrite rod (covering 8-9/10th of the radio’s width) with individual LW and MW coils (most of the smaller receivers have only one coil), a 108mm telescopic whip and of course the “gun metal” knobs. Designing a radio with a rather simple front panel and making a remote control an integral part of the operation concept (like it is reality with TVs for a long time) is a charming oddball approach, in a way reviving an utmost luxurious feature of 1930s high-end radios. So let’s cut to the chase and talk performance:
Longwave and Mediumwave
On LW and MW, I first compared the S-8800 with my old Grundig Satellit 400 at home. The old clunker has similar dimensions, a big old speaker bass/treble controls and it was known to have an average sensitivity on the AMBC band in its time, when all the great, now vintage AM performers were still ubiquitous, so that’s rather a “Jay Allen average” than an “average of the mediocre AM radios of this millenium”. I think Jay Allen might rate it 3 stars.
The first station I tuned in was the BBC LW transmitter network on 198kHz and it turned out a tad more noisy on the Satellit. Great! I could also pick up Medi1 and Kalundborg a smidge better than on the Grundig, and in the early evening, out at the beach I was picking up stations on all still populated channels on LW (minus 180kHz where it has one of the remaining birdies). The other new portables I currently own (PL-660, D-808) are far away (PL-660) and far, far, far away (D-808) from that kind of performance.
Unfortunately that good impression vanishes gradually when leaving the long wave for the NDB band (still good) and finally medium wave. Before I left the house to test the radios on the electrically quiet beach again, I was checking out one of my favorite border case stations (low power station from The Netherlands on 1602kHz, whatever their name is this week) and that made very clear already that the S-8800 can’t hold a candle to the Satellit, at least not on the top end of the MW band. Despite all the noise indoors, on the Satellit I could easily recognize the song being played while the S-8800 didn’t pick up anything at all.
On the beach it turned out that – despite the ferrite rod being twice the size – I find it only marginally better than the PL-660, and not close enough to the little XHDATA D-808 (if you’ve read my D-808 review you already know that this little radio is almost on par with the Grundig on MW):
Of course I have read Thomas’ assessment of the AM performance so I was prepared to be underwhelmed. But at least you can connect some high gain MW antenna to make up for the missing sensitivity and be happy again, or can you?
A not so nice surprise
The unpleasant detail I mentioned before is: the Int/Ext Antenna switch does not turn off the internal ferrite bar antenna. Jay Allen mentioned it in his review, it was the only review with that detail and unfortunately I overlooked it. How does that matter?
The main issue is this: if you’re (like me) forced to use outdoor antennas to escape high indoor noise levels, the internal loopstick just won’t let you. The external antenna will just increase the SNR a bit when the station is strong enough anyway. Even in a low noise environment, the internal loopstick will needlessly add noise to the signal received from a high-performance active loop or FSL antenna.
That also explains a paragraph in Thomas’ S-8800 review:
“I also hooked up the S-8800 to my large horizontal loop antenna. This certainly did improve MW reception, but not as dramatically as I hoped. Additionally, it seemed to be very sensitive to RFI in my shack even when hooked up to the external antenna.”
There’s more external antenna idiosyncrasy: only the BNC jack is wired to the “Ext” position of the antenna switch, the “hot” (red) Hi-Z terminal is active when the switch is in the “Int”-position, it just seems to save you an alligator clip on the whip.
The dedicated “AM antenna” terminal was in part what sold the S-8800 to me. The label made me assume this would be specifically wired to the AM circuit but as it turns out it’s just a generic high impedance input and I really didn’t anticipate that the internal loopstick remains always active (or in case of the Hi-Z terminals, the retracted whip). Yes, technically you can connect an external antenna for MW, practically…YMMV.
To conclude this section, the final outcome of this antenna connector issue plus the not so brilliant MW sensitivity was that not even my active ML-200 loop (connected to the BNC-jack) could improve reception on 1602kHz enough to make the S-8800 get at least a bit into the ballpark of the Grundig with its loopstick antenna. The currently mounted small 80cm rigid loop on the ML-200 just couldn’t produce enough signal to lift the station over the noise that much.
As the other reviews reported already, Tecsun has obviously worked on the AGC issues their former products had. I can confirm this so far, the AGC does not show the distorted onset of leveling anymore – unless the signal is very strong. But the leveling happens much faster than e.g. on the PL-880 so the remaining blasts of distortion are quite short:
A more relaxed AGC release time would save us most of those too. I noticed AGC pumping effects from strong signals in the spectrum neighborhood only with a big antenna connected. But unfortunately there is more…
Stuff you have to live with:
In his great review, Thomas mentioned the auto mute sometimes interfering with reception. I noticed this too (with all bandwidths on SSB) and I credited this to very low noise figures. When the bandwidth is narrow (=less noise) or if you have a very low noise floor anyway like when tuning through 25-30MHz, the receiver gets muted over the entire chunk of spectrum, just to intermittently and pretty suddenly pass the noise again. Sounds like a broken antenna cable and has some potential to confuse people:
Too bad that setting auto mute to ’00’ doesn’t actually turn it off in SSB mode so there’s likely no remedy for that.
