Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Andy (G0FTD), who writes:
Not sure if you’ve come across this, but earlier when I was cleaning my Tecsun PL660 and took the main tuning knob off the spindle, I discovered what looked like 4 holes of a hidden connector behind it !
I just did a quick search around and I came across a piccy of the PCB on a blog page here and yes there appears to be what looks like a small USB connector of some sort poking out the PCB where the VFO knob is. [Andy clarifies that he was trying to point out the area to look, but the pic appears to be from the opposite side, so you can’t see it.]
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen reference to it.
Maybe you or your readers might know ?
73 de Andy G0FTD
Thanks for sharing this, Andy. I am curious if that might be the port they use for firmware updates? Perhaps someone here can verify? I gave my PL-660 to a friend and no longer have it here for reference. Please comment if you have some info about this port.
This is a question that has circled around on the fringes of my consciousness for years now, but one that I’ve never quite found time to test. And it is a simple question: When using a random wire antenna with a portable shortwave receiver, is it better to string the wire vertically or horizontally, or does it even matter? Mostly this is a question when out camping, because arranging a 19′ wire vertically is usually a good bit more involved than just stringing it out along some nearby bushes.
Before going any farther, I want to point out that this is an exercise in ordinary backyard shortwave listening with relatively inexpensive equipment. There are many, many better-engineered and more costly solutions to the technical challenge of shortwave scanning, and this does not address any of those sophisticated approaches. This is for the person who opens up the box and wonders about the best way to hang the included long-wire auxiliary antenna.
Equipment: Tecsun PL-660 SW/AM/FM/Air Band receiver, with its included 19′ random-wire antenna. Internal battery power used.
Conditions & Time: Clear local weather. hamqsl.com’s nowcast of band conditions were fair from 3.5-14.35 MHz, and poor for higher frequencies, with SFI = 72, SN = 26, A = 5, K = 1. Time was 21:00-21:30 UTC, or 4-4:30 pm local CDT.
Procedure: Out in the backyard (typical residential neighborhood, well-spaced ~150′ between houses, above-ground power lines 125′ away), suspend random wire from ground to its full length. This was achieved using a length of paracord over a tree limb, with the tree trunk ~30′ from the radio’s location. With the PL-660’s antenna gain control set to “Normal” (i.e., the mid-setting of Local-Normal-DX) and the bandwidth set to narrow, use the receiver’s automatic scan function to see how many stations were received. Make notes of the number of transmissions detected, reception characteristics and quality, and any perceived noise levels. Re-orient the antenna to a low horizontal position, over two sawhorses approximately 3′ high (see picture), and repeat.
Sawhorses spaced ~17′ apart. Radio and notepad can be seen on ground in front of the near sawhorse.
Results: For the vertical antenna orientation, 32 stations were detected between 5959 – 15730 kHz. Nearly all were intelligible, with those at the lower end more steady and those a the higher end much more variable in strength. For the horizontal antenna orientation, 21 stations were detected between 9265 – 1570 kHz. Similar overall signal quality was heard for the received stations in either antenna orientation. More noise was noticeable at the lower frequencies between the stations for the vertical antenna orientation. However, this was significantly below the received signal levels, and not an issue in the overall listening quality.
Conclusions & Discussion:Suspending the wire antenna vertically worked better, especially at the lower frequencies. Getting a wire up 21’+ vertically is usually not as convenient as stringing it horizontally, but it may be worth the extra effort, depending on the location, campsite, nearby trees, etc. The overall conditions were typical for fall camping weather, with fair-to poor radio propagation conditions, so this result should be broadly applicable for how SW portables are often used. This result may change with propagation and radio noise conditions, both for atmospheric and local noise sources. Testing will continue as propagation conditions improve with solar cycle 25 getting underway.
Addendum, 10/12/20: While writing this up yesterday evening, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tested the PL-660’s built-in whip antenna. This comparison is important, because sometimes the wire antenna is too cumbersome to deploy. So, how does the whip antenna compare?
Conditions & Time: Overall, very similar to yesterday. hamqsl.com reports fair conditions from 3.5–14.35 MHz, and poor for higher frequencies. SFI = 72, SN = 26, A = 3, K = 1. Same time of day as yesterday’s testing.
Procedure: Repeat of yesterday, with the whip antenna added to the test. The whip was oriented vertically.
Results: For the vertical 19′ wire, 31 stations were found by the auto-scan function between 2380 – 15770 kHZ. Electrical noise was low but audible in the 3 MHz region, fading to none at higher frequencies, and not a significant source of interference with any stations. For the horizontal wire, 15 stations were found between 9265 – 13630 kHz. Electrical noise was barely audible. With the whip in use only 1 station was found. Switching the antenna gain to its DX (most sensitive) setting, 6 stations were found.
Revised Conclusions: Adding to yesterday’s conclusions, the whip antenna functioned but was vastly inferior to the wire antenna in either configuration, even with the gain set to DX. Today’s results with the wire antenna were, unsurprisingly, very similar to yesterday’s, given that the ionospheric and weather conditions were nearly identical. Noise was not a factor in receiving for any of these antennas or configurations, but did noticeably increase for the vertical wire antenna.
Thank you for sharing this, Rob! It’s experiments like this that help us determine, especially, what antenna setups work at our own particular locations since RFI characteristics can vary so much. I’m guessing had your horizontal wire been elevated to even 20′ off the ground it might have produced better results, but sometimes this can be difficult to achieve. I like how you used the auto search function to determine the number of stations you could receive with each setup and it was a great addition to include the built-in telescoping whip.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Marty Kraft, who asked that I share the following question with our community:
I’m still working on a receive-only passive hula loop magnetic antenna for my Tecsun PL-660.
After viewing thousands of YouTube videos (LOL), I built the PVC-pipe structure [you can see in the photo below].
But I need some tech help to finish…
The antenna is 90 inches tall; large loop diameter is 40 inches; and small loop diameter is 17 inches. The wiring is 14 gauge braided.
