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A detailed review of the Tecsun S-8800 and comparison with the Tecsun PL-660 & XHDATA D-808

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


Tecsun S-8800 Review

by 13dka

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

General

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.

Longwave

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.

Mediumwave

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):

Timeline: 0:00: D-808 0:07: S-8800 0:11: D-808

Click here to download audio.

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.

Shortwave SSB

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:

Click here to download audio.

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:

Click here to download audio.

Then I made some experiments with ECSS, destroying my “noise floor” theory.  It doesn’t always happen but under circumstances that may sound like this:

Click here to download audio.

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.

Click here to download audio.

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!

Timeline: 0:00 D-808, 0:03: S-8800, 0:08: D-808, 0:10: S-8800

Click here to download audio.

Timeline: 0:00: PL-660, 0:05: S-8800, 0:10: PL-660, 0:16: S-8800

Click here to download audio.

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…

Shortwave Broadcasts

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.

FM

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”.

Hidden functions

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.

Random stuff

  • 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.

Verdict

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.

Click here to view the Tecsun S-8800 at Anon-Co or here to search eBay.

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Tecsun S-8800 Hidden Feature: Frequency display calibration

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who shares the following procedure for calibrating the Tecsun S-8800. Dan received this procedure from Anna at Anon-Co:

Apparently there is a “hidden function” through which you can manually calibrate the SSB frequency display. Please follow the below calibration steps to see if it helps:

1) Turn on the device and set it to USB/LSB.

2) Now press & hold the “AM NORM.” button until you see the backlight blink twice (takes about 2 seconds).

3) Now press & hold the “MEMORY” button, until a certain value is shown on the display, for instance “6829”. This example value refers to a frequency like “xxx68.29 kHz”.

4) If you noticed a frequency deviation of 0.05 kHz up/down earlier, then you can use the main tuning knob to do the calibration. In the above-mentioned example, you would turn the main tuning knob to adjust the value to “6824” or “6834”.

Wow!  Thanks for sharing this Dan!  That’s two posts about S-8800 hidden features in one day. A record for sure!  Readers: please comment if you know of other hidden features.  I’m compiling a full list.

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Bill discovers a number of Tecsun S-8800 Hidden Features

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Bill (WD9EQD), who writes:

I’ve owned a Tecsun S-8800 for about eight months and have come to enjoy it more all the time. It, along with my PL-880, have become my main work horses for shortwave listening.

The S-8800 is perfect on the desk connected to a wire antenna and the PL-880 is perfect for carrying around.

Since I knew of the hidden features of the PL-880, it got me thinking on whether the S-8800 had any hidden features.

A quick Google search turned up the following Web Page:

http://swli-05940-mi.blogspot.com/2017/03/tecsun-s-8800-hidden-features.html

I used Google Translate to get a rough translation and then spent some time testing the features out and also just pressing and holding buttons to see if anything else showed up.

Following is what I have come up with:

(Note: some of these are in the manual)

With the radio off

Toggle Longwave on/off: With the Radio OFF, Press & Hold 2

Toggle backlight permanently on/off: With the Radio OFF, Press & Hold 3  – Note that this means the light will be on even when radio is off. While the light does go out when radio is turned off, any operation of a control will turn the backlight on and it will then stay on. Too bad they just didn’t install a slide on/off switch. Plus I know of no way to turn the backlight on permanently without the remote.

Toggle Seconds display on/off: With the Radio OFF,  Press & Hold 8

Displays “0888”: Maybe this is version?: With the Radio OFF,  Press & Hold “Back”

Displays all segments of display: With the Radio OFF, Press & Hold “AM NORM” – Displays all segments of display. Press & Hold again to display “H802”

With the radio on in FM mode

Displays “75US”: With the radio ON, Press & Hold 5

Squelch Setting: With the radio ON, Press & Hold 9 – Range 0-5. Use Tuning Knob to set. Press 9 again to set.

With the radio on in SW/AM mode

Toggles Extended functions on/off: With the radio ON, Press & Hold 4

With extended functions on:

Press & Hold 6 – Toggles DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) on/off.

Press & Hold 9 – Squelch Setting. Use Tunng Know to Set. Press 9 again to set.

