Tag Archives: Tecsun PL-310ET

Best of the best: Reviews of some of my favorite portable shortwave radios

The following article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


Shortwave Portables: Some of my favorites

Being a radio writer and blogger, I’m often asked, “Isn’t radio dying?” or “How long are you going to keep listening to radio when there are so many other options out there?”

My answer? It’s simple:

Radio is about the journey.  And radios are the vehicles with which I explore our planet, albeit sonically.  I’ll stop listening to radio when it stops transporting me to far-flung, fascinating places across our planet.

I’ll stop listening to radio when when it can no longer provide the kind of direct information and understated entertainment that is, for me (and a few others like me), a welcome relief from the overwhelming demands and distractions of the Internet.

And I’m perhaps a bit anachronistic in that I prefer radio’s subtler theatre of the mind over the mindless image consumption that television demands; thus, I’ll stop listening to radio when it too, tells me what I must think, what I must imagine, and what I must feel.

In short, radio is my tool for exploration, and I continue to enjoy tuning, listening, logging and learning from it.  Very fortunately, I have the great pleasure of being in the middle of the world of radio technology in my reviews, evaluations, and alpha/beta testing.

This is why, over the years, I’ve made an effort to share some of my picks of the litter with others.  So when TSM editor Ken Rietz asked if I would be interested in writing a feature about this, how could I resist?

What follows is a series of mini-reviews which focus primarily on the portable radio market. This is, by definition, a curated list, but I’ve done my best to include a variety of receivers I regularly recommend. The radios are listed roughly from least expensive ($25) to most expensive ($270), and I’ve only included models that are in production at the time of this publication.

Ever-popular portables

Portables are truly the most popular category of radio among shortwave radio enthusiasts, and it’s no wonder why! Among their other virtues, modern portables can pack a lot of performance into an affordable package, they’re great for travelling, and their all-in-one nature makes shortwave listening accessible to virtually everyone.

Since I’m in the constant stream of correspondence and comments from radio enthusiasts, I know another reason some listeners consider portables simply invaluable: portables give us refuge from noise. Since many of us live in, and/or travel to, busy urban areas filled with radio interference, portables give us a means to head to the park, beach, or the countryside to escape the noise and increase our odds of working DX.

Fortunately for us, modern portables pack features of which, in former radio-listening days, we could have only dreamed.

What follows is a list of my favorite portables, listed by price in US dollars, with the least expensive first. Please note that retailer links include Amazon and eBay affiliate links that support the SWLing Post with your purchase.

Best Portable Shortwave Radios

$25 – $50 Range

Tivdio V-115 / Retekess V115 / Audiomax SRW-710S

Listening to the BBC Midwinter Broadcast on June 21, 2017 in Québec.

Pros: Affordability, sensitivity, built-in recording and audio playback features, compact size, impressive audio from internal speaker

Cons: Mutes between frequencies, front panel buttons feel rather cheap, no SSB mode, sluggish response from controls, small telescoping whip

Summary: For about $25, it’s hard to complain about the V-115. Its performance and list of features exceeds expectations for radios in this price range, which are generally a disappointment. As for myself, I mainly use the V-115 as receiver to make off-air recordings and as an occasional backup radio. Unless your budget is very tight, don’t buy the V-115 as your main receiver; rather, buy it to keep in the glove compartment of your car or in your go-bag. Note that this radio carries a number of brand names and has been rebadged many times. Click here to read more reviews of the V-115 on the SWLing Post.

Retailers:

Grundig Mini

Pros: Compact, simple, adequate sensitivity and selectivity, clear backlight display, surprisingly decent audio from internal speaker

Cons: No direct frequency entry, no SSB mode, limited features compared with pricier receivers

Summary: The Grundig/Eton Mini is the latest in the lineage of the Mini series from Eton.  The Mini has remained a popular radio because it delivers decent performance, with above average audio and makes for a nice broadcast listening companion. I recommend the Mini as a gift for those who want a simple pocket radio to operate with an easy-to-read display––great for the traveler or for elderly parents or grandparents who don’t like too many fussy buttons. Certainly a great value for the money.

Retailers:

Tecsun PL-380

Pros: Excellent sensitivity and selectivity, excellent audio via headphones, multiple AM bandwidths, ETM auto-tuning, excellent ergonomics, responsive controls, direct frequency entry, excellent bang-for-buck

Cons: No SSB mode, slight muting between frequency changes

Summary: The venerable PL-380 was my first ultralight Tecsun radio. It’s been on the market for many years, no doubt due to its solid performance. The PL-380 has an excellent receiver with impressive sensitivity and selectivity. The ETM auto-tuning feature is ideal for those of us who like to travel. The PL-380 is durable, affordable, and in terms of performance, is very similar to the PL-310ET (below). The PL-310ET might have a slight edge in terms of sensitivity. But for just $45, you simply can’t go wrong with the PL-380.

Retailers:

Tecsun PL-310ET

Pros: Excellent sensitivity and selectivity (perhaps slightly more sensitive than similarly-priced PL-380), excellent audio via headphones, multiple AM bandwidths, ETM auto-tuning, excellent ergonomics, responsive controls, direct frequency entry, excellent bang-for-buck

Cons: No SSB mode, slight muting between frequency changes

Summary: The PL-310ET, like its cousin the PL-380, is a classic ultralight radio and performs brilliantly for the price. The PL-310ET has long been the backup radio I’ve taken along on mini DXpeditions and field-listening sessions. The ETM auto-tuning feature is ideal for those of us who like to travel. The PL-310ET is reliable, and you’re hard-pressed to find a better performer under $50––indeed, it rivals some receivers twice its price. A solid choice for the budget-minded radio enthusiast and Ultralight DXer.

