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):
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.
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.
I wanted to buy a DAB/DAB+ portable receiver just to see what Europe was doing with digital radio. I bought a recently introduced Sony XDR-S41D DAB/DAB+/FM(with RDS) receiver for 79€ (about 11€ off list price).
I can use it in North America to listen to FM and take it with me when I visit Europe for DAB/DAB+ as well as FM.
It has reasonable sound from its 8-cm speaker and pretty good stereo sound on headphones. It has an automatic search mode on both DAB/DAB+ and FM and creates a list of available stations.
In my hotel room in the 13th arrondisement, I could receive 46 DAB+ stations. One of the stations is World Radio Paris (WRP) and they provide English language programming 24 hours per day from BBC World Service, Public Radio International, Radio France International, and Radio Canada International, among others as well as their own programming.
There is no line output from the receiver but I was able to use the earphone output and crank the volume to maximum to get an acceptable recording level without noticeable distortion.
Happy with my purchase and can’t wait to go back to Europe again, say to England, to try out DAB+ there.
I also spotted three receivers with SW capability on the shelves at the Darty store:
Panasonic RF-3500 for 45€
Brandt BR200D for 45€
Brandt BR120A for 15€
You don’t see SW receivers in North American consumer electronics stores anymore and I’ve not spotted any in airport duty free stores lately either.
I’ve been listening to the XDR-S41D at home and it sounds pretty good on FM, too, and does a good job of displaying the RDS information although a character or two is sometimes cut off the end of the data but that could be the fault of the station. Need to investigate that some more.
By the way, the radio doesn’t come with a case but I found (just before I was going to toss it) that it just fits in the magnetic-clasp case of one of those Air Canada amenities kits that they give you in business class (see photo below).
That’s the second Air Canada item I have recycled. They used to use full-ear headphones with disposable foam covers. They were a perfect fit for the deteriorating covers on my old Sony noise-cancelling headphones. I’ve since upgraded to Bose. 😉
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Richard! The Sony XDR-S41D sounds like a keeper for sure and is certainly compact enough to easily accompany you on travels to Europe. I was not aware of World Radio Paris either–I see they’re available via TuneIn, so I’ll add them to my WiFi radio station favorites!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dennis Kalinichenko, who shares the following review:
The Shoroh R-326 military radio
by Dennis Kalinichenko
I believe the piece of Soviet military equipment I recently bought to my collection would be interesting to all readers and contributors.
This is the R-326 “Shoroh” (“Rustle”) general coverage military tube shortwave radio receiver. These were produced decades ago, back in 1963. These portable receivers were in active military use in the Soviet Army until the early 2000s, when the R-326 was finally discontinued . Today, this set is no more a spy secret, but a great collector’s item and also a good receiver for home use.
My set cost me about $150 US, which is rather expensive for this radio. The R-326 was plentiful in the local market in 90-s, right after the fall of the Soviet Union, very cheap and popular between radio amateurs, but nowadays this radio has become more and more rare, so the price rises up.
My R-326 arrived from Khabarovsk city, the Russian Far East, where, I believe, for many years it was on duty in some of the Soviet radio intelligence and defense forces division.
The set includes the radio itself, original military 100 ohm headphones, original rectifier box for 2,5 V output, 12 meter long wire antenna on a reel, the 1,5 meter famous “Kulikov” mini-whip antenna, the isolator for placing it on top of the radio and some minor accessories.
Originally, the R-326 radio came with two batteries–1,25 V each–for field use, but mine are totally drained and need to be serviced, so I haven’t used them so far.
The radio is a light-weight, only 33 lbs, which is a real minimum for Soviet military equipment–the famous R-250 radio’s weight is up to 220 lbs–so, in comparison, this unit is really portable. You can easily put it in your car using the attached leather handle and take it with you on a weekend trip. No other military radio can be so “travel-friendly”; this is one of the reasons it was so popular in the ham radio and SWL communities.
The case is made out of steel and looks so solid you may want to use it as a nutcracker. And you can! In no way could you harm the box constructed to resist nuclear attacks. It is waterproof and sealed–so I can be confident that no previous owner has ever tried to solder something in the guts.
The radio is a super heterodyne containing 19 (!) special mini tubes and covering 6 SW bands, from 1 to 20 MHz. It works in both AM and SSB (CW) modes, having an on-board adjustable bandwidth control from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.
On the front panel, there are two scales: one is rough/coarse, and above is the precise one, a so-called photoscale, which may be adjusted to match real radio-frequency using the four screws near the sun protection visor. With this scale, you don’t actually need a digital readout. It also has a BFO control with a zero setting, adjustable AGC levels for AM and CW, and adjusting screw for matching the antenna input, as marked for 12 m long wire, 1,5 m and 4 m whip.
