Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Giuseppe Fisoni, who reached out a few weeks ago noting that he was very impressed with the Icom IC-705‘s receiver performance even compared with his Icom IC-R8600 wideband receiver.
I asked Giuseppe if he would perhaps write up a short informal report to share here on the SWLing Post. He just sent me the following notes:
[…]Consider this more of a qualitative comparison – just S meter readings with a few brief notes.
My overall impression is that the IC-705 is a fantastic SW receiver, as you’ve already made clear on all your posts. In most cases, it holds up well against the IC-R8600, and even performs better in some cases. I have some notes below, which you are welcome to share with your readers if you’d like. For a while I also had two IC-705s in my hands, so I even got to test “replicas” with the 705 (there was no major difference but it was still fun to do).
A few things about my comparisons:
1. All tests were done using a 50’ long wire antenna (house to tree) with an un-un.
2. The IC-R8600 was operated using an ICOM AC adaptor (creating a disadvantage), while the IC-705 was run on battery. However, I tried to only compare stations where the noise floors were comparable and the 8600 didn’t have any RFI.
3. I tried my best to normalize the RF gains on each radio, but this became somewhat difficult. I’m not sure if they are on the same scale (i.e. does 80% RF gain mean the same thing on both radios?). Also, I very quickly noticed that turning up the RF gain on the 8600 only increased the S meter reading and apparent noise floor on the waterfall spectrum, but it did not actually make the audible signal or noise audibly stronger. This was especially true from 50% and up on the RF gain. In contrast, the RF gain on the 705 operated as you’d expect – the more you turned it up, the higher the gain on the signal (and noise), evenly across 0-100%.
3,330 kHz CHU
IC-705: weak signal but audible, S6
IC-R8600: no signal!
Winner: clearly 705. Shocked the 8600 couldn’t pick up CHU!
3,215 kHz WWCR Nashville
IC-R8600: S9+20 to S9+40.
Winner: Tie – although the 8600 had a stronger signal on the S meter, it didn’t really sound any better than the S9+20 on the 705.
9,690 kHz Radio Espana Exterior
IC-705: S9 to S9+10
Winner: Another tie – the stronger signal didn’t make much of a difference. The 8600 only sounded slightly better because of its speaker, not the receiver, so I’m calling it a tie.
10,000 kHZ WWV
IC-705: S3, very weak
IC-R8600: S7 to S9 but high atmospheric noise
11,820 kHz Radio Riyadh
IC-705: S1, barely detectable
IC-R8600: S5 to S7, intelligibility unstable
15,000 kHz WWV
IC-705: S3 to S5
IC-R8600: S9, slightly clearer and crisper tones
Winner: 8600, but not by much
15,580 kHz VOA Selebi-Phikwe, Botswana
IC-705: S1 to S3, in and out with fading
IC-R8600: S9, much more stable signal
7,780 kHz WRMI Slovakia International
IC-705: S9 solid, stable signal
IC-R8600: S9, same
6,604 kHz USB Gander VOLMET
IC-705: S5 to S7
Winner: Tie, no real difference
11,940 kHz Radio Exterior Espana
IC-705: S5 to S9 solid signal with some fading
Winner: Tie – no obvious difference
9,420 kHz Helliniki Radiophonia, Greece
IC-705: S9 +20. Excellent signal
IC-R8600: S9+ 20-30. Excellent signal
Winner: Again, a tie. But the wonderful Greek music reminds you again how much better the speaker is on the 8600.
Here’s the important thing: even though in most cases the IC-R8600 pulled in a much higher S meter reading, it often didn’t matter unless the difference between the two radios was a lot. In cases where it mattered, I could have turned up the RF gain or preamp on the 705 to match the signal on the 8600 (unless it was really weak on the 705), but I was trying to avoid that for the sake of having some baseline for comparison. How comparable are RF gain levels across ICOM radios?
IC-705 pros/cons take aways for me:
High level of portability and ability to operate on battery
Has desktop-like features and controls
Ability to use tripod or custom stand offers custom ergonomics (I found it easier to look at and interact with than the 8600, which has a lower angle of display)
All-in-one package: SWR + HF/VHF/UHF transceiver
Built-in audio speaker leaves a lot to be desired, definitely not desktop receiver audio quality
No stereo headphone jack
I am quite impressed with the IC-705! I am looking to downsize my radios and these comparisons have convinced me that the 705 can really check a lot of boxes for what I am looking for in a radio. I think it really offers a lot in a small footprint, which I find very impressive. So, since I have no use in monitoring anything above UHF, I will be looking to sell the IC-R8600, even though it is also a very great radio.
All the best,
Fascinating report, Giuseppe! Thank you so much for taking the time to perform these comparisons and sharing them with us.
Like you, I believe the IC-705 could replace a number of my other radios. I originally purchased it for my review and planned to sell it after, but quickly realized there’s no way I’m selling it. In fact, it could convince me to sell other radios it effectively makes redundant.
For SWLs who have limited space for a listening post in their home and who like to take their radio to the field, the IC-705 is a no-brainer. It’s an investment at $1,300 US, but I believe it’s a quality rig and certainly an outstanding, feature-packed unit.
I’ve found that the IC-705’s performance on HF and Mediumwave is truly DX-grade. I imagine its FM performance is as well.
It’s funny that you mention the IC-705 front-facing speaker as a con, because I often tout it as a pro. Thing is, I’m most often comparing the IC-705 with other field-portable QRP transceivers. Compared with them, the IC-705 speaker is amazing. But compared to the IC-R8600 or, say, a Drake R8B or SW8? Yeah, I agree with you 100%–it’s just not in the same league with those tabletop receivers. Of course, you can port out the audio to a better speaker if needed. (Indeed, the IC-705 even has built-in Bluetooth!)
Thanks again for sharing your notes with us, Giuseppe!
I took delivery of the Tecsun H-501x yesterday morning and the Sangean ATS-909X2 last week.
I’ve been waiting for these portable receivers for what seems like ages, and both arrive within one week of each other.
My initial impressions are positive for both radios, but I know it’s time to start some proper comparisons.
These portables are arguably the flagships of both manufacturers, so I decided to pit them against a “legacy” portable that has a reputation for eating other receivers for lunch: the Panasonic RF-B65.
“Nom nom nom…”
I fully expect the RF-B65 to emerge as the leader of this pack on shortwave in AM mode. No kidding. That’s why it’s a benchmark. If you can out-perform the RF-B65, you’re a five-star, Holy Grail portable and that’s the end of the story.
Where both the H-501 and ATS-909X2 will have an advantage is in audio fidelity. Both have excellent built-in speakers.
In addition, while the Panny RF-B65 is a great AM mode radio, it has very basic BFO controls and fine tuning for SSB. No doubt, I’ll likely pull out a different receiver for SSB comparisons.
DanH expects his ATS-909X2 back from firmware update soon and I look forward to his evaluation.
I plan to write a review of the Sangean ATS-909X2 for the June 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine. My Tecsun H-501x review may appear in TSM as well.
I will post updates here on the SWLing Post and possibly some comparison audio/reception examples.
Tecsun H-501x availability
SWLing Post contributor, Troy Riedel, received word from Anna at Anon-Co that they hope to have their first batch of H-501x units available to ship by the end of April 2021. Pricing has not yet been firmed up.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, for the following guest post and review:
The H-501: Jewel in the Tecsun Crown, With Some Attractive Features
by Dan Robinson
Since 2020, there has been one Tecsun receiver I have been most looking forward to reviewing, and that is Tecsun’s H-501.
Videos showing the pre-production and mainland China versions of the 501 started appearing online at least a year ago. There are also numerous videos showing comparisons between the H-501 and PL-990x as well as the PL-330.
What I will do here is provide an assessment of the 501 informed by my use of a H-501 just received, the other two Tecsun receivers, and my decades of experience using a wide range of portable receivers. This review is based on initial tests of a H-501x, among the first production units.
HOMAGE TO RECEIVERS OF THE PAST
The elephant in the room with the 501 is, of course, its two large left and right speakers. This reminds one of another Tecsun DSP portable, the PL-398BT with a similar left-right speaker arrangement.
On the left of the H-501, from the top, are the Volume, Treble, and Bass knobs which like the PL-880 and 990x has obvious lineage back to the famous Grundig portables of the 1990’s – the Satellit 500 and 700. Both of those were limited to two bandwidths. Only the 700 had anything approaching usable synchronous detection.
Each of the left hand control knobs on the 501 contains a dot to indicate where you are in the Maximum/Minimum range. At the bottom of the left side is a micro-USB port for when the receiver is used as a computer speaker – quite a nice feature!
On the right side of the 501 you find ports for AM and FM antennas, each with a rubber traction cap, similar to what is found on the PL-990x. There is also a three position sensitivity sliding switch for Local, Normal, and DX modes – that’s one more than usually found.
Knobs on the right side are the Main tuning and Fine tuning, again similar to the PL-990x. At the very bottom of the right side is the 5v 1.0 amp micro-USB charging port.
NEGATIVE: Here I discuss one of two major negatives with the 501. The tuning knobs are embedded quite far into the radio body. Each has a round piece of rubber covering on the knob end surface designed obviously to provide traction, possibly also as a protective measure.
The reality is that on the 501, more seriously on the PL-330, embedding of the knobs so far into the cabinet makes it virtually impossible to undertake rapid tuning using those knobs if you are just placing your finger on the top barrel part of the knob itself!