Squelch ranges:

MW: 0-40

MW with USB/LSB: 0-30

SW: 0-25

SW with USB/LSB: 0-30

So far that’s all I’ve been able to find. Has anyone else found any others?

Post readers: please comment if you’ve discovered other hidden features on the Tecsun S-8800! I’ll compile a complete list and post it separately.

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A review of the Tecsun R-9012 shortwave radio

 

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Laurence Neils, who shares the following guest post:


A review of the Tecsun R-9012

by Laurence Neils

I have cheap radios. I can’t really justify buying more expensive ones given how much time (not all that much) I spend listening to the short wave broadcasters. The consequence of this is that, when I do listen to shortwave stations, I have the rather standard ultraportables to listen on.

My go-to radio is the Tivdio V-115, which has pulled out quite nice reception for me, and offers several functions I like a lot. However, it was missing one that interested me the most: analog or analog-like tuning. If I want to listen to something, I either have to know its frequency and try it, or I have to let the radio do an automatic scan. While it’s quite good at pulling out stations and letting me hear them, it can take a few minutes to do a full scan, and canceling it doesn’t result in the part scanned so far to be stored. Very few stations I am interested in hearing are convenient to jump into several minutes after they start (my interest is in spoken content rather than music, and neither news nor stories make a ton of sense if the introductory information was not heard).

From a recommendation here on the SWLing Post, I chose to purchase a Tecsun R-9012 radio to help me do a convenient scan, which is useful because it allows me to find stations without knowing their frequency, and leaves me to not remember all seventy frequencies a certain broadcaster is using this year.

Physical Description

When I bought my Tecsun R9012, it arrived quite quickly from Amazon. It included a short manual, whose contents could be loosely paraphrased as “insert batteries and turn on”. Other than that, the radio is all that’s there.

The R9012 is relatively small, but not as thin or compact as the Tivdio, which will be my main comparison unit for this review. It is your basic rectangle form factor, and about the size of the small tape recorders that were the last to be phased out for portable recorders. It would be easy enough to put this in a backpack, jacket pocket, or glove compartment, but you have no chance comfortably fitting it into a standard pocket. On the back, there is a flip-out kickstand that can hold the radio at about thirty degrees from horizontal and the battery compartment. This radio is powered from two AA batteries.

The right side of the R9012 contains the analog tuning knob, which I will discuss quite a bit later, and the power switch, which is not connected to anything else (not integrated into the volume knob or mode selector).

The left side gives you a 3.5mm audio out jack. This supports all the headphone types I’ve tried. One benefit of this radio is that headphones with integrated microphones, such as the ones that come with the iPhone as well as various sets that are intended for phone use, will work with it. Some other radios won’t work well with that type of headset. The Tivdio, for example, will play through the headphones but forgets to turn off the speaker if there is a microphone on them, making the headphones pretty much pointless.

Next to that jack is a power port, supposedly to recharge the batteries. A connector for this is not included, nor do they seem to sell one. I suppose the theory is that you might already have a suitable one in that box of old cables we all have, but I can’t see this as a particularly useful feature given the RFI you’ll get if you connect a radio directly to the mains to recharge. Above the ports is the volume knob, which is a very basic analog one, and then the wrist strap, which is integrated into the case. There doesn’t seem to be a way to remove or change it, should you desire that.

On the front of the radio, the speaker takes up the left half. This is fine for standard listening, but don’t expect wonders of audio fidelity. On the right half, there is the twelve-position mode switch (from left to right, FM, MW, SW from low to high frequency) and the tuning display.

FM performance

The Tecsun has a standard FM function, with stated coverage from 76 to 108 MHz. This is the leftmost position on the mode selector. The band is not divided into multiple switch positions, meaning that stations will be relatively packed into dialing space when compared to shortwave, which is spread across ten bands.

I didn’t buy this radio to use it for FM. I have very little interest tuning for FM stations. Some people may enjoy the experience of manual tuning for a station they can locate quickly, but I’m not one. I can easily type the frequency I want on my Tivdio, and I intend to keep doing that for FM. I mostly intended to test FM performance on the R9012 because I was curious to see whether there would be anything audible in the 76-87 MHz section. I know that our TV standards have switched off using analog audio, so I assumed there would be nothing, but I’d never formally put that to the test.