The radio has no built-in speaker. Instead, there are two output sockets on the front panel, for 100 ohm headphones and 600 ohm line-out.
The power consumption is very low for s tube radio, the rig needs only 1,4 A at 2.5 volts DC (including the lightscale). I use the original power transformer (transistor rectifier) and therefore switch the unit into the 220 AC outlet.
The sensitivity of the radio is extremely high and equals some modern transceivers. The selectivity is also impressive. No doubt it was really great for 1960s. But there’s negative side as well: the radio easily overloads even from the outdoor long wire antennas. The best fit is the “Kulikov” mini-whip that you can see in the photos.
When you switch on the radio, you hear noise, the level of which seems high, so you lower the volume down. Yes, the radio is sensitive and a bit noisy. But thanks to the tubes it sounds really amazing in the headphones. The SSB ham operator’s voice is warm and very clear.
The tuning is very smooth, being actually 2-speed: outer wheel is for fast tuning, inner wheel for precise tune.
It’s absolutely obvious that nowadays a simple Degen or Tecsun may be more useful than this old and heavy unit with big and tough knobs and switches. But what a pleasure sitting in front of this perfect tube radio at night, with the headphones on, turning the huge tuning wheels, looking into the moving dim scale, listening into distant voices and rustles, feeling yourself a Cold War times operator near the rig.
Isn’t this experience priceless?
Indeed the experience is priceless, Dennis! Better yet, your R-326 now has an owner that will keep it in working order and enjoy it on a regular basis. I personally believe keeping these vintage rigs on the air is one way to preserve, and experience first hand, a little of our collective radio history.
Thank you so much for sharing your review and excellent photos of the R-326!
Post readers: If, like Dennis, you have a vintage radio you would like to showcase/review here on the SWLing Post,please consider submitting your story and photos. Being a huge fan of vintage radio, I truly enjoy reading through and publishing your reviews. I know many other readers feel the same!
In August 2015 at the Tokyo Hamfair, Icom debuted a new type of transceiver in their product line––one featuring a direct RF sampling receiver. Essentially, it was an SDR tabletop transceiver.
At about the same time that the IC-7300 started shipping around the world, Icom pulled their venerable IC-7200 off the market. Yet the IC-7200 was established as a well-loved product, due to its highly sensitive receiver, its relatively robust front end, and its quality audio. Moreover, it was simple to operate, which made superb as a Field Day or radio club rig.
Therefore, even though the IC-7300 promised much more versatility than the IC-7200, for its price point it had a tough act to follow.
So, of course––even more so than with any other radio Icom has introduced in the past few years––I was eager to get my hands on a IC-7300. I’m very fortunate that my good friend, Dave Anderson (K4SV) was one of the first purchasers of the IC-7300, and that he didn’t mind (after only having the rig perhaps one week!) allowing me to borrow it for a several weeks for evaluation.
Note: I should state here that since this rig was loaned to me, I evaluated it based on the firmware version it shipped with, and made no modifications to it.
This review primarily focuses on the receiver’s performance, functionality and usability.
Introducing the Icom IC-7300
In recent years, the “big three” ham radio manufacturers have been using color displays, and––Icom most especially––touch screens. While I’m no fan of backlit touch screens in mobile applications, I think touch screen displays make a lot of sense in a base radio. If carefully designed, a touch screen can save an operator from heavily-buried menus and decrease the number of multi-function buttons on the front panel.
The challenge, of course, is making a display with intuitive controls, and one that is large enough, and with sufficient resolution, to be useful to the operator. In the past, I’ve been disappointed by many displays; the most successful have been incorporated in DX/Contest-class (i.e., pricier) transceivers, meanwhile, entry-level and mid-priced transceiver displays often seem half-baked. While the graphics may be crisp, spectrum displays at this price point are often too compressed to be useful, and if not a touch display, force the user to pause operation in order to find the correct knob or button to change settings. In such cases, I find myself wondering why the manufacturer went to the expense of a color display at all––?
But what about the C-7300 display? I’m thoroughly pleased to report that Icom did a fantastic job of balancing utility and function in design of the IC-7300’s color touch display and front panel. There are number of ways you can chose to display and arrange elements on the screen–since I’m an SDR fan, I typically chose a display setting which gave the waterfall the most real estate. Of course, one can chose to give the frequency display priority or a number of other arrangements.
I can tell that Icom built upon their experience with the IC-7100––their first entry-level touch screen display transceiver.
I was able to get the IC-7300 on the air in very little time. Within five minutes of turning on the IC-7300, I was able to:
change the display to feature a spectrum waterfall;
change the span of the waterfall display;
adjust the TX power output;
change the filters selection and the transmit mode;
change bands and make direct-frequency entries;
adjust notch, passband, and filter width;
adjust AF and RF gain;
set A/B VFOs and operate split;
change AGC settings;
turn on Noise Reduction/Noise Blanker, and
Basically, I found that all the essential functions are clearly laid out, accessible, and highly functional. Impressive.