As you will see in photos and video accompanying this review, holding a finger against the rubber on the end of each knob, or closer to the center, to achieve more rapid tuning. But it’s kind of annoying. On the PL-990x the knobs are somewhat different – extending a bit farther out of the cabinet, but also with the rubber coverings.
So, this is a design point for Tecsun to consider. Surely, it should be possible to come up with slightly different knobs for the 501 that make it more comfortable to achieve rapid tuning. As it is, the knobs on the 501 barely extend beyond the cabinet edge, including the end and rubber cap.
The same goes for the PL-330 – which has knobs that only one half inch in depth, and extending only about 1/16 of an inch beyond the cabinet edge. Part of the attractiveness of the 330 is its compact size and I doubt Tecsun will be moving to put slightly larger knobs on that radio anytime soon. But as it is, using the main and fine tuning controls on the 330 gets you maybe 10 kHz in tuning range.
[UPDATE] I realized after further use of the 501x that Tecsun clearly intended for the rubber knob cap covers to act as traction for tuning. The problems I see: after significant use over time, those rubber covers will lose their stickiness and thus their ability to help tuning will be reduced. Also, the fine tuning knob is smaller — and even using the rubber cover on the knob for more traction, it is somewhat difficult to achieve rapid tuning in 1 kHz mode. Tecsun could help 501x owners on the issue with the tuning knobs by including spare rubber knob caps. But it’s uncertain how the existing rubber knob covers are attached to the original knobs and how easy it would be to replace them when they lose their stickiness.
H-501 IMPRESSIVE FRONT PANEL
At the top of the H-501 radio above the LCD display can be found the Display/Snooze/Lock button. On an older Tecsun radio, the PL-880, this button doubled as the calibration adjust control. On the PL-990x this triple function button is located on the top of the radio.
POSITIVE: One of the big positives of the 501 is the large LCD display. The number digits are absolutely huge and make it easy to read frequencies.
Thanks Tecsun! The display contains numerous bits of information about receiver operation, the signal strength meter, etc.
Below the display is the keypad, with special dual keys for 9/10 kHz mediumwave, Longwave activation, and FM range adjustment. Backlight activation is on the 5 key. At the bottom you have the VF/VM key to select between frequency tuning and memories. To the right are the FM, MW/LW, and SW + and – buttons. These put the radio into shortwave mode and as is the case with the PL-990 and other receivers, activate ATS/ETM tuning.
At the very bottom of the front panel can be found PLAY/PAUSE, RR, and FF buttons for control of SD card audio when using the microSD card, which like on the 990x is located on the bottom of the receiver. According to the manual, by the way, the microSD slot accepts cards of up to 128 GB. Included in the box is a 16 GB SanDisk Ultra card. A reset hole is also on the bottom of the radio.
Finally, at the bottom of the 501 face are rubber covered input ports for Earphones, Line In, and Line Out.
METAL TILT BAIL
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE: On the back of the receiver, you find the metal tilt bail which folds down and locks into two plastic tabs and can be lifted easily with a finger from an indentation in the cabinet.
This was a good design move by Tecsun, with the following observations: there are no incremental positions on the metal bail as you find on, say, a Microsoft Surface or similar tablet type PC. The only fully stable position is to have the metal bail fully extended back. That places the 501 in a great position if you’re standing or even sitting to a degree. But if you try to place the bail in any middle position you’re in danger of having the radio become unstable. Tecsun should definitely give some thought to a re-design, though the bail is better than the flimsy plastic stands found on the PL-990 and PL-880 and some older portables.
Still on the back of the radio, intelligently, Tecsun marks a screw hole which can be used to remove the telescopic antenna (marked as ANT SCREW). The other screw holes for removal of the back of the radio are also clearly marked. Thanks Tecsun!
However, one additional partial negative – there are no rubber pads on the bottom back edge of the 501x which will be contacting whatever surface the radio is sitting on while the metal bail is in use. So, if you don’t want that bottom back edge to be scratched, place the radio on something to cushion it.
POSITIVE: Another interesting feature not found on other radios: Tecsun has created a dual charging system for the 501 which uses two 18650 batteries.
In viewing numerous videos, I have not seen this discussed much. Basically, this enables you to use the receiver’s internal charging capability to choose which battery you are charging. The manual states that the battery contains space for a “spare” battery. The charging indicator on the LCD display will flash while charging is underway – there does not appear to be a separate display for battery A or B. However, and this is quite a unique capability – while you are using the 501x, the switch changes which battery the radio is using.
It’s not clear to me whether the receiver while powered on is taking energy from one or both batteries simultaneously. As I note in my reviews, and this is amplified in the manual, do not expect to be able to charge a battery internally and listen to the radio at the same time because there WILL be noise.
HUGE WORLD MAP AND RADIO DIAGRAM INCLUDED
Tecsun includes a huge – and I mean HUGE – World Amateur Radio map in a plastic pouch with the manual. On the back of this is a large photo of the 501 with clear English guide points to each and every feature of the radio. In this, Tecsun is really going out of its way to make owning the 501 a special experience.
In the box (see photos) Tecsun includes 2 18650 lithium batteries, a 5 volt double USB A charging cube, a mini to mini cord, a USB charging cable, and to boot, a pair of fairly high quality wired earphones complete with spare ear tips.
Anon-co advises that the H-501x uses a different IC than the PL-990x. No further details were available as of the time of this writing.
This is clearly a sensitive radio, as is the PL-990X. In these days of declining use of shortwave, almost any receiver is going to be able to hear “stuff” all over the bands and the 501x and 990x as well as the 330 are all quite capable in this regard.
In the video, I tune some familiar stations, including Voice of Greece and BBC
and move through the excellent bandwidth options. This is where the 501, with its large dual speakers, excels because if you’re on a strong station – Greece is a great example because of its great music programs – and you have that wider option, it’s really pleasant to listen to.
NEGATIVE: However, one has to puzzle over the decision to limit bandwidth to 6 kHz when in shortwave mode. On mediumwave (AM) you have a 9 kHz option which provides some fine listening. Perhaps Tecsun felt that there are few stations using shortwave these days that would benefit from having a significantly wider option? I would urge Tecsun to make 9 kHz available in shortwave.
NEGATIVE: I really had some hope that Tecsun would go farther toward
solving the problem of unstable/distorted SYNC mode with all of these recent radios. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Using SYNC on these radios – though this was not the case with the PL-660 and 680 – involves a delicate dance, requiring using a combination of bandwidth filters and LSB/USB. SYNC works fairly well with some stations, but it really depends on signal level, and to an extent signal level of any station close to the frequency you are on.
There is a 1 kHz fine tune spread when using SYNC after which lock is lost. And still, lock is often lost even when you’re on center frequency and not using
fine tune in SYNC – the signal just becomes distorted. Not fun. The PL-990x has the same issues.
Now, Tecsun has definitely made progress since the horrendous implementation of SYNC on the PL-880, which wasn’t even an official feature. But it’s disappointing that given the design features in the 501, especially the wonderful dual speakers, a way has not been found to resolve this issue which obviously involves the DSP chip that is the brain of the receiver.
Video: Detailed testing of Tecsun H-501x
NEGATIVE: One of the things the folks at SONY, Panasonic and some other manufacturers did so well was design radios with antennas that nested inside the radio and could be pulled up and out of the cabinet, and because of this, there was clearance from the top of the radio so the antenna can achieve vertical position. Tecsun has not done the same. Antennas on the H-501x, PL-990x, PL-330 swivel but cannot take up vertical position, and of course they are nested on the top of the radio. One would have thought that after years of producing portables, and coming to dominate the portable market, someone at Tecsun would have recognized the importance of antenna re-design. NOTE: the antenna on the 501x is sufficiently long, but on the PL-330 for example, seems to be not long enough.
POSITIVE: Hooray for Tecsun in integrating BT capability into the 501x and 990x. This was such an obvious move and thanks to Tecsun for really hitting it out of the park. Unfortunately, we don’t get the ability to record audio from the radio on to microSD cards – that would truly have been a major step forward
The H-501 has the same re-calibration adjustment feature as is seen in the PL-909x and the PL-330. This involves going into LSB or USB mode, holding down the USB or LSB keys until a flash appears, then using the Fine Tuning knob to achieve zero beat on WWV or strong station that is known to be on frequency, then holding down USB or LSB again to have the radio re-zero itself. This is a fine feature that we have seen since the PL-880.
When I first received the H-501 it appeared that the receiver was fairly on zero beat from mediumwave up through 25 meters shortwave. Further testing revealed that re-calibration was necessary, but the degree of error from mediumwave up through 19 meters was not as significant as I have seen on the PL-990x. Re-calibrating at a mid-point of 25 meters appears to be a good mid-point choice, but inevitably, doing re-calibration on shortwave will throw the receiver off by a bit down on mediumwave.
A cautionary note: when undertaking this calibration function be sure to give the radio time to confirm it’s in calibration mode with the FLASHing LCD. Sometimes, the readout will jump a full 1 kHz above or below the frequency you’re zeroing on – if that happens use the MAIN TUNING knob to get yourself back (i.e. 9,704 to 9,705.00) and complete the zero beat operation with the FINE TUNING knob, then hold down LSB or USB to complete.
