Tag Archives: Shortwave Radio Review

Dan compares and reviews the Tecsun S-8800 portable AM/FM/shortwave receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, for the following guest post and review:


Tecsun’s S-8800:  Is This All The Radio You Will Ever Need?

These days, we who still derive enjoyment from listening to shortwave broadcasts, be they larger international broadcasters or smaller stations that remain on the air against all odds in the Internet age, also enjoy using the many types of radio receivers that enable this activity.

One of the cruel ironies is that today’s technological advances have made possible the kind of worldband radios (the term that first came into wide use way back in the 1980’s) that years ago we could only dream of, be they full communications receivers or portable receivers.

Having begun my own DXing/SWL career in the late 1960’s, and pretty much maintained my hobby activities over the decades, I have used pretty much every receiver that ever existed, from tube radios to today’s latest DSP wonders.

I have a soft spot for classics from SONY — my list of portables today includes the fantastic SONY ICF-SW77, SW-07, SW-55s and SW-100.  Panasonic is represented in my portable collection by the wonderful RF-B65.

Only in recent years did I decide to test the main higher end portable offerings from Tecsun:  the PL-660/680, and PL-880. What I discovered, as have most people who own the Tecsuns, and similar receivers such as the XHDATA D-808, are the wonders of DSP chips and the great flexibility they provide, such as multiple selectivity options, along with excellent sensitivity.

Though it’s been on the market for going on three years now, one of the receivers I had not been able to test was the Tecsun S-8800.  There are quite a few reviews already online. Some go into extensive detail in describing the plus and minus points of the radio.

With so many people having already assessed the radio — and most of them in fairly glowing terms — I won’t repeat a long list of technical specs, as you can find those in other reviews, and on the site of Hong Kong-based Anon-co, which is probably the main seller of the S-8800.

Headline

The S-8800 is arguably the best multi band radio portable among portable category offerings on the market today.  It combines superior audio delivered from its superb front-firing speaker, with equally superb sensitivity (triple conversion), and multiple selectivity options, with an amazingly professionally-executed remote control.

I used the S-8800 in a number of physical locations, from public parks where I hoped to avoid high noise levels, to my back yard where noise levels are, unfortunately, quite high.  I have compared the S-8800 to a number of portables in my collection, including: SONY ICF-2010, SW-77, SW-55, along with Tecsun’s 660 and 880, Grundig SAT-500.

Audio

Hands down, the S-8800 wins the audio competition when compared to pretty much every other radio.  Where the competition gets tight is with receivers such as the classic Grundig Satellit 500, and Tecsun’s PL-880.

Sensitivity

This is a TRIPLE conversion radio.  As everyone knows by now, Tecsun did not merely adopt the cabinet of the old Eton S350 but basically stuffed a hot rod racer into the cabinet of what was previously a mediocre radio at best.

Selectivity

Widely used in a number of radios these days, the S-8800 uses a DSP chip that is seen in a number of other receivers.  The best description I have seen so far is in the review by Jay Allen who notes that Tecsun “decided to utilize a combination of DSP (Digital Signal Processing) circuits along with traditional analog circuits . . .most of the AM/SW circuitry is PLL/analog along with the 1st and 2nd IF’s, while the 3rd IF is DSP.”  It appears that after a bit of a rocky period in the beginning when initial units suffered from images and birdies, Tecsun got it right.

Ergonomics

Much has been said about the fact that Tecsun decided not to include a keypad on the radio itself.  I too was skeptical. We have all become accustomed to keypads as standard equipment on portables.

Personally, I do a lot of my listening on the beach during vacations, and am used to being able to hold and operate the radio in such situations, so the thought of having to carry a remote control seemed uncomfortable at best.

However, the reality is that it’s still possible to navigate the shortwave, AM, and FM bands easily even without the remote — call me old fashioned, but I am from a group of older listeners who have most frequencies memorized anyway, so I know where I want to go to hear certain stations.

Tecsun hit it out the ballpark with the remote supplied with the S-8800.  It looks like something you would find with high end stereo equipment and clearly much thought went into making sure it can control every aspect of the receiver, from SW band slewing to selectivity, volume, readout — everything except BASS and TREBLE control, Timer/Alarm, and master volume (i.e. as other reviewers note, you have to set the on-radio master volume to a high enough level first, then use the remote to vary).

