Tag Archives: Tecsun PL-660

A full review of the C. Crane CCRadio-EP Pro AM/FM portable radio

Without a doubt, C. Crane Company has become an established name in our radio community as a retailer and manufacturer that focuses on the world of broadcast listening. The company’s ads, website, and blog all promote broadcast listening as a viable and important part of our evolving media landscape. Their radio products are all designed with broadcast listening in mind.

The C. Crane CCRadio 2E

Currently the company manufactures one of the most capable AM broadcast receivers on the market: the CCRadio-2E.

The CCRadio-2E, however, is a pricey portable at $170 US, perhaps overkill for the casual broadcast listener.

So, for those seeking a simpler broadcast receiver, C. Crane later developed the original CCRadio-EP, a bare-bones, fully analog AM/FM radio with a large backlit slide rule dial, designed for the listener who wants to “go old school” in their receiving.

The original CCRadio-EP also attracted mediumwave/AM broadcast radio listeners because it had fairly impressive performance characteristics supported by C. Crane’s patented Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna. In many ways, the original CCRadio-EP was somewhat reminiscent of the GE Superadio.

Yet while the original CCRadio-EP has––according to C. Crane––been a popular product, because certain vital EP components are now becoming obsolete, the company has been forced to redesign it;  hence the new CCRadio-EP Pro.

The CCRadio-EP Pro: A different animal

Let’s be clear, though: unlike its predecessor, the CCRadio-EP Pro is no longer a true analog set.

Despite external similarities, internally this radio and its predecessor are very different receivers. Inside, the EP Pro is based on the Silicon Labs SI4734 DSP chip. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I consider the move to a chip a significant design change.

In other words, much like the Degen DE321, the Degen DE32, the Tecsun R-2010D, the Kchibo KK9803 and the ShouYu SY-X5 (which I review in a shoot-out here), the CC-Radio EP Pro is a mechanically-tuned DSP receiver.

Crane kindly sent me a review sample of the new CCRadio-EP Pro. It’s important to note that the review unit came from a strictly limited first production run; the actual consumer rig’s first major production run is still a few weeks away.  Thus this radio is not yet shipping.

I’ve had the CCRadio-EP Pro for a few weeks now, during which time I’ve given it a thorough evaluation. So, let’s take a close look at the CCRadio-EP Pro––first, in terms of performance.

AM Performance

Let’s face it:  if you’re a radio enthusiast and reading this review, you’re likely mainly concerned with the EP Pro’s performance on the AM broadcast band. Personally speaking, that’s true for me, too.

The CCRadio-EP Pro (left) and Tecsun PL-660 (right).

Over the years of reviewing portable receivers of all stripes, I’ve learned that nothing beats a radio specifically designed for AM broadcast band performance. Without a doubt, C. Crane intends that the CCRadio-EP Pro be one of these radios. Indeed, in many ways, it’s an ideal set for broadcast listening, because it sports:

  • C. Crane’s Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna
  • A large speaker
  • Wide/Narrow bandwidth switch
  • Dedicated external antenna connections

Although beefy internal AM antennas, large speakers, and external antenna connections were relatively common in the 1970s and 80s, these are rare features among modern AM/FM portable radios. The fact is, radios with superb AM broadcast performance are becoming a rather rare breed.

External antenna connections

In other words, the CCRadio-EP Pro has many design features that position it to be a formidable AM broadcast band receiver.

So, then, how does it perform? Well…that’s complicated to explain. The CCRadio-EP Pro has some positives, but also a notable amount of negatives.

Let’s start with the good news.

Positive: AM Sensitivity

Comparing the CCRadio-EP Pro (left) with the Sony ICF-5500W (right) and the Tecsun PL-660 (middle) at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.

The CCRadio-EP Pro is quite sensitive on the AM broadcast band. When I’ve compared it with a number of shortwave portables I own, it almost always outperforms them on frequency. When my Tecsun PL-660––one of the most sensitive mediumwave receivers among my shortwave portables––is tuned to a marginal signal, it sounds about half as sensitive as the CCRadio-EP Pro.

Check out the following comparison videos:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

The noise floor is fairly low while the audio is robust and room-filling via the EP Pro’s front-facing speaker.

Positive: No drifting

As I’ve said above, unlike the original (analog) CCRadio-EP, the EP Pro is a mechanically-tuned DSP radio. In all of my testing, I never noted a time that the radio drifted off frequency.

Positive: Nulling

Crane’s internal Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna affords the listener excellent gain and nulling capabilities. In fact, I find the nulling quite sharp, a major positive for this listener.

Positive: Fine tuning control

On the right side of the CCRadio-EP Pro you’ll find a large tuning knob (top), the antenna trimmer (middle), and large volume knob (bottom)

Like the original EP, the EP Pro has a Twin Coil Antenna Fine Tuning adjustment.

This feature can help make small adjustments to received station to peak reception. This fine tune control is actually trimming the twin coil ferrite bar.

