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A detailed comparison and review of the C.Crane CCRadio 2E

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post and review:


Do I really need this radio? A very belated review of the C.Crane CCRadio 2E

by 13dka

Ever since my relapse into radioholism a few years ago, I had a craving for a top-notch medium wave radio. This became even more of an urge when Germany abandoned the AM BC band just like many other European countries, leaving a band full of new opportunities but little left to receive during the day, at least with all the average portables I own. When checking the options, there’s no way around Jay Allen’s website if you want to know what’s best on MW, and I learned how little choices there are on the summit of the “5-star”-radios. Over the years I kept looking for an RF-2200/DR-22 et al but they are few and far between over here, and buying a dusty old radio with an unknown history, likely in need of repairs, restoration and alignment, for an insane premium price (up to 400€!) from a stranger was not exactly a pleasant prospect for me.

The CC Radio 2E and its predecessors, successors and siblings are the only radios in the topmost 5-star bunch that can be bought new and at a reasonable price. Sadly, the best product for the European market is only a 4 1/2 star radio and I realized that I have to buy a radio clearly made for the USA only, and accept the parts that don’t make any sense over here (120V, 10kHz AM spacing only, WX band). The problem: getting one shipped to Germany was rather complicated until Amazon.com made that much easier last year.

Performance comparisons

AM Broadcast Band

After 2 weeks of gleeful anticipation it finally arrived last month and I rushed to the mall to buy plenty of ‘D’-cells, then to the dike to answer my own, most pressing question: “how much better is a top tier Jay-Allen-5-star radio than my average 3-star radios anyway?”. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 2E, partly because the videos I could find compared it with other good AM radios, or they didn’t compare it at all and sometimes the radio didn’t even get turned on. Nothing really related to the radios I have, after all they represent a whole bunch of popular radios people currently own with a similar (around average) AM performance, like the Tecsun PL-nnn, Eton Executive Satellit or Field, or ICF-7600, Zenith TO/R-7000 to name a few older types – and I was looking forward to fill that gap!

Sensitivity

Spoiler alert: the CCR2E’s sensitivity obviously bests all of my other portables. Duh! It should, because my example of the PL-660 isn’t good on AM at all, the XHDATA D-808 [read my full review here] is a 2-1/2 star radio and the Tecsun S-8800 [read my full review here] is a 3-star radio on the “Jay Allen rating scale”, even though I’d rate my examples of these radios the other way around – my D-808 has a tiny sensitivity edge over my S-8800.

So how much better is it? Here’s a cellphone video letting the radios speak for themselves, alas with plenty of wind noise (sorry, it’s usually windy here at the coast!). Make sure you watch it past the somewhat unspectacular first minute:

Click here to view on YouTube.

I hope you’ll agree that this is pretty impressive, and that’s the kind of results I was hoping for. There’s also a simple way of quantifying how much better it is in numbers: if I tune across the band in the afternoon and note all frequencies that clearly show signs of a station (not counting how well it comes in, just the pure existence of some signal that can be identified as “broadcast station”), the D-808 has 11 frequencies populated, the CCR2E has 25. That’s more than twice as much, the 2E has twice as many stars, sounds about right. Let’s also keep in mind that the XHDATA or the Tecsun represent “average”, “serviceable” or “decent” AM radios that are quite satisfactory for most people, and yet there is apparently a whole world between an average radio and the top of the heap. To be honest, I didn’t expect how dramatic the difference would turn out.

That made me curious how my battered old Grundig Satellit 400 would do, after all it was always a tad better than the other portables I have (Jay Allen might rate it 3-1/2 stars), and MW is the only thing in it that still really works. I decided to buy it the last bunch of batteries of its life and took it to the dike:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Evidently the Grundig is a bit more sensitive than my other average radios but without much benefit. Stations with some appreciable level turn out a bit better but it fails at the same stations as the other radios and the C.Crane unsurprisingly runs circles around the Grundig as well. The first and the last station recorded in this video demonstrate that nicely – my favorite low power benchmark station (1602 kHz) transmitting with 100W from a moored old pirate radio ship was just making it over the noise on the S-8800 in the previous video. The Satellit picks it up OK but with more noise. The last station is the BBC transmitter in Redmoss (Aberdeen, Scotland), which is pretty crystal clear on the CCR2E while the Satellit has only little remnants of modulation and the D-808 is at least on par with the Satellit there. That station pretty much didn’t exist on the S-8800 in the previous video either and I wish I’d know why this example turns out so extreme, why the 2E and that station like each other so much.

The closest stations in these videos are in The Netherlands, 150+ miles away and have only 100W, most of the UK stations are between 350 and 420 miles away (most of them not very powerful either), Scottish stations are around 500 miles from here and the Redmoss 2kW BBC transmitter on 1449 kHz with its beautiful signal is 490 miles. Given that this is daytime groundwave reception with no help from an external antenna, I consider this pretty darn impressive. But keep in mind that a part of the impressive results is due to the low noise location and the conductive North Sea water being only 50m from my position behind the dike, then stretching most, sometimes all of the distance between the radio and the transmitters, which definitely helps groundwave propagation a lot.

To put the benefit in some more practical metrics – my average radios pick up at most 3-4 stations in a halfway sufficient quality for continuous listening during the day, the 2E makes that at least 8-10 stations. While sensitivity is playing a somewhat lesser role at night, it’s pure fun to browse the band and discover stations that didn’t stick out of the noise enough in the past. It is undeniably an exceptionally sensitive and stunning AM receiver.

Selectivity, overloading resilience

The 2E has a wisely chosen single bandwidth more on the narrow side. Given the intended purpose of this radio, I think one can live very well with the “one size fits all” setting and the intelligibility remains excellent. At night when the band is getting crowded even over here, the 2E has absolutely no trouble separating the channels.

