Friday, May 21, 2010

Tecsun PL-600 Holding Interest, PL-380 On The Way

Despite up and down reviews, there seems to be continued interest in this receiver, worldwide. Many people have viewed the Tecsun PL-600 review and schematics download featured last August on RADIO-TIMETRAVELLER. The combined download totals for both are nearing the 2,000 mark as of this writing, some 9 months later. Surprisingly, daily downloads are still averaging about 6 per day. Though some negative press is out there, interest remains, and deservedly so in my opinion. With the new DSP radios coming out, month by month, I'm interested to see at what point they start to take over the old style PLL digitals. Most that I've heard of have been ultralight-sized. Perhaps soon we will see some larger units on the market.

In case you couldn't tell, I still love my PL-600. Outside of the ultralight category, it continues to be my receiver of choice for casual and serious MW DXing, for several reasons. Size-wise, its portability is just right as opposed to my rather large (albeit excellent) Eton E1, which sits in a drawer right now. It has been totally reliable for the last year (my Kaito 1103 developed a firmware glitch in its first year), and performed admirably throughout my winter in the desert southwest. It suffered bumps and bangs and desert dust, but captured much DX, including Japanese MW stations on numerous occasions, and barefoot too. The radio has great ergonomics and firmware. It is a fun radio to use.

Kudos to the ergonomic-designers of this radio. Punch in a frequency, like 8-5-0, and it instantly tunes to 850 KHz without having to press an additional "enter" key, or a "period" key twice. Such a simple feature makes a huge difference. Easily coded in firmware at design-time, it seems to be missing from many of today's digital receivers. The PL-600 is also a great little receiver to take to bed at night with headphones on, to see what the sunset greyline will bring in. With careful nulling, I have heard KOA-850, Denver, CO this way at their sunset, 1420 miles distant, rising above the QRM of four other east coast stations within 500 miles. Again, this is with a barefoot PL-600.

Harsh audio in the AM mode is still the drawback for a lot of people, and continues to be mentioned in the critiques. I don't find it as objectionable as some, though I too have found it annoying at times as it seems to come and go with different signal levels. KB5AG's resistor mod is supposed to cure this malady, getting rid of the AM distortion. (2K resistor from pin 18 of audio IC to ground). I will try this soon.

Amazon is still selling the Tecsun PL-600 for $79.99 through the Kaito distributor.

Considered by some a better, or at least a comparable radio, Amazon is also still handling the Kaito 1103. Price: $89.99.

It will be interesting to see how long the Tecsun PL-600 and the Kaito 1103 last in the marketplace. An older radio by a couple of years, the 1103 continues to be a good seller, though I have a hard time understanding why it has remained so. Its sensitivity and audio are good, build quality is good, but the ergonomics absolutely horrible - including a pointless LCD sliderule dial face that takes up nearly the entire front of the radio which could be better used for something constructive. We shall see.

Sadly (??), the Eton E1 (see my review) has recently been discontinued by Universal Radio. Too much money ($400 for the stripped model), quality control problems early on, an atrociously low-contrast and volatile LCD display, and a shortwave radio broadcasting medium which continues to vaporize before our eyes have sealed its overpriced fate.

Wanting to move along and try new designs, I have avoided the newest Grundig offerings, the G3 and G6 because of so-so reviews, and the G5, supposedly just a Degen/Kaito 1103 with better ergonomics. I've been itching to try one of the new DSP ultralights and have watched them evolve since the Grundig G8/PL-300 came out. The new Tecsun PL-380 (see my subsequent review) seems to have corrected the audio muting problems inherent with the earlier units, so I've ordered one from eBay seller anon-co. It is in transit from Hong Kong this very day. I'll be playing with that soon and reporting what I hear. It will be interesting to see how it performs receiving weak signals up against local 50KW and 20KW powerhouse stations WHAM and WYSL.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Another Deal, The Panasonic RF-565

Last Sunday's flea market jaunt brought another great bargain. There, sitting on a table in the sun was a Panasonic RF-565 amongst some other junk. Price: $1. It was dusty, its aluminum trim was dull. But nothing seemed broken, and the telescoping whip was still intact and straight. The dial mechanism felt tight and worked well. The volume control was intact, and not loose. There are possibilities here, I thought.