The IC-7300 ships with a manual–– aptly titled, the “Basic” manual––and a CD with the full and unabridged operations manual. The Basic Manual covers a great deal more than the manual which accompanied the Icom ID-51a, for example. If you read through the manual, you’ll readily familiarize yourself with most of the IC-7300’s higher function operations, and especially, you’ll be able to adjust the settings to your operation style. The Manual is written in simple language, and includes a lot of diagrams and graphics.
If you’re like me, you will find you’ll also need to reference that unabridged manual, so hang on to the CD, too.
Still, I imagine there’s a large percentage of future IC-7300 owners that will never need to reference the manual––especially if they don’t care about tweaking band edges or similar settings. Yes, believe it or not, it’s that easy to use.
While I spent a great deal of time listening to CW and SSB in various band conditions and at various times of day, I spent less time on the air transmitting.
With that said, all of my transmitting time was in CW since the IC-7300 mic was accidentally left out when my friend loaned me the rig.
I’m please to report that CW operation is quite pleasant. All of the adjustments––RF Power, Key Speed, and CW Pitch––can be quickly modified using the multi-function knob. While in CW mode, you can also toggle full break-in mode, which is quite smooth, via the function button and touch screen.
SSB functions are similar. While in SSB mode, the multi-function knob allows you to change the tx power, mic gain, and monitor level. The function button opens an on-screen menu with VOX, compression, TBW, and the monitor toggle.
Of course, my smartphones’s microphone can’t accurately reproduce the audio from the IC-7300, but you probably get the idea.
The only annoyance I noted––and perhaps I’m more sensitive to this, being primarily a QRPer––is that the 7300’s cooling fan starts up each time you key up. It even comes on when transmit power is at its lowest setting. I find this a little distracting in CW. Fortunately, however, the 7300’s fan is fairly quiet and operates smoothly.
This result was almost tied. The Excalibur’s audio––without any adjustments––has a fuller and “bassier” sound. The ‘7300 can be adjusted to have similar characteristics, but the default EQ settings produce very flat audio. Many of you commented that the IC-7300 more faithfully produced audio optimized for SSB.
Shortwave Broadcast recordings
The following recordings were made on the 31 meter broadcast band in the evening. Both radios had the same filter width: 9 kHz and 8.2 kHz.
Weak Shortwave AM (Radio Bandeirantes 31 meter band)
There was a noticeable preference for the WinRadio Excalibur in this particular audio set. Even though the Excalibur’s audio splattered a bit, the content was more interpretable. The IC-7300’s audio sounded flat in comparison––again, something that can be adjusted quite easily in the ‘7300’s audio settings.
Strong Shortwave AM (Radio Romania International, French 31 Meter Band)
Once again, the Excalibur won favor, but I imagine results would have been closer had I adjusted the ‘7300’s audio EQ.
Mediumwave Broadcast recordings
Note that the following mediumwave recordings were made during the morning hours (grayline). The strong station is the closest AM broadcaster to my home; it’s not a blow-torch “Class A” type station, merely the closest local broadcaster.
In the “weak” sample, I tuned to 630 kHz where multiple broadcasters could be heard on frequency, but one was dominant.
In this particular example, the IC-7300 could not pull the strongest broadcaster out of the pile as well as the WinRadio Excalibur. In fairness, the Excalibur was using AM sync detection, something the IC-7300 lacks.
Icom IC-7300 vs. Elecraft KX3
I also decided to pit the IC-7300 against my well-loved Elecraft KX3.
These results were spilt in the middle. Again, I believe this comes down to personal preference in the audio. And again––in both radios––the audio EQ can be adjusted to suit the operator.
Receiver performance summary
I enjoy producing audio clips for readers to compare and comment upon. Each time I’ve done so in the past, I’ve had listeners argue the virtues of a particular audio clip while others have the complete opposite reaction to that same clip. Not all of us prefer our audio served up in the same way. No doubt, there’s a great deal of subjectivity in this sort of test.
I’ve had the IC-7300 on the air every day since I took possession of it. I’ve listened to SSB, CW, and lots of AM/SW broadcasters.
And here’s my summary: the IC-7300 is an excellent receiver. It has a low noise floor, superb sensitivity and excellent selectivity. I even slightly prefer its audio to that of my Elecraft KX3, and I’m a huge fan of the little KX3.
I’ve written before about how difficult it is to compare SDRs; the problem is that there are so many ways to tweak your audio, filters, AGC, noise reduction, etc. that it’s hard to compare apples with apples.
In the audio samples above, the IC-7300 and WinRadio Excalibur were both set to their default audio settings. In SSB and CW, the IC-7300 excels, in my opinion. CW seems to pop out of the noise better and SSB is more pleasant and interpretable. The Excalibur has a better audio profile for AM broadcasters, though. Its default audio simply sounds fuller–more robust.
