Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jack Kratoville, for the following guest post:
Important travel decisions…
For the first time, (in a very long time), I’ll be traveling outside the country. This will be my first visit to Germany, and while I’ve already put Thomas’ packing skills to the test domestically with moderate success and confidence, I thought I would ask for assistance on what radio to bring.
The following is what I have, along with my current personal pros and cons regarding each one for this specific trip. I’m traveling with my wife, daughter & mother-in-law and staying with her family. This probably excludes a lot of alone time dedicated specifically to radio listening and DXing.
Now, from what I’ve been reading, MW and LW have been eliminated in favor of digital signals. This changes the equation a bit. Lack of SSB is NOT a deal-breaker. The amount of time I spend listening is miniscule. Here’s the receivers:
The CC Skywave
This has been on every domestic trip I’ve taken since its purchase in 2015. Perfect size (even with the hard case) and excellent performance. Two quality AA batteries will last for 2 weeks easily. However, my favorite feature, WX, is useless there. Best MW reception in an ultralight, but does that matter in the land of DAB? Assuming there’s no LW to listen to either, the Skywave’s lack of it shouldn’t factor in. I like the Skywave’s super-fast scanning, but I think I’ll wish I had the ETM feature of other radios. I’ve used the Air Band, but I won’t be staying anywhere near an airport and I doubt I’ll be sitting in an airport with an extended antenna anytime soon. Non-digital audio control gives me exact control to go “unnoticed” if others are sleeping. The lack of ETM may keep this unit home.
Another favorite travel companion that does feature ETM, this radio is small and compact – and my unit still works like new. I can recharge the batteries with a computer cable, not that it’s ever shown high power consumption. I had thought this was a front runner, but tinny audio and that extra antenna to lose is giving me second thoughts. It’s physical build lends to more hand-held than bedside table use and that is definitely a factor worth considering. Analog audio control, but it has gotten noisy.
The Digitech AR1780
Has it all: LW/MW/Air/FM(RDS)/SSB and fantastic audio. For positives, it checks all the boxes. It is a slow scanner – and that is a persistent downside. Further considerations, I’m committed to carry-on travel only (European dimensions!) and this receiver will command more real estate in the bag. Now if I didn’t need to pack socks for a couple of weeks… I may also be shoving a radio in my pocket for those “here’s-what-we-have-planned” moments and I don’t want to look like I’m obviously addicted to my hobby. With that non-existent charging cord, four replacement double-A’s might also be an issue if I do use it for any reasonable amount of time. I had considered this a shoe-in when we first talked Germany prior to pandemic, but it seems more unsuitable every time I weigh the pros and cons.
A radio gifted to me that was immediately assigned to basic alarm clock duty bedside – now surprisingly is part of the discussion. Not enough sizzle to replace my favorites domestically, but it may have the right combo for a few weeks in Germany. Quick scanning, ETM, multiple tuning modes, a decent speaker. Unlike the PL-360, you can’t “fast-tune” with the knob, but you can direct-input frequencies. I would miss RDS on FM, but I’ve scanned most of my life without it. Now, I’ve had a few other Tecsuns (along with the Grundig G8) and they all eventually fail with tuning and volume knobs (the PL-360 is the honorable exception). Since I haven’t used this unit much, I’m confident it’s well before its failure phase, if it ever does. I am not a fan of digital volume knobs, but this one seems to be better balanced than most. Not sure how it does on 3 AA consumption, but I’m testing rigorously. I would have never guessed, but this is the front-runner at the moment.
Eton Traveler III
The Eton Traveler III
While I’ve enjoyed RCS and the adjustable lighted dial at the beach, I’m not impressed. Sounds and looks nice, but lack of user-friendly functionality has kept this unit from any serious travel. Not to mention a battery hog with 4 AAs!
What do you think?
While I might fantasize about making room for the Eton Executive Satellit or putting batteries back in my G5, I’m limiting choices to the above! I appreciate all input and any thoughts on radio listening in Germany. Please comment!
Any SW frequencies I should direct input? We’ll be staying just outside of Kiel, which could include a day trip to Denmark.
Now it’s off to Hodinkee for GMT watch suggestions.
The CC Skywave SSB is set to wake me at 3:30 to catch a 5:30 flight.
I have a pretty accurate body clock. Regardless of when I doze off, I always wake up at the same time.
When I’m at home on my regular schedule, I trust my “internal chronometer” so much, I haven’t set an alarm in years.
When I travel, it’s a completely different story…
It’s a rare occurrence when a flight, train, or even road trip allow me to wake up at my normal time, so I rely on an alarm clock.
In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m a nervous Nellie when I’m forced to break my sleep cycle to catch an early flight. My fear of missing a flight may even border on paranoia–I’ll wake up multiple times during the night in a panic unless I feel completely at ease that there’s an alarm system in place to wake me no matter what.
I recently told a friend about this fear and he asked, “Why not just set the alarm on your phone?!”
Simple answer: I don’t trust smart phones and tablets. They’re too complicated with so many nighttime settings, alarm/alert volume levels, short battery life, etc. etc.
Case in point…
Earlier this year, I had to catch an early flight and needed to wake up at 4:00 AM, so I scheduled my iPhone and iPad to alarm at 4:00. (When at home, I try to have my iPhone/iPad wake me first, because the alarm is very gradual and doesn’t disturb my wife.) Of course, I also set my travel radio’s alarm clock for 4:10, as a fail safe.
Knowing I had a total of three(!!!) alarm clocks set, I slept like a baby.
At 4:10 AM, my travel radio alarm started beeping. The iPhone and iPad were completely silent.
Turns out, the iPad decided to do an operating system update during the night. For some reason, after rebooting, it simply forgot about the alarm. (Thanks, iPad!) And the iPhone? I’m still not sure how/why, but the mute switch on the side of the phone was engaged and if it vibrated to wake me, I never heard it rumbling on the night stand.
Thank goodness the travel radio had my back, else I would have missed that flight.
Travel radios: Never leave home without one!
I like to be a self-sufficient traveler even though I only travel with one bag and pack very lightly. I never rely on my destination to have a functioning alarm clock (with battery backup, of course) or effective wake up call service. Regardless of how minimally I pack, I always take a travel radio.
