Before this latest hiking expedition, Dennis spent many hours pouring over the Virtual Radio Challenge III entries, looking up weights and specifications of radio gear and accessories…And the upshot? He’s chosen a winner of our Reader Challenge.
Again, in summary, a participant’s goal was to find the best and most portable radio gear to receive shortwave, AM (medium wave), FM, and NOAA weather to support a long through-hike on the Appalachian Trail, to plan each day’s hike, and to make accommodations for frequent spring and summer thunderstorms (as well as occasional spring snow or sleet)…all for a budget of $300 US. [Read full details of the Challenge by clicking here.]
Below are Dennis’ comments, along with those of the Challenge winner.
Dennis Blanchard (K1YPP) writes:
Dennis Blanchard operating a portable radio on the Appalachian Trail. (Photo: K1YPP)
I’ve just spent about five hours going over the entries. There are several that are very good…indeed, Challenge participants obviously put lots of thought into their entries.
It was really tough to decide, but I had to go with most practical.
Weight is a big consideration for me, and that leaves out solar panels, hand crank generators, and the like.
What most don’t realize is that the AT has a nickname: “The Long Green Tunnel.” This eliminates solar panels because there is little sun to be had, as you’re in the shade most of the time. By the time you get to camp it is usually too late in the day for any charging, and wearing a panel just doesn’t do any good because of the shade (and weight).
Not only is weight an issue, so is space in the pack…hikers need all the room they can get for food, and in the cooler weather, heavy clothes.
Anyway, out of five finalists, I would have to go with Eric McFadden (WD8RIF).
Eric’s winning entry
So, what did Eric choose? The following is Eric’s winning entry, beginning with his radio choice and following with a clear, practical explanation for it:
“The C.Crane Skywave is small (4.75″ x 3″ x 1.1″); light (5.5oz); power-stingy (30mA with headphones); and receives AM, FM, SW, NOAA Weather, and VHF Aviation.The Skywave runs on two AA cells, and comes with a case and CC Earbuds.
The Energizer L91 Ultimate Lithium AA cells provide 1.5v at approximately 3000m Ah, weigh 1/3 that of an alkaline AA cell, and last several times longer than an alkaline cell.
The Sangean ANT-60 would be tossed over a handy tree-limb and clipped to the Skywave’s whip antenna when the Skywave’s built-in 16″ whip isn’t quite adequate for listening to a shortwave broadcast station.
The purchase price of the Skywave, six pairs of Ultimate Lithium AA cells, and ANT-60 would be about $121 plus shipping, well under the $300 limit. The entire station should be small enough and light enough for easy carry in a backpack. If the twelve Ultimate Lithium AA cells don’t last the entire hike, enough of the budgeted $300 remains to purchase more cells (either Ultimate Lithium or alkaline, as available) along the route.”
To this sensible explanation, Eric adds:
“Being a ham radio operator, I’d want to have a ham rig along, too. While I’d love to be able to operate HF CW along the AT, my Elecraft KX3 is too large and heavy to carry that far. However, my current Yaesu FT-60R 2m/70cm HT and Diamond SRH77CA whip should travel nicely clipped to a backpack strap and would serve as a back-up receiver for NOAA Weather and be available for pedestrian-mobile QSOs (chats) and calls for help, if needed.
In order to save weight and not have to hassle with charging batteries, I’d leave the NiMH pack at home and carry the FBA-25 six-cell AA holder and stuff it with additional Energizer Ultimate Lithium cells in order to save weight.
Since the C.Crane Skywave already meets all the requirements of the Virtual Challenge, and since I already own the HT, battery holder, and antenna, I won’t consider the cost of the HT, antenna, and batteries as part of the challenge.”
About Eric’s entry, Dennis notes:
Eric’s solution is small, lightweight, and does everything needed. He speculates that he would also bring along his Yaesu FT-60R, but didn’t feel he could include it because of cost. Curious, I looked it up on Amazon; should he take it along, this addition would still keep his total well under the $300.00 limit.
This would provide Eric with two receivers, [the ability to enjoy] ham radio communications, and not much weight to haul. He includes the AA Lithiums, and I have to say that, without a doubt, these are the finest hiking batteries out there: they’re light, last forever, and are readily obtainable. I only had to change mine out once on the entire, six-month AT hike, and I was on the air a lot.
Several of the other entries were winners also great; I basically had to use a dartboard to pick a winner. Good thinkers out there, especially considering none of them have actually ever done a hike of this magnitude.
