Friday, August 27, 2021

A Radio Story

I had a conversation recently with a fellow who was interested in starting into the radio hobby, and I thought the conversation might be of interest to anyone who has ideas of radio DXing. I'll reproduce the gist of the conversation here.

Nice to meet you. Glad to see people are still getting involved in our "archaic" hobby!!

I'm 74 years old this year and have been involved since about 1960, some 60 years. I got my first ham license in 1963. Before that I used to listen on my grandfather's old Sears Silvertone wooden console as a young boy. Shortwave was fun in the days back then and in the 1970s, all during the Cold War. Fascinating and scary stuff.

Sears Silvertone 7067, about 1942

I sort of quit the ham activity in the late 1990s after some 30 years, though I've hung on to that license. My ham and radio interest was always more of a technical one, though I made a lot of contacts all over the world via my preferred CW (code) mode over the years. Since about 2008 I've been doing a lot of mediumwave DXing mostly, but recently got back into shortwave listening too over the last couple of years.

International shortwave is only a fraction of what it was years ago. Most stations have moved on to the internet or don't exist at all. But don't be discouraged as there is still a lot of stuff out there to hear. It's just a little more difficult than the big booming signals of the old days.

I'm glad you decided to look for something beyond the Tecsun PL-380. It's 12 year old technology at this point and has been much improved since 2008 or so, even for those radios that are using the same radio chip. Silicon Labs makes the radio chips, though the Chinese have cloned them now and they produce their own too.

C Crane, a US company, also makes some nice radios, and sensitive too. Their original CC Skywave is actually sort of a "super" PL-380, but at about $80. The Chinese then cloned it with the RadiWow R-108, and in my opinion, did a better job for half the price. Understand, this is a tiny radio, it will fit in the palm of your hand. It is sensitive, and has corrected many of the original consumer gripes we had for the PL-380.

I have a Tecsun PL-880. They are good radios with nice sound. It's more paperback book sized, where the PL-380 and R-108 are cigarette pack sized. On medium wave it's more sensitive with the longer ferrite antenna. Shortwave is a bit better too, and of course it can receive single sideband SSB as well. FM is superb of course. The only gripe I have with mine is the frequency readout is 2 KHz off on the AM band. An alignment problem I'm sure, but I don't think it's correctable at this point.

I also have a Sangean ATS-909X, a newer model to the old '909. There is also an even newer model just out, the ATS-909X2, available on Amazon. All the 909's are beautiful looking radios. I love mine and actually prefer it to the PL-880, though it performs about equally. I find that radios you buy have a certain "feel" about them, independent of their performance. I call it "fun factor". The 909X has greater fun factor for me for some reason.

On the PL-660 and PL-880 comparison. I don't have a '660 but always wished I'd tried one. I do have an older Tecsun PL-600, sort of the predecessor to the '660. They are analog radios, superhetrodyne design. They are good radios, and the '660 is probably equally able as the '880. However, the '880 will have better bandwidth options since it uses the DSP chip, which is very nice to have. I suspect the speaker sound is better in the '880 too. Sensitivity may be about equal. Tuning may be preferable on the '880 as well, especially for SSB.

On shortwave, all of these radios will improve with a little wire clipped to their telescoping whip antennas. Just a word of advice - be careful when connecting outside long wires to them. Static discharge can destroy them in a hurry. I have ruined two - an old Sony ICF-2010 years ago, and the Sangean '909 I have. I was able to send the '909 in for repairs under warranty and it came back in perfect shape, luckily.

In these modern times we are plagued with RFI - radio frequency noise from all kinds of devices. Try listening outside away from your house if you have problems. Or even go to a park.

Three different web entities produce up-to-date shortwave schedules. They are:




I find EIBI and NDXC rather good. You can download them for free. Once unzipped you will find text files that you can look at.

China has a huge presence on shortwave, and I find listening to them rather fun, especially their music. Radio Romania has a nice signal into the US. Also Turkey and Greece, and I love their music as well. I often listen to Radio New Zealand at night. Sadly, Australia is not on any more. BBC still has a presence, mainly out of their Ascension Island relay, Asia and the Middle East. Also Voice of America. Lots of signals coming out of Africa. There are many others.

For best results, learn to listen at the right times. After dark and at sunrise/sunset times, check the 4-10 MHz bands. During the daytime and at sunrise/sunset times, check the 10-21 MHz bands, particularly 11500-12100 KHz, 13500-14000 KHz, and 15000-15800 KHz. Best times are actually the hours right around sunrise and sunset. Where you are on the west coast, check for Europe late in the afternoon through the evening. Asia will be dominant during sunrise hours. Listen for long path propagation, a weak, warbly signal with an echo, indicating reception from both directions. It is indeed possible and happens all the time, but you need a good antenna usually. Consult those shortwave schedules frequently. Find yourself a nice world map clock off the web, showing a world map with the light and dark areas of the world for the current time. "Simon's World Map" is a great little clock-map that is free and you can install it on Windows. It's by the guy behind the HF+Discovery SDR radio I think.

The last five years or so I've gotten into SDR radios, software defined radios. I have an SDRPlay RSP1A (Ham Radio Outlet has them) and an HF+Discovery. Either is about $120. They would have been the equivalent of a $3000 military grade radio back in 1970. They are cigarette pack sized and plug into your USB slot. You tune and use them through software on your computer. They have spectrum displays and lots of bells and whistles that you'd never find on a portable. If you get deep enough into the hobby you might want to try one of these as the entry price is certainly very reasonable. They require an outside antenna for shortwave, or a loop can be used very effectively for the medium wave band.

Hope this has been helpful and has given you some ideas. Let me know how it goes. Have fun.