Other reviews mentioned that its dynamic range may not be sufficient to cope with local blowtorches and I’m sure that this is true. I don’t have local blowtorches, but I tried coupling wire fences between 200 and 1000m (600-3,000′) to the loopstick antenna, and it could cope with those arrangements better than the S-8800 and the D-808: at night, both of the latter present some roar between the stations on the lower end of the band (which is of course mostly intermodulation products). Both radios then need some looser coupling from the coupling coil, on the the S-8800 I can also lose the preamp stage (“local” switch) to mitigate this, the D-808 can’t do that and has the most problems with images, for example clearly discernible images from the top of the NDB band just 100 kHz lower in the same band.

The CCR2E stays pretty quiet on the few frequencies the fence antennas leave unpopulated. In other words, its frontend may not be as good as the one in some vintage receivers, but it still takes more of a beating than e.g. the Tecsun S-8800 with its improved (over the PL-880) frontend.

AGC

Lacking really strong signals, I can’t comment much on all of the AGC action but I too think it doesn’t pull up weak signals as much as other radios. That makes the 2E appear even less noisy between stations, but being desperate to catch some transatlantic DX before sunrise (yawn!) despite the season being over, I found myself a few times with the volume knob turned up all the way to the right stop on some quiet channels, while the band was filled elsewhere with considerable signals from that 3,000′ fence. The time constants are more on the slow-ish side, thunderstorm impulses make the signal dive away for half a second and it seems to struggle with weaker stations that come with a fast fading. SDRs with fully adjustable AGC characteristics sure have spoiled me.

FM Broadcast Band

Sensitivity

FM sensitivity is excellent in all of the portables I have (S-8800, D-808, PL-660) and the CCR2E can match their performance, there are generally only very little differences between all those. As mentioned in my S-8800 review, I found its sensitivity can’t fully match the PL-660 and the D-808, even though it employs the same DSP chip type as the D-808. I briefly compared the CCR2E with the S-8800 on FM (simply because both are big radios, and I guess I wanted the 2E to win this too).

Comparing portables on FM is a bit of hit and miss though – you need to find borderline weak stations to begin with, and then you have to make sure each radio’s whip antenna is adjusted for maximum signal, and you need to put one radio at a time on the table, because otherwise the whip antennas can interact with each other and make it hard to find the optimal antenna postion/tilt/rotation. When I tried the CCR2E at the dike, a complete lack of tropo conditions limited the number of test stations a lot, and the remaining stations were not really weak enough to find a clear winner among the two. Both radios were on par most times, sometimes it felt like once the 2E gets a bit of signal it will present it a tad less noisy than the S-8800.

But then a very borderline faint Dutch station on 88.1 MHz made it over the North Sea with much noise on the S-8800. No matter what I tried with the 2E (antenna gymnastics, raising, repositioning, lifting up and tilting the whole radio and swearing at it), it picked up nothing at all. That looked much like the 2E is actually less sensitive than I thought, but as it turned out later there is a much happier explanation for this:

Selectivity

Since the day I got it, I had the impression that the 2E has a narrower FM filter than my other radios. Tuning 50 kHz next to a weak station makes it almost disappear and 200 kHz off a local station gave me much hope for letting a weaker station pass unharmed. Now when I checked the station listings for my Dutch mystery station on 88.1 MHz it turned out to be very unlikely that I received the station listed there for 88.1 – “Radio 10” in Hilversum has only 3 kW and is a bit too far away, without any tropo help anyway. What’s way more likely is that I actually heard the much closer 60 kW “NPO 2” transmitter in Smilde on 88.0, that is, its upper sideband on 88.1. To understand this you need to know that Dutch (and AFAIK French) FM stations like to plow their channels with some rather hefty FM deviation unknown in Germany. The wider filter of the S-8800 picked up so much of that extra-wide deviation that I could identify the language. I could not hear the station on its actual frequency 88.0 MHz either, because a much stronger local station on 87.9 was whacking it.

The CCR2E just didn’t pick up any of the surplus deviation from 100 kHz lower, which is a quite striking evidence for a narrower filter (<200kHz), and this might also explain why it appears more sensitive when it picks up some weak station – a narrower filter means a better SNR on FM. I did not read Jay Allen’s “FM shootout” (where the 2E is the topmost radio as well) before tried the radio and I’m not sure yet if I’d put it above all other radios too. But it’s very safe to say that the 2E is likely about as sensitive as all of the contenders in the very crowded 5-star class in the “FM shootout” and its selectivity might be giving it an advantage over other radios. Too bad such a good performer on such a short antenna doesn’t have an external FM antenna input and RD(B)S.

2 Meter – VHF and Weather Band, SSI

Short story, there is no NOAA WX band in Europe, and my local 2m repeaters don’t even seem to transmit their ID every 10 minutes anymore like they were supposed to do in ye olde days, maybe they’re gone. Analog VHF ham radio has ceased to exist around here and if we’d have some catastrophic event, all a 2m receiver could do to help you is emitting some soothing white noise.

I will use this section to talk about the signal strength indicator on the CCR2E instead. With 12 discrete bars it has a better resolution than e.g. average portables, which often try to look like they had even more bars but actually have 5 sections of 4-bar groups, in other words they just have 5 real bars. The better resolution of the 2E is certainly helpful, for example when you pair it up with some kind of tuned external antenna – but it seems to indicate levels with some delayed response and that ruins it a bit.

Sound

The 2E has a quite satisfying bass and treble response for music listening on FM (if you turn up the controls). It has the biggest speaker of all of my portables and creates some audio that rather reminds me of a small home stereo than a portable radio. However it doesn’t have the power to really do “loud” and the bass may run out of breath and distort pretty soon on some music styles.

For a few days I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it didn’t put that much of a smile in my face like the S-8800 or my old Satellit 400 do, and I remembered the quite controversial ratings of the 2E’s sound I had read. I felt that it doesn’t have that special “big portable” in-your-face bass sound my other big radios have, a sound that was burned into my eardrums by all the big Grundigs and Nordmendes I had since when I was a teenager.