All of this may be overkill for most people – I am just among those who obsess over having receivers as exactly on zero beat as possible. That’s more difficult or impossible to achieve with older receivers that have no calibration function, such as the ICF-2010 or SW-55 without literally taking those radios apart to access internal points of adjustment. The fact that Tecsun provides this capability in these portables is something we should all be very grateful for.
All of the Tecsun radios have a “reset” hole to be used if the receiver is not functioning properly. I had one occasion of lockup with this sample of the H-501x. Rather than using the reset hole, I decided to remove one of the two 18650 batteries, which of course reset the receiver. I have alerted Anon-co to this issue, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s a major problem without having other H-501 units to compare to.
POSITIVE: The H-501 that I received for review from Anon-co came with a beautiful faux leather case complete with a convenient carrying handle. My understanding is that this matches mainland China versions that have been widely seen in videos online.
Anon-co advises that the first batch of 501x to be carried by them will come in a gift box with this PU leather case, possibly to be followed at some later point by a hardcover carrying case. Indeed, a photo can be found online showing the H-501 in a hardcover carrying case similar to the cases for the PL-880 and PL-990x kits.
As of early April, Anon-co advises that while the price for 501x is not set yet, it’s expected to be somewhere in the $310 – 330 range including shipping to the U.S.
AM/MEDIUMWAVE AND FM PERFORMANCE
Not much to say here – I find FM performance on the 501x to be superb, and mediumwave reception is more than satisfactory.
As I noted earlier, these days amid declining use of shortwave by remaining broadcasters, almost any DSP or older portable receivers are capable of producing excellent results for shortwave listening.
Facebook groups devoted to shortwave (they have become the new gathering place and information exchanges for those of us who still love the hobby) are
full of newcomers inquiring about which Tecsun, Degen, or other portables are best.
Often, my advice is to consider older portables that are still quite competitive, especially considering the reduction in the number of stations still on shortwave. These would include such classics as the Grundig Satellit 700/500, the SONY
ICF-2010(2001D), SONY ICF-SW77, and ICF-SW55, along with the venerable Panasonic RF-B65 and SONY ICF-SW100S in the smaller category.
What Tecsun has done with what we have to assume may be the final group of DSP receivers it produces is come up with small (PL-330), medium (PL-990x), and large (H-501) radios that combine extremely attractive features and excellent audio. The H-501x, in effect, is a Grundig Satellit 700 re-born for the 21st century and the path to it was paved by the PL-880.
Though implementation of SYNC in each of these receivers still leaves much to be desired, having this feature is enough to push prospective buyers to choose one or more of these Tecsun units over older portables.
Note that Sangean, which is now producing its ATS-909×2 (though the radio has growing pains and is having its firmware updated by Sangean) seems to have taken note of Tecsun’s dominance of the market and provided multi-bandwith capability, and an improved and enlarged LCD display on the 909×2 along with finer frequency resolution.
In a strange but perhaps understandable decision, Sangean left SYNC mode off of its new flagship receiver. Whether this had more to do with production costs or a decision that synchronous detection really brings little to the game these days, or both, along with other factors, remains a puzzle. It does appear, from early reviews, that Sangean may have improved sensitivity on the 909×2, though this too remains unconfirmed.
But again, even with the negatives I noted here about the H-501x, what Tecsun has accomplished is significant. It has given remaining potential buyers of multi-band portables three superb receiver choices. There are others in the Tecsun line such as the S-8800 and S2000, but of these only the S8800 is something I would recommend.
As I noted in a recent review of the PL-330, had we enjoyed a situation back in the golden days of shortwave in the 1960’s/1970’s/1980’s where a portable provided multiple bandwidths, advanced memory operations, and synchronous detection, DXing would have been even more of an enjoyment than it was. Certainly those Country Heard/Country Verified totals would have been higher!
The H-501x could easily be considered the crown jewel in the Tecsun group with its killer looks, large speakers, and performance equaling the PL-990x. Each of these receivers is arguably an easy choice as a “daily driver” for traveling, though where air travel and TSA issues are concerned, the PL-330 would be a better choice.
RECOMMENDATION: Of the negatives I discuss in this article, only one I would consider fairly huge, and that is the ongoing issue with synchronous detection. If the 501x, like the 990x and 330, were to have this issue resolved that would make it easy to recommend any of the three radios. As it is, the attractiveness of the 501x lies with its beautiful two speaker design. Even with the annoying SYNC issue, I would recommend the radio to anyone who understands the SYNC issue and doesn’t mind and who wants a nice, larger version of the 909x.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who shares the following guest post:
Tecsun PL-330: The Powerful Mini With One Serious Design Issue
by Dan Robinson
As SWLing Post readers know, I have a huge radio collection – including premium receivers and portables, now nearly 100 in all.
So, these days I am hesitant to add too many, but I continue to take interest in what companies such as Tecsun and Sangean are doing in the way of stuffing the latest chip technology and capabilities into portables radios.
The last receivers I reviewed included the Tecsun PL-990x, which has developed quite an enthusiastic following since its consumer version was released in 2020, and the Tecsun S-8800.
Out for some time now is the Tecsun PL-330. By now there are many reviews of it on You Tube and elsewhere.
It’s become a familiar observation for many of us – if this were still the 1960’s and 1970’s – even into the 1980’s, which could be considered the golden days of shortwave and we had receiver technology like this, well what a joy that would have been.
When I traveled around the world both before and after college, and professionally for Voice of America in the 1980s and 1990s, wow what a good time I could have had with today’s portables!
Some world band portables radios back then were superb performers. The Grundig Satellit series 500/700/600/650 come to mind – but these were not exactly what I would call small portables.
Paging through Passport to Worldband Radio from 1990 (wow, that’s 30 years ago!) you see others such as the SONY SW-1, Panasonic RF-B65, and of course, the SONY ICF-2001D/2010 which introduced killer synchronous tuning technology in the 1980s and remains popular today decades after it first appeared.
Also available were the SONY ICF-SW55 and later in competition with the 2010, the SONY ICF-SW77. Today, I have four SW-55s and two SW-77s and still use them regularly.
Tabletop receivers back in the good ol’ days offered multiple selectivity positions. One of those was the Lowe HF-225 (and later Europa version) along with the HF-250, Kenwood R-5000 and R-2000, ICOM IC-R71A, and Yaesu FRG-8800 among many others.
But as far as smaller portables go, features such as synchronous detection and multiple selectivity were still pretty limited, and a number of receivers didn’t offer selectable synchronous as was eventually offered on the Drake R8B and later production of the SW-8.
The RF-B65 by Panasonic – which today remains sought after for its amazing sensitivity – was hobbled by having a single selectivity position. Same with SONY’s SW-1 and SW-100, and 7600GR, though SONY’s PRO-80 had two bandwidths.
Indeed, it wasn’t until Eton brought out the E-1, with its three bandwidths combined with Passband Tuning (though no notch filter) that a portable finally reflected capabilities of some of the better tabletop radios (though lacking a notch filter).
The Grundig Satellit 800 was close in competition with the E-1 (though the earlier Sat 600/650 series also had multiple bandwidths) but was bulky.
Fast forward to 2021 – credit due to Tecsun and more recently to Sangean with its 909X2, for some years now we have enjoyed Asia-originated portables with multiple selectivity and synchronous mode, though sync implementation on some has left much to be desired.
Which is where the PL-330 comes in. When I look at the 330, I am reminded of one of the now ancient SONY portables, the ICF-4920 which was a super small slide-rule receiver that nevertheless was quite sensitive.
Like the 4920, which you could easily slip in a pocket, the PL-330 is a perfect travel portable. Only the Belka-DX SDR and still wonderful SONY SW-100 compete in terms of performance and size.
The 330 is basically a PL-990x in miniature: smaller speaker obviously, shorter antenna, no bluetooth capability or card slot. But as many people who frequent the Facebook groups have observed, pretty much anything the 990x can do, so can the 330.
This radio has ETM/ATS tuning, synchronous detection, multiple bandwidths in AM, SSB and MW, FM mono-stereo speaker control, alarm/timer functions, external antenna jack, display light, and other features.
Tecsun decided to go with a BL-5C battery here – the same with the new PL-368. I think this is unfortunate, since it requires one to obtain a number of those flat batteries if you want to travel and not have to re-charge. On the other hand, this is not a crippling design decision.
What is an unfortunate design problem, in my view, involves the simple question of tuning the receiver.
The main and fine tuning knobs on the right side of the PL-330 are embedded into the cabinet just far enough as to make easy rapid finger tuning of the radio nearly impossible.
In fact, in my testing it’s impossible to thumb tune the radio more than 10 kHz at a time. The same applies to using the lower knob which controls volume. When in FM mode, this issue make tuning just as frustrating almost forcing one to use rapid scan mode.
Another puzzler: Tecsun limited bandwidths in AM SW to three, while in SSB you have 5 bandwidth options. In AM mode, you have a 9 kHz bandwidth, another puzzling choice. Longwave too is limited to 3 bandwidths.
But overall, none of these problems really knock the PL-330 down very far. This is one mini powerhouse of a radio, one that makes you think “wow, if I had just had this back in 1967 or 1973 or 1982.
Some additional thoughts. My particular PL-330 was supplied by Anon-co but is a pre-production version and so does not have the latest firmware. Thankfully, I have not experienced the issue of SSB tuning running in reverse as others have.