I plan to put the antenna outside on the porch. Then I’ll run coax from the small loop to the receiver inside and use a 365 pF air variable capacitor to tune the large loop.
My first question is, what’s the best coax to use for the 10-ft run from the small loop to the radio inside? Second, will that 365 pF cap tune the entire 3-30 MHz range?
It’s hot here in Louisiana, so I’d really like to tune the capacitor from inside my apartment, also using coax to connect the cap to the large loop. Will that work? Or does the cap have to connect directly to the large loop?
Any other tips or suggestions? Thanks for the help!
SWLing Post contributor, Klaus Boecker, sports a homebrew magnetic loop antenna on his balcony in Germany.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Marty, who writes:
I have a question about loop antennas; specifically which type is “better,” passive magnetic loops or active electric loops?
I know, “It depends.”–?
I live in a ground-floor apartment, with a small porch, lots of RFI and restrictions against visible antennas. Also there are no trees within 75 ft of my porch, which faces on a parking lot. My radio is a Tecsun PL-660, which works okay inside with my 10-ft bare wire antenna hidden on the porch.
With a loop antenna, I’d like to mount the antenna on the porch at night and have a remote tuner/control inside because it’s very hot n humid here in Louisiana even after dark.
No doubt there are a number of magnetic loop antennas that could serve you well in your situation, Marty.
To answer your first question, though, you should search for a wideband amplified loop antenna since you’re only concerned with receiving.
Passive loops are great antennas on the shortwave bands–and easy to build–but they best serve ham radio operators who wish to transmit. Passive loops typically have a very narrow bandwidth that requires the operator to constantly tune the antenna when they tune the radio a few kHz. Most amplified wideband loops need no separate tuning mechanism.
Last year, I posted an article about choosing the right loop antenna for situations like yours where one has limited installation options.
I do hesitate to encourage you to invest in an amplified loop antenna when your only receiver is a Tecsun PL-660. Some portables don’t handle amplified antennas well–they can easily overload and I imagine you can even damage the front end of the receiver.
I’m well aware, however, that there are a number of readers here who do couple their portable radio to an amplified loop. I have connected a number of portables to large wire antennas and found they could easily handle the extra gain, so I imagine an amplified loop would perform as well; the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, Tecsun S-8800, and Sangean ATS-909X come to mind.
But the PL-660 is a hot little receiver even with the built-in telescopic antenna–I’m not sure if amplification would help or hinder.
Please share your experience
This is where I hope the amazing SWLing Post community can pitch in and help us out here!
Does anyone here regularly connect their PL-660 to an amplified loop antenna? If so, what model of antenna are you using? Are there other portables out there that you regularly connect to amplified loops? Please share your notes, thoughts and experience in the comments section.
I spotted a £3 semi-rigid pencil case that looked like it might fit my new PL-680, and when I got it home, found that it was a great fit.
I cut out the internal flap that holds the pens with scissors, and the result speaks for itself.
Wow! That’s a brilliant case for for the PL-680, Mark! That exterior color will also ensure you never lose it in the wild. Thanks for sharing this tip. What a fabulous bargain at £3! Post readers in the UK, take note!
Being a radio writer and blogger, I’m often asked, “Isn’t radio dying?” or “How long are you going to keep listening to radio when there are so many other options out there?”
My answer? It’s simple:
Radio is about the journey. And radios are the vehicles with which I explore our planet, albeit sonically. I’ll stop listening to radio when it stops transporting me to far-flung, fascinating places across our planet.
I’ll stop listening to radio when when it can no longer provide the kind of direct information and understated entertainment that is, for me (and a few others like me), a welcome relief from the overwhelming demands and distractions of the Internet.
And I’m perhaps a bit anachronistic in that I prefer radio’s subtler theatre of the mind over the mindless image consumption that television demands; thus, I’ll stop listening to radio when it too, tells me what I must think, what I must imagine, and what I must feel.
In short, radio is my tool for exploration, and I continue to enjoy tuning, listening, logging and learning from it. Very fortunately, I have the great pleasure of being in the middle of the world of radio technology in my reviews, evaluations, and alpha/beta testing.
This is why, over the years, I’ve made an effort to share some of my picks of the litter with others. So when TSM editor Ken Rietz asked if I would be interested in writing a feature about this, how could I resist?
What follows is a series of mini-reviews which focus primarily on the portable radio market. This is, by definition, a curated list, but I’ve done my best to include a variety of receivers I regularly recommend. The radios are listed roughly from least expensive ($25) to most expensive ($270), and I’ve only included models that are in production at the time of this publication.
Portables are truly the most popular category of radio among shortwave radio enthusiasts, and it’s no wonder why! Among their other virtues, modern portables can pack a lot of performance into an affordable package, they’re great for travelling, and their all-in-one nature makes shortwave listening accessible to virtually everyone.
Since I’m in the constant stream of correspondence and comments from radio enthusiasts, I know another reason some listeners consider portables simply invaluable: portables give us refuge from noise. Since many of us live in, and/or travel to, busy urban areas filled with radio interference, portables give us a means to head to the park, beach, or the countryside to escape the noise and increase our odds of working DX.
Fortunately for us, modern portables pack features of which, in former radio-listening days, we could have only dreamed.
What follows is a list of my favorite portables, listed by price in US dollars, with the least expensive first. Please note that retailer links include Amazon and eBay affiliate links that support the SWLing Post with your purchase.
Best Portable Shortwave Radios
$25 – $50 Range
Tivdio V-115 / Retekess V115 / Audiomax SRW-710S
Listening to the BBC Midwinter Broadcast on June 21, 2017 in Québec.
Pros: Affordability, sensitivity, built-in recording and audio playback features, compact size, impressive audio from internal speaker
Cons: Mutes between frequencies, front panel buttons feel rather cheap, no SSB mode, sluggish response from controls, small telescoping whip
Summary: For about $25, it’s hard to complain about the V-115. Its performance and list of features exceeds expectations for radios in this price range, which are generally a disappointment. As for myself, I mainly use the V-115 as receiver to make off-air recordings and as an occasional backup radio. Unless your budget is very tight, don’t buy the V-115 as your main receiver; rather, buy it to keep in the glove compartment of your car or in your go-bag. Note that this radio carries a number of brand names and has been rebadged many times. Click here to read more reviews of the V-115 on the SWLing Post.