The audio from the IC-7300 on AM sounded absolutely flat. However, if I tweak the audio of the ‘7300, adding more bass, it instantly sounds more like a dedicated tabletop receiver.
I should also mention that while the IC-7300’s built-in digital recording is a fantastic and effective feature, it doesn’t produce audio true to what’s heard through headphones live. This is especially the case when you add more bass and treble response as in the RRI example above. When the audio EQ is set to a default flat, it’s quite accurate.
Cooling fan immediately starts up on CW/SSB transmit at any power setting (see pro regarding fan noise)
Occasionally you may get lost in deeper customized functions
Supplied printed basic owner’s manual, while well-written, doesn’t fully cover the IC-7300s functions and options; you must explore the digital owner’s manual in supplied CD.
In a nutshell: Icom has hit a home run with the IC-7300.If I didn’t already have an Elecraft KX3 and K2, I would buy the IC-7300 without hesitation.
Though the price point is a little high for an “entry level transceiver,” it’s worth every penny, in my opinion. For $1500 US, you get a fantastic general-coverage transceiver with an intuitive interface, nearly every function you can imagine, and performance that would please even a seasoned DXer.
Though I haven’t done and A/B comparison with the IC-7200, I imagine the IC-7300 would prevail in a test. The IC-7300 would certainly wipe the floor with it’s more economical brother, the IC-718.
Radio clubs, take note:
In my view, the IC-7300 has the makings of an excellent radio club rig in which performance, functionality, as well as ease of use are important. I expect that the IC-7300 will not only cope very well with crowded and crazy Field Day conditions, but it will also give any newcomers to the hobby a little experience with a proper modern transceiver. The fact that you can view signals so easily on the spectrum display means that it will be easier to chase contacts and monitor bands as they open and close. Indeed, what better way to mentor a newly-minted ham in modes, contacts, carriers, QRN, QRM, and so forth, than to simply point these out on the IC-7300’s bright, clear display––?
If your club is considering a transceiver upgrade or purchase, do seriously consider the IC-7300. I think you’ll find this rig is up to the task.
And for home? The Icom IC-7300 may be all of the rig you’ll ever need.
After publishing my initial review of the Sangean ATS-405 on July 25, I contacted Sangean and requested a sample radio for comparison purposes. Back story: there were some receiver performance issues that I suspected may have been tied to my particular ATS-405 unit. Sangean kindly dispatched another ATS-405 which I received last week. The following is an update to my initial ATS-405 review.
In truth, there were two main reasons I wanted another unit to compare to my initial review radio:
I wanted to see if the new unit showed improved performance–sensitivity, selectivity, and, specifically, noise floor–in comparison with the first review unit tested
I noted strong DSP “birdies” (noises) on 800 and 1600 kHz on the test model, while several of our readers commented that their ‘405s did not feature birdies
Shortwave sensitivity/selectivity and noise
I noted in my initial review that the initial ATS-405 had an ever-present noise, a sort of low-volume static hiss. The noise floor, while not high, certainly seemed to be higher than other comparable shortwave portables, and was most noticeable when tuned to marginal/weak stations. I suspect many listeners may not notice it unless they compare it with other portables.
Fortunately, my new review unit’s noise floor seems to be slightly lower than that of my initial review unit. [Perhaps this unit’s board is better soldered–?] The noise is still there, but can be better mitigated by judiciously using narrow filters and the three-position audio tone control.
I suspect this is a noise somewhere in the audio amplification chain, because I find it less noticeable with headphones, and more pronounced via the ATS-405’s internal speaker.
In terms of sensitivity and selectivity on the shortwave bands, I believe my new unit is identical to that of the initial review unit. That is to say, the ATS-405 is not an especially sensitive shortwave receiver, but fairly average, and thus will fit the bill for most but not for the discriminating weak-signal hunter. Frankly, even my $46 Tecsun PL-310ET does a better job of pulling in weak stations.
I’ve tried tinkering with the AGC settings and soft mute–very cool features!–in an attempt to improve sensitivity, but alas, these only help the quality and stability of the received signal.
Immediately after opening the box of the new ATS-405 sample, I popped in a fresh set of AA batteries and tuned the Sangean to 1600 kHz AM. [If you read my initial review, I noted a strong DSP birdie on 1600 and (to a lesser degree) on 800 kHz].
At first listen, I was happy to note that the new unit lacks the wild DSP noise that overwhelmed my favorite local station on 1600 kHz.
As I listened more carefully, though, I did note a metronomic “chick” sound that was also present but partially buried in the noise on my initial ATS-405.
