Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Paolo Viappiani, who shares the following guest post:
The WJ-8711 & WJ-8712 vs. Ten-Tec RX-340 & RX-331 Receivers
by Paolo Viappiani, Carrara, Italy
In recent years, a renewed interest has grown in regards to the best HF receivers using “first generation” DSPs, typically the HF-1000/HF-1000A, WJ-8711/WJ-8711A and WJ-8712 models by Watkins-Johnson and the RX-340 and RX-331 models by Ten-Tec. Even today, the aforementioned receivers are considered among the best performers of all times; this is a well-deserved fame in the case of the W-Js, a bit less with regard to the units manufactured by Ten-Tec, a firm that once had a good reputation but that has been recently acquired by a new owner (who sold the old facilities by transferring the company and distorting the sales, support and assistance policies of the previous company ). I therefore believe that this article serves as a dutiful information for the readers who are potentially interested in these receivers.
A Bit of History
In the years between the last and the present century, two receivers very similar to each other in terms of design and structure were released almost simultaneously by Watkins-Johnson of Gaithersburg, Maryland  and by Ten-Tec of Sevierville, Tennessee : the WJ-8711 (later upgraded to the A and A-3 versions and followed for a short period by the HF1000 and the HF1000A “civilian” versions ) and the Ten-Tec RX-340; both of them are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The WJ-8711A (above) and Ten-Tec RX-340 (below). Notice the similarity of the front panels of the two radios.
The WJ-8712/WJ-8712A and the Ten-Tec RX-331 receivers were released by their respective manufacturers in that period also (the latter one was preceded by the RX-320 and RX-330 models). All these types were nothing more than “black-box” units, that in all respects corresponded to the WJ-8711A and to the Ten-Tec RX-340 receivers but that had not been provided with true front panels, as they were controlled by special hardware interfaces or from a PC, look at Figures 2 and 3.
Looking at the appearance of the WJ-8711/HF1000 receiver series and of the Ten-Tec RX-340 units, a relative similarity to each other is evident, and it has led to various speculations regarding the design of both devices.
One of the theories was revealed by James (Jim) C. Garland W8ZR of Santa Fe, New Mexico , about which he claims to have obtained information from a Ten-Tec employee directly. James claims that in 1991 the US Government Agency NSA (National Security Agency), which used to purchase numerous HF receivers for surveillance and interception, decided that the current cost of the receivers were too high and formed a special group in order to study how to obtain a possible price reduction.
At that time the high-end HF receiver market was dominated by a few manufacturers: Watkins-Johnson, Racal, Cubic, Rockwell-Collins and a few others, and Ten-Tec applied for joining the group.
Figure 2: The WJ-8712A (above) and Ten-Tec RX-331 (below). While the Watkins-Johnson model is two rack units high and half wide, the Ten-Tec develops less in height (only one rack unit) and more in width (standard 19” rack). However, both receivers are quite deep (more than 20”-50 cm.).
Figure 3: The Tmate unit of the WoodBoxRadio is shown here; it is one of the possible accessories which, together with a PC monitor, allow using the “black-box” receivers via an RS-232 interface.
According to the information provided by Jim Garland, the Watkins-Johnson and the Ten-Tec designers worked together for about one year in order to agree on the technical characteristics and guidelines of the “radio of the future” which must meet all the requirements that the NSA requested.
Don’t be fooled by looks: the Degen DE321 is not your dad’s portable shortwave radio. Behind the analog face hides cutting-edge DSP (digital signal processing) technology that makes this slim cell-phone-sized radio a quirky yet pleasing portable. The impact upon your wallet will be slim, as well: this radio will set you back only $21 bucks. One additional note to tuck away–don’t hesitate to order the DE321 if you want to put it in your sweetheart’s Christmas stocking. There’s an approximate two week delivery time, as this radio can only be ordered from vendors in Hong Kong, and airmail doesn’t come with a confirmation date. [Read our recent full review of the DE321 if you want more details about this little radio.]
