Tag Archives: Shortwave Radio Shoot out

Video: Shortwave shootout with the Tecsun S-8800

After enjoying an afternoon testing the Tecsun S-8800 on the Blue Ridge Parkway this past weekend, I decided to return to the parkway yesterday and test the S-8800’s shortwave performance.

I carved out about two hours of my afternoon and spent the entire time comparing the S-8800 to the Tecsun PL-880 and the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. I tested the radios on several shortwave bands and in both AM and SSB modes.

On Sunday, we discovered that mediumwave performance is lacking on the S-8800. Not so on shortwave! Check out this short video:

Click here to view on YouTube.

In my comparisons, the Tecsun S-8800 has consistently outperformed the PL-880 and Sony ICF-SW7600GR on the shortwave bands. The AGC is pretty stable and sounds much like that of the PL-880 when QSB (fading) is present. Sensitivity is better than the PL-880, though, so the S-8800 can dig those signals out of the noise a little better.

Note, too, I had to pick up both the PL-880 and ‘7600GR  in my hand to obtain the best performance–that additional grounding gave each a slight boost. Quite common for portables. The S-8800 didn’t require this.

After I returned home yesterday, it struck me that perhaps a longer telescopic whip gave the S-8800 an advantage. Turns out, it’s only three inches longer than the PL-880’s whip.

Next, I need to spend a little time with the S-8800 mapping out any birdies on HF–a tedious process. I hope to start on that today.

To follow updates on this yet-to-be-released receiver, follow the tag: Tecsun S-8800.

UPDATE: Click here to read our full Tecsun S-8800 review.

Shoot-out results: Top ultra-portable shortwave

Tecsun-ShootOutThanks to all who participated in our ultra-portable shoot-out! A little over a week ago, I posted recordings of shortwave broadcasts, weak and strong, in an attempt to evaluate which recording–thus which radio–our listeners prefer. I conducted this test on the three radios pictured above: the Tecsun PL-310ET, the CountyComm GP5/DSP (Tecsun PL-360), and the Tecsun PL-380–among the most popular ultra-portables currently on the market. This test was “blind” in the sense that all three radios evaluated were merely labeled “Radio 1,” “Radio 2,” and “Radio 3,” respectively.

The samples

To refresh your memory, I’ve embedded the audio samples below for you to hear; but if you haven’t yet heard them, I encourage you to read our previous post before doing so. (If you’re already heard the recordings, simply skip this section.)


Global 24 – 9395 kHz (Strong)

Radio 1

Radio 2

Radio 3


ERT Open/ Voice of Greece (Relatively strong)

Radio 1

Radio 2

Radio 3


Radio Riyadh (Weak)

Radio 1

Radio 2

Radio 3


Rádio Bandeirantes (Very weak)

Radio 1

Radio 2

Radio 3


And now…the results!

The following chart shows how each radio scored out of a total of 106 (wow!) survey responses:

ShootOutRadios

Let’s start with the radio that scored lowest in this contest…

Radio 3: the CountyComm GP5/DSP (a.k.a., the Tecsun PL-360)CountyCommGP5DSP

Interestingly, the GP5/DSP consistently came in last in every category. I think a few factors outside of receiver performance led to this.

For some reason, the recorded audio of the GP5/DSP sounds out-of-phase.  Several of you noted this. The resulting sound almost mimics a “stereo” effect. No matter how many times I made recordings on the GP5/DSP, this feature predominated, and I eventually assumed it to be characteristic of this radio’s DSP.

But I’m wondering now, however, if there might be oxidation on one of the headphone jack conductors, or if the headphone jack on my unit is somehow faulty–?  Because of this, before conducting the medium wave shoot-out, I’ll try to clean the conductors with a little Deoxit to see if it makes a difference.

Unlike the PL-310ET and PL-380, the GP5/DSP can’t change AM bandwidths. On the strong recordings, I widened the bandwidths of the PL-310ET and PL-380 to 6 kHz; this improved their audio fidelity. On weak signals, I narrowed the bandwidth to 3 or 4 kHz, keeping both at the same level as I did so. While the GP5/DSP’s fixed bandwidth is well chosen, it simply couldn’t compete with the wider filters of the other two radios on strong signals.

