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Dan reviews the Tecsun PL-330 portable shortwave radio

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who shares the following guest post:


Tecsun PL-330:  The Powerful Mini With One Serious Design Issue

by Dan Robinson

As SWLing Post readers know, I have a huge radio collection – including premium receivers and portables, now nearly 100 in all.

So, these days I am hesitant to add too many, but I continue to take interest in what companies such as Tecsun and Sangean are doing in the way of stuffing the latest chip technology and capabilities into portables radios.

The last receivers I reviewed included the Tecsun PL-990x, which has developed quite an enthusiastic following since its consumer version was released in 2020, and the Tecsun S-8800.

Out for some time now is the Tecsun PL-330.  By now there are many reviews of it on You Tube and elsewhere.

It’s become a familiar observation for many of us – if this were still the 1960’s and 1970’s – even into the 1980’s, which could be considered the golden days of shortwave and we had receiver technology like this, well what a joy that would have been.

When I traveled around the world both before and after college, and professionally for Voice of America in the 1980s and 1990s, wow what a good time I could have had with today’s portables!

Some world band portables radios back then were superb performers.  The Grundig Satellit series 500/700/600/650 come to mind – but these were not exactly what I would call small portables.

Paging through Passport to Worldband Radio from 1990 (wow, that’s 30 years ago!) you see others such as the SONY SW-1, Panasonic RF-B65, and of course, the SONY ICF-2001D/2010 which introduced killer synchronous tuning technology in the 1980s and remains popular today decades after it first appeared.

Also available were the SONY ICF-SW55 and later in competition with the 2010, the SONY ICF-SW77.  Today, I have four SW-55s and two SW-77s and still use them regularly.

Tabletop receivers back in the good ol’ days offered multiple selectivity positions.  One of those was the Lowe HF-225 (and later Europa version) along with the HF-250, Kenwood R-5000 and R-2000, ICOM IC-R71A, and Yaesu FRG-8800 among many others.

But as far as smaller portables go, features such as synchronous detection and multiple selectivity were still pretty limited, and a number of receivers didn’t offer selectable synchronous as was eventually offered on the Drake R8B and later production of the SW-8.

The RF-B65 by Panasonic – which today remains sought after for its amazing sensitivity – was hobbled by having a single selectivity position.  Same with SONY’s SW-1 and SW-100, and 7600GR, though SONY’s PRO-80 had two bandwidths.

Indeed, it wasn’t until Eton brought out the E-1, with its three bandwidths combined with Passband Tuning (though no notch filter) that a portable finally reflected capabilities of some of the better tabletop radios (though lacking a notch filter).

The Grundig Satellit 800 was close in competition with the E-1 (though the earlier Sat 600/650 series also had multiple bandwidths) but was bulky.

Fast forward to 2021 – credit due to Tecsun and more recently to Sangean with its 909X2, for some years now we have enjoyed Asia-originated portables with multiple selectivity and synchronous mode, though sync implementation on some has left much to be desired.

Which is where the PL-330 comes in.  When I look at the 330, I am reminded of one of the now ancient SONY portables, the ICF-4920 which was a super small slide-rule receiver that nevertheless was quite sensitive.

Like the 4920, which you could easily slip in a pocket, the PL-330 is a perfect travel portable.  Only the Belka-DX SDR and still wonderful SONY SW-100 compete in terms of performance and size.

The 330 is basically a PL-990x in miniature:  smaller speaker obviously, shorter antenna, no bluetooth capability or card slot.  But as many people who frequent the Facebook groups have observed, pretty much anything the 990x can do, so can the 330.

This radio has ETM/ATS tuning, synchronous detection, multiple bandwidths in AM, SSB and MW, FM mono-stereo speaker control, alarm/timer functions, external antenna jack, display light, and other features.

Tecsun decided to go with a BL-5C battery here – the same with the new PL-368.  I think this is unfortunate, since it requires one to obtain a number of those flat batteries if you want to travel and not have to re-charge.  On the other hand, this is not a crippling design decision.

What is an unfortunate design problem, in my view, involves the simple question of tuning the receiver.

The main and fine tuning knobs on the right side of the PL-330 are embedded into the cabinet just far enough as to make easy rapid finger tuning of the radio nearly impossible.

In fact, in my testing it’s impossible to thumb tune the radio more than 10 kHz at a time.  The same applies to using the lower knob which controls volume.  When in FM mode, this issue make tuning just as frustrating almost forcing one to use rapid scan mode.