In February, for example, I travelled to Philadelphia for the Winter SWL Fest. Even though my trip was nearly a week long, to keep from paying a carry-on fee with Frontier airlines, I packed everything in a bag that met their strict “personal carry-on” bag size.
Regular readers know I’m a bit of a pack geek, so my bag of choice was the Tom Bihn Stowaway. Here’s the bag fully packed out at my feet in the airport:
Here’s a photo of everything I packed in the Stowaway for that trip:
This particular trip really pushed the limits on my minimalist travel philosophy. Honestly? It was a fun challenge! I had to hone my pack contents down to only the essentials (don’t make fun of me for believing three flashlights were essential–the previous year, our hotel was without power for several days).
Still, I made room for one of the smallest travel radios in my arsenal: the County Comm Marathon ETFR:
I chose the ETFR because it has a custom case that could attach to my belt or pack strap if interior space became too tight. The ETFR radio hasn’t been in production for a decade, but it’s an effective radio companion and the alarm works without fail.
Choosing a travel radio
Most modern digital portables are based on DSP chips that have clock and alarm functions, so you might already own an effective travel radio.
With that said, I always prioritize radio features that benefit a traveler, of course; here are some that I look for:
Small size: Naturally, it’s sensible to look for a travel radio that’s small for its receiver class for ease in packing.
Overall sturdy chassis: Any travel radio should have a sturdy body case that can withstand the rigors of travel.
Built-in Alarm/Sleep Timer functions: We’ve already exhausted this topic, right?.
Powered by AA batteries: While the newer lithium ion battery packs are fairly efficient, I still prefer the AA battery standard, which allows me to obtain batteries as needed in most settings; a fresh set of alkaline (or freshly-charged) batteries will power most portables for hours on end.
Standard USB charging cable: If I can charge batteries internally, a USB charging cable can simply plug into my smart phone’s USB power adapter or the USB port on my laptop; no extra “wall wart” equals less weight and less annoyance.
ETM: Many new digital portables have an ETM function which allow auto-scanning of a radio band (AM/FM/SW), saving what it finds in temporary memory locations–a great way to get a quick overview of stations. (As this function typically takes several minutes to complete on shortwave, I usually set it before unpacking or taking a shower. When I return to my radio, it’s ready to browse.)
Single-Side Band: While I rarely listen to SSB broadcasts when traveling, I still like to pack an SSB-capable receiver–especially for longer trips.
RDS: Though an RDS (Radio Data System) is FM-only, it’s a great feature for identifying station call signs and genre (i.e., public radio, rock, pop, country, jazz, classical, etc.)
External antenna jack: I like to carry a reel-type or clip-on wire external antenna if I plan to spend serious time SWLing. Having a built-in external jack means that the connection is easy, no need to bother with wire and an alligator clip to the telescoping whip.
Tuning wheel/knob: Since I spend a lot of time band-scanning while travelling, I prefer a tactile wheel or knob for tuning my travel radio.
Key lock: Most radios have a key lock to prevent accidentally turning a radio on in transit–but with a travel radio, it’s especially important to have a key lock that can’t be accidentally disengaged.
LED flashlight: Very few radios have this, but it’s handy to have when travelling. Note that the County Comm ETFR (above) does!
Temperature display: Many DSP-based radios have a built-in thermometer and temperature display; I like this when I travel anytime, but especially when I’m camping.
While I don’t have a portable that meets 100% of the above travel radio wish-list, I do have several that score very highly.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Srebnick, who writes:
Here’s a question to put to your blog readers. I’m looking for a compact portable receiver for travel purposes.
It must have AM, FM and shortwave coverage. It should support SSB and RDS. Synchronous AM is a plus, as is FM band coverage starting at 76 MHz (trip to Japan in the near future). Accurate digital readout is a must. But most importantly, MP3 and or wav recording at 48k should be supported. This last point seems to be a showstopper.
But, I’ll be in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina soon and hope to capture some hard to hear signals. So, any ideas would be most appreciated.
Digitech AR-1780 (left) and XHDATA D-808 (right)
The XHDATA D-808 should fit the bill with two exceptions: synchronous detection and audio recording. The very similar Digitech AR-1780 should as well, although I’m not certain you can switch it to Japan FM frequencies (I bet there’s a hack to do it, although I’ve never tried).
As you suspect, built-in recording is certainly the feature that’s most difficult to find in a portable shortwave radio. The only shortwave receiver I’ve tested recently that has decent built-in recording is the Audiomax SRW-710S (a.k.a. Tivdio V-115). However, it lacks many of the other features you noted and isn’t on par with the D-808 in terms of receiver (it is quite cheap though). I’m not sure I’d rely on it for extended travels.
In your shoes, I might combine the XHDATA D-808 and the Zoom H1n to achieve all of your goals. True, it’s not all-in-one, but it should perform well and the H1n would allow you to do other types of field recording.
Update: One more thought… Although this isn’t a traditional portable radio, you might also consider grabbing the new AirSpy HF+ Discovery SDR and pairing it with a tablet or laptop. It’s a phenomenal receiver and ticks all of the boxes above.
Post Readers: Can you think of other options for Dan? Has another recording shortwave radio hit the market? What radio or kit do you use for travel and field recordings? Please comment!
One of my favorite DXing locations was this little cottage at the El Rancho Hotel just outside San Ramon, on the edge of the Amazon jungle in Peru. At $18/night, including breakfast, the hotel was a bargain, and there was plenty of room for my delta loop.
A Guide To Vagabond DXing
By Don Moore
Ever since I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras in the early 1980s, Latin America has been my primary focus for both DXing and traveling. So when I retired in 2017, my main goal was to begin taking long annual trips . . . and I do mean long. From October 2017 to May 2018, I traveled through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia visiting about fifty different towns and cities. This year, I’m on a five-month trip through southern South America. In Latin America you can get just about anywhere cheaply and easily by bus, so that’s how I get around. It’s also a great way to meet people and to see the countryside. But luggage can become a burden, so I limit myself to a single mid-sized wheeled suitcase and a large knapsack. And that means that my mobile DX shack has to be very carefully planned.