NOTE: As most users know by now, but some newer users may not, you cannot charge one of these radios – whether Tecsun or Sangean – using the mini-USB port and use them at the same time. . . there is just too much noise introduced from the charging process.
This little mentioned feature: just as the Tecsun 909x has a re-calibration function, so does the PL-330. Tecsun itself initially declined to acknowledge this, but finally confirmed through Anon-co.
The procedure: Switch to LSB/USB. If the station is not zero beat, hit STEP button once and then quickly again to move the flashing display down arrow so it’s above the far right digit. Then fine tune the station for zero beat. Hold LSB or USB in for a couple of seconds. The LCD blinks. You then have zero beat – but be sure to repeat the process for LSB and USB.
I should mention that just like on the 990x, the re-calibration process doesn’t mean the receiver is then zeroed up and down the shortwave bands. You will likely have to repeat the process from, say 25 meters, to 19 meters, to 49 meters, etc.
I have come to enjoy using the PL-330 here in my house, though like other portables in my collection I need to position it in one particular corner of my home away from incoming cable TV lines.
The PL-330 and the Belka DX are currently king of the pile when it comes to my smaller travel portables.
I fully expect there will be no further receiver development by Tecsun after the PL-330/990x/H-510 radios – but that company will certainly have left us with some great receivers as the days of shortwave approach an end.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13DKA, who shares the following guest post:
From Belarus with love: The Belka DSP
by 13DKA (international man of mystery)
I do have a thing with tiny radios. However, the Belka DSP is so very, very tiny and disguised in understatement that it squirreled itself out of my sight for a while. There wasn’t a lot of information when I took notice of its existence last year, having to order it from a Cyrillic script website prevented an impulse purchase and to be honest, I didn’t think that a shortwave receiver so small could do anything as good or even better than the radios I already own. Then, when this fine blog spread the news about the Mobimax.bg shop in Bulgaria offering this radio, I started another research and I learned that I’m not the only one who had some serious misconceptions about the little squirrel. (“Belka” = “squirrel” in Russian).
The outside: Spy radio reloaded
Admittedly, the tiny metal box with 4 buttons and a (metal) knob, antenna, headphone and a micro USB jack on the side, bringing less than 100 grams onto the scale, in a size that could make this radio as hard to find as your car keys may look like something that must have traded functionality for size. This is no doubt a solid little piece of gear though, one that doesn’t try to be anything but functional.
The form factor could be described as “bigger than a box of matches but smaller than a pack of cigarettes” to the ex- and still-smokers, and the elderly people among us who watched all the classic spy flicks out there may inevitably associate it with “spy radio”. It’s not quite 007’s clothes brush communicator or the U.N.C.L.E. pen radio but it would sure beat classic spy radio equipment which could be anything from a suitcase full of electronics to small boxes with comparatively few transistors in it, and they all wouldn’t have lasted much longer than it takes to be killed by 007 before the batteries would run out of juice.
The Belka DSP is very different from those, while it could possibly be smuggled into the country in a shoe heel, it boasts an endurance of 18h and it consists of 100,000s of transistors due to its highly integrated and low-power consuming electronics. These innards deserve some examination, because there seems to be some confusion about the nature of this radio out there on the interwebz:
Much bigger inside – technicalities:
It seems that some people read “DSP”, see the price and automatically dismiss it as yet another SiLabs 473x radio like many of the bargain Chinese shortwave portables, and the Belka’s miniscule size may suggest that it might not be the best of them either. Some presumed it’s based on an RTL chip… but that’s all as far from the truth as it gets. For starters, said Chinese radios, albeit digitally controlled, are actually still “conventional” analog radios which employ digital signal processing only at some varying later stage in the circuit and use only parts of the many features provided by the SiLabs chip (of which DSP is only a part), some even still rely on analog ceramic IF filters and use the chip only to provide AM/FM (e.g. PL-6xx). If they do use the DSP features, that’s how some end up as “triple conversion” receivers – 2 conventional IF stages with a 3rd, DSP IF stage – and some common quirks.
The Belka DSP, on the other, hand is not exactly a conventional radio to begin with but a basic (“direct conversion”) SDR. If I interpret the information on this site correctly, the only Silicon Labs chip used is a Si5351A multi-clock generator to provide high-precision oscillators to be fed into some TI chips serving as the quadrature detector/mixer, their output is then processed in a pretty decent ADAU1761 audio DSP (24-bit AD/DA), a PIC is controlling all that, and a 1W audio amplifier IC (TS4890) is providing the needed power to drive headphones or a passive external speaker directly. One comment somewhere was putting it in the same category as the Commradio CR-1 and while there’s some truth to it in some way, that’s not quite right either because the Belka DSP doesn’t use some pre-fabricated and re-dedicated TV tuner chip. While the functional principle may be similar, the Belka is made out of “discrete” components.
The different architecture also explains why it has so little in common with the Chinese DSP radios, there’s no muting, chuffing or hissing, no “softmute” or similar slightly malfunctioning attempts at making the radio appear quieter than it actually is, no distortion due to a seemingly uncurable lazy AGC… Instead, everything is predictable, precise (frequency!) and quiet and it behaves and sounds like a classic communications receiver or any reasonable piece of modern ham radio gear.
The Belka DSP ships with a detachable (BNC) 74cm/29″ short telescopic whip, and the receiver is said to be designed to develop full sensitivity with that whip. This may be raising some apprehension about how it would perform on full-sized antennas, but most of the YouTube videos about this radio demonstrate it with all kinds of passive and active antennas and (almost) surprisingly the Belka DSP appears to cope just fine with them, which in turn made me concerned about how good it could be on its whip – I mean it can’t be super-sensitive on a whip and have a decent dynamic range and be cheap all at the same time, right? How does it compare to the typical Chinese portables it’s being confused with? Do I need this radio anyway?
Q would be jealous – performance
Meaningful technical data beyond what’s provided on the purchase pages is hard to find. For example, Fenu Radio has listed the MDS (= minimum detectable signal) threshold as “-135 dBm” (without stating a source), whereas MDS was possibly taken synonymous for noise floor. A Russian YouTube radio channel seems to have actually measured an excellent sensitivity of 0.16µV on 40m in SSB. These would be rather typical figures for such a design and that would make it a quiet and sensitive radio indeed.
My other portables, on the other hand, don’t come with any specs beyond frequency range and features and the proof is in the pudding anyway. Let’s go north by northwest (the correct compass point name would be “northwest by north” BTW) to the secret 13DKA proving ground at the dike to find out if it shows!
Actually I took it to the dike on several days/evenings/nights during the past 4 weeks to test it under varying conditions, to compare it with different radios and to serve as a nutrition source for the local lady mosquitos. The first one I took to the dike was my XHDATA D-808, it seemed like a natural candidate to compare with the Belka because I would use both in the same role – as a very sensitive “wearable” shortwave receiver to carry around on walks. To summarize that quickly – while the D-808 is already a sensitive radio, the difference between the two is represented pretty well by this short audio clip I picked out of many – this is Radio New Zealand International on 13840 kHz, 2 hours before midnight local time (UTC +2):
[No time indications needed here. The portions with mostly noise: D-808, When you hear someone talking: Belka]
So the Belka won the competition for the intended purpose already and it wasn’t exactly a “photo finish” either…mission accomplished, case closed, end of the review, thank you for reading. But… how would it compare to the S-8800, the most sensitive and quiet of my Chinese DSP radios? I felt like this would be an unfair comparison, I mean c’mon, the Tecsun’s whip is almost twice as long as the Belka’s…
So to level the field, I compared them with my favorite lazy makeshift antenna: A few meters of litz wire coupled (inductively) to an old 24ft steel flagpole on my “proving ground”, connected to the radios with a short stretch of coax to shield the “hot” wire inside the car. Not exactly a proper antenna but it would do to compare the radios better and I used this contraption to boost signals (a lot!) in the past years with great success. Indeed, the radios performed very similar on this contraption in terms of sensitivity, so there was no clear winner in this regard. Then on a hot, sunny day I decided to spend the afternoon at the beach with the Belka and the other radios, this time letting the Belka and the S-8800 run against each other on their whips only. To my surprise, the beneficiary of the external antenna the other day was the Tecsun, not the Belka! But let’s break this up into the different modes:
On the Belka DSP, “15,000 kHz” means 15,000.000 kHz, not 15,000.030 or 14,999.790 or worse, no matter how you shake it or where you touch it, it’s dead-on on WWV or many well-maintained broadcast transmitters and calibration or regular retuning is not necessary. Of course it doesn’t have trouble suppressing the other sideband, LSB and USB sound and behave absolutely identical/symmetrical and demodulation, even of strong stations is free of artifacts. This is SSB (or ECSS) reception how it’s supposed to be.
Of all my Chinese portables, only the S-8800 could come close to that “analog” feeling when turning the VFO knob, or particularly its fine-tuning knob with 10-50Hz steps …if that fine-tuning knob wouldn’t cause a terrible frequency jitter while tuning and if the AGC wouldn’t cause clipping and if the BFO had even remotely the stability of the Belka. In the following audio clips you may notice that the Tecsun is slightly off frequency most of the time – after retuning the radio for the 10th time because the sun sets and the air temperature is dropping slowly, I usually stop caring about that.
