Tag Archives: Sangean ATS-909X

Updated version of the Sangean ATS-909X?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Avo Ohanian, who writes:

I had read with interest a review on Amazon about a purchaser receiving a Sangean ATS-909X in black with the firmware listed as “P-01”. I can confirm that this is indeed the case and that I am curious as to whether there is more than just a simple firmware revision.

Brief history with my unit: I originally purchased one new (only available in white in Australia factory backed ) in August. The packaging was as I remembered from years ago and the firmware was 1.29. After a few happy months of use sans batteries I decided to slot in some Eneloops . First charge nearly cooked the batteries then the unit refused to charge at all. Back to the retailer.

A few days before Christmas I got a call that a replacement was sent from the distributor and promptly trained it over to pick it up.

First impression is the box is now all white with the new look Sangean logo. This unit is also set for extended FM (76-108 MHz) whereas the old unit started at 87.5MHz. Upon switching on, firmware check showed “P-01”.

Now, differences…

The biggest disappointment for me is the backlight. The old unit backlight had a beautiful even light blue colour across the LCD panel. The new one has a distinctly darker browny tinge on the left and bright bluish rings of light where the LEDs are on the right. I think whatever was behind the LCD display that gave it the uniform light has been removed or moved. I know I used to be able to see some sort of ribbon cable just behind the Page and mode region on the LCD which the new unit does not have. That or quality is an issue….

My partner can’t see any issue with the display but then she is well aware that I am picky.

Mediumwave reception appears to be much better on the new unit, however I do note one static hash frequency at 885 kHz. Seems very narrow and doesn’t affect reception for me. I note the bandwidth is very wide. Even 8/10 stations have a distinct hiss. Nothing major and music clarity is very good because of this but DXing in wide mode can get tiring.

[After] listening to MW for about an hour, the unit drifts about 1kHz down (in 30 deg C heat). During normal operation, you don’t notice it–however, when trying ECSS using SSB it will vary from cold at nearly dead on frequency to dropping to the top cusp of the next lowest kHz when hot. It may be that the old unit was the same but was calibrated slightly higher hence it never dropped a kHz on the display when hot.

LW is of no use in Australia however the new unit does have weak MW images, something I did not note on the old unit. Aircraft NDBs are all there.

SSB. Hmmm. There is a problem as others have noted. First there is quite prominent drift due to heat. The old unit was rock solid and had very, very good ECSS capabilities. The new does appear to be very picky but it is still usable. I think the techs forgot to set the DSP bandwidth to narrow in SSB mode. It seems extremely wide. There is no tune muting though (in any mode) when using the wheel but a careful–finger is needed to get close to zero beat.

Shortwave is hash for me as I live in units where people seem to buy cheap LED RF spewing globes. Ugh. It seems the same as the old unit. It needs AC to get maximum sensitivity. Go battery and there is a definite deafness.

FM is superb. Only difference to the old unit is the stereo decode threshold. The old unit would decode stereo well before RDS. This new unit requires at least 7/10 before decoding stereo. Some fringe stations will get RDS info without ever getting stereo decode. No biggie, [especially since] unit only has one speaker.

I am thinking that the DSP chip has changed on P-01 units as the slight differences in operation and look behind the LCD panel makes me think some re-engineering has been done to the circuit board perhaps to accommodate chip changes.

Happy New Year,
Avo

Thank you for your evaluation of the “P-01” version of the venerable Sangean ATS-909X, Avo.

Post readers: have you also noticed performance differences between legacy and current production ATS-909X models?

Video: Five shortwave stations in two minutes

danh-sangean-ats-909xMany thanks to SWLing Post contributor, DanH, who shares the following feedback.

Note that he sent this to me about two weeks ago, but my life has been so busy the past few weeks, I’m still catching up on email. Thanks to everyone for understanding!

DanH writes:

We all know how hard it is to get good SW reception without a decent antenna at this point in the 11-year solar cycle. But, the past couple of days have offered good propagation conditions for reception here in Northern California. Here is a video I made this evening during the 8:00 p.m. hour, 10-11-2016 PDT (0300 hour, 10-12-2016 UTC). It isn’t all that bad. Here are five stations in under two minutes (but really, WWV doesn’t count). There is plenty to listen to. Voice of Greece is in the Greek language with great music. The other stations are broadcast in the English language.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Thank you for sharing, Dan! Wow–RNZI is quite a strong catch at your location! It’s so nice when conditions improve and that elusive DX pops out of the niose. At this point in the solar cycle, we just take what we can get!

Only last night, I was amazed with the Voice of Greece here on the east coast. Even as propagation conditions deteriorated, VOG held on at S9 +20db via my Elecraft KX3.

Two strategies to improve Sangean ATS-909X sensitivity

ATS-909XSWLing Post contributor, Moshe, writes:

“I would like to share something I noticed about Sangean sensitivity issue:
As I own the ATS909, I noticed that with fresh set of regular batteries (1.5V) or it’s power transformer, it is very sensitive.
When the voltage of the batteries drops, so does sensitivity! Which means that if one uses rechargeable batteries (1.2V), the radio will be much less sensitive to begin with.”