Your plans may not include multi-month odysseys like mine, but I think my experiences will help you prepare to DX on your next trip, wherever it might be. Of course, what makes a good mobile DX shack depends on what your DX interests are. I consider myself a station collector, in that I want to make loggings of lots of new and different stations and to build up an understanding of radio broadcasting in different regions. So on my travels I concentrate on the medium wave broadcast band and longwave beacons, with maybe little bit of shortwave utility DX. (There’s not much on shortwave broadcast that I can’t also hear at home.)
Take the DX Home With You
For years my standard DX travel gear was a Sony ICF-2010, a cassette recorder, and an old Radio West ferrite loop antenna. But listening time was always limited since it was a vacation. There were other activities on the agenda and I was generally too tired to get up early for DXing. I always went home with some interesting loggings and audio recordings, but once I left for home the DXing was done.
SDRs have changed all that and now my first rule of travel DX now is take the DX home. The best souvenir of a trip is the hundreds of hours of DXing that I take home with me. In a 2016 trip to central Colombia, I made about 300 MB of recordings of the medium wave band. While listening to them later I logged over 400 stations from twenty countries (and I still have about half the files to go through). I never would have even gotten close to that many stations listening on my Sony like an ‘old-fashioned’ DXer, hi!
Lately, I’ve been accumulating SDR files much faster than I could possibly go through them, so it’s a fair question to ask what the point is. When will I ever listen to them all? Like most DXers, I’m not fortunate enough to live in a perfect DX location. When conditions are mediocre, I’d rather spend my DXing time going through some more interesting SDR files. And, I know I’ll have lots of good DX waiting for me years from now when I’m no longer able to travel the way that I do now. For me, SDR recordings make much better souvenirs that some cheap tourist trinkets that will gather dust on a shelf. It doesn’t matter whether your travels take you to a nearby park or to a distant continent. SDRs can preserve the DXing experience for years to come.
My Mobile DX Shack
This is my typical DXing setup with the Afedri. The rooftoop terrace at the Hotel Rosa Ermila ($10/night) in Cascas, Peru was the most elegant place I’ve ever DXed from, but reception was only average with the PA0RDT dangling from the railing.
The centerpiece of any DX shack is the receiver. On my 2017-18 trip, I had an Afredri SDR-Net with an SDRPlay RSP1 as a backup, but this year I replaced the Afedri with an Elad FDM-2. Together, my two SDRs are smaller than all but the smallest portable receivers. Of course I also need a laptop, but I’m going to take one anyway. An important consideration in selecting a travel SDR is to get something that is powered off the laptop’s USB connection so that it is easy to DX totally off battery power if line noise becomes an issue.
The other vital component of DXing is the antenna. A good on-the-road antenna for SDR DXing has to be small, easy to erect, broadband, and versatile. That sounds like a lot to ask, but the perfect DX travel antennas do exist.
For compactness and ease of use, nothing can surpass the PA0RDT mini-whip. How good is it? That’s what I used to log over 400 medium wave stations in Colombia in 2016. I just attached the unit to my coax and threw it about three meters up into a short tree. The antenna works best when mounted away from nearby structures, but sometimes I’ve gotten decent results placing the PA0RDT on balconies and windowsills of tall buildings. It’s mostly a matter of luck as to how bad the local noise levels in the building are and how much the building itself may block signals. Using a short support, such as a broom or a hiking pole, it may be possible to mount the unit a meter or so away from the building.
While it’s best to mount the PA0RDT away from obstructions, the antenna might give good results anywhere, even on the neighbor’s roof. (Just make sure it’s not likely to get stuck. Pulling the unit out of a stubborn papaya tree is no joke.)
The biggest drawback of the PA0RDT for serious MW and LW DXing is that it is non-directional. For a directional antenna, a Wellbrook loop is great if you’re traveling by car, but that one-meter diameter aluminum loop doesn’t fit in my suitcase. Fortunately, a few years ago Guy Atkins and Brett Saylor told me about an alternative: buy a Wellbrook ALA-100LN unit and attach it to a large homemade wire loop. Now my travel kit includes two nine-meter lengths and one eighteen-meter length of #18 stranded copper wire. The wires can be spliced together for loops of 9, 18, 27, or 36 meters circumference, according to what fits in a location. Erection of a wire loop is easy enough with a suitable tree branch. I just throw the wire over the branch and then form it into delta (with the bottom running just above the ground) using two tent stakes and some short cord to hold the corners. The ALA-100LN unit goes in the bottom center.
Items that go in my suitcase, left to right: tent stakes and wire for the Wellbrook loop, a small box with more adapters, another battery box, 50 foot coax, 12 foot coax, and my hiking pole. The pole doubles as a support for the PA0RDT sometimes.
The loop doesn’t have to be in a delta; that’s just often the easiest to erect. I’ve successfully used squares, rectangles, trapezoids, oblong diamonds, and right angle triangles. Any balanced shape with the ALA-100LN in the bottom center should be bi-directional in a figure-eight pattern. Non-balanced shapes will work equally well but with unpredictable directionality. Just keep the wire in a single plane and place the ALA-100LN unit someplace along the bottom.
Both the PA0RDT and the Wellbrook require a 12V power supply. The North American version of the Wellbrook comes with an excellent noise-free 110V power supply, but that’s of no use in 220V countries and also I want to be able to DX totally off battery power when necessary. Fortunately both antennas use the same size power connector, so I carry three eight-cell AA battery packs for remote power.
Contents of the DX box, clockwise from upper left: the two pieces of the Wellbrook ALA-100LN, the two pieces of the PA0RDT mini-whip, two 8xAA battery boxes and a set of batteries, USB and coax cables, a passive 4-way antenna splitter, battery tester, various adapters and cup hooks (for securing wires), 4TB hard drive, the SDRPlay RSP1, the Elad FDM-2, and more short patch cords.