Congrats, Eric! Thanks, Dennis! And more to come…
Congratulations to Eric McFadden for such a well thought-through entry!
I must say, I don’t envy Dennis in making this selection: it was obviously a challenging process on his end, too, and I’m glad I didn’t have to make it!
Dennis informed me that he plans to post and comment on some of his favorite entries in a few weeks, once he completes this latest multi-week hike. We will, of course, post his comments along with the finalist entries.
Note that when I originally received the reader inquiry which prompted the idea behind this Reader Challenge, the CC Skywave had not yet entered the market. Yet several of you chose it as your sidekick for the Appalachian Trail; clearly, clever minds think alike. Obviously, a radio that would function well on the Appalachian Trail would also be a great radio for your BOB (“bug out bag”), go kit or emergency supplies.
Thanks again to Dennis Blanchard, our intrepid judge, thanks to Universal Radio for the great prize, and many, many thanks to all our Reader Challenge participants, who made this process even more exciting and challenging! Meanwhile, don’t worry if you didn’t win the CountyComm GP5/SSB this time; we’ll soon have another opportunity to win one of these handy rigs in a completely different–and fun!–way.
While electronics manufacturer C. Crane offers a number of unique AM/FM radios, including some of the best portable medium wave receivers on the market, they’ve traditionally only had two models of shortwave radio––namely, the CCRadio-SW, and the CCRadio-SWP. Earlier this year, however, C.Crane announced a new portable that would join their product line: the CC Skywave.
Admittedly, I was eager to give this little radio a go: C. Crane touts the Skywave as an exceptional travel radio, for which I’m always on the hunt. Last week, I had my opportunity when C. Crane sent me the new CC Skywave sample for review. I instantly got to work scrutinizing their newest offering…and here’s what I’ve discovered.
The form factor of the Skywave is very similar to C.Crane’s CCRadio-SWP pocket radio; in fact, its smooth plastic body even feels the same. While this radio doesn’t have the rubberized coating that have become popular on radio exteriors in recent years, supposedly to provide an easy-to-grip surface, I’m pleased that C.Crane does not use this, as these coatings can eventually deteriorate over time and with heat exposure, becoming somewhat tacky or sticky to the touch.
The Skywave’s backlit LCD display is small, but readily viewable from several angles. All of the buttons on the front of the Skywave have a tactile response, again, similar to the CCRadio-SWP. The buttons require slightly more pressure to activate than Tecsun and Degen models; I prefer this, especially for a travel radio: should I forget to activate the key lock, it’s much less likely that the radio will accidentally turn on during transit.
As always, I attempted first to see how many radio features and functions I could uncover without first consulting the owner’s manual. In the past, C.Crane products have been some of the most intuitive on the market. Fortunately, the Skywave did not disappoint: first, I was able to set both the clock and alarm within moments; both essential in a travel radio.
Once the radio is on, it will display either the time or frequency on the main display. While the Skywave defaults to a time display, I discovered that the lock button toggles the display between time and frequency for ten seconds. (Note: After reading through the manual later, I learned that you can actually change the default display mode to either time or frequency–very nice touch!)
I then turned on the radio and found the memory allocation to be very straightforward: tune to the desired station, then press and hold a number button two seconds to save. Press a button quickly to recall. Memory remembers bandwidth, stereo, or mono (if FM), and any voice or music audio filters utilized–very handy!
Speaking of bandwidth, the Skywave has five on shortwave, medium wave, and air bands: 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1 kHz. By pressing the bandwidth button, you can cycle through these from widest to narrowest. The bandwidth defaults to 3 kHz, but the default can be changed by holding down the bandwidth button for five seconds (with radio powered off).
To enter a frequency in AM/FM/SW, you simply press the FREQ button, then key in frequency. To scan through the band, simply press and hold one of the up/down arrow buttons. Worth noting: the Skywave’s scan function is one of the fastest I’ve seen in a portable.
On the topic of scanning, and since this is a travel radio, I would have liked C.Crane to include an ETM function like that found in the Tecsun PL-310ET and PL-380. It’s quite a handy function for auto-populating temporary memories from a simple band scan. I assume this is not an option on the DSP chip powering the Skywave.
Once I had my fun trying to discover as many functions on the Skywave without the manual’s aid, I finally opened it and discovered a few more functions.