Positive: Wide/Narrow filter

The EP Pro does have a Wide/Narrow filter selection which essentially helps widen or narrow received audio. Note that this has no meaningful impact on the imaging mentioned below.

Altogether, this about sums up the CCR-EP’s positive performance capabilities on the AM broadcast band.


Now let’s look at the CCR-EP’s negatives, some of which are, unfortunately, significant.

Negative: Muting between frequencies

The original CCRadio-EP revives the joy of a purely analog radio set.  When you tune up/down the bands, there’s a fluidity to the whole process. While the interface is simple, analog tuning allows your ears to pick up on the nuances––the rise and fall of stations both strong and weak as you travel across the dial.

As we mentioned earlier, mechanically-tuned DSP radios, like the new CCRadio-EP Pro, may look like analog sets, but inside, they’re entirely digital. And one drawback to all of the mechanically-tuned DSP radios I’ve tested so far is a tendency to mute between frequencies. With each 10 kHz frequency step, you’ll hear a short audio mute. If you tune across the dial quickly, audio mutes until you land on a frequency. Here’s a video demonstrating the effect:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Needless to say, muting makes band scanning a more fatiguing process. It’s really a shame this affects the AM band. I hope that C. Crane engineers can minimize this issue in future production runs, but I understand much of this is a characteristic/limitation of this particular DSP chip.

Negative: Images

Crane actually includes a note about weak images which you might find below and/or above your target signal. Weak images are an unfortunate reality of the CCRadio-EP Pro; they’re prevalent on both AM and FM.

Here’s how you’ll experience the images by way of example: let’s say you’re tuning to a strong local AM station on 630 kHz, noting that the EP Pro has 10 kHz tuning increments. As you tune to 630 kHz, you’ll hear the station on 620 kHz, though it won’t be as strong as it is on 630 kHz. Then if you tune to 640 kHz, you’ll likely hear a weaker image of the station there, as well. In my experience, images are present on both sides of the target station if the station is strong. If it’s a weak station, you might only hear it, say, 10 kHz lower but not above (or vise versa).

The CCRadio-EP Pro is powered by four D Cells.

As you might imagine, this poses a problem for the weak signal AM broadcast band DXer. Let’s say you’re trying to snag an elusive DX station on 640 kHz; although the EP Pro might have the sensitivity required to grab that station, it’s simply not selective enough (if selective is indeed the right word) to reject the local station on 630 kHz, thus your weak DX will have local competition.

This, more than any other negative, takes the EP Pro out of the realm of the mediumwave DXer.

Negative: Inaccurate dial

I’ve also discovered that, on my unit, the top half of the AM dial is inaccurate. I estimate that the slide rule dial is off by about 40-50 kHz at the top end of the band. It’s much more accurate below 1,200 kHz, however.

Here is a few photo of the CCRadio-EP Pro tuned to 1600 kHz:

I hope C. Crane can address this in future iterations of the EP Pro. While I don’t expect slide rule dials to be extremely accurate, there nonetheless needs to be some reliability.

Note: C. Crane engineering is aware of this problem and even attempting to implement a fix on the first production run units. I will follow up when I learn more.

Negative Audio “pop” with power on

As you might have heard in the band scanning video above, any time you turn on the CCRadio-EP Pro, you’ll hear an audio “pop.” This is happening when power is applied to the audio amplifier. The pop is not soft, but fairly audible, and is present even if you turn the volume down all the way. The audio pop is prevalent via both the internal speaker and when using headphones. Fortunately, it’s much less pronounced via headphones.  While not a major negative, I find it a bit annoying, and don’t doubt that other listeners will, too.

Note: C. Crane engineering tell me that they’ve minimized the audio pop since making the limited first production run, thus the first full production run should be improved.

Negative: AM frequency steps currently limited to 10 kHz

My initial production run EP Pro is limited to 10 kHz frequency steps. This radio is primarily marketed to North America where 10 kHz increments are standard. Of course, if you’re trying to use the EP Pro to snag Transatlantic or Transpacific DX, you’ll miss the ability to tune between those broad 10 kHz steps. But, again, due to the imaging mention above, I think the CCRadio-EP Pro is simply not suited for DXing.

Note: C. Crane engineering has informed me that future production runs of the CCRadio-EP Pro may have a 10/9 kHz switch, thus eliminating this negative. If you’re reading this review a few months after time of posting––crossed fingers––this may already be resolved.

FM Performance

If you’re looking for a simple AM/FM radio, and plan to spend most of your time on the FM band, you’ll like the CCRadio-EP Pro.

Positive: Audio

FM audio is very good on the CCRadio-EP Pro. I think it would be safe to say that it’s superior to most other receivers currently on the market in its $85 price range. Audio is room-filling and has good characteristics with dedicated adjustments for Bass and Treble. FM audio is reminiscent of 1970s-era solid-state receivers like the GE Superadio (a big positive, in my book). The bass is not very deep and resonant, nor the treble super-crisp, but the sound overall is very pleasant to the ear.