My mobile DX shack is rounded out with everything that is needed to connect the parts together. I have at least four of every adapter and patchcord, since I know they won’t be easy to replace on the road. For lead-ins, I have 12-foot and 50-foot lengths of lightweight coax with BNC connectors. I also have a few F-to-BNC adapters so I could buy some standard TV coax if needed. A 4 TB hard drive provides plenty of space the SDR recordings I plan to make. (Before leaving, I fill it with videos that I can delete after I watch them or when I need space.) For DX references, I download various station lists online so that I have them available even if I don’t have an Internet connection. It’s also important to keep those lists with the SDR files from the trip so that if I’m listening to the files years from now I’ll have references which were current at the time.
A common concern for traveling DXers is getting through airport security. When I went to Colombia in 2016, I wrapped my DX gear in clothing for protection and then stuffed everything into my backpack. Security didn’t like what they saw and I had to empty the bag so that every single item could be examined and swabbed for explosive residue. The TSA lady was very nice about it, but I wanted to minimize the chance of that happening again.
At an office supply store I found a plastic storage box that fits inside the main pocket of my backpack. My SDRs, antenna components, and hard drive get wrapped in bubble wrap and all placed together in the box along with small cables, adapters, etc. Larger items – the wire, coax, and stakes for the loop – get packed in my checked bag.
The DX Box packed and ready to go.
At the airport, I slide the box out of my backpack, place it into a cloth shopping bag, and then send it through the X-Ray machine on its own so that the agent can get a close look at the contents. So far in about a dozen security checks in the USA, Peru, and Mexico, the box of gear hasn’t caused so much as a pause on the conveyor belt. And, if the box would get pulled for a closer look, at least I won’t have to empty the entire backpack again.
Most of my equipment fits in this plastic box which slides into my backpack.
Where to DX
A mobile DX shack isn’t worth anything without a suitable place to DX from. Hotels may work if you have a balcony where you can put a small antenna, but more likely than not there’ll be problems with RF noise. The best hotels are ones that are a collection of cottages or bungalows or that otherwise have an open yard-like space for an antenna. My favorite place to find possible DXing sites is on AirBnB. It’s often easy to find AirBnBs that are on the edge of town or even in the countryside with lots of space. Of course, since I don’t have a car, I need to make sure I can get there using public transportation.
While visiting Huanchaco, Peru with DX friends Karl Forth and John Fisher, we had a beach-front apartment with an adjoining rooftop terrace. We had excellent results with an oblong loop and the ALA-100LN on the terrace.
The key to selecting a DX location is to examine all the photos very carefully. Is there open space for the antennas? Are there trees or other potential supports? Is there a gazebo, terrace, or other space that could be used for DXing? Google satellite view and Google street view can be very helpful in scouting out a location (And it’s surprising how much of South America is now on Google Street View.) And, I always look for possible noise sources. One place I almost rented in Colombia turned out to have high voltage power lines running next door when I found it on Street View.
I always tell the hotel staff or AirBnB host what I’m doing so that they understand why the gringo has wires running around. And I make sure not to put my antennas or coax anywhere that might interfere with the employees or other guests. Most of the time I’m able to erect the antenna near my room and run the lead-in into my room through a window. Then I can leave my laptop running all night to make scheduled SDR recordings. That’s the Holy Grail of DXing – catching the overnight DX while you sleep. But if my room turns out to have too much RF noise (as has been the case a few times), then I head out to the gazebo or terrace to DX using battery power. That does mean I have to stay up late or get up early since I can’t leave the laptop outside on its own. But, some of the best DX that I’ve had has come from running off full battery power in gazebos.
My delta loop had plenty of space at the Posada de Sauce ($25/night with breakfast) in the jungle near Tarapoto, Peru. The lodge was totally powered by solar panels and was one of the quietest places I’ve ever DXed from.
Antenna security is another consideration. At one place I stayed I wasn’t comfortable leaving my expensive antenna components unattended outside all night. And then there was what happened on my first trip to Colombia in 2010. I knew that a place I would be staying at for two nights had an open field right behind it, so on that trip I took 500 feet of thin insulated wire for a mini beverage-on-the-ground. DXing was great the first night but terrible the second. When I went out the next morning to wind up the wire I learned why. The worker who had been weed-wacking the hotel gardens the previous day had also done the field, and in doing so he had cut my wire in three places. He had, however, very nicely tied the wires back together.
Share the DX
DXing off battery power in the gazebo in the Mauro Hilton Hostel in the mountains above Manizales, Colombia. The antenna was the PA0RDT thrown in a tree. I had great DX with the loop from my room, but I came here to enjoy the views one evening.
Finally, if you take an SDR on a trip and get some good DX, make a selection of your files available for download. Other DXers will enjoy hearing what the band sounds like somewhere else. Several dozen of my files from Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia are available for download in a shared Google Drive folder. If you see something you want, be sure to download it now. The winter DX season is just starting here in deep South America and in the coming weeks I’ll be replacing some of those older files with ones made in Argentina and maybe in Uruguay and southern Brazil. I’ve found a lot of places to stay that look to be perfect for a vagabond DXer.
The PA0RDT miniwhip – see the email address at the bottom of the article for ordering information. I highly recommend getting the original PA0RDT. There are several cheaper versions for sale, but DXers have reported quaility control problems with those.
Don, thank you so much for sharing your travel DXing expertise. This article is absolutely brilliant and so informative for anyone who wishes to make SDR field recordings. I love how carefully you’ve curated and distilled your portable setup and have given priority to having antennas for all occasions. I also think carrying spare parts and, especially, a spare SDR makes a lot of sense.
Post Readers: As we mentioned in a previous post, Don is an author and has recently published “Following Ghosts in Northern Peru: In the Footsteps of 19th Century Travelers on the old Moyobamba Route” which is available in Kindle and print formats via Amazon.
[IMPORTANT UPDATE (October 21, 2018): I’m pleased to report that C. Crane have addressed issues that I found in the first production run of the CC Skywave SSB. Click here to read the update.]
