SWLing Post reader, Murray, recently took the Tecsun PL-380 with him on a trip to view the solar eclipse and then to Morocco for an extended excursion. He writes:
We flew out of Billund Denmark for the [solar] eclipse flight. A couple of days after the eclipse we flew to Cassablanca Morocco, where we were to join our 2 week excursion.
Here is a shot of the radio [above] at our camp in the dunes south of Erfoud in south central Morocco. In total we spent 2 1/2 weeks in Morocco and the desert was the nicest Radio quiet location I have been in. No interference what so ever! And lots of stations. It was great. The battery consumption of the PL-380 was very good. Nice unit.
Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on the PL-380, Murray! It must have been bliss listening to the shortwaves in such an RFI-free area.
The following article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.
Although many large government shortwave broadcasters are departing the shortwave radio scene, there’s no shortage of great products being introduced to it. Indeed, growth in the portable and SDR (software defined radio) markets is reasonably rapid. This suggests, perhaps, a new kind of future for shortwave.
The following is a basic, easy-to-follow buyer’s guide to some of the best receivers on the market. This guide is, by no means, comprehensive; rather it’s a selection of rigs I know or own, thus have tested.
If your budget is tight, or if you’re looking for a radio that could easily slip into your glove compartment, backpack, carry-on, or even jacket pocket, you need to look at an compact shortwave radio. Typically, there is a performance compromise with compact radios: they don’t typically have the sensitivity, like their more expensive cousins; they have a more limited frequency range; and they don’t detect single-sideband signals. Nonetheless, the ones listed here are fine performers for their size and price. Entries are listed in alphabetical order.
The CC Radio SWP has been on the market for many years and has become a classic portable. The layout and design are very simple, the display clear, with easily-read icons and intuitive controls. The tuning knob on the right side is for fine tuning–no muting or chugging between frequencies, either. Shortwave and MW sensitivity are better than one might expect for a radio this size; I often find myself comparing it to much pricier portables. But most significantly, this radio offers the longest battery life of any radio I own: almost 70 hours on 2 AA cells!
The Kaito KA1103 packs a lot of bang-for-your-buck if you’re looking for an inexpensive, ultra-portable entry into SWLing. Like the CC Radio SWP, the KA1103 (a.k.a. Degen DE1103) has enjoyed a long market life. The KA1103 is full-featured and one of the only sub-$100 radios with SSB mode. One interesting design feature of the KA1103 is its large Digital/Analog frequency display: the LCD screen features the frequency display in digits, but also sports a working digital representation of an analog frequency dial. As you tune up and down the band–with, yes, a tuning knob–the LCD needle moves along the display as it would on an analog radio dial. While I believe radio ergonomics could be improved, the KA1103 is still a great bargain.
The Tecsun PL-310ET is an updated version of the acclaimed PL-310, a mini-legend in the world of portable radio, offering exceptional value and high-performance in a small package. The PL-310ET is fueled by a SiLabs DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip that gives this ultra-portable excellent sensitivity and selectivity. The PL-310 has been a favorite amongst ultra-light Dxers, as sensitivity and selectivity are exceptional for the price. The new “ET” version of the PL-310 sports ETM tuning; a feature which allows you to scan the entire band and automatically store all strong stations to temporary memory locations. I believe the updated PL-310ET also has better AGC for weak signal DXing than its predecessor. Another bonus is that the PL-310ET sports an external antenna jack for shortwave and FM reception.
The Tecsun PL-380 is my favorite radio under $60. Much like its cousin, the PL-310ET (above), the PL-380 has a DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip that gives this ultra-portable excellent sensitivity and selectivity. For three years, I have traveled extensively with the PL-380 in tow, and I’m constantly amazed by this radio’s excellent audio and reception across the bands.
Tecsun offers a number of compact portables, based on a similar DSP chip as the PL-380, but with built-in stereo speakers. Check out the Tecsun PL-390, PL-398BT, and PL-398MP, too.
In the portables market, I believe you get the most value and quality in the $90-250 price class. Most beginners and seasoned SWLs prefer a radio that includes everything necessary to get on the air immediately; all of these radios provide just that. Straight out of the box, you’ll have everything you need to listen to shortwave bands. All of these recommended radios are designed to pick up major shortwave broadcasters with ease, and offer the following features: good frequency coverage; circuitry that helps in the detection of weaker stations; and the ability to receive single-sideband (with the exception of the CCRadio-SW, see below).
If you’re not as concerned about portability, the C.Crane CCRadio-SW is an excellent broadcast receiver. Think of the CCRadio-SW as a larger portable or tabletop radio (11.25″ x 7.25″ x 3.5″). What makes this radio stand out from its peers? Exceptional audio fidelity. The large built-in speaker has separate treble and bass controls and reminds me how important audio quality is while listening to a faint signal. This radio’s audio will fill a large room. Shortwave sensitivity is very good. Medium wave (AM broadcast) reception is excellent. Negatives? No direct keypad for frequency entry, and the SW also lacks a native SSB mode (a rare missing feature in this price class). With that said, it does have impressive array of external connections, including an IF-Out connection, which (with an IF converter and some free software) will allow you to interpret SSB and an array of digital signals, including DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale). What really strikes me about the CCRadio-SW is its sheer ease of use. Its design is simple, ergonomic, and highly effective. I’ve often recommended the CCRadio-SW to listeners who want simplicity of use and robust audio.