FM on the R9012 has problems. In fact, it has a lot of problems. Among other things, the FM process on this radio doesn’t seem to have a very good idea where things are. I’d be tuning through looking for some station and I’d find it…only to see that I was in a completely foreign part of the spectrum where that station had no business being. It seems that, unless you’re very focused in on a station, the R9012 is liable to pick up some other broadcast and layer them on top of each other. Never mind that the broadcasts have nothing to do with each other and aren’t anywhere near each other on the band. If you have a specific station you want, you can tune to it and have no problems. If you want to see what’s there, you’ll have a very fun time listening to stations that you might want to listen to, only to find that that was an image, you’ve lost it now, and you can’t find it again.

Sometimes, I managed to find a part of the spectrum that gave me three different images simultaneously. Ironically, the broadcast I intended to use as my landmark, the local classical music broadcast, which is located very close to the middle of the FM spectrum, was strong enough or at a coincidental frequency that I identified images of it at six different places on the scan, in addition to where it should be. So I got my answer about 76-87 MHZ. According to the R9012, there’s a lot of signal there. It’s just coincidence that it sounds exactly the same as standard FM broadcasts with extra static.

FM performance gets worse: this radio is extremely sensitive to location.

In order to get nice reception, you have to have the radio in a good position. This seems to be completely random. Standing up so the antenna lies flat on the top, but is not extended produces almost silence. Lying down so the antenna is touching the table (not a metal table) or chair (not a metal chair) causes most signals and images to come through quite clearly. Extending the antenna to medium length helps reception. Extending it all the way introduces a lot of interference. On FM, volume also changes a lot. We may reasonably expect for the signal to change if we connect something conductive to the antenna by, say, touching it with our conductive fingers. Maybe reception will get more static, or maybe it will in fact improve. What we don’t expect is for the broadcast to switch from comfortable volume to let’s see if we can get you some tinnitus volume. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes what happens on FM if you touch the R9012’s antenna. Or tilt it a bit in the wrong direction. This doesn’t seem to happen much if it is tuned onto a station, but if it is anywhere in the middle or if there’s some static, the volume change is very noticeable, in that it makes you want to get the radio off as soon as possible.

In summary, this radio just can’t really do FM. If your other radios are broken, you’ll be fine by using this, but don’t buy it if you intend to do FM things.

Mediumwave performance

The MW frequencies are mostly there, with stated specs including from 525 to 1610 kHz. While there are broadcasts between 1610 and 1710 KHZ, that’s not a ton of the spectrum. I don’t have much interest in MW. I tested the radio’s performance, and it seems fine. Strong stations come in loud and clear. Stations that have low broadcast powers are easy to tune in. I was able to get some skywave MW in here as well, but I really don’t have any interest in that. I was able to verify, however, that the terrible effects that plague FM performance don’t appear on MW. I got no images of distant stations, no rapid volume switches, and the position of the radio doesn’t seem to affect MW reception all that much. Perhaps this is due to the different antenna that most radios employ in tuning MW. However, the manual doesn’t say whether this radio has such an alternative antenna and I haven’t gone to the effort of disassembling it to find out.

Shortwave performance

Once again, the crazy stuff seen on the FM band doesn’t appear during shortwave listening. I was able to tune in quite a few stations, although this probably isn’t a DX-capable device unless you’re willing to go out into RFI-free areas. That sounds enjoyable, but it’s not really my thing. When I got signal, it came in quite clearly. I got very little interference from the device itself, although it does seem quite susceptible to RFI from power lines. Of course, so is everything else, but if you put its antenna closer to a line, you’d know it.

