Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Anil Raj, who writes:
I wanted to share a small but useful hack with your readers.
I use a common garden variety smartphone “Powerbank” 10,000 mAH Li Ion pack to power my Sony 7600GR which is perfectly happy with the 5V which the pack supplies. [See photo above.] I see no reason why this won’t work with other radios which require a 6V supply.
As you can imagine, the setup typically lasts for many weeks of extended daily listening and recharges in a jiffy. However, one needs to sacrifice a USB cable by soldering a DC plug at the other end. Haven’t bought AA batteries in a long time…
Thank you, Anil! What a simple but useful hack. The best part is, battery packs/banks are very inexpensive these days and, I for one, have a number of USB cables I could sacrifice for the job!
Let’s face it: SWLers and amateur radio operators are some of the most frugal hobbyists out there. But the good news is that radio is a hobby that favors the frugal. There are many practical and time-tested ways to make radio listening fun and effective–such as improving your shortwave radio reception–that are absolutely free, or that cost very little.
And how do I know this? Among the frugal, I’m the most frugal SWLer I know! Yet there’s a method to my frugal madness: because I simply can’t afford to waste hard-earned radio money on gadgets and accessories that are ineffective, I count my pennies in order to make quality purchases with longevity in mind. Meanwhile, I track down ways to keep my hobby cost-effective.
I’ve gathered here some of my favorite frugal tips and quality purchase suggestions here. So, without further delay, let’s start SWLing–and saving money.
1. Check your shack/home for RFI. Cost: Free
Checking your shack for RFI is vitally important, a procedure every radio listener or operator should undertake.
The truth is, very few of us regularly experience ideal conditions for HF or AM radio listening. Devices like plasma TVs, laptop power supplies, and the ubiquitous AC adapter inject distracting noise into our otherwise peaceful environs, disrupting our hobby. This noise is known as RFI (Radio Frequency Interference).
These “wall wart” type adapters can create a lot of RFI
A number of times, I’ve received a message from one of my readers on the SWLing Post claiming that their new shortwave radio can “only” hear strong, blowtorch stations. My simple advice? Put batteries in your radio, turn it on to an unoccupied frequency in your favorite shortwave meter band, go to your circuit breaker box, and turn off everything in your house. (Warning: Do warn your housemates beforehand, to avoid any loud protestation! And do reset your clocks and check your refrigerator/freezer after this test.)
Did the noise level on your radio decrease? If the decrease coincided with the power cut, then one or more electronic devices in your house are generating RFI. RFI often sounds like static–very loud static–and is often so wide in bandwidth that it can cover several megahertz. RFI can overwhelm your portable radio and basically “deafen” it to anything but the loudest stations that break through the elevated noise floor.
Next comes the process of elimination: systematically turn on circuit breakers until you hear the noise return. If you’re fortunate enough to have accurately-labeled circuit breakers, you will at least know what area in your house holds the infamous disruptive device. Here’s a short list of the usual RFI culprits:
If you live in a condo, high-rise, or high-density neighborhood, my first suggestion may be of little use to you. In this case, your neighbor(s) may be causing RFI; turning off your own power may have little to no effect. Fortunately, there’s an easy–albeit modestly inconvenient–way to deal with neighborhood RFI. Leave the neighborhood! No, not permanently; just for a fun afternoon outing (with radio, of course).
If you live in a city, grab your radio, and head for a park or other area with wide open space and no buildings. Listeners who live in urban areas frequently enjoy radio listening via headphones on a park bench; some even have a favorite bench for their fair-weather pastime.
The benefits in this case are two-fold: firstly, you’re removing yourself from the vicinity of RFI, but secondly–and the icing on the cake–is that you’re taking your radio, and its antenna, outside. Antennas always function better outside. Walls and even windows attenuate HF signals. Plus, outdoor settings nearly always equal fun.
By the way, if you have no local parks to which you can escape, consider taking your radio in the car and driving to a national park. Better yet, combine camping and SWLing. I like to do this, although I don’t have an RFI problem where I currently live.
3. Make a simple wire antenna. Cost: Free (or, at most, $10-15)
Most shortwave portables radios on the market today have a telescopic whip antenna that will suffice for casual listening. But often you can increase the antenna gain by simply adding more length in the form of a simple thin wire. Keep in mind that many radios actually ship with a clip-on antenna wire. Check your original box and make sure you haven’t overlooked it, as it’s fairly easy to do.