Power

The radio requires two 18650 lithium (Li-ion) rechargeable batteries, with individual indicator LEDS inside the battery compartment.  This choice is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the 8800. Among other things, 18650s usually receive more attention from airport security personnel if one is taking the radio on a trip — this is something everyone should keep in mind.  Any radio being transported on a flight these days is going to be subjected to added scrutiny, simply because almost no one uses radios anymore.

As for the power needs of the receiver, the 18650s seem to do a good job and last quite a long time, even days.  Included in the box is one of those white USB charger blocks — quite small and convenient. I usually travel with separate 18650 chargers, the kind used with high end flashlights, so having spare sets of charged batteries is not a problem.  But if both 18650’s in the Tecsun are drained, the radio definitely needs to re-charge to a minimum level required for operation.

As I write this, I plugged the S-8800 into a wall outlet (a blue LED indicator on front indicates charging mode) and I was unable to use the radio as the battery level had completely zeroed out.  Also keep in mind that the USB charging brick throws off EMI to other radios in the vicinity, and makes it impossible to use the S-8800 itself — there is just too much interference from the charging process to the radio’s receiving circuitry.

Comparisons

As mentioned, I compared the S-8800 with a number of other portables in my collection.  Each of these other radios, including the classics from SONY such as the SW-55 or SW77 have their strengths.  For example, the SW77 has the best implemented synchronous reception of any portable since the ICF-2010 along with superb sensitivity.  However, even the large speaker on the SW-77 was unable to compete with the S-8800. Only radios such as the older Grundig SAT 500/700 had the advantage when compared to the S-8800’s speaker, with the Tecsun PL-8800 close behind.

Receiving Comparisons

I decided to take the S-8800 out to my back yard for a receiving comparison with the receiver I consider to be among the top five best in what I call the small portable category (which is above the mini-portable category in which we find the SONY SW-100 and SW-07 and similar size radios).

In intensive use over the years, I have concluded that the Panasonic RF-B65 is probably among the hottest small portables.  With its famous amplified whip antenna, the 65 time after time succeeds in allowing me to hear stations that other portables struggle with (see this 3 radio comparison I posted a few years ago in which the B65 outguns the Sangean 909X and SONY SW-07).

Rather than produce several separate videos, I have combined one listening session comparing the S-8800 with the RF-B65.  It’s a bit long, so my apologies, but gives you an idea of how these two fine portables did going head to head.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Leaving aside the obvious superiority of the Tecsun where audio is concerned, the S-8800 competes well with the Pan RF-B65, often superior to the smaller radio, but sometimes inferior in one respect.

While there was nothing the S-8800 could hear that the Panasonic could not, signals seem to jump out of the S-8800 in a way that they did not with the smaller radio. However, there appeared to be an interesting difference when it came to the ability of each radio to deal with interfering stations 5 kHz above or below.

As shown in the video, the Panasonic was able to distinguish more clearly between a station on 9,650 kHz (Guinea) and a station 5 kHz above (in this case, Algeria via France, using 9,655 kHz) than the Tecsun, which seemed to struggle.  Indeed, at one point I was forced to attempt ECSS (Exalted Carrier SSB) mode to separate the two stations, whereas on the Panasonic, being the older and simpler radio design was an advantage in that the RF-B65 was actually able to more clearly separate the two stations by “de-tuning” from the center frequency.

One huge advantage of the S-8800 by the way is that there is a hidden software change that enables one to adjust SSB zero beat to zero or near zero.  This means that in theory using LSB/USB to improve reception is possible, though keep in mind that there may be some variation from unit to unit. So far, after performing the so-called ‘secret’ fix (among a list of tweaks discovered so far) my particular S-8800 appears to be able to zero beat LSB/USB with little or no variation between the side bands, pretty much up and down the SW bands.

Conclusions

For me, the S-8800 has turned out to be the biggest surprise of the last several years.  Coming seemingly out of nowhere, packaged in the cabinet of a receiver that was seen as mediocre at best, we have a triple conversion beauty (it seems to weigh almost nothing by the way) that provides pretty much every tool required these days to tackle what is left of shortwave broadcast reception.  It has superior audio, unless one compares to older Grundig and similar sets.