Below, I’ve embedded audio comparing the two receivers:
Initial review unit:
New review unit:
Listening to these samples, I realize I may have had the filter set to the middle position on the first sample and the wide setting on the second (hence, the brighter tone).
To further demonstrate the difference between the two, I made this short video; I start with my initial review unit, then switch to the new review unit provided by Sangean:
Note that this was recorded at least 100 feet from my house on the tailgate of my pickup truck. DSP birdies on 800 kHz sounded very much like the 1600 kHz sample, save the noise level on the latter is slightly lower and there are no broadcast stations in the background.
None of my other portables have digital noises or birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz.
So, the bad news: I do still hear a noticeable (and slightly annoying) internally-generated noise on the new review unit. The good news: it isn’t as objectionable as that on my initial review unit.
While the new ‘405 review sample seems to perform better than the initial ‘405 sample, I find the discrepancy somewhat marginal, especially since I spend the bulk of my time on the shortwave and mediumwave bands.
I’m not a fan of production runs where units vary so greatly from one to another, making accurate testing difficult. Therefore it’s quite possible you might receive a unit that performs better than those I tested…but unfortunately, the opposite is also true.
So, if you’re a Sangean fan, if you don’t mind the birdies on mediumwave, and if you mostly listen to strong shortwave stations, you may entertain purchasing an ATS-405. The keypad layout is almost identical to previous Sangean models.
To be clear, of course, this radio’s negatives above have been viewed under a microscope; the ATS-405 is not a “bad” receiver, it’s just not that exceptional. Other than the added mute/AGC/squelch features, when compared to its predecessors, it’s really not a better iteration.
Just last week, I received the new Sangean ATS-405 on loan from Universal Radio. Though I’ve only had the radio for a week, I thought I’d share a few un-boxing photos (by request) and my initial impressions/review of this radio.
The ATS-405 comes with a thick owner’s manual (in five languages), a 7.5 volt AC adapter, and a soft radio case. The package does not contain rechargeable batteries nor a clip-on wire antenna (like many Tecsun products do, for example).
Overall, the packaging accommodates the radio and accessories efficiently and would probably ship safely even if the carrier doesn’t handle it with particular care.
The first thing I noticed about the ATS-405 is the near-identical design and layout Sangean has used in their design of past shortwave radios. If you’re a Sangean fan, you’ll find all of the functions, buttons, and labels pretty much in the same place; virtually no learning curve.
Performance: first impressions
After unboxing the ATS-405, I installed a fresh set of AA batteries in it and turned on the radio…
Like most Sangeans, the display is crisp, clear and can easily be read straight-on or at low angles, like when the radio is resting on its back stand, for example. If you look at the display from a higher angle, however, you’ll find that the LCD digits nearly disappear.
Back-lighting is perfect: it’s soft and consistent across the display, very much like the ATS-909X.
Audio from the internal speaker is good. It’s in the same league with most similarly-priced competitors.
Keeping in mind that I’ve only logged a few days of listening time on the ATS-405, I do have some initial impressions about receiver performance across the bands:
Right side view (click to enlarge)
On a positive note, I believe FM performance is quite good. Perhaps not in the same league with my PL-660 or PL-680, but still the Sangean offers above-average sensitivity. I was able to pick up my distant benchmark FM stations with ease, though to help with the signal lock, I had to switch from stereo to mono reception.
AM reception is a bit of a mixed bag. I find that the ‘405’s overall sensitivity and selectivity are quite good for broadcast band listening.
When I first tuned around on the AM broadcast band, however, I found the noise floor a little too high. Regardless of whether I was tuned in to a station or not, there was an ever-present high-pitched hiss, like static. It was quite disappointing, especially since I read a review by Jay Allen that really complimented the AM performance on the ATS-405.
I trust Jay’s reviews, however, so I promptly contacted him. Jay pointed out that the problem may be that I was listening in the default “wide” filter setting on AM. And indeed, he was right–though I had changed filter settings a few times while tuned to local stations, I had moved it back to wide and didn’t make note of this. (The ATS-405, by the way, has three filter settings: wide, medium and narrow.)
Left side view (click to enlarge)
But the wide setting is really too wide, and was certainly the source for the bulk of the high-pitched hiss I heard. The best filter setting for most broadcast band listening is the middle position, which sounds like a 5-6 kHz filter. In the middle position, noise is decreased significantly. I also believe selecting the “music” audio tone setting helps dissipate some of the noise.
Regarding the noise floor: to be clear, I still feel like the noise level is slightly more noticeable, to my ear, on the ATS-405 than on the PL-660, PL-600, and PL-310ET when band-scanning or weak signal listening. This is most likely some internally-generated noise that somehow still meets Sangean’s engineering spec.