Though the GP5/DSP (Tecsun PL-360) came in last, the irony is that most people who made comments on the survey form actually mentioned that the GP5/DSP was also a strong contender. Here are a few responder’s comments:

  • “The bassiness of Radio 1 was pleasing to listen to, but the clarity of radio 3 was also pleasing. All three sounded very good.”
  • “I was divided–Radio 1 seemed to provide the better audio on the stronger stations (not as muddy) yet Radio 3 beat it out on the weak stations and seemed to hold the station steadier (less fading) thereby providing a better audio to hear and understand.”
  • “I think if I were to place these three radios in order of “listening pleasure” based on the provided samples, my order would be 3, 1, 2.”
  • “By a small margin Radio 3 seemed to have the best signal to noise ratio and general audio quality across the range of signal strengths.”

Also notable:  the GP5 has one very distinct advantage over the other two radios, something that wouldn’t have been noticed in this test: its ETM function, which scans the whole band then automatically stores stations to temporary memory, is almost two times faster that that of the other radios. It also seemed to be equally accurate.

So, who would buy the CountyComm GP5/DSP (Tecsun PL-360)? Someone who likes this radio’s form factor, it’s stable AGC, and quick ETM scanning. Keep in mind, we are comparing this model with two of the best radios under $60, in my opinion. Had we compared the GP5 with most other sub-$60 radios, it might have won that shoot-out, and with ease.

Click here to purchase the CountyComm GP5/DSP. [Note that the new CountyComm GP5/SSB should be available soon–I plan to review it shortly thereafter.]

Radio 2: The Tecsun PL-380

Tecsun-PL-380

The Tecsun PL-380 came in a very consistent second place in this shoot-out.

The ‘380 is one of my favorite portables on the market; for many years, it has been my go-to radio for one-bag travel.

Before recording the shoot-out, I guessed that the PL-380 might take first place. But up to this point, I had never actually compared it with either of the two other radios in this shoot-out. Listening to the blind samples, I tend agree with the results.  Still, the PL-380 is a great value and a fun little radio, one I can still easily recommend for travel.

Click here to search for the Tecsun PL-380 on Amazon.com, click here for eBay and click here for Universal Radio.

Radio 1: The Tecsun PL-310ETTecsun PL-310ET

As you can see from the graph, the Tecsun PL-310ET won our shoot-out in every category–and by a fairly wide margin:

UltraPortableShootOut

While comparatively few participants’ comments were specific to the PL-310ET (“Radio 1”), it’s interesting that these most often made note of this radio’s very close resemblance to the PL-380 (“Radio 2”).

The PL-310ET had only a slight advantage over the PL-380 to my ear, but it was enough; so along with most survey respondents, I took note of that advantage.

Now, I know this much: when people ask me whether they should purchase the PL-380 or PL-310ET, I think I’ll suggest the PL-310ET. In the end, it makes for a better travel radio because it also has an external antenna jack, one of the few sub-$60 radios that has this useful feature.

In summary, the Tecsun PL-310ET is truly a fantastic ultra-portable radio, and, at $48 – 52 US, it’s a real bargain, to boot.

Click here to search for the Tecsun PL-310ET on Amazon.com, click here for eBay.

Coming soon…our medium wave shoot-out!

When I find the time in the next month or so, I plan to test the same radios in a medium wave (AM) shoot-out. Weak-signal medium wave will put AGC circuits and internal ferrite antennas center stage. Please be patient, however, as these tests actually take time to put together and evaluate.  Again, your participation will be most welcome!

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? 

Results of the Shortwave Portable weak signal shoot-out

RadiosShootOut-SonyTecsunSangean

Thanks to all who participated in our shoot-out!  Last week, I posted three recordings of a weak shortwave broadcast in an attempt to evaluate which recording–thus which radio–our listeners prefer. The test was “blind” in that, though four radios were evaluated, only three recordings were posted, merely labeled, “Sample #1,” “Sample #2,” and “Sample #3,” respectively.