Positive: Sensitivity

The EP Pro is a sensitive FM receiver. It received all of my benchmark local and distant FM stations.

Positive: No drifting

As with AM, the EP Pro does not drift off frequency (again, this is actually a DSP radio).

The FM band is less affected by some of the negatives that impact AM broadcast band listening:

Negative: Inaccurate dial

As with the AM dial, FM frequency markings are slightly off. I measured the entire FM band and found that the upper half of the dial (above 102 MHz) seemed to deviate the most. See images below comparing the Tecsun PL-660 and CCRadio-EP Pro tuned to the same FM frequencies:

Here are a few examples of the CCRadio-EP Pro and Tecsun PL-660 tuned to the same frequencies:

Note: As mentioned above, C. Crane is trying to implement a fix for this in future production runs.

Negative: Imaging

As with the AM band, you will find imaging on the FM band. This bothers me less on the FM band, but I live in an area where the FM dial isn’t incredibly crowded. If you live in an urban market with stations packed into the dial, then the imaging concern will probably make the experience of listening to a weak station adjacent to a strong station quite unpleasant.

What about muting between frequencies? While you can hear frequency steps on the FM band, there is little to no muting between frequencies. It almost feels more like an analog radio.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Funny, but the weak signal images around a strong FM frequency actually help contribute to an analog-like experience during band scanning, as stations seem to rise and fall as you tune.

There is another factor that I don’t really consider a positive, but is worth noting.  The EP Pro is one of the best mechanically-tuned DSP receivers to use on the FM band because the slide rule dial is wide––there’s a larger space for the needle to travel. FM band scanning would be a pretty pleasant experience if only the dial markings were more accurate.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget some of my initial impressions. Here is the list I formed over the time I’ve spent evaluating the C. Crane CCRadio-EP Pro.

Pros:

  • Excellent AM sensitivity
  • Good audio via internal speaker
  • Internal Twin Coil Ferrite AM antenna provides excellent gain and nulling
  • Excellent dial backlighting
  • External AM/FM antenna connections
  • Quiet (included) power supply
  • Low noise floor
  • Dial backlighting

Cons:

  • Imagining on both AM and FM
  • Muting between frequencies on AM
  • Pop in audio when unit is turned on, regardless of default volume level
  • Dial markings inaccurate
  • AM frequency steps currently fixed too broadly at 10 kHz (though future units may have a 9/10 kHz toggle)

Conclusion

My conclusion is that the CCradio-EP Pro is simply not an enthusiasts’ radio.

If you read the list of negatives in the AM performance section of this review, you’ll know why I simply can’t recommend it…at least not yet. If C. Crane could minimize AM muting, improve imaging and fix the frequency accuracy, this radio may prove more promising. But at this point, the limited production run CCRadio-EP Pro lacks the level of refinement that I’ve come to expect from a C. Crane radio.

For what it’s worth, I have been in close contact with C. Crane regarding these issues; the company is taking them to heart and even looking to implement some fixes/adjustments prior to their full production run. As these issues are resolved, I’ll amend this review.

The lack of refinements is somewhat disheartening. Otherwise, the CCR-EP Pro would be a great mediumwave DXing machine. When on frequency, it’s quite sensitive and stable! Perhaps some mediumwave DXers could overlook the negatives above to take advantage of this.  I would not, however. I’d soon find the problems frustrating and turn to other receivers in my arsenal. Sensitivity is important, but personally I would sacrifice sensitivity to have an overall better tuning and listening experience.

On the other hand––as C.Crane makes a point of stating––the CC-Radio EP Pro was designed around the needs of Bob Crane’s mother: so is essentially an effective radio for casual listening that’s utterly simple to use.  In this respect, at least, the EP Pro is a success.

The EP Pro has no multi-function buttons, no menus, and no memories. The knobs and buttons are tactile and obvious. The backlit dial is also a nice touch; I love it. The EP Pro is old school design around a modern DSP chip and, in terms of audio, a hat tip to classic solid state analog radios from the 1970s and 80s.

The casual listener––especially those who use radio to primarily listen to their one favorite station––will enjoy the EP Pro. For example, I have an older friend who’s in the process of replacing his bedside radio of 30+ years.  He wants a set he can tune to his staple AM broadcast station (which is not a super-easy catch) and leave it on frequency––essentially, he wants a “set it and forget it” radio. I think the EP Pro will work well for this application.

But for radio enthusiasts––like most of you wonderful people who read the SWLing Post––I would pass on the EP Pro and consider a more capable mediumwave radio instead like the original CCRadio-EP, the CC-Radio 2E, or a vintage solid state set like the GE Superadio, Sony-5500W, or the venerable Panasonic RF-2200.

Click here to view the CCRadio-EP Pro at C. Crane Company.

