Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Svein Tore, who writes:
I’m blind. The type of shortwave radio I like best, is the analogue type with a tuning wheel, because I don’t need sight to use it, and I have full control over the receiver.
I would like to buy a radio with SSB, but it seems that all of the radios with SSB are digital, and you need to see the display to use the radio.
Are there any analogue radios with SSB?
If not, what is the simplest radio receiver with SSB?
I’m looking for a radio with as few functions and menus as possible, but it should have SSB.
I’m looking for a small or medium sized receiver, but if you are thinking of a big radio that seems to be right for me, please tell me about it.
Perhaps I have given you an impossible question now? I’m sorry for that.
Greetings from Norway.
Excellent question, Svien. I thought it would make sense to share your inquiry with the SWLing Post community as I know we have other readers who are visually impaired. Readers, please comment with any suggestions you may have.
To my knowledge, there are no analog shortwave radios with a BFO (for SSB) that are in production today. There are, however, numerous analog models from the 60s, 70s and 80s with a BFO (two examples: the Sony ICF-5800H and the Panasonic RF-2200).
My trusty Zenith Trans Oceanic will always be a part of my radio collection (Click to enlarge)
In fact, my first proper radio was a Zenith Transoceanic. I’ll never forget taking it to our local RadioShack, when I was eight years old, to ask one of the employees (who I knew was a DXer) what the heck “this strange BFO knob” does!
Since I can’t recommend a current analog model, I do have a digital solution that I believe may work for you:
The Tecsun PL-660
Listening to Channel Z in a parking lot with the Tecsun PL-660.
Though not an analog radio, the menus on the PL-660 are not “deep”–most buttons simply toggle features. There is no hardware “switch” to change bands, but I think you would find it easy enough to use the direct frequency entry keypad to navigate across the spectrum. The SSB feature works more like an analog radio as it has a BFO dial on the right side of the radio. The buttons and dials are also raised and tactile. Best yet, the tuning sounds like an analog radio since there is no muting between frequency changes.
There are a number of other portables out there that are about as simple to operate as the PL-660, but I like the price point of the PL-660 and its overall performance characteristics. For a little less money, and a similar form factor and function set–minus a synchronous detector function–you might also consider the Tecsun PL-600 as well.
Again, I’m hoping Post readers might chime in with even better suggestions! Please comment!
>>>>>UPDATE: This radio has been sold! Thanks for your interest!<<<<<
I’m in the process of thinning the herd around here at the SWLing Post HQ! I have dozens of portable radios that I rarely use–many I keep solely for review comparisons and benchmarking.
I’ve always loved the PL-600, but I rarely turn it on these days. I have the PL-660, PL-680, PL-880 and a number of other similar portables for review comparisons.
I used to lug this receiver around quite a bit–somewhere in my travels I scratched the display a bit.
It doesn’t hinder the ability to read the display–not cracked, just scratched–but it’ll turn off someone looking for a perfect specimen for sure. Indeed I’m sure there are other light scratches to be found.
It comes with the original box, soft case, earphones, power supply and manual. Essentially, the full original package.
This unit, of course, works beautifully. In fact, I turned it on for the first time in a few months and check out what was on frequency! So–BONUS!–if you’re a spy, this might be your dream radio.
I want this to be a good deal for someone, so I’ll ship to the first person who offers $40 or more (not too much more, okay?). Free shipping via the USPS. Payment via PayPal.
This morning, I received a question I’m often asked. It usually goes something like this:
“Should I purchase the Tecsun PL-600, or invest a little more and purchase the Tecsun PL-660? Is it worth the price difference?”
I decided it best to post this question, along with my response, below.
SWLing Post reader, Warren, writes:
“I have been on your web site for a couple of hours now. I especially appreciated your super review. From that I decided I liked the Tecsun PL-660 best. As I was looking for one on ebay, I saw an ad for a Tecsun PL-600. Although I did find specs on your web site, I did not find a review by you. I did find links to other reviews.
One person said a PL-600 was a PL-660 minus the AIR band.
Another said the SSB didn’t work until he took it apart and replaced a capacitor.