Retailers:

$50 – $100 Range

XHDATA D-808

Pros: Impressive overall performance, SSB mode, multiple AM and SSB filter widths, above-average audio from internal speaker, RDS, dedicated fine-tuning control, decent battery life from four standard AA cells, includes AIR band

Cons: Mutes between frequency changes, sluggish response from controls

Summary: The XHDATA D-808 was, no doubt, the most surprising receiver to hit the market in 2017. It’s an impressively sensitive radio across the bands, and can be snagged for an affordable price (generally $75-80 US). I was very skeptical of the D-808, but when I put it on the air, I discovered it gave some of my full-featured portables a run for their money. It is, indeed, a budget workhorse. If you live in New Zealand or Australia, you might find the very similar Digitech AR-1780 a more accessible option. Internally, the D-808 and Digitech AR-1780 (see below) are very similar. Click here to read more D-808 reviews on the SWLing Post.

Retailers:

Eton Field BT

The Grundig Field BT

Pros: Impressive sensitivity, excellent audio fidelity, can be used as a Bluetooth speaker, intuitive display, dedicated RF gain, simple tactile controls, overall quality feel

Cons: Clunky/quirky tuning is painfully slow, no direct frequency keying, no SSB mode

Summary: Last year, my friend Troy Riedel and I met at Mount Mitchell State Park to compare the Eton Field BT with the benchmark ($270) Tecsun S-8800. We were impressed that the Field BT did an admirable job competing with the S-8800 (see below). Indeed, due to the Field BT’s excellent audio, some broadcasts were slightly more intelligible than on the S-8800 (noting the S-8800 also has excellent audio). The only negative that was quite obvious at the time was how cumbersome it was to tune the Field BT compared with the S-8800. One year ago, the Field BT was widely available for $129––lately I’ve seen the price as low as $80 shipped. If you’re looking for a lunchbox radio that packs serious performance, room-filling robust audio, and you don’t mind slow tuning, the Eton Field BT is an excellent choice.

Retailers:

CountyComm GP5-SSB (a.k.a. Tecsun PL-365)

Pros: Excellent sensitivity, audio fidelity quite good via headphones, effective SSB mode, multiple AM and SSB bandwidths, very good medium-wave reception with supplied external bar antenna, unique form factor for one-handed operation, uses three standard AA batteries

Cons: No direct frequency entry, audio tinny via internal speaker, AGC doesn’t cope with fading as well as other comparable portables, no back stand nor rotatable whip antenna; thus this radio is not ideal for tabletop listening, supplied belt clip feels flimsy––if you plan to use this in the field, consider purchasing the excellent CountyComm GP5 series rugged case.

Summary: The GP5-SSB was one of the first sub-$100 DSP portables with SSB mode. Since its release others have entered the market (see XHDATA D-808 above for example). The GP5-SSB has a unique form factor tailored for handheld operation, much like a handie talkie. I keep a GP5-SSB in my backpack to use while on hikes, and am always very pleased with its performance. If you’re looking for a bedside or tabletop portable, I would recommend other similarly-priced receivers like the XHDATA D-808 or Digitech AR-1780. Note that if you live outside North America, you might find it easier to purchase the Tecsun PL-365 which is identical to the GP5-SSB. Click here to read our full review of the CountyComm GP5-SSB.

Retailers:

C. Crane CC Skywave

Listening to the 2016 BBC Midwinter Broadcast to Antarctica while traveling in Canada with the CC Skywave.

Pros: Overall great sensitivity and selectivity for a portable in this price class, considerate design, well-tailored for the traveler, AIR band is truly functional, NOAA Weather radio reception excellent, includes soft silicone earphones (in-ear type) actually worthy of AM/SW listening, auto scanning with the up/down buttons is very rapid, uses common micro USB port for power/charging

Cons: No SSB mode, internal speaker audio is somewhat tinny (use of the voice audio filter helps), no external antenna jack, mutes between frequency changes

Summary: I think the original CC Skywave is a brilliant little radio. Although it lacks SSB mode, it’s a fine broadcast receiver and one of the most sensitive travel portables on the market. For those of us living and traveling in North America, the CC Skywave is a veritable “Swiss Army Knife” receiver, as it not only covers AM, FM and shortwave, but is a capable AIR band and incredibly adept NOAA/Environment Canada weather radio receiver. At $90, I believe it’s the best radio value in the C. Crane product line. If the lack of SSB mode is a deal-breaker for you, consider the Skywave’s pricier brother, the CC Skywave SSB (below), also an excellent performer. Click here to read our full review of the CC Skywave.

Retailers:

$100 – 200 Range

Digitech AR-1780

Pros: Impressive overall performance, SSB mode, multiple AM and SSB filter widths, above-average audio from internal speaker, RDS, dedicated fine-tuning control, decent on-air battery life from four standard AA cells, includes AIR band

Cons: Mutes between frequency changes, sluggish response from controls. Note that at least one user has reported quick battery discharge when the radio is turned off. This has not been the case with my unit–in fact, it’s often turned off for a couple months at a time and maintains a steady, healthy charge.

Summary: Digitech is not a brand known for delivering enthusiast-grade receivers to the Australian/New Zealand markets through retailer Jaycar.. While they’ve a number of portables on the market, so many are plagued with internal noise and quirky controls. The AR-1780 is an exception. For $129.00 AUD (roughly $103 USD), you’re getting a full-featured radio that is, by and large, a pleasure to operate. The AR-1780 has its quirks, but so do so many ultra-compact portables in this price bracket. As mentioned in the cons above, there have been reports of some units draining batteries rather quickly when turned off (essentially in standby)––I have not experienced this, but this issue has been reported by a number of AR-1780 owners. The AR-1780 is certainly worth considering if you live in Australia or New Zealand. Note that the Digitech AR1780 and previously mentioned XHDATA D-808 share a nearly identical receiver design although their outer dimensions are slightly different. Click here to read our full review of the Digitech AR-1780.