Pros: Compact, simple, adequate sensitivity and selectivity, clear backlight display, surprisingly decent audio from internal speaker
Cons: No direct frequency entry, no SSB mode, limited features compared with pricier receivers
Summary: The Grundig/Eton Mini is the latest in the lineage of the Mini series from Eton. The Mini has remained a popular radio because it delivers decent performance, with above average audio and makes for a nice broadcast listening companion. I recommend the Mini as a gift for those who want a simple pocket radio to operate with an easy-to-read display––great for the traveler or for elderly parents or grandparents who don’t like too many fussy buttons. Certainly a great value for the money.
Pros: Excellent sensitivity and selectivity, excellent audio via headphones, multiple AM bandwidths, ETM auto-tuning, excellent ergonomics, responsive controls, direct frequency entry, excellent bang-for-buck
Cons: No SSB mode, slight muting between frequency changes
Summary: The venerable PL-380 was my first ultralight Tecsun radio. It’s been on the market for many years, no doubt due to its solid performance. The PL-380 has an excellent receiver with impressive sensitivity and selectivity. The ETM auto-tuning feature is ideal for those of us who like to travel. The PL-380 is durable, affordable, and in terms of performance, is very similar to the PL-310ET (below). The PL-310ET might have a slight edge in terms of sensitivity. But for just $45, you simply can’t go wrong with the PL-380.
Pros: Excellent sensitivity and selectivity (perhaps slightly more sensitive than similarly-priced PL-380), excellent audio via headphones, multiple AM bandwidths, ETM auto-tuning, excellent ergonomics, responsive controls, direct frequency entry, excellent bang-for-buck
Cons: No SSB mode, slight muting between frequency changes
Summary: The PL-310ET, like its cousin the PL-380, is a classic ultralight radio and performs brilliantly for the price. The PL-310ET has long been the backup radio I’ve taken along on mini DXpeditions and field-listening sessions. The ETM auto-tuning feature is ideal for those of us who like to travel. The PL-310ET is reliable, and you’re hard-pressed to find a better performer under $50––indeed, it rivals some receivers twice its price. A solid choice for the budget-minded radio enthusiast and Ultralight DXer.
Pros: Impressive overall performance, SSB mode, multiple AM and SSB filter widths, above-average audio from internal speaker, RDS, dedicated fine-tuning control, decent battery life from four standard AA cells, includes AIR band
Cons: Mutes between frequency changes, sluggish response from controls
Summary: The XHDATA D-808 was, no doubt, the most surprising receiver to hit the market in 2017. It’s an impressively sensitive radio across the bands, and can be snagged for an affordable price (generally $75-80 US). I was very skeptical of the D-808, but when I put it on the air, I discovered it gave some of my full-featured portables a run for their money. It is, indeed, a budget workhorse. If you live in New Zealand or Australia, you might find the very similar Digitech AR-1780 a more accessible option. Internally, the D-808 and Digitech AR-1780 (see below) are very similar. Click here to read more D-808 reviews on the SWLing Post.
Pros: Impressive sensitivity, excellent audio fidelity, can be used as a Bluetooth speaker, intuitive display, dedicated RF gain, simple tactile controls, overall quality feel
Cons: Clunky/quirky tuning is painfully slow, no direct frequency keying, no SSB mode
Summary: Last year, my friend Troy Riedel and I met at Mount Mitchell State Park to compare the Eton Field BT with the benchmark ($270) Tecsun S-8800. We were impressed that the Field BT did an admirable job competing with the S-8800 (see below). Indeed, due to the Field BT’s excellent audio, some broadcasts were slightly more intelligible than on the S-8800 (noting the S-8800 also has excellent audio). The only negative that was quite obvious at the time was how cumbersome it was to tune the Field BT compared with the S-8800. One year ago, the Field BT was widely available for $129––lately I’ve seen the price as low as $80 shipped. If you’re looking for a lunchbox radio that packs serious performance, room-filling robust audio, and you don’t mind slow tuning, the Eton Field BT is an excellent choice.
Pros: Excellent sensitivity, audio fidelity quite good via headphones, effective SSB mode, multiple AM and SSB bandwidths, very good medium-wave reception with supplied external bar antenna, unique form factor for one-handed operation, uses three standard AA batteries
Cons: No direct frequency entry, audio tinny via internal speaker, AGC doesn’t cope with fading as well as other comparable portables, no back stand nor rotatable whip antenna; thus this radio is not ideal for tabletop listening, supplied belt clip feels flimsy––if you plan to use this in the field, consider purchasing the excellent CountyComm GP5 series rugged case.
Summary: The GP5-SSB was one of the first sub-$100 DSP portables with SSB mode. Since its release others have entered the market (see XHDATA D-808 above for example). The GP5-SSB has a unique form factor tailored for handheld operation, much like a handie talkie. I keep a GP5-SSB in my backpack to use while on hikes, and am always very pleased with its performance. If you’re looking for a bedside or tabletop portable, I would recommend other similarly-priced receivers like the XHDATA D-808 or Digitech AR-1780. Note that if you live outside North America, you might find it easier to purchase the Tecsun PL-365 which is identical to the GP5-SSB. Click here to read our full review of the CountyComm GP5-SSB.
Listening to the 2016 BBC Midwinter Broadcast to Antarctica while traveling in Canada with the CC Skywave.