Drawbacks are quite few to be honest.  A case can definitely be made that using 18650 batteries was a poor choice by Tecsun.  This means, for example, that if you’re out on the beach or elsewhere for many hours, the only way to charge up the radio would be to use a separate phone battery charger rather than simply be able to slip in regular alkalines.  But then, I carry separate battery charge units already for my phone.

The big criticism that synchronous reception could have been included is also valid.  The same was said about the SONY ICF-SW55 — with synchronous reception, and a bit more careful design of the tuning circuit, that radio could have been a heavier hitter, a mini-ICF 2010, something the much more expensive SW-77 was designed to improve upon.

However, so far radios utilizing DSP chips have struggled when it comes to synchronous reception capability.  Indeed, the feature has ended up being discovered only as one of a number of ‘secret’ features. Only the PL-660 has a decent synchronous feature, but that radio is hobbled by limited selectivity options, while sync on the PL-880 is pretty much useless.

Finally, I have to say thank you to Tecsun for doing everything possible to avoid the dreaded ‘MUTING’ problem that has been seen on so many small portables.

As I found to my disappointment when using even the much-praised Eton Grundig Satellit, and even the C Crane Skywave SSB, this problem can be a killer for those of us who consider it absolutely critical to be able to hear EVERYTHING on and between frequencies.

So, the big question — would I recommend the S-8800?  As with almost everything, the answer to that is, it depends on what kind of a listener you are, and expectations.

From a performance perspective, if you are like me, a die-hard DX’er at heart who gets a kick out of searching for the last Peruvians on the air, the S-8800 should be more than sufficient.  If you’re both a die-hard DX’er and enjoy FM and AM, the 8800 should also be a perfect selection, since it’s been reviewed quite well in terms of medium wave and FM capability.

A personal note — for me, part of the fun of shortwave portables has been their ‘cool factor’.  I’m just one of those who likes to carry around complicated looking radios with lots of buttons. The SONY 2010, SW-55, SW-77s, older Grundigs all fit the bill.

I never thought the S-8800 or radios similar to it in appearance would.  So, for me it’s going to require a bit of a change, since the S-8800 looks like, well . . . it looks like a ‘toy radio’!

But it’s one hell of a toy-looking radio.  It’s a triple conversion monster packed in the frame of something that, at one point in the past, you might have considered getting for your kids (if they even knew or know what a radio is!).

As many of us are at this point in our lives, I am also thinking ahead — to the day when my numerous premium Watkins Johnson and JRC radios, and a few boatanchors hanging around, will have to go because of downsizing.

When I’m 65, as the Beatles song goes — or more likely 85 or 90 — what will I be able to fit on a bedside dresser and use easily to tune in whatever is left on shortwave (if anything)?

The answer to that question is a radio that’s small enough and enough of a performer, preferably with a well-designed remote, to bring in anything that’s still on HF, MW, and FM.  With those needs in mind, the answer is already here, in the Tecsun S-8800.

[I want to express sincere thanks to Anna at Anon-co who responded quickly when I proposed a review of the S-8800 and supplied the receiver on which this article is based.  Anna was patient as my original plan to have a review in by September was delayed by unavoidable personal matters. Thanks also to Tom Witherspoon for getting the review up so quickly].

Click here to check out the Tecsun S-8800 at Anon-Co’s website and here via the Anon-Co eBay store.


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Troy reviews the Audiomax SRW-710S

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Troy Riedel, for the following guest post:


A Mini-Review of the Audiomax SRW-710S

by Troy Riedel

Why would someone want a sub-$20 shortwave radio? Wait … I guess I should be answering questions & not asking them, right? But I’ll give you my answer to “why I want a sub-$20 shortwave radio”: I have many nice radios, but I wanted one that I consider “disposable”. I define “disposable” as something I won’t be upset if I lose, get it splattered with paint, or leave it outside only to get rained on. Taking the family of four to the movies nowadays costs upwards of $100 (the three ladies I live with can really throw-down pop & popcorn!) so a sub-$20 radio, even a “disposable one”, is a true bargain.