Another puzzler:  Tecsun limited bandwidths in AM SW to three, while in SSB you have 5 bandwidth options.  In AM mode, you have a 9 kHz bandwidth, another puzzling choice.  Longwave too is limited to 3 bandwidths.

But overall, none of these problems really knock the PL-330 down very far.  This is one mini powerhouse of a radio, one that makes you think “wow, if I had just had this back in 1967 or 1973 or 1982.

Some additional thoughts.  My particular PL-330 was supplied by Anon-co but is a pre-production version and so does not have the latest firmware.  Thankfully, I have not experienced the issue of SSB tuning running in reverse as others have.

NOTE:  As most users know by now, but some newer users may not, you cannot charge one of these radios – whether Tecsun or Sangean – using the mini-USB port and use them at the same time. . . there is just too much noise introduced from the charging process.

This little mentioned feature:  just as the Tecsun 909x has a re-calibration function, so does the PL-330.  Tecsun itself initially declined to acknowledge this, but finally confirmed through Anon-co.

The procedure: Switch to LSB/USB.  If the station is not zero beat, hit STEP button once and then quickly again to move the flashing display down arrow so it’s above the far right digit.  Then fine tune the station for zero beat.  Hold LSB or USB in for a couple of seconds.  The LCD blinks.  You then have zero beat – but be sure to repeat the process for LSB and USB.

I should mention that just like on the 990x, the re-calibration process doesn’t mean the receiver is then zeroed up and down the shortwave bands.  You will likely have to repeat the process from, say 25 meters, to 19 meters, to 49 meters, etc.

I have come to enjoy using the PL-330 here in my house, though like other portables in my collection I need to position it in one particular corner of my home away from incoming cable TV lines.

Belka-DX and Tecsun PL-330

The PL-330 and the Belka DX are currently king of the pile when it comes to my smaller travel portables.

I fully expect there will be no further receiver development by Tecsun after the PL-330/990x/H-510 radios – but that company will certainly have left us with some great receivers as the days of shortwave approach an end.

Video

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Michael’s impressions of the Tecsun PL-330

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Michael Sharpe, who writes:

Hi Thomas,

Here are some personal observations after playing with the Tecsun PL-330 for a couple weeks, maybe an hour or two a day. I made a point of picking up the 310ET , the CCrane Skywave SSB and the G6 Aviator at the same time for some comparisons.

These comments are in no particular order.

The PL330 is very lightweight compared to the other three. This could be perceived in two ways.

A. The case seems less sturdy than it could be, it creaks and ‘gives’ a little when operating some of the controls that require ‘squeezing’ to activate a button. I would prefer a more solid feel.

B. The radio is very light which is a plus for travelling with hand luggage. You’ll like that 🙂

The backlight can be set to permanently ‘on’, I really like this. None of the other radios do this when on battery power only. I don’t consider any radio ‘portable’ if it is tethered to a power supply. It would be nice if the buttons lit up but let’s stay real here !

Tuning: I am not crazy about the detented operation of the tuning knob, but I recognise that this is a requirement on the lower cost portables that use digital tuning. However…the PL-330 scores highly because the detent clicking is soft and silent. When compared to the Skywave SSB, there is a world of difference. For me, a clicking knob eliminates the option to tune around the ham bands when my wife is trying to sleep. I did email CCrane to ask if a solution may be suggested, but the response was negative. The G6 Aviator wins hands down in this area, but apples to pears !

Memory Tuning: I really like the options here, easy to use and the time selective ETM+ is genius. I also like the easy ‘delete all memories’ option which enables a fresh start at any time.

Audio: It’s not a PL-880 but its Ok for a small portable and the bandwidth option is a big plus. I’m no expert here because I do a fair proportion of my listening with a mono single side earpiece at night.

AM: Seems to work fine. Pulls in everything I normally listen to and seems sensitive and stable enough.

FM: Seems to work fine. Pulls in everything I normally listen to (not much!) and seems sensitive enough. Brilliant that it will suppress stereo unless the headphone socket is used.

SW: I spend a lot of time here and it seems good enough. I did compare reception with the Belka DX and had nothing to complain about. I have learned that keyboard tuning to a frequency near the frequency of interest and then final tuning with the annoying detent knob is the way to go. Also, memory tuning is easy and makes the detent truly functional.