Many thanks, Moshe! That is a very good reason to keep fresh alkaline batteries for the 909X, or to run it on a quiet power supply. Moshe is correct–fresh rechargeable batteries can’t deliver full voltage.

Several weeks ago, a reader informed me about a modification that increases SW sensitivity by adding a 4:1 impedance transformer.

Click here to download a PDF that documents the 4:1 transformer procedure.

Note that I can’t remember who shared the PDF and am not sure who was so kind to document the procedure with photos. Any additional information would be appreciated.

Have any readers performed the transformer mod on the ‘909X with success?

The SWLing Post 2014-2015 Shortwave Radio Buyer’s Guide

RadiosShootOut-SonyTecsunSangean

The following article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


Although many large government shortwave broadcasters are departing the shortwave radio scene, there’s no shortage of great products being introduced to it. Indeed, growth in the portable and SDR (software defined radio) markets is reasonably rapid.  This suggests, perhaps, a new kind of future for shortwave.

The following is a basic, easy-to-follow buyer’s guide to some of the best receivers on the market. This guide is, by no means, comprehensive; rather it’s a selection of rigs I know or own, thus have tested.

Compact/Travel portables

If your budget is tight, or if you’re looking for a radio that could easily slip into your glove compartment, backpack, carry-on, or even jacket pocket, you need to look at an compact shortwave radio. Typically, there is a performance compromise with compact radios: they don’t typically have the sensitivity, like their more expensive cousins; they have a more limited frequency range; and they don’t detect single-sideband signals. Nonetheless, the ones listed here are fine performers for their size and price. Entries are listed in alphabetical order.

ccradio-swpCrane CCRadio-SWP

The CC Radio SWP has been on the market for many years and has become a classic portable. The layout and design are very simple, the display clear, with easily-read icons and intuitive controls. The tuning knob on the right side is for fine tuning–no muting or chugging between frequencies, either. Shortwave and MW sensitivity are better than one might expect for a radio this size; I often find myself comparing it to much pricier portables. But most significantly, this radio offers the longest battery life of any radio I own: almost 70 hours on 2 AA cells!

The CC Radio SWP is available from C.Crane for $55.00 US. You can also purchase the CC Radio SWP from Universal Radio ($44.95) and Amazon.com.

Note: The CC Radio SWP may soon be replaced by the new CC Skywave which has just started shipping at time of posting.

KA1103Kaito KA1103 or Degen DE1103

The Kaito KA1103 packs a lot of bang-for-your-buck if you’re looking for an inexpensive, ultra-portable entry into SWLing. Like the CC Radio SWP, the KA1103 (a.k.a. Degen DE1103) has enjoyed a long market life. The KA1103 is full-featured and one of the only sub-$100 radios with SSB mode. One interesting design feature of the KA1103 is its large Digital/Analog frequency display: the LCD screen features the frequency display in digits, but also sports a working digital representation of an analog frequency dial. As you tune up and down the band–with, yes, a tuning knob–the LCD needle moves along the display as it would on an analog radio dial. While I believe radio ergonomics could be improved, the KA1103 is still a great bargain.

The KA1103 is available at Universal Radio for $79.98 and Amazon.com for $79.99. Click here to search eBay for the Degen DE1103.

Tecsun PL-310ETTecsun PL-310ET

The Tecsun PL-310ET is an updated version of the acclaimed PL-310, a mini-legend in the world of portable radio, offering exceptional value and high-performance in a small package. The PL-310ET is fueled by a SiLabs DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip that gives this ultra-portable excellent sensitivity and selectivity. The PL-310 has been a favorite amongst ultra-light Dxers, as sensitivity and selectivity are  exceptional for the price. The new “ET” version of the PL-310 sports ETM tuning; a feature which allows you to scan the entire band and automatically store all strong stations to temporary memory locations. I believe the updated PL-310ET also has better AGC for weak signal DXing than its predecessor. Another bonus is that the PL-310ET sports an external antenna jack for shortwave and FM reception.

The Tecsun PL-310ET is largely available from Hong Kong-based sellers on eBay (http://ebay.to/1seZP3h) as well as on Amazon.com.

Tecsun-PL-380Tecsun PL-380

The Tecsun PL-380 is my favorite radio under $60. Much like its cousin, the PL-310ET (above), the PL-380 has a DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip that gives this ultra-portable excellent sensitivity and selectivity. For three years, I have traveled extensively with the PL-380 in tow, and I’m constantly amazed by this radio’s excellent audio and reception across the bands.

The Tecsun PL-380 is available from Universal Radio for $59.95 and from Amazon.com for $54.99. Click here to search eBay for the PL-380.

Tecsun offers a number of compact portables, based on a similar DSP chip as the PL-380, but with built-in stereo speakers. Check out the Tecsun PL-390, PL-398BT, and PL-398MP, too.