Retailers:

Tecsun PL-660

Pros: Smooth digital tuning with no muting between frequencies, excellent synchronous detector, functional SSB mode, direct frequency entry via keypad, brilliant ergonomics, excellent sensitivity and selectivity (a best-in-class!), excellent price point and value for benchmark portable performance

Cons: BFO knob instead instead of push-button SSB, only two filters (wide/narrow), lacks a line-out jack

Summary: I’ve owned a PL-660 since 2011 and still take it on DXpeditions and to use as a benchmark when evaluating new receivers. It has rock-solid performance all around with pleasant audio from the built-in speaker, and one of the best synchronous detectors on the portables market. The PL-660 is the radio I’ve recommended more than any other for newcomers to the hobby: it’s a very capable DX machine with an ergonomic, intuitive interface. Click here to read other SWLing Post reviews that include the PL-660.

Retailers:

Tecsun PL-680

The Tecsun PL-680

Pros: Excellent sensitivity and selectivity on the shortwave bands, improved weak signal stability over the PL-660, stable sync lock, proven form factor with good overall ergonomics, great internal speaker––an improvement over the PL-660, but not as good as the PL-880––in short, other than medium-wave performance (see con), a worthy replacement for the PL-660; also sports excellent audio from the PL-680 internal speaker: improved over the PL-660, but not matching the fidelity of the PL-880

Cons: Medium-wave performance is lackluster, marginal noise floor increase on the shortwave bands (compared with the PL-660), lacks a line-out jack, SSB frequency display on my unit is + 1 kHz, so slight BFO adjustment is needed

Summary: If you’re a shortwave radio listener, you’ll be pleased with the Tecsun PL-680. In all of my comparison tests between the Tecsun PL-660 and Tecsun PL-680, the PL-680 tends to edge out the PL-660 performance-wise. This coincides with blind user surveys I conducted on the SWLing Post. If you’re a medium-wave DXer, you might skip over the PL-680; the PL-660 is likely a better choice for you. If you’re a casual medium-wave listener on the other hand, you’ll probably be pleased with the PL-680. Click here to read our full review of the PL-680.

Retailers:

CC Skywave SSB

Pros: Considerate design and ergonomics, well-tailored for the traveler, excellent sensitivity and selectivity for a compact radio, faster AIR scanning compared with the original CC Skywave, better HF frequency coverage than the original Skywave (1.711-29.999 MHz, compared to 2.300-26.100 MHz), pleasant SSB audio, multiple bandwidths in both AM and SSB modes, no overloading noted, well-written operation manual, excellent weather band reception, nice red LED indication lamps for SSB and Fine Tune engagement, NOAA Weather radio reception excellent, includes soft silicone earphones (in-ear type) actually worthy of AM/SW listening, uses common micro USB port for power/charging, excellent battery life from two AA cells

Cons: At $169, US the CC Skywave SSB is certainly the priciest compact portable on the market, yet mutes between frequencies, engaging SSB mode requires 2-3 seconds of delay (common for this DSP chip), no RDS, no audio-out jack, no sync detector (a “con” in this price class), no long-wave reception, first production run had some quirks which have now been addressed by C. Crane (in case you shop for a used unit).

Summary: I love the CC Skywave SSB. Sure, I wish it had RDS, an audio-out jack, didn’t mute between frequencies, and was less expensive (the current price of $169 seems excessive). But overall, it’s a fantastic package. I’m impressed with the amount of performance the Skywave SSB provides with such a short telescoping antenna. Since first being introduced to the Skywave SSB last year, it has become my choice travel portable. Check out our initial review of the CC Skywave SSB and the important updated second production run review.

Retailers:

Tecsun PL-880

Pros: Excellent ergonomics, excellent sensitivity and selectivity, superb audio from internal speaker, wide array of filter options in both AM/SSB more than on any sub-$200 portable on the market!), absolutely no muting between frequencies even while using a .5 kHz filter in SSB, sturdy carrying case has dedicated pocket for English operation manual, single supplied rechargeable battery delivers a very long life

Cons: Two-second delay when changing modes (AM/SSB/AM sync), some audio splatter on peaks in weak signal DX, sync detector (hidden feature) delivers mediocre performance and substantially reduced audio fidelity, AM (medium wave) prone to imaging if strong AM broadcasters are nearby, supplied rechargeable battery is not as common as AA batteries

Summary: I’ve owned the Tecsun PL-880 for five years and it continues to impress. Tecsun has made iterative changes to the firmware over time, and now this radio is one of the best performers in the sub-$200 price bracket. The audio from the PL-880 internal speaker is simply unsurpassed in this size of radio. The PL-880 isn’t perfect, but it does an amazing job, pleasing DXers from every angle and even ham radio operators who appreciate the narrow filter settings in SSB mode. All in all, you can’t go wrong with the PL-880––it’s certainly a quality piece of radio kit! Click here to read our full review of the PL-880. Click here to read our list of PL-880 hidden features.

Retailers:

Eton (Grundig Edition) Executive Satellit

Pros: Excellent sensitivity, excellent audio from built-in speaker, ergonomic and intuitive interface, uses common AA batteries, multi-joint swivel antenna is best in class, excellent build quality, display is easy to read, effective station memory management

Cons: Mutes between frequencies, executive Satellit model typically costs more than previous non-executive model

Summary: The Satellit has a dedicated following among hard-core DXers, both the audio and superb sensitivity placing it well within the realm of benchmark receivers. It’s a fantastic field radio and feels like one that should serve you over the long haul. It’s not a perfect radio; I especially wish it didn’t mute between frequency changes, although Eton seem to have minimized this in the latest production runs. If you’re seeking a super-sensitive portable to sniff out weak DX, then the Satellit is worth serious consideration. Check out some of Oxford Shortwave’s previous posts which include the Executive Satellit.