The radios tested were not just average radios. Rather, they represent the best of the truly portable radios currently on the market, namely: the Sangean ATS-909X, the Tecsun PL-880, the Tecsun-PL660 and the Sony ICF-SW7600GR.

Indeed, the most popular question I receive from SWLing Post readers is about two or more of these models, asking,”which is best?”

The samples

To refresh your memory, I’ve embedded the audio samples below–but if you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to read our previous post (and the great reader comments following!) before proceeding.

The recordings in our samples are of Radio Romania International on 11,975 kHz. Normally, the signal would have been stronger, but propagation was rough, and QSB (fading) was pronounced at times. Note that I recorded all of these samples with my Zoom H2N digital recorder via a line-in connection, using the radio’s headphone jack. Since not all of the radios have a line-out jack, I used the headphone jack each time and simply set the volume and line-in gain to the same level.

Sample 1:

Sample 2:

Sample 3:

And now, here is the sample I intentionally left out in my previous post…Sample #4. I didn’t include it in the evaluation because, frankly, it was such a weak performer compared with the other three; I knew it would take last place:

Sample 4:

With that in mind, we’ll start with the radio behind Sample 4:

Sangean-ATS-909X

Sangean ATS-909X ($200-250 US)


Many readers guessed rightly that the Sangean ATS-909X was the radio omitted. Evidently, it is known for its lack of sensitivity when only employing its telescoping whip antenna. You’ll notice that, most of the time, the RRI broadcast is lost in the static.

Frankly, I was somewhat surprised that the ATS-909X didn’t perform better. It has a loyal following amongst SWLing Post readers and has been a popular radio on the market for the past three years or so. While I’ve used the ATS-909X in the past, I have never owned one, and had never done a side-by-side comparison.

To perform this test, I borrowed the 909X from a friend who usually has it hooked up to an external antenna. In fact, this is when I learned that the 909X performs admirably when hooked up to an external antenna.

In my tests, however, I didn’t want to hook up external antennas.  I believe that for a radio to be evaluated as a portable, it must be judged on its ability to receive signals from its telescopic whip antenna as a base line.

But let’s move on to the radios you did hear in our weak signal evaluation…

Let’s take a look at the radio behind Sample #3, the radio our readers voted to take last place in terms of weak-signal listening:

Tecsun-PL-880

Tecsun PL-880: Sample 3 ($150-160 US)


With the exception of three votes (out of more than seventy), Sample #3–the Tecsun PL-880–was overwhelmingly voted worst in this weak-signal shoot-out.

The bulk of your criticisms focused on the fact that the PL-880 did not handle fading as well as the other radios. When the signal was at a peak, it sounded great, but in QSB troughs, the signal became unintelligible and you could hear DSP artifacts and distortion.

But is the PL-880 a “bad” radio? Absolutely not. Indeed, I gave it pretty high marks when I reviewed it last year. It’s just not the best choice for weak-signal listening–at least in its current firmware version.  Note to Tecsun:  I do believe it may be possible to tweak this portable’s AGC circuit so that it handles fading better…

But let’s move on to the other contestants. Here’s our second-place portable:

Tecsun-PL660

Tecsun PL-660: Sample 2 ($110-130 US)


During the first day of voting, the Tecsun PL-660 actually had a noticeable lead on the other radios. I’m not surprised. The sensitivity was better than the rest of the contestants, in my opinion. The received audio was clear and seemed to pop out of the static better than the others.

Overwhelmingly, those who didn’t vote the PL-660 as best, voted it as second. Their main criticism was that the PL-660’s AGC was a little too active and less stable than the radio which actually took first place.

And with no further ado, here’s our winner:

Son-ICF-SW7600GR

Sony ICF-SW7600GR: Sample 1 ($130-150 US)


Surprised?  I was!