Full-Featured Portables

In the portables market, I believe you get the most value and quality in the $90-250 price class. Most beginners and seasoned SWLs prefer a radio that includes everything necessary to get on the air immediately; all of these radios provide just that. Straight out of the box, you’ll have everything you need to listen to shortwave bands. All of these recommended radios are designed to pick up major shortwave broadcasters with ease, and offer the following features: good frequency coverage; circuitry that helps in the detection of weaker stations; and the ability to receive single-sideband (with the exception of the CCRadio-SW, see below).

ccradio-swCrane CCRadio-SW

If you’re not as concerned about portability, the C.Crane CCRadio-SW is an excellent broadcast receiver. Think of the CCRadio-SW as a larger portable or tabletop radio (11.25″ x 7.25″ x 3.5″). What makes this radio stand out from its peers? Exceptional audio fidelity. The large built-in speaker has separate treble and bass controls and reminds me how important audio quality is while listening to a faint signal. This radio’s audio will fill a large room. Shortwave sensitivity is very good. Medium wave (AM broadcast) reception is excellent. Negatives? No direct keypad for frequency entry, and the SW also lacks a native SSB mode (a rare missing feature in this price class). With that said, it does have impressive array of external connections, including an IF-Out connection, which (with an IF converter and some free software) will allow you to interpret SSB and an array of digital signals, including DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale). What really strikes me about the CCRadio-SW is its sheer ease of use.  Its design is simple, ergonomic, and highly effective. I’ve often recommended the CCRadio-SW to listeners who want simplicity of use and robust audio.

The CCRadio-SW is available for $149.95 at C.Cranes’ website, $129.95 from Universal Radio and is also available on Amazon.com. Click here to check eBay for used models.

Radios with a similar form-factor include the Grundig S450DLX and the new Eton Field.

ATS-909XSangean ATS-909X

At $249.95, the Sangean ATS-909X is one of the priciest full-featured portables on the market. The 909X sports a large alpha-numeric display, tactile buttons, and a solid build quality. I also believe the 909X has a one of the better internal speakers and audio fidelity amongst portables. Negatives? Surprisingly, the 909X lacks synchronous detection, a tool most other portables have in this price range. Additionally, in my recent shortwave portable shoot-out, I gave the Sangean low marks for sensitivity; this review was based upon use of the built-in telescopic antenna. With an external antenna, on the other hand, the 909X performs admirably. If you’re looking for a quality portable with a front-end robust enough to be attached to a larger external antenna, the 909X may very well be your radio.

The Sangean ATS-909X is available at Universal Radio for $249.95 and Amazon.com for $219.99. Click here to search for used ATS-909Xs on eBay.

Sangean still has several models of portables available.  Check out the Sangean ATS-404 and ATS-505P.

Sony7600GRSony ICF-SW7600GR

For performance, you’ll find that the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is top of its class among full-featured portables. Two of its outstanding features is a solid synchronous selectable sideband (a feature which helps to reduce fading distortion and adjacent-channel interference) and stable AGC circuit. In fact, the ICF-7600GR was chosen as a favorite in a blind audio test on the SWLing Post. Indeed, my only criticism of the ‘7600GR is that it lacks a tuning wheel; instead, you’re forced to use tuning buttons on the front face of the radio.

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR is available at Universal Radio for about $150.00 and at Amazon.com for $130-150.00. Click here to search eBay for a used ICF-SW7600GR.

KX3-Helper-Tecsun-PL-600Tecsun PL-600

The Tecsun PL-600 is the value leader among the full-featured portables in this list. It can be found at a wide array of retailers, such as Universal Radio, Amazon and eBay. Price ranges from about $65 to $90. I’ve often recommended the PL-600 as a first full-featured radio for the budding SWL, and for good reason: the PL-600 has great sensitivity, selectivity, and even has capable single-sideband reception. The PL-600 does a surprisingly good job of holding its own against the other contenders in this list. Negatives? Like all sub-$100 portables, the PL-600 lacks synchronous detection (and if this is a deal-killer for you, check out the PL-660). Additionally, the PL-600 is not well suited for large external antennas; but it does work quite well with its own antenna. In a nutshell: if you’re not willing to spend over the $100 mark, the PL-600 is a safe bet.

The Tecsun PL-600 is available at Universal Radio for $89.95. Click here to search eBay for new and used PL-600s.

PL-660Tecsun PL-660

The Tecsun PL-660 is one of the best selling portable shortwave radios currently on the market–and for good reason. This rig has a full compliment of features and is quite easy to operate. The sync detector (selectable USB/LSB) is currently one of the best in the sub $150 US price range. Sensitivity and selectivity are both excellent; indeed, I consider it to have the most sensitive receiver among the portables listed here (and so. With the introduction of the Tecsun PL-880 on the market, the PL-660 has also become more affordable and can be found at or near the $100-120 price point with shipping. What a bargain!

The Tecsun PL-660 is available at Universal Radio for $109.95 and on Amazon.com (prices vary). Click here to search fro a new or used PL-660 on eBay.