Those who know me know I’m all about travel, and all the things that make the travel experience enjoyable. I like to pack light, taking only the essentials, and if I’m traveling by air, I can easily fit two weeks of fun into one small carry-on. To me, the idea of lugging a huge suitcase, being subject to lost check-in luggage, and fretting over finding room in an overhead bin to squeeze in a huge bag simply has no appeal. Even though I often opt for the budget ticket, which means loading later, I know I can literally be the last one on board without fear because my travel bag is so compact that, if nothing else, it will fit underneath the seat in front of me.
Yet even though I travel light, I never ever travel without a radio. That’s a given in my bag. Since packable real estate in my carry-on is at a premium, I opt for the most bang-for-buck I can manage in a portable radio.
My radio travel partners
To date, I have a few favorite full-featured travel radios and know quite well both their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a list with some notable pros and cons:
Pros: A 1990s era marvel of compact technology, it sports SSB mode, sync detection, headphone and audio out jacks, external antenna jack, and long life on two AA batteries. It has excellent sensitivity and selectivity. No muting between frequencies spoils listening pleasure.
Cons: Speaker audio is poor, no FM RDS, no weather radio, no AIR band, the battery cover may be easily broken, ribbon cable can break (in early models) and the clamshell design, while a cool feature, isn’t always practical and makes the unit feel prone to damage. Plus, the SW100 series is no longer manufactured and, due to desirability, typically have a price point well above the competition.
Pros: A compact, ergonomic full-featured radio which sports SSB mode, AIR band, external antenna jack, reasonable audio from internal speaker, very good shortwave and mediumwave performance for the size. No muting between frequencies.
Cons: Rubberized coating becomes sticky as it deteriorates, no weather radio, no audio-out jack, no RDS, and it’s no longer manufactured.
Pros: Very affordable (typically $40-50 shipped), excellent shortwave, mediumwave and FM reception, external antenna jack, average audio fidelity from built-in speaker, internal battery charging, common 5V mini USB plug, reasonably durable.
Cons: No SSB mode, no weather radio, no AIR band, no RDS, no dedicated audio-out jack, limited shortwave coverage compared with other portables 2.3 – 21.95 MHz
Pros: SSB mode, great shortwave, mediumwave, fm reception, vertical form factor great for handheld listening while walking/hiking, external ferrite bar antenna enables excellent AM/mediumwave reception.
Cons: Vertical form factor means it’s prone to fall over if placed on a bedside table, no direct entry keypad for frequencies, tinny audio from built-in speaker, no RDS, no AIR band, detachable external ferrite bar antenna is an extra piece to keep up with while traveling.
Pros: Overall excellent performance on shortwave, mediumwave, and FM. AIR band, North America weather radio (excellent sensitivity) with alerts, squelch control, common 5 VDC USB mini power port with charging capability, a great value at $89
Cons: No SSB mode, no external antenna jack, no RDS,
What radio I decide to pack really depends on the type of trip I’m taking.
If I really want SSB mode to listen to HF pirates, ham radio, or utility stations, I tend to grab the Sony ICF-SW100, the Grundig G6, or more recently, the Digitech AR-1780 [and now the XHDATA D-808].
If I plan to do extended hiking or walking during my trip, I might grab the CountyComm GP5-SSB.
If I only plan to listen to AM/FM/SW broadcasts, and it’s a short trip––or one during which the radio might receive rough treatment––then I might grab the Tecsun PL-310ET. If I leave the PL-310ET in a hotel or drop it, I’m only out about $40. I’ve even been known to simply give one of these to someone, like a kid for example, who shows a fascination in shortwave radio.
If I plan to do off-air audio recordings during my travels, then the Sony ICF-SW100 because it’s the only radio with a dedicated audio-out port. Plus, it’s a great performer.
If I’m travelling by air, however, I almost always choose the CC Skywave: its unique combination of AM/FM/SW coverage, NOAA weather, and AIR band are simply hard to beat. It’s compact, durable, and gets the job done. Plus, the Skywave seems to operate for ages on a set of AA batteries. C. Crane really knocked it out of the ballpark with the CC Skywave.
But there was one glaring omission on the original CC Skywave: Single-sideband (SSB) mode.
Enter the CC Skywave SSB
Earlier this year, I learned about a new radio in development at C. Crane: the CC Skywave SSB. I saw a Beta unit very early on and a few weeks later, knowing how much I appreciate the original Skywave, C. Crane asked me to help test the new Skywave SSB. I was happy to do my bit.
I actually do quite a bit of alpha- and beta-testing for manufacturers. While it’s time-consuming volunteer work, and requires meticulous attention to detail––even seemingly minor details––it gives me an opportunity to have meaningful positive impact on an upcoming product. Manufacturers that actively involve enthusiasts in their testing phase tend to produce better quality. I wish all manufacturers did this (yes, Tecsun, I’m looking squarely at you!).
After the Skywave SSB arrived, I started putting it through its paces. Typically, pilot run units have quirks and glitches buried in non-standard operating procedures. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any on the Skywave SSB. I’ve since learned that C. Crane invests heavily in pre-production testing; I saw their full list of iterative notes, and they were incredibly detailed. Result? No obvious problems. I’ve always believed that while C. Crane doesn’t always produce the most affordable products––nor do they stuff every bell-and-whistle into them––what they do produce is well thought out, user friendly, well documented, and performs at or near the top of its class.
The CC Skywave SSB comes with a surprising amount of features for such a compact radio. Many of these features are also found on the original CC Skywave.
I’ve placed upgraded features in bold:
AM, FM, NOAA Weather band plus Alert, Shortwave (1711-29.999MHz) with SSB mode, and Airband
Frequency direct entry, plus auto scan and store
Lighted LCD display
Selectable fast or fine tuning (on all bands except weather)
Dedicated fine tuning control, selectable on front panel
400 memory presets
Runs on 2 AA Alkaline batteries (not included)
(Optional) CC Skywave AC power adapter w/ mini USB plug required for charging NiMH batteries.
Stereo headphone jack and fold-out back stand
Clock with 12/24 hour format and alarm
Rotary volume knob
High quality CC Buds Earphones and radio carry case included
Run Time (on batteries––approximate):
± 70 hours (earbuds)
± 60 Hours (built-in speaker)
10 Aviation Memories can be scanned for activity
You’ll notice there are actually very few obvious upgrades from the original Skywave to the Skywave SSB: just SSB mode, expanded HF coverage (from 1,711 to 29,999 kHz), and dedicated fine tune button/control. I’ve also learned that aviation band scanning is much faster on the newer model than on the original Skywave.