After I evaluated the blind test myself, I was certain the PL-660 would be the winner with its stronger sensitivity. But the result–and reader comments–proved me wrong. More of you placed a value on the Sony’s rock-solid AGC circuit which handles the peaks and troughs of fading better than the other contenders.

Commenters noted that the Sony’s audio and stability lent itself to easier, less fatiguing, listening. Keep in mind, though, that many of these same commenters mentioned that the PL-660 (Sample #2) would be their preference for identifying a station in under weak signal conditions.

Now let’s look at the raw data, and then discuss what it all means.

The data

The Sony ICF-SW7600GR was voted:

  • first place 41 times,
  • second place 2o times, and
  • third place once

The Tecsun PL-660 was voted:

  • first place 23 times,
  • second place 33 times, and
  • third place twice

The Tecsun PL-880 was voted:

  • first place never,
  • second place three times, and
  • third place 53 times

I’ve attempted to place this data into a bar graph to make it a little easier to visualize: RadioShootOut-ResultsIf you noticed that these numbers don’t completely add up, it’s because responses were inconsistent.

Most survey participants listed their preferences in order (i.e., first, second, and third place). Some respondents only listed their favorite of the three, while others only listed the one they didn’t like. No one responded with a tie between the radios, all had an opinion.

Another way of reading the results

SWLing Post reader “Radio Flynn” helped me with some additional data interpretation this morning. He put together this analysis (download as a PDF), and commented:

“[A]lthough a majority of people choose sample #1, nearly everyone ranked either sample #1 or sample #2 as preferred, and the average ranks are very close, closer than the raw percentages would indicate. I have not done a statistical analysis so I don’t know if the difference in mean rank between #1 and #2 is significant (in other words, I don’t know if there is a significant preference for #1), but you can say that either sample 1 or sample 2 would be acceptable to almost everyone, and sample 3 clearly last choice.”

Radio Flynn also pointed out that next time I do this sort of test (and I will be doing another!) that I should keep votes consistent by asking everyone to rank their preference. Excellent suggestion; I’ll be sure to do so.

So the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is the best radio…right?

Not exactly.

Herein lies the difficulty of suggesting the “best” radio for any particular listener.

This test only evaluated weak signal sensitivity under rather rough conditions. The Sony was “the winner” in this respect.

SideBySide-FourRadiosBut this doesn’t tell the whole story.

I’ve had my Sony ‘7600GR longer than any of the other portables in this contest and it is invariably the radio I reach for when I want to make a field recording. I prefer the Sony because it has good sensitivity, a stable AGC, excellent single-sideband selectable sync detection and it can handle being connected to a long external antenna. Indeed, it was the Sony I packed when I spent the summer of 2012 in an off-grid cabin in the Canadian maritimes. In short: my Sony ICF-SW7600GR is my “old faithful.”

But frankly, when I travel, I reach for the PL-660 more often than not. Why?  Yes, the Sony has great receiver characteristics, but its ergonomics leave a lot to be desired. I use my Sony when I plan to key in a frequency and leave it there. The PL-660 is a joy to operate, has simple direct-frequency entry, an excellent auto-tune feature, not to mention, a stable sync detector.

If I want to identify a signal buried in the static, I reach for the PL-660.

If I want to do casual listening and am less concerned with DXing, I reach for the PL-880. It’s a solid radio and has a quality feel to it (running neck-and-neck with the ATS-909X in this respect). Of this bunch, it has by far, the best audio from its internal speaker. If I want armchair listening, I reach for the PL-880. It’s also an excellent SSB receiver–one of the best in this group–and offers more filter selections.

In summary, it’s not always easy to suggest which radio is best…I must ask in response, “Best for what?” The data from this test proves this, as our readers who ranked their favorites backed up their choices with consistent and valid comments.

What do you think?

Before long, I plan to pit these radios (and perhaps another?) against each other in terms of their synchronous detectors in another blind test.  It may take a while to work this up. Your enthusiastic responses, however, completely justify it.

Stay tuned!

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