I have seen the SRW-710S badged under three different names: Audiomax, VITE and TIVDIO. There very well may be other badging. I paid $18.52 for my Audiomax badged device direct from a vendor in China. I’ve subsequently seen it as low as $13 on eBay and as much as $37 on Amazon. So much for a sub-$20 radio, huh?

The SRW-710S comes with only a USB charging cable in the box to recharge the Li-ion BL-5C battery (no earbuds, no case or pouch – just a very simple set of basic instructions). The 710S features a small LCD screen that offers menus in three languages: English, Spanish & Chinese.

The screen greets you with “welcome” (lowercase) when turning it on & “Bye Bye!” when you power-off. There is a Sleep Timer function that I have yet to use. All of the ports are on the right side of the unit (nothing on the left). It has a TF Flashcard Slot – no card provided – for recording off the radio & for playing pre-loaded mp3 & wma files from the flashcard.

It has 100 memories, a Line-In port, a built-in mic, and a headphone port. There is no ANT-In port. This radio has AM, FM & SW (no LW) with the appropriate international tuning steps. Lastly, there is no folding stand on the back (one is provided and is attached to the wrist strap – it is inserted into a small slot just above the battery cover).

One Chinese web site listed the SRW-710S as having an “AKC6951 DSP chip”. Until now, I had never heard of this DSP chip and I frankly know nothing about it. Maybe some more informed readers can comment?

Operation is easy (except for one quirk that I will detail later). There are two rows of numbers for direct input of a frequency. Simply input the frequency … and then wait (there is an approximate 3-5 second delay from input to the radio actually tuning to the frequency … I am still getting used to this pregnant pause). You also have an option of tuning directly to a meter-band.

Of course, there is no SSB for this low price.

The one speaker is a bit “tinny” but adequate (stereo via user-supplied earbuds). And considering the price point, the RF shielding isn’t too bad. I can actually use the shortwave band of this radio in my kitchen and breakfast nook (I cannot say that for my more expensive receivers).

The biggest limiting factor in reception is the size of the telescopic antenna (15.5”). However, for its size I am quite impressed (it’s exponentially better than the old Grundig G2000A Porsche that has a 21.25” antenna – but that radio is notorious as needing a reel antenna). Just via the telescopic whip, I can actually tune the major broadcasters to NA (e.g., Radio Romania), I can adequately tune to the VOA 15.580 MHz signal to Africa during the North American East Coast AFTN, and the time signals are easily audible (of course, frequency appropriate for the time of day).

I do not plan to open the radio’s chassis, but AM reception seems to be limited due to the obvious small size of the ferrite antenna (the radio itself is essentially palm-sized, approximately 4.75” x 3” & less than 1” thick). My postal scale indicates it weighs 5.5 – 6 ounces including the battery. The radio must be propped to support it when attaching the telescoping whip to a Slinky Antenna (even the weight of the Slinky’s alligator clip causes balance problems)
One quirk I have found: there is a “Lock” key. However, it only seems to lock the radio power “on” (locks are used to lock the power “off” during transport so the power remains off and the battery doesn’t drain). The “Lock” feature is not discussed in the instructions and at present I have not figured-out if this switch works in the traditional way. I find this to be quite amusing because it’s either an odd quirk or I’m just not smart enough to intuitively figure it out.

I am quite satisfied with my new “disposable” $18.52 Shortwave Radio (I have no information whether the quality I have considered is consistent through a production run or between badging). For those who wish to listen to a local AM or FM station – or listen to one of the “major” shortwave broadcasters with a booming signal into your part of the world – you can’t beat it for this price point. I can see myself using this radio while I complete outdoor household repairs or while cleaning-up the garage. Too bad it’s so close to Christmas, this would make a great stocking stuffer to introduce someone, young or old, to the world of shortwave.

Update: Searching for the SRW-710S

Note that the lowest prices omit the model number in eBay search results.

Click this link to search eBay for the SRW-710S on eBay. 

Scroll through search results to find a matching receiver.


Thank you, Troy, for mini-review of the SRW-710S! Like you, I have very low expectations from shortwave portables at this price point. Still…for the glove compartment of your vehicle, for outdoor listening, for small gifts? These fit the bill! I’m most impressed you could receive the number of stations you did from inside your home. 

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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

AllFour-LeftSideLine

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

FourRadiosAbstract2

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

AllFour-RightSide

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)

AllFour-LeftSide

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

909Xkeypad

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? 