When I flew cross-country to visit a friend on the coast of British Columbia earlier this year, I had very limited space in my carry-on bag. I required a radio companion of a modest size, one that performs well on all bands–not just the shortwaves–for I intended to listen to local and distant AM (medium wave) stations, too. My choice was simple: the Tecsun PL-380. This little radio is affordable, compact, and has (especially with the aid of headphones) excellent audio. It’s powered by a pretty innovative DSP chip that helps pull stations out of the static, as well.
Keep in mind, if you’re planning to purchase any Tecsun product, to allow at least a two week delivery time, especially if ordering from eBay. Occasionally, Kaito (the US distributor of the PL-380) will sell some stock on eBay; in this case, delivery is quicker and the unit carries a US warranty.
Simply put, the Tecsun PL-600 offers the best bang for your buck in 2011. The PL-600 is not the newest offering from Tecsun; in fact, it’s a model that has been on the market for several years. (Tecsun’s PL-660 is basically the updated version of the PL-600.) For $60, though, you get a very capable, sensitive and selective portable shortwave radio with SSB capabilities and nifty auto-tune features. I liken its performance to the legendary and highly-regarded Grundig G5 (which is no longer in production).
The PL-600 is easy to use, has reasonable audio fidelity from the built-in speaker, and sports a display with all of the essential elements for casual shortwave listening or hard-core DXing. I have found the quality of Tecsun radios to be superb. The PL-600 is a great size/weight for portability–it will easily fit into a suitcase or carry-on–it is not, however, a pocket radio.
Okay, so forget everything I said about the PL-600 if you’re able and willing to invest another $50-60 into your radio gift. The beefier Tecsun PL-660 is new to the market in 2011 and has quickly gained the respect of the shortwave community. It is, in essence, an updated version of the PL-600, with improved performance, sync detection, a band for listening to aircraft, and RDS for displaying FM radio station info. As with other Tecsuns, eBay sellers provide better pricing, but Kaito does sell these radios on Amazon.com as well. If you purchase from Ebay, do so at least two weeks in advance of gift-giving time–again, these radios make a trip from Hong Kong via airmail.
This large portable (along with the C.Crane SW) is still my first pick for someone who wants excellent radio performance, but also wants a radio that is simple and straight-foward, with ease of use in mind (i.e., grandparents, children, your uncle who gets muddled by the TV’s remote control). It comes with an owner’s manual, but you most likely won’t need it. The S450DLX has robust, room-filling sound. Ergonomics are excellent, and it sports a large, comfortable tuning knob. Audio performance is very good and enhanced by its large front-facing speaker. This is not a pocket or travel portable, rather a tabletop portable. The S450DLX will please both the beginner and seasoned radio listener.
This Sony shortwave radio is a classic, with solid, time-tested performance, and features to please both the beginner and the seasoned radio enthusiast. I like to include different radios each year in the gift guide, but the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is on the list again this year. It’s probably the only radio on this list that isn’t made in China–it’s made in Japan!–and is built, as one of my ham buddies says, “like a brick toilet.” (Ahem, just meaning that it’s sturdy and reliable). The ‘7600 will deliver some of the best performance that you’ll find in a portable on this page. At $120-150 US, it’s not the cheapest on the market, but certainly one of the best. I regret that its days are limited as Sony pulls out of the shortwave market; but mark my words, this one will become a classic.
The Alinco DX-R8T is new to the market in 2011. We reviewed it, in detail, only recently; in short, it impressed us. It’s full-featured, performs well, and comes at a very affordable price. If you’re buying this for a ham radio operator, they’ll understand the reason why the Alinco DX-R8T needs a 12 volt power supply and an external antenna. It’s a receiver version of a ham radio transceiver–as such, it does a fine job on SSB modes.
Let’s face it, these are tough economic times. So, you may be wondering why I would put a radio in this list that’s priced the same as two Tata Nano passenger cars. Why? Because, if you have the money, I promise the performance of the RX-340 is not likely to disappoint even the most discerning of radio listeners. It is a textbook-perfect, 12.5 lb. example of form following function. Heavy, man. But it is very, very good. Sure, you could buy two hundred (and eleven) lightweight Degen DE321s for that kind of money, but who wants that many portables cluttering up the den when you could lounge by the fire and tune in an RX-340 instead? Close your eyes, sip your favorite scotch, and just…listen to the world.