Tecsun PL-880PL-880 (1)

The Tecsun PL-880 was introduced to the market one year ago (November 2013), and while the introduction was a bit bumpy (feature variation based on differing firmware versions), it has recovered and found quite a good following. While the PL-880 does not rank as highly as the PL-660 or ICF-SW7600GR in terms of sensitivity (see review TSM June 2013) it does have compensating factors.  For one thing, the PL-880 has the best audio fidelity from its internal speaker among the radios listed here. It’s also the most feature rich, boasting the most filter selections and a growing number of “hidden” features (http://wp.me/pn3uc-2tl). I also love the build quality, ergonomics, and tuning options; indeed, the PL-880 even has a dedicated fine tuning control. Negatives? Though the PL-880 has an undocumented sync detection among its “hidden” features, I find its sync lock quite feeble, compromising audio fidelity a bit too much. If you’re looking for a small portable that will fill a room with rich audio–whether you’re listening to the BBC, a classical concert, or just two ham radio operators chatting on 40 meters– look no further than the PL-880.

The Tecsun PL-880 is available at Universal Radio for $159.95 and on Amazon for $159.99. The Tecsun PL-880 is also available from Hong Kong-based sellers on eBay.

New Eton portables now shipping

Eton-SatellitAt time of publishing, Eton Corp–the North American distributor of Grundig–has four updated models of shortwave portables new to the market. All are updated versions of recently retired Grundig models:

If history is a guide, I expect all of these radios to prove worthy of the 2016 Shortwave Radio Buyer’s Guide. Indeed, preliminary reviews of the Field have been most favorable. Barring schedule changes, all models should be available in time for the 2014 holiday season…Stay tuned.

Tabletop receivers

While tabletop receivers have started to decline with the advent of SDRs, there are many listeners who still prefer a simple, dedicated, stand-alone high-performance receiver with a good tuning knob and clear display, which is to say, a tabletop receiver. Tabletops are designed to perform best with a resonant external antenna.

AlincoDXR8TFrontFaceAlinco DX-R8T

I reviewed the Alinco DX-R8T in 2011 a few months after it was introduced. I was favorably impressed with the DX-R8T. So much so, I purchased one after the review. It has excellent selectivity and sensitivity, a large display and tuning knob, a detachable faceplate (if your desktop space is limited), and a decent built-in speaker. What’s more, the DX-R8T has an SDR mode that allows you to hook up the receiver to your PC to see a spectrum display, and with an optional accessory cable, control its rig functions and tuning. The DX-R8T requires a regulated 12-volt power supply (not included). Cons? The DX-R8T lacks a selectable synchronous detector–a feature I enjoy using to combat adjacent signal interference.

The Alinco DX-R8T is available at Universal Radio for $449.95. Click here to search eBay for the Alinco DX-R8T.

Icom-R-75Icom R-75

Various versions of the Icom R75 have been on the market for well over a decade.  This receiver stands the test of time because it’s a full-featured tabletop with attributes like twin passband controls, a two-level pre amp, separate AF/RF gain, adjustable AGC, an alpha numeric display, a direct frequency entry keypad, not to mention a logical, ergonomic layout for all controls.  Amateur Radio operators, pirate radio listeners, as well as utility broadcast listeners will all appreciate the R75’s performance in SSB mode. Cons? The current base version of the R75 lacks synchronous detection, though some models in the past have had this option.

The Icom R75 is available at Universal Radio for $669.95. Click here to search eBay for the R75.

SDRs/IF Receivers

If you’re searching for maximum performance for the price, software-defined radios (SDRs) and IF receivers are hard to beat. These small “black box” radios require a computer to unlock their performance; none of these are stand-alone. But while I’ve never been a fan of combining my PC with radio listening, once I starting using an SDR, I never turned back.  Now, 90% of the time that I’m on the air, it’s with an SDR. They’re simply incredible.

The following selection of SDRs–and IF receivers–are all available for $1,000 or less.

BonitoRadioJetDaytonBonito RadioJet IF-Receiver 1102S

The Bonito RadioJet is included in this group because it is very similar to an SDR, but strictly speaking, it’s an IF receiver. Like an SDR, it requires a PC for operation. But while the RadioJet’s spectrum bandwidth is more limited than the SDRs that follow, it has advantages over the others.  For one, the RadioJet is more akin to a PC-controlled radio–most of the hard work is done in the receiver itself, not your computer–-so even older model Windows PCs, tablets and netbooks can run the  RadioJet application with ease. The RadioJet is great for travelers since it requires no external power supply: it derives its power from your computer, from the same USB cable used for data. The RadioJet is an excellent receiver and has a very low noise floor. If you like listening to DRM, you’ll be impressed with its native ability to decode the mode. Click here to read my comprehensive review of the RadioJet.

The Bonito RadioJet 1102S is available at Universal Radio for $649.95. The RadioJet can also be purchased directly from Bonito in Germany.

Elad-FDM-S2-CoffeeElad FDM-S2

If you’ve read my Elad FDM-S2 review (coming soon!) you’ll know that this little SDR packs a powerful punch for the price. Indeed, I would venture to say that the FDM-S2 offers the best value among the SDRs listed here. Its performance is uncompromising, comparing favorably to receivers $300-400 more in price. The S2 also provides native DRM decoding.  In short, the S2 makes for a fine DRM receiver.

Any negatives with this rig? Some users have reported diminished receiver performance in the presence of high-powered AM stations (fortunately, not an issue in the rural area where I live). Additionally, the Elad application has a greater learning curve than, say, the Perseus or the Excalibur (below). Still, I like the S2 so much that even though I already own a benchmark SDR, I’m planning to purchase the S2 after review.

