01 October 2023

Toss It In The Bag

Lately I've been spending some time with my stable of shortwave receivers. I do this every now and then when I just want to listen and I don't want to be bothered with the drama of setting up a portable ham radio station on my porch. I'll pull out one or two of my portable receivers and play around a bit, seeing what I can catch on the airwaves.

Like so many my age, shortwave radio listening was my gateway drug into ham radio. I've written about this a bit in this blog. I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of the golden era of shortwave broadcasters. This was when major players like the Voice of America, the BBC, Radio Moscow, Deutsche Welle and others conducted a surrogate Cold War on the airwaves. This was the time when shortwave receiver dials were marked off not just in frequencies, but in the various theaters of Cold War operations - New York, London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Peking, Havana. It was a glorious time to be a shortwave listener. 

Now that the Cold War is over most of the major players have abandoned broadcast radio as an information outlet, or shut down entirely due to lack of audience, funding, or mission. The survivors have moved their operations to the internet or satellite radio, leaving a lot of dead air on the shortwaves. But if you are willing to spin the dial there are still some interesting things to catch. Small national broadcasters, a few commercial operations, ham radio operators, utility stations, military and government operators, aviation and maritime operators, and more. You just have to hunt around a bit.

So, to the point of this posting. Let's say a hurricane is coming to town (and if you live in the southeastern US, a hurricane is always coming to town between August & November). The authorities have ordered an evacuation. You've got an hour to pack and get on the road. You need to take along a receiver for situational awareness, but only have room for one. What do you pack?

Let's look at the implied requirements:

  • Compact & lightweight
  • Runs on common batteries. I call this the Dollar General test - if the batteries I need to run any piece of important gear can't be found at any Dollar General then it doesn't get packed, regardless of how good it is
  • Good overall performance on the AM & FM broadcast bands, shortwave bands and the Amateur Radio HF bands (implying USB/LSB capability) and the NOAA weather channels
  • Good performance on all bands using the stock whip antenna
  • Has an built-in speaker - no headphones or ear buds required. Sound clarity is the most important thing. We're interested in information, not entertainment, so the speaker can be small as long as it offers good clarity. 
  • Easy for a non-techie to figure out; can your non-ham spouse pick up the radio and tune it to the band and frequency of their choice without waking you up for help?

My collection is modern, consisting mostly of radios that are in current production. All are SDR-based rigs that offer outstanding performance compared to earlier designs, and in much smaller and more power efficient packages. Some of these radios will fit in a shirt pocket. Of course, bigger radios with bigger speakers = better sound, but many of the smallest radios will surprise you with their audio punch and range. And of course, with headphones or earbuds all of these radios sound great. 

My small collection consists of:

  • Sangean ATS-909X2
  • Tecsun PL-880
  • Tecsun PL-330
  • Tecsun PL-360
  • Eton Elite Executive
  • C.Crane Skywave SSB
All are very good performers, but a few have some shortcomings that take them out of consideration as a 'bug out' general purpose receiver. I won't be evaluating the Tecsun PL-330 or the PL-360 since they lack USB/LSB coverage. These are nice (and inexpensive) little radios offering good performance, but I consider USB/LSB coverage essential to this mission.

Let's start the evaluation with the Tecsun PL-880. This radio is the best performing portable shortwave receiver in my lineup. In fact, many in the shortwave listener community consider it the best portable shortwave receiver on the market. I can't argue. Shortwave and medium wave sensitivity and selectivity are great, the audio quality is outstanding (not the best, but very close to it), and AM & FM performance are first rate. The build quality is very good. Would I toss it in the bag? No, for three reasons. First, it uses much less common lithium-ion 18650 batteries, and can only charge via a mini-USB port, and the charging rate is s-l-o-w. Second, it lacks NOAA weather broadcast frequency coverage. Third, the user interface is overly complex and somewhat 'kludgy'. If I'm using the radio I can get it figured out in short order, but if my wife had to use this radio to tune in to a local AM station, she'd just get confused and frustrated. I consider this a niche radio - excellent performance but really focused at the shortwave geek. This same argument runs through the Tecsun PL-330 and the PL-360. Great performers but an overly complex user interface. Good for the geeks, but not for someone running from a devastating storm.