Local AM stations sound fantastic, and the ATS-405 can detect all of my benchmarks. AM audio fidelity is better than that of my PL-660 and, even, PL-310ET. When locked on a local station, the noise floor also seems to disappear. For some reason, I even find that the ATS-405 does a better job receiving local AM stations from indoors–even near noisy electronics–than other sub-$100 portables with which I’m familiar.
The most disappointing discovery I made on the Sangean’s AM broadcast band is that it has DSP birdies. Birdies are internally-generated noises resulting from the outputs of the oscillators that form part of the DSP receiver circuit. While almost all receivers do have birdies somewhere in the receiver’s reception range, radio engineers try to keep them out of the way of the important parts of the band.
Unfortunately, my ATS-405 has strong DSP birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz. This is a big negative for me, since my favorite regional AM broadcast station is located on 1600 kHz (WTZQ). Rather than attempting to describe what the birdies sound like, here are a few audio clips that will give you an idea–I start with 1350 AM, which has no birdies and is representative of good AM reception:
WZGM 1350 kHz (broadcast sample with no birdie):
800 kHz (birdie on frequency with no broadcast signal):
WTZQ 1600 kHz (birdie on broadcast signal):
The ATS-405’s birdies almost sound like a jamming signal on 1600 kHz. Indeed, if this station were only located on a different frequency, I’m sure it would be quite audible on this radio…too bad.
Birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz may very well be deal-breakers for many of us. Again, since one of my favorite regional independent broadcasters is on 1600 kHz, it’s a deal-breaker for me.
Jay specifically mentioned a lack of birdies on the AM broadcast band in his review. It could very well be that he doesn’t hear them on his particular receiver–variations in quality control on a radio production line are certainly a real phenomena (the Grundig G3 is a case in point). This could indicate that some units may have pronounced birdies while others don’t. If you purchase an ATS-405, I would check to see if your unit has birdies after powering it up.
When I contacted an engineer for Sangean North America, and described my listening experience, he confirmed that he believed these are, indeed, DSP birdies. I may ask Sangean if they can send another ATS-405 for comparison.
On a more positive note, I checked harmonics in the HF/shortwave bands and heard no DSP birdies there.
Country of origin?
Bottom view with charge and keylock mechanical switches (click to enlarge)
One additional question I posed to Sangean: where is the ATS-405 made? One reader told me the radios are produced in both Taiwan and China. Thinking variations in quality control may be accounted for by two different production lines, I checked my radio to see where it was made. Unfortunately, my unit has no mention of country of origin; not on the radio, the box, the manual, behind the battery cover, nor on the back stand. It’s possible it could be marked internally, but I didn’t want to take apart a receiver I’ve been loaned.
Sangean came back with a firm answer:
“I can confirm that the ATS-405, along with all our radios, are manufactured in China. We have an office in Taipei for engineering, sales, marketing and customer support.”
Not a big surprise here; I expected China was the country of origin.
To sum up AM performance: if you aren’t bothered by the birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz, or if your unit isn’t producing them, you’ll find the ATS-405 a capable little AM broadcast band receiver.
Our HF propagation conditions since last Friday (when I first turned on the ATS-405) have been poor. Other than a few short band openings, I’ve struggled to hear anything other than the normal blow-torch broadcasters we hear in North America. Still, bad propagation conditions are actually good for reviewing some aspects of a shortwave receiver, so I used the opportunity.
In terms of sensitivity on the shortwave bands, I think the ATS-405 is mediocre. It lags behind my Tecsun PL-660, PL-600, PL-310ET, and CC Skywave. Adding a clip-on wire antenna to the telescoping whip (there is no aux antenna port) does help in terms of sensitivity.
Since I do most of my listening on the shortwave bands, this, too, is a deal-breaker for me. If you primarily listen to stronger shortwave stations, or spend most of your time on the FM/AM bands, then you might still consider the ATS-405.
The ATS-405’s selectivity seems to be on par with my other DSP-based portables. In truth, though, band conditions have been so unfavorable, I don’t feel like I’ve had ample opportunity to test selectivity. I’ll likely follow up this initial review with an update.
And as on medium wave, the noise floor on the shortwave bands seems a little high to me–especially with the filter set to the “wide” position.
Cool, innovative features
While I clearly haven’t been wowed by the ATS-405’s shortwave performance, I have been more favorably impressed with some of its innovative features: specifically, the ability to control squelch, tuning mute, and soft mute.
Using the menu button (see image above), you can engage or disengage the tuning mute and soft mute by pressing the “2” or “3” buttons on the keypad, then using the tuning up/down buttons to toggle these features on and off. Squelch works the same way, using the “1” button and volume control to set the threshold.
This menu control works regardless whether the radio is turned on or off.
Of course, by using the menu button and the keypad, you can also control the ‘405’s tuning steps, AGC, clock, and backlighting functionality; each of these are marked in green next to the appropriate button on the keypad (see image above), a very useful feature.