At $249.95, the Sangean ATS-909X is one of the priciest full-featured portables on the market. The 909X sports a large alpha-numeric display, tactile buttons, and a solid build quality. I also believe the 909X has a one of the better internal speakers and audio fidelity amongst portables. Negatives? Surprisingly, the 909X lacks synchronous detection, a tool most other portables have in this price range. Additionally, in my recent shortwave portable shoot-out, I gave the Sangean low marks for sensitivity; this review was based upon use of the built-in telescopic antenna. With an external antenna, on the other hand, the 909X performs admirably. If you’re looking for a quality portable with a front-end robust enough to be attached to a larger external antenna, the 909X may very well be your radio.
For performance, you’ll find that the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is top of its class among full-featured portables. Two of its outstanding features is a solid synchronous selectable sideband (a feature which helps to reduce fading distortion and adjacent-channel interference) and stable AGC circuit. In fact, the ICF-7600GR was chosen as a favorite in a blind audio test on the SWLing Post. Indeed, my only criticism of the ‘7600GR is that it lacks a tuning wheel; instead, you’re forced to use tuning buttons on the front face of the radio.
The Tecsun PL-600 is the value leader among the full-featured portables in this list. It can be found at a wide array of retailers, such as Universal Radio, Amazon and eBay. Price ranges from about $65 to $90. I’ve often recommended the PL-600 as a first full-featured radio for the budding SWL, and for good reason: the PL-600 has great sensitivity, selectivity, and even has capable single-sideband reception. The PL-600 does a surprisingly good job of holding its own against the other contenders in this list. Negatives? Like all sub-$100 portables, the PL-600 lacks synchronous detection (and if this is a deal-killer for you, check out the PL-660). Additionally, the PL-600 is not well suited for large external antennas; but it does work quite well with its own antenna. In a nutshell: if you’re not willing to spend over the $100 mark, the PL-600 is a safe bet.
The Tecsun PL-660 is one of the best selling portable shortwave radios currently on the market–and for good reason. This rig has a full compliment of features and is quite easy to operate. The sync detector (selectable USB/LSB) is currently one of the best in the sub $150 US price range. Sensitivity and selectivity are both excellent; indeed, I consider it to have the most sensitive receiver among the portables listed here (and so. With the introduction of the Tecsun PL-880 on the market, the PL-660 has also become more affordable and can be found at or near the $100-120 price point with shipping. What a bargain!
The Tecsun PL-880 was introduced to the market one year ago (November 2013), and while the introduction was a bit bumpy (feature variation based on differing firmware versions), it has recovered and found quite a good following. While the PL-880 does not rank as highly as the PL-660 or ICF-SW7600GR in terms of sensitivity (see review TSM June 2013) it does have compensating factors. For one thing, the PL-880 has the best audio fidelity from its internal speaker among the radios listed here. It’s also the most feature rich, boasting the most filter selections and a growing number of “hidden” features (http://wp.me/pn3uc-2tl). I also love the build quality, ergonomics, and tuning options; indeed, the PL-880 even has a dedicated fine tuning control. Negatives? Though the PL-880 has an undocumented sync detection among its “hidden” features, I find its sync lock quite feeble, compromising audio fidelity a bit too much. If you’re looking for a small portable that will fill a room with rich audio–whether you’re listening to the BBC, a classical concert, or just two ham radio operators chatting on 40 meters– look no further than the PL-880.
At time of publishing, Eton Corp–the North American distributor of Grundig–has four updated models of shortwave portables new to the market. All are updated versions of recently retired Grundig models:
If history is a guide, I expect all of these radios to prove worthy of the 2016 Shortwave Radio Buyer’s Guide. Indeed, preliminary reviews of the Field have been most favorable. Barring schedule changes, all models should be available in time for the 2014 holiday season…Stay tuned.
While tabletop receivers have started to decline with the advent of SDRs, there are many listeners who still prefer a simple, dedicated, stand-alone high-performance receiver with a good tuning knob and clear display, which is to say, a tabletop receiver. Tabletops are designed to perform best with a resonant external antenna.
I reviewed the Alinco DX-R8T in 2011 a few months after it was introduced. I was favorably impressed with the DX-R8T. So much so, I purchased one after the review. It has excellent selectivity and sensitivity, a large display and tuning knob, a detachable faceplate (if your desktop space is limited), and a decent built-in speaker. What’s more, the DX-R8T has an SDR mode that allows you to hook up the receiver to your PC to see a spectrum display, and with an optional accessory cable, control its rig functions and tuning. The DX-R8T requires a regulated 12-volt power supply (not included). Cons? The DX-R8T lacks a selectable synchronous detector–a feature I enjoy using to combat adjacent signal interference.
Various versions of the Icom R75 have been on the market for well over a decade. This receiver stands the test of time because it’s a full-featured tabletop with attributes like twin passband controls, a two-level pre amp, separate AF/RF gain, adjustable AGC, an alpha numeric display, a direct frequency entry keypad, not to mention a logical, ergonomic layout for all controls. Amateur Radio operators, pirate radio listeners, as well as utility broadcast listeners will all appreciate the R75’s performance in SSB mode. Cons? The current base version of the R75 lacks synchronous detection, though some models in the past have had this option.
If you’re searching for maximum performance for the price, software-defined radios (SDRs) and IF receivers are hard to beat. These small “black box” radios require a computer to unlock their performance; none of these are stand-alone. But while I’ve never been a fan of combining my PC with radio listening, once I starting using an SDR, I never turned back. Now, 90% of the time that I’m on the air, it’s with an SDR. They’re simply incredible.