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Traveling light, SWLing right: the best shortwave radios for travel

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor Magazine.


SWL Travel Gear - Grundig G6

With spring around the corner, my thoughts drift toward the outdoors…and especially, toward travel. Those who know me know that I love travelling, anywhere and everywhere–and that I prefer to travel light, with only one bag. In fact, I can easily live for two weeks out of a convertible shoulderbag/backpack (the Timbuk2 Wingman) that’s so compact, I can fit it under the the seat of even the smallest, most restrictive aircraft. I never have to check luggage unless the nature of my travel requires extra supplies (I run Ears To Our World, a non-profit that donates radios and other technologies to powerless regions in the developing world).

My Timbuk2 Small Wingman is very compact, yet holds everything I need--including radio gear--for two weeks (or more!) of travel.

My Timbuk2 Small Wingman is very compact, yet holds everything I need for two weeks (or more!) of travel.

So, why not pack everything you could possibly ever want on a journey?  While this remains an option, travelling light has many advantages over the take-it-all traveler’s method. First, it gives one incredible freedom, especially when travelling by air or train.  I never have to worry about being among the first to be seated in an aircraft, nor do I worry about my luggage not making a connection when I do.  Second, it’s kinder on the back and shoulders, and easier to maneuver wherever I go–no wheels required–whether in a busy first-world airport or bustling third-world street market.  Third, I always have my most important gear right there with me.  And finally (I must admit) I find light travel to be fun, an entertaining challenge; the looks on friends’ faces when they meet me at the airport to “help” with my luggage is, frankly, priceless.  Seeing me hop off a flight with my small shoulder bag, friends ask in bewilderment, “Where’s your stuff?” It’s music to my ears.

You would think that having such self-imposed restrictions on travel–carrying a small, light bag–would make it nearly impossible to travel with radio. On the contrary!  Radio is requisite, in my book–er, bag.  I carry a surprising amount of gear in my small bag:  once at an airport security checkpoint, an inspector commented, “It’s like you have the contents of a Radio Shack in here–!” But more significantly, each piece–and radio–is carefully selected to give me the best performance, durability, versatility, and reliability.

So what do I look for in a travel radio? Let’s take a closer look.

SWL Travel Gear - full selection

Travel Radio Features

While the CountyComm GP5DSP only has average performance for its price class, it has three different ways of auto tuning stations quickly, an alarm function and the display will even indicate the current temperature. Its unique vertical, thin body might be easier to pack at times, depending on your travel gear.

The CountyComm GP5DSP has three different ways of auto tuning stations quickly, an alarm function and the display will even indicate the current temperature. Its unique vertical, thin body might be easier to pack at times, depending on your travel gear.

In a travel shortwave radio, I search for features I wouldn’t necessarily pick for home use, where I’m mainly concerned with raw performance. I don’t want to carry an expensive receiver while traveling, either: $100.00 US is usually my maximum. This way, if I accidently break the radio (or my gear gets stolen), I won’t feel like I’m out very much money.  I also prioritize features that benefit a traveler, of course; here are some that I look for:

  • Small size: Naturally, it’s sensible to look for a travel radio that’s small for its receiver class for ease in packing.
  • Overall sturdy chassis: Any travel radio should have a sturdy body case that can withstand the rigors of travel.
  • Built-in Alarm/Sleep Timer functions: While my iPhone works as an alarm, I hate to miss an early flight or connection, so it’s extra security when I can set a back-up alarm.
  • Powered by AA batteries: While the newer lithium ion battery packs are fairly efficient, I still prefer the AA battery standard, which allows me to obtain batteries as needed in most settings; a fresh set of alkaline (or freshly-charged) batteries will power most portables for hours on end.
  • Standard USB charging cable: If I can charge batteries internally, a USB charging cable can simply plug into my smart phone’s USB power adapter or the USB port on my laptop; no extra “wall wart” equals less weight and less annoyance.
  • ETM: Many new digital portables have an ETM function which allow auto-scanning of a radio band (AM/FM/SW), saving what it finds in temporary memory locations–a great way to get a quick overview of stations.  (As this function typically takes several minutes to complete on shortwave, I usually set it before unpacking or taking a shower. When I return to my radio, it’s ready to browse.)
  • Single-Side Band: While I rarely listen to SSB broadcasts when traveling, I still like to pack an SSB-capable receiver when travelling for an extended time.
  • RDS: Though an RDS (Radio Data System) is FM-only, it’s a great feature for identifying station call signs and genre (i.e., public radio, rock, pop, country, jazz, classical, etc.)
  • External antenna jack: I like to carry a reel-type or clip-on wire external antenna if I plan to spend serious time SWLing. Having a built-in external jack means that the connection is easy, no need to bother with wire and an alligator clip to the telescoping whip.
  • Tuning wheel/knob: Since I spend a lot of time band-scanning while travelling, I prefer a tactile wheel or knob for tuning my travel radio.
  • Key lock: Most radios have a key lock to prevent accidentally turning a radio on in transit–but with a travel radio, it’s especially important to have a key lock that can’t be accidentally disengaged.
  • LED flashlight: Few radios have this, but it’s handy to have when travelling.
  • Temperature display: Many DSP-based radios have a built-in thermometer and temperature display; I like this when I travel anytime, but especially when I’m camping.