Retailers:

$200+ Range

Tecsun S-8800

Pros: Brilliant audio fidelity from built-in speaker, dedicated AM bandwidth and fine tuning controls, excellent bespoke IR remote control, capable SSB mode, excellent shortwave sensitivity, excellent shortwave selectivity, excellent FM performance, easy-to-read backlit LCD digital display, remote control beautifully equipped for full radio functionality, included 18650 rechargeable lithium batteries power this radio for hours, BNC connection for external antennas, does not overload even when connected to large external antennas

Cons: Lackluster mediumwave performance, no synchronous detector, no direct keypad entry (pro: remote control, however, has excellent keypad entry), can’t charge and listen at the same time as is not designed for AC operation, no backstand, when in narrowest SSB filters AGC can’t reliably handle audio/signal changes, slight “warbling” sound while using fine-tuning control in SSB mode, no RDS display on the FM band

Summary: If your primary use of the S-8800 is for medium-wave or long-wave DXing, you should look elsewhere. While the S-8800 will serve you well with local AM stations, it will not dig signals out of the noise like other better-equipped AM receivers. But: if you’re primarily a shortwave radio listener, you’ll certainly be pleased with the S-8800! The S-8800 consistently outperforms my beloved Sony ICF-SW7600GR and my Tecsun PL-880. Indeed, it is the most sensitive and selective shortwave portable I own. On the flip side, it’s also the most expensive: $268 at time of publication. If you want top-class HF performance from a portable radio and you expect superb audio, I think you’ll find the S-8800 well worth your investment. Click the following links to read our full review of the S-8800, 13dka’s review which compares the S-8800 with the PL-660 and D-808 and Dan Robinson’s most recent S-8800 comparative review.

Retailers:

There’s a portable for everyone

You might have noticed that there’s a portable receiver on this list for everyone:

  • The listener who wants turn-on-and-play functionality
  • The casual listener
  • The hiker
  • The traveler
  • The DXer
  • The ham radio operator

Keep in mind that this is a curated list of some of my favorites that are widely available on the market new. There are a number of receivers on the market––the Degen DE1103 comes to mind––which would have made it to this list had they not been “updated” with a DSP chip. Manufacturers add DSP to reliable models in order to increase profit margin, since DSP chips cost a fraction of traditional receiver design. DSP chips have revolutionized the portable market in many positive ways, but if they’re not properly implemented in a set, they can produce higher noise floors, audio anomalies, shaky AGC, and other undesirable traits.  The DSP receivers in the list above have properly implemented DSP technology and, save the cheapest models, are all what I would consider “enthusiast grade” radios.

What about other types of radios?

Of course, if you’ve become addicted to radio, you shouldn’t stop at portables! I would encourage you to check out the three-part Software Defined Radio Primer published in September (Part 1), October (Part 2), and November (Part 3). The SDRs I mention in the primer are essentially what I consider the best of the best.

Of course, there are still a handful of tabletop shortwave receivers like the Alinco DX-R8T HF receiver, the Elad FDM-DUOr SDR receiver, and the Icom IC-R8600 wideband receiver. All are top-notch performers and, when paired with an effective antenna, can pull out weak signals much better than a portable radio ever could.

If you’re a ham radio operator, take advantage of modern general-coverage transceivers. Only a couple decades ago, most transceivers were “ham band only” and the ones that were not compromised performance if they included the broadcast bands.  This is no longer the case. Modern general coverage HF transceivers can rival dedicated tabletop receivers in many cases. I’m particularly fond of the Icom IC-7300, IC-7200, and Kenwood TS-590SG as home stations, and the Yaesu FT-818, Elecraft KX3, and the Elecraft KX2. This is a mere sampling of some of the excellent general-coverage transceivers on the market. Before you purchase a general-coverage transceiver, simply make sure it has AM mode and that the bandwidth is wide enough for pleasant audio. Ask current owners how their transceiver sounds on the broadcast bands.

In summary

As you select your next radio, take into consideration how and where you plan to use it, as well as what you’re willing to spend. The good news is, we live in an era with an extraordinary number of options covering all price ranges and uses. So, be assured: there’s a radio out there just waiting to sonically transport you to far-flung and fascinating regions, too.

Vive la radio! Long live radio!

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Marcus’ countryside mobile listening post

The Düsseldorf evening skyline

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Marcus Keulertz, from Düsseldorf, Germany, who writes:.

Here are some nice pics about my own special way practicing our beloved radio hobby. I was quite satisfied with my logs.

I heard Radio Taiwan’s Mandarin broadcast and All India Radio National Service in vernacular languages. I did [all  of this listening  from] my little car there.

Thank you for sharing, Marcus! Looks like you’ve found a peaceful spot to enjoy radio from the comfort of your car.

Indeed, you’re doing exactly what I tell urban listeners today who have difficulty hearing stations from home: head to the countryside and escape the radio interference! It’s simply amazing what you can hear when your receiver isn’t being overwhelmed by RFI/QRM.

Sometimes it takes very little distance from sources of urban noise–even a city park (as our friend London Shortwave routinely demonstrates) offers enough of a noise buffer.

Thanks for sharing, Marcus!

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A review of the C. Crane CC Skywave SSB ultra compact travel radio

The following review first appeared in the January 2018 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


[IMPORTANT UPDATE (October 21, 2018): I’m pleased to report that C. Crane have addressed issues that I found in the first production run of the CC Skywave SSB. Click here to read the update.]

Those who know me know I’m all about travel, and all the things that make the travel experience enjoyable. I like to pack light, taking only the essentials, and if I’m traveling by air, I can easily fit two weeks of fun into one small carry-on. To me, the idea of lugging a huge suitcase, being subject to lost check-in luggage, and fretting over finding room in an overhead bin to squeeze in a huge bag simply has no appeal. Even though I often opt for the budget ticket, which means loading later, I know I can literally be the last one on board without fear because my travel bag is so compact that, if nothing else, it will fit underneath the seat in front of me.