Pros: Overall great sensitivity and selectivity for a portable in this price class, considerate design, well-tailored for the traveler, AIR band is truly functional, NOAA Weather radio reception excellent, includes soft silicone earphones (in-ear type) actually worthy of AM/SW listening, auto scanning with the up/down buttons is very rapid, uses common micro USB port for power/charging
Cons: No SSB mode, internal speaker audio is somewhat tinny (use of the voice audio filter helps), no external antenna jack, mutes between frequency changes
Summary: I think the original CC Skywave is a brilliant little radio. Although it lacks SSB mode, it’s a fine broadcast receiver and one of the most sensitive travel portables on the market. For those of us living and traveling in North America, the CC Skywave is a veritable “Swiss Army Knife” receiver, as it not only covers AM, FM and shortwave, but is a capable AIR band and incredibly adept NOAA/Environment Canada weather radio receiver. At $90, I believe it’s the best radio value in the C. Crane product line. If the lack of SSB mode is a deal-breaker for you, consider the Skywave’s pricier brother, the CC Skywave SSB (below), also an excellent performer. Click here to read our full review of the CC Skywave.
Pros: Impressive overall performance, SSB mode, multiple AM and SSB filter widths, above-average audio from internal speaker, RDS, dedicated fine-tuning control, decent on-air battery life from four standard AA cells, includes AIR band
Cons: Mutes between frequency changes, sluggish response from controls. Note that at least one user has reported quick battery discharge when the radio is turned off. This has not been the case with my unit–in fact, it’s often turned off for a couple months at a time and maintains a steady, healthy charge.
Summary: Digitech is not a brand known for delivering enthusiast-grade receivers to the Australian/New Zealand markets through retailer Jaycar.. While they’ve a number of portables on the market, so many are plagued with internal noise and quirky controls. The AR-1780 is an exception. For $129.00 AUD (roughly $103 USD), you’re getting a full-featured radio that is, by and large, a pleasure to operate. The AR-1780 has its quirks, but so do so many ultra-compact portables in this price bracket. As mentioned in the cons above, there have been reports of some units draining batteries rather quickly when turned off (essentially in standby)––I have not experienced this, but this issue has been reported by a number of AR-1780 owners. The AR-1780 is certainly worth considering if you live in Australia or New Zealand. Note that the Digitech AR1780 and previously mentioned XHDATA D-808 share a nearly identical receiver design although their outer dimensions are slightly different. Click here to read our full review of the Digitech AR-1780.
Pros: Smooth digital tuning with no muting between frequencies, excellent synchronous detector, functional SSB mode, direct frequency entry via keypad, brilliant ergonomics, excellent sensitivity and selectivity (a best-in-class!), excellent price point and value for benchmark portable performance
Cons: BFO knob instead instead of push-button SSB, only two filters (wide/narrow), lacks a line-out jack
Summary: I’ve owned a PL-660 since 2011 and still take it on DXpeditions and to use as a benchmark when evaluating new receivers. It has rock-solid performance all around with pleasant audio from the built-in speaker, and one of the best synchronous detectors on the portables market. The PL-660 is the radio I’ve recommended more than any other for newcomers to the hobby: it’s a very capable DX machine with an ergonomic, intuitive interface. Click here to read other SWLing Post reviews that include the PL-660.
Pros: Excellent sensitivity and selectivity on the shortwave bands, improved weak signal stability over the PL-660, stable sync lock, proven form factor with good overall ergonomics, great internal speaker––an improvement over the PL-660, but not as good as the PL-880––in short, other than medium-wave performance (see con), a worthy replacement for the PL-660; also sports excellent audio from the PL-680 internal speaker: improved over the PL-660, but not matching the fidelity of the PL-880
Cons: Medium-wave performance is lackluster, marginal noise floor increase on the shortwave bands (compared with the PL-660), lacks a line-out jack, SSB frequency display on my unit is + 1 kHz, so slight BFO adjustment is needed
Summary: If you’re a shortwave radio listener, you’ll be pleased with the Tecsun PL-680. In all of my comparison tests between the Tecsun PL-660 and Tecsun PL-680, the PL-680 tends to edge out the PL-660 performance-wise. This coincides with blind user surveys I conducted on the SWLing Post. If you’re a medium-wave DXer, you might skip over the PL-680; the PL-660 is likely a better choice for you. If you’re a casual medium-wave listener on the other hand, you’ll probably be pleased with the PL-680. Click here to read our full review of the PL-680.
Pros: Considerate design and ergonomics, well-tailored for the traveler, excellent sensitivity and selectivity for a compact radio, faster AIR scanning compared with the original CC Skywave, better HF frequency coverage than the original Skywave (1.711-29.999 MHz, compared to 2.300-26.100 MHz), pleasant SSB audio, multiple bandwidths in both AM and SSB modes, no overloading noted, well-written operation manual, excellent weather band reception, nice red LED indication lamps for SSB and Fine Tune engagement, NOAA Weather radio reception excellent, includes soft silicone earphones (in-ear type) actually worthy of AM/SW listening, uses common micro USB port for power/charging, excellent battery life from two AA cells
Cons: At $169, US the CC Skywave SSB is certainly the priciest compact portable on the market, yet mutes between frequencies, engaging SSB mode requires 2-3 seconds of delay (common for this DSP chip), no RDS, no audio-out jack, no sync detector (a “con” in this price class), no long-wave reception, first production run had some quirks which have now been addressed by C. Crane (in case you shop for a used unit).
Summary: I love the CC Skywave SSB. Sure, I wish it had RDS, an audio-out jack, didn’t mute between frequencies, and was less expensive (the current price of $169 seems excessive). But overall, it’s a fantastic package. I’m impressed with the amount of performance the Skywave SSB provides with such a short telescoping antenna. Since first being introduced to the Skywave SSB last year, it has become my choice travel portable. Check out our initial review of the CC Skywave SSB and the important updated second production run review.