One feature I’ve already come to love in the Skywave: the ability to change the tuning speed, and thus frequency step-spacing on the tuning knob (option of 5 or 1 kHz steps), just by pressing the knob itself. I much prefer this to using a front-panel tuning step button because it’s so easy to operate in low-light settings (lounging in bed, for example).
Another unique feature of the Skywave is a switchable audio filter for voice or music. With the filter set to “voice,” the audio is enhanced for human voice intelligibility. When set to “music,” it widens the audio filter, thus optimizing audio fidelity. Toggling the audio filter settings between voice and music is very easy, but not intuitive; indeed, it’s almost a hidden feature you can discover via the owner’s manual. Simply press the “1” and “2” simultaneously while listening to a broadcast to toggle the filter.
I should note that the C.Crane owner’s manual is one of the most straightforward and simple I’ve seen in ages. You can tell that, at least in the English version that came with mine, this manual was written by a native English speaker. It made for simple, clear instruction without head-scratching over obscure terms. Even the least technically-inclined user will understand these instructions, no problem.
AM – Medium Wave
After asking SWLing Post readers what they would like me to include in this review, a number of you responded that you wanted me to give the AM broadcast band reception a proper review.
My foray into medium wave listening with the Skywave started off on the right foot. The very first night with the Skywave, I tuned it to 740 kHz, my favorite, albeit challenging to reach, AM station here in the North America–CFZM “Zoomer Radio” While those living in the midwestern and northeastern US can receive Zoomer radio easily enough at night, it is often a tough catch here in the southeast in the evening hours. After nightfall it competes with clear channel stations that also occupy 740 kHz. With a portable radio, the lock on Zoomer is never terribly strong and is very prone to fading.
But after tuning the Skywave to Zoomer, I received CFZM so well it sounded like a local station–in fact, I couldn’t believe it until a station ID confirmed that I was receiving it. Even more surprising was that I received it away from home, in an area plagued with RFI noise where I typically have to carefully turn a radio to null out the noise in an effort to enhance the desired broadcast. But the Skywave somehow mitigated this noise better than my other portables. Even when I turned the radio in the direction of the offending electrical noise, it wasn’t as bad as on other portables. Truly, the reception was remarkable.
With Zoomer firmly locked in, I hopped into bed, turned the volume to a comfortable level, and listened for at least half an hour before falling asleep. I was pleasantly surprised the following morning, some eight hours later, when I woke to the Skywave playing CFZM at the same level. Phenomenal! Perhaps conditions were exceptionally favorable that night; nonetheless, the Skywave couldn’t have impressed me more.
A side note–on the previous day, I’d inserted two generic alkaline AA batteries in the Skywave; after a total of ten hours playing at medium volume, the battery indicator still showed full capacity.
Medium wave audio samples
While time won’t allow a full audio sampling of the medium wave band for comparison, I did record the following comparison between the Skywave and the Tecsun PL-310ET (which I regard as one of the more capable sub-$100 ultra-compact portables on the market).
Since SWLing Post readers specifically asked to hear how the Skywave handles choppy nighttime medium wave DX conditions, I tuned to two frequencies with overlapping broadcasts, one of which was slightly dominant: 950 kHz and 990 kHz. I set the AM bandwidth to 3 kHz on both radios and made the recordings within one minute of each other. The CC Skywave’s audio filter was set to “voice.”
In the following recordings, listen for Radio Reloj (Cuba)–it’s buried deep in the noise. You might detect the ticking and “R” “R” in Morse code. These recordings were taken within one minute of each other.
To my ear, the Skywave was clearer and the commentator’s voice seemed to pop out of the noise better.
I’ve spent a great deal of time listening to the Skywave on the medium wave band this week and I feel comfortable recommending it for the medium wave DXer.
While I’ve spent comparatively less time (thus far) evaluating the Skywave’s FM band, I can say that the Skywave receives my “benchmark” FM stations with ease. Sensitivity also seems to be on par with my other DSP based portables (meaning, excellent sensitivity).
Of course, being a shortwave enthusiast, I’ve spent the bulk of my listening time since receiving the Skywave on the shortwave bands. And during this time, alas, shortwave radio band conditions have been challenging for any radio. Yet I’m happy to note that this little radio does not disappoint: it has excellent sensitivity and selectivity for a radio of its size. When I compared the Skywave with the Tecsun PL-310ET, in almost every situation, they are nearly equal in performance.