On my example, there is absolutely no difference between the 3kHz and 4kHz SSB filters. A working 4kHz filter would have been a good choice for ECSS reception.
Another remaining quirk at least on my specimen of the S-8800 is a slight FM modulation of an oscillator in SSB, particularly with strong signals. You can hear it best if you create a heterodyne or listen to CW, the tone sounds a bit hoarse, so do voices and I’m not sure whether or not this could affect narrow-bandwidth digimiode decoding. The front panel (namely the bandwidth knob area) is quite susceptible for “hand capacity”, the frequency varies a bit when you move your hand in front of the S-8800. This is not uncommon with portables of course, but my D-808 for example has its “Theremin playing area” on the back of the radio.
In this clip you can hear both the “hoarse” modulation and my hand waving to you.
This leads me to calibration and frequency drift. The S-8800 can be calibrated on SSB (see the “Hidden features” section below), however this turned out to be a (too) fast moving target. I don’t know if it’s the VFO or the BFO but it is so temperature-dependent that 6°C temperature difference equates to a quite substantial (for SSB) drift of 150Hz. Whatever oscillator it is, it seems to lack any temperature compensation measures, with all the implications that may have on relaxed SSB listening, digimode decoding and ECSS reception when the temperature isn’t quite stable where you want to use it. After calibrating it, it’s often slightly off again within the same minute. My cheap little D-808 won’t drift even when I take it from an overheated apartment into a -5°C cold winter storm.
The good stuff
Now to the fun part! When I compared the SSB performance of the S-8800 with my PL-660 the first time, I found them very close for some reason. I could find only one weak station that came in noticeably better on the S-8800 and while I was happy that it wasn’t worse than the PL-660 I was also a bit disappointed.
Timeline: 0:00: PL-660, 0:10: S-8800 receiving the “Gander Radio” VOLMET.
Then I repeated the test a few days later, this time a bit more into the evening and the outcome was very, very different. The S-8800 won every single weak signal comparison with ease and sometimes in a way that made me think my PL-660 must be broken.
But then I could help the PL getting a lot closer by simply holding it in my hand, the difference was that I had placed the PL-660 differently so I could record both radios easier. The factor I forgot to put in the equation was that the S-8800 is absolutely not depending on anyone holding it to give it some counterpoise – that and the long whip is certainly a part of its advantage, and the receivers would be much closer when used with the same external antenna. With the radios just standing there tho (and that’s what most people will do with their radio instead of holding it in their hand), the difference is remarkable nonetheless and I also learned that you should always look and listen twice when testing radios!
When I repeated the test yet again but granted the PL-660/D-808 the litte bit of counterpoise they seem to need (I let them rest on the car door instead of holding them), the results were not that unequivocal anymore. However, the receivers were 50% on par, the S-8800 was clearly better the other 50% and overall the other two receivers could not score a single point for them. I think that shows that the S-8800 really is a hair or three better. Beyond the increased sensitivity and minus the frequency drift, SSB reception feels more mature, the the S-8800 behaves more like a regular communications receiver now and the big speaker is a big plus. Of course that means there should be also an improved reception of…
I know that the S-8800 has inherited the “Enjoy broadcasting” and “BCL RECEIVER” lettering from the cheap S350, but after stepping the PL-660 and the S-8800 through all shortwave broadcast bands, I felt that’s exactly hat it was made for, and it shows!
There is no doubt that a big speaker can create the illusion of better reception, but I think I don’t fall for that easily and rather listen to the background noise and how intelligible the “content” is. While the comparison with the PL-660 often ended up in a tie when I subtracted the impact of the speaker in my mind, there were indeed some stations where the S-8800 had remarkably less noise than the PL-660. But of course the big speaker is giving the S-8800 a permanent edge on all reception cases, and it’s a real joy to listen! Combined with lower noise and a generally more stable signal (through better AGC) this made quite a difference between the two.
Bottom line is that when listening to shortwave broadcasts, the S-8800 gives you the warm and lush sound of yesterday’s famous receivers while it technically delivers the best performance of all Tecsun portables so far. If you fancy music programs on shortwave and if you don’t mind the price for the luxury and performance, you’ll enjoy this radio a lot.
Short story: my specimen of the S-8800 lacks the very good FM band sensitivity of the PL-660 or the XHDATA D-808. While the latter radios present my favorite marginal case station 100km away fairly with some noise at sea level, the S-8800 just doesn’t receive that station at all, no matter how I position the whip. It’s not exactly worlds between them but considering that (assumedly) most of the FM receiver is in the Si4735 chip that it shares with a couple of great FM performers from the same company, this is a bit surprising.