Another said the filters didn’t work as well on the 600, or didn’t exist.
Many said the quality was excellent – buy it! Many said it was terrible.
Can you tell me, in your opinion, which, if any, of the above you agree with? And give me your own rating of the 600?
The 600 is much less expensive than the 660. If it is missing filters and sound quality I’m not interested. If it is only missing the airline band I am very interested.”
Here’s my reply to Warren:
“It is confusing and, you’re right, for some reason I don’t think I’ve ever done my own review of the PL-600–though it’s been included in comparisons.
Here’s my answer to your question:
If you want the best overall performance, go for the Tecsun PL-660. I think it’s well worth the price.
The Tecsun PL-660.
The PL-660 has a great synchronous detector–something the PL-600 lacks–which helps with selective fading and pulling weak signals out of the murk. Since you can select the sideband for the sync lock, you can also use this function to help mitigate adjacent signal interference.
The ‘600 is one of the few portables on the market in this price range that has a BFO for single sideband listening (along with the CountyComm GP5/SSB and the Degen DE1103 DSP). When newcomers to the hobby want a full-featured sub-$100 radio that’s simple to operate, I often suggest the PL-600. I’ve never had any issues with my PL-600, by the way–it performed as specified right out of the box and continues to do so today.
SWLing Post reader, Tom Ally, writes to say that the Tecsun PL-600 is currently on sale at Amazon.com for $74.99, shipping included. While this is not a deep discount, he notes that it is a lot of radio for the price. I still have a PL-600 and tend to agree with Tom. In fact, I was using my PL-600 this morning, comparing it to the new Sangean ATS-405. In many respects, the PL-600 reminds me of the Grundig G5.
When I heard early reports about the new Tecsun PL-680, I was already wondering how it would stack up alongside other Tecsun portables. An early photo of the Tecsun PL-680 revealed how very similar it is, indeed, to the Tecsun PL-600, which has been on the market for many years. Moreover, the features of PL-680, which I heard about only a few weeks ago, sounded to me like a carbon copy of the venerable PL-660. I investigated further, and spoke with Anna at Anon-Co; she was given to understand that the Tecsun PL-680 was essentially a re-packaged PL-660 with improved sensitivity. I was curious enough about the PL-680 that I ordered one from Anna as soon as they were available, even paying for expedited shipping in order to have it in hand a bit sooner.
The Tecsun PL-660 has been on the market for several years now; it’s one of the most popular shortwave portables on the market. And for good reason: the PL-660 is relatively inexpensive, simple to use, packs all of the most vital and desirable functions/modes, and is available from a variety of retailers that ship worldwide. I have reviewed it numerous times and often used it as the basis for comparison with other shortwave portables. It’s China-based manufacturer, Tecsun, has emerged over the past few years as the dominant manufacturer of shortwave radios.
The Tecsun PL-680 looks like the Tecsun PL-600 body, with the Tecsun PL-660 features and layout. Indeed, the full complement of buttons, switches and dials are identically positioned to those of the PL-660.
Let’s cut to the chase…
Question: So, does the PL-680 have more functions than the PL-660?
Answer:No.It appears to be, and likely is, identical in every (functional) respect to the Tecsun PL-660. No surprises here, unless there are hidden features I haven’t discovered…!
Check out the following comparison photos–the PL-600 on the right, PL-660 in the middle, PL-680 on the right (click to enlarge):
The similarity is so striking, in fact, that I believe the PL-680 is the first radio I’ve ever turned on for the first time, only to find I immediately knew every function. I’m so familiar with the PL-660 that I could even use the PL-680 in the dark the first night I used it.
It also helps, of course, that the PL-680 is nearly identical to the PL-600, too, which I’ve owned for many years.
Here’s how I see the PL-680 product development equation:
In truth, I was quite disappointed that Tecsun did not add a line-out jack to the PL-680.