These clips were all recorded with the S-8800 @2.3 kHz and the Belka @2.4kHz bandwidth. Please, if you really want to hear the differences do yourself a favor and use some headphones or external speakers with some decent bass response, otherwise the important bits may get lost (like on my laptop speakers):
– This is the Gander/NY VOLMET on 10051 kHz the night I used the external antenna:
[0:00: Tecsun, 0:15: Belka]
– Here’s Argentina (LU6FOV) in QSO with Scotland (GM1DSK) on 20m around midnight:
[0:00: Tecsun, 0:18: Belka]
– Same band, a ham in Louisiana later that night:
[0:00: Tecsun, 0:15: Belka]
– 75m after midnight, ragchewing guy from NC on 3927 kHz (alas a noisy band at this time of the year):
[0:00: Belka, 0:15: Tecsun, 0:30: Belka]
Here are a few clips with the radios only using the whip, both recorded on 20m around sunset, when the atmospheric noise was finally going down and the band was slowly closing, at least for north-south propagation paths. Like I mentioned above, the Tecsun with its long whip and great independency from a counterpoise etc., clearly won the comparison with my other portables a few years ago and I was really expecting it to beat the Belka.
– ZS1OPB near Cape Town, South Africa in QSO with an unknown OM, possibly in Scandinavia or Germany. The latter has a pretty borderline intelligible signal, and it shows when switching to the Tecsun:
– Here’s KB3RHR calling CQ even later on 20m, which had just dropped into the quiet period between daytime and the South America route greyline enhancement:
[Again, no time indication needed!]
CW is another mode where the Belka shows how it’s different in that it has a dedicated CW mode to begin with. Most of the portables based on a SiLabs 4735 come with typical CW filter bandwidths like 500Hz, but to receive CW you may have to switch to USB, then to the proper bandwidth first. The Belka DSP has a dedicated CW mode doing these settings for you and a way, way superior 300Hz filter. The passband of that filter can be shifted in 100 Hz-steps between 500 Hz and 1 kHz to match your favorite tone pitch. CW reception is like you’d expect it from a regular ham RX/TRX, proper AGC action, proper filter, no artifacts, clean tone. Tuning through the band with 10, 50 or 100 Hz steps is smooth, quick, easy and fun. While there are of course tiny QRP transceivers particularly for CW, I’m almost sure that this level of CW goodness in such a small general coverage all-mode receiver hasn’t been seen before.
Here’s all 3 radios in one go. I deliberately picked a frequency with someone producing terrible clicks to the left and another pretty loud station to the right:
I think it’s awesome that the multi-banders kind of cover CW now but as you can likely hear, CW is also where the inherent (chip-related) and newly acquired (wanderlusty BFO on the S-8800) shortcomings of the Chinese radios are most obvious. Both distort on the onset of AGC action of course and turn a pure-ish sine CW signal waveform into some more square-ish shape thereafter and their “500 Hz” filters are letting a lot of signals through from beyond the filter slopes, which makes me think that setting is maybe not really meant to be used for CW. In the Tecsun example at 0:21 I had to use the fine-tuning knob and you’ll also hear the S-8800’s strange quirk with trying to mute the audio, despite soft-/automute is being turned off in the “hidden” settings. The D-808 is less quirky and very stable but using the fine-tuning knob to scan the CW segments on the bands is rather tedious with it, because it doesn’t tune the radio continuously and just jumps back to -99 on the same frequency once you reached +99.
When I saw this on the specs list, I thought this must be some error. On second thought it was pretty obvious: A proper shortwave receiver designed by a ham (Alex, EU1ME) for hams (among others of course) must be capable of receiving the local 10m-band FM repeater and of course you could also enjoy European 40-channel CB radio with that. Many ambitious tabletop receivers of the past had that option too. While this is nice, a squelch is more or less mandatory for FM or the listening pleasure will have its limits, and the Belka DSP does not have one. Unfortunately the next FM repeater is too far away, so is the next proper 10m-band opening and to receive any CB (apart from freebanders worldwide around 27,555 kHz USB) in my neck of the woods I have to be very, very lucky and I never managed to hear anything local with any of the portables. By coincidence, on the 2nd test evening on the dike I did pick up some CB stations in FM with the Belka and it did a great job, given the faint (but domestic) signals I got out there. So, the FM function was unsurprisingly tested OK and much more surprisingly, the FM noise is rather untypically unobtrusive.
Noteworthy: NFM has the same filter options as the other modes, so unlike aforementioned receivers with FM option or a dedicated CB radio, you can try a narrower filter setting which can improve SNR on FM (at the cost of some more distortion) in order to dig a weak station a bit more out of the mud.
Receiving international SW broadcasters is what almost all, even some particularly cheap SW portables do quite well. Of course, like any decent receiver aiming for demanding hobbyists, spies and other commercial users alike, the little squirrel is even apt for more elusive DX, due to its versatile filters, stability and sensitivity. On top of that it sports what the manual calls “pseudo-synchronous detection”. I can foresee people misunderstanding this, so I think this could use a bit of an explanation:
Alex likely didn’t use this somewhat unwieldy term for no reason, instead of just putting a slightly misleading “sync detection” on the feature list: To put my limited understanding in simple words, regular sync detection is extracting the modulation content from the carrier, then replacing the original carrier that was battered by the ionosphere with a phase-locked, fresh and stable one from an oscillator, and finally bringing that back together with the modulation content.
“Pseudo sync” does the same except it doesn’t use an oscillator and a phase-lock-loop to recreate the carrier, instead it regenerates the original carrier by squashing it in some limiting amplifier to stabilize it and remove the modulation content. This is a quite smart and parts-saving arrangement and it’s inherently in phase with the signal. But that also means the original carrier must be somewhat intact, the less damage it has taken the better, while the “true” sync detector doesn’t rely on the original carrier and the signal can be reconstructed as long as modulation could be extracted.
That explains why recovering ultra-weak and downright broken signals from clandestine stations at the other end of the globe may not be the strength of a “pseudo-sync” detector, on the Belka it may even desensitize the radio and you will hear less than without…unless the opposite happens. Like with any sync detector I’ve tried so far, sometimes it works, sometimes it won’t. What always works is improving reception of stations that still have some headroom, mitigating phasing effects and making it generally a little more comfy to listen to and I think the Belka’s sync detector does that very well but unobtrusively. It’s usually hard to asses whether or not a sync detector helped with a particular dip in the signal or not, unless you have 2 specimen of the same radio to record their output simultaneously and compare.
ECSS (Exalted Carrier Single Sideband)
Besides the “pseudo-sync” detector, the Belka’s excellent frequency precision and stability also makes the technically similar sideband-reception of AM broadcasts a no-brainer: Just switch to USB or LSB and if the transmitter itself isn’t badly off frequency, that’s all you need to do because the radio is dead-on on the frequency, LSB or USB.* Since the available filter settings are the same for all modes (other than CW), you can also use the widest filter setting for maximum fidelity in ECSS. In comparison, all of the Chinese portables I have (and most if not all of the Chinese, Korean or Japanese portables I owned in the past) need some fine tuning to zero in on the station, each meter-band and each sideband their own setting and some just lacked the stability to stay zeroed in.
*With a tuning resolution of 10Hz, it’s technically impossible to entirely “zero-beat” a station with an offset other than exactly 10 Hz or multiples thereof. However, a small residue beat of a few Hz isn’t that bad and the ability to select the sideband suffering the least interference, the recovered modulation content and the decreased noise through narrower bandwidth still make ECSS a great way to improve reception.
AM reception examples
…beginning with some clips captured using the external antenna:
– This is RHC 5040 kHz, shortly after fading in after midnight local time, followed by some music from Radio Rebelde on 5025 kHz. The Belka’s 2.4 kHz filter setting has not only 100 Hz more bandwidth but also a much more presence-friendly shape than the Tecsun’s rather muffled sounding 2.3 kHz filter. The other notable difference is some high frequency hiss the Tecsun likes to emit, it becomes more evident when the channel noise doesn’t play such a significant role anymore, like on AM:
– Next is CHU 7850 kHz. While CHU is technically transmitting AM with one sideband suppressed (H3E) I threw those in this category, even though at the end I switched the radios to USB to demonstrate the SNR gain this means for both radios:
– CHU again, but now on a late afternoon on 14 MHz with really bad condx and with the radios [b]using their whips[/b]. Unfortunately I lost the clip with the Tecsun in USB but if you consider how little CHU you hear from it in AM, you can probably imagine that it wasn’t that much better in USB:
– Finally 2 clips (again using the whips only) taken from a German station with the imaginative moniker “Shortwave Radio” (www.shortwaveradio.de) transmitting from a site little more than 100 miles from here on 3975 kHz, in the afternoon. Despite the station being so close to my QTH, there’s some pronounced fading on it that makes the Tecsun suffer a bit more than the Belka:
[Left channel: Belka, right channel: Tecsun]
– Same station, but now with both radios switched to wide filters (4.7 on the Belka and 4.0 on the Tecsun):
[Left channel: Belka, right channel: Tecsun]
It’s very subtle but I find the Belka presents AM signals with less harshness and distortion and a more “solid” feel to it. Please note that these clips were recorded with a cellphone (with some decent built-in stereo mic though) and I used my CC Radio 2E as a powered speaker for the speakerless Belka, which is admittedly a great combination.
The Belka has one variable IF filter, whereas both low and high cutoff frequencies can be adjusted for each mode individually and will be memorized for SSB, CW, AM and NFM individually. If you ever played with a more recent SDR, you’ll know what to expect from the filter.