Shortwave audio samples
Below I’ve included audio samples of the Skywave on 9580 kHz (Radio Australia). Under normal conditions, Radio Australia would be a blowtorch signal here in North America, but this particular morning, propagation was quite poor. In the audio, you’ll hear both radios attempting to cope with pronounced fading, with their AGC circuits reacting to the quick rise and fall of signal strength. Both radios were set to a 3kHz bandwidth and the Skywave’s audio filter set to “voice” to help mitigate noise.
Note that Radio Australia was broadcasting music, which can be more difficult to evaluate, but the vocals were prominent enough I felt it made for a good comparison.
This morning, I also recorded WWV on 15 MHz. Again, propagation conditions were poor across the bands, so even WWV (normally very stable) was affected by quick fading (QSB). For kicks, I decided to add the benchmark Tecsun PL-660 to this comparison. If you recall, it received some of the highest marks for sensitivity in our weak signal shoot out. The Tecsun PL-310ET and CC Skywave were set to 3 kHz bandwidth and the Tecsun PL-660 to it’s narrow bandwidth (which I felt was most equivalent).
The good news is that the Skywave is certainly a sensitive and selective portable. While evaluating shortwave performance over the past week, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well this little radio receives.
NOAA Weather radio
Those of us living or traveling in North America will appreciate the Skywave’s built-in NOAA weather radio functionality. Since I have at least a dozen self-powered radios and desktops that have built-in NOAA weather reception, I typically don’t give the band much thought. I figured NOAA reception would be a mediocre add-on with the Skyview. I was wrong.
Not only does the Skywave have NOAA weather radio, but it also has weather alerts. What’s so great about that? Imagine that you’re travelling to a rural area and weather is looking ominous; in this case, you can simply set the Skywave to the strongest NOAA channel and activate the weather alert (choose options for 4, 8, or 16 hours). If severe weather is reported for your geographic area, the Skywave will alert you.
I’m very pleased with the NOAA weather radio reception, as well. The Skywave receives NOAA stations even better than one of my dedicated weather radios.
C.Crane included the Air band for travelers, as a means to listen to air traffic control while in an airport or awaiting a flight’s arrival. I have several portables with the AIR band, but most lack an autoscan ability (Grundig G3, G6), and performance on these tends to be mediocre at best.
I’ve traveled to three different cities over the past week and used the Skywave to tune to the local air-traffic control tower. After a bit of scanning, it eventually found the frequency, and reception was quite good. I have not yet used the AIR band in an airport (notorious for RFI) nor in a large metro area, so I can’t comment about performance under those conditions.
What really separates the Skywave apart from my other shortwave portable with the AIR band is that it actually has an adjustable squelch mode. Nice touch!
CC Buds Earphones
Unlike Tecsun portables which typically ship with batteries, an external antenna wire, chargers, travel cases, and the like, the CC Skywave comes with very few included accessories––just a carry case, an owner’s manual, and earphones.
Most of the headphones/earphones that accompany a shortwave radio package are of the cheapest quality. I’m happy to note that the Skywave’s included earphones are the best I’ve ever received as an included accessory with a shortwave radio.
The CC Buds Earphones are in-ear style (which I prefer, for sound isolation) with soft silicone earpieces. They are tuned to a frequency response which favors voice, an enhanced mid-range. For SWLing and MW DXing, I believe they’re nearly ideal. Indeed, I’m planning to use these with my Elecraft KX3 next time I’m operating QRP––I’m sure that SSB will sound great.
Since these are tuned for the spoken word, however, I wouldn’t necessarily favor the CC Buds Earphones over my Sony in-ear buds for music listening.
Every radio has pros and cons, and I jot down my reactions as I evaluate a new radio so as not to forget any details. The following is my list:
Overall great sensitivity and selectivity for a portable in this price class
Considerate design, well-tailored for the traveler:
NOAA weather radio
Easy to set clock and alarm
Operates on 2 AA batteries
Charges from Mini USB (see con)
Wide HF frequency range (2.3 up to 26.1 MHz) compared to the PL-380/PL-310 (2.3 up to 21.95 MHz)
AIR band is truly functional: includes both scanning and squelch
NOAA Weather radio reception excellent
Includes soft silicone earphones (in-ear type) actually worthy of AM/SW listening
Auto scanning with the up/down buttons is very rapid
Integrated charging circuit
Uses common micro USB port for power/charging
Tuning speed easily changed by pressing tuning knob
Volume control is fully variable (free wheel, analog style), not in pre-determined digital steps
Selectable audio filters for music and voice
Internal speaker audio is somewhat tinny (use of the voice audio filter helps)
No external antenna jack
No SSB mode (in this price class of $90 US, SSB is an included mode on some models)
Only one clock; no provision for dual local/UTC time
Mutes between frequency changes
Whip antenna is short––only 16” fully extended. While the Skywave seems to perform brilliantly with this short antenna (see pro), I can’t help but wonder if more length might boost some bands.