The PL-660, alas, lacks line-out, and though my Tecsun PL-880 has a line-out, its default shortwave volume is simply too high to be used by most digital recorders. I had hoped that the PL-680 might have a proper line-out jack, potentially making it a replacement for my trusty Sony ICF-SW7600GR. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
But other than missing a line-out jack, I really have few complaints. I’ve always been a fan of simple radio design and I believe Tecsun has done a good thing by keeping the user experience so similar in their PL-6XX line of portable shortwave radios. Apparently, a good thing is a good thing.
But here’s what everyone wants to know…
Question: Does the PL-680 have any performance advantages over the PL-660?
Short Answer: Yes! (But keep your PL-660.)
I should add here that I’m about to get rather technical and radio-geeky, so if you’re only interested in a summary, please skip to the bottom of the page.
Otherwise, help yourself to a cup of coffee, and let’s talk radio…
Since I spend 95% of my listening time on shortwave, I’ll begin with shortwave performance. Again, we’ll compare the PL-680’s performance with that of the PL-660.
In most circumstances, you’ll find that the PL-680 has better sensitivity than the PL-660. It’s a marginal improvement, but one I certainly notice on the shortwave bands–and so did the majority of readers who participated in the shortwave AM reception survey.
The survey had recordings from a total of three broadcasters: Radio Prague, WWV, and Radio France International.
The PL-680 was “Radio A,” and the PL-660 was “Radio B.”
The Radio Prague recording was quite strong and was the only broadcast in our survey in which the PL-660 and PL-680 ran neck-and-neck.
Based on comments from those who participated, the PL-680 came out ahead of the PL-660 in two respects: better sensitivity, and more stable AGC. In both sets of recordings, the signal was weaker than the Radio Prague recording, and QSB (fading) more pronounced. Herein lies a well-known weakness of the PL-660: soft muting and a sometimes over-active AGC equates to more listening fatigue.
Here is a chart with the full survey results based on 194 listener reports. The number of responses are represented on the vertical axis.
Obviously, the engineers at Tecun addressed the soft muting/AGC problem of the PL-660. In all of my time with the PL-680 on the air, I haven’t noticed any soft muting; the audio has been smooth and the AGC copes with fading much better than the PL-660. No doubt, these two improvements alone make the PL-680 a worthy portable for shortwave radio listening.
There is a downside to the improved sensitivity, however: the PL-680 has a slightly higher noise floor than the PL-660. This is mostly noticeable during weak-signal listening. Though I haven’t compared it yet, I’m willing to bet that the noise floor is comparable to that of the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. Personally, if increased sensitivity and stability means a slightly higher noise floor, I’m okay with that. I find that I listen better when the signal is stable and not fluttering/muting with every QSB trough.
The second survey focused on synchronous detection, which is a very useful receiver tool that mitigates adjacent signal interference and improves a signal’s stability. Perhaps it was my good fortune that the same day I tested synchronous detection, fading on even strong stations was pronounced at times. Perfect!
The first recording set was from Radio Australia, a relatively strong signal here in North America. Still, QSB was pronounced–making for an unstable signal–and there was hetrodyne interference in the upper sideband of the broadcast. When I switched the radios into lower sideband sync, halfway through, it effectively mitigated the hetrodyne in all of the recordings.
While I have always considered the PL-660 to sport one of the stronger sync locks in current production portables, it did truly struggle to maintain a lock in both the Radio Australia and Radio Riyadh recordings. Indeed, I was so surprised by how comparatively feeble the sync lock was on Radio Australia, that I disconnected the PL-660 from the recorder and moved to a different location to verify that something nearby wasn’t causing the sync lock instability. It was not; it was solely due to unstable band conditions.
It came as no surprise that survey respondents took note of the PL-680’s stronger sync lock: the PL-680 beat the PL-660 by a wide margin in both sample recordings. I chart the results, below, from a total of 85 responses:
Very good, PL-680! Someday I’d like to compare the PL-680 with the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, which I’ve always considered to have, among current portables, the strongest sync lock.
I wasn’t able to provide an audio survey of SSB performance since the PL-680 picked up too much noise from my digital recorder to make for a fair contest.
Meanwhile, I’ve spent time listening to both radios in SSB mode and comparing the models. To my ear, both are very close in SSB performance, but again the PL-680 does have a slight edge on the PL-660 in terms of sensitivity and AGC performance.