While I don’t have a portable that meets 100% of the above travel radio wish-list, I do have several that score very highly.  I also rank my travel radios by size, as sometimes limited space will force me to select a smaller radio.

Here are a few of the radios I’ve used and/or evaluated for travel–I’ll break them down by size. Note that all portable radios have alarm/timer functions, unless noted otherwise.

My Tecsun PL-380 and the small Eagle Creek pack that also holds my Zoom H1 recorder, earphones, audio cables, external antenna, spare batteries and Kindle.

I often grab the Tecsun PL-380 for travel. It’s an ultra-portable that truly performs and even has a selection of six AM bandwidths.

Ultra-portable:

Tecsun-PL880-SWLing-Post-0528

Full-Featured Portable:

I have also been known to travel with an SDR (software defined radio), especially if travelling to an RF-quiet location where I could make spectrum recordings. While SDRs all require a computer (laptop) to operate, those best suited for travel derive their power from the same USB cable plugged into the PC. Neither of the SDR models below require a power source other than what’s provided by their USB cable.

A screen capture from my Toshiba Satellite Windows 7 laptop (click on image to enlarge)

The RadioJet is an excellent travel radio: it’s an excellent performer, über-rugged and is powered by one USB cable.

“Black box” radios (SDRs & PC-controlled radios):

  • RFSpace SDR-IQ • Pros: Small size, works on multiple operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux) • Cons: front end can overload if close to strong signals
  • Bonito RadioJet • Pros: Great performance, low noise floor, good audio, flexible graphic interface; • Cons: Windows only, limited bandwidth on IF recordings, no third-party applications (note that the RadioJet is technically an IF receiver). Check out our full review.
The CommRadio CR-1

The CommRadio CR-1

Tabletop:

Seriously? A travel-ready, full-featured tabletop–? Until last year, I would have argued that it was impossible to travel lightly with a full-featured desktop radio in tow.

My view changed when I got my hands on the CommRadio CR-1 tabletop SDR. Indeed, other than it being pricey ($600, as compared with $100 portables) this rig is ideally suited to travel!

The CR-1 has an array of features–most everything you’d expect from a tabletop radio–and even covers some VHF/UHF frequencies. Its built-in rechargeable battery not only powers it for hours at a time, but meets the strict airline standards for battery safety. The CR-1 can also be powered and charged via a common USB cable. It’s also engineered to be tough and is almost identical in size to the Tecsun PL-880.

CommRadioCR-1PowerKnobThough I’ve never needed to do so, you can even remove its resin feet to save still more space. Its only less than travel-friendly feature is the fact that it’s quite possible to accidently power up the CR-1 by bumping the volume button during travel–a problem easily remedied, however, by simply twisting an insulated wire around the stem of the volume knob (see photo).

The importance of a Go-Bag

The SpecOps PackRat

The Spec-Ops Pack-Rat

I keep a dedicated “go-bag” with radio and supplies–specifically, the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat–packed and ready to travel, at the drop of a hat. Why? First of all, I know exactly what I’ll be taking, no need to ponder if I have everything.