A detailed review of the XHDATA D-808 and comparison with the Tecsun PL-660

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, for the following guest post:


A review of the XHDATA D-808

by 13dka

After all the recent buzz about the new XHDATA D-808 I had to get one. I got mine 3 weeks ago and I couldn’t help comparing it a lot with my PL-660. The PL-660 lends itself to such a comparison: it turned out to be the most sensitive shortwave portable with SSB in some comparison tests, so it became some kind of benchmark radio for this class of receivers and it has the same coverage as the D-808. Here are my findings, let’s start with the important stuff:

Performance

13dka’s “happy place” on the German North Sea shore.

I always try new receivers at my favourite listening post at the (German) North Sea shore, many of you know how beneficial such a location is for DXing. My favorite spot there is far away from any houses, power lines or other interference sources on the land side, so besides some sheep-made noise the man-made noise is as low as it gets, measured less than -130dBm (which is the receiver noise) on a 1/2 lambda dipole above 10 MHz.

At the same time the close proximity to the water results in somewhat boosted signals, so I can assess both reception quality at the lowest sensitivity threshold and behavior with strong signals. Sometimes it lets me find quirks that would go unnoticed anywhere else.

Here are my findings with the D-808:

Sensitivity

Longwave

Since users in the US have little ways to test that, let me assure you that all rumors you may have heard about a deaf longwave are perfectly true: the European LW broadcast band is pretty much not existing on the D-808. All those reports (e.g. many to find in Amazon reviews) indicate that really all D-808 are affected. The PL-660 is known to be very deaf on LW as well but it picks up a few stations in the evening, only some of them leave a faint clue on the D-808 and it can’t pick up BBC 4 on 198kHz even at night.

The signal meter indicates that it gains some sensitivity only above 300kHz, but from there it quickly starts to beat the PL-660 – during the day I can hear all of the local NDBs, something I can’t say about the PL-660.

AM broadcast band

This continues throughout the AM broadcast range – best tested during the day and on early evenings, the D-808 lets me ID weak stations that are just not there (yet) on the PL-660. Being noticeably better than the Tecsun, I then compared it to my old Grundig Satellit 400 (which has an average sensitivity on MW) and the D-808 matches its performance perfectly. So perhaps it’s not exactly a MW DX machine with just its internal loopstick but it performs well enough to make the band enjoyable.

Trying that at night and indoors shows why the right time and a low-noise location (or alternatively proper test equipment) are so important for such comparisons: any weak station sticking out of the distant and local QRM there is not as weak as it sounds anymore, both QRM and wanted signal are now well above the sensitivity thresholds of both radios and so SNR is defined only by the QRM, not the receiver. That means both radios falsely appear to have exactly the same sensitivity.

Shortwave

Notwithstanding some duds, the PL-660 is known to be a little sensitivity monster on shortwave. When I don’t feel like putting up wires etc. for my SDR, I just take the Tecsun to the beach and through the years I own it, I’ve logged plenty of true DX (JA, VK/ZL or WWVH on a regular basis) with it there, just using the telescopic whip.

Only below 3 MHz it’s not all that great on the whip, and that’s where the D-808 beats it – listening to top band (160m) hams works surprisingly well for a 25 inch whip. Between 3 and 30MHz the D-808’s sensitivity appears to be almost on par with the PL-660, the PL-660 often wins in terms of intelligibility at the “minimum discernible signal” (MDS) threshold. For example, on a day with bad conditions Gander Radio on 6604kHz USB had a barely audible signal on both radios. But I could occasionally decipher some words on the Tecsun that didn’t make it through the noise on the D-808. These photo finish victories for the PL-660 can be observed across most bands, but it needs ridiculously weak signals to spot the difference.

This difference is partly due to the fact that the D-808 seems to be a tad more noisy and partly owed to the better speaker of the PL-660. But the PL-660 also sports the often frowned upon “soft muting” feature, thus creating an impression (or should I say illusion?) of a pretty quiet receiver. I find it hard to tell whether the D-808 is really noisier than the PL-660, or just lacking this permanent noise reduction. I think this feature potentially even increases intelligibility on SSB a tiny bit, but on AM it’s just disturbing and makes the Tecsun lose its sensitivity advantage. Bottom line is that the D-808 is at least very close to the PL-660 in terms of sensitivity on shortwave and I find that quite remarkable.

FM

Both receivers are pretty identical in FM performance on their whip antennas. Sensitivity is good enough to pick up high-power stations more than 100km away in times without any elevated conditions. Both receivers don’t need much signal to make a station intelligible, so when conditions improve a tiny bit (“marginal” indications on the Hepburn Index map) the band already gets populated accordingly. One difference is the coverage: the PL-660 can be switched to cover the Japanese FM band (76-108MHz) only, the D-808 covers the old OIRT band (64-108MHz) on top. What makes the D-808 the winner is its RDS/RDBS capability and the size, it certainly has the sensitivity needed for some ad-hoc FM-DX when you find yourself bored on a hill or in sudden tropo conditions.

By the way: RDS gets decoded sufficiently fast and starts to show on signals with an SNR of at least 12dB (see the bit about the RSSI/SNR meter below). If the station transmits date information it will set the clock automatically, but when you go on a hunt for stations it may receive some garbage data that resets the clock to a wrong time. It may be best to turn on the automatic only occasionally to set the clock, then turning it off again.