Frequency coverage

Shortwave is covered in ten bands that allow access to the more populated areas of the spectrum, but have many gaps. Certain descriptions claim that the radio has coverage from 3.90 to 21.85 MHz. This is so misleading I’d be willing to call it a lie. The actual ranges are as follows:

  • SW1: 3.9 – 4.00Mhz
  • SW2: 4.75 – 5.06Mhz
  • SW3: 5.95 – 6.20Mhz
  • SW4: 7.10 – 7.30Mhz
  • SW5: 9.50 – 9.90Mhz
  • SW6: 11.65 – 12.05Mhz
  • SW7: 13.60 – 13.80Mhz
  • SW8: 15.10 – 15.60Mhz
  • SW9: 17.55 – 17.90Mhz
  • SW10: 21.45 – 21.85Mhz

So what if most signals are in there somewhere? Those gaps are very large. For example, the only broadcast frequency for WWV that would be covered on this set is the 5MHZ one. 10, 15, and 20MHZ are all located in various gaps on the bands.

This turned out to be quite annoying. I know that these are standard areas of the spectrum, in which people place a preponderance of broadcasts, but the fact remains that a lot of broadcasts occur between the bands on this set. I checked the A18 shortwave schedule to identify how crazy I was. Of the 5530 broadcasts that were listed between the limits of 3.90 to 21.85 MHZ, 1870 of them or 33.8% of the total, are outside the range of this set.

It strikes me that the largest band on this radio covers only 500 kHz of space, whereas the smallest gap between bands covers 750 kHz. In many cases, bands cover only 100 kHz of bandwidth. While I guess it’s better that they’re there rather than their being completely absent, perhaps some effort could have been done to open that up a bit more. I quickly analyzed where missing signals were, and if Tecsun could extend the 5.95-6.20 MHz band down to 5.8 MHz, 7.10-7.30 up to 7.60 MHz, expand the 9.5-9.9 band, and give an extra 50 kHz to the 11.65-12.05 band, most of the missing spectrum, nearly a thousand broadcasts, would be brought back into coverage. This could be done and still keep the maximum band width at 500 kHz. Therefore, as they didn’t seem to feel this an important issue, it falls to me to consider it so.

Manual tuning

So I bought this to tune manually. It stands to reason that I should review how well it does that.

The analog dial is on the right, and protrudes outward. Once again, the knob does its job, but not all that well. It was very easy to use this to pan through the spectrum and pick up stations, but the wheel doesn’t make it all that easy to do so quickly. You have to turn it by grasping, as the wheel has a fair bit of resistance. I don’t doubt that this feature helps to keep from knocking it off frequency, but you have to use two fingers to rotate freely, and that slows the process down. Meanwhile, the wheel has a rather disconcerting way of stopping, where the wheel seems to have hit an obstruction. However, this essentially increases the resistance, rather than feeling like a barrier. It’s noticeable, but it feels like something’s blocking the turning mechanism, rather than that the mechanism has reached its limit. Actually, it is possible to keep turning the dial, which I assume will eventually damage something, but if you’re not used to how it feels, you may do so without realizing that you’re not actually going anywhere.

The wheel has quite a bit of travel. On my set, it will rotate about three full turns. I believe this is necessary because all of FM, including the standard and Japanese bands, is in one section. Therefore, the wheel needs to be able to turn a lot in order to separate those stations. However, this means that panning over a shortwave band that covers at most 500 kHz of spectrum includes a great deal of panning over static. This works to scan quickly, but there are undoubtedly even faster ways to do so.

Conclusions

It’s a radio. It will pick up stations and make noise. In that, it works. However, this isn’t exactly a great set. The $22 price tag may forgive some of its flaws but not all of them.

Radios like the Tivdio models cost similar amounts and cover the spectrum more fully with some extra features. When I purchased this model, I expected the lack of features to be made up by convenient scanning over shortwave, relatively good sound, and relative disposability. I got enough for me to keep the set, but nothing more.

Pros:

  • Mediumwave is rather sensitive for those who enjoy listening to those signals.
  • Radio has a kickstand and the antenna can be rotated freely.
  • Radio supports headphones with inline microphone.

Cons:

  • FM is plagued by images of other stations that should not be there. This is rather bad.
  • FM is far too sensitive to antenna position.
  • Shortwave coverage, while it includes most of the spectrum in use, has big gaps that are actually being used by a lot of broadcasters.
  • Analog tuning works, but not really well. The knob can turn but does so with effort.