Signal handling capabilities
The S-8800 is said to have a pretty robust frontend, which I found true but I want to put that a bit into relation. My “lonely beach/dike listening post” sports 2 abandoned steel flag poles of 6 and 8m height. They can serve as support for wire antennas, or easily be used as an antenna themselves by inductively coupling them to the receiver – IOW by winding a wire 2-4 times around the pole (you could use the Eiffel tower as an antenna this way) and connecting the other end to the radio.
For some reason this contraption produces quite massive output voltages, but I could always use it for a quick and thorough (and due to the location QRM-free!) reception improvement with my PL-660 anyway. Why?
The PL-660/880 have a 3-position (DX, Normal, Local) switch. I think it turns off the input preamp in the “Normal” postion and adds a simple attenuator circuit in the “Local” setting. The latter is sufficient to tame the output of all sorts of antennas (including the flag pole) enough to make my PL-660 work just fine with that on all bands.
The S-8800’s sensitivity switch on the other hand has only 2 positions and telling from the results it really only turns off the preamp. Now it actually acts up much less on the flag pole than the PL-660 in its comparable “DX” and “Normal” positions, so obviously Tecsun has put some effort into making the frontend more robust indeed. But it seems they thought “that should do, let’s ditch the 3rd (attenuator) position and save 3 resistors” and that left me with many (but tolerable) images across the entire shortwave above 3 MHz, and a heavily image-infested 160m band. BTW, a few soft images from (I guess) 49/41m blowtorches could be heard around 29MHz with only the whip.
A word on the audio
I believe that the “legendary” status of the Grundig and Zenith lines of world band receivers is partly owed to their big sound. They had their music loving and program listening audience in mind, and Tecsun’s choice of casing, big speaker, the bass and treble controls are certainly taking the same line.
Compared to my Satellit 400 (80s model, but still has much of that “legendary” sound), the Tecsun sounds a bit more boomy in the lower mids while having a less super-deep bass response than the Grundig, which also sounds more neutral. Besides these very unimportant distinctions, the S-8800 does sound big and that also helps reception – lacking low mid/bass content can impair intelligibility as well, and it causes more fatique on long DXing sessions.
The bass/treble shelving EQ is certainly more sophisticated than the Grundig’s, it has quite sharp cutoffs at very sensibly chosen frequencies, so turning the knobs down will leave the main chunk of the mid range completely unaffected and just helps removing rumble or the 5kHz beat frequency from a band neighbor, or add some nice hifi-highs and beefy low end when you turn them all the way up. In other words you can continuously blend the speaker sound from perfect “voice communications” style to “dad’s big old radio”.
Of course the S-8800 has some unofficial “power off” and “power on” extra functions assigned to the number keypad on the remote (they all work by pressing and holding a number key for up to 10 seconds). Some are identical to the PL-880, some are different:
0.) I found calibrating the S-8800 on SSB works with the same method used on the PL-880: Tune to a station with a known frequency, switch to USB or LSB and use the fine tuning knob to tune for best audio/music playback. An alternative way of doing this is downloading a free spectrum analyzer app for your smartphone (“SpecScope”), tuning the radio 1kHz off frequency so you get a nice heterodyne tone on USB or LSB, then using the fine tuning knob to tune the tone to hit exactly the 1kHz mark on the analyzer display. Your last 2 (Hz) frequency digits will now show an offset frequency.
1.) Then press and hold the ‘0’ button until a ’00’ appears in the top right corner of the display and the last 2 digits of the frequency readout start flashing. Release the button and quickly use the fine tuning knob to reset the last frequency digits to ’00’ (the number on the top right corner should be changing while doing that), then immediately hold the ‘0’ key again to confirm – tadaa, the offset should be gone while the last 2 frequency digits show ’00’ now. This all needs to happen pretty quickly and with the right timing, so it may take a few attempts to get it right.
2.) With the radio off, button ‘2’ turns the LW band on/off.
3.) Press and hold the ‘3’ button while the radio is off to toggle between permanent and “intelligent” display illumination.
4.) When the radio is turned on, this button enables access to the extra functions of the number 6 and number 9 keys. The display will read “On” when you perform this the first time, doing it again will turn it off again.
5.) Radio on, set to FM band: this toggles between 75 (US) and 50 (anywhere else) microseconds deemphasis on FM.
6.) Radio on: When enabled using the ‘4’-button as described before, holding the ‘6’ will toggle the (annoying) dynamic bandwidth feature off and on. You can set this independently for AM and SSB. Ideally to zero, because it automatically resets your bandwidth setting and since this is happening in steps, it sounds quite strange. The PL-660 uses a stepless dynamic envelope following low pass filter (which is I believe what they called “DNR).
7.) This is still a mystery to me. On the PL-880, this button apparently controls the line out level on FM. On the S-8800 it (ostensibly) seems to control the S-meter bias with numbers running from ’00’ to ‘+99’ and ‘-99′ for all bands. Positive values reduces the S-meter display which made me curious if it rather controls AGC level or gain at some stage, but it really seems to affect the S-meter display only.