Air Band

The D-808 is at least as sensitive as my Alinco DJ-X11 scanner and skunks the rather deaf Tecsun in this band. Unlike the PL-660 and most other small receivers covering that band it has a squelch, which is by the way active on all bands.

What it lacks is the new 8.33 kHz channel spacing, the “Fast” tuning step is still 25 kHz (“Slow” is 1 kHz) and the scan searches the band in 25 kHz steps as well, so I have to tune in the new channels manually. But while it lacks the new spacing, it absolutely has the selectivity for it – the AM filters are all available on the air band as well and even the widest one is still good enough to separate adjacent channels sufficiently. My 6 times more pricey Alinco has the new 8.33 kHz channels but it can’t separate them at all.

The D-808 is a great air band receiver!

Selectivity

The PL-660 has 2 (I think unspecified) ceramic IF filters for SW, which are doing a good job serving 90% of all typical purposes for such a radio. The D-808 on the other hand utlizes the DSP for IF filtering and offers whopping 11 different bandwidths (6 on AM and 6 for SSB), this is even more than the PL-880! This sold the D-808 to me the most, for example I like to improve my very poor CW listening skills every so often, and always having an even narrower filter up the sleeve can save otherwise hopeless DX reception in the ham and broadcast bands. But are they any good?

SSB: 500 Hz, 1 kHz, 1,2 kHz, 2,2 kHz, 3 kHz, 4 kHz

The 500 Hz “CW filter” seems to have a rather slow cutoff, unlike a true 500 Hz CW-filter it leaves voice communication almost intelligible. Still beats trying to hear CW through a regular SSB filter though! The 1 kHz filter seems to be the only one with an offset lower skirt (=less bassy sound), which can be useful in some cases. I’m not quite getting the purpose of the 1.2 kHz filter, I think I’d prefer a 1.8 kHz filter for a step between 1 and 2.2 kHz. The 1.2 through 4 kHz filters have the steeper cutoff you’d expect from DSP filtering and serve their purpose pretty well. In the “Gander Radio” example above, the narrow filter on the PL-660 couldn’t keep 4XZ’s CW signal on 6607kHz in check, while the D-808’s 2.2kHz filter eliminated the CW signal completely. I’d still take the bandwidth figures with a grain of salt though.

AM: 1 kHz, 1,8 kHz, 2 kHz, 2,5 kHz, 3 kHz, 4 kHz, 6 kHz

Oddly, the published bandwidth for the AM filters seem to be “audio bandwidth” (or “per sideband”) figures rather than IF-bandwidths, so they equate to classic IF filters with 2/3,6/4/5/6/8 and 12 kHz bandwidth. The only overlap is 4 kHz, hence I say it’s 11 different bandwidths, not 10. I think these AM bandwidths should cover all requirements that might come up, on top of those you can try ECSS reception with the SSB filters.

SSB Reception

On pretty much all of the tiny shortwave portables, SSB reception comes with some tradeoffs and the D-808 is no exception. When the PL-880 hit the market a few years ago, the amount of filters for SSB offered by the Si4735 DSP raised my hopes for improved SSB, but unfortunately the D-808 has the same problem that kept me from buying the PL-880 back then, and some on top:

AGC distortion

Like the PL-880 (at least some of them), the D-808’s AGC has a way too slow attack rate, the first portion of any strong SSB/CW signal is distorted before the AGC levels back, and it increases gain fast enough that even short talking (or keying) pauses make the next syllable distorted again. This seems to plague most (if not all) Si4735-equipped radios, so that might be actually a bug of the DSP.

Tuning

The chuffing noise is making tuning through the band quite bad in SSB mode, it’s even worse than the early digital “keypad”-style radios in the 1980s: every tuning step is causing first a short muting of the signal, then audio comes back with a loud “chuff” from the AGC kicking in with full gain – tuning sounds like a model railway steam engine sound chip gone mad. Luckily, fine tuning with the thumb wheel doesn’t have this issue.

Filter dropouts

Another issue is an occasional effect that sounds and feels like the filter drops out when you tune through the band. The chuffing sounds different and the background noise sounds wider with more hiss, then after a while (this can take several seconds) the filter pops back in with the regular puff from the AGC.

Slow mode switching

When switching to SSB a “loading bar” shows up first, the entire process between hitting the “SSB” button and getting reception again takes 5 seconds. Actually, these radios basically consist of a “radio-on-a-chip” and a microcontroller so it really might be a loading bar we see there. This controller seems to be not exactly fast in the D-808 anyway, so even using the tuning knob comes with occasional hesitations – I advance the main tuning encoder one indention and the frequency changes only 1-2 seconds later. Changing bands is not exactly fast either but at least toggling between USB and LSB works instantaneously.