An alligator clip offers serious bang-for buck–especially if you already have the parts lying around
If you didn’t receive a factory-supplied clip-on antenna, no worries! They’re a breeze to make and quite cheap: indeed, if you have a junk box of electronics parts like so many hobbyists I know, you may already have what you need. Simply obtain a 20 foot length of jacketed (insulated) wire–gauge is not important, just something thin enough that you can easily roll up to transport. Next, strip ¼ inch of insulation off the end of the wire. Solder and/or crimp an alligator clip to the end of the wire, making sure you have a solid, stable connection.
Now, stretch out this wire and attach it to your antenna. You will most likely find that this improves antenna gain. The effectiveness of the wire varies with the receiver. When I’ve made clip antennas in the past, I’ve simply made them longer than I thought I might need, then later cut it off at the optimum length based upon signal strength.
If you live in an RFI-heavy environment, adding a wire antenna at home may only increase your noise level (after all, it will make the radio better at “hearing” the noise).
Some receivers are susceptible to overloading and electrostatic discharge (the Tecsun PL-600, Grundig G5 and G3 come to mind). To be on the safe side, do not attach any wire to your portable that is in excess of twenty feet in length. Twenty feet should be more than sufficient length to increase antenna gain without any negative repercussions.
4. Use batteries––preferably rechargeable ones. Cost: $5- $20
Not all rechargeable batteries are created equally. Lean toward name brand, higher quality cells. Dollar store batteries lack longevity.
Why rechargeables–? First and foremost, with rare exception, shortwave radio manufactures give little thought to the AC adapters they include with a portable shortwave radio; they’re simply an accessory that is expected, so they deliver. Indeed, the AC adapter that came with my Tecsun PL-880 (Tecsun’s latest flagship portable) came with an AC adaptor that does a great job charging the internal batteries, but injects copious amounts of RFI in the process. Running the radio off of batteries solves the problem instantly.
Many radio manufacturers now include rechargeable batteries with the purchase of a radio. Some of these batteries are AA cells, others are slim packs resembling cell phone batteries. Consider purchasing an extra battery if you’re worried yours might die away while you’re listening to your favorite program; a quick switch, and you scarcely miss a beat. If your portable comes with rechargeable batteries, most likely the radio even has a built-in charge control circuit.
I should add that I’m a fan of the traditional AA battery, even though they’re bigger than other battery types. After all, they’re nearly always accessible. If a radio takes AA batteries, I never use the radio’s built-in recharger, instead I prefer a MAHA brand battery charger, as they condition and give a longer life to the rechargeable cells.
Sure, buying rechargeable batteries and, potentially, a good battery charger require an initial outlay of money, but the rewards are a quieter receiver and a more earth-friendly approach than heavy-duty or alkaline batteries can deliver.
5. Listen with headphones or earphones. Cost: $0 – $100
Sony MDREX10LP in-ear headphones are inexpensive and effective.
Why headphones? Ask any serious DXers (amateur radio or SWL) and they’ll tell you headphones are an indispensable tool. While armchair listening is great with your radio’s built-in speaker, headphones give you better sound isolation, and your radio’s audio is equally balanced. Digging a weak station out of the ether is easier with headphones.
Almost every portable you buy today will come with a complimentary set of earphones. Quality varies amongst these, but in my experience, the headphones included tend to be of the lowest quality; for shortwave listening, these may suffice.
Though AM and shortwave radio is not considered a “high-fidelity” medium, thus not requiring a wide frequency response, I still prefer listening with quality earphones/headphones. As long as your headphones have a decent frequency response–I usually aim for 8 – 22,000 Hz–you’ll be pleased. And do make sure your headphones or earphones are comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.
Yamaha CM500’s are a worthwhile investment if you’re an amateur radio operator.
One of my favorite pair of in-ear earphones for SWLing are the popular Sony MDREX10LP series. They’re comfortable, responsive, isolate noise, and are available from a number of retailers for about $10 USD per pair.
For over-ear headphones, I like the Panasonic RP-HTF600. They’re large, comfortable, and deliver amazing fidelity for about $30 USD.
If you also happen to be an amateur radio operator, the Yamaha CM500 headphones have a built-in boom mic that works amazingly well. At $50 USD, they are a steal. When I received mine, I opened the package, plugged the headphone and mic jacks into my Elecraft KX3, and I was on the air with them in seconds.
6. Learn to use use Exalted Carrier Reception (ECR/ECSS). Cost: Free
“Exalted Carrier Reception” (ECR) a.k.a. Exalted Carrier Single-Sideband (ECSS) is just a fancy way of saying that an AM broadcast carrier is tuned in while in single-sideband mode. This is most useful when you’re trying to listen to weak broadcasters.