While this perceived superiority over conventional filters may be subject to heated discussions among radio connoisseurs, it will beat whatever cheap ceramic filters usually ended up in consumer-level portables and low-end to mid-range tabletop shortwave receivers and it also beats what the aforementioned Chinese DSP radios have to offer in filter quality and flexibility. For example, those come with pre-defined settings, with arbitrary, varying and not always great sounding filter shapes and lower filter skirts tending to roll off the signal a bit too high for my taste, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage depending on the signal: Some ham operators put considerable amounts of energy into a fat sounding bass. With a filter roll-off around 200 Hz and a weak signal, only a small remainder of modulation will make it to the speaker and you may not even notice that there’s a station while you tune the band*. With the filter reaching down to 100 Hz or even lower, that station’s existence will be immediately obvious and the now more complete modulation content could even be somewhat more intelligible. On the other hand, when splatter from a neighbor channel is creating a lot of rumble you’re happy if the lower edge of the passband can be shifted upwards.
What the Belka’s filter doesn’t quite match is the variety – some the latest China-portables have many presets including 1.7, 1.2 and 1 kHz while the lowest upper filter frequency you can get on the Belka DSP is 2.4 kHz. While this is consistent with common ham radio rigs, I find a filter <2 kHz quite useful on crowded SSB bands. Given the great presence and intelligibility the 2.4 kHz setting provides and the filter not entirely (95%) passing my “4XZ” test, where the filter has to suppress 4XZ’s CW signal on 6407 kHz while the radio is tuned to 6604 USB (Gander/NY VOLMET), maybe 2.3 kHz would have been better for optimum (but in the ham bands very theoretical) channel separation. This is some high level nitpicking for a radio that costs less than one plug-in filter for a Japanese transceiver though.
In AM, the shown filter bandwidths are per-sideband like on some other DSP radios, which equals “audio bandwidth”. That means you have to multiply the number by 2 to get an AM IF filter bandwidth figure comparable to conventional radios with “tangible” filters, the 2.4 kHz setting would be a 4.8 kHz filter and 4.7 means 9.4 kHz.
The Belka has a properly working AGC, but it seems to reflect the radio’s emphasis on SSB: It has a fixed, slow release constant for SSB reception and that appears to be in effect also on AM. Actually, the AGC release time is quite slow (2+ seconds?), just as slow as I would have preferred it if I’ve had a choice, however, this can turn out less than optimal in rare cases of fast fading intervals on an AM station. But that’s still way better than having to live with a fast AM AGC setting on SSB, and it doesn’t really diminish the general AM listening experience with the Belka for me, which I find quite a joy. Being able to listen to SSB stations without compromises for a change and not having to cut the radios some extra slack when they do not quite behave like normal radios is actually a relief.
This may reach into the “signal handling” category, but the Belka does also not exhibit any AGC pumping effects when a loud station is on a neighbor channel. For comparison, this is one of the issues that make the D-808 a little more uncomfortable, particularly on SSB – the constant change and modulation of noise and signals, often triggered by strong signals quite far away at the other end of a band or even worse in another band not exactly nice. Even the S-8800 tends to emit soft modulations or sudden faint hisses in response to stations booming in outside of the IF passband. It’s the sum of all those little behavioral bits that make the Belka play in a different league.
Signal handling capabilities:
Despite being so small, the Belka appears to have 3 bandpass filters for preselection of its coverage range, which is one more than for example the SDRPlay RSP SDRs have in the shortwave part of their coverage. However, all you need is 2 hefty signals within a frontend passband to put a radio’s dynamic range to a practical test. I don’t have any test equipment to quantify this robustness precisely, but I happen to have some big guns transmitting (often simultaneously) on several frequencies in the 41 and 31m bands at night over here, producing signals that none of my portables can swallow without hopelessly overloading when those signals (from sizeable dipoles/loops etc.) peak. In most nights at least one of these stations makes the virtual meter needle hit the stop pin (see screenshot above) and then my RSP SDRs start acting up as well.
Being too lazy Lacking the time to put up a proper “big” antenna at the dike, I simply tried a loop-on-ground with pretty substantial 60ft/20m circumference and a MegaLoop preamp deliberately left at its high gain setting, which was coincidentally just the right amount of trouble for the Belka. Here’s a video showing what was piling up on 41 and 31m in the hours before midnight local time (UTC+2) during the test:
I could’ve missed that if I hadn’t explicitly checked the broadcast bands neighborhood for it, but the Belka did show some mild signs of overloading: there were faint intermodulation products on some out-of-band frequencies and there was some very subtle onset of cross-modulation on e.g. Gander Radio 10,051 kHz, manifesting itself in some “rough” modulation:
[0:00: Tecsun cross-modulation, 0:22: Belka (slightly roughened up modulation)]
In the video, you can see that it was worse in the broadcast bands containing the offending signals (9635 kHz is an example and alas I didn’t check if the OTH radar signal on interfering on 9700 kHz was really there or not). This was however nothing compared to the S-8800, which really started acting up despite its improved frontend. This could be mitigated by using the “Local” switch (which I presume only turns off the input RF amp) on the Tecsun and given that the Belka doesn’t have any means of keeping overloads in check it’s a particularly good thing that it wasn’t anywhere near this level of misbehavior. I should also mention that I was scanning particularly the 40 and 20m ham bands the entire evening, and I didn’t notice any signs of overloading there while RRI, CRI, Vo Turkey and company were blasting the broadcast bands at the same time.
While the Belka doesn’t have a switchable preamp or even an attenuator like some multi-banders, it has a fully adjustable “sensitivity” control, a.k.a. “RF gain”. It’s useful even when using the whip only, because turning it down is effectively putting the radio in “manual” gain control mode and listening to a couple of strong stations with the noise turned way down and without the AGC pulling the schmutz back up is so much more relaxing. Unfortunately, RF gain controls never really help with an overloading frontend.
However, the Belka apparently takes a lot of a beating for a portable but maybe it should be duly noted that none of these radios are really meant to (fully) replace tabletop radios and that the little Belka is so good that it can be used in that role shouldn’t be leading to unrealistic expectations. If need be, there are affordable (<$20) attenuators built into male-female BNC adapters available and I think a -10dB type should suffice in most cases, -20dB if you can’t resist alligator-clipping the Eiffel tower to the Belka.
For your eyes only: Signal indicator and a display that speaks to me
The display is very readable from most angles and the bright backlight can be switched permanently on, off or to the usual automatic mode. The signal meter deserves some extra praise:
Similar to the numerical displays on the PL-880/990 or my D-808, it comes with a signal indicator in the unit of “dBµv/EMF”, indicating 0-90 (or 100? 95?) dBµv/EMF with marks every 10 units from 10 to 90. But this is a bar stretching over the entire width of the display and it has a really fine resolution (13 pixels per division, together at least 120 positions!) and that makes it not only quite a joy to watch but also quite useful for a change!
I find it refreshing to see some “analog-ish” meter on a small portable radio, giving me a very fine and immediate indication of the signal and – particularly valuable for me – the noise floor in a satisfyingly high resolution, albeit with the limitation of not showing anything below 0 dBµv/EMF, which is -113dBm or roughly S2. However, also owed to the radio’s high sensitivity with just the whip, I can not only see the atmospheric noise on 20m during daytime on the beach, I can also tell intuitively if it’s bad or not so bad and notice the drop when the band is about to close, because I have already 13 different positions between “no indication” and “10” where other portables have 5 positions for the entire level range or aforementioned numerical displays, which are abstract and slow due to the needed long averaging/integration time to provide readable numbers.
Converting dBµv/EMF into more customary units is way beyond my math skills but thanks to multiple converter pages I can hopefully help:
The thin line above the meter indicates the “sensitivity” (RF gain) setting and it works in reverse from right to left. This looks like a meaningful arrangement in that the signal meter indication doesn’t change with the gain setting (it still indicates the input signal even when sensitivity is turned all the way down!), so the meter may roughly indicate the ballpark for a sensitivity setting that keeps the AGC from riding the signal for most quiet and pleasant listening to some strong stations in SSB.
Despite only having 6 controls and several sub-menus for settings, I think even for less experienced users the operational concept should sink in pretty quickly because it’s quite intuitive or at least not hard to figure out even without the manual. The English manual is short but well-written and a separate download, the radio comes only with a small slip explaining the different power-on modes because it is set to “safe mode” for shipping and doesn’t initially turn on by just hitting the PWR-button.
Basically, the push function of the rotary knob confirms a selection you made with it in one of the menus and gets you back to the frequency display, each of the 4 buttons can be pressed once to reach the first menu level, twice or more to get to the next levels etc. and a new setting becomes effective when you reach the end of the menu chain, if you don’t just push the big knob.
That being said, while the radio is pretty simple to use, having the only rotary knob controlling any variable parameter on the radio comes with a few ergonomical drawbacks and since that knob also dubs as pushbutton, there’s some opportunity to end up on a slightly different frequency than before after adjustments in the menus – the encoder is quite sensitive with many (100?) pulses per revolution and no indents.
There are 32 memories that store frequency, mode and sensitivity (!), but not bandwidth (which is saved per mode) or step width (which is memorized globally for all modes). Selecting, saving and loading memories is as straightforward as it gets but I quite often save a memory by accident instead of loading it, because the “Mem” button that calls up the memory page is also the “Save” button, while the “Vol” button recalls a memory, which is consistent with the operational concept of the radio’s menus but for some reason my internal logic for the memories is wired the other way around. If you pressed the ‘Mem’-button by accident, hitting the ‘Mod’-button gets you out of that menu to return to your currently set frequency.