In comparison, the PL-660 has none of these issues – tuning is smooth and fast, and the AGC is less borked. So tuning the D-808 isn’t elegant and it doesn’t sound exactly beautiful on SSB. On the other hand it has great frequency stability, great selectivity and sensitivity and I can hear what I want to hear anyway. At 1/3 of the price for a PL-880 and pocket-friendly 2/3 of its size I decided to avoid overrating the quirks.

AM Reception

… is fortunately less odd. The chuffing gets replaced by less annoying muting when tuning in AM mode, the ability to quickly scan a band with the main tuning knob seems to be less hindered by that. The PL-660 has a mediocre sync detector and the D-808 has not, but it can score with easier ECSS reception through its much less fiddly fine tuning in 10 Hz-steps (range +/- 990 Hz with the last digit omitted in the display) and the choice of filters is a clear advantage over the Tecsun’s 2 bandwidths in tricky DX situations. As mentioned above, the Tecsun is also losing its sensitivity advantage due to the soft muting on AM, so its remaining big plus is the more pleasant speaker sound.

Signal handling capabilities

As mentioned above, signals can increase quite a bit in very close proximity to the water. When conditions were good, I’ve witnessed occasional overloading even with just the whip antenna on the PL-660 there. But the Tecsun has a 3-position sensitivity switch that first turns off the input amplifier and then adds an attenuator, so it can manage these situations by turning off the preamp and it happily digests signals from full size dipoles, long wires and active antennas with the built-in attenuator in the signal path.

The D-808 has no such thing and that makes it at least as vulnerable to overloading from good conditions or big antennas as the PL-660 without attenuation. At the beach it exhibited very faint intermodulation even at propagation conditions that were just “not quite as crappy as the current record low” when the Tecsun did not. They were so soft that I think this can’t be heard when the noise level is a bit higher, still a bit strange. Intermodulation products seem to show up most prominently around 7MHz, 10MHz and in the 15m ham band first.

Other than that, it seems to abide <10m/30ft of wire just fine and it gets along with my ML-200 active loop, currently indoors with a rigid 80cm aluminum loop, unless the RRI transmitters populate 49 and/or 41m after midnight. That station occasionally hits the 9+60 mark on my SDR with a dipole and when they’re on, the D-808 has to be tuned far away from these bands or disconnected from the loop to stop the pumping, desensitizing and intermodulation products. Interestingly, strong signals often make the filter drop out (as described under “SSB reception”) as well. A theory could be that this happens when an off-band signal (and/or the AGC causing “clipping”) makes an AD-converter run out of bits.

That even regular good signals outside the filter passband can trigger unwanted AGC action might be more or less common with most of those DSP radios. The massive worldwide contest activity on March 24/25 was a nice opportunity to test that. Even though I fled to the less crowded upper region of the 20m-band and it was an hour after sunset so the band was closing, I noticed the AGC was pumping a lot while listening to a contester with a moderate signal. It could be the the ceramic filters (which are said to have better out-of-band rejection) or just the way my Tecsun’s AGC works (or malfunctions) differently, however this effect is much less pronounced on the PL-660.

Frequency stability, accuracy, birdies, quirks

Both receivers are generally very stable and don’t exhibit a noticeable warm-up drift. Just to see what happens, I took the D-808 from a very warm apartment into cold (-5°C/28F) and stormy weather outside. The internal (and very slow changing) thermometer of the D-808 indicated an internal temperature drop of 12°C within 10 minutes and if there was a drift at all, it drifted less than 10Hz.

Comparing the BFO frequency accuracy (using RWM on 4996 and 9996 kHz) brought up some slight offsets across the coverage range, with different curves for LSB and USB:

4996: USB=-160 Hz, LSB=+110 Hz
9996: USB=-190 Hz, LSB=-300 Hz

So particularly on LSB, the offset on my D-808 varies quite a bit over the entire coverage range but I think this is within the allowable tolerance for such a radio. The PL-660 has slightly better results but it also has a center-indented fine-tuning knob making small corrections quite difficult. In AM mode they are both spot on.

So far I couldn’t find birdies anywhere on the D-808. The PL-660 is pretty clean on shortwave too, but it has hefty birdies around 100, 200 and 970kHz, despite the efforts Tecsun has put into shielding and clean PCB design.

SWLing Post reader Mike reported a loud “pop” when changing bands. I can replicate that but it’s not that loud here. I’m getting a much louder pop (independent from the volume setting like Mike’s pop) when using the band scan function though. If I’m tuned to a station and another station (strong enough to stop the scan) is quite close (10-15 kHz) to the station where the scan was started, a loud pop will be heard when the scan stops at the other station.

Operation/Ergonomics

Both receivers have some “thin plastic” feel to me, but while my PL-660 has some slightly rattly and wiggly buttons and knobs rubbing against the casing, the D-808 has none of those and feels a tad more solid. The tuning knob and the fine-tuning thumbwheel have quite strong detents, so they are not very prone to unintentional detuning. The D-808 lacks the weight and the tiny rubber feet that keep the Tecsun fixed on the table.