Next  up is the Sangean ATS-909X2, This is the most disappointing of the lot. This radio is the clear winner in ergonomics, user interface and build quality, and is the best sounding radio of the bunch, edging out the Tecsun PL-880 for audio quality on FM and AM. Sangean is a Taiwanese company that has been making quality portable radios for decades, and its earlier ATS-808 and 909 line of portable shortwave radios were highly regarded receivers. I used an ATS-808 extensively while stationed in Germany in the late 1990s, when there was still a lot of shortwave activity, and it was a great performer. The current ATS-909X2, however, is reputed to be 'deaf' on shortwave when using the whip antenna, and I've confirmed that myself. I mean, really deaf as compared to the Tecsun PL-880. Sangean struggled for several years to fix issues with the first generation 909X, which was supposed to be an upgrade to the venerable ATS-808, but the radio had a number of firmware bugs and just didn't perform all that well, Sangean pulled the 909X from the market, re-worked it and while they fixed the firmware issues, they never really got the shortwave reception issues figured out. Sadly, it won't make it into the bug-out bag.

Sangean ATS-909X2. Beautiful to look at, but so-so performance

A surprise performer in the group is the Eton Elite Executive. Eton released this radio over three years ago and nobody paid it much attention until a few shortwave bloggers like RadioJayAllen and the Oxford Shortwave Log took a look at the radio, almost in passing, and were surprised at how good of a performer it is. My informal testing backs this up. This is a remarkable receiver, and hits almost all the points needed to qualify as a bug-out radio. Shortwave performance is almost as good as the PL-880 - great sensitivity and selectivity, although the filter (bandwidth) selections are not as good as the Tecsun. The user interface is much better than the PL-880 for the casual user, and the speaker audio is surprisingly good; not as good at the PL-880 or the ATS-909X2, but better than you'd expect for a radio this size. I'd almost toss it in the bag but for one issue - no pre-set NOAA weather radio channels. But for general shortwave and AM & FM listening, this is a really good little radio. I've seen this radio go on sale regularly for some remarkably good prices. I got mine on a Woot special for $80. At that price, it's well worth it if you are a shortwave geek.

What are we left with? The tiny radio from C. Crane. About the size of two packs of cigarettes - just a bit bigger than the classic AM & FM pocket radios of the 1960s. Although small, the Skywave SSB* is a remarkably good performer across the board; top-notch performance on FM and AM, and surprisingly good performance on shortwave, including USB/LSB. I don't mean 'surprisingly good performance for a small radio'; on shortwave this radio rivals the Tecsun PL-880 and the Eton Executive Elite. It has very good sensitivity and selectivity, and very good bandwidth options. The user interface is simple and easy to figure out. And huzzah! It has really good NOAA weather channel coverage. Of course there are trade-offs due to the size - the sound out of the small speaker is nowhere near as good as the three radios already reviewed. The quality is good, and punchy, but it's impossible for a small speaker in a small cabinet to achieve the richness of the speaker in the Sangean or Tecsun reviewed above. There's other trade-offs, too. A few the firmware bells and whistles found on the larger radios are lacking on the Skywave SSB - no RDS functionality on FM, no synchronous AM detection, no ability to assign alpha tags to memory slots, and a few others. But given its size, the feature set is remarkably good - FM stereo output through earbuds (included with the radio), air band coverage, alarm clock function, adjustable tuning speeds, external power/charger capability, and more. Plus, it runs for hours on just two AA batteries. 

As it comes from C. Crane, the Skywave SSB includes a set of C. Crane's excellent earbuds and a clip-on reel antenna. The hard clamshell case you see in the photo is an extra option available from Amazon and I highly recommend it. It protects the radio and provides space for the earbuds, user manual, and a spare set of AA batteries.

I think you can already guess what my choice would be if I had to bug-out and could only take one receiver. The C. Crane isn't the choice because it's small. It's the choice because it offers all the features I need and it's performance is great. Its small size is just a bonus.  

*C.Crane now offers an upgraded version of this radio called the Skywave SSB2. Reports are that although there are slight improvements in performance with the SSB2, along with the addition of an external antenna jack, performance of the two radios is pretty much the same.

W8BYH out