8.) Radio off: Toggles the seconds display on the main clock (when the clock is displayed instead of frequency).
9.) Another important one: this controls the threshold of auto squelch/soft mute. If you want to turn that off, turn it down to ’00’ with the main tuning knob, then hit the ‘9’ key again. You need to do this for AM, FM and SSB separately.
The S-meter was indicating a permanent base level of 2 bars even at my remote beach listening post. But even though it can apparently be “calibrated”, a 5-bar indicator is quite a step backwards from the 99-step RSSI meter of the PL-880.
After an initial discharge and recharge cycle, the 2x2000mAh “18650” batteries gave me a continuous runtime of 21 hours. When you connect the charger and then turn on the radio, it stops charging unless – and this seems odd – you are in FM mode. A full charge while listening to FM radio took 4:41.
I had a pretty hard time making my mind up about this radio. It has so elaborate details, so much design improvement and costly parts went into it but I feel like it doesn’t quite meet the expectations Tecsun created with this radio. Sadly, it has a few things that were started ambitious and ended underwhelming.
It got a huge 2-coil loopstick and somehow they managed to make it perform slightly worse than a 70€-radio with not even half of that loopstick size, they gave it 2 external antenna ports but they disappoint MW enthusiasts right again by keeping the loopstick always active, and how FM could turn out less sensitive than many radios with the same Silicon Labs chip (including their own models) is beyond me.
They improved the front end but then they dropped the attenuator, which costs the overall flexibility and better overloading-resilience their other radios have, they fixed the SSB issues of the predecessors and introduced a free-floating BFO with a mind of its own.
The price tag is making these downers certainly weigh heavier, and I think without them this radio may have turned out to be a real classic.
On the plus side I found a radio that really excels on shortwave. Shortwave program listeners can feast on a most sensitive, selective, luxurious and well-behaved portable with a big sound and I think there’s probably no current portable that could compete with that.
Ham radio aficionados get improved SSB reception and if there wouldn’t be this “cheap 70s receiver trademark” unstable oscillator, it would come close to communications receiver performance levels (minus the frontend needed for big antenna voltages).
That the price reaches into the ballpark of pre-loved high-end(-ish) JRC/Icom/Yaesu communication receivers or buys you a mint-condition ICF-2010/2001D may seem like a problem too. But then again, none of those radios is perfect either, and only the Sony is a portable.
Despite the quirks, the S-8800 is still a great, valuable radio that revives an out-of-fashion style of radios in a pretty unique and modern way.
What a brilliant, critical review of the Tecsun S-8800! Thank you so much for taking the time to properly test and compare the S-8800 with the venerable PL-660 and the XHDATA D-808 (readers, also check out his review of the D-808).
You’re right, too, in that I’ve noticed some contradictions in reviews–I do wonder if part of this might be variations between US and EU versions of the radio, or perhaps small quirks in production runs.
No doubt, however, that the Tecsun S-8800 is a champion of the shortwave broadcast bands and its audio fidelity is in a class of its own.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, for the following guest post:
A review of the XHDATA D-808
After all the recent buzz about the new XHDATA D-808 I had to get one. I got mine 3 weeks ago and I couldn’t help comparing it a lot with my PL-660. The PL-660 lends itself to such a comparison: it turned out to be the most sensitive shortwave portable with SSB in some comparison tests, so it became some kind of benchmark radio for this class of receivers and it has the same coverage as the D-808. Here are my findings, let’s start with the important stuff:
13dka’s “happy place” on the German North Sea shore.
I always try new receivers at my favourite listening post at the (German) North Sea shore, many of you know how beneficial such a location is for DXing. My favorite spot there is far away from any houses, power lines or other interference sources on the land side, so besides some sheep-made noise the man-made noise is as low as it gets, measured less than -130dBm (which is the receiver noise) on a 1/2 lambda dipole above 10 MHz.
At the same time the close proximity to the water results in somewhat boosted signals, so I can assess both reception quality at the lowest sensitivity threshold and behavior with strong signals. Sometimes it lets me find quirks that would go unnoticed anywhere else.
Here are my findings with the D-808:
Since users in the US have little ways to test that, let me assure you that all rumors you may have heard about a deaf longwave are perfectly true: the European LW broadcast band is pretty much not existing on the D-808. All those reports (e.g. many to find in Amazon reviews) indicate that really all D-808 are affected. The PL-660 is known to be very deaf on LW as well but it picks up a few stations in the evening, only some of them leave a faint clue on the D-808 and it can’t pick up BBC 4 on 198kHz even at night.
The signal meter indicates that it gains some sensitivity only above 300kHz, but from there it quickly starts to beat the PL-660 – during the day I can hear all of the local NDBs, something I can’t say about the PL-660.