SSB: This my main area of interest as I love to tune around the ham bands, especially when travelling with no access to real ham gear. The fine tuning at 10 Hz with suppressed soft muting is a real winner. It would be nice if soft mute could be disabled completely but I understand this is limitation of the DSP hardware.

Calibration seems easy too with just a long press on the USB button when the audio is zero beat (note the calibration option is for the AM band but utilizes the USB or LSB to zero beat and set). I don’t do this any more, after all, what’s the point when tuning around to listen 🙂 Just twiddle the knob until it sounds good and Bob’s your uncle. I think the ‘Step’ button should replace the ‘Sync’ button and not be shared with the sunken ‘lock’ button. Too squeezy.

SYNC: Don’t bother. I tried it several times, not so much any more. Waste of a perfectly good button. (See SSB above.)

Battery: I actually like the battery choice. I get that AA’s or AAA’s are a good choice for emergency use because of availability but in an emergency you would probably have your phone with you, and some means of charging it. Just have an appropriate cable or adapter in the bag and you are good to go. My current phone uses the usb micro, as does the PL330 so I may be a little biased at this time.

Antenna: For portable use, the existing antennas work fine. The SW input jack works and the ability to switch the AM signal source between the internal ferrite and the external jack is a nice touch if you want to experiment.

I cut the wrist strap off, not sure what benefit this offers but they all have them. I must be missing something ?

A rear stand would be nice but it stands on its base reasonably well.

So….for around $60, it’s a no-brainer in my book.

Hope this helps. I’m no expert when it comes to deviation ratios, 3rd order intercepts, microvolt sensitivity etc. etc. but these are my impressions from a guy who just likes to play with radios.

Best wishes

Michael (N9YZM)

Thank you for sharing your impressions of the Tecsun PL-330, Michael! I’ve also been testing the PL-330 and find that it is a great value for $60–certainly a low-cost alternative to the C.Crane CC Skywave SSB (although I much prefer the build quality of the Skywave). My family life has been so busy this past month, I’ve had little dedicated time to do comparisons, but it appears to me that the PL-330 is a solid performer.

Thanks again for sharing your assessment, Michael!

Click here to check out the Tecsun PL-330 (export version) at Anon-Co.

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Tecsun PL-330: Initial impressions, overview of functions, and operation


Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jaap de Goede, for the following guest posts:


Operating the TECSUN PL-330 without an English manual

by Jaap de Goede

Introduction

Inspired by my father, I like listening to radio transmissions for the last 60 years. That includes listening to shortwave transmissions. In my collection there are a number of radios including computer based SDR-receivers. The TECSUN PL-330 is a shortwave portable radio with SSB and digital readout.

I’d like to share my operating experience of the PL-330 and throughout I will now and then compare this radio to similar radios in my collection:  Eton Satellit, XHDATA D-808 and CountyComm GP5-SSB (AKA Tecsun PL-365).

To be clear the PL-330 used here is a Chinese domestic version, probably manufactured in July 2020. An English manual was not available at the time of writing. In the meantime, the English manual of the Tecsun PL-990 helped to figure out a number of the features of the PL-330. Newer manufacturing batches might contain other firmware and that could change the way of operating.

Size and sound

With a volume of about 18 cubic inches the PL-330 is less than 20 cubic inches. It easily fits the pocket of my jeans. 20 cubic inches (unofficially) classifies it as an Ultralight DX radio. The smallest radio of the four is the GP5-SSB with 14 cubic inches. The Satellit is the largest of the four and the size of these radios can be determined by the eye but by the ear as well.

The PL-330 has digital VOLUME control and the volume level is indicated on the display. In contradiction, the three other radios have analog volume control. All radios have a 3.5 mm socket for a stereo headset. A nice feature of the PL-330 is that the FM stereo decoder only works with a plugged-in headset. Else FM remains in mono.  I think that’s a very clever feature because why would the stereo decoder degrade the mono-sound through the speaker in case of poor FM stereo reception?

