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
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.
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.