AM broadcast band
This continues throughout the AM broadcast range – best tested during the day and on early evenings, the D-808 lets me ID weak stations that are just not there (yet) on the PL-660. Being noticeably better than the Tecsun, I then compared it to my old Grundig Satellit 400 (which has an average sensitivity on MW) and the D-808 matches its performance perfectly. So perhaps it’s not exactly a MW DX machine with just its internal loopstick but it performs well enough to make the band enjoyable.
Trying that at night and indoors shows why the right time and a low-noise location (or alternatively proper test equipment) are so important for such comparisons: any weak station sticking out of the distant and local QRM there is not as weak as it sounds anymore, both QRM and wanted signal are now well above the sensitivity thresholds of both radios and so SNR is defined only by the QRM, not the receiver. That means both radios falsely appear to have exactly the same sensitivity.
Notwithstanding some duds, the PL-660 is known to be a little sensitivity monster on shortwave. When I don’t feel like putting up wires etc. for my SDR, I just take the Tecsun to the beach and through the years I own it, I’ve logged plenty of true DX (JA, VK/ZL or WWVH on a regular basis) with it there, just using the telescopic whip.
Only below 3 MHz it’s not all that great on the whip, and that’s where the D-808 beats it – listening to top band (160m) hams works surprisingly well for a 25 inch whip. Between 3 and 30MHz the D-808’s sensitivity appears to be almost on par with the PL-660, the PL-660 often wins in terms of intelligibility at the “minimum discernible signal” (MDS) threshold. For example, on a day with bad conditions Gander Radio on 6604kHz USB had a barely audible signal on both radios. But I could occasionally decipher some words on the Tecsun that didn’t make it through the noise on the D-808. These photo finish victories for the PL-660 can be observed across most bands, but it needs ridiculously weak signals to spot the difference.
This difference is partly due to the fact that the D-808 seems to be a tad more noisy and partly owed to the better speaker of the PL-660. But the PL-660 also sports the often frowned upon “soft muting” feature, thus creating an impression (or should I say illusion?) of a pretty quiet receiver. I find it hard to tell whether the D-808 is really noisier than the PL-660, or just lacking this permanent noise reduction. I think this feature potentially even increases intelligibility on SSB a tiny bit, but on AM it’s just disturbing and makes the Tecsun lose its sensitivity advantage. Bottom line is that the D-808 is at least very close to the PL-660 in terms of sensitivity on shortwave and I find that quite remarkable.
Both receivers are pretty identical in FM performance on their whip antennas. Sensitivity is good enough to pick up high-power stations more than 100km away in times without any elevated conditions. Both receivers don’t need much signal to make a station intelligible, so when conditions improve a tiny bit (“marginal” indications on the Hepburn Index map) the band already gets populated accordingly. One difference is the coverage: the PL-660 can be switched to cover the Japanese FM band (76-108MHz) only, the D-808 covers the old OIRT band (64-108MHz) on top. What makes the D-808 the winner is its RDS/RDBS capability and the size, it certainly has the sensitivity needed for some ad-hoc FM-DX when you find yourself bored on a hill or in sudden tropo conditions.
By the way: RDS gets decoded sufficiently fast and starts to show on signals with an SNR of at least 12dB (see the bit about the RSSI/SNR meter below). If the station transmits date information it will set the clock automatically, but when you go on a hunt for stations it may receive some garbage data that resets the clock to a wrong time. It may be best to turn on the automatic only occasionally to set the clock, then turning it off again.
The D-808 is at least as sensitive as my Alinco DJ-X11 scanner and skunks the rather deaf Tecsun in this band. Unlike the PL-660 and most other small receivers covering that band it has a squelch, which is by the way active on all bands.
What it lacks is the new 8.33 kHz channel spacing, the “Fast” tuning step is still 25 kHz (“Slow” is 1 kHz) and the scan searches the band in 25 kHz steps as well, so I have to tune in the new channels manually. But while it lacks the new spacing, it absolutely has the selectivity for it – the AM filters are all available on the air band as well and even the widest one is still good enough to separate adjacent channels sufficiently. My 6 times more pricey Alinco has the new 8.33 kHz channels but it can’t separate them at all.
The D-808 is a great air band receiver!
The PL-660 has 2 (I think unspecified) ceramic IF filters for SW, which are doing a good job serving 90% of all typical purposes for such a radio. The D-808 on the other hand utlizes the DSP for IF filtering and offers whopping 11 different bandwidths (6 on AM and 6 for SSB), this is even more than the PL-880! This sold the D-808 to me the most, for example I like to improve my very poor CW listening skills every so often, and always having an even narrower filter up the sleeve can save otherwise hopeless DX reception in the ham and broadcast bands. But are they any good?