The following selection of SDRs–and IF receivers–are all available for $1,000 or less.
Bonito RadioJet IF-Receiver 1102S
The Bonito RadioJet is included in this group because it is very similar to an SDR, but strictly speaking, it’s an IF receiver. Like an SDR, it requires a PC for operation. But while the RadioJet’s spectrum bandwidth is more limited than the SDRs that follow, it has advantages over the others. For one, the RadioJet is more akin to a PC-controlled radio–most of the hard work is done in the receiver itself, not your computer–-so even older model Windows PCs, tablets and netbooks can run the RadioJet application with ease. The RadioJet is great for travelers since it requires no external power supply: it derives its power from your computer, from the same USB cable used for data. The RadioJet is an excellent receiver and has a very low noise floor. If you like listening to DRM, you’ll be impressed with its native ability to decode the mode. Click here to read my comprehensive review of the RadioJet.
If you’ve read my Elad FDM-S2 review (coming soon!) you’ll know that this little SDR packs a powerful punch for the price. Indeed, I would venture to say that the FDM-S2 offers the best value among the SDRs listed here. Its performance is uncompromising, comparing favorably to receivers $300-400 more in price. The S2 also provides native DRM decoding. In short, the S2 makes for a fine DRM receiver.
Any negatives with this rig? Some users have reported diminished receiver performance in the presence of high-powered AM stations (fortunately, not an issue in the rural area where I live). Additionally, the Elad application has a greater learning curve than, say, the Perseus or the Excalibur (below). Still, I like the S2 so much that even though I already own a benchmark SDR, I’m planning to purchase the S2 after review.
If you’re looking for a benchmark SDR, it’s hard to overlook the venerable Microtelecom Perseus. Though it’s been on the market for many years now, the receiver architecture holds its own and is as robust as they come. Selectivity and sensitivity are absolutely superb: no matter the mode or band. Another benefit of the Perseus is that users can network their receivers with relative ease, sharing them with other Perseus users. Negatives? The Perseus price point still tops the charts at $1000. And while the supplied application works quite well, it lacks features found in other SDR apps, and the window cannot be resized (though numerous customer requests have been made). Still, the Perseus is likely to remain a DXer’s receiver of choice for years to come.
I have owned the WinRadio Excalibur since 2012, and it has become my primary home receiver. I have directly compared the Excalibur to the Microtelecom Perseus and the Elad FDM-S2 (above); any receiver performance differences are minor. As a radio broadcast archivist, I find the Excalibur to be the best receiver suited to capturing broadcasts, as it’s the only one in this group that can record up to 2 MHz of radio spectrum (and allow you to play back this recording later); up to three broadcasts can be captured simultaneously within that 2 MHz window. Negatives? The Excalibur application only works on Windows PCs. Additionally, it requires a dedicated 12V power supply, thus is less convenient than the RadioJet or FDM-S2 for travel and outdoor listening. Read my full review of the Excalibur by clicking here.
The CommRadio CR-1a could be classed as either an SDR or a stand-alone tabletop receiver, as it fits both profiles. Furthermore, the CR-1a is as portable as nearly any of the portable radios mentioned above. In short, I really dig this radio! It’s beautifully engineered and mil-spec rugged; performance-wise, it’s hard to beat. Receiver sensitivity and selectivity are superb. The best part? The CR-1a has an optional internal battery that will power it for hours on a single charge. With antenna and fully-charged CR-1a, you will enjoy hours of outdoor listening while traveling [check out my recent travel review]. If you’re on the fence about getting an SDR or tabletop radio, grab the CR-1a; at $599.95, it’s a lot of kit for your investment. Click here to read my comprehensive review of the CR-1.
Thanks 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.
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)
ERT Open/ Voice of Greece (Relatively strong)
Radio Riyadh (Weak)
Rádio Bandeirantes (Very weak)
And now…the results!
The following chart shows how each radio scored out of a total of 106 (wow!) survey responses:
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)
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.
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.
As you can see from the graph, the Tecsun PL-310ET won our shoot-out in every category–and by a fairly wide margin:
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.
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!
This particular trip afforded me a bit of time to test these wonderful little portables in a relatively scenic environment, on balcony overlooking the Atlantic. And even though propagation has been somewhat dismal this week, I had so much fun recording these samples, I recorded several for comparison.
Which of the three radios do you prefer? Listen to the recordings, then vote! You’ll find a survey form at the bottom of the page that will allow you to cast your vote for your favorite with weak signals, with strong signals, and your favorite overall.
We’re using a form this time to make it easier to tally the results.If you enjoy this contest–or have any problems–simply comment below.
Stay tuned for a medium-wave shootout in coming weeks!
Note: I will close this survey at 00:00 UTC on Saturday, November 22, 2014.
You were tasked to track down a radio kit that would keep you in touch with the world, and potentially afford you some very unique DX. [If you haven’t read the full virtual radio challenge, including all of the limitations you might face, I encourage you to check out this post before continuing.]
Your Reader Responses
And, wow, what excellent responses–! First, I want to thank all who participated in this challenge. Much like the results from our first Reader Challenge, no two responses were identical. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this exercise as much as I enjoyed reading what you’ve sent to the SWLing Post!
Below you will find responses from readers, representing remarkable diversity in radio set-ups. Note that my comments follow; they are italicized and in bold.
Now, with no further ado…I welcome you to radio DX in Laya, Bhutan!