Would I recommend people to purchase this? Probably not.

Those who have higher-priced devices will get nothing from this. Those getting into the hobby aren’t going to get a ton of benefit from this, because tuning on shortwave requires enough familiarity with dial position that they may spend too long figuring it out. It would be useful on FM only if most other radios have been broken. It’s not even that good as an emergency set because of the FM sensitivity problem.

If all you want is analog tuning over the bands that are provided, the radio will do it for you. If you want more, buy something else.


Thanks for sharing your evaluation Laurence. Thanks for focusing on one of the points that is often overlooked with analog radios: the frequency coverage on various shortwave bands. The R-9012 does seem particularly segmented. 

Tecsun R-9012 retailers:

Post readers: Do you own the R-9012? What are your thoughts? Please comment!

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The Professor reviews the RFA200 external ferrite antenna

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, The Professor, who shares the following review of the RFA200 external ferrite antenna:


The Tecsun R-9012 and RFA200 MW antenna (Photo credit: The Professor)

A Quick Review of the RFA200

The Professor

I’ve considered saying something here about RFA200, as I bought one of these not long after its existence was announced on this blog a few months ago, but I’ve been hesitating because I didn’t have much good to say about it. A couple of times I’ve placed it up snug up against the the top of the two Tecsun sets I have handy (the PL-310ET and the PL-880) and found that despite a lot of knob turning it had little or no effect on improving signal on medium wave stations. I was not impressed.

But I guess I’ve kind of changed my mind on that. And oh yeah, I bought another radio. It’s funny how you can talk yourself into things when you’re talking someone else into something. But after I had mentioned to a reader here the other day that the very inexpensive Tecsun R-9012 was a worthy analog DX portable, I decided to drop twenty and pick one up for myself. After all, it was about the same price as a fancy Brooklyn hamburger. It arrived a couple days ago.

So, I have been playing with it a bit over the last few days. It’s as good as the other ones I’ve had which are the same basic radio (I’d mentioned that the bandswitch slider broke in a couple of mine). It’s single conversion. The bandwidth is a little wide, but it’s a very sensitive and simple analog set.

Yesterday I was going through the AM band and remembered that ferrite from Greece, and I pulled it out recalling that in my experience some radios are more susceptible to reception improvements using passive loops than others. Maybe this ferrite bar might be similar. And sure enough, the antenna made a notable difference this time. By placing it up against the R-9012 and tuning the thing I could certainly increase signal a bit. And I could even see it in the slight brightening or steadiness of the tuning light.

So, not a total waste money after all. I would emphasize that the difference in reception doesn’t seem to be as dramatic or sustaining as you might hear with a tunable loop antenna next to your radio. But it’s not junk either. Then again, for fifty dollars shipped it is a little pricey. Twice as much as a Tecsun tunable loop antenna, and two and half times more expensive than the R-9012 itself.

I found the best way to use this antenna is to tune the radio separately first and when you find a weaker signal you want to improve physically go ahead and rotate the radio until the signal is strongest and THEN put the antenna along the top of the radio and adjust the tuning knob on the antenna. Focus in on strengthening the signal you actually hear, going back and forth until it gets strongest. If you seem to be pulling up other stations it’s because the antenna adjustment will bring in adjacent stronger stations if you move it too far either way.

I’m surely not able to pin down the science involved in exactly how these things work, but perhaps somebody can chime in on this. I’m wondering if analog radio tuning in particular is better suited to the use of these tunable passive antennas, as opposed to PLL and DSP radios?

If you buy one of these be prepared to wait. At least mine took weeks to get here from Greece. And don’t expect miracles. But it seems rather well constructed, and will probably work with some radios. The seller has a 100% rating on eBay and has all sorts of interesting antennas for sale. I’m glad to see people succeeding in that business.


Many thanks, Prof, for sharing your fine review of the RFA200! Thanks for also mentioning the Tecsun R9012–I purchased one a couple years ago with the intention of reviewing it, then gave it to teenager who expressed interest in shortwave. I don’t think I actually put it on the air myself. I do enjoy simple old school analog radio–especially when making band scans. 

Click here to view the RFA200 antenna on eBay.

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