The 500 Hz “CW filter” seems to have a rather slow cutoff, unlike a true 500 Hz CW-filter it leaves voice communication almost intelligible. Still beats trying to hear CW through a regular SSB filter though! The 1 kHz filter seems to be the only one with an offset lower skirt (=less bassy sound), which can be useful in some cases. I’m not quite getting the purpose of the 1.2 kHz filter, I think I’d prefer a 1.8 kHz filter for a step between 1 and 2.2 kHz. The 1.2 through 4 kHz filters have the steeper cutoff you’d expect from DSP filtering and serve their purpose pretty well. In the “Gander Radio” example above, the narrow filter on the PL-660 couldn’t keep 4XZ’s CW signal on 6607kHz in check, while the D-808’s 2.2kHz filter eliminated the CW signal completely. I’d still take the bandwidth figures with a grain of salt though.
Oddly, the published bandwidth for the AM filters seem to be “audio bandwidth” (or “per sideband”) figures rather than IF-bandwidths, so they equate to classic IF filters with 2/3,6/4/5/6/8 and 12 kHz bandwidth. The only overlap is 4 kHz, hence I say it’s 11 different bandwidths, not 10. I think these AM bandwidths should cover all requirements that might come up, on top of those you can try ECSS reception with the SSB filters.
On pretty much all of the tiny shortwave portables, SSB reception comes with some tradeoffs and the D-808 is no exception. When the PL-880 hit the market a few years ago, the amount of filters for SSB offered by the Si4735 DSP raised my hopes for improved SSB, but unfortunately the D-808 has the same problem that kept me from buying the PL-880 back then, and some on top:
Like the PL-880 (at least some of them), the D-808’s AGC has a way too slow attack rate, the first portion of any strong SSB/CW signal is distorted before the AGC levels back, and it increases gain fast enough that even short talking (or keying) pauses make the next syllable distorted again. This seems to plague most (if not all) Si4735-equipped radios, so that might be actually a bug of the DSP.
The chuffing noise is making tuning through the band quite bad in SSB mode, it’s even worse than the early digital “keypad”-style radios in the 1980s: every tuning step is causing first a short muting of the signal, then audio comes back with a loud “chuff” from the AGC kicking in with full gain – tuning sounds like a model railway steam engine sound chip gone mad. Luckily, fine tuning with the thumb wheel doesn’t have this issue.
Another issue is an occasional effect that sounds and feels like the filter drops out when you tune through the band. The chuffing sounds different and the background noise sounds wider with more hiss, then after a while (this can take several seconds) the filter pops back in with the regular puff from the AGC.
Slow mode switching
When switching to SSB a “loading bar” shows up first, the entire process between hitting the “SSB” button and getting reception again takes 5 seconds. Actually, these radios basically consist of a “radio-on-a-chip” and a microcontroller so it really might be a loading bar we see there. This controller seems to be not exactly fast in the D-808 anyway, so even using the tuning knob comes with occasional hesitations – I advance the main tuning encoder one indention and the frequency changes only 1-2 seconds later. Changing bands is not exactly fast either but at least toggling between USB and LSB works instantaneously.
In comparison, the PL-660 has none of these issues – tuning is smooth and fast, and the AGC is less borked. So tuning the D-808 isn’t elegant and it doesn’t sound exactly beautiful on SSB. On the other hand it has great frequency stability, great selectivity and sensitivity and I can hear what I want to hear anyway. At 1/3 of the price for a PL-880 and pocket-friendly 2/3 of its size I decided to avoid overrating the quirks.
… is fortunately less odd. The chuffing gets replaced by less annoying muting when tuning in AM mode, the ability to quickly scan a band with the main tuning knob seems to be less hindered by that. The PL-660 has a mediocre sync detector and the D-808 has not, but it can score with easier ECSS reception through its much less fiddly fine tuning in 10 Hz-steps (range +/- 990 Hz with the last digit omitted in the display) and the choice of filters is a clear advantage over the Tecsun’s 2 bandwidths in tricky DX situations. As mentioned above, the Tecsun is also losing its sensitivity advantage due to the soft muting on AM, so its remaining big plus is the more pleasant speaker sound.
Signal handling capabilities
As mentioned above, signals can increase quite a bit in very close proximity to the water. When conditions were good, I’ve witnessed occasional overloading even with just the whip antenna on the PL-660 there. But the Tecsun has a 3-position sensitivity switch that first turns off the input amplifier and then adds an attenuator, so it can manage these situations by turning off the preamp and it happily digests signals from full size dipoles, long wires and active antennas with the built-in attenuator in the signal path.
The D-808 has no such thing and that makes it at least as vulnerable to overloading from good conditions or big antennas as the PL-660 without attenuation. At the beach it exhibited very faint intermodulation even at propagation conditions that were just “not quite as crappy as the current record low” when the Tecsun did not. They were so soft that I think this can’t be heard when the noise level is a bit higher, still a bit strange. Intermodulation products seem to show up most prominently around 7MHz, 10MHz and in the 15m ham band first.