SSB audio fidelity is very similar in both radios.
While I haven’t spent more than, let’s say, an hour with the PL-680 on the FM band, I have concluded that it is very sensitive–able to receive all of my benchmark local and regional FM stations.
An informal comparison between thePL-680 and the PL-660 also leads me to believe that they are both excellent FM performers and seemed to compare favorably. I would certainly welcome FM DXers to comment with their own evaluations of the PL-680.
In short, here is where the PL-680 loses to the PL-660: whereas, on the shortwave bands, the PL-680 is more sensitive, it lacks the same sensitivity on the medium-wave bands.
Though I believe the PL-680 does a marginally better job than the PL-660 of handling the choppy conditions of nighttime MW DX, the PL-660 still pulled voices and music out of the static and made them noticeably more intelligible.
The survey result swung very hard in favor of the PL-660, which has long been one of the more notable medium-wave performers among shortwave portables.
I provided a total of four sample broadcast recordings for comparison. Below, I have embedded one of them–a recording of 940 AM in Macon, Georgia, for your reference.
If you’re a shortwave radio listener, you’ll be pleased with the Tecsun PL-680. In all of my comparison tests between the Tecun PL-660 and Tecsun PL-680, the PL-680 tends to edge out the PL-660, performance-wise. This coincides with the user surveys, too.
If you’re a medium-wave DXer, you might skip over the PL-680. That is, unless Tecsun makes a good iterative design improvement. If you’re a casual medium-wave listener, on the other hand, you’ll probably be pleased with the PL-680.
All in all, I like the Tecsun PL-680 and I see myself using it more than the PL-660 when I’m on the go. If you’re primarily a shortwave radio listener, the PL-680 may very well be worth the upgrade. At $95 US plus shipping, it is certainly a good value. Note that Anon-Co plans to post the Tecsun PL-680 for sale on eBay in March 2015.
PL-680 calibration: Dennis Coomans confirms via Anon-Co that the PL-680 (like the PL-660) can be calibrated by long pressing the AIR button (for SW, AM, etc) and by pressing SYNC for FM. According to Anon-Co, “all PL-680 receivers from production lines after November 2017 have this (hidden) manual calibration feature.”
On Tuesday I received the new CountyComm GP5/SSB portable shortwave radio, a sample sent me from CountyComm. If you’re familiar with the current shortwave portable landscape, then you’ll quickly note that the GP5/SSB shares a striking resemblance to both the GP5/DSP and the Tecsun PL-360. While I hadn’t anticipated writing yet another radio article before the end of the year, having just published a lengthy review of the CC Skywave, my curiosity got the best of me…and before I knew it, I’d spent a few hours listening to and making notes about the CountyComm GP5/SSB as I put it through its paces. In the end, I found I had the makings of a review.
Who is CountyComm?
Unlike most other brands I review, CountyComm has only one or two shortwave radio offerings. I wanted to know a little of the back story and motivation behind creating the GP5/SSB, so I contacted CountyComm directly and spoke with their representative, Nick.
Nick explained that CountyComm is a retail distributor of products created primarily for US government use. In a sense, CountyComm is the consumer spill-over from the thousands of products intended, for example, for state and federal agencies.
According to CountyComm, the GP5/SSB is a case in point. The company received a large order from a US government department for an “inexpensive, small portable, AM/FM/SW radio with SSB” for emergency supply caches and diplomatic posts. The GP5/DSP (a.k.a., Tecsun PL-360) fit the bill, but lacked SSB. The request was large enough that CountyComm approached SiLabs–manufacturer of the DSP chip in many of the portables on the market–and asked for help. SiLabs made some design changes and worked directly with the factory in China to produce the GP5/SSB.
The GP5/SSB comes with a medium wave bar antenna, carry pouch, stereo ear buds, wire antenna and manual.
Besides SSB, another interesting design CountyComm implemented was extending the upper frequency range of the GP5/SSB to 29,999 kHz; previous and similar Tecsun models only had an upper limit of 21,950 kHz.