Pros: Excellent ergonomics, excellent sensitivity and selectivity, superb audio from internal speaker, wide array of filter options in both AM/SSB more than on any sub-$200 portable on the market!), absolutely no muting between frequencies even while using a .5 kHz filter in SSB, sturdy carrying case has dedicated pocket for English operation manual, single supplied rechargeable battery delivers a very long life
Cons: Two-second delay when changing modes (AM/SSB/AM sync), some audio splatter on peaks in weak signal DX, sync detector (hidden feature) delivers mediocre performance and substantially reduced audio fidelity, AM (medium wave) prone to imaging if strong AM broadcasters are nearby, supplied rechargeable battery is not as common as AA batteries
Summary: I’ve owned the Tecsun PL-880 for five years and it continues to impress. Tecsun has made iterative changes to the firmware over time, and now this radio is one of the best performers in the sub-$200 price bracket. The audio from the PL-880 internal speaker is simply unsurpassed in this size of radio. The PL-880 isn’t perfect, but it does an amazing job, pleasing DXers from every angle and even ham radio operators who appreciate the narrow filter settings in SSB mode. All in all, you can’t go wrong with the PL-880––it’s certainly a quality piece of radio kit! Click here to read our full review of the PL-880. Click here to read our list of PL-880 hidden features.
Pros: Excellent sensitivity, excellent audio from built-in speaker, ergonomic and intuitive interface, uses common AA batteries, multi-joint swivel antenna is best in class, excellent build quality, display is easy to read, effective station memory management
Cons: Mutes between frequencies, executive Satellit model typically costs more than previous non-executive model
Summary: The Satellit has a dedicated following among hard-core DXers, both the audio and superb sensitivity placing it well within the realm of benchmark receivers. It’s a fantastic field radio and feels like one that should serve you over the long haul. It’s not a perfect radio; I especially wish it didn’t mute between frequency changes, although Eton seem to have minimized this in the latest production runs. If you’re seeking a super-sensitive portable to sniff out weak DX, then the Satellit is worth serious consideration. Check out some of Oxford Shortwave’s previous posts which include the Executive Satellit.
Pros: Brilliant audio fidelity from built-in speaker, dedicated AM bandwidth and fine tuning controls, excellent bespoke IR remote control, capable SSB mode, excellent shortwave sensitivity, excellent shortwave selectivity, excellent FM performance, easy-to-read backlit LCD digital display, remote control beautifully equipped for full radio functionality, included 18650 rechargeable lithium batteries power this radio for hours, BNC connection for external antennas, does not overload even when connected to large external antennas
Cons: Lackluster mediumwave performance, no synchronous detector, no direct keypad entry (pro: remote control, however, has excellent keypad entry), can’t charge and listen at the same time as is not designed for AC operation, no backstand, when in narrowest SSB filters AGC can’t reliably handle audio/signal changes, slight “warbling” sound while using fine-tuning control in SSB mode, no RDS display on the FM band
Summary: If your primary use of the S-8800 is for medium-wave or long-wave DXing, you should look elsewhere. While the S-8800 will serve you well with local AM stations, it will not dig signals out of the noise like other better-equipped AM receivers. But: if you’re primarily a shortwave radio listener, you’ll certainly be pleased with the S-8800! The S-8800 consistently outperforms my beloved Sony ICF-SW7600GR and my Tecsun PL-880. Indeed, it is the most sensitive and selective shortwave portable I own. On the flip side, it’s also the most expensive: $268 at time of publication. If you want top-class HF performance from a portable radio and you expect superb audio, I think you’ll find the S-8800 well worth your investment. Click the following links to read our full review of the S-8800, 13dka’s review which compares the S-8800 with the PL-660 and D-808 and Dan Robinson’s most recent S-8800 comparative review.
You might have noticed that there’s a portable receiver on this list for everyone:
The listener who wants turn-on-and-play functionality
The casual listener
The ham radio operator
Keep in mind that this is a curated list of some of my favorites that are widely available on the market new. There are a number of receivers on the market––the Degen DE1103 comes to mind––which would have made it to this list had they not been “updated” with a DSP chip. Manufacturers add DSP to reliable models in order to increase profit margin, since DSP chips cost a fraction of traditional receiver design. DSP chips have revolutionized the portable market in many positive ways, but if they’re not properly implemented in a set, they can produce higher noise floors, audio anomalies, shaky AGC, and other undesirable traits. The DSP receivers in the list above have properly implemented DSP technology and, save the cheapest models, are all what I would consider “enthusiast grade” radios.
Of course, there are still a handful of tabletop shortwave receivers like the Alinco DX-R8T HF receiver, the Elad FDM-DUOr SDR receiver, and the Icom IC-R8600 wideband receiver. All are top-notch performers and, when paired with an effective antenna, can pull out weak signals much better than a portable radio ever could.
If you’re a ham radio operator, take advantage of modern general-coverage transceivers. Only a couple decades ago, most transceivers were “ham band only” and the ones that were not compromised performance if they included the broadcast bands. This is no longer the case. Modern general coverage HF transceivers can rival dedicated tabletop receivers in many cases. I’m particularly fond of the Icom IC-7300, IC-7200, and Kenwood TS-590SG as home stations, and the Yaesu FT-818, Elecraft KX3, and the Elecraft KX2. This is a mere sampling of some of the excellent general-coverage transceivers on the market. Before you purchase a general-coverage transceiver, simply make sure it has AM mode and that the bandwidth is wide enough for pleasant audio. Ask current owners how their transceiver sounds on the broadcast bands.
As you select your next radio, take into consideration how and where you plan to use it, as well as what you’re willing to spend. The good news is, we live in an era with an extraordinary number of options covering all price ranges and uses. So, be assured: there’s a radio out there just waiting to sonically transport you to far-flung and fascinating regions, too.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, for the following guest post:
Tecsun S-8800 Review
Looking for a new toy again I recently revisited the Tecsun S-8800, which looked like it could replace both my battered old Grundig Satellit and my Tecsun PL-660. Being in production for a few years now, and with the “birdies” situation ironed out long ago, the S-8800 has gathered much acclaim by now but also a few somewhat contradicting reviews. For example, one review reports that the S-8800 can cope with larger antennas, another one states the exact opposite, one praises the MW performance, another one attests only average sensitivity, and only one mentioned an unpleasant detail I’m going to emphasize on in a bit.
All reviews touted the improved SW performance in AM and SSB though, and that was reason enough to make my own experiences. Testing it turned out to be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster though.
I hope I can share more than only redundant bits of information about the radio, and I’ll skip most of the general information you can read in most other reviews.