Other than that, it seems to abide <10m/30ft of wire just fine and it gets along with my ML-200 active loop, currently indoors with a rigid 80cm aluminum loop, unless the RRI transmitters populate 49 and/or 41m after midnight. That station occasionally hits the 9+60 mark on my SDR with a dipole and when they’re on, the D-808 has to be tuned far away from these bands or disconnected from the loop to stop the pumping, desensitizing and intermodulation products. Interestingly, strong signals often make the filter drop out (as described under “SSB reception”) as well. A theory could be that this happens when an off-band signal (and/or the AGC causing “clipping”) makes an AD-converter run out of bits.
That even regular good signals outside the filter passband can trigger unwanted AGC action might be more or less common with most of those DSP radios. The massive worldwide contest activity on March 24/25 was a nice opportunity to test that. Even though I fled to the less crowded upper region of the 20m-band and it was an hour after sunset so the band was closing, I noticed the AGC was pumping a lot while listening to a contester with a moderate signal. It could be the the ceramic filters (which are said to have better out-of-band rejection) or just the way my Tecsun’s AGC works (or malfunctions) differently, however this effect is much less pronounced on the PL-660.
Frequency stability, accuracy, birdies, quirks
Both receivers are generally very stable and don’t exhibit a noticeable warm-up drift. Just to see what happens, I took the D-808 from a very warm apartment into cold (-5°C/28F) and stormy weather outside. The internal (and very slow changing) thermometer of the D-808 indicated an internal temperature drop of 12°C within 10 minutes and if there was a drift at all, it drifted less than 10Hz.
Comparing the BFO frequency accuracy (using RWM on 4996 and 9996 kHz) brought up some slight offsets across the coverage range, with different curves for LSB and USB:
So particularly on LSB, the offset on my D-808 varies quite a bit over the entire coverage range but I think this is within the allowable tolerance for such a radio. The PL-660 has slightly better results but it also has a center-indented fine-tuning knob making small corrections quite difficult. In AM mode they are both spot on.
So far I couldn’t find birdies anywhere on the D-808. The PL-660 is pretty clean on shortwave too, but it has hefty birdies around 100, 200 and 970kHz, despite the efforts Tecsun has put into shielding and clean PCB design.
SWLing Post reader Mike reported a loud “pop” when changing bands. I can replicate that but it’s not that loud here. I’m getting a much louder pop (independent from the volume setting like Mike’s pop) when using the band scan function though. If I’m tuned to a station and another station (strong enough to stop the scan) is quite close (10-15 kHz) to the station where the scan was started, a loud pop will be heard when the scan stops at the other station.
Both receivers have some “thin plastic” feel to me, but while my PL-660 has some slightly rattly and wiggly buttons and knobs rubbing against the casing, the D-808 has none of those and feels a tad more solid. The tuning knob and the fine-tuning thumbwheel have quite strong detents, so they are not very prone to unintentional detuning. The D-808 lacks the weight and the tiny rubber feet that keep the Tecsun fixed on the table.
I’ve seen quite a few complaints/misunderstandings about the D-808’s operation and I think this is due to the fact that there is a fundamental difference between e.g. many Tecsuns and the D-808 in terms of keypad usage: the PL-660 is prioritizing direct frequency input and the D-808 makes memory operation easier. It couldn’t be any easier indeed – depressing a number button on the keypad for more than 3s stores a frequency, hitting it shortly loads that frequency. “Page” button, then number key loads the memory pages 0-9 on each band (so each band has 100 memories). Like the PL-660, the memories store frequencies only, not the mode and also not the bandwidth (despite the manual claims they do). Also differing from the manual, the selected bandwidth stays put per mode and doesn’t reset to a default setting.
Direct frequency input needs to be initated with the “Freq” button though, and in some cases (shortwave frequency <10,000kHz) you need to hit it again to enter the frequency. The D-808 has up/down buttons in addition to the main tuning knob, they are stepping through the bands in the “Fast” step width so you can pretty much always leave the tuning knob on “Slow” . Pressing these buttons longer than 3s starts the band scan. Holding each of the left side band buttons starts the “ATS” scan-and-save-to-memory automatic.
The D-808 shares the “power off” settings scheme with the Tecsuns – some functions like LW on/off, the FM band coverage and so on are set when the radio is off. These functions are labeled in orange above the corresponding buttons and I share the criticism about the color scheme, which is really hard to read in less than optimum lighting conditions. Also, some of the labels are actually “power on” functions marked in the same color, like the “METER” function on the SW band button (hit the SW button repeatedly to step through the broadcast bands) or the USB/LSB switching and key lock functions activated with the “Info” button.
Despite the size difference, readability of the display is fine on both receivers. Backlight control is fundamentally different tho: You can turn off the automatic backlight on the PL-660 but you can’t turn it permanently on, the D-808’s light button toggles between “permanently on” and off but you can’t turn off the automatic. The backlight is objectionably bright on the D-808, the upside is that it serves well as a reading light and the light reflected off your hand can illuminate the buttons sufficiently to substitute the missing button lighting.