This (ECR) is, in a sense, the frugal listener’s version of synchronous detection. Why does it work? As my knowledgeable ham buddy Mike (K8RAT) explains: ”You’re removing any selective fading problems by filtering away one of the sidebands, and injecting a carrier of steady amplitude which eliminates the ‘tearing’ heard when a broadcast carrier is varying in amplitude.” Got that?
Even if you don’t understand it exactly, here’s how to use ECR: Simply find a strong AM station on your radio. Next, turn on the BFO or SSB mode on your radio. As you adjust the tuning knob, you’ll hear an audible whine, the pitch of which will change with every increment of tuning. “Zero-beating” the carrier follows next–this is simply tuning in the signal until that whine is gone, and the AM station can be heard as clearly as if the radio were in AM mode.
The fidelity of ECR/ECSS is typically not as good as AM–mainly because SSB filters are usually narrower than AM filters–but it does lower the noise floor, increase the stability of the received signal, and make this signal “pop out” a bit more.
But don’t take my word for it–let your ears be your guide! In this recording, I tune in a low-power station on my receiver in standard AM mode, but at 15 seconds into the recording, I switch to the upper-sideband (SSB) mode, zero-beat the frequency, then open up the SSB filter a little wider. Then, just before I end the recording, I switch to lower-sideband–something you can do if there is interference in the upper-sideband, for example:
It’s amazing how much background noise ECR removes.
If you’re lucky enough to have a tabletop radio, chances are it has an SSB mode (although there are some very rare exceptions). Less than a third of portables on the market, however, have SSB. Here is a list of the most popular portables with SSB that are, or have recently been, in production.
If you live in an area with frustrating RFI, but want to listen to the shortwave bands from home, try an online web-based receiver. Sure, it’s not quite like tuning a radio at your fingertips, but it’s the next best thing, and also a handy tool for checking propagation or verifying your own signal (if you’re an amateur radio operator).
My two favorites site are:
Global Tuners which has a number of remotely-controlled radio receivers all over the world. You must register before you can participate, but registration is free. Global Tuners even has a free Android app that permits remote receiver control via your smart phone or tablet.
The University of Twente Wide-band WebSDR is an amazing resource. Not only can you control this receiver, but so, too, can a few dozen other web guests––all at the same time! I’ve used U Twente’s receiver on a number of occasions to listen to European pirates. Cost? Again, it’s free.
8. Finally, practice listening. (Cost: Just some time)
My final bit of “free” advice sounds a little philosophical, but rest assured, it isn’t.
I’ve always likened radio listening to another of my interests, astronomy–an entirely different hobby that, unless you’re a radio astronomer, relies on an entirely different sense.
Why the comparison? I’ve known some talented astronomers that, with just a basic pair of binoculars, can see much more in the night sky than I ever could. Are their eyes better than mine? Not necessarily. Their eyes are just experienced in the field of stargazing; they know what to look for, and most importantly, what to appreciate. Their brains decipher the images of bright or faint stars, subtle variations in color or shape, and focus on what they consider important. In short, this is not an ability you can pick up overnight; it takes patience, experience–and true passion.
Radio listening is, in that sense, much the same. Though I’m by no means a good example, I do wish I could go back to the days of my youth with the ability to listen that I have developed over the decades. There must have been so many jewels of stations hidden in the ether that I completely skipped over…My ability to, for example, pick out the ID of a faint station, to tune accurately and quickly, and to cope with adjacent noise, have all been honed since then, a result of time spent just listening.
My good friend Vlado (N3CZ) is a case in point: he is one of the most capable ham radio DXers I know. His extraordinary ability to pull intelligible conversations and CW (Morse code) out of the static, even in crowded radio conditions, is simply astounding. Vlado’s main transceiver is nearly two decades old, and by no means a benchmark technically. If you ask Vlad if he uses filters and digital signal processing, he will wisely tell you, in his Macedonian accent: “Your best filter is between your ears.”
The same goes for SWLing. I have spent enough time listening to shortwave and weak DX that I can now pull conversations out of the noise that my (non-radio) friends can barely detect. I’m convinced this is healthy exercise for the old grey matter.
David Goren, good friend and the highly-creative radio producer behind Shortwaveology.net, describes how shortwave listening enhanced his career:
“When I first discovered shortwave, I’d strain my ears through the static and all the layers of jumbled up sounds trying to hear as far around the world as I could. Years of this kind of intensive listening tuned my ears in such a way that allows a laser-like focus on the sonic details when working in the production studio making radio stories.”