The Elad FDM-S2 is available at Elad USA for $580.00.

PerseusMicrotelecom Perseus

If you’re looking for a benchmark SDR, it’s hard to overlook the venerable Microtelecom Perseus. Though it’s been on the market for many years now, the receiver architecture holds its own and is as robust as they come. Selectivity and sensitivity are absolutely superb: no matter the mode or band. Another benefit of the Perseus is that users can network their receivers with relative ease, sharing them with other Perseus users. Negatives? The Perseus price point still tops the charts at $1000. And while the supplied application works quite well, it lacks features found in other SDR apps, and the window cannot be resized (though numerous customer requests have been made). Still, the Perseus is likely to remain a DXer’s receiver of choice for years to come.

The Microtelecom Perseus is available at Universal Radio for $999.95. Click here to search eBay for a used Perseus.

WinRadio Excalibur

I have owned the WinRadio Excalibur since 2012, and it has become my primary home receiver. I have directly compared the Excalibur to the Microtelecom Perseus and the Elad FDM-S2 (above); any receiver performance differences are minor. As a radio broadcast archivist, I find the Excalibur to be the best receiver suited to capturing broadcasts, as it’s the only one in this group that can record up to 2 MHz of radio spectrum (and allow you to play back this recording later); up to three broadcasts can be captured simultaneously within that 2 MHz window. Negatives? The Excalibur application only works on Windows PCs. Additionally, it requires a dedicated 12V power supply, thus is less convenient than the RadioJet or FDM-S2 for travel and outdoor listening. Read my full review of the Excalibur by clicking here.

The WinRadio Excalibur is available directly from WinRadio for $945.95. Click here to search eBay for a used Excalibur.

Hybrid Stand-Alone SDR/Tabletops

The CommRadio CR-1

CommRadio CR-1a

The CommRadio CR-1a could be classed as either an SDR or a stand-alone tabletop receiver, as it fits both profiles. Furthermore, the CR-1a is as portable as nearly any of the portable radios mentioned above. In short, I really dig this radio! It’s beautifully engineered and mil-spec rugged; performance-wise, it’s hard to beat. Receiver sensitivity and selectivity are superb. The best part? The CR-1a has an optional internal battery that will power it for hours on a single charge. With antenna and fully-charged CR-1a, you will enjoy hours of outdoor listening while traveling [check out my recent travel review]. If you’re on the fence about getting an SDR or tabletop radio, grab the CR-1a; at $599.95, it’s a lot of kit for your investment. Click here to read my comprehensive review of the CR-1.

The CommRadio CR-1a is available from Universal Radio for $599.95 and directly from CommRadio for $599.99. Click here to search eBay for a used Comm Radio CR-1 or CR-1a.

The Shortwave Radio Index

If you would like to view a comprehensive list of all shortwave radios currently on the market, check out the Shortwave Radio Index (http://swling.com/db).

Mega Review: the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, Sangean ATS-909X, and Sony ICF-SW7600GR go head-to-head

This article, which extensively reviews–and compares–the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, the Sangean ATS-909X, and the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor Magazine. Without a doubt, it’s my longest and most comprehensive review to date.


AllFourRadios

Summer:  time for travel–and for portable shortwave DXing. As I mentioned in the March TSM issue, I love combining travel with shortwave radio listening. But what radio should I pack?

This time of year, on the SWLing Post, I receive an increase in the number of queries asking some variation of the following, “What is the best, full-featured, portable shortwave radio on the market?” Oftentime it’s an upcoming trip, or just some time off work, that prompts the question, but without a doubt, this is the most-often-asked question from my readers. Typically, the reader has several models in mind and is curious how they compare. And since a good portable radio costs between $100 – $230 US, it’s not an impulse purchase decision for most of us.

In this month’s column, I hope to answer this question as thoroughly as possible so you can make an informed purchase decision that’s right for you. All four radios I mention in this article are what I would call “flagship portables” (generally, these are the best portables from any particular manufacturer). These were recently featured in a highly-energized reader survey on the SWLing Post, and are as follows: the Tecsun PL-660, the Tecsun PL-880, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, and the Sangean ATS-909X.

AllFourRadiosInLine

The price tags for these radios fluctuate, but all are generally available between $100-$230 US, and are actively in production right now.

Moreover, all these radios have a similar form factor: they are portable enough to be operated handheld, sport a direct-frequency entry keypad, a dedicated external antenna jack, and a generous backlit display. All of them also have SSB, and all but one have selectable sideband synchronous detection.

The competitors

With the exception of the Sangean ATS-909X–on loan from a friend for the purposes of this review–I have easily spent 40+ hours of listening time with each of these radios. I know their individual characteristics quite well and have used them in a variety of situations.

In case you’re not familiar with each of the contenders, a brief summary of each radio follows with an overview of the features that make it unique.