This little portable was built in the late 1960s and has a 3-inch loopstick MW antenna, ten transistors, and a little two inch speaker. It is battery operated off of four AA cells, but it also has the ability to run off the 110 volt mains. Forgetting my spare batteries to try it out, I forked over a one dollar bill and headed home with fingers crossed.

First off, to plug it into the 110 volt service. It works! Volume control was very scratchy. Tuning fine. AM stations came in across the dial, not strong, but I am inside a house with a lot of line noise. I opened the battery compartment. The battery holder was intact. One of the springs had a little bit of rust on it, easily fixable. Using a Phillips screwdriver, I pulled the back off the unit. It was very clean inside, a surprise. This unit was made to be serviced, as both the whip antenna connection and battery holder connections were unpluggable from the main board.

I gave the volume control a shot of cleaner, including the slide switches. Replacing the back, I then cleaned the rusted battery spring, and installed four fresh AA batteries. Switching the front panel switch to battery power, I turned on the '565. Volume control and switches now operated static-free.

Sensitivity on the RF-565 is good, better than average. Nulling is poor, and most of my ultralights have better nulling ability for some reason. Complete with tone control switch, plenty of sound is available out of the little speaker. And it even has a headphone jack. The AM band only covers 540 KHz to 1610 KHz, so the x-band will not be usable on this radio. No matter. This will be a great little portable to take to the beach or the mountains camping.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Viva Flea Markets

That time of the year is upon us again here in the northeast. The weather is turning nicer, everything is in bloom or leafing out. And it is the season of outdoor flea markets.

I'm always on the lookout for radio gear at these events, particularly older pocket, portable, or table top transistors radios of yesteryear. Often they can be had for a song. Analog rules the day here. Dial strings and pulleys for table tops, direct drive to the main tuning capacitor for smaller transistor units. The shape they are in varies of course, though I find many are in acceptable or even fairly good shape. Volume controls are normally scratchy, but easily cleaned up with electronic cleaner. Reception on these units is marginal sometimes, as many of the older transistor units were not noted for extreme sensitivity. But do they work? I have been burned on more than one occasion by trusting a vendor's "Sure it works!" proclamation. Now, as a rule, I take along a set of AA batteries or a 9 volt unit so I can try out the DC-powered radios. The plug-in units you just have to trust.

Recently, I picked up a 25 year old Radio Shack MTA-16 transistorized table top radio. The price? An astoundingly low $2. It was in excellent shape, with the only blemish being three small white paint spots on the cabinet. I see several of these same units bidding right now in the $16-20 range on eBay.

I brought it home and plugged it in. Voila! It worked! The dial string was fairly tight, and band calibration was suitable. Tuning was a little bit touchy on weak stations, as there is just a tiny bit of slop in the dial. Not a problem. Sensitivity was about medium. WWKB-1520 in Buffalo, NY comes in wonderfully at 60 miles distant, with room-filling volume from the 4-inch speaker. The radio even has a tone control. And a bonus - it covers the full mediumwave band from 540 - 1700 KHz.

The MTA-16 uses a 3-inch loopstick for an antenna versus a wound-wire loop antenna on the backboard, a plus. This means it will be less effected by computer-generated RF noise in the receiving shack. Many of the older table tops, particularly the vacuum tube types, had that wire loop antenna, and it was very susceptible to RF and digital hash. Should I ever get into FM DXing, the MTA-16 even has a 300 ohm connection for an FM band antenna.

The MTA-16 now commands a prominent position on the shelf behind my computer. I listen to it while working on computer projects. Lately I've been thrashing through FCC mediumwave data, and the radio has provided a lot of enjoyment.

Check out some flea markets, or yard sales, or garage sales this spring and summer. You might be surprised what you find.