BTW, the “spy radio” theme of this review wasn’t only inspired by the size and origin of this radio but also the memory slots, which came pre-loaded with band centers etc, and a few pretty odd frequencies (USB), of which some were showing up in logs of number station monitoring sites only. Using memory slots to jump to bands is not the only way to quickly reach another band though: keeping the knob pushed while turning is putting this into a “fast” mode. If you have selected a step width of 1 kHz or more it’s quite easy to jump to a band several MHz away with very few turns of the knob. With 100Hz step width, each encoder pulse is 10 kHz and it’s often only one quick push-and-twist to go from one segment of a band to another.
Doing the first evening walk with it, I immediately appreciated its particular aptitude for that job: It’s not only more sensitive and has better audio (which belongs into the “ergonomics” category because it’s less dreadful to listen to), it also fits in way more pockets than the D-808. Just hold the ‘Vol’-knob for 2 seconds to lock the frequency, then put it knob ahead e.g. into your breast pocket and there may still be room for some other items in it. The radio is so quiet and sensitive that you can even leave the whip partially or even fully collapsed when you’re just listening to strong stations.
Codename Tinnitus: Downsides and quirks
As per usual, this is the place for the reminder that the perfect radio does not exist, no matter how much money you are willing to throw at it, and the cute little squirrel is no exception.
– The radio is showing a considerable number of birdies across the entire coverage range, something between 1 and 4 noticeable ones per MHz, sometimes very faint ones in between. This is usually a huge showstopper for some people, including me. But then again, birdies are a fairly common thing among all the hyper-sensitive portables and entry-level SDRs and of course they are only an issue if they happen to be on a frequency you want to listen to, in a mode that makes the birdie obvious and it all depends on how likely that is in your personal usage pattern. Even more, some disappear if I connect an external antenna, some only exist if I disconnect any antenna (so that turned out to be a wrong way of assessing how many birdies it really has) and only few of the birdies are having a considerable signal, most of them can only be heard quite faintly in SSB and some are spurs apparently coming out of the mixer so their “relative bandwidth” is only a few Hz, they wander off when you tune the radio a few Hz up or down. Being more of a ham band than a broadcast program SWL, the only (for me) really disrupting birdie I found so far is on 14,175 kHz. Weighing in the considerable strengths and qualities of this radio I concluded that I’m willing to live with that where I have to. Believe me, nobody is more surprised about that last sentence than me!
– In a somewhat related matter, the manual states that the display can cause some noise (unfortunately none of the birdies are created by the display), so the display can be turned off by holding the ‘Mod’-key for a while. However I never noticed any noise that would disappear by turning off the display (and I did that a lot) until I tried to operate the radio in the car with the doors closed and the whip not stuck out of the window. Apparently, within that closed Faraday cage the display noise was reflected back onto the antenna and some hash was audible until the display was turned off. Then on my first walk with the Belka I heard it again – it turned out that putting the radio in one of my jacket’s breast pockets with the display pointing towards my body caused that reflection again – I just turned the radio by 180° so the display faced away from me and that solved the problem. Not really an issue, but something to keep in mind.
– Another observation is some slight loss of sensitivity on 17m. I’m not entirely sure that this is common to all Belka DSP but a Russian Youtube video comparing it with an FT-817 (on some wire antenna in the woods) seems to indicate the same – 18 MHz was the only band where the Belka couldn’t fully keep up with the 817 in that video, and in my tests the 17m ham and 16m broadcast bands were the ranges where it was only as sensitive as the other radios, which admittedly is a pretty subtle difference.
– I know that the soldered-in battery will likely be perceived as a downside by anyone who’s not fond of opening the radio and soldering in a replacement in an unknown and very variable number of years. But such a small radio with that kind of battery capacity just wouldn’t be possible with AA or AAA batteries. If you want to maximize the (easily obtainable cellphone type) LiPo battery lifetime, try to avoid charging it to more than 80%, particularly if you want to stow it away. Only charge it fully when you really need the full capacity and also avoid discharging it below 20% without need. The remaining 60% capacity should amount to ~10-14 hours endurance, which is still a lot of SWLing. The Belka can be recharged on any USB port and even the cheapest powerbank from the $1-store will recharge it at least once.
– Another thing I don’t mind personally but that has triggered criticism about other radios was their bright display backlight and the Belka is such a little reading lamp too, which also serves me well as a safety light when I do my walks in the dark so I won’t be run over by a cyclist.
– The volume control doesn’t turn the audio down to zero, only the sensitivity control can reduce the volume further but that’s just an observation, you don’t turn this radio on to hear nothing. 🙂 There is also a little hiss on the output (not half as bad as on the D-808 though) but that can be easily mitigated by simply using some phones with at least 32 ohms upwards. Most cheap earphones fit that bill, but my old-as-dirt Sony earphones have only 16 ohms and made that hiss obvious enough for me to notice. Without FM band on this radio, you’ll not be running into a listening scenario (classical music, jazz ballads or drama on a really strong FM station) where low impedance headphones or hiss could become a problem though.
– Lastly neither a quirk nor a complaint, but a reminder that this radio is specified to work from 3.5 through 30 MHz: Even with the short whip, most things you will receive below 3 MHz are images of stations above 3 MHz. Of course receiving Shannon VOLMET on 3413 kHz USB is not a problem yet but the lower you go, the more odd things start to show up, for example the Shannon and RAF VOLMETs around ~1.8 MHz in LSB (images from 5.5 MHz). Maybe with sufficient external preselection it will “have” 160m but otherwise take it as if it just doesn’t and it was never advertised as such. I did manage to hear my favorite funny British oldtimer ragchewing net on 1933 kHz though.
Now after all the boring stuff, here’s the radio in action – a compilation of some highlights received the evening I tried the Belka with the pre-amplified 60ft loop-on-ground. I could log some pretty interesting (particularly from a European perspective) stations again, despite the poor condx (SFI=69-70, A+Kpi=normal) we had on all the days/nights during the test, even though the ionosphere was slightly more excited that night, just like me when I picked up some rather unexpected callsigns:
BTW, a LOG is a great outdoor DX companion for the Belka: The antenna can be packed small and put down quickly with the least imaginable amount of hassle (dropping stuff on the ground in an educated way), the receiver is just another tiny box and all can still be brought to a place in your coat pockets. Due to its bidirectional pattern and reduced susceptibility to QRN it likely beats any wire you’d have to hurl up a tree, particularly when there’s no tree around.
The spy who…uh…spy radio I love…umm… summary and verdict:
I’m aware that this review may make the radios I compared the Belka with look bad, which they aren’t. So please don’t get that all wrong, I love my Chinese DSP portables, they’re doing a great job, some of them are very versatile and beat the Belka hands down on any other band than shortwave. But they also come with some common quirks and idiosyncrasies particularly on SSB, sometimes showing their low price…or a conflict with their not so low price here and there.
The Belka DSP on the other hand is a completely different animal (in this case, a squirrel) in terms of ingenuity, architecture, dimensions and likely also target audience – yes, it’s a portable and it’s not perfect either but that’s already the end of the similarities: It’s not a multi-band radio, it won’t wake you up in the morning so it’s not a travel radio by common (OK, by Thomas’ definition), it doesn’t even have a speaker and all it does is shortwave… but that’s what it’s really doing like a big one! It behaves and sounds refined like a regular modern ham radio receiver and generally matches that kind of performance. Its big strength is SSB and CW, but the great stability and precision making these modes so good is beneficial for broadcast listeners as well.
It had no trouble to best my D-808 in the “SWL walkman” role by several orders of magnitude in terms of both size and sensitivity and to my surprise it had no trouble beating my S-8800’s great sensitivity on the whip either, while not showing any of the weaknesses of said radios, except for the birdies. Also, its frontend can take bigger antennas. Underestimating what such a little radio could do, the Belka DSP exceeded my expectations in all aspects by far.
That’s why I never cared less about the quirks of a radio, including the birdies, which are the only really noteworthy issue to me. The overall sensation of a well-conceived radio with outstanding performance paired with irresistible cuteness is clearly dominating my feelings about this, and that it comes from what seems to be a little mom-and-pop business in Belarus at a very competitive price compared to the Chinese offers is explicitly not part of my technical assessment, but it sure is another plus for the Belka. It can be bought directly from Alex’ shop here for currently ~$120 plus shipping, I bought it for ~160€ including shipping via the Mobimax.bg shop in Bulgaria, which certainly included a markup for the middleman and the convenience of PayPal payment.
If you have a craving for communication receiver performance particularly on SSB/CW but lack the funds or just the space in your pockets for a communication receiver, if you want to have a stunning shortwave performer with you all the time even when your carrying capacity is limited to whatever kind of pants you’re wearing, if you’re doing mini-DXpeditions to escape the QRM and want to keep it light-weight but performant – this might be a radio you shouldn’t let pass. Its size-vs-performance ratio is mind-boggling and even though spy radios may be a bit out of fashion nowadays, it would still excel in covert radio operations, like when your XYL frowns at you packing more radios than pants for a vacation.
Please don’t forget to eat or burn this document after reading.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, George Joachim, who shares the following review of the Tecsun PL-990.