Sangean ATS-909X

ATS-909X

If there was an award for the best-looking radio, I think the ATS-909X would win. The 909X designers put a great deal of thought behind the design and ergonomics of the 909X; for instance, there are two indentations on the back of the radio which allow it to fit nicely in your hands.  The 909X sports an internal speaker that produces excellent audio fidelity with a crisp response and even some distinct bass notes, especially notable if listening to an FM station. Of all of the radios listed here, the 909X has the the best variable receiver gain, tone control, largest display, and is the only radio with RDS (Radio Data System).

909X-Grip

While I like the position of the tuning wheel on the front of the radio, which is ideal for tuning with your thumb and reminiscent of the ICF-SW55, I don’t like the indents you feel as you tune. If you’re a listener that takes advantage of radio memory, the ATS-909X has a very appealing feature: alpha-numeric memory tags. When you store a Radio Australia frequency to memory, your 909X can display the full station name in large, easy-to-read characters.

909Xdisplay

There is one omission from the 909X, though, that I find a bit surprising: it has no synchronous detection. While I don’t use a sync detector all of the time, it does come in handy when fading (QSB) and adjacent signal interference (if the sideband is selectable) are present.  For a radio that costs over $210 US, on average–the priciest on this list, by a long shot–I feel like sync should have been a given.

Sony ICF-SW7600GR

Sony7600GR

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR comes from a series of “7600” portables that date back to 1977. Though the ’7600GR has all of the modern features one would expect for a radio in its price class, it’s a bare-bones receiver in this particular crowd. It lacks the advance memory functions of the PL-880, PL-660 and, especially, the 909X. The display is smaller and more basic, although it does provide the most vital information.

I have traveled extensively with the ’7600GR, however, as it has rock-solid, reliable performance; it’s my work horse and go-to radio for field recordings because I find its AGC and sync detector remain among the best in this class of radio. It also has a dedicated, stable line-out jack. Important controls are all accessible, and I can easily engage the key lock without fear of accidentally pressing the wrong button during the recording.

SonyKeypad

My main gripe about the ’7600GR, however, is its lack of a tuning knob and overall poor ergonomics.  My personal preference is to use a tuning knob for band-scanning, as pressing buttons just doesn’t give the same sense of responsiveness.  For casual tuning and band-scanning, I leave the ’7600GR in its case.  Nor is this radio intuitive–indeed, to learn all but the most obvious functions of the ’7600GR, you’ll need to reference the owner’s manual. Audio from the ’7600’s internal speaker is average/unremarkable.

Still, my Sony ’7600GR’s solidity makes it a friend I would never part with.  The real test? If it was ever lost or broken, I would promptly repair or replace this radio.

Tecsun PL-660

PL-660

Though I’m often an early adopter of new shortwave portables, I wasn’t for the Tecsun PL-660. When it came out, I figured it would be redundant, considering the many other portables I own with synchronous detection.

Long story short:  I was wrong.

Having at last acquired the Tecsun PL-660 last year, I now know it’s a pleasure to operate, and feature-rich for its price. The PL-660 is the bargain in this bunch of benchmark rigs, and significantly so: at an average price of $105 US currently, it is easily half the price of the ATS-909X.

The PL-660 is a pleasure to operate, and a true performer.  Its selectable synchronous detector is one of the best in this group of portables: it’s on par with the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. It locks onto a station and rarely loses that lock. Ergonomics are excellent on the PL-660, too–the buttons have a tactile response, are well marked, and all functions are simple to find. The right side-mounted tuning knob has a smooth action.

The Tecsun PL-660 has been on the market since 2011 and has a dedicated following amongst SWLs, many of whom favor it above anything else in its class.

Of course, the PL-660 isn’t perfect, however. It lacks a line-out jack, something I find essential for recording shortwave broadcasts. The audio from the internal speaker is okay, but not on par with the ATS-909X, or its cousin, the PL-880 (below). Still, at $105 US, the PL-660 is truly a steal.

Tecsun PL-880

PL-880 (1)

The Tecsun PL-880 only started shipping in November 2013. It was highly anticipated as the new flagship portable in the Tecsun line. The PL-880 is chock-full of features and without a doubt, is the most complicated portable I’ve ever reviewed.

The PL-880 feels like a quality piece of kit: its buttons have a highly-tactile response, the tuning/volume wheels are silky smooth, and feel well-engineered. Out of the four portables evaluated here, I find the PL-880 the most pleasurable to operate. One of my favorite features is its dedicated fine-tuning knob, just below the main tuning knob on the right side of the radio.

PL-880-RightSide

Unquestionably, the one feature which makes the PL-880 highly desirable is the amazing audio fidelity you’ll enjoy from its built-in speaker: it’s well-balanced, rich, and clear. I almost can’t emphasize this point enough–the PL-880’s speaker is capable of room-filling audio. It’s one of the few radios I’ve ever owned (other than some of my antique tube radios) that encourage listening to shortwave from across the room, with pleasing results.

The PL-880 also sports the most filter options of any other portable on the market. Indeed, in SSB mode, the filter can be narrowed all the way down to 500 hz, making this CW operator, at least, quite contented.

Cons? Yes, the PL-880 has some. First of all, I feel like its current firmware version leaves room for improvement. One of the first things I had to do after receiving my radio was adjust the muting threshold so that it wouldn’t engage. Many of the PL-880’s adjustments are mysteriously hidden, even undocumented in the manual. One such hidden feature is its synchronous detection, which is the least refined in this set of portables: it has difficulty maintaining a stable lock, thus audio is significantly compromised.