Off to the 13dka radio test site at the dike!
13dka’s SWL Happy Place
Like the technically somewhat similar Tecsun PL-880, the S-8800 is a triple conversion receiver and has 2 conventional IF stages, the third IF stage is using a Si4735 DSP chip again, providing the filters and all that jazz.
Tecsun seems to have thrown a lot more parts into it than in previous radios, plus a pretty big ferrite rod (covering 8-9/10th of the radio’s width) with individual LW and MW coils (most of the smaller receivers have only one coil), a 108mm telescopic whip and of course the “gun metal” knobs. Designing a radio with a rather simple front panel and making a remote control an integral part of the operation concept (like it is reality with TVs for a long time) is a charming oddball approach, in a way reviving an utmost luxurious feature of 1930s high-end radios. So let’s cut to the chase and talk performance:
Longwave and Mediumwave
On LW and MW, I first compared the S-8800 with my old Grundig Satellit 400 at home. The old clunker has similar dimensions, a big old speaker bass/treble controls and it was known to have an average sensitivity on the AMBC band in its time, when all the great, now vintage AM performers were still ubiquitous, so that’s rather a “Jay Allen average” than an “average of the mediocre AM radios of this millenium”. I think Jay Allen might rate it 3 stars.
The first station I tuned in was the BBC LW transmitter network on 198kHz and it turned out a tad more noisy on the Satellit. Great! I could also pick up Medi1 and Kalundborg a smidge better than on the Grundig, and in the early evening, out at the beach I was picking up stations on all still populated channels on LW (minus 180kHz where it has one of the remaining birdies). The other new portables I currently own (PL-660, D-808) are far away (PL-660) and far, far, far away (D-808) from that kind of performance.
Unfortunately that good impression vanishes gradually when leaving the long wave for the NDB band (still good) and finally medium wave. Before I left the house to test the radios on the electrically quiet beach again, I was checking out one of my favorite border case stations (low power station from The Netherlands on 1602kHz, whatever their name is this week) and that made very clear already that the S-8800 can’t hold a candle to the Satellit, at least not on the top end of the MW band. Despite all the noise indoors, on the Satellit I could easily recognize the song being played while the S-8800 didn’t pick up anything at all.
On the beach it turned out that – despite the ferrite rod being twice the size – I find it only marginally better than the PL-660, and not close enough to the little XHDATA D-808 (if you’ve read my D-808 review you already know that this little radio is almost on par with the Grundig on MW):
Of course I have read Thomas’ assessment of the AM performance so I was prepared to be underwhelmed. But at least you can connect some high gain MW antenna to make up for the missing sensitivity and be happy again, or can you?
A not so nice surprise
The unpleasant detail I mentioned before is: the Int/Ext Antenna switch does not turn off the internal ferrite bar antenna. Jay Allen mentioned it in his review, it was the only review with that detail and unfortunately I overlooked it. How does that matter?
The main issue is this: if you’re (like me) forced to use outdoor antennas to escape high indoor noise levels, the internal loopstick just won’t let you. The external antenna will just increase the SNR a bit when the station is strong enough anyway. Even in a low noise environment, the internal loopstick will needlessly add noise to the signal received from a high-performance active loop or FSL antenna.
That also explains a paragraph in Thomas’ S-8800 review:
“I also hooked up the S-8800 to my large horizontal loop antenna. This certainly did improve MW reception, but not as dramatically as I hoped. Additionally, it seemed to be very sensitive to RFI in my shack even when hooked up to the external antenna.”
There’s more external antenna idiosyncrasy: only the BNC jack is wired to the “Ext” position of the antenna switch, the “hot” (red) Hi-Z terminal is active when the switch is in the “Int”-position, it just seems to save you an alligator clip on the whip.
The dedicated “AM antenna” terminal was in part what sold the S-8800 to me. The label made me assume this would be specifically wired to the AM circuit but as it turns out it’s just a generic high impedance input and I really didn’t anticipate that the internal loopstick remains always active (or in case of the Hi-Z terminals, the retracted whip). Yes, technically you can connect an external antenna for MW, practically…YMMV.
To conclude this section, the final outcome of this antenna connector issue plus the not so brilliant MW sensitivity was that not even my active ML-200 loop (connected to the BNC-jack) could improve reception on 1602kHz enough to make the S-8800 get at least a bit into the ballpark of the Grundig with its loopstick antenna. The currently mounted small 80cm rigid loop on the ML-200 just couldn’t produce enough signal to lift the station over the noise that much.
As the other reviews reported already, Tecsun has obviously worked on the AGC issues their former products had. I can confirm this so far, the AGC does not show the distorted onset of leveling anymore – unless the signal is very strong. But the leveling happens much faster than e.g. on the PL-880 so the remaining blasts of distortion are quite short:
A more relaxed AGC release time would save us most of those too. I noticed AGC pumping effects from strong signals in the spectrum neighborhood only with a big antenna connected. But unfortunately there is more…
Stuff you have to live with:
In his great review, Thomas mentioned the auto mute sometimes interfering with reception. I noticed this too (with all bandwidths on SSB) and I credited this to very low noise figures. When the bandwidth is narrow (=less noise) or if you have a very low noise floor anyway like when tuning through 25-30MHz, the receiver gets muted over the entire chunk of spectrum, just to intermittently and pretty suddenly pass the noise again. Sounds like a broken antenna cable and has some potential to confuse people:
Too bad that setting auto mute to ’00’ doesn’t actually turn it off in SSB mode so there’s likely no remedy for that.
On my example, there is absolutely no difference between the 3kHz and 4kHz SSB filters. A working 4kHz filter would have been a good choice for ECSS reception.
Another remaining quirk at least on my specimen of the S-8800 is a slight FM modulation of an oscillator in SSB, particularly with strong signals. You can hear it best if you create a heterodyne or listen to CW, the tone sounds a bit hoarse, so do voices and I’m not sure whether or not this could affect narrow-bandwidth digimiode decoding. The front panel (namely the bandwidth knob area) is quite susceptible for “hand capacity”, the frequency varies a bit when you move your hand in front of the S-8800. This is not uncommon with portables of course, but my D-808 for example has its “Theremin playing area” on the back of the radio.