You may note that as of today, there are no similar Tecsun portables on the market–this is because the first batch of units were designed for (and all purchased by) CountyComm. However, I have already heard rumblings that there will soon be a Tecsun PL-365 on the market–if so, no doubt it will turn out to be the GP5/SSB.
Appearance-wise, the GP5/SSB is nearly identical to its predecessor, the GP5/DSP or Tecsun PL-360. The vertical form factor is rather unique in the ultra-portable world, this radio is designed for one-handed operation, much like a handy-talky. The volume and tuning controls are on the right side of the radio and are designed to be operated by thumb (for right-handed operators, at any rate). All of the buttons on the front face are easily operated by your thumb–they’re small, but have a firm response. The GP5/DSP (like its predecessor) lacks a back stand, but does have a belt clip.
The small internal speaker produces clear audio, but sounds a little tinny; there is not even a hint of bass. Via headphones, the audio quality is far better.
Besides a slight modification to the keypad layout to accommodate the new addition of SSB and a bright green antenna tip, the radio is identical to the GP5/DSP and Tecsun PL-360.
The CountyComm GP5/SSB, like many other SiLabs-based receivers we review, has excellent FM sensitivity.
Medium Wave (AM broadcast band) Performance
The MW bar antenna increases performance–if using headphones, you will need a right angle connector to allow the MW antenna to rotate 360 degrees
While I have not yet had the opportunity to do a proper comp recording session with the CountyComm GP5/SSB versus comparable radios, I plan to do so in the near future…stay tuned for that, right here! I’ll create a post to give you a heads-up when I’ve added medium wave samples to this review.
With that said, I expect the GP5/SSB performance on medium wave will be very similar to that of the GP5/DSP and Tecsun PL-360. I like the included rotatable ferrite bar antenna that plugs into an external antenna port on top of the radio. It certainly helps with both overall sensitivity as well as nullifying unwanted signals.
I’ve had a couple of opportunities to compare the GP5/SSB with other portables on the shortwave bands; embedded audio samples follow of a strong station, a weaker station, and even an SSB sample. Note that all of the sample recordings were taken during poor band conditions–QSB (fading) is pronounced.
Of course, when I received the GP5/SSB, the first thing I did was tune the ham radio bands in SSB mode.
Nick, the CountyComm rep in charge of the GP5/SSB design, is an amateur radio operator, and I’m pleased that he represented the importance of a truly functional SSB mode on this radio.
The GP5/DSP only has 1 kHz tuning steps: more than adequate for broadcast listening, but too coarse for SSB. Amateur radio operators do not necessarily transmit right on a frequency; they’re often slightly off-frequency, either accidentally or intentionally. And older ham radios are also prone to drifting until the rigs have properly warmed up. Radios with SSB need finer-tuning controls to hone in on SSB signals. But the GP5/SSB has a work-around for this.
The GP5/SSB accommodates SSB by allowing the listener to select either the upper or lower sideband, then use the BFO function to help fine tune and zero-beat a signal.
Specifically, here’s how to tune to an SSB (phone) amateur radio signal with the GP5/SSB:
Turn on either the upper or lower sideband, depending on the meter band (generally, 40 meters and below are lower; all else, upper).
When you hear a signal, use the 1 kHz tuning increments to find where it’s strongest.
Now, press the BFO button once to activate BFO tuning; the U or L (indicating upper or lower) will begin to blink.
While the sideband indicator is blinking, use the tuning wheel to adjust the BFO. Adjust tuning until the voices in the signal sound natural.
Once you’ve done this a couple of times, the process becomes second nature.
Overall, I’m very pleased with the SSB functionality and performance. While I prefer either very fine tuning increments, or a separate BFO knob (no room for that on this tiny radio), I appreciate that CountyComm has used the BFO function to eliminate the need for a separate tuning wheel.
While there are a number of portable radios with SSB on the market, there are very few in this $80 price range with SSB. Indeed, to my knowledge there are no other SSB-capable portables currently on the market that are as compact as the CountyComm GP5/SSB.