I would set up all this gear either on a panel or in a small box for the sake of tidiness. This, involving crimping kit, crimps and wire, could be done before departure. Say $20 for the bits.
Job just about done but not quite…. solar panels only provide power when the sun is out… need a biggish battery to accept the solar charge during the day and give it back at night.
A nice wet cell 12 volt battery will do the job but that won’t be allowed on the ‘plane..what to do??
After flying into Bhutan at Paro and busing to Thimphu I would take time out to buy a 12V automotive battery. At first I considered a couple of 6V motorbike batteries but have been advised that motorbikes are uncommon in Bhutan but cars and trucks aren’t. No probs on-carrying that by truck, horse and porter so thats the 12V storage sorted.
Connect solar panel to charge regulator to my battery to my computer power supply and radio charging cables . Throw my wire antennas over the handy tree, pour single malt, put feet up……
Total cost excluded the 12 volt battery … about $600… Oh and must not forget to replace the supplied AA’s in the PL-660 with Sanyo Eneloops and also a few extra sets as spare…. and a copy of WRTH.
I must admit a bit of an advantage with this…. my boat is an off-grid installation and my wife was in Bhutan a few years ago.
Frank, I love how simple you’ve kept this set up. You are very wise to acquire a 12V auto battery locally, when you arrive in Thimpu. While Bhutan isn’t as commercially “developed” as many other countries, you can find basics like batteries, connectors, fuses and accessories in the capital city of Thimpu. Your experience off-grid on the open sea and with Bhutan, in general, have served you well. Thanks for your entry!
from Tim Rahto
[Note: Tim was so enthusiastic about this challenge that he proposed three different kits: one with a transceiver and two receive-only.]
Your radio challenge inspired me to ignore everything else I have to do today and write you up a response. [You’re welcome, Tim!]
I know your contest refers to shortwave listening and not ham radio, but we are talking about Bhutan here. According to QRZ, there’s only 9 callsigns in the entire country, with three of those belonging to radio clubs, special event stations, or DXpeditions. With that in mind, I put my station together with transmitting as well as receiving in mind.
Option 1: Yaesu FT-857D
For a radio, I chose the Yaesu FT-857D. I have one in my truck, and it’s survived four years of mobile operation without a hiccup. About the only knock I have on this radio is that the AM bandwidth is pretty wide for shortwave listening, but you can always put it into sideband if needed. It’s small, portable, and puts out 100 watts. Perfect!
Some would say I cut corners on the antenna, but I don’t think so. Considering the remote nature of the location and the need to keep things light and mobile, I went with a simple dipole. Easy to build, simple to repair, and works pretty well. I went the ‘roll your own’ approach and bought an Alpha-Delta dipole kit and wire for the antenna, and 100′ of coax to feed it all.
Tim, no doubt you had a lot of fun piecing together your radio kits! In each case you chose quality components–a smart decision since you want longevity and reliability in the field. I think there would actually be enough financial flexibility in each case to include a small back-up portable like the Tecsun PL-380 or similar. As you must know, the Lowe HF-150 is a surprisingly small tabletop radio with excellent performance; it would be easy to slip in a backpack or suitcase. Thanks for your entries!
For power storage, I’d go with sufficient numbers of AA size LSD NiMH batteries to be wired up into several 12V battery packs for solar charging… heavier than Li-Ion, but considerably cheaper, more durable, and should easily last through 2-years, where li-ion wouldn’t.
Probably throw a $100 Kaito KA1102 radio in there. The 1103 is infuriating. A long, long spool of wire for use as antenna once setup. And other bits and pieces.
Amazon says I’m $600, or $800 including the netbook, without really trying to find good deals. Lots and lots of accessories still needed, like 12V cell phone chargers, diodes and/or solar charge controller. I’d also throw-in other comforts, like plenty of different LED flashlights and lanterns, good external speakers and headphones. Plus lots of USB thumb drives just loaded up with movies and TV.
Rex, I like the idea of the KTOR pedal power when solar conditions are not favorable. in truth, using solar requires a little pre-meditation whereas pedal power could work anytime. Thanks for your entry!
from Timothy Johnson
Hi! This is a great challenge. I would take my Tecsun PL 660 and buy a solar AA charger. (And maybe $400 worth of AA duracells!) And for my backup……My Grundig FR200!
What? No gazillion dollar receiver with a four mile wire strung up?
Correct! It’s a fun challenge in a great location. I want to use the radio I use now to see what I can pick up. It’s a good location to pick up stations from the otherside of the world that I normally can’t get, but dream about what it would be like. The PL 660 isn’t a slouch when it comes to receiving, and it has SSB and the Airband! This is a fun challenge and it’s a great time to enjoy listening to the shows, not just seeing what I can get. Up in the mountians, I would need to rely on my shortwave for news around the world. I mean, what day is complete without Radio Havana Cuba’s slant on the news? I would hope over there I could get Iran’s Voice of Justice!
The FR-200 would be my back up to use if the solar charger breaks, or it’s cloudy for awhile. It’s a great portable with a built in dynamo. Plus its fun to use. Scanning the dial on an analog dial makes for relaxed listening. Kick back, pour whatever the locals drink, and see what comes in!
As an english/science teacher, I could introduce the students to the world and improve their english skills, while they teach me some of their language.
Anyway, great challenge!