I wish other radio manufacturers would give users the ability to control some of the DSP chip’s built-in functionality, as the ‘405 does with the muting–especially since over-active soft muting has been the downfall of several DSP-based radios. Thanks for trail-blazing, Sangean!
Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here is a list of my notes from the moment I put the ATS-405 on the air:
Improved features and controls:
Crisp, clear display
Good travel size, similar to the Grundig YB400
Good AM/mediumwave sensitivity
Three audio/tone settings: Music, Norm, and News
Good FM sensitivity
Dedicated mechanical switches for keylock, audio tone, FM stereo/mono, and charging.
Lackluster shortwave sensitivity
DSP Birdies on 800 and 1600 kHz
Higher SW/AM noise floor (especially in wide filter setting)
No tuning wheel
No AUX antenna port
No shortwave SSB reception (AM only)
No audio line-out port
I’m going to hold onto the Sangean ATS-405 for a few more weeks, as I’d like to give it a more thorough test on the shortwave bands. I hope to follow up with a post offering a few representative recordings.
My nutshell opinion of the ATS-405 so far is that it’s a decent little radio with a lot of functionality and features for a rig in its price class. But overall, its performance seems to me rather mediocre. If you primarily listen to FM, you’ll be pleased. If you’re a mediumwave listener, you’ll be pleased only if you don’t mind the 800/1600 kHz DSP birdies. If you’re primarily a shortwave listener, you’ll need to carry a clip-on wire antenna to bring the sensitivity up to the level of similarly-priced receivers.
In short, I do want to like this radio unreservedly. But it appears that Sangean may need to pull up its socks on their quality control. Readers: please comment if you’ve purchased the ATS-405–I’m very curious to learn whether there are QC discrepancies in performance from one unit to the next.
PLEASE NOTE: After publishing this following review, Sangean kindly agreed to dispatch a second unit for comparison.
On a side note, I suppose I should mention that I was pretty disappointed with the DE1129 because I had hopes it would make for a great all-in-one portable radio recorder for ETOW. While the DE1129 could record FM/AM and SW radio directly, it had serious problems: it auto-adjusted the volume level during recording (one could not turn off the internal speaker), it degraded audio quality in recording, and medium wave was plagued with a “ticking” sound every 10 seconds. It produced digital hash on various meter bands. My summary of the DE1129: fine concept, poor engineering. Read my full review of the first version of the DE1129 here.
The Kaito KA29: First impressions
The Kaito KA29 is a cute little portable. Mine has a black body with orange band encircling the diameter. That orange band is actually a nice addition–it helps the radio show up a bit better and makes the ports a little easier to see when lighting is low.
The overall quality of the radio feels fine: the hard plastic body has a smooth matte quality and the buttons have a very tactile response. The telescopic whip antenna is long for the overall radio size, but is still a little on the short side for good HF gain. Oddly, unlike most radios, the antenna cannot swivel at its point of attachment to the chassis; it can only be extended and tipped side-to-side–but not front to back, or back to front. Like the DE1129, the KA29 lacks a back stand–a big negative in my book–but admittedly a back stand would be of little use while SWLing with this rig because the antenna can’t be swiveled or tipped into a useful vertical position. Hm. Also like the DE1129, the KA29 uses a slim rechargeable battery pack.
When I first turned on the KA29, I thought I had received a faulty unit: I pressed and held the power button for a second, the display lit up a bright green, I released the power button…and the unit turned off. After a little trouble-shooting, I realized that the KA29 requires holding the power button a full two seconds, until the “Kaito” brand name appears on the display.
Unfortunately, the KA29 antenna does not swivel.
This sluggish power-up response is truly an indicator of most functions on the KA29. It’s as if every function is controlled by a slow processor–which I’ve no doubt is the case.
As far as I can tell, all the menu functions are the same on the Degen DE1129; obviously, they’re built on the same firmware. Indeed, Kaito is the North American brand for the Chinese manufacturer, Degen; the Degen model number for this radio is DE29. In this sense, most functions are familiar to me.
The one added feature of the KA29 that my version of the DE1129 didn’t have is a number pad, useful for direct entry of radio frequencies. I should note here that I (typically) toss the owner’s manual aside when I first get a radio, in order to test how intuitive its functions are. I spent quality time with the KA29 while traveling a few weeks ago, and as I didn’t bring the manual, I had to learn its functions via trial and error. It wasn’t until I returned that I learned how to use direct frequency entry; the is answer clearly stated in the manual: just key in the frequency, then press the appropriate band (AM/FM/SW) to go to that frequency. Pretty simple, actually. The response time for the radio to start playing the frequency you enter is only about one second.