The answer might be quite simple though: the 2E has a much wider frequency response than those radios, it actually reaches down lower and the treble range is also extended. What we (OK, at least I) perceive as that “warm” and “big” sound in those old portables is actually “pseudo-bass”. Pseudo-bass is a psychoacoustic effect that tricks our brain to perceive louder and fuller bass when actually only the first harmonics (typically one octave higher) of bass instruments are heard, for example because the speaker is too small to actually render the fundamentals, with the “bass” tone control boosting the harmonics instead. The 2E sounds more like a small 2-way hi-fi speaker and tries to do “real bass” rather than pseudo-bass, which is much more demanding in many ways. Pseudo-bass is also much less depending on automatic loudness correction at low volumes, so the 2E seems to lack bass at “bedroom” volumes sometimes, compared to the Tecsun or the Grundig. Though once a station plays the right music and the 2E is turned up a bit, it’s getting quite obvious that it can sound even bigger than those other radios.

On AM the CCR2E can even produce too much bass that needs to be dialed back: like talk radio dominates the US AM band, its EU pendant is still reigned by pop/rock stations (usually employing lots of signal processing for extra-fat sound). On those stations, the CCR2E can be bassy to a degree where the bass is almost sounding detached from the rest of the signal, as if it’s coming from a different, stronger station. It’s a more boomy, “wet” or maybe a hint less “musical” bass sound, this is rather a wordy description of impressions and not a complaint though. It just doesn’t massage my auditory cortex the same way the other radios do, which is of course a matter of taste and “getting used to it”.

The tone controls are modern and efficient like the ones you find on the S-8800 – compared to my old Satellit, they have a steeper roll-off at well-chosen cutoff frequencies so you can eliminate just the hissy top end in the treble range or remove all that rumble below 200Hz, leaving the midrange in between untouched. On the positive end of the knob range, they just add deep bass and a nice clarity on the top, as if the 2E had a tweeter.

So it does sound great and I can see now why the successor radio, the C.Crane Radio 3 got upgraded with Bluetooth. But the 2E is a great powered speaker as well, it has an AUX input radio nuts can use to boost the audio of an SDR connected to a laptop or a small SW portable to the same level of fidelity. The manual claims that the 2E has a battery endurance of 250 hours, which would mean it should serve all day for at least a whole week as an awesome powered speaker for your other radios out in the woods, and it even might become the best speaker (with very useful tone controls!) in your home shack. This works so well that I deem this a serious (and perhaps often unconsidered) asset.

Quirks

One thing I don’t like a bit is a strange scratchy narrowband distortion that seems to come up within a certain level range. It’s independent from the station, the frequency or the noise on it (and not to be confused with multipath distortion), it’s showing up across the band and is solely depending on the input signal as it seems. It doesn’t affect stronger signals (so there shouldn’t be anything overloading) but if a station hits a certain low signal level it’s quite permanent and also quite disturbing, if there’s fading the noise will come and go when it passes through that level range. The only way to mitigate that prickly “frying pan” sound is turning the treble knob all the way down. I don’t know if that’s a bad case of demodulator distortion or some AGC related malfunction and for some reason beyond my understanding (strong out-of-band signals playing a role maybe?) this does not always happen. Still a bit of a fly in the ointment.

A rather harmless little quirk I (among others) found is happening when I recall preset stations on AM: under unknown circumstances the 2E will not tune the antenna properly so I need to change the frequency and tune back to get full signal. I assume that the coil tuner setting is saved with the preset, and when the environment of the loopstick changes (like when you saved the preset at a different place), the saved tuner setting does not fit anymore. Retuning, then saving the preset again should fix that.

Rather fast fading can have a similar effect on the tuning process, if I tune and retune to such a station, I may end up with different signal meter readings and volume every time – it seems that the integration time window used to automatically tune to peak signal can be too short in relation to the fading speed and that may lead to a less than optimal match of the coil. Admittedly, tuning to peak signal on fickle stations like that is just as hard for a human being. Since the tuner seems to rely much on locking onto a carrier, offset tuning (e.g. like DXers often do to optimize reception of a station with a strong channel neighbor) may not work as well as with regular receivers, signal and volume can drop quite dramatically when tuning 1 kHz to the side, and it sounds like this is bad for the SNR too.

Here’s a video demonstrating these issues:

Click here to view on YouTube.

My example of the 2E has a “birdie” between 99.7 and 100.0 MHz, which luckily doesn’t make any noise on FM. It doesn’t seem to harm reception much (if at all), I can still get a rather weak Danish station on 99.9 MHz but I can’t tell what effect it has on stations on the other affected frequencies.

External AM antennas

This is not a quirk, it’s rather a design decision I deem not working anymore in many (if not most) of today’s homes, or simply an oversight: the CCR2E is yet another radio that has screw terminals for an external AM antenna but no means to take the internal loopstick out of the circuit. This is not a problem as long you are using radio and antenna in an electrically quiet and interference-free environment, in which you may not even need an external antenna because the CCR2E is such a good performer. If you want to use one anyway, the 2E will benefit only from antennas with considerable gain, very lossy designs that trade gain for low noise and high SNR (like BOG, LOG, EWE…) may not even leave a clue of their existence on the 2E.

If you live in the city, in an apartment building, a crowded neighborhood or just a modern home and want to let your family use computers, appliances, switching-type wall warts and so on while you listen to distant stations, an external antenna may be the only way to enjoy the radio’s performance but even an antenna with lots of gain will not help getting rid of the hash and noise of the digital world. It may increase the signal a bit to improve the SNR, but the noise level will stay the same because it’s being picked up and added back by the internal loopstick. I think that any ambitious modern receiver should take the ever-worsening noise situation into consideration. Paradoxically, back in the 50s and 60s local noise was much less of an issue but a lot of radios had switchable loopsticks. They were all tabletops though and to be fair, I know only one portable radio with that feature (and that’s a scanner which sucks on AM).