I have had a lot of experience with the Grundig FR200. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available new from Grundig, but the same model is available from sellers on eBay as the Tecsun Green 88. Not only does it work well from the hand crank (2 minutes of cranking yeilds 40+ minutes of listening), but it also runs for 80+ hours on a set of AA batteries. It’s a durable radio as well. Thanks for your entry!
a) Install Linux (Fedora), GNU Radio, and other software for RTL SDR.
b) additionally install fldigi, multimode, HFfax software, NOAA weather decoder
c) make a QFH (Quadri Fillar Helix Antenna) for 137MHz NOAA satellite reception also usefull for VHF 2m reception, upon arrival at the destination. The wooden stick and batten used for it can be available free at the destination.
Total expences = 100+52+109+5+1.3 = 267.3 $
Still one have 1200 – 267.3 = $932.70
That’s an innovative SDR kit and certainly well within budget. In fact, you would have over $900 to purchase a backup radio, batteries, power generation and antenna accessories! Thanks for your entry!
from Cap Tux
Cap’s Virtual Radio Challenge Submission
As the challenges main objective is to listen to international broadcasters and DXing you only need a small portable receiver with very little power consumption. There are a lot of very capable receivers on the market now to fit the bill.
Remember, lugging a big receiver to the other side of the world is not going to be fun (and risk it being damaged en-route).
As the village is completely off the power grid I propose to use a small portable receiver & power source with a fairly good storage capacity i.e. at least 5 good charges from a fully charged source should give you a good few weeks of heavy usage.
Receiver: Tecsun PL-660 Receiver – A very capable shortwave receiver with MW/LW/FM with SSB and runs from 4 x AA rechargeable 1.2v Ni-Mh batteries.
This receiver is also capable of running/charging from a sustainable USB power source.
The PL-660 also has an auto scan and store that will sweep shortwave and store any stations it finds into memory, saves you tuning about.
You can charge this using a USB Charger for the Tecsun PL-660.
You may be lucky and have FM reception within range (unlikely, but possible), a general coverage receiver in most cases is not equipped with VHF BCB FM reception i.e. NRD-525, IC-R75 are not equipped with VHF FM.
In order to know what frequencies you need to tune into, realistically you will only have the first season i.e. A15 shortwave schedules for your target shortwave broadcasters.
You will not know the next seasons frequencies, you will need to listen into your favourite broadcaster nearer the time to get next seasons frequencies. Load the current seasons frequencies onto your laptop, or print them off.
The PL-660 has an external antenna socket by way of a 3.5mm socket, a long wire can be used. Personally, I would take my home-brew passive Mag Loop antenna which can fold up easily, why? in case of thunderstorms that could send static down an external long wire to the receiver, rendering it unusable.
You could always hang the long wire around your room to minimise static from thunderstorms. You get a long wire bundled with the PL-660, no need to buy another,
Sustainable charging power source for the receiver:
23000mAh Li-Po battery pack with solar panel (USB port & various outlets for laptop charging).
Technically you could ditch the 3 x AA internal batteries and power the Tecsun direct from the battery pack via the mini USB cable, however, assume you would want to run it autonomously from the charger or go out and about for a spot of Dxing. I propose purchasing 12 x 2400mAh rechargeable Ni-Mh batteries.
A phone or tablet is going to be a liability if dropped, a small netbook is going to be more robust for travelling and will have a longer running time from each charge.
I would also charge the laptop from my solar charger as it has a 19.5v option for charging. The MSI Wind U180 gives around 7.5 hours on a full charge (Loads of options for a netbook though).
The stock battery is about 7200mAh which the solar charger is more than capable of fully charging.
Tecsun PL-660: £64.64 incl shipping (all other shopping items include shipping)
Total: £318.28 ($517.06)
As this is well within budget you could buy two of everything for redundancy.
If AM BCB is your only concern a Tecsun PL-310ET will fit the bill, very small/light and cheap at around £32. There is also less chance of a small £32 radio being stolen.
In the end, I would probably take both my PL-660 & PL-310 as the PL-310 will give me the flexibility when out hiking or travelling within Bhutan and also acts as a backup radio.
Cap, I’m impressed with how frugal and portable you’ve kept your radio kit. Adding the Tecsun PL-310ET is a great idea. I imagine there would be superb opportunities to do mediumwave DXing with the ‘310. As a bonus, when traveling within the country, the PL-310ET would be easy to carry and use en route. Thanks for your entry!
FunCube Dongle Pro+ and Toshiba Encore 8″ running SDR# in a London park
To recap, the tablet-based SDR set-up costs $643. My experiments with FunCube Dongle Pro+ and SDR# software have convinced me that this combination makes for one of the best shortwave listening experiences in its price range. Here are a few reasons why:
– FunCube Dongle Pro+ is a sensitive SDR.
– SDR# has an excellent noise reduction algorithm that often turns laborious DXing into comfortable listening. It also has a robust synchronous detector, which, combined with its passband tuning and noise reduction algorithms can unbury almost any station from the surrounding co-channel interference.
However, given the remoteness of the location and the fact that there is no reliable electricity grid to speak of, we need a few extras:
You may recall that in my portable SDR solution there are two sets of batteries that need to be recharged:
– Toshiba’s built in Lithium Ion battery (via its USB port)
– 4xAA batteries for the Gomadic 5V Power Pack (used for supplying extra power to the SDR)
First, let’s get a compact, foldable solar panel:
1. Powerfilm F16-1200 20W foldable solar panel
I would go with Powerfilm F16-1200 20W foldable solar panel (buy it here for $210.99). Disclaimer: although I’ve never used any of the PowerFilm products or accessories, I have read good reviews of them from other radio enthusiasts. When folded, this solar panel measures merely 27.9cm x 16.5 cm – slightly smaller than an A4 notepad. Once fully opened, however, it can deliver 20W of power (15.4V, 1.2A), enough to charge the Toshiba tablet and 4xAA rechargeable batteries simultaneously.