Personal audio quality ranking from best to worst:

  1. Satellit
  2. PL-330 and D-808
  3. GP5-SSB

Power and Batteries

The PL-330 is supplied with a BL-5C battery of 1000 mAh. The battery can be charged in the radio through though a micro USB port. The display permanently shows battery status, regardless whether the radio is on or off. USB makes it very easy to charge from any external USB charger or an external USB battery. Here a quick comparison of the powering of the four radios:

Radio Battery Charging Port
Tecsun-PL-330 1 x BL-5C Micro USB
CountyComm GP5 3 x AA NiMH Mini USB
XHDATA D-808 1 x 18650 Micro USB
Eton Satellit 4 x AA NiMH Bus

 

I don’t have runtime figures. I just charge when indicated on the radio’s display and carry a spare USB battery to charge the radio in case.

Antenna and Backlit

All four radios have an extensible whip antenna (what else would you expect). Also, all four radios have a 3.5 mm socket for an external antenna. The only radio with an antenna attenuator switch is the Satellit.

All four radios have backlit. But a feature that none of the other radios has is the ability with the PL-330 to toggle the backlit between “always on” or “automatic off”. Just hold and press the 5 button to toggle between the two modes. For comparison, the Satellit has the nicest illuminated display of all four, while the D-808 is way too bright.

Supported Radio Bands

The PL-330 supports the following radio bands:

  • Long Wave (153-513 kHz)
  • Medium Wave (520-1710 kHz or 522-1620 kHz)
  • Short Wave (1711-29999 kHz)
  • FM broadcast (64-108 MHz)

Radio Band and Demodulation Selection

To enable or disable the LW-band you must long press the 2 button when the radio is powered off. When the radio is powered on and LW has been enabled you can select between LW and MW by short press of the MW/LW button.

The American or Rest of World MW-band plan can be toggled by long press the 3 button when powered off. When the radio is powered on you can select between MW by short press of the MW/LW button.

To select the regional FM-band plan you should long press the 0 button when the radio is powered off. When the radio is powered on the FM-band can be selected by short press FM/ST. button.

When the radio is powered on the SW-band can be selected by short press < or > button.

In LW, MW and SW bands de-modulation can be AM, SSB and AM synchronous (SYNC). A short press of the SSB button toggles between AM and SSB. A long press of the SSB button toggles between AM/SSB and AM synchronous mode.

A nice feature within the SW band is that you can quickly skip to pre-determined broadcast or HAM bands. In AM and SSB mode you can skip to the desired band by pressing < or > button. The following bands can be selected and indicated in the display:

  • AM (broadcast) bands: 120m, 90m,75m, 60m, 49m, 41m,31m25m, 22m, 19m, 16m, 13m, 11m
  • SSB (HAM) bands: 160m LSB, 80m LSB, 60m, LSB, 40m LSB, 30m USB, 24m USB, 20m USB, 17m USB, 15m USB, 12m USB, 10m USB

Manual Tuning and Step Sizes

There is one (digital) TUNING dial for all tuning operation in any radio band. It only tunes up and down the bands and has no other function. (That makes tuning with the PL-330 so easy compared to the other three radios with multifunction dials.) Depending on the selected band and de-modulation the tuning steps can be altered by the STEP button.

In the LW and MW bands for AM demodulation the step size can be toggled between 1 kHz and 10/9 kHz by short press of the STEP button.

In SW for AM demodulation the step size can be toggled between 1 kHz and 5 kHz by short press of the STEP button.

In the SW band for SSB and synchronous mode the step size can be toggled between 10 Hz, 1 kHz and 5 kHz by short press of the STEP button. My other three portable radios, but only plus or minus 1 kHz of the actual frequency in steps of 10Hz. The PL-330 has continuous fine tuning in SSB; you can tune the entire SW band up and down in steps of 10 Hz. However, I noticed that the step size can change from 10 Hz to 50 Hz in case you turn the TUNING dial fast.

In the FM band the step size can be toggled between 100 kHz and 10 kHz by short press of the STEP button.

Bandwidth Settings

For AM and SSB you can change the bandwidth by pressing the AM BW button, turn the VOLUME dial to the desired bandwidth and press the AM BW button again.

  • LW/MW band, AM bandwidth selection: 2.5 kHz, 3.5 kHz, 5.0, 9.0 kHz kHz
  • SW band, AM bandwidth selection: 2.5 kHz, 3.5 kHz, 5.0 kHz
  • SSB bandwidth selection: 0.5 kHz, 1.2 kHz, 2.2 kHz, 3.0 kHz, 4.0 kHz

Easy Tuning Mode or ETM and Memories

I decided to purchase the PL-330 because of my good and bad experience with the GP5-SSB (PL-365). The PL-365 is super portable and I think ETM is great for occasional shortwave listening. However, without direct frequency entry the GP5-SSAB is a nightmare to operate just now and then. Now the PL-330 has an enhanced version of ETM:  ETM+. No other radio has such a feature and I think ETM+ is fantastic.