The hardware

First off, using this radio is generally very straightforward. The only thing I needed to learn from the manual was how to keep the frequency on display, which is only possible with newer versions of the firmware. My radio was manufactured in January 2018 and it has this option, plus an updated version of the printed manual, now describing that (and the antenna calibration) procedure. (Just hold the “Clock” button, then immediately hit the ‘1’ memory button on top. The radio should emit a beep and from then on the display will show the frequency.)

You may want to think twice about buying the “Titanium” version of the radio. The product photos on Amazon were showing the radio with somewhat different and darker hues between grey and champaign, so I spontaneously decided to not buy yet another black radio. What I pulled out of the box was blindingly silvery and yelling “plastic” though, so don’t let any pics fool you – “Titanium” is just a fancy name for the same old standard “light grey-ish/silvery plastic” seen on a billion products from the Far East in the past 50 years. A matter of taste of course.

If it wasn’t obvious to everyone already – this bulky radio is more like a “portable tabletop”, it’s only little more “portable” than a big old Transoceanic or Grundig Satellit with a broken handle. New radios get lighter and lighter even when they get big (like the S-8800), the CCR2E brings gravity back into the game, so on the plus side it will stay put on the table when you push a button, or when there’s an earthquake.

While it does radiate some quality feel (nothing is loose, wobbly or rattling), the tuning knob is the exception: it has a tiny bit of play and it feels and sounds like it had a former life as a hairspray can cap. The stepping/rasterization of the encoder resonates in that cap and if you want to tune to a distant frequency on the dial you just need to say “rien ne vas plus” before you turn the knob to create a great acoustic impression of a roulette table. On the other hand, the solid steps of the encoder causing that sound are very precise and the sound helps me counting the 9 steps I need for hitting the next channel in the European AM BC band. Some reviews also complained about the flimsy FM whip and I used to think the D-808’s whip is flimsy, but this one has a top segment with a diameter of one millimeter, the antenna is the shortest of all my radios and looks exactly like the whips I’ve seen on most of the cheapest (<$20) radios I came across. But that doesn’t affect its function of course – that is, while it lasts.

Now that’s even more a matter of taste, but I just can’t leave the design uncommented. I’m still undecided whether it looks more like a hi-tech humidifier than a radio or not, luckily it says “Radio” in red letters on the speaker grille but still… I don’t know if it’s the complete lack of “retro style” and its sober, “senior-friendly” approach or just the color – whichever way I look at it, it ain’t the most handsome radio of the pack. I think I can get over it, provided I never watch any of Thomas’ videos featuring his gorgeous RF-2200s again. So all it can do to win my heart is working well, that is, very, very well. Let’s see if it succeeded:

Summary/Verdict

The C.Crane CC Radio 2E is an extraordinarily sensitive radio on AM and certainly among the best on FM. It puts some effort in picking up AM stations that most other portables won’t and that’s what it really does as advertised. Like any other radio (so that’s not Bob Crane’s fault like some disappointed Amazon reviews allude), it will not be able to do that in noisy, interference-infested environments and not even an external antenna might help much with that, because the internal loopstick stays on. In an electrically quiet environment though, it’s nothing short of marvelous.

It has a great sound and to my own surprise, I found its qualities as a powered (also long-lasting battery-powered) speaker for other radios a serious asset. It’s simple and easy to use but that also means it lacks all advanced features that would help in difficult, “hardcore DX” reception cases. With its bulky form factor, the built-in power supply, the 4 D-cells, the weight that all brings and the lack of a proper handle, it might not fit into everyone’s understanding of “portable” and its specs are rather meant to cater the needs of American homes. However, importing it to Europe can make sense even with the extra taxes and shipping (which means a 40% markup in Germany), at least for AM radio lovers who want top performance and avoid the problems vintage portables can bring. It’s at any rate a sensible choice if your favorite station is somewhat beyond the range of average radios, if you just want more stations to choose from, or if you enjoy general daytime groundwave DX, all without making an external antenna a necessity.

Of course the CCR2E is not the mythical “perfect radio” either. The muting and automatic loop-tuning when browsing the band isn’t great, it has a few quirks, a flimsy whip antenna and a tuning knob with a cheap feel to it but then again, it’s not an overly expensive radio either and its price/performance ratio is certainly appropriate and attractive. It may not be much to look at but I like it anyway because – among all the all-rounder radios I have – it’s the specialist doing that one thing really well: making AM radio feel like it used to be.

So do I really need this radio? Maybe I don’t, but now that I’ve learned how excellent it really is, I know that I really, really wanted it!


Wow!  What a brilliant review! I absolutely love the details you fit into your evaluation and your wit, too (especially that bit about the tuning knob possibly having “a former life as a hairspray can cap”–!). Ha ha!

No doubt the CCRadio 2E is a solid performer and among the best AM portables currently available. While the CCRadio 2E has been replaced by the CCRadio 3, many 2E models can still be found on Amazon (note this is an affiliate link), and eBay (partner link).

The CCRadio 2E is still available new on C. Crane’s website, but you should also check out C. Crane’s Orphan page for the occasional discounted unit. 

Thanks again for a thoroughly enjoyable and informative radio review! I, for one, can’t wait to read your next review! 

Click here to read 13dka’s previous posts and reviews.


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Radios: What are your daily drivers?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, John C., who writes:

“Hi Thomas, I love [the SWLing Post] and have been meaning to thank you for all of the amazing reviews. Truly a treasure trove. But as I contemplate my next radio purchase I would like to know what radio you use more than any other. In other words…what’s your daily driver??? Enquiring minds want to know! Thank you. – JC”

Thanks for your question and the kind compliment, John.

Your inquiry is one I get quite a bit, so I hope you don’t mind if I share my response here publicly.

First of all, I should state that I don’t have a single “daily driver.”