The spares can be used in the following ways:
– To power the backup portable shortwave radio
– To have another batch ready when the batteries insde the Gomadic USB Power Pack run out.
– Using Gomadic, to charge the tablet outside daylight hours, for more daytime listening.
Now onto charging the tablet itself. For this I would use the Powertraveller Spidermonkey 4-Port USB Charger Hub at $38.76. Again, I haven’t used this product, but according to the specifications it can charge up to 4 USB devices and accepts input power between 5V and 30V. The reviews are largely positive, so it seems like a safe choice.
5. Powertraveller Spidermonkey 4-Port USB Charger Hub
Living off the grid has the advantage of there being minimal man-made radio interference. For this reason we can use a larger antenna than in my original proposal. I suggest buying 40m of POLYS18 Copper-Clad Steel Antenna Wire from Universal Radio (the total comes to $31.44), cutting it halfway, and attaching each half to one of the two antenna terminals on the Wellbrook HF Balun, mentioned in my previous article, thus creating a dipole.
12. BNC Socket to Composite 3.5mm Male Jack Plug Adapter
The subtotal for all of the above comes to $556.71. Adding on $643 for the tablet-based SDR solution brings the total to $1199.71, just 29 cents below the budget limit!
London Shortwave: since you frequently take this same portable SDR kit to the field, I have no doubt that it would perform well in rural Bhutan. Using a PL-310ET as a backup and even thinking to bring a couple antenna accessories shows how thoroughly you thought through this exercise. Knowing the copious amounts of radio noise (QRM) you deal with in London, you might decide to stay in RF quiet Laya after your assignment is over! Thanks for your entry! Readers: check out London Shortwave’s blog for more portable SDR fun.
from “Broad Wing”
Primary Radio – Comm Radio CR 1A ($614.95)
(Radio is light weight and very durable. It also picks up SSB etc. Even though it used up half the budget I figured it would be the best to have. It has an internal rechargeable battery. I can be charged with Goal Ten Battery Pack or Solar Panels)
Secondary Radio-Kaito KA-600 Voyager ($60.00)
(This radio is my back up as it has several ways to charge the batteries, solar crank, and electric when I can get to a city that has electricity. it should also be dependable. It also has a built in flashlight. This antenna uses AA rechargeable batteries.)
(I have used this antenna and find it to be very durable and a very good DX antenna for shortwave. It is made by a gentleman called Low Bander on e-bay.)
Secondary Antenna – Tinatena All Band Active ($32.90)
(I thought that if in the dead of winter, my primary antenna broke, and there were a couple feet of snow outside, I could use this one for a backup and not have to go out in the snow or storm. This antenna uses 9 Volt batteries.)
Antenna wire 12 gauge 50 feet ($27.94)
(Wire would be used to build a long wire antenna if needed or for repairs of the Super Sloper Antenna. Wire will also be used to hook up 2- 12 Volt sealed batteries to primary radio.)
40 foot solar panel extension cable MC4 converter ($22.99)
(This kit and the extra solar panel should charge up my batteries if the weather permits. The solar panel can be hooked up in tandem to provide quicker charging times or used on separate equipment. The Goal 10 charger will charge my Comm Radio when the power is low, and I can connect the radio to the kit when the sun is out just to recharge. When the sun is not out, or I have a long time without sun, I can use the Secondary Radio to conserve batteries.)
Set of batteries sold with 24 AA 2000 mAh, NiMH Batteries low discharge ($42.34)
9 Volt batteries, 4 pack ($15.96)
2- 12Volt 7ah sealed lead acid rechargeable batteries ($32.00)
Total Cost: $1198.73 -$ I200.00= $1.27 under budget. Good for a pack of crackers to take on the plane to munch on.
I am not buying any connectors as the primary antenna comes with coax and connector. All prices include shipping and handling charges and can be received in 7-10 days. In two years I will report back to you and tell you how the trip went.
I think choosing the CommRadio CR-1a as the centerpiece of your set up is wise. The CR-1a is very rugged and engineered to last. Most importantly, you can power and charge it on a wide range of voltages (6-18 VDC). That’s power flexibility! Thanks for your entry!
from Eric McFadden (WD8RIF)
What a fun thought-experiment!
For the shortwave listening station radio, I’d buy a Sony ICF-SW7600GR portable shortwave receiver. It’s stable, sensitive, selective, provides SSB and synchronous-detector, and runs on common AA cells. It’s available for about $132 on Amazon but I’d probably buy from Universal Radio.
I’d buy an Emtech ZM-2 “z-match” tuner ($65 in kit form, $90 built, direct from Emtech) to use between the Sony and the random-length wire antenna; I’d adjust the tuner’s two knobs for maximum noise in the receiver. A 3′ RG-8X coax BNC-to-BNC jumper ($6 at Universal Radio) plus a BNC-female to 3.5mm-male adapter (#4546, $3 at Universal Radio) would be used to connect the Sony to the tuner; the wire antenna would connect directly to the tuner’s binding post. A short length of wire could be used as a ground-connection or counterpoise, if desired. I’d also take a pair of solder-less alligator clips (less than $1 each, many sources) and a solder-less 3.5mm plug (I have one of these but haven’t yet found a source for a new one; I might have to make one) in case I would want to (or need to) use the random-wire antenna without the z-match tuner.