Yet even though I travel light, I never ever travel without a radio. That’s a given in my bag. Since packable real estate in my carry-on is at a premium, I opt for the most bang-for-buck I can manage in a portable radio.

My radio travel partners

To date, I have a few favorite full-featured travel radios and know quite well both their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a list with some notable pros and cons:

  • The Sony ICF-SW100
    • Pros:  A 1990s era marvel of compact technology, it sports SSB mode, sync detection, headphone and audio out jacks, external antenna jack, and long life on two AA batteries. It has excellent sensitivity and selectivity. No muting between frequencies spoils listening pleasure.
    • Cons: Speaker audio is poor, no FM RDS, no weather radio, no AIR band, the battery cover may be easily broken, ribbon cable can break (in early models) and the clamshell design, while a cool feature, isn’t always practical and makes the unit feel prone to damage. Plus, the SW100 series is no longer manufactured and, due to desirability, typically have a price point well above the competition.
  • The Grundig G6
    • Pros: A compact, ergonomic full-featured radio which sports SSB mode, AIR band, external antenna jack, reasonable audio from internal speaker, very good shortwave and mediumwave performance for the size. No muting between frequencies.
    • Cons: Rubberized coating becomes sticky as it deteriorates, no weather radio, no audio-out jack, no RDS, and it’s no longer manufactured.
  • The Tecsun PL-310ET
    • Pros: Very affordable (typically $40-50 shipped), excellent shortwave, mediumwave and FM reception, external antenna jack, average audio fidelity from built-in speaker, internal battery charging, common 5V mini USB plug, reasonably durable.
    • Cons: No SSB mode, no weather radio, no AIR band, no RDS, no dedicated audio-out jack, limited shortwave coverage compared with other portables 2.3 – 21.95 MHz
  • The CountyComm GP5-SSB (a.k.a. Tecsun PL-365)
    • Pros: SSB mode, great shortwave, mediumwave, fm reception, vertical form factor great for handheld listening while walking/hiking, external ferrite bar antenna enables excellent AM/mediumwave reception.
    • Cons: Vertical form factor means it’s prone to fall over if placed on a bedside table, no direct entry keypad for frequencies, tinny audio from built-in speaker, no RDS, no AIR band, detachable external ferrite bar antenna is an extra piece to keep up with while traveling.
  • The Digitech AR-1780 
    • Pros: SSB mode, AIR mode, squelch control, FM RDS, dedicated fine-tuning control, external antenna jack, internal speaker provides better audio than other compact travel radios. Excellent sensitivity.
    • Cons: Slightly larger form factor than other travel radios. Somewhat awkward ergonomics. 7 VDC power port is non-standard. No dedicated audio out jack.
  • The CC Skywave

    The (original) C. Crane CC Skywave

    • Pros: Overall excellent performance on shortwave, mediumwave, and FM. AIR band, North America weather radio (excellent sensitivity) with alerts, squelch control, common 5 VDC USB mini power port with charging capability, a great value at $89
    • Cons: No SSB mode, no external antenna jack, no RDS,

What radio I decide to pack really depends on the type of trip I’m taking.

If I really want SSB mode to listen to HF pirates, ham radio, or utility stations, I tend to grab the Sony ICF-SW100, the Grundig G6, or more recently, the Digitech AR-1780 [and now the XHDATA D-808].

If I plan to do extended hiking or walking during my trip, I might grab the CountyComm GP5-SSB.

If I only plan to listen to AM/FM/SW broadcasts, and it’s a short trip––or one during which the radio might receive rough treatment––then I might grab the Tecsun PL-310ET. If I leave the PL-310ET in a hotel or drop it, I’m only out about $40.  I’ve even been known to simply give one of these to someone, like a kid for example, who shows a fascination in shortwave radio.

If I plan to do off-air audio recordings during my travels, then the Sony ICF-SW100 because it’s the only radio with a dedicated audio-out port.  Plus, it’s a great performer.

If I’m travelling by air, however, I almost always choose the CC Skywave:  its unique combination of AM/FM/SW coverage, NOAA weather, and AIR band are simply hard to beat. It’s compact, durable, and gets the job done. Plus, the Skywave seems to operate for ages on a set of AA batteries. C. Crane really knocked it out of the ballpark with the CC Skywave.

But there was one glaring omission on the original CC Skywave: Single-sideband (SSB) mode.

Enter the CC Skywave SSB

Earlier this year, I learned about a new radio in development at C. Crane: the CC Skywave SSB. I saw a Beta unit very early on and a few weeks later, knowing how much I appreciate the original Skywave, C. Crane asked me to help test the new Skywave SSB.  I was happy to do my bit.

I actually do quite a bit of alpha- and beta-testing for manufacturers. While it’s time-consuming volunteer work, and requires meticulous attention to detail––even seemingly minor details––it gives me an opportunity to have meaningful positive impact on an upcoming product. Manufacturers that actively involve enthusiasts in their testing phase tend to produce better quality. I wish all manufacturers did this (yes, Tecsun, I’m looking squarely at you!).

After the Skywave SSB arrived, I started putting it through its paces.  Typically, pilot run units have quirks and glitches buried in non-standard operating procedures. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any on the Skywave SSB. I’ve since learned that C. Crane invests heavily in pre-production testing; I saw their full list of iterative notes, and they were incredibly detailed. Result?  No obvious problems.  I’ve always believed that while C. Crane doesn’t always produce the most affordable products––nor do they stuff every bell-and-whistle into them––what they do produce is well thought out, user friendly, well documented, and performs at or near the top of its class.

Features

The CC Skywave SSB comes with a surprising amount of features for such a compact radio. Many of these features are also found on the original CC Skywave.