In this clip you can hear both the “hoarse” modulation and my hand waving to you.
This leads me to calibration and frequency drift. The S-8800 can be calibrated on SSB (see the “Hidden features” section below), however this turned out to be a (too) fast moving target. I don’t know if it’s the VFO or the BFO but it is so temperature-dependent that 6°C temperature difference equates to a quite substantial (for SSB) drift of 150Hz. Whatever oscillator it is, it seems to lack any temperature compensation measures, with all the implications that may have on relaxed SSB listening, digimode decoding and ECSS reception when the temperature isn’t quite stable where you want to use it. After calibrating it, it’s often slightly off again within the same minute. My cheap little D-808 won’t drift even when I take it from an overheated apartment into a -5°C cold winter storm.
The good stuff
Now to the fun part! When I compared the SSB performance of the S-8800 with my PL-660 the first time, I found them very close for some reason. I could find only one weak station that came in noticeably better on the S-8800 and while I was happy that it wasn’t worse than the PL-660 I was also a bit disappointed.
Timeline: 0:00: PL-660, 0:10: S-8800 receiving the “Gander Radio” VOLMET.
Then I repeated the test a few days later, this time a bit more into the evening and the outcome was very, very different. The S-8800 won every single weak signal comparison with ease and sometimes in a way that made me think my PL-660 must be broken.
But then I could help the PL getting a lot closer by simply holding it in my hand, the difference was that I had placed the PL-660 differently so I could record both radios easier. The factor I forgot to put in the equation was that the S-8800 is absolutely not depending on anyone holding it to give it some counterpoise – that and the long whip is certainly a part of its advantage, and the receivers would be much closer when used with the same external antenna. With the radios just standing there tho (and that’s what most people will do with their radio instead of holding it in their hand), the difference is remarkable nonetheless and I also learned that you should always look and listen twice when testing radios!
When I repeated the test yet again but granted the PL-660/D-808 the litte bit of counterpoise they seem to need (I let them rest on the car door instead of holding them), the results were not that unequivocal anymore. However, the receivers were 50% on par, the S-8800 was clearly better the other 50% and overall the other two receivers could not score a single point for them. I think that shows that the S-8800 really is a hair or three better. Beyond the increased sensitivity and minus the frequency drift, SSB reception feels more mature, the the S-8800 behaves more like a regular communications receiver now and the big speaker is a big plus. Of course that means there should be also an improved reception of…
I know that the S-8800 has inherited the “Enjoy broadcasting” and “BCL RECEIVER” lettering from the cheap S350, but after stepping the PL-660 and the S-8800 through all shortwave broadcast bands, I felt that’s exactly hat it was made for, and it shows!
There is no doubt that a big speaker can create the illusion of better reception, but I think I don’t fall for that easily and rather listen to the background noise and how intelligible the “content” is. While the comparison with the PL-660 often ended up in a tie when I subtracted the impact of the speaker in my mind, there were indeed some stations where the S-8800 had remarkably less noise than the PL-660. But of course the big speaker is giving the S-8800 a permanent edge on all reception cases, and it’s a real joy to listen! Combined with lower noise and a generally more stable signal (through better AGC) this made quite a difference between the two.
Bottom line is that when listening to shortwave broadcasts, the S-8800 gives you the warm and lush sound of yesterday’s famous receivers while it technically delivers the best performance of all Tecsun portables so far. If you fancy music programs on shortwave and if you don’t mind the price for the luxury and performance, you’ll enjoy this radio a lot.
Short story: my specimen of the S-8800 lacks the very good FM band sensitivity of the PL-660 or the XHDATA D-808. While the latter radios present my favorite marginal case station 100km away fairly with some noise at sea level, the S-8800 just doesn’t receive that station at all, no matter how I position the whip. It’s not exactly worlds between them but considering that (assumedly) most of the FM receiver is in the Si4735 chip that it shares with a couple of great FM performers from the same company, this is a bit surprising.
Signal handling capabilities
The S-8800 is said to have a pretty robust frontend, which I found true but I want to put that a bit into relation. My “lonely beach/dike listening post” sports 2 abandoned steel flag poles of 6 and 8m height. They can serve as support for wire antennas, or easily be used as an antenna themselves by inductively coupling them to the receiver – IOW by winding a wire 2-4 times around the pole (you could use the Eiffel tower as an antenna this way) and connecting the other end to the radio.
For some reason this contraption produces quite massive output voltages, but I could always use it for a quick and thorough (and due to the location QRM-free!) reception improvement with my PL-660 anyway. Why?
The PL-660/880 have a 3-position (DX, Normal, Local) switch. I think it turns off the input preamp in the “Normal” postion and adds a simple attenuator circuit in the “Local” setting. The latter is sufficient to tame the output of all sorts of antennas (including the flag pole) enough to make my PL-660 work just fine with that on all bands.
The S-8800’s sensitivity switch on the other hand has only 2 positions and telling from the results it really only turns off the preamp. Now it actually acts up much less on the flag pole than the PL-660 in its comparable “DX” and “Normal” positions, so obviously Tecsun has put some effort into making the frontend more robust indeed. But it seems they thought “that should do, let’s ditch the 3rd (attenuator) position and save 3 resistors” and that left me with many (but tolerable) images across the entire shortwave above 3 MHz, and a heavily image-infested 160m band. BTW, a few soft images from (I guess) 49/41m blowtorches could be heard around 29MHz with only the whip.
A word on the audio
I believe that the “legendary” status of the Grundig and Zenith lines of world band receivers is partly owed to their big sound. They had their music loving and program listening audience in mind, and Tecsun’s choice of casing, big speaker, the bass and treble controls are certainly taking the same line.
Compared to my Satellit 400 (80s model, but still has much of that “legendary” sound), the Tecsun sounds a bit more boomy in the lower mids while having a less super-deep bass response than the Grundig, which also sounds more neutral. Besides these very unimportant distinctions, the S-8800 does sound big and that also helps reception – lacking low mid/bass content can impair intelligibility as well, and it causes more fatique on long DXing sessions.