The receiver uses for four cells; one of the panels could (probably) charge a set of four cells each day and the Eneloop chemistry would allow the charged batteries to remain charged while not in use. The second 8-pack of Eneloops and the second Powerfilm solar-charger provide redundancy. It’s unlikely that one evening’s listening on the Sony would discharge a set of cells so it wouldn’t be a problem if the solar panel needs more than one day to fully charge a set of four cells.
If I choose the kit version of the z-match tuner and don’t buy an MFJ-1910 mast, the total comes to $449.
I am an amateur radio operator and would want to take along some sort of transceiver. Given my druthers, I’d take my Elecraft KX3 and forget about the ICF-SW-17600GB but that’s against the rules of this Challenge.
Since I can’t take my existing KX3, I’d buy a YouKits HB1B Four Band CW QRP Transceiver (80/40/30/20m, $300 from YouKits), a Whiterock MK-33 single-lever CW paddle ($30 from Electronics USA), two pairs of inexpensive over-the-head stereo earphones (~$10/ea), a ten-cell AA holder (#10AAT, $7 at Batteries America), and another set of 2000mAh AA Eneloop cells. I’d use the same random-wire antenna I deployed for the listening post, and the same Emtech ZM-2 z-match tuner to match the transceiver to the random-wire. The 8-pack of Eneloops plus two cells “borrowed” from the extra set purchased for the listening post would be used to make a 10-cell battery-pack for the transceiver. Using both Powerfilm chargers would probably allow me to fully-charge ten cells in a two-day period. I’d have to balance the charging needs of the listening post and the ham station but I think it wouldbe workable.
The cost of the ham station comes to $382.
The rules of the Challenge were unclear about whether the cost of a tablet/smartphone/PC was to come from the $1200. Either way, I’d probably limit myself to a 7″ tablet such as the Nexus 7 I bought myself last year for $150. A Powefilm USB + AA Foldable Solar Panel ($80 from Amazon) could be used to charge such a 7″ tablet. (And the same panel could be used to charge cells 9 and 10 of my 10-cell ham radio battery pack, allowing me to charge the ten-pack in a single day instead of needing two days.)
The grand-total of all of this stuff comes to $1,061, leaving enough to purchase a second ICF-SW7600GR to take as a spare.
I know this is just a mind-experiment but I’d love to hear what the HF bands sound like so many miles from any RFI sources!
Eric, I like how you’ve balanced your ham radio and shortwave listening needs in this kit. While there was no restrictions to keep you from using a KX3 (both a superb transceiver and general coverage receiver), your set up allowed for more extras and back-up supplies. Since a basic kit version of the KX3 costs about $930 (shipped) it would have eaten up much of your budget. Since I own a KX3, my first inclination was to design a kit around the KX3 as well (if the budget would have even been $100 more, I probably would have). With your kit, you have a little money to spare, plenty of antenna-making supplies, a fantastic antenna tuner for both SWLing and QRP, a benchmark portable receiver and a capable four band QRP CW transceiver as well. Great job! (Readers, Eric has an excellent website devoted to ham radio and QRP–his projects are beautifully documented.)
from RS Wood
By the sound of it, this is a Peace Corps assignment. May as well ask a former Peace Corps volunteer!
I’d personally recommend you keep a low profile: traditional peoples like those you find in Bhutan will see your fancy antenna on the roof and assume you’re a spy or something. I’d go for a portable shortwave – something in the $150-$300 range from Sangean or Tecsun, as well as a $35 indoor, powered antenna (they run on AAA batteries). Buy a second radio as backup.
For internet use, assume you’re going to be offline for long periods of time. Get a netbook, not a tablet/smartphone, and one or two USB hard drives for storing your stuff. Ditch gmail/hotmail and get an account from which you can download email and store locally when you’re in town (fastmail.fm, toast.net) – look for POP3, not IMAP. Idea is: you go into town, plug in somewhere, download and store your stuff locally, and can use your machine at your house, with no connection to the internet, to write. You might be able to get a GSM modem if service extends to your post; that’s another reason to have a machine with USB slots into which you can stick a USB modem (yes, dialup) or GSM (cellphone) modem. Used netbook on ebay should run you $200; add another $200 for external harddrives you bring stocked with stuff (ebooks, etc.).
Lastly, bring as many notebooks, pens, and books as you can. Speaking from experience, you’ll find yourself doing more reading and writing, and less internet. And I repeat: keep your radio low-profile. Whip out the huge radio and antenna and your neighbors will distrust you, seriously.
Good cultural points! This is true. In the past, I have given this same advice to aid workers traveling to impoverished urban areas. Not only does a conspicuous setup attract attention, but also (sadly) theft–not just of your radio, but anything else in your house. Fortunately, I have only heard positive reports from Bhutan–houses without locks, that sort of thing. Thanks for your entry!
from Ariel Jacala (NY4G)
For starters – I would either build from scratch or buy a new Elecraft K2. Since I would be on assignment for 2 years, I would need to be able to repair my gear. A K2 is built from through hole components so it is repairable. All I would need are some spare parts for the components that are known to be failure prone – mostly diodes. I would consult with W3FPR for his recommended list of spare components from his experience of repairing hundreds of K2s. If I can find a used one with a SSB module, so much the better. I would volunteer to build one for someone else just to get the build experience.