While no inconvenience to me, the Skywave does not come with an adaptor or USB cord for powering/charging. (Should you need it, C.Crane sells a proper noise-free regulated power supply separately ($15 US); however, most buyers will already have these cords and any USB port on your PC or USB-based phone charger will suffice. Also note that listening to virtually any radio while charging will inject noise into the receiver, resulting in sub-par reception.)
Can overload on shortwave and AIR bands if located near a strong radio station (see this comment)
The CC Skywave is nearly identical in size to the late and great Grundig G6.
C. Crane has few shortwave radios in their product line, and all perform rather well for their price point; I know, as I have owned all of them and even purchased as gifts in the past.
Fortunately, it’s clear that C. Crane noticed the shortcomings of the AR1733 and has modified the Skywave’s design and firmware accordingly, which may account for the delayed roll-out of the CC Skywave. Obviously, the Skywave’s ACG circuit has been tweaked to cope with medium wave and shortwave listening, since a poor ACG circuit is one of the shortcomings of the AR1733. But, if so, wow…what a tweak.
Because all in all, the CC Skywave is a excellent little radio. Indeed, in terms of the ultra-compact portable market (models like I included in a recent shoot-out), I think it’s one of the best surprise performers I’ve seen in the past couple of years.
After just one week with it, I’ve already decided to take the CC Skywave along on my travels to see how it performs over time. It will replace my PL-310ET and PL-380 for my one bag domestic and international travelling. The CC Skywave is also especially well-suited for the “go”-bags and “bug-out” bags used in evacuations and other emergencies. Indeed, with AM/FM/SW/AIR plus functional NOAA radio, this little radio packs a lot––in short, the Skywave packs enough to get packed in my bag.
Lifehacker believes the small bag used is the Maxpedition M-2 Waistpack. I like Maxpedition packs: they’re very durable, typically military grade, and reasonably affordable. But the M-2 is small–quite small.
This led me to thinking about über-portable shortwave radios I would carry in such a small pack for survival purposes. If I were a foreign operative, ideally, I’d want a shortwave radio that has SSB mode, in case my home country’s numbers station broadcast in SSB.
In reality, there are very few good radios that are so compact they could fit in the M-2 Waistpack.
A few that came to mind were the Tecsun PL-310ET or Tecsun PL-380, but the fit would be very tight, if at all; both radios are slightly wider and taller than the M2’s main pocket, which measures 5 x 3 x 1.5 inches. I then remembered the Kaito KA1102 that I owned a few years ago–a very portable radio, but it, too, would be too large at 143 x 88 x 28.50 mm.
But then, it hit me: there is one radio, which, though no longer on the market, would fit the bill (and the pocket)…
The Holy Grail of über-portable receivers: The Sony ICF-SW100
Then there are the lucky few, like my radio-listener buddy, The Professor. Remarkably, he tracked down (and knows I’ll never forgive him for it) an ICF-SW100 on Craig’s List for about $50! That was a steal.
Performance is superb for a radio this size. Not only does it have SSB mode, but selectable sideband sync detection.
One note of caution, should you be lucky enough to acquire one: the ribbon cable that connects the lower portion of the radio with the display (especially in the mark 1 production units) is known to fail. Fortunately, there are a number of videos (like this one) which walk you through replacement.
The ICF-SW100 predecessor, the ICF-SW1S (above), would easily fit in the M-2 Waistpack–it measures a mere 4.75 x 2.785 x 1 inches. Like its younger brother, it is highly sought after on the used radio market, and usually fetches $300+. The ICF-SW1S does not have a sync detector and lacks SSB mode. Still, as a broadcast receiver, it is truly superb for its size.
If you purchase a used ICF-SW1S, do ask the seller if all 6 original electrolytic capacitors have been replaced. If not, you may have to replace them in short order as the originals were known to fail. While not a repair for the faint of heart (as parts are quite small), there are several instructional sites and videos to help you. Alternatively, you can send your ICF-SW1S to Kiwa to be professionally re-capped.
Do you know of any other high-quality shortwave portables out there compact enough to fit in the M-2 Waistpack? Let us know!
The hunt is on…!
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