Other than those items, in terms of features, it’s very similar to the original CC Skywave.
CC Skywave SSB (left) and the original CC Skywave (right)
The original Skywave and Skywave SSB are nearly identical in terms of form factor; overall dimensions are identical (4.8″ W x 3″ H x 1″ D), although the Skywave SSB weighs 1.2 oz more than the original––a difference that’s scarcely detectable.
The tuning knob, volume control, power port, and headphones jack are in the same places on the SSB. The chassis color is different, however; the original Skywave is black, whereas the new Skywave SSB is grey––a dark warm or “dim” grey,” to be accurate.
Original CC Skywave (left) and CC Skywave SSB (right)
Where one finds the true difference between the new Skywave SSB and its predecessor is on the front panel. The Skywave SSB has dedicated buttons to enable both SSB mode, select upper or lower sideband, and a fine-tune control. The Skywave also has a dedicated backlight button. This accounts for a total of four additional buttons compared with the original Skywave.
In a rather nice touch, both the SSB and fine tune buttons have tiny red LED indicators to let the user know when they’re engaged.
The CC Skywave SSB also has a redesigned speaker grill which more closely resembles the grill on their CC Pocket radio. Much to my surprise, once I shared detailed photos of the CC Skywave SSB, many of my readers expressed their disappointment with the speaker design. Many claimed it looked “cheap” as compared with the original Skywave and thus felt the chassis might be more subject to breakage. Some even got the impression that the speaker grill was raised in a way that it would lend itself to harm.
Actually, this is not accurate. Though it may appear that the speaker grill is elevated in photos, it’s actually in a recessed portion of the chassis and surrounded by an absorbent rubber ring, rising only ? 1 mm above the chassis, if that. And the hard plastic case feels as solid and robust as any portable I’ve tested. I wouldn’t hesitate to toss it in my pack.
Personally, I think the Skywave SSB is a handsome little radio! Perhaps I’m not as sensitive as others about chassis design, but I’m actually happy it’s not a clone of the original Skywave, making it much easier for owners of both models to distinguish them when packing!
From Pilot/Beta to production
While C. Crane allowed me to post a number of photos once the product announcement had been made, I would not publicly comment on performance. Indeed, I never post performance comments about pre-production units since I wouldn’t be evaluating the same product that hits the store shelves.
So once C. Crane posted an ordering page for the Skywave SSB, I placed an order, just like everyone else.
In truth, I was told there were only minor differences between the pilot unit and the production unit: some silk screening and other very minor changes.
[IMPORTANT UPDATE: Again, please note that the following production quirks have been addressed in the second production run of the CC Skywave SSB. Click here to review the update.]
I was eager to get started on the review of the Skywave SSB, so as soon as I received it, I did what I always do: compared it with other radios!
I make my comparisons, by the way, at least fifty yards from my house to separate the radios from any inadvertent sources of local noise.
Production Radio #1
My first comparison was with the Digitech AR-1780 and the original CC Skywave. I quickly noted that the Skywave SSB was very slightly less sensitive than the other radios. I had tested the pre-production unit enough to know that the Skywave SSB’s performance should at least be on par with, if not a little better than, the original Skywave.
Upon careful listening, I discovered the production unit had a faint, internally-generated whine on some of the shortwave bands; when tuned to marginal signals, this whine manifested in the form of variable background noise. Between signals it was audible as a faint background whine, hardly noticeable. With that said, the whine was most notable while tuning––since the Skywave SSB mutes between frequency changes, the whine was most conspicuous during audio recovery between steps.
The pre-production unit had no trace of an internally-generated whine. Audio was very clean in comparison.
Here’s a sample of the first production radio being tuned down from 10,000 kHz in 5 kHz tuning steps:
I contacted C. Crane promptly, and to their credit, they immediately dispatched another unit from inventory, via UPS Next Day, along with a return label to send my faulty unit back to their engineering team.
Production Radio #2
The second unit arrived while I was on Thanksgiving vacation, but was sent to me directly at my hotel. The day I received the replacement Skywave SSB, I put it on the air. The first listening session with it, alone, revealed that this unit did not have the internally-generated whine, however, this unit had issues with sensitivity. All of my comparison receivers were outperforming this Skywave SSB on the shortwave broadcast bands. When I compared it with the pre-production Skywave SSB unit and the first production unit, the second production unit was about four to five S-units less sensitive…Odd.
I sent both production radios back to C. Crane with detailed notes and sample recordings. Their engineering team confirmed my findings and started looking into the variations in QC and double-checking their inventory to make sure none shipped with these problems.
Production Radio #3
A few days later, I was sent a third production unit. After putting it on the air, I immediately noticed the same faint noise characteristics of my first full production unit, which is to say, the notorious whine.
Once again, I contacted C. Crane. This time, I requested that no less than three radios be sent to me, and that they kindly expedite the request.
Production Radios #4, #5, and #6
I tested all three radios from this final batch of production units. What follows is an assessment of those radios.
First production run noises
I spent two full hours searching for birdies (internally generated noises) and other anomalies on the three CC Skywave SSB production units I received that Monday. Each radio’s noise location varied slightly (within 20-40 kHz).
Birdies are a fairly common occurrence among sensitive receivers, and the CC Skywave SSB has about an average number. Fortunately, the birdies I noted are outside the space where I do my broadcast listening:
Background audio whine/tone
All of the production units (save Radio #2) had a very slight audio whine present––either via the internal speaker or headphones––on certain portions of the spectrum.
In the first full production unit I received, I believe this whine may have slightly affected the unit’s overall sensitivity. On the last three production units I received, the whine didn’t seem to have as much of an impact on overall sensitivity.
The whine is still there, however. And occasionally when the unit is tuned to a weak signal within one of these zones, other faint sweeping noises can be detected in the background.