AS George points out, the PL-990 in the following review is not the “export” model Anon-Co will eventually offer for sale later this year. It might be nearly identical in every respect, but at time of posting Tecsun is addressing some final firmware updates the the “export” version prior to starting a full first production run. As we learn more about the various versions of the PL-990 in the wild–compare serial numbers, etc.– we will eventually sort out any nuances between versions.
George purchased this PL-990 on AliExpress and I am incredibly grateful to read his review of this model:
Review of the Tecsun PL-990
by George Joachim
The Tecsun PL 990 is one of the three new radios offered by Tecsun and according to the news from the company these may be the last developed.
The other two radios are the Tecsun H-501 and the PL-330. The H-501 is the largest with dual speakers and the PL-990 is of a similar size to the PL-880, PL-680, PL-660 and PL-600. The PL-330 is the smallest and is similar to the PL-310ET and PL-380.
The Tecsun PL-990 is a medium sized portable multi-function radio. It has the following features:
Medium Wave (AM)
Frequency Modulation (FM)
SSB (LSB and USB)
Bluetooth connectivity (BT)
MP3 playback from a microSD port
Clock and two Timers with Alarms
powered by a single 18650 rechargeable 3.7V Lithium Ion Battery, unbranded and supplied.
The radio is a refinement of the PL-880 with styling similar to the PL-680. It is matte black with a hint of grey, finished in a quality plastic case and it is ergonomic with a good weight and feel, just like the PL-880.
This is my fourth portable radio of this size. I had owned the analogue Sony ICF-7601 back in the day and then the PL-660 and PL-880. The Sony was destroyed by me doing naughty electronic experiments and both the PL-660 and PL-880 were gifted to my family members.
Having no such radio, I considered the purchase of a new PL-880. I had contacted Ms Anna from the Anon Co. in HK and she was very helpful and also mentioned that Tecsun is developing a couple of new radios, but these are not yet available. This got me interested in the PL-990 and the H-501. I had also considered the H-501, because I liked the fact that it has two speaker sets, however the radio did seem a big bulky for my needs. I have a few desktop radios, but I needed something to be on my lap or by the bedside. Usually I fiddle with these portable radios lying on my chest until I find something nice to listen to then let it play on auto sleep until it puts me to sleep. I am sure some of you guys do this too. I imagine the H-501 would be a bit big for this.
After reading articles on the SWLing Post and despite the warnings about Pilot run versions and Chinese versions, I decided to risk a purchase from AliExpress. This has been my one and only purchase on AliExpress so far.
My radio was supplied by a company called Li Jia Shops in AliExpress. It cost a steep US$400 and US$157 DHL shipping. Totally expensive and risky in my opinion, but I am known to be reckless with my online purchases.? Besides, I wanted a new toy!
As this was my first purchase from AliExpress, I was a bit apprehensive, as I mainly use eBay. Also buying electronic items from China is a bit risky. One may end up not getting the item, or getting it after some significant delay. As you all know, electronic items exported from China is the largest electronics export operation in the world, so there is congestion in logistics and Covid-19 also adds to that. Selecting DHL to ship the item was very expensive, but I believe necessary. Waiting for an expensive electronic device for two months is a painful experience, at least from my perspective. Using DHL took a mere 12 days. The main delay originated from the shippers. They give the shipment information to DHL well in advance, but they do not actually take the item to DHL unless it suits their facilitators who they assign. The shipment shows as shipped and DHL status is ‘shipment information received’, but in reality the item is still with the shippers. Once it does actually get to DHL, then it is quite fast. Usually the shippers are located in the Shenzhen area and DHL is in Hong Kong. AliExpress will not release the payment unless the buyer confirms receipt of the item as described, so there is some safety for the buyer.
Overall, I was satisfied with the purchase and shipping process. But it was expensive and it was risky. It would be better to approach Anon Co in HK for your purchases rather than AliExpress and Bangood, but ultimately it is the buyer’s decision. For the English Export Version you must wait a bit I think.
The Export Version, the Chinese Version and the Pilot Run Version
This aspect is a bit confusing. From what I understood, and I could well be wrong, the versions are as follows:
Pilot run: this has the buttons as TIME DISPLAY and ALARM (this is also slightly cheaper on AliExpress and Banggood) Chinese version: TIME TIMER A and TIMER B, but with Chinese manuals (what I have acquired) Export Version: TIME TIMER A and TIMER B but with English manuals. (there may be further changes / improvements, as these units are still not available)
I am not sure about the firmware. My unit is presumably a later Chinese Version. And everything works properly as per the Firmware. The serial number of my unit indicates a possible manufacture date of July 2020, although this could be wrong.
The review will be based on the different functions of the radio.
In the UAE we are blessed with several English language FM radio stations with good music and limited advertisements. Each station caters to particular tastes, such as 90s music, modern and classic hits. Reproduction was crisp and in full bodied stereo. The speaker is powerful and not unlike the speaker of the PL-880.
I do not usually listen to AM or MW. However, the radio does a good job receiving these stations with a deep sound and minimal crackling.
Shortwave is still out there folks, although its variety and abundance is greatly reduced. I do receive quite a few broadcasts using the telescopic antenna. Activity is concentrated around the 16m band, the 31m band and the 49m band, although occasional broadcasts can also be found in the 22m, 19m and 41m bands. The SYNC function holds on to weak broadcasts and makes them intelligible. I am sure that the Radio would do a commendable job if one could use a time machine to take it back to the SW hay-days of the 80s and 90s. I wonder if they have any time machines up for sale in AliExpress? 🙂
Right out of the box I was able to fine tune into 14,182.10 kHz on the USB and hear HAMS ‘doing their thang’. It was excellent and far better than what similar attempts resulted in my previous Tecsun radios. I do think that Tecsun has improved the SSB reception with this receiver. I am not a very capable SSB chaser, but if there is something SSB out there, the PL-990 should able to pull it in. One needs to know where and when to tune and luck also plays a role.
Yes it is there, but no, I have never heard anything in there using the PL-990 and all my previous radios. I do wonder if submarines transmit in the LW band? I don’t know.
A lot of listeners are not interested in MP3 listening, but I am. Especially with SW being so sparse nowadays. MP3 was a feature missed from previous Tecsun radios. I enjoy compiling a list of favourite tracks and listening to them, while engaged in a barbecue or in car maintenance or cleaning. I am also a train modeler and like to listen to MP3s while running my trains. Tecsun has even supplied a Sandisk micro SD card of 16GB with various Chinese and international tracks, which I think was nice of them.
There is no Bluetooth button, but by pressing the RADIO/MP3 button an indication will come on the display as BT. The radio can then be conveniently paired with a mobile phone to transfer the audio from a you tube clip or similar to the radio, although I wouldn’t see the need for that. I am not sure if files can be transferred to the radio this way, I believe the function is only for audio playback.
Presentation and packaging
Much like the PL-880, the radio comes superbly packaged. The cardboard box functions as a glossy display of the radio and its features. Inside there are foam holders and there is a sturdy grey plastic toolbox case. In the toolbox case there is the radio, within a nylon bag inside its light brown faux leather pouch. The radio as well as the pouch have a carrying strap. In the toolbox there is a black foam case that contains:
A blue 18650 3.7 V Lithium Ion Battery
A long wire antenna in its real
A short(ish) charging cable
A UK style plug adaptor
A Chinese style charger with 2 USB outputs
A Chinese language operation manual
A Poster containing the map of the world and country Radio codes
On the other side of the Poster is a detailed view of the PL-990 with illustrations in Chinese
The radio uses one Li-Ion type 18650 3.7V battery. The included type is a blue generic unbranded type, I would have preferred a Tecsun-branded battery. I have a couple of vape equipment batteries –Golisi S30, which I believe are superior to the unbranded battery. (No, I am not a Vaper).
The latest Tecsun offering is a great conclusion to their series of multi-function portable radios. It offers some advantages over the PL-880, such as:
Much improved SSB reception
Superb FM reproduction
Apart from the above I don’t see a compelling reason to acquire the radio unless, SSB or MP3 is important for you. Or like me, you just must have the latest.
Style: 90% FM: 100% SW: 90% SYNC available SSB: 95% MW: 85% LW: 80% Battery Life: 70% for the provided battery 8/10 for externally sourced batteries Display: 70% (the display is good, but it hasn’t really changed from previous displays) Buttons: 85% Sturdy and precise, no wobbly buttons here. Dials: 90% hard and precise with excellent indentations Ports: 90% strong a tight female ports with protection plugs Packaging: 95% anything you could wish for. Documentation: 100% for Chinese speakers Antenna: 60% normal telescopic antenna, should be a bit more shiny IMO. Stability: 70% Stands well and has the rear bracket as the PL-880, however, would be easy to snap if pushed. Sensitivity: 95% if it is there it will receive it and improve the signal over listening time.
Overall Review Score:
Go get one, if you must, but better wait for the full export version.
George Joachim 11 AUG 2020
Many thanks, George, for sharing your review of the PL-990!
So far, the PL-990 sounds like it has iterative improvements over the PL-880 which is, I suppose, what I would expect. The PL-880 is a great portable, so I believe even minor performance upgrades–especially in terms of synchronous detection–could be very beneficial to some SWLs. And thanks for taking the deep-dive and grabbing one of the models on AliExpress! It’ll be interesting to compare notes once the “export” PL-990 is released.
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