[Click here for our comprehensive (and growing) list of PL-880 hidden features.]

Changing settings often results in the radio “thinking” for a second or two, during which time it mutes the receiver. This phenomenon is most pronounced when changing modes (from AM to LSB, for example). I find it rather distracting.

Still, I do like the PL-880. Its audio and overall quality make up for any annoyances. I suspect it will have a long product life and a loyal following over the coming years.

Evaluating performance

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Since I’m listening to the shortwaves 90% of the time I’m listening to a radio, I’ve limited the scope of my assessment here to the shortwave bands. With that said, none of these radios will disappoint you on AM or FM. I did note in my simple home comparison that the Sangean ATS-909X seemed to be the leader on the FM band.  The Tecsuns were perhaps best on the AM (mediumwave) band.

But what about on shortwave? I like using recordings to evaluate shortwave radio performance, typically representative clips that are 25-60 seconds in length. Why? Anytime I have more than two radios to compare, it gets difficult to switch between radios, insuring that I give each one the same opportunity to receive a station. More importantly, with this method, I can listen to the audio clips on my computer, and flip between them quickly to determine characteristics I like in each.

Before recording, I set each radio in the same spot on a table, though I might change the orientation for optimal reception (since this can differ from one radio to another). I then extend the antennas fully and set all of the filters, gain controls, tone, volume levels, and frequencies to the same position on each rig.  This way, my comparison can be on an “apples-to-apples” basis.

Note that I do not use an external antenna in any of these tests. This because I believe, when considering portables, they should be able to function very well off of their built-in antennas–thus taking into account situations in which employing an external antenna is not practical.

So that you have an opportunity to evaluate each radio in a “blind” test, I’ll tag each audio sample with a number, the order of which will not necessarily be consistent in each consecutive test. After the clips, I’ll reveal which is which.

Strong Signals

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When I evaluate relatively strong broadcasts I typically listen for the best audio fidelity and signal stability a radio can offer. Unless there’s an adjacent signal (and in this case, there was not), I open the filter as widely as possible.

One of the strongest stations in my part of the world is Radio Havana Cuba–not always the cleanest signal, but always at blowtorch power levels. In this sample clip, I tuned our four radios to RHC.

To be fair, propagation from this station was poor the day of recording, so you’ll hear a little fading that is not normally present. Additionally, you’ll want to listen to the full clip, as a portion of each contains RHC interviews that were recorded by telephone (thus “tinnier” sounding); you’ll also hear the typical RHC transmitter hum:

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

You’ll hear that all of these receivers–with the exception of Sample #3–are nearly identical. Sample #3 is less sensitive than the others, thus more prone to shallow fading and a slightly higher noise level. To my ears, Sample #4 has the best audio quality and receiver characteristics, followed by Sample 2 and Sample 1.

Now let’s reveal the radios behind the samples:

  • Sample #1: the Tecsun PL-660
  • Sample #2: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #3: the Sangean ATS-909X, and
  • Sample #4: the Tecsun PL-880.

Weak signal DX

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I like comparing radios while listening to weak signals and/or when conditions are less favorable. Since I often listen to weak signals (after all, so few broadcasts are actually directed to North America), it’s an important test.

I found a weak signal from Radio Romania International on 11,975 kHz. Normally, the signal would have been much stronger, but propagation was rough and QSB (fading) pronounced at times. Under these conditions, you get the opportunity to hear how the receiver’s AGC circuit handles fading and troughs, how the noise floor sounds as conditions change, and judge the overall sensitivity.

While I give priority to a receiver’s sensitivity and selectivity, there’s obviously more to evaluate here–for example, the more sensitive radio may be less pleasing to the ear.

If you like, jot down what you observe as you listen to each 50 second clip:

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

Obviously, the radio in Sample #4 is significantly less sensitive than the other radios–it truly struggled to hear the RRI signal under these conditions.

The other radios were able to hear RRI. Sample #3 sounded fine when there was no fading present, but in the fading troughs, there was a pronounced high-pitched noise–most likely a DSP-based noise. Sample #1 had pretty solid copy with stable AGC (automatic gain control). Sample #2 was the most sensitive of this bunch.

Now let’s reveal the radios behind the weak signal samples:

  • Sample #1: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #2: the Tecsun PL-660,
  • Sample #3: the Tecsun PL-880, and
  • Sample #4: the Sangean ATS-909X.

In this particular test, I was most impressed with the PL-660’s sensitivity, but given the choice, I would have chosen the Sony ICF-SW7600GR as the best overall. Why?

The Sony produced audio simply more pleasant to my ears due to the stability of the AGC.

Wondering if others would draw a similar conclusion, I posted the same clips above on my blog, the SWLing Post (http://wp.me/pn3uc-2pl).  I doubted whether many readers would take the time to listen, or to vote, in this blind test. Boy, was I wrong–!