ETM + provides 24 ETM banks that are chosen automatically based on the hour. Every hour you can press and hold the ETM button to initiate a (new or renewed) shortwave scan. It will display “E” plus the hour in 24 hours format like E00 to E23 depending on the time. When you quick press the ETM button it recalls the memory bank according to the time. As an example, when you quick press the ETM button at 15:24h it will recall bank E15. Then you can select the memory locations stored in the bank by turning the TUNING dial.

To toggle between ETM and Tuning mode press the ETM button.

In addition to ETM memories, the PL-330 has a lot of memories but lacks alpha tags. I really have difficulties remembering what I put in those memories. I hardly use them. The only one of the four that has alpha tags is the Eton Satellit, that makes things a lot easier.

Memories can be automatically populated in a bank separate from the ETM banks by using the Automatic Tuning and Storage (ATS) function. All four radios have ATS and I think it’s only convenient for FM. It works like:

  1. Press FM/ST. to select FM Band
  2. Press and hold FM/ST. to start ATS
  3. Use the TUNING dial to select from the stored FM stations

To toggle between Memory and Frequency tuning mode simply press the VM/VF button.

Bugs or Features

With the DISPLAY button you can change the upper right part of the display between:

  • Signal strength
  • Clock
  • Preset (only in VM Mode)
  • Alarm time

The display always returns to signal strength after a few seconds. Except if time is chosen with a long press of the DISPLAY button. Nevertheless, the display returns to signal strength after applying any operation, including volume change. I’m not sure if this is a feature or a bug.

When using a headphone and changing volume, sometimes the sound is cut off. By changing the volume again, it comes back. Seems like a bug, not a feature.

I tried AM synchronous mode. It works like on the Satellit: poor. I would recommend to make this mode hidden or make it work well.

Universal Serial Bus

When connecting the radio with an USB cable to a PC, its operating system does not show any connection information. If the radio would have USB logic apart from charging, connection information would have showed up. I assume there is no way to update firmware via USB.

Hidden Features

Without an English manual, and maybe even with a Chinese manual I couldn’t understand all functions.

When the radio is powered off:

  • Press and hold VF/VM shows all items of the display.
  • Press and hold 8 toggles display clock in “HH:MM” and “HH:MM: SS”
  • Press and hold 3 in MW/LW band toggles between internal ferrite and external whip antenna
  • Press and hold Enter shows “dEL ALL”, probably delete all (except what is all)?
  • Press and hold M shows numbers, no idea.
  • Press and hold 0 shows “PO []”, no idea.

There seems to be a combination to show the firmware version.

Missing Features

RDS display would be welcome. Even though the PL-330 shares the radio chip with the D-808 and the Satellit, the PL-330 does not display FM Radio Data System (RDS) on its display. Backlit buttons would be a welcome for operation in the dark. (Although you’ll quickly get used to the button layout.)

Features I didn’t miss

None of the four radios has DAB+ or HD radio. For DAB+ reception I use a Sony XDR-S41D and I can’t receive HD radio in Europe. DAB+ and HD radio could make the radio way more expensive and I prefer good SW performance anyway.

The possibility to upgrade firmware would be convenient. But I understand constraints of costs and the liability of bricking the radio.

The Satellit and D-808 support the Air band (108-135 MHz). That is ok for occasional listening to one single channel, but forget about channel scanning. I have my Bearcat UBC XLT125 VHF/UHF scanner for that purpose.

Conclusion

Like I started, I’m an occasional shortwave listener. I couldn’t really tell the difference in radio performance between the four radios. Of course, the best radio is the one you have with you. And because of its size, easy operation with a single tuning dial and features like ETM+, the PL-330 is probably the best portable shortwave receiver at the moment (for me ?). Thanks to Tecsun!

Jaap de Goede

October 2020


Many thanks, Jaap, for taking the time and care to put together this excellent overview of the Tecsun PL-330! This will serve nicely as an operation manual. Your father would be proud of you! 🙂

Readers: Please note that you can also download Jaap’s PL-330 guide as a printable PDF document by clicking here. The PDF has even better formatting as Jaap has used operation manual styled fonts to indicate button labels and functions. 

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