Inside the bag, everything has its place: my portable SW radio, my Android tablet, my D-Star Icon ID-51a HT, DVAP (DV Access Point Dongle), my Zoom H2n Handy Recorder, earphones, charging cables, batteries, small notebook, clip-on wire antenna, etc.

If something’s missing, there’s an obvious blank spot in my bag. I also know exactly where and how it fits into my carry-on bag, so if it’s missing, it’s conspicuously missing. Since I’ve been using this go-bag, I’ve never left anything from my pack behind. Incidentally, this is how I pack the rest of my bag, as well: everything has its place, and any gap will draw my attention to exactly what’s missing.

SWL Travel Gear - Spec-Ops Pack-Rat Open

There’s another benefit to having a dedicated go-bag: when flying, before I place my carry-on under the seat in front of me or in an overhead compartment, I can pull the go-bag out of my carry-on and have my Android tablet close at hand with other electronics.  As an added bonus, when going through airport security, all of my electronics can be easily removed from my flight bag by taking out just this kit.

 SWL Travel Gear - Spec-Ops Pack-Rat Contents

I’ve had many versions of the Go-Bag over the years, and they’ve all done a great job. What I love about the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat, though, is the fact that it’s military grade–very durable–opens with all of the main storage pockets on the inside, has a bright yellow interior which makes it easy to see the contents (even in the dimness of a night flight), and it’s just the right size to hold my usual travel gear. The Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat also carries a lifetime, no-matter-what, guarantee.

There are thousands of similar packs on the market, and you may already have one, but you should look for something with multiple storage pockets. Small packs I’ve used in the past that only had one or two main compartments made it easy to leave something out when packing.

Radio travels

The travel radios I reach for most often. Top Row (L to R, Top to Bottom)  Tecsun PL-380, Sony 7600GR, CommRadio GP-5DSP, Grundig G6, Tecsun PL-660, and the CommRadio CR-1

The travel radios I reach for most often. Top Row (L to R, Top to Bottom) Tecsun PL-380, Sony 7600GR, CommRadio GP-5DSP, Grundig G6, Tecsun PL-660, and the CommRadio CR-1 (Click to enlarge)

When I spent a year in France during my undergraduate studies in the early 1990s, shortwave radio was my link with home. I would listen to the VOA–the only source of English I permitted myself to hear–like clockwork, each week. Today, although I travel with a smartphone which can tune in thousands of stations, I always choose to listen to radio. Besides, if the Internet goes down or if–heaven forbid!–your trip takes you into a natural disaster, it’s radio that you will turn to to stay safe and informed.

If you take anything away from this reading, I hope it’s that even when you’re presented with travel restrictions, you won’t hesitate to take your hobby, in the form of a portable radio and a few accessories along. It contributes measurably to the fun of travel, as I’ve discovered when I’m able to tune in local and international stations so different from those I hear at home.  Or sometimes, it’s just the opposite–it’s the chance to pick up a favorite broadcaster or program while you’re on the road.

After all, for me and other travelers like me, the world’s familiar voice is radio.

SWL Travel Gear - Full View

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The Tecsun PL-380: a great travel radio

My Tecsun PL-380 and Eagle Creek pack

SWLing Post reader, Alan, commented on our “most durable radios for travel” post:

You should include the Tecsun PL-380 [on] the list. It is an excellent tuner with good selectivity. The ETM feature was made for a traveler. The radio is cheap enough that it won’t bother you if you lose it or break it.

I have to say, I agree! In fact, I travel with the PL-380 quite often. It has become my back-up radio when I make field recordings (my primary portable for field is the Sony ICF-SW7600GR).

Eagle Creek pack with contents: Tecsun PL-380, Zoom H1 recorder, earphones, audio cables, external antenna, spare batteries and Kindle. Click to enlarge.

In fact, I have a small Eagle Creek bag with a shoulder strap that holds my field recording kit and other electronic “necessities:”  Tecsun PL-380, Zoom H1 recorder, ear buds, audio cables, roll up antenna, spare batteries, and, of course, my Kindle (so I can read while waiting for my plane/train/bus). In a pinch, it can even accommodate a Sony AN-LP1
active antenna (which I use primarily in hotel rooms with inoperable windows). To help you visualize, check out the photo on the right.  It’s my grab-and-go bag.

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