I received about seventy responses by email and in the comments section of my post. All but a very few readers ranked the clips in order of preference. The Sony was the clear favorite, with a total of 40 votes as the best of the bunch. The Tecsun PL-660 was second, with a total of 23 votes as the best. No one voted the PL-880 as best. (Click here for full results: http://wp.me/pn3uc-2qH)

What became very clear from the results and the comments, however, was that people who prefer sensitivity, prefered the PL-660. People who preferred stability, preferred the ’7600GR. In a sense, both were “best,” simply depending on the listener’s preference and/or listening requirements.

Weak single-sideband (SSB)

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To test the SSB performance of these radios, I tuned to W1AW as they worked a pile-up from Puerto Rico. You will hear some fading. For those of you not familiar with SSB listening, you should note that W1AW sounds a little “grainy” in all of these recordings; this is simply the audio processor on W1AW’s transceiver which is set to be most audible and punch through the static.

Sample #1

Sample #2

Sample #3

Sample #4

W1AW is barely audible in Sample #1. In Sample #2, audio is well-balanced, with good audio, low noise, and a stable AGC. Sample #3 sounds more narrow (even though its filter, like all, was set to the widest setting), but the audio “pops out” of the static and is very intelligible. Sample #4 sounds much like Sample #2, perhaps slightly more sensitive but with slightly less stable AGC.

By now you may have guessed each radio behind these samples…Here’s the lowdown:

  • Sample #1:  the Sangean ATS-909X,
  • Sample #2:  the Sony ICF-SW7600GR,
  • Sample #3:  the Tecsun PL-880, and
  • Sample #4:  the Tecsun PL-660.

I believe the Tecsuns perform best in this category, even though the difference between the two models is pretty dramatic. The PL-880 has the best sensitivity in SSB–indeed, I could have probably lowered the gain on my recorder and made the background noise sound even less pronounced, but I wanted the levels to match the other receivers. I was somewhat surprised its 5 kHz filter sounded so narrow on SSB.

The Tecsun PL-660 had the most pleasant audio, but during QSB peaks, its audio would suffer a little distortion (you only hear this once in this sample, near the end of the recording). The Sony had slightly less sensitivity, but the most stable AGC.

Once again, the Sangean ATS-909X struggled to hear the signal, having the least sensitivity of the group.

A note about the Sangean ATS-909X

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Alas, the most disappointing radio in all of these tests is the Sangean ATS-909X.

To be fair, however, it’s worth noting that the Sangean performs admirably if connected to an external antenna. Again, I resisted connecting an external antenna in this particular series of tests because I believe a good portable radio’s performance should first be judged upon what it can receive with only its telescoping whip antenna, considering that, when traveling, it’s not always possible to use an external antenna.

Indeed, if you plan to buy a portable that will be hooked up to an external antenna more often than not, the Sangean ATS-909X may be a good choice for you. Its front end can handle external antennas better than most of the radios above (with the Sony as an exception, in my experience).

Syncronous detection

I did not test sync detection, as the Sangean ATS-909X lacks a sync detector and the Tecsun PL-880’s sync detector leaves much to be desired. But many hours of listening to the Sony ’7600GR and the Tecsun PL-660 leads me to conclude that their sync detectors are fairly comparable in performance.

So, how do you translate these results?

Although all of these receivers are considered best in the portable realm for a particular manufacturer, each has a character that suits individual listening skills or requirements.

Herein lies the difficulty offering advice on which portable to purchase. Because radio listening tends to be a solitary hobby, it comes down to personal preference–like choosing a friend. What one person values may matter very little to someone else.

For example, I rarely (if ever) save stations to memory on a permanent basis. Other than temporary auto-tuning memory features, I never give memory functions any weight when making a purchase decision (for myself, that is). Yet there are listeners who place a great deal of emphasis on memory functions.

To be perfectly honest, I think each one of these radios has an individual character that makes it a stand out for a particular type of listening.  While I often sort through my collection to give away radios that I seldom use, you won’t find me letting go of any of these rigs. The Sony ICF-SW7600GR is still my favorite portable for field recordings; its stable nature and robust front end mean that I can hook up long wire antennas if I wish. The PL-880 is the radio I reach for if want robust sound and armchair listening to shortwave and mediumwave–I also find it the best of the bunch to tune, a quality machine harkening back to the glory days of Panasonic and Sony. The PL-660 is my simple, bullet-proof performer–when in doubt of conditions, it’s the radio I reach for. If I owned the Sangean ATS-909X, it would probably become my bedside shortwave; its audio fidelity, large display, stable back stand, and ability to benefit from an external antenna make it very appealing for this purpose.

You can’t go wrong with any of these benchmark performers, so long as you know its weaknesses and strengths–which I hope this review has made clear.

If I had to choose just one of these radios…

FourRadiosAbstract

I’m forcing myself answer this question. While it’s difficult to answer, I believe if I could only have one of these radios for travel…I would chose the Tecsun PL-660. I find it the best overall performer, and a true bargain at its price point.

To be clear, if the Sony ICF-SW7600GR only had a tuning knob, it would be my choice, instead.  If the Tecsun PL-880 handled weak broadcast signals better, it might be my choice.

But this is my personal choice; you might have a completely different answer.  I guess that’s the point I made earlier–it all depends on the listener.

Now…which do you choose?