Since I evaluate, test, and review radios I spend a lot of time with a variety of new receivers and transceivers.

I’m currently evaluating the Radiwow R-108, so it goes with me pretty much everywhere since I like to test receivers in a variety of settings. I’m also packing the Tecsun PL-310ET and the CC Skywave so I have units to compare with the R-108.

My Daily Drivers

Still, there are a number of radios in my life that get heavy use. Here’s my current list based on activity:

For Travel

When I travel, I reach for my favorite multi-function ultra-compact shortwave portable. In the past, I would have reached for the Grundig G6, the Sony ICF-SW100, the Tecsun PL-310ET, the Digitech AR-1780, or the C. Crane CC Skywave, Currently, I reach for the C. Crane CC Skywave SSB.

When I travel, I try to pack as lightly as I can–perhaps some would even call me a borderline travel minimalist. For example, when I fly to Philadelphia later this month for the Winter SWL Fest, I will take only one piece of luggage, a “personal carry-on” item: the Tom Bihn Stowaway, a pack the size of a small laptop bag. The Stowaway will contain my iPad, cords/accessories, and all of my clothes and toiletries for about 5 days of travel. As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of spare room in there for radio gear (quite the understatement).

I’ll still have room in my bag for the CC Skywave SSB, though, because the receiver is so compact. In addition, it’s a little “Swiss Army Knife” of a radio which covers the AM/MW, Shortwave, WX, and AIR bands.  It also has SSB mode and uses common AA batteries. The Skywave SSB is a welcome travel companion.

For Portable Shortwave DX

When I head to a park or go on a camping trip with the goal of doing a little weak signal DXing, I reach for a full-featured portable. In the past, I’ve relied heavily on the Tecsun PL-660 or PL-680, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, and the Tecsun PL-880.

After acquiring the amazing Panasonic RF-B65 last year, it has become my choice full-featured portable. Of course, the RF-65B hasn’t been in production for ages, but thanks to a number of friends/enablers (including Dan Robinson and Troy Riedel) I finally found one for an acceptable price on eBay.

I’ve been incredibly pleased with the RF-B65’s performance and feel like I got a decent deal snagging one in great shape for less than $200. Only a few months prior to my purchase, it was hard to find good units under $300. Click here to check current prices, if interested.

For Morning News and Music

Since my staple morning news source, Radio Australia, went off the air, I spend a lot more time in the mornings listening to Internet radio mainly because I like listening to news sources that no longer, or never have, broadcast on the shortwaves.

Without a doubt, my favorite WiFi radio is the Como Audio Solo. I use it to listen to the CBC in St. John’s Newfoundland, The UK 1940s Radio Station, RFI MusiqueABC Radio Sydney, and a number of other news and music outlets.

The Como Audio Solo also serves as an audio feed for my SSTran AM Transmitter which then allows me to listen to all of this excellent content on 1570 kHz with vintage tube radios such as my Scott Marine SLR-M, my BC-348-Q, and my Minerva Tropicmaster.

For Mediumwave DXing

Without a doubt, my favorite radio for mediumwave/AM broadcast band DXing is the Panasonic RF-2200.

I mentioned in a previous post that my buddy Vlado (N3CZ) recently repaired, cleaned, and calibrated one of my RF-2200s.

Let’s just say that Vlado worked his magic and my RF-2200 now operates and performs like a brand new unit. Seriously. It’s simply unbelievable.

Not only does the Panny ‘2200 provide benchmark MW performance, it’s simply a pleasure to operate. It also produces some of the richest AM audio you’ll ever hear from a portable radio.

Of course, the ‘2200 hasn’t been produced in decades, so you’ll have to search for used ones on eBay, at hamfests, or through your favorite radio classifieds.

And, yes, I still need to finish a Part 2 blog-post about the ‘2200 repair–once I get a few details and photos from Vlado, I’ll post it!

Your Daily Drivers? Please comment!

Keep in mind that my “daily drivers” change quite a bit–the ones listed above are my current favorites and have been for a year or more.

So now that I’ve shared my daily drivers, I hope you will, too!

Is there a particular radio you reach for more than any other?  Please comment and tell us why it’s your favorite!


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A review of the Sangean HDR-16 AM/FM HD Radio

It’s funny that, while I’ve written dozens and dozens of radio reviews over the years, I’ve never written even a single review that included an HD radio.

Well, the time to begin is now: HD radio, here we come.

Those readers living outside North America may be scratching their heads, asking, “What exactly is ‘HD radio?’” To answer in clear terms, I’ll turn the question over to Wikipedia:

HD Radio is a trademarked term for iBiquity’s in-band on-channel (IBOC) digital radio technology used by AM and FM radio stations to transmit audio and data by using a digital signal embedded “on-frequency” immediately above and below a station’s standard analog signal, providing the means to listen to the same program in either HD (digital radio with less noise) or as a standard broadcast (analog radio with standard sound quality). The HD format also provides the means for a single radio station to simultaneously broadcast one or more different programs in addition to the program being transmitted on the radio station’s analog channel.

Got that?  In brief, HD radio is digital radio broadcasts that occupy the same FM/AM spectrum currently allocated for analog broadcasts.  Wikipedia adds:

[HD radio] was selected by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2002 as a digital audio broadcasting method for the United States, and is the only digital system approved by the FCC for digital AM/FM broadcasts in the United States.

For my own part I had mostly ignored HD radio, assuming there would be few stations to listen to from my rural home location. That is, until recently, when I purchased a car that has built-in HD radio reception. I was impressed by the number of commercial stations I found that I can receive via HD radio. In truth, only a handful of the mainstream HD station offerings had any appeal for me, but I really took notice when I received a commercial-free jazz station via the HD2 channel of my favorite NPR member station, WFAE.  Having been a jazz fan since I studied music in college, I was intrigued: could a portable HD radio receive this distant HD station reliably?  I had my doubts; moreover, I really didn’t want to purchase a radio, then be obligated to send it back if it didn’t receive anything.