Indeed, I’ve heard and can certainly appreciate the results of his remarkable “laser-like” listening ability; check out Shortwaveology.net for your own experience of David’s talented ears. You’ll be glad you did.
No doubt you enjoy listening already; my contention is that it has more benefits for your brain than Sudoku puzzles, and iis even more fun. Plus, did I mention that it’s free? You don’t need to pay a subscription to listen to the radio. There’s no real trick to this: it just takes time…interest…and a pair of ears.
I receive a lot of emails from readers and listeners who are new to shortwave radio. The bulk of the emails I receive ask for advice about which radio to pick for travel, for home, or for work. A lot of emails, however, are from listeners who wish to improve the performance of their portable radios.
One of the first things I suggest–especially if they’re hearing a lot of interference noise on the radio–is simply to unplug the AC adapter (a.k.a., “wall wart”) and run the portable off batteries. Why? Quite often, those wall warts are injecting a lot of noise into your receiver. Find it hard to believe? Give it a try!
Not all rechargeable batteries are created equal. Choose name-brand, higher quality cells. Dollar store batteries lack longevity and capacity.
Solution: Rechargeable batteries
I get so annoyed with noisy wall warts, that I simply never use them. Instead, some time ago I started investing in rechargeable batteries. Though one pays a bit more for them (than for alkaline batteries) initially, they can be recharged hundreds of times, and thus last for years.
You can buy rechargeable batteries nearly anywhere these days, and the price has dropped significantly over the past few years, even for name-brand batteries.
It’s worth noting that I’ve bought rechargeable batteries at radio hamfests or dollar stores that were as cheap as $1US per AA cell. Big mistake–not only do these ultra-cheap batteries not hold a charge for long, but they also wear out more quickly. Instead, stick with name brand rechargeables, like Energizer, Duracell, RadioShack, or (my personal favorite) Powerex.
About 85% of the shortwave portables I own are powered by AA cells, the remaining 20% off of AAA’s (you’ll find that I gripe about the ones that use AAA’s, by the way). When I buy a new portable–one that I plan to keep after reviewing on SWLing.com–I invest in twice the number of rechargeable batteries that the portable holds. For example, my Sony ICF-SW7600GR operates on 4 AA cells, thus I bought a pack of 8 cells for its operation. That way, I can always have an extra set of charged batteries available when I deplete those in the unit.
There are three main types of rechargeables available: NiCd (nickel cadmium), Lithium Ion, and NiMH (nickel-metal hydride). Without going into too much detail, I recommend NiMH batteries–they offer the best bang for the buck, are widely available, and with correct care, do not easily develop a memory effect.
A few tips for making NiMH rechargeables last longer
NiMH batteries are fairly fool-proof, but there are some simple rules of thumb you should follow to insure that they provide years of service:
Never mix old and new rechargeables
Never mix LiIon and NiMH cells
Nickel-based cells, such as our NiMH’s need to be fully discharged occasionally, else the batteries lose capacity over time in a phenomenon known as the “memory effect.” Once my radio has depleted its current set of batteries, I’ll often pop them into a flashlight to deplete them even further before recharging.
Label your batteries with a piece of colored tape or a marker to note the purchase date on the cell–that way, you’ll easily keep like batteries together and charged in sync.
The Maha MHC9000 is pricey, and you will need the manual to operate it, but it's a very high-quality battery charger and conditioner. I have brought nearly dead NiMH batteries back to life with this wonderful machine.
Like batteries, not all chargers are created equal. You should opt for a higher-quality, NIMH-specific charger. Ideally, since most radios require 3-4 batteries at a time, purchase a charger that will hold at least 4 batteries.
You can see that I’m very fond of the Maha brand battery chargers, though there are other good chargers on the market. Maha receives high praise from many amateur radio operators, and I’ve had excellent luck with them, too. What I especially like about the Maha/Powerex company is that they focus all of their innovation in the area of batteries and charging systems for a wide variety of uses.
Throw away the wall warts!
Have I convinced you yet? Don’t even bother unpacking the AC adapter that comes with your radio! You don’t really need it. “But wait,” you may be thinking, “my radio has a built-in battery charger, so don’t I need my AC adapter?” Even if your radio has a built-in battery charging function, it’s probably very basic and should only be used if you have no other option. Many of these are prone to over- or under-charge batteries, and take hours to complete this relatively simple task.
Trust me: your portable shortwave reciever will perform at its best when powered by quiet, rechargeable NiMH batteries charged properly with a good-quality charger. Try it, and hear for yourself.
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