The next thing is toss up. Cabelas sells 500 watt generator for $350 dollars or do I get a small amp. Provided I can get gasoline from the villagers, the generator will make living here at least bearable – for lights, charging batteries and another power source other than the sun. The amp goes for $300 – a Hardrock50 which I have built. Is it worth the extra 6 or 7 dB from 10 watts? You bet. In an emergency I can use the extra 40 watts or for a long overdue ragchew in English.
There you go
Transceiver, batteries, solar panel with money to spare. – about $350 left.
Ariel: Very smart of you to consult Don Wilhelm (W3FPR) as he is the most knowledgeable source of info about the K2 and any weaknesses it may have. I have a K2 and completely agree–it’s probably the most capable transceiver that can be field serviced. The only weakness of the K2 (for this hypothetical trip) is the fact that it does not have a general coverage transceiver. For any broadcast listening, you’d want to use some of that $350 surplus for a portable receiver–easily accommodated in your budget! I know you Ariel, and am willing to bet that most of your radio time would be in the ham bands! Thanks for your entry!
from Anil Raj
Spend two years in Bhutan, off-grid and with no internet… Wow! That is probably the most extreme scenario one can think of! However, not completely alien to me as I work in the energy business setting up power plants in off-grid areas http://www.omcpower.com/
These are my thoughts:
Click to enlarge.
Clearly, the single largest limitation is going to be the availability of reliable power. A quick look at a solar insolation map for the region makes it clear that solar which would normally be the most convenient source of power cannot be relied upon in this case.
My choice for reliable power would be a combination of a solar charger with a set of Eneloops and the BioLite stove since all it needs to generate useful power are twigs and sticks. It generates about 3 – 4 Watts which can comfortably power a small radio. I’m pretty sure the stove would come in handy in the winter to keep warm as well! The daily ritual of lighting a small wood fire to listen to the radio might eventually become a meditative experience… Price $ 118.00 + $130.00 + $20.00
My choice here is the Sony 7600GR. It is time tested having been on the market for over a decade. In my opinion it has by far the most robust build quality in it’s price range. SSB is a must, and the Sony performs well in this department, and the AM sync is a bonus feature. The main reason for my choice however, is the frugal power consumption – about 50 mA. The Sony also happily runs off a 5 V supply like a USB charger which simplifies the power issue significantly. Price $ 130.00 on Ebay
Headphones are a must to keep power consumption low and my choice here are the “Sleep Phones” http://www.sleepphones.com/ The fantastic thing is that these also keep your ears warm (Himalayan winters) and of course you can use them in bed without the discomfort normal headphones or earbuds usually give. Price $ 40.00
Being a ham, it is obvious that a transceiver will have to be a part of the plan. Any of the traditional general coverage transceivers available today would immediately break the energy budget and not be viable for more than a couple of weeks. Here my choice is the Mizuho MX-14s handheld. This tiny rugged 20 M transceiver puts out 2 W on SSB and CW, fits in my pocket and hardly draws any power. My plan would be to keep it for emergency use only in case a license is not possible. I have used one of these for several years and know what is possible with 2 Watts and a good antenna. Power is from a set of Energizer AA lithium batteries which can hold a charge for up 20 years.
My choice would be the HyEndFed antennas EFHW and the most suitable would be the 20 M version which would work fine as a random wire for the Sony receiver as well as and End Fed Half Wave for the transceiver. These antennas are built to a very high spec with silver plated wire with teflon insulation etc. Price including feeder and adapters $ 120.00
So, all the bits and pieces together add up to about $ 1000.00 which is comfortably inside the budget. I would definitely spend the rest on woollen socks!
Anil, this is brilliant! What I like best is that your kit is based on your experience both with alternative energy and the equipment you’d plan to use. Having built a solar house myself, I also consulted a solar isolation map when first tackling this Bhutanese challenge. You’re right: unless you have a semi-permanent PV system to trickle charge a battery anytime you have solar gain, you could be disappointed if relying on portable solar alone. Though I had heard about the BioLite, I’ve never used one. I’m very tempted to buy one now. I see where it could provide two important resources at once: heat and power. I also love the idea of the Mizuho MX-14s HT transceiver; though it’s limited to 20 meters, that would be one of the best and most useful bands if you decided to get on the air. I’ve read that the Mizuho is nearly bullet-proof. Still, like Ariel with the K2, I would consult Mizuho MX-14s users in advance of the trip and perhaps stock up on components that commonly fail. Looks like they would be relatively easy to replace in the field (with an inexpensive battery-powered soldering iron). Thanks for your thoughtful entry!
What fun! Thank you all…
I know this sort of challenge may not appeal to everyone, but I really enjoy it. This sort of exercise forces you (though safely) outside the comfort-zone of a home radio set-up. Your responses are truly innovative.
Thanks, again, for your participation! If your response wasn’t included above, or I didn’t respond to you directly, please let me know: it’s possible I skipped over yours by mistake as there were quite a few responses to collate, and my email is managed by a rather discriminating SPAM filter.
Meanwhile, if you think of an alternative set-up–or would like to add your own to this post–please comment below!
I already have more than six future reader challenges waiting in the wings: all based on real inquiries from readers. I hope to post another in the near future.
SWLing Post reader, London Shortwave, shared photos of his portable recording kit on Twitter yesterday. It consists of a Tecsun PL-380, Transcend MP330, in ear headphones, and a simple clip-on antenna (supplied with the PL-380). He recorded Radio New Zealand International with this gear.