Instead, I contacted Sangean.  The company was more than happy to send me a loaner radio for review. I requested the HDR-16––at the time it was Sangean’s most affordable HD portable, one about which a number of SWLing Post readers had expressed their curiosity.

Overview

The Sangean HDR-16 is a simple radio with a modern design. The chassis is a glossy black hard plastic and feels substantial. It has a useful fold-out carry handle and substantial telescoping whip antenna. The front face features a 16-character two-line backlit display, five function buttons, five dedicated preset buttons, and a dedicated power button. On the right side of the radio you’ll find a dedicated (two function) tuning knob and smaller volume/tone knob. The left side of the radio features an “aux-in” port, a “rec-out” port, an earphone jack, and a 7.5 volt “DC-in” port.

Features

  • HD Radio digital and analog AM / FM-Stereo reception
  • 10 Memory Presets (5 FM, 5 AM)
  • PAD (Program-Associated Data) Service
  • Support for Emergency Alerts Function
  • Automatic Multicast Re-Configuration
  • Automatic Simulcast Re-Configuration
  • Auto Ensemble Seek
  • Real Time Clock and Date with Alarm and Sleep Function
  • 2 Alarm Timer by Radio, Buzzer
  • HWS (Humane Wake System) Buzzer and Radio
  • Snooze Function
  • Tone & Bass Control
  • Information Display for Channel Frequency, Call Sign, Radio Text, Audio Mode, Service Mode,   Signal Quality and Clock Time
  • Easy to Read LCD Display with Backlight
  • “Battery Low” LED Indication
  • Auxiliary Input for Additional Audio Sources
  • Record Output for Connecting to Hi-Fi System or Recording from Audio Program
  • I/O Jacks: DC In, Line-Out (Rec-Out), Aux-In, Headphone and HD / FM Rod Antenna

Audio

The HDR-16 sports two 2.5” front-facing speakers that deliver crisp audio that can be customized with simple treble/bass EQ settings. I found increasing the treble just a bit and the bass quite a lot produced the best audio for music broadcasts.  Even the default audio settings are pretty good, however. The HDR-16 doesn’t have the rich fidelity of the Eton Field BT or the Tecsun S-8800, but it does offer stereo sound that is room filling and pleasant. Sangean obviously took audio fidelity seriously when designing the HDR-16.

The left side features AUX in, Record Out, Earphone and a DC power port.

Note that the the HDR-16 sounds especially good in spoken word/news broadcasts.

Operation and Ergonomics

The Sangean HDR-16 is a very simple and intuitive radio to operate. I sorted out all of its functions simply by following button and knob labels, but even the most tech-challenged person in your family could give the owner’s manual a single read-through and operate the HDR-16 with ease.

But let’s get one gripe out of the way…perhaps a case of simplicity gone too far:  the HDR-16 only has five station preset buttons. Five! Actually, it offers a total of 10 memory allocations: five for AM, five for FM. Still…even in my rural market, I can easily program ten station memories on an FM radio, especially since HD Radio channels offer that many more new options. But the HDR-16 forces me to curate my presets down to a mere five stations per band. In my view, this strict limitation is an unfortunate design oversight.

Performance

The HDR-16 is an AM/FM radio that receives both legacy analog broadcasts and HD/digital broadcasts on both bands.  I’ll break down performance by mode and band below.

HD performance

Digital FM

Of course, what I was most eager to explore was FM HD reception from my home. After unpacking the HDR-16, I placed the radio on my kitchen countertop and initiated an HD Seek scan via the dedicated button on the front panel. Couldn’t have been easier.

The HDR-16’s scan/seek functionality is impressively quick.

I quickly found there were a number of commercial radio stations––about four, to be exact––that I could instantly receive with little to no effort. Mind you, I live in a relatively rural market in a mountainous area. No doubt, if I initiated an HD radio search in LA or New York City, the dial would be chock-full of terrific stations.

All of the HD radio stations I received were either local, or powerhouses from neighboring markets. I was disappointed to find that I could not receive my most desired station, WFAE HD2.

I then moved the HDR-16 to a south-facing window and tuned to WFAE’s FM frequency of 90.7. I found I could easily receive the analog station and its RDS information, but still had no option to listen to HD2. After tinkering with antenna position and placement in our kitchen window, a sweet spot for reception was found, and voila! WFAE HD2 came in fully decoded, without any drops.

Recalling the days when I used to tinker with the rabbit ears on a TV, once I found that sweet spot, I carefully left the HDR-16 alone and didn’t move it further. As a result, over the course of the afternoon, I had nearly 100% copy from WFAE HD2.

I knew WFAE was a fringe station and checked their propagation map for HD radio. My location was actually outside of the fringe reception area.  I looked up GPS coordinates of the WFAE 90.7 MHz transmitting site and found it is exactly 101 miles/162 km from my home.

Obviously, the HDR-16 is a sensitive HD radio on FM!

Via the 1/8″ stereo AUX in jack, you can use the HDR-16 as amplified stereo speakers for your favorite portable music device.

Turns out, FM HD reception is pretty flaky when dealing with fringe stations, though.

Over the course of the next weeks, I tried the HDR-16 in different positions and locations.  There was only one spot in my house where the HDR-16 could get reliable reception of WFAE HD2. When I started the evaluation, it was August; our trees were still had a canopy full of green leaves. Sangean kindly allowed me to hang onto the HDR-16 to see if reception improved in late fall when all of the leaves were off the trees. As I write this review, we’re in winter, and the tree branches are bare. But curiously, reception of WFAE’s fringe signal is about the same as before. Nor have I noticed any difference in the reception of other commercial stations.

The HDR-16 accepts four C cells.

My conclusion is that the HDR-16 is a true performer on the FM band in HD mode. I have no other HD radios with which to compare it, but based on what I know about HD radio, this rig certainly exceeded my expectations.