Sometimes it’s even more noticeable when the broadcaster is weak and is located within one of the “whine zones.” Here’s an example of 10 MHz WWV time station comparing the original Skywave with the Skywave SSB. Note that at the time this was recorded we had terrible propagation due to a geo storm, so WWV was very weak, indeed.
I noted no birdies or noises on the mediumwave band.
I’ve no doubt, C. Crane will tackle these issues and solve them by the time the second production run ships.
In the meantime, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the CC Skywave SSB, having evaluated a total of seven models and spending more time evaluating them than I have any other portable.
Let’s take a look at what we can expect from the CC Skywave SSB with these first production quirks aside.
Like its predecessor and many other travel radios (the Digitech AR-1780 and XHDATA D-808 being notable exceptions) the Skywave SSB’s audio from the internal speaker is adequate. It’s just shy of what I would call “tinny” because it does cover the mid-range . For spoken word content in AM and SSB, it does the job quite well. With music, you simply can’t expect any bass notes or room-filling audio. But then again, in a compact radio, my expectations are simply lower. The Digitech AR-1780 and XHDATA D-808 have the best audio of my compact travel radios, but they’re also the largest, so have a slightly bigger speaker.
I did note a minor amount of background hiss present somewhere in the audio amplification chain on the first production run units–most noticeable via headphones.
With the supplied CC Buds, you’ll be a happy camper.
Audio sounds rich via the headphones jack.
Of course, what we all want to know is how well the CC Skywave SSB performs. In a nutshell (spoiler alert!) it’s very similar to the original Skywave.
I break this down band-by-band below, starting with my favorite band.
Keeping in mind the frustrating experience with quality control, when I received the final three production units, I was very pleased with performance on the shortwave bands. The AGC characteristics are relatively stable, making weak signal listening a pleasant experience. Even though the Skywave SSB lacks a synchronous detector, I found that stability––even with periods of notable selective fading––is impressive.
In the realm of compact travel radios, both my pre-production and (better functioning) production models are strong performers. The Skywave SSB is slightly less sensitive than my larger, full-featured portables like the Tecsun PL-660, PL-680, PL-880, and Grundig Satellit. All of these radios, however, have longer telescoping whip antennas. If I add the gain from the included CC Reel antenna, the Skywave SSB can even hold its own with many of these.
I’ve been very pleased with the original Skywave for broadcast SWLing for a few years now. I’m happy to report that the Skywave SSB offers an incremental improvement over the original Skywave.
Much like other modern DSP portables, FM performance is stellar for such a compact radio. The Skywave SSB was able to receive all of my benchmark FM stations. While audio fidelity from the Skywave SSB’s internal speaker is not a strong point, via headphones you’ll be quite pleased.
I’ve found the Skywave SSB to be capable mediumwave receiver. Performance characteristics are very similar to the original Skywave and the AGC settings even make MW DXing a pleasant experience. Since the internal ferrite bar isn’t terribly large, better performance can be achieved by coupling the Skywave SSB to an inexpensive loop antenna, like the Grundig AN200 AM Antenna.
Like the original Skywave, the Skywave SSB is an impressively capable weather radio receiver. From my home, I’m able to pick up a marginal NOAA weather radio frequency that most of my other weather radios cannot. The Skywave SSB also includes a handy weather alert feature that will monitor your chosen NOAA/Environment Canada frequency and wake up the receiver if an alert is issued.
Note that the weather alert feature works on a timer and, most importantly, if operating from battery, drains batteries as quickly as if you were monitoring a live station with the squelch open.
While I didn’t compare performance with a triple conversion scanner, I’m favorably impressed with AIR band performance. During my tests, I noted no imaging or overloading on the AIR band, a very good thing. Additionally, the Skywave SSB offers improved scanning features for the AIR band, making it easier to monitor ground, tower, and even approach/departure frequencies at larger airports. When employing the squelch feature, you almost get the impression you’re holding a scanner, rather than a shortwave portable, in your hands.
Like the original CC Skywave, the SSB does not cover the longwave band. In North America, there is very little to listen to on longwave, so many consumers will never take notice. I’m sure longwave DXers will wish it was a part of the package, however. Admittedly, when I’m traveling in Europe and other parts of the world where there are still stations on longwave, I’ll certainly miss the band.
Comparing to other compact travel radios
Trying to decide if the CC Skywave SSB will have the performance characteristics to displace my other travel portables, I compared it with the radios I mention at the beginning of this article.
In terms of overall sensitivity and selectivity, the CC Skywave SSB essentially runs neck-and-neck with, or in some respects slightly edges out, the Tecsun PL-310ET, Grundig G6, and CountyComm GP5-SSB.
However, both the Sony ICF-SW100 and the Digitech AR-1780 are more sensitive than the Skywave SSB. The Digitech AR-1780 has the best audio characteristics of the competitors, but is also slightly larger and heavier than the others.
Note, too, that the Sony ICF-SW100 and Grundig G6 are the only radios in this comparison that don’t mute between frequency changes. They’re the best band-scanning receivers.
And how does the Skywave SSB compare with the original CC Skywave? I find that the Skywave SSB has a slightly lower noise floor which is perhaps helped even further by better audio/tone characteristics. Sensitivity is about the same, but signals pop out of the background static better on the Skywave SSB.
In terms of features, the Skywave SSB likely offers the most for the traveler.
Every radio has its pros and cons, of course. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget my initial impressions. Following is the list I’ve formed over the time I’ve been evaluating the CC Skywave SSB:
Overall well thought out, considerate design
Excellent form factor for travel
Very good sensitivity and selectivity for a compact radio
Faster AIR scanning compared with the original 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
a quality external reel antenna
CC Buds earphones
Soft case with Velcro closure
Excellent battery life from two AA cells (AA cells are a plus for travelers as they’re so ubiquitous)
Engaging SSB mode requires 2-3 seconds of delay (common for this DSP chip)
Some ticking noise in audio when pressing buttons (identical to the Digitech AR-1780)
No audio-out jack
No longwave reception
ATS Scanning in 1st production run stops at 26,100 kHz
No synchronous detection (though not expected in this class of compact portable)
Shortwave ATS tuning time about half as fast as the original Skywave (original is quite speedy!)