I’ve placed upgraded features in bold:

    • AM, FM, NOAA Weather band plus Alert, Shortwave (1711-29.999MHz) with SSB mode, and Airband
    • Frequency direct entry, plus auto scan and store
    • Lighted LCD display
    • Selectable fast or fine tuning (on all bands except weather)
    • Dedicated fine tuning control, selectable on front panel
    • 400 memory presets
    • Runs on 2 AA Alkaline batteries (not included)
    • (Optional) CC Skywave AC power adapter w/ mini USB plug required for charging NiMH batteries.
    • Stereo headphone jack and fold-out back stand
    • Clock with 12/24 hour format and alarm
    • Rotary volume knob
    • Squelch control
    • High quality CC Buds Earphones and radio carry case included
    • Run Time (on batteries––approximate):
      • ± 70 hours (earbuds)
      • ± 60 Hours (built-in speaker)
    • 10 Aviation Memories can be scanned for activity

You’ll notice there are actually very few obvious upgrades from the original Skywave to the Skywave SSB: just SSB mode, expanded HF coverage (from 1,711 to 29,999 kHz), and dedicated fine tune button/control. I’ve also learned that aviation band scanning is much faster on the newer model than on the original Skywave.

Other than those items, in terms of features, it’s very similar to the original CC Skywave.

Appearance

CC Skywave SSB (left) and the original CC Skywave (right)

The original Skywave and Skywave SSB are nearly identical in terms of form factor; overall dimensions are identical (4.8″ W x 3″ H x 1″ D), although the Skywave SSB weighs 1.2 oz more than the original––a difference that’s scarcely detectable.

The tuning knob, volume control, power port, and headphones jack are in the same places on the SSB. The chassis color is different, however; the original Skywave is black, whereas the new Skywave SSB is grey––a dark warm or “dim” grey,” to be accurate.

Original CC Skywave (left) and CC Skywave SSB (right)

Where one finds the true difference between the new Skywave SSB and its predecessor is on the front panel. The Skywave SSB has dedicated buttons to enable both SSB mode, select upper or lower sideband, and a fine-tune control. The Skywave also has a dedicated backlight button. This accounts for a total of four additional buttons compared with the original Skywave.

In a rather nice touch, both the SSB and fine tune buttons have tiny red LED indicators to let the user know when they’re engaged.

The CC Skywave SSB also has a redesigned speaker grill which more closely resembles the grill on their CC Pocket radio. Much to my surprise, once I shared detailed photos of the CC Skywave SSB, many of my readers expressed their disappointment with the speaker design. Many claimed it looked “cheap” as compared with the original Skywave and thus felt the chassis might be more subject to breakage. Some even got the impression that the speaker grill was raised in a way that it would lend itself to harm.

Actually, this is not accurate.  Though it may appear that the speaker grill is elevated in photos, it’s actually in a recessed portion of the chassis and surrounded by an absorbent rubber ring, rising only ? 1 mm above the chassis, if that. And the hard plastic case feels as solid and robust as any portable I’ve tested.  I wouldn’t hesitate to toss it in my pack.

Personally, I think the Skywave SSB is a handsome little radio! Perhaps I’m not as sensitive as others about chassis design, but I’m actually happy it’s not a clone of the original Skywave, making it much easier for owners of both models to distinguish them when packing!

From Pilot/Beta to production

While C. Crane allowed me to post a number of photos once the product announcement had been made, I would not publicly comment on performance. Indeed, I never post performance comments about pre-production units since I wouldn’t be evaluating the same product that hits the store shelves.

So once C. Crane posted an ordering page for the Skywave SSB, I placed an order, just like everyone else.

In truth, I was told there were only minor differences between the pilot unit and the production unit: some silk screening and other very minor changes.

Production Quirks

[IMPORTANT UPDATE: Again, please note that the following production quirks have been addressed in the second production run of the CC Skywave SSB. Click here to review the update.]

I was eager to get started on the review of the Skywave SSB, so as soon as I received it, I did what I always do: compared it with other radios!

I make my comparisons, by the way, at least fifty yards from my house to separate the radios from any inadvertent sources of local noise.

Production Radio #1

My first comparison was with the Digitech AR-1780 and the original CC Skywave. I quickly noted that the Skywave SSB was very slightly less sensitive than the other radios. I had tested the pre-production unit enough to know that the Skywave SSB’s performance should at least be on par with, if not a little better than, the original Skywave.

Upon careful listening, I discovered the production unit had a faint, internally-generated whine on some of the shortwave bands; when tuned to marginal signals, this whine manifested in the form of variable background noise. Between signals it was audible as a faint background whine, hardly noticeable. With that said, the whine was most notable while tuning––since the Skywave SSB mutes between frequency changes, the whine was most conspicuous during audio recovery between steps.

The pre-production unit had no trace of an internally-generated whine. Audio was very clean in comparison.

Here’s a sample of the first production radio being tuned down from 10,000 kHz in 5 kHz tuning steps:

Here’s a sample from the pre-production unit dong the same:

Hear the whine in the first sample? Yes, so do I.

I contacted C. Crane promptly, and to their credit, they immediately dispatched another unit from inventory, via UPS Next Day,  along with a return label to send my faulty unit back to their engineering team.

Production Radio #2

The second unit arrived while I was on Thanksgiving vacation, but was sent to me directly at my hotel.  The day I received the replacement Skywave SSB, I put it on the air. The first listening session with it, alone, revealed that this unit did not have the internally-generated whine, however, this unit had issues with sensitivity. All of my comparison receivers were outperforming this Skywave SSB on the shortwave broadcast bands. When I compared it with the pre-production Skywave SSB unit and the first production unit, the second production unit was about four to five S-units less sensitive…Odd.