Digital AM

The HDR-16 can also receive AM HD signals. There are far fewer AM HD broadcasters on the air, however. In fact, one of the first in our region dropped their HD coverage last year due to a lack of listeners.

With that said, I’ve read that a number of HDR-16 owners who live in the vicinity of AM HD broadcasters love the fact they get a digital audio quality signal on the AM band. One SWLing Post reader recently told me he even gets the occasional night-time AM HD DX signal with an HDR-16.

There are no local AM HD stations near me, and despite my best efforts, I never decoded an AM HD broadcaster in the evening. Perhaps if I did a little research and planning, then inductively coupled the HDR-16 to a MW mag-loop antenna, it would increase my chances.

Analog performance

FM

I’ve done almost as much analog FM listening on the HDR-16 as I have HD listening.

The HDR-16 can hold its own with most of my portable radios, in that it can receive all of my benchmark FM stations, and even some fringe analog stations.

RDS decoding also seems to be quite effective, even with fringe stations.

AM

AM (mediumwave) performance is surprisingly good. Perhaps my expectations were low, but I expected analog AM reception to be an afterthought. Or perhaps to have acceptable AM HD reception, Sangean had to put some extra effort into overall AM performance. Honestly, I don’t know, but what I do know is I’ve been pleased with the HDR-16 on the AM band. The AGC is pretty stable, noise relatively low, and sensitivity better than on other similar digital radios.

Many of my shortwave portables, like the PL-660, PL-310ET, and PL-880, could outperform the HDR-16 on the AM band, but frankly performance is on a level that it’s going to please most radio listeners. I’ve even had luck getting solid copy from one of my favorite AM DX stations, CFZM (740 kHz) with the HDR-16.

Should you purchase the HDR-16 for AM/MW DXing? No; there are better radios for this exclusive function. But for what I would consider a “bonus” band on a digital radio, I’m very pleased.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget some of my initial impressions. Here’s the list I’ve developed over the time I’ve spent evaluating the HDR-16.

Pros:

  • Excellent FM HD radio reception
  • Excellent FM analog reception
  • Very good AM broadcast band reception for a modern digital portable
  • Good audio from internal stereo speakers
  • Nice carry handle that tucks away
  • Both auxiliary-in and -out jacks for audio
  • Dedicated earphone jack
  • Design is compact, sleek, yet sturdy
  • One of the more affordable HD radio options currently on the market
  • Easy access to bass/treble tone controls through volume multi-function
  • HD seek functions work on all but the most fringe stations

Cons:

  • No ability to internally recharge C batteries
  • No external antenna jack to improve FM HD reception with directional antenna
  • Limited to just 10 memory presets (five for AM, five for FM)
  • Fringe HD stations may continuously flip between digital and analog, annoying when HD station content and analog broadcast content are quite different Update: I recently tried to have the receiver replicate this behavior but it did not, so I’m striking it from the cons list!

Conclusion

Can I recommend the HDR-16? Absolutely.

If you’re looking for an AM/FM HD radio that’s well-rounded, simple to operate, and provides quality audio, I don’t believe you could go wrong with the HDR-16. The HDR-16 has proven to me that it’s a worthy FM HD receiver as it’s sensitive enough to snag fringe HD stations with some reliability. I’m certain I could design a small FM antenna and get 100% copy from my favorite HD station 101 miles from my home.

I think the HDR-16 would be a safe purchase for anyone, as it’s easy to operate, relatively compact, and makes the process of seeking HD stations a breeze.

I’m especially pleased with the HDR-16’s AM analog reception. It pleasantly surpassed my expectations and makes it easy to recommend the HDR-16. The HDR-16 is one of the few HD portables that also includes AM HD reception.

If you’re looking for a well-rounded HD and analog portable, grab the HDR-16. If you’re looking for a mediumwave DX machine, go for a benchmark mediumwave radio instead, like a GE Super Radio, C.Crane CC Radio 2E, CC Radio EP Pro or even a “Holy Grail” vintage Panasonic RF-2200.

I like Sangean’s high gloss finish (though it does show fingerprints rather well!).

I’m very tempted to purchase the HDR-16; I’ve found it difficult to justify, though. Living in a rural location, I have fewer HD stations to choose from––all but one are commercial, chock-full of advertising, and lack any real variety and diversity. I am very pleased with WFAE’s jazz station on HD2, but it’s hard to justify a $100 purchase just to receive one station over the air. Especially since I can easily stream WFAE HD2 from my Sangean WFR-28, Como Audio Solo, or Amazon Echo.

But if I lived in an urban area, with the accompanying diverse radio market, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy the HDR-16.

Here are some retail options for the HDR-16––at the time of this writing, almost all retailers price it at $100–Amazon, New Egg and some eBay vendors offer free shipping:

In closing…I should add that there’s another tempting Sangean HD radio coming just around the corner: the HDR-14. It’ll be priced lower than the HDR-16, and is even more compact, suggesting that it might make an excellent portable for the traveler. I will certainly review the HDR-14 when it’s available, as I’ll be very curious if its equally effective at snagging fringe HD FM stations.  Note that the HDR-14, unlike the HDR-16, has only one speaker, so I doubt audio fidelity will match that of the HDR-16, which should be a better choice for home and local use.

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Video: Ivan compares the SDRplay RSP1 and RSP1A

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Ivan Cholakov (NO2CW), who shares the following video and notes:

Comparing side to side reception performance on RSP1A vs. RSP1 on medium wave and shortwave using SDR Console 3.

Audio level is uneven because two laptops were used. Antenna is the same, 80m OCF dipole.

Click here to view on YouTube.

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Guest Post: Hans reviews the Freeplay Lifeline and Unity self-powered radios

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Hans Johnson, who shares the following guest post:


Irma-induced Radio Reviews

by Hans Johnson

The primary disaster we face here in Naples, Florida, is hurricanes.  Naples had been spared for over a decade until Irma.  So while I had prepared, I had not needed my supplies or equipment for quite some time.  This included the radios.