$149 $169 price is at the top of its class
I love the CC Skywave SSB. Sure, I wish it had RDS, an audio-out jack, didn’t mute between frequencies, and was a little less expensive. 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.
Most reading this review will be scratching their heads wondering if: a) having SSB mode is worth the $60 premium over the original Skywave ($89 vs. $149)? and b) is any compact radio, for that matter, really worth $149––?
Because of how I travel, I would say that I easily use ultra-compact portables like the Skywave SSB about 70% of the time I’m found listening to portables.
When the Skywave SSB was first placed on the C. Crane website, they posted a price of $169––when the units started shipping, they reduced the cost to $149, and reimbursed those who had placed an order with the higher price. [UPDATE: Early 2018, they once again increased the price to $169.]
Though the initial $169 price made me wince a bit, I still ordered one. Why? Because to me being a traveler who loves an ultra compact, having an ergonomic, full-featured, durable, compact travel radio with SSB, AIR and NOAA weather radio is worth it!
Therefore, the CC Skywave SSB will be my travel radio of choice going forward––it’s essentially a Swiss Army Knife of a travel radio.
There’s another factor, too: I trust C. Crane. Despite the frustrating quirks I experienced reviewing my first production run units, I know C. Crane takes care of their customers in the long run, and will replace any faulty units without hesitation. They’ve taken every item of feedback I’ve provided directly to their engineers and quality-control specialists, and the work continues to resolve this radio’s concerns. If you have a Skywave SSB with noise, don’t hesitate to contact C. Crane about it.
Overall, I am optimistic about this radio. I expect the second production run will produce radios performing as they should––like the final production units I tested, but without the internally-generated noises. [Click here to read second production run update.] And if this occurs as I expect, you can expect good performers.
At any rate, I know this: I’ll be one of the first to test units of their second production run…and to let you know just what I find. (Bookmark the tag CC Skywave SSB for updates.)
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dean Denton–our intrepid 13 year old DXer–who seeks a little input from the community. Dean writes:
I am going on holiday in July this year, to Fuerteventura in Islas Canarias, near west Africa.
This will be the first time I will be going on holiday, you will probably know the feeling. Because I am a hardcore radio-fan, I will of course bring my Tecsun PL-660, and I will be posting clips on my YouTube Channel, EuropeDX.
Please could you give me, some vital tips when going on holiday when DXing?
The Canary Islands are in close proximity to North West Africa, so I will be DXing: Morocco, Mauritius, Algeria, Western Sahara, Senegal and others.
To those who are reading this post, I am compiling a list of tech that I am bringing with me. Please help add to this list, off of your experience of being abroad.
Here is the list:
Shortwave Radio, Tecsun PL-660, for the immersion.
Tecsun AN-200 Loop antenna, for pulling AM stations.
Travel adapter, we all need one.
Portable MP3 player, to listen to music
A Portable Digital TV, for watching movies on USB.
An action camera w/lapel microphone, for capturing videos.
FM Transmitter, to show the locals what music is!
4G Mobile Data Router, internet is a basic human requirement.
Please suggest more!
I think that the AM and FM DXing will be breathtaking. The Canary Islands are located where I will be able to pick up African radio stations, but also Transatlantic Brazilian and American stations. Due to the high pressure and high temperature, FM Tropo is not rare in the Canary Island’s climate. Enabling this, it will spark my YouTube channel.
Thank you for reading this, and I hope the SWLing community help me. If you would like to contact me, email me at europedx(at)gmail(dot)com.
Thanks, Dean! You’re talking my favorite topics: radio and travel!
I know we have a number of readers who live in the Canary Islands. No doubt, you’ll get to experience some serious radio fun across the bands.
In terms of tips, I would suggest you assume your accommodation could be plagued with radio noise and you may be forced to find an outdoor spot to do all but your FM DXing. If you know where you’re going to stay, check it out on Google Maps and see if there’s an obvious safe spot to play radio outdoors. Of course, it helps if your accommodation has an outdoor space like a balcony, patio or garden.
Looks like you’ve got a pretty good checklist there. Here are a few additional items I typically take on a holiday DXpedition:
Earphones/Headphones (never leave home without them!)
A small back-up radio (if you have one–something like a Tecsun PL-310ET)
Tuesday afternoon, I took a number of portable radios to the field: the Tecsun S-8800, Tecsun PL-880, Digitech AR-1780, C. Crane CC Skywave and the new C. Crane CC Skywave SSB.
Last week, I received a pilot run (pre-production) CC Skywave SSB from C. Crane to test and provide feedback. My unit, of course, is still subject to cosmetic changes and engineering tweaks.
Since this is not a final iteration of the product, I won’t comment or review performance other than to say that if you like the original CC Skywave, you should love the new CC Skywave SSB.
C. Crane has kindly given me permission to post a few preview photos.
CC Skywave SSB Photos
First thing you’ll notice is that the CC Skywave SSB is essentially identical to its predecessor in size and shape.
Indeed, the CC Skywave SSB fits the original Skywave’s carry case perfectly. If you’ve purchased a custom protective case–like this one— for the original Skywave, it’ll fit the CC Skywave SSB like a glove. As you can see above, the front panel design has changed, though. The CC Skywave SSB accommodates four additional function buttons and sports a re-designed speaker grill (similar to the CC Pocket Radio). Nice touch! C. Crane thought to use that little piece of real estate behind the backstand.
Listening to the 2016 BBC Midwinter Broadcast to Antarctica while traveling in Canada with the CC Skywave.
The original CC Skywave has pretty much been my go-to travel radio since it was released. I’ve taken it everywhere.
I’ve also taken the amazing Sony ICF-SW100 and the full-featured Grundig G6 (which even includes the AIR band) on trips when I wanted access to single sideband mode–something the original CC Skywave lacked. (Note that both of these radios are now discontinued.)
But when traveling in North America or by air, I really appreciate the Skywave’s excellent NOAA weather radio and access to aviation frequencies on the AIR band. Very handy features for the traveler who likes to stay informed.
By adding single sideband mode to an already capable ultra-compact travel radio, C. Crane has created a welcome radio traveling companion indeed.
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