Control

I’ve seen quite a few complaints/misunderstandings about the D-808’s operation and I think this is due to the fact that there is a fundamental difference between e.g. many Tecsuns and the D-808 in terms of keypad usage: the PL-660 is prioritizing direct frequency input and the D-808 makes memory operation easier. It couldn’t be any easier indeed – depressing a number button on the keypad for more than 3s stores a frequency, hitting it shortly loads that frequency. “Page” button, then number key loads the memory pages 0-9 on each band (so each band has 100 memories). Like the PL-660, the memories store frequencies only, not the mode and also not the bandwidth (despite the manual claims they do). Also differing from the manual, the selected bandwidth stays put per mode and doesn’t reset to a default setting.

Direct frequency input needs to be initated with the “Freq” button though, and in some cases (shortwave frequency <10,000kHz) you need to hit it again to enter the frequency. The D-808 has up/down buttons in addition to the main tuning knob, they are stepping through the bands in the “Fast” step width so you can pretty much always leave the tuning knob on “Slow” . Pressing these buttons longer than 3s starts the band scan. Holding each of the left side band buttons starts the “ATS” scan-and-save-to-memory automatic.

The D-808 shares the “power off” settings scheme with the Tecsuns – some functions like LW on/off, the FM band coverage and so on are set when the radio is off. These functions are labeled in orange above the corresponding buttons and I share the criticism about the color scheme, which is really hard to read in less than optimum lighting conditions. Also, some of the labels are actually “power on” functions marked in the same color, like the “METER” function on the SW band button (hit the SW button repeatedly to step through the broadcast bands) or the USB/LSB switching and key lock functions activated with the “Info” button.

Display/Backlight

Despite the size difference, readability of the display is fine on both receivers. Backlight control is fundamentally different tho: You can turn off the automatic backlight on the PL-660 but you can’t turn it permanently on, the D-808’s light button toggles between “permanently on” and off but you can’t turn off the automatic. The backlight is objectionably bright on the D-808, the upside is that it serves well as a reading light and the light reflected off your hand can illuminate the buttons sufficiently to substitute the missing button lighting.

Some random things I like:

RSSI/SNR meter

Like the PL-880 and some other Tecsun radios, it has a somewhat odd “dB over 1 microvolt”-like signal indicator. It lacks the negative figures needed to properly represent the ~S0-S3 range, it just goes from ’00’ to ’99’ and it’s strangely labeled as “dBu” but technicalities aside, it is a signal indication in 100 steps which is certainly more useful than a 5 bar indicator. According to reports, other receivers with this RSSI don’t seem to use the entire display range and end at ’75’ or less. However I can see the D-808 showing ’99’ when I’m at our airstrip and the tower transmits.

The second pair of digits is a crude calculation of receiver (not audio!) SNR, which can be useful in conjunction with the signal strength meter, e.g. for adjusting or comparing antennas and so on, and it works best with AM and FM signals.

Battery Endurance

“18650”-batteries have a very high energy density at a very low weight, and in the D-808 they meet a radio with a very moderate power consumption. As a result, the provided 2,000mAh battery powered the radio continuously for remarkable 32 hours, 14 of them with the display light on! For comparison, the heavier (and more expensive) 2,500mAh Ni-MH batteries in my PL-660 last for 24 hours only.

It seems the quality of the packaged battery is all over the place though, one user reports “have to charge every day”, another one “28 hours”. If in doubt, a Panasonic 3,400mAh battery (this is the current technical limit for 18650s, don’t fall for fake “10,000mAh” offers seen on Amazon and eBay!) should last for a long weekend even if you’re listening all day. Make sure you buy the “protected” type, the other flavor (used e.g. in electric cigarettes) doesn’t work. If you happen to be a high-performance flashlight fan, you may already have a bunch of batteries to keep the D-808 going forever.

The manual claims that the D-808 can’t be charged when it’s on but I found that’s not quite true–it sure takes much more time but I could top off a slightly discharged battery just fine.

Charging it from a USB charger or laptop USB port introduces some additional noise on AM/SW of course, trying a cheap power bank worked out much better in this regard.

A true “Walkman” for SWLs

The PL-660 fits in some big pockets only and weighs more than a pound. The D-808 has only 2/3 of the Tecsun’s size and I can stuff it conveniently into all of my jacket’s side pockets (tuning knob ahead) so the whip can stick out easily without getting into my way at all. It has at most half the weight of the Tecsun, it weighs less than my smartphone!

This is making an old dream come true for me – a full-featured “communication receiver” (well, almost) that’s “wearable”, one that allows me to enjoy hands-free and hassle-free full shortwave reception on all bands without compromises (particularly in sensitivity) when I do the boring walks the doctor prescribed!

Outsides where the noises of the digital world are gone, the D-808 presents all bands almost as filled as my dipole at home and so there’s always an interesting QSO or some overseas radio program to enjoy. To give you an idea on what I mean by “no compromises”: my companion on today’s walk was NY2PO from upstate NY (3,728mi/6,000km away) on 40m, constantly coming in with a signal allowing for convenient listening, despite the bad conditions (SFI=68 A=10).