I went into Irma with two Freeplay solar and windup radios, a Unity and a Lifeline.  I got these radios probably over a decade ago.  As part of some work I was doing with VT Communications (now Babcock), I was involved with a radio project called Sudan Radio Service.

Both of these radios were being given to listeners as part of this project.  I wanted to have a better understanding of what they faced.  I had some conversations with Freeplay in London, explaining who I was and why I wanted these radios.  During a visit, I was able to purchase both sets with the proviso that I not sell them.

I checked them both out at that time with my focus being on shortwave as that is how Sudan Radio Service was then transmitted.  They were ok at picking out the strongest stations but that’s about it.  I never really needed or wanted to use the radios day to day.  And then Irma struck.

We left Naples on Saturday when we received a mandatory evacuation notice.  The storm struck on Sunday and we returned on Monday.

We were spared.  Many lost everything.  Some lost their lives.  We had a lot of trees down and some roof damage, but nothing substantial.  But we had no power.  Water had to be boiled.  Sewage was backing up in places because the lift stations had no power.  The stop lights were out (this was a real danger, many did not treat them as four-way stops and just blew through them.  But you never knew who it would be.)  A curfew was in place.  The cell phone system was in really bad shape.  I could not call or text my brother across town, let alone get access to the Internet via cell.

This link will give you an idea of what we came back to.  I am the guy sawing wood at 1:47.  (Lesson learned, have two chainsaws in case yours blows a gas line):

http://abc7ny.com/weather/watch-josh-einiger-reports-from-naples-florida/2391120/.

I had blown up some air mattresses before the storm so we slept on them on the screened porch.  I saw the Milky Way from Naples for the first time.

We wanted information and also a bit of entertainment.  Television was out of the question.  The HDTV stations are hard to receive with a great antenna and set in the best of times where we live.  So a battery-operated TV would have been a waste.  Radio was the only game in town, so it was time to put the emergency radios in service.

Sudanese Listeners Receive Unity Radios (Source: Lifeline Energy)

Both of these analogue dial sets cover AM, FM, and shortwave.  The Unity covers 3-22 MHz, the Lifeline just goes up to 18.  The former covers the old American AM band and the latter the new one.   The Unity uses a whip antenna and has a fine tuning knob.  The Lifeline has a bendable wire that fits into the carrying handle and came with an alligator clip and a length of wire.

Ideally, one would be listening a set that has been charged via the solar cell or listening with the set in the sun.  The last place I wanted to be was in or near the sun.  Trying to charge the set and then listen to it is difficult in practice.  It seems that the ratio was about one to one.  15 minutes in the sun would get you about 15 minutes of immediate listening.  It doesn’t seem that the batteries will hold a charge for long periods of time.  I could not charge them during the day and expect to turn them on the next morning, which was the peak time of day for radio to be transmitting local information.  The ratio for using the hand-crank was better, but I grew tired of cranking quite quickly.

I was interested in local stations, so shortwave was not a factor.  We only have a few local AM stations in Naples and I could not receive them (Irma knocked off or damaged a number of stations.)  I tried FM.  Even with the antennas retracted, both sets were overwhelmed by the local stations with certain stations bleeding through over much of the dial.  I could receive some strong, local stations.  With the outlet at Marco Island off and the other apparently on reduced power, receiving NPR was out of the question.

Given how many sources of information I was cut off from, my flow was greatly reduced.  My ignorance increased and learning vital information was hit or miss.  A neighbor told me about the boil order.  Passing on information was difficult.  When we got power I wanted to tell my brother, but the only way to inform him was to drive to his house.

One result was that I put these sets away and broke out my old Sony

ICF-7600GR and used it instead.  I guess I could have used it until I ran out of AA batteries.  I had plenty on hand and can easily afford them.  But that is hardly the case in Southern Sudan and many other places.

The Lifeline came with a few stickers on it that I could not read when I got the set.  Now that Goggle translate is so good I can read them.  They say in part:  “Everyone has the right to receive information,”  “Everyone one has the right to search for, receive, and deliver information.”

The real result of the test was a greater appreciation for how good I have it in many ways.  With regards to information, I have many sources and can readily receive it and pass it on.  It increased my respect for services like Sudan Radio Service and how important they are.  But most especially, I have a much greater admiration for listeners using these sets and what is surely their perseverance, patience, and determination to get information.


Many thanks for your field report of the Freeplay Lifeline and Unity, Hans!

I’m happy to hear you had no serious damage post-Irma. So many in the SWLing Post community have been affected by hurricanes this season.

I have never, personally, reviewed either of these Freeplay units–both are now discontinued and have been replaced with other models at Lifeline, I believe. As you state in your post, these radios are only available to humanitarian organizations. Through Ears To Our World, I have considered acquiring Lineline Energy (Freeplay) radios in the past. However, their radios tend to be rather large in size–we tend to go with smaller receivers that can easily fit in suitcases. In the past we’ve been very happy with the Grundig FR200 (Tecsun GR-88). 

The Lifeplayer MP3

Last year, we did purchase a Freeplay Lifeplayer to test. The hand crank charging mechanism is very robust, though quite noisy. The radio is digital, but performance is mediocre and tuning couldn’t be more cumbersome (5 kHz steps, no memories, only a couple of band steps.  Tuning to your favorite station could literally take a couple of minutes, depending on where it is on the band. When you turn off the radio (or it runs out of power) you’ll have to re-tune to the station again. That’s a lot of extra mechanical wear on the encoder. The real utility of the Lifeplayer is the built-in MP3 player and recorder–a brilliant tool for rural schools. Also, it’s robust and can take abuse from kids much better than other consumer radios.

Your main point, though, is spot-on: these radios serve their purpose, but we radio enthusiasts are incredibly fortunate to have much better grade equipment to take us through information backouts.

Thanks again for your review, Hans!

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