AM Portables Mega Shootout
Shootout Of The Super AM Portables
It’s been a while since I last compared my best AM portable radios so the time seemed right for an update. I’ve had the chance to check out many more samples of some of the vintage receivers in this roundup and, in addition, there are a several notable new entries to the competition.
First a few notes about my testing methodology: Comparing portable radios is tricky; many such “tests” I’ve seen are fatally flawed because the tester failed to take some of the variables and pitfalls which must be controlled into consideration. Some of these include:
Unit To Unit Variability: No two samples of a given model perform absolutely identically as received, especially vintage sets. Usually I completely rehabilitate all the old radios I acquire, doing any repairs as needed to restore full, normal operation followed by a careful alignment to ensure the unit is operating at peak efficiency. I have been lucky enough to be able to examine multiple samples of many of the top models and have found that even after I have done everything possible some variations may still exist. When that happens I use the best sample for these tests. This seems to be the most reliable way to judge each model’s inherent capabilities. This unit-