01 December 2018

AM/FM Radio In The Shack?

Do you keep a consumer grade AM & FM radio in your shack?

Tecsun PL-310ET atop my Yaesu FT-991 - small but packed with features

Many of you will say, "Why bother? My all-mode rig does just fine."

True enough, but what happens in an emergency when you need to monitor both broadcast radio (say, for weather updates) and you are also working an HF disaster net? Some may say, "I'll just use my HT." OK, that may work. Lots of new(er) HTs  have the ability to pull in AM & FM broadcast bands. But what if you need to use the HT to monitor the local repeaters? Of course you could set up a scan memory group and roll the broadcast bands into a scan setup... at some point the issue over-complicates itself. The best approach? Get a good AM/FM receiver and incorporate it as part of your shack setup.

There are a lot of really good, and inexpensive, AM/FM/SW radios on the market. Sadly, many of the old-line makers of top-notch receivers like Sony, Panasonic, Grundig and Drake have either left the market, have been sold off to holding companies and are little more than badge names on second-tier electronics, or have gone under altogether. The good news is that several Chinese manufacturers have stepped into the market in a big way. You see, in most of the developing world (that would be what we call the 'third world') broadcast radio is still big, and it's a primary means of information and entertainment dissemination. Not everyone has gigabit internet service and a MacBook Pro. So Chinese manufacturers like Tecsun have moved into the portable AM/FM/SW receiver market in a big way, bringing great performing DSP-based radios to market at very low prices. Then there is a last holdout American firm, CC Crane, that still takes portable AM, FM & SW listening seriously, and makes an outstanding line of high performance, reasonably priced radios.

So what qualities does a good portable radio need to have to be considered for inclusion in a ham shack for emergency purposes? Well, for starters, good AM & FM reception. Next, the ability to run on common battery types (AAA, AA or D-cells). And last, the ability to accommodate an external long wire antenna, either a clip-on or plug-in design, for improved reception.

Down through the years I've collected (really, more like accumulated) a lot of portable AM/FM radios:

  • Several classic (and very fussy) GE SuperRadios - a very good design that was a favorite of AM DXers for decades. Too bad GE/RCA didn't give a damn about quality control
  • C Crane CC Radio EP - a product improved SuperRadio. Discontinued, but replaced by a better performing DSP model, the CC Radio EP Pro
  • A classic old Panasonic RF-505 - amazing FM sound quality. It shows what the old-line Japanese makers were capable of when they were at the top of their game
  • Tecsun PL-310ET  - a diminutive little radio (about the size of a large brick of sharp cheddar cheese) that probably offers the best bang-to-buck ratio
  • C Crane CC Solar Observer - a seemingly awkward mash-up of AM/FM radio, weather radio, an LED flashlight and a solar and hand-cranked dynamo charger. But guess what - it works, and works quite well!
  • Tecsun PL-880 - a simply amazing AM/FM/SW (USB/LSB) receiver that uses a hard-to-find battery
  • C Crane Skywave - another diminutive top performer, but a bit pricey. Proof that C Crane knows how to design & build radios. This radio was recently updated to a full USB/LSB version
  • Tecsun PL-365 - a revision of a design made for CountyComm by Tecsun for a US 'three letter agency' looking for  a small general coverage receiver that could fit in a bug-out bag. A remarkably good radio with an unusual (but very effective) external AM antenna. 
  • Freeplay FPR2 wind-up and solar powered AM/FM radio. This is the radio, along with some sort of goofy wind-up laptop running Linux, that was going to save the third world from itself. The thing is heavy, flimsy and makes a gawd-awful racket while the wind-up dynamo is running. But it has decent AM & FM reception, and is quirky enough to cause me to hang onto it as an example of the precursor to the current generation of 'wind-up' radios.

You can see a pattern here - I like Tecsun and C Crane radios.

But which one would I run in my shack during an emergency to monitor local broadcast stations? Remember, my criteria are good AM & FM reception, the ability to run on commonly available batteries and the ability to accept an external antenna to improve reception.

My first reaction is to reach, almost reflexively, for the Tecsun PL-880. It is an outstanding receiver in all respects. But it has one huge failure - it uses non-standard and hard to find lithium-ion 3.7 volt batteries that can only recharge via USB while in the radio. Sorry, but I have enough to worry about without wondering if I've got the right kind of batteries on hand for my radio.

Next I'd reach for the C Crane Skywave. Excellent AM & FM reception, and really nice stereo FM reception with earphones. But for normal listening the speaker is too small and 'tinny'. A great bug-out radio though.

So what does this selection really come down to? The plain-jane AM/FM only C Crane CC Radio EP. It offers excellent AM & FM performance (FM sounds really good out of the big main speaker), runs on D-cells, offers precise tuning with good selectivity, has a very effective FM whip antenna, a 'tunable' AM antenna and the ability to accept a simple long wire antenna to improve reception. This isn't just a good radio to have around for emergencies, it's an enjoyable radio to listen to at any time.

CC Radio EP  - a truly great AM/FM portable

So what do you have on-hand for AM/FM reception? Remember, the day before the ice storm is a lousy time to decide you need a broadcast band radio. And Amazon doesn't deliver on ice skates.

W8BYH out


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