I think this may be the first time a radio with so many features and such a high sensitivity comes in such a small package – all handheld scanners with SW and SSB were an expensive atrocity on shortwave, the late ICF-7600 was slightly bigger, less sensitive and SSB was not its strength. The only radio with even more features and similar dimensions would be the “Reuter Pocket” SDR but that might be less sensitive on a whip, it lacks the air band, it has a 1-digit battery runtime and a 4-digit price tag. The only other affordable radio that could fit that bill would be the even smaller Tecsun PL-365 SSB, but it lacks an SSB filter, it has no RDS and no air band and I’d be curious if it can match the sensitivity of the XHDATA.

Verdict

The D-808 can score in 3 bands (Air, FM (due to RDS) and AM) with its sensitivity, the PL-660 only on LW (due to the fact it actually receives something there) and by a narrow margin on shortwave. The Tecsun’s (perceived) lower noise floor, better speaker sound, better tuning and built-in attenuator is countered by a much wider choice of filters, better fine tuning control, better portability and the better battery endurance of the D-808. The latter also has a number of less important features the former lacks, on the other hand the Tecsun lacks the many quirks of the D-808. It’s up to you to weigh the advantages of each to find your personal favorite, the D-808 struggled a bit to become mine but at the end I couldn’t help enjoying this little radio a lot.

There is much room for improvement though – for example the slightly borked control of the DSP, the chuffing/tuning and AGC issues on SSB let the D-808 miss the title “most stunning cheap little radio ever” by a hair.

For me, the unique combination of size, sensitivity and selectivity is making up for the shortcomings, it certainly remains a very interesting radio and I can’t remember carrying one around that much, ever.


What a brilliant, detailed assessment of the D-808! Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m absolutely jealous of your North Sea listening location–looks to be idyllic! 

Check out the XHDATA D-808 on Amazon.co.uk (affiliate link) and AliExpress.

Portable SSB radios for people who are visually impaired

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.

Thanks 🙂

Greetings from Norway.

Svein Tore

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!

There is the analog Sony ICF-EX5MKII that SWLing Post contributor Troy Riedel reviewed, but I don’t believe it has a BFO–only a synchronous detector which can be switched between upper and lower sidebands. Perhaps a reader can confirm this.

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.

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!

Video: How to calibrate the Tecsun PL-660 frequency offset

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mike Mander, who writes:

I’ve recently really been enjoying swling.com. Thanks for having such a great resource online with shortwave radio and hardware reviews, tips and more! I started listening to shortwave on an old Philips portable receiver back in the late 70’s as a teenager. Recently, after decades of not listening to shortwave, I decided to buy an Eton ‘Grundig Edition’ Satellit radio and in no time at all, I had also acquired a C.Crane Skywave SSB and now, within the last week, a Tecsun PL-660.

[…]I thought I’d record a video showing how one can calibrate AM, FM, SW wide-bandwidth as well as SW narrow-bandwidth independently, and how to reset those calibrations back to factory default. I have not heard it mentioned anywhere that one can calibrate both wide and narrow bandwidth SW modes independently.

Online, I have read about many people being disappointed in their PL-660’s wide-bandwidth frequency calibration, where often being on-station results in the frequency being up to 5 kHz too low, and it seems many simply return their radios as defective, not realizing how easy it is to recalibrate. This is the first “instructional” video of this sort that I’ve ever posted online, so you’ll have to pardon if I am perhaps not explaining things clearly enough:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Excellent video, Mike! You’ve done a fine job making the explanation clear and easy to follow. Thank you for sharing!

Comparing the XHDATA D-808, Digitech AR-1780 and Tecun PL-660 on shortwave

On Friday, I managed to set aside an hour to finally do a video comparison of the Digitech AR-1780 and the new XHDATA D-808.

I placed a table in my driveway, far away from any source of RFI, and set up the radios in identical configurations: same orientation, antennas fully-extended, same AM bandwidth (4.0 kHz), same audio levels, etc. For good measure, I also included the venerable Tecsun PL-660 in the mix.

This was still daytime listening, so all of the stations were from 31 meters and up.

Apologies in advance: somehow the cord from my monitoring headphones is in the shot on some of these videos! I’m still getting used to the new Zoom Q2n video camera:

WRMI 9,455 kHz

Click here to view on YouTube.

WWV 15 MHz

Click here to view on YouTube.

Deutsche Welle 15,200 kHz

Click here to view on YouTube.

Afia Darfur 9,825 kHz

Click here to view on YouTube.

I should add that QSB was slow and deep on Friday. Twice I had to re-shoot videos because the station simply faded into oblivion.

I plan to do a few more comparisons with the XHDATA D-808 and Digitech AR-1780 soon as I’m very curious how SSB reception may differ.

Please comment with your observations. Which radio did you prefer? I’ll hold my comments for now.