Below, you can hear two representative audio samples of how each radio receives an SSB conversation between two ham radio operators on the 20 meter band. I like this sample because one of the operators has a very strong signal, while the other is much weaker:
You may notice that the GP5/SSB has a slightly higher noise floor and DSP artifacts while listening to the weaker signal. The PL-600 sounds a little muffled in comparison.
I listened to many SSB signals that afternoon on the 20 and 40 meter ham radio bands. At length I concluded that I prefer the PL-600 for weak-signal listening. The PL-600’s AGC could cope with the QSB better than the GP5/SSB.
With the majority of the SSB signals, however, I found that the GP5/SSB’s audio was clearer and voices seemed to “pop” out better than on the PL-600.
I should note that I also attempted to include the Grundig G6 in this comparison, but the G6 somehow picked up noise from my digital recorder, thus making the recorded audio sound worse than it actually was. To my ear, the Grundig G6’s SSB reception was very similar to that of the CountyComm GP5/SSB–the G6 perhaps has a veryslight edge in terms of weak-signal reception.
As you probably hear in these examples, the GP5/SSB has fine sensitivity, though not quite as good as the PL-310ET.
I’ve also noted good selectivity during casual broadcast listening with the GP5/SSB.
However, I do not like the GP5/SSB’s AGC (auto gain control) as well as that of the other portables in this comparison–it’s a little too reactive to fading on the broadcast bands. To be fair, these audio samples really accentuated the AGC on the GP5/SSB since all were made during poor reception conditions and pronounced fading.
Under normal conditions, I believe I would be quite pleased with the GP5/SSB; it’s otherwise on par with most of the other ultra-portables on the market.
Every radio has pros and cons, and I jot down my reactions as I evaluate a new radio so as not to forget any details. The following is my list:
Audio well-tailored for AM broadcast listening–fidelity quite good via headphones
Adequate sensitivity and selectivity
Clear, simple LCD back-lit display
SSB mode is quite functional
BFO feature allows for zero-beat tuning
Includes both upper and lower sideband selection
Much like the PL-880, when in SSB mode, the GP5/SSB will select ham bands when changing meter bands
Extended frequency range (up to 29,999 kHz)
Very good medium wave reception with supplied external bar antenna
Uses three standard AA batteries
Can be charged with common mini USB adapter
Displays temperature in Fahrenheit (if MW set to 10kHz steps) or Celcius (if set to 9 kHz steps)
Great radio for an emergency kit or bug-out bag
Designed for one-hand operation/included belt clip (see con)
AGC doesn’t cope with fading as well as other comparable portables
Audio from internal speaker rather tinny (without headphones)
No back stand, nor rotatable whip antenna; thus this radio is not ideal for tabletop listening (see pro)
If you’re looking for an ultra-portable radio for travel and general broadcast listening, I would encourage you to consider the new C. Crane CC Skywave, the Tecsun PL-310ET or the Tecsun PL-380. Overall, the performance and form factor of these radios are a better fit for broadcast listening. If you’re looking for armchair SSB listening, a larger portable with a larger internal speaker such as the Tecsun PL-600 is a good choice for the same price as the GP5/SSB.
If you’re looking for an ultra-portable radio with SSB, then the GP5/SSB is a very good choice (if not the only ultra-portable SSB choice currently on the market). While the SSB performance can’t compare with larger, pricier receivers and ham radio transceivers, it’s very good for $80 US.
If you’re looking for an emergency communications receiver–something to stash in your vehicle, emergency kit or bug-out bag–the CountyComm GP5/SSB is a great choice and value. Indeed, that’s who the GP5/SSB was designed for; that’s why this rig has excellent frequency coverage in all modes, with good sensitivity/selectivity and designed for portable, one-hand operation. In fact, CountyComm has even designed and manufactured (in the USA!) a robust, protective 1000-Denier case for the GP5/SSB. This case makes it very easy to strap the GP5/SSB to your belt or backpack securely.
In conclusion, the CountyComm GP5/SSB was designed for a specific purpose: to be an emergency communications receiver. It does this job quite well, despite any shortcomings in comparison to other popular shortwave portables, and for this purpose, I can recommend it.
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.