The bass/treble shelving EQ is certainly more sophisticated than the Grundig’s, it has quite sharp cutoffs at very sensibly chosen frequencies, so turning the knobs down will leave the main chunk of the mid range completely unaffected and just helps removing rumble or the 5kHz beat frequency from a band neighbor, or add some nice hifi-highs and beefy low end when you turn them all the way up. In other words you can continuously blend the speaker sound from perfect “voice communications” style to “dad’s big old radio”.
Of course the S-8800 has some unofficial “power off” and “power on” extra functions assigned to the number keypad on the remote (they all work by pressing and holding a number key for up to 10 seconds). Some are identical to the PL-880, some are different:
0.) I found calibrating the S-8800 on SSB works with the same method used on the PL-880: Tune to a station with a known frequency, switch to USB or LSB and use the fine tuning knob to tune for best audio/music playback. An alternative way of doing this is downloading a free spectrum analyzer app for your smartphone (“SpecScope”), tuning the radio 1kHz off frequency so you get a nice heterodyne tone on USB or LSB, then using the fine tuning knob to tune the tone to hit exactly the 1kHz mark on the analyzer display. Your last 2 (Hz) frequency digits will now show an offset frequency.
1.) Then press and hold the ‘0’ button until a ’00’ appears in the top right corner of the display and the last 2 digits of the frequency readout start flashing. Release the button and quickly use the fine tuning knob to reset the last frequency digits to ’00’ (the number on the top right corner should be changing while doing that), then immediately hold the ‘0’ key again to confirm – tadaa, the offset should be gone while the last 2 frequency digits show ’00’ now. This all needs to happen pretty quickly and with the right timing, so it may take a few attempts to get it right.
2.) With the radio off, button ‘2’ turns the LW band on/off.
3.) Press and hold the ‘3’ button while the radio is off to toggle between permanent and “intelligent” display illumination.
4.) When the radio is turned on, this button enables access to the extra functions of the number 6 and number 9 keys. The display will read “On” when you perform this the first time, doing it again will turn it off again.
5.) Radio on, set to FM band: this toggles between 75 (US) and 50 (anywhere else) microseconds deemphasis on FM.
6.) Radio on: When enabled using the ‘4’-button as described before, holding the ‘6’ will toggle the (annoying) dynamic bandwidth feature off and on. You can set this independently for AM and SSB. Ideally to zero, because it automatically resets your bandwidth setting and since this is happening in steps, it sounds quite strange. The PL-660 uses a stepless dynamic envelope following low pass filter (which is I believe what they called “DNR).
7.) This is still a mystery to me. On the PL-880, this button apparently controls the line out level on FM. On the S-8800 it (ostensibly) seems to control the S-meter bias with numbers running from ’00’ to ‘+99’ and ‘-99′ for all bands. Positive values reduces the S-meter display which made me curious if it rather controls AGC level or gain at some stage, but it really seems to affect the S-meter display only.
8.) Radio off: Toggles the seconds display on the main clock (when the clock is displayed instead of frequency).
9.) Another important one: this controls the threshold of auto squelch/soft mute. If you want to turn that off, turn it down to ’00’ with the main tuning knob, then hit the ‘9’ key again. You need to do this for AM, FM and SSB separately.
The S-meter was indicating a permanent base level of 2 bars even at my remote beach listening post. But even though it can apparently be “calibrated”, a 5-bar indicator is quite a step backwards from the 99-step RSSI meter of the PL-880.
After an initial discharge and recharge cycle, the 2x2000mAh “18650” batteries gave me a continuous runtime of 21 hours. When you connect the charger and then turn on the radio, it stops charging unless – and this seems odd – you are in FM mode. A full charge while listening to FM radio took 4:41.
I had a pretty hard time making my mind up about this radio. It has so elaborate details, so much design improvement and costly parts went into it but I feel like it doesn’t quite meet the expectations Tecsun created with this radio. Sadly, it has a few things that were started ambitious and ended underwhelming.
It got a huge 2-coil loopstick and somehow they managed to make it perform slightly worse than a 70€-radio with not even half of that loopstick size, they gave it 2 external antenna ports but they disappoint MW enthusiasts right again by keeping the loopstick always active, and how FM could turn out less sensitive than many radios with the same Silicon Labs chip (including their own models) is beyond me.
They improved the front end but then they dropped the attenuator, which costs the overall flexibility and better overloading-resilience their other radios have, they fixed the SSB issues of the predecessors and introduced a free-floating BFO with a mind of its own.
The price tag is making these downers certainly weigh heavier, and I think without them this radio may have turned out to be a real classic.
On the plus side I found a radio that really excels on shortwave. Shortwave program listeners can feast on a most sensitive, selective, luxurious and well-behaved portable with a big sound and I think there’s probably no current portable that could compete with that.
Ham radio aficionados get improved SSB reception and if there wouldn’t be this “cheap 70s receiver trademark” unstable oscillator, it would come close to communications receiver performance levels (minus the frontend needed for big antenna voltages).
That the price reaches into the ballpark of pre-loved high-end(-ish) JRC/Icom/Yaesu communication receivers or buys you a mint-condition ICF-2010/2001D may seem like a problem too. But then again, none of those radios is perfect either, and only the Sony is a portable.
Despite the quirks, the S-8800 is still a great, valuable radio that revives an out-of-fashion style of radios in a pretty unique and modern way.
What a brilliant, critical review of the Tecsun S-8800! Thank you so much for taking the time to properly test and compare the S-8800 with the venerable PL-660 and the XHDATA D-808 (readers, also check out his review of the D-808).
You’re right, too, in that I’ve noticed some contradictions in reviews–I do wonder if part of this might be variations between US and EU versions of the radio, or perhaps small quirks in production runs.
No doubt, however, that the Tecsun S-8800 is a champion of the shortwave broadcast bands and its audio fidelity is in a class of its own.