Some random things I like:
Like the PL-880 and some other Tecsun radios, it has a somewhat odd “dB over 1 microvolt”-like signal indicator. It lacks the negative figures needed to properly represent the ~S0-S3 range, it just goes from ’00’ to ’99’ and it’s strangely labeled as “dBu” but technicalities aside, it is a signal indication in 100 steps which is certainly more useful than a 5 bar indicator. According to reports, other receivers with this RSSI don’t seem to use the entire display range and end at ’75’ or less. However I can see the D-808 showing ’99’ when I’m at our airstrip and the tower transmits.
The second pair of digits is a crude calculation of receiver (not audio!) SNR, which can be useful in conjunction with the signal strength meter, e.g. for adjusting or comparing antennas and so on, and it works best with AM and FM signals.
“18650”-batteries have a very high energy density at a very low weight, and in the D-808 they meet a radio with a very moderate power consumption. As a result, the provided 2,000mAh battery powered the radio continuously for remarkable 32 hours, 14 of them with the display light on! For comparison, the heavier (and more expensive) 2,500mAh Ni-MH batteries in my PL-660 last for 24 hours only.
It seems the quality of the packaged battery is all over the place though, one user reports “have to charge every day”, another one “28 hours”. If in doubt, a Panasonic 3,400mAh battery (this is the current technical limit for 18650s, don’t fall for fake “10,000mAh” offers seen on Amazon and eBay!) should last for a long weekend even if you’re listening all day. Make sure you buy the “protected” type, the other flavor (used e.g. in electric cigarettes) doesn’t work. If you happen to be a high-performance flashlight fan, you may already have a bunch of batteries to keep the D-808 going forever.
The manual claims that the D-808 can’t be charged when it’s on but I found that’s not quite true–it sure takes much more time but I could top off a slightly discharged battery just fine.
Charging it from a USB charger or laptop USB port introduces some additional noise on AM/SW of course, trying a cheap power bank worked out much better in this regard.
A true “Walkman” for SWLs
The PL-660 fits in some big pockets only and weighs more than a pound. The D-808 has only 2/3 of the Tecsun’s size and I can stuff it conveniently into all of my jacket’s side pockets (tuning knob ahead) so the whip can stick out easily without getting into my way at all. It has at most half the weight of the Tecsun, it weighs less than my smartphone!
This is making an old dream come true for me – a full-featured “communication receiver” (well, almost) that’s “wearable”, one that allows me to enjoy hands-free and hassle-free full shortwave reception on all bands without compromises (particularly in sensitivity) when I do the boring walks the doctor prescribed!
Outsides where the noises of the digital world are gone, the D-808 presents all bands almost as filled as my dipole at home and so there’s always an interesting QSO or some overseas radio program to enjoy. To give you an idea on what I mean by “no compromises”: my companion on today’s walk was NY2PO from upstate NY (3,728mi/6,000km away) on 40m, constantly coming in with a signal allowing for convenient listening, despite the bad conditions (SFI=68 A=10).
I think this may be the first time a radio with so many features and such a high sensitivity comes in such a small package – all handheld scanners with SW and SSB were an expensive atrocity on shortwave, the late ICF-7600 was slightly bigger, less sensitive and SSB was not its strength. The only radio with even more features and similar dimensions would be the “Reuter Pocket” SDR but that might be less sensitive on a whip, it lacks the air band, it has a 1-digit battery runtime and a 4-digit price tag. The only other affordable radio that could fit that bill would be the even smaller Tecsun PL-365 SSB, but it lacks an SSB filter, it has no RDS and no air band and I’d be curious if it can match the sensitivity of the XHDATA.
The D-808 can score in 3 bands (Air, FM (due to RDS) and AM) with its sensitivity, the PL-660 only on LW (due to the fact it actually receives something there) and by a narrow margin on shortwave. The Tecsun’s (perceived) lower noise floor, better speaker sound, better tuning and built-in attenuator is countered by a much wider choice of filters, better fine tuning control, better portability and the better battery endurance of the D-808. The latter also has a number of less important features the former lacks, on the other hand the Tecsun lacks the many quirks of the D-808. It’s up to you to weigh the advantages of each to find your personal favorite, the D-808 struggled a bit to become mine but at the end I couldn’t help enjoying this little radio a lot.
There is much room for improvement though – for example the slightly borked control of the DSP, the chuffing/tuning and AGC issues on SSB let the D-808 miss the title “most stunning cheap little radio ever” by a hair.
For me, the unique combination of size, sensitivity and selectivity is making up for the shortcomings, it certainly remains a very interesting radio and I can’t remember carrying one around that much, ever.
What a brilliant, detailed assessment of the D-808! Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m absolutely jealous of your North Sea listening location–looks to be idyllic!