I sent both production radios back to C. Crane with detailed notes and sample recordings. Their engineering team confirmed my findings and started looking into the variations in QC and double-checking their inventory to make sure none shipped with these problems.

Production Radio #3

A few days later, I was sent a third production unit. After putting it on the air, I immediately noticed the same faint noise characteristics of my first full production unit, which is to say, the notorious whine.

Once again, I contacted C. Crane.  This time, I requested that no less than three radios be sent to me, and that they kindly expedite the request.

Production Radios #4, #5, and #6

I tested all three radios from this final batch of production units. What follows is an assessment of those radios.

First production run noises

I spent two full hours searching for birdies (internally generated noises) and other anomalies on the three CC Skywave SSB production units I received that Monday. Each radio’s noise location varied slightly (within 20-40 kHz).

Birdies

Birdies are a fairly common occurrence among sensitive receivers, and the CC Skywave SSB has about an average number. Fortunately, the birdies I noted are outside the space where I do my broadcast listening:

  • 2,305 kHz
  • 9,220 kHz
  • 11,520 kHz

Background audio whine/tone

All of the production units (save Radio #2) had a very slight audio whine present––either via the internal speaker or headphones––on certain portions of the spectrum.

In the first full production unit I received, I believe this whine may have slightly affected the unit’s overall sensitivity. On the last three production units I received, the whine didn’t seem to have as much of an impact on overall sensitivity.

The whine is still there, however. And occasionally when the unit is tuned to a weak signal within one of these zones, other faint sweeping noises can be detected in the background.

Sometimes it’s even more noticeable when the broadcaster is weak and is located within one of the “whine zones.” Here’s an example of 10 MHz WWV time station comparing the original Skywave with the Skywave SSB. Note that at the time this was recorded we had terrible propagation due to a geo storm, so WWV was very weak, indeed.

Listen for the sweeping tones:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Here are the frequency ranges where I noted the background whine:

  • 7,830 – 8335 kHz
  • 8,610 – 8,690 kHz (note: very faint)
  • 9,770 – 10,415 kHz
  • 11,585 – 11810 kHz

Another oddity is a noise I found prevalent on CHU Canada’s 7,850 kHz frequency. I’m guessing it may be due to the presence of a DSP birdie on top of a relatively strong broadcaster.

Here’s a video comparing the original Skywave with one of the production models:

Click here to view on YouTube.

I noted no birdies or noises on the mediumwave band.

I’ve no doubt, C. Crane will tackle these issues and solve them by the time the second production run ships.

In the meantime, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the CC Skywave SSB, having evaluated a total of seven models and spending more time evaluating them than I have any other portable.

Let’s take a look at what we can expect from the CC Skywave SSB with these first production quirks aside.

Audio

Like its predecessor and many other travel radios (the Digitech AR-1780 and XHDATA D-808 being notable exceptions) the Skywave SSB’s audio from the internal speaker is adequate. It’s just shy of what I would call “tinny” because it does cover the mid-range .  For spoken word content in AM and SSB, it does the job quite well. With music, you simply can’t expect any bass notes or room-filling audio. But then again, in a compact radio, my expectations are simply lower. The Digitech AR-1780 and XHDATA D-808 have the best audio of my compact travel radios, but they’re also the largest, so have a slightly bigger speaker.

I did note a minor amount of background hiss present somewhere in the audio amplification chain on the first production run units–most noticeable via headphones.

With the supplied CC Buds, you’ll be a happy camper.

Audio sounds rich via the headphones jack.

Performance

Of course, what we all want to know is how well the CC Skywave SSB performs. In a nutshell (spoiler alert!) it’s very similar to the original Skywave.

I break this down band-by-band below, starting with my favorite band.

Shortwave

Keeping in mind the frustrating experience with quality control, when I received the final three production units, I was very pleased with performance on the shortwave bands. The AGC characteristics are relatively stable, making weak signal listening a pleasant experience. Even though the Skywave SSB lacks a synchronous detector, I found that stability––even with periods of notable selective fading––is impressive.

In the realm of compact travel radios, both my pre-production and (better functioning) production models are strong performers. The Skywave SSB is slightly less sensitive than my larger, full-featured portables like the Tecsun PL-660, PL-680, PL-880, and Grundig Satellit. All of these radios, however, have longer telescoping whip antennas. If I add the gain from the included CC Reel antenna, the Skywave SSB can even hold its own with many of these.

I’ve been very pleased with the original Skywave for broadcast SWLing for a few years now. I’m happy to report that the Skywave SSB offers an incremental improvement over the original Skywave.

FM

Much like other modern DSP portables, FM performance is stellar for such a compact radio. The Skywave SSB was able to receive all of my benchmark FM stations. While audio fidelity from the Skywave SSB’s internal speaker is not a strong point, via headphones you’ll be quite pleased.

AM/Mediumwave

I’ve found the Skywave SSB to be capable mediumwave receiver. Performance characteristics are very similar to the original Skywave and the AGC settings even make MW DXing a pleasant experience. Since the internal ferrite bar isn’t terribly large, better performance can be achieved by coupling the Skywave SSB to an inexpensive loop antenna, like the Grundig AN200 AM Antenna.

Weather radio

Like the original Skywave, the Skywave SSB is an impressively capable weather radio receiver. From my home, I’m able to pick up a marginal NOAA weather radio frequency that most of my other weather radios cannot. The Skywave SSB also includes a handy weather alert feature that will monitor your chosen NOAA/Environment Canada frequency and wake up the receiver if an alert is issued.

Note that the weather alert feature works on a timer and, most importantly, if operating from battery, drains batteries as quickly as if you were monitoring a live station with the squelch open.