Use of the tuning knob (located on the right side of the radio) is easy and straightforward–tuning up and down will move the needle 5 kHz steps between frequencies. Unfortunately, as on the DE1129, 5 kHz is the smallest tuning step available. The KA29 briefly mutes between frequency changes, so when tuning slowly it’s very noticeable. If you tune quickly, the KA29 will produce snippets of audio as you pass signals, but I find it often skips over even very strong signals. In short? Though I suppose it could be worse, I do not like tuning the KA29.
I should also mention that the KA29 has no adjustable bandwidth; I’m guessing the AM bandwidth is stuck at around 6 or 7 kHz.
While I no longer have the DE1129 in hand for side-by-side comparison, my impression is that performance between the two radios is very similar.
Herein lies the strength of the KA29. It obviously uses the same speaker technology (with an acoustic chamber) that the DE1129 uses. You will be favorably impressed with the audio from this wee radio–it is quite robust for a pocket radio of this size, and in a small room, almost room-filling. It sounds fantastic on FM and AM alike–you can even hear a hint of bass. One day, I tuned the KA29 to a local AM station and listened quite comfortably in another room. Impressive.
But what about receiver performance?
FM performance is quite good. I’ve used the KA29 in two different cities, and found that it could detect most of the same FM stations my other portables picked up.
I was pleasantly surprised to note the absence of the annoying ticking sound I heard in the DE1129; it appears Degen engineers have succeeded in eliminating this distraction. In general, I believe the KA29 performs acceptably on medium wave for basic local and nighttime clear channel broadcast listening. The AGC circuit is not ideal, though, for any sort of medium wave DXing; don’t consider the KA29 for MW DX.
If the KA29 is better than the DE1129 on the shortwave bands, the improvement is negligible. You’ll be fairly happy with the KA29 while listening to strong shortwave broadcasts. During my review, I listened to the new Global 24 a few hours on 9,395 kHz–an easy catch on the east coast of North America–and the KA29 was fairly stable, producing rich audio.
Here are the cons on shortwave:
Automatic Gain Control
While listening to weak stations, you’ll discover the KA29 to be somewhat sensitive, but again, the AGC circuit is just too active to listen comfortably for very long.
The noise floor is more obvious while listening to weak signals: I believe much of the noise is coming from the internal electronics of the KA29. It produces an audible digital hash sound that makes weak-signal listening a bit of a chore.
Quite often as I tuned around the shortwave bands, I noticed that FM stations bleed through the audio. Check out this audio sample as I attempted to listen to Radio Ryhad:
Indeed, even if the shortwave station has a relatively strong signal (like this recording of Global 24) you can often hear noise:
Fortunately, several of the recording problems I noted with the DE1129 are no longer an issue with the KA29.
The DE1129, when recording radio, had the exceedingly annoying habit of automatically setting the internal speaker’s volume to a high level. While recording, this could not be changed.
Fortunately, this problem has mostly been addressed in the KA29, which does not increase the volume while making a recording, but still fixes the volume at the level set at the recording’s start. I didn’t find this to be much of a problem.
The recording performance is better than that of the DE1129, which produced noisy, muffled recordings. The KA29 will produce fair audio recordings on AM, on FM, and on shortwave. One drawback: you will note a low-volume, high-pitched static noise–a hiss, to be specific–inherent in every radio recording, regardless of band. While it’s not too offensive, nor enough to deter me from making direct radio recordings (at least of strong stations), there is still much room for improvement. Obviously, I can use the headphone jack and an external digital recorder to make better radio recordings. But the convenience of an all-in-one recording device plus radio outweighs the slight hiss in the internal recordings it produces.
All in all? I’m reasonably pleased with the radio recording capabilities of the KA29, and the improvements it’s made over its predecessor. If the Degen engineers could lower the KA29’s noise floor and fix the imaging problems, and add 1 kHz tuning increments, this could be a good value all-in-one radio, a real contender.
Ever radio has its pros and cons. The following is a list I made while reviewing the KA29:
Great audio for a tiny radio
FM reception quite good
MP3 playback audio is good
Onboard radio recording acceptable (see con)
9/10 kHz select-able medium wave steps
Sluggish response to most actions; if (for example) volume control has been used, you must wait nearly 4 seconds before using another function
Awkward menu to navigate
No bandwidth selections
Imaging on SW bands
Fixed 5 kHz steps on shortwave
No adjustable bandwidth
Digital noise on portions of MW and SW bands
Low audio hiss present in all internal radio recordings (see pro)
No back stand
Antenna does not swivel 360 degrees for optimal placement
If you’re looking for a pocket radio to make local radio recordings on-the-go, and the quality of your recordings is not a major concern, you might give the KA29 a try; chances are you’ll be fairly pleased with the affordable KA29.
If you’re a shortwave radio hobbyist or DXer of any stripe, however, don’t waste your time or money on the DE1129. Instead, pitch in $10 more and buy a Tecsun PL-310ET–it has no MP3 recording or playback, but it will receive circles around the KA29.
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