AIR band

While I didn’t compare performance with a triple conversion scanner, I’m favorably impressed with AIR band performance. During my tests, I noted no imaging or overloading on the AIR band, a very good thing. Additionally, the Skywave SSB offers improved scanning features for the AIR band, making it easier to monitor ground, tower, and even approach/departure frequencies at larger airports. When employing the squelch feature, you almost get the impression you’re holding a scanner, rather than a shortwave portable, in your hands.

Longwave

Like the original CC Skywave, the SSB does not cover the longwave band. In North America, there is very little to listen to on longwave, so many consumers will never take notice. I’m sure longwave DXers will wish it was a part of the package, however. Admittedly, when I’m traveling in Europe and other parts of the world where there are still stations on longwave, I’ll certainly miss the band.

Comparing to other compact travel radios

Trying to decide if the CC Skywave SSB will have the performance characteristics to displace my other travel portables, I compared it with the radios I mention at the beginning of this article.

In terms of overall sensitivity and selectivity, the CC Skywave SSB essentially runs neck-and-neck with, or in some respects slightly edges out, the Tecsun PL-310ET, Grundig G6, and CountyComm GP5-SSB.

However, both the Sony ICF-SW100 and the Digitech AR-1780 are more sensitive than the Skywave SSB. The Digitech AR-1780 has the best audio characteristics of the competitors, but is also slightly larger and heavier than the others.

Note, too, that the Sony ICF-SW100 and Grundig G6 are the only radios in this comparison that don’t mute between frequency changes. They’re the best band-scanning receivers.

And how does the Skywave SSB compare with the original CC Skywave? I find that the Skywave SSB has a slightly lower noise floor which is perhaps helped even further by better audio/tone characteristics. Sensitivity is about the same, but signals pop out of the background static better on the Skywave SSB.

In terms of features, the Skywave SSB likely offers the most for the traveler.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons, of course. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget my initial impressions. Following is the list I’ve formed over the time I’ve been evaluating the CC Skywave SSB:

Pros:

  • Overall well thought out, considerate design
  • Excellent form factor for travel
  • Very good sensitivity and selectivity for a compact radio
  • Faster AIR scanning compared with the original Skywave
  • Better HF frequency coverage than the original Skywave (1.711-29.999 MHz, compared to 2.300-26.100 MHz)
  • Pleasant SSB audio
  • Multiple bandwidths in both AM and SSB modes
  • No overloading noted
  • Well-written operation manual
  • Excellent weather band reception
  • Nice red LED indication lamps for SSB and Fine Tune engagement
  • Supplied with:
    • a quality external reel antenna
    • CC Buds earphones
    • Soft case with Velcro closure
  • Excellent battery life from two AA cells (AA cells are a plus for travelers as they’re so ubiquitous)

Cons:

  • Inconsistent quality from initial production run (update: corrected in second production run)
  • Mutes between frequencies while band-scanning
  • Engaging SSB mode requires 2-3 seconds of delay (common for this DSP chip)
  • Some ticking noise in audio when pressing buttons (identical to the Digitech AR-1780)
  • No RDS
  • No audio-out jack
  • No longwave reception
  • ATS Scanning in 1st production run stops at 26,100 kHz
  • No synchronous detection (though not expected in this class of compact portable)
  • Shortwave ATS tuning time about half as fast as the original Skywave (original is quite speedy!)
  • $149 $169 price is at the top of its class

Conclusion

I love the CC Skywave SSB. Sure, I wish it had RDS, an audio-out jack, didn’t mute between frequencies, and was a little less expensive. But overall, it’s a fantastic package. I’m impressed with the amount of performance the Skywave SSB provides with such a short telescoping antenna.

Most reading this review will be scratching their heads wondering if: a) having SSB mode is worth the $60 premium over the original Skywave ($89 vs. $149)? and b) is any compact radio, for that matter, really worth $149––?

Because of how I travel, I would say that I easily use ultra-compact portables like the Skywave SSB about 70% of the time I’m found listening to portables.

When the Skywave SSB was first placed on the C. Crane website, they posted a price of $169––when the units started shipping, they reduced the cost to $149, and reimbursed those who had placed an order with the higher price. [UPDATE: Early 2018, they once again increased the price to $169.]

Though the initial $169 price made me wince a bit, I still ordered one. Why? Because to me being a traveler who loves an ultra compact, having an ergonomic, full-featured, durable, compact travel radio with SSB, AIR and NOAA weather radio is worth it!

Therefore, the CC Skywave SSB will be my travel radio of choice going forward––it’s essentially a Swiss Army Knife of a travel radio.

There’s another factor, too: I trust C. Crane. Despite the frustrating quirks I experienced reviewing my first production run units, I know C. Crane takes care of their customers in the long run, and will replace any faulty units without hesitation. They’ve taken every item of feedback I’ve provided directly to their engineers and quality-control specialists, and the work continues to resolve this radio’s concerns.  If you have a Skywave SSB with noise, don’t hesitate to contact C. Crane about it.

Overall, I am optimistic about this radio.  I expect the second production run will produce radios performing as they should––like the final production units I tested, but without the internally-generated noises.  [Click here to read second production run update.] And if this occurs as I expect, you can expect good performers.

At any rate, I know this: I’ll be one of the first to test units of their second production run…and to let you know just what I find. (Bookmark the tag CC Skywave SSB for updates.)

Click here to check out the CC Skywave SSB at C. Crane

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Radio Deal: Tecsun PL-310ET $40.00 shipped via Amazon.com

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Larry W, who writes with the following tip:

Thomas, this isn’t a deep discount, but the Tecsun PL-310ET price has fallen to $40 even on Amazon. It usually floats around $42-43. Price includes shipping. You might wish to post because this is a lot of “bang-for-buck” when it comes to performance. I own two of them. One stays in the glove compartment of my truck, the other in my travel bag (I’m a professional road warrior). They’ve 20 in stock right now. Price can change anytime.

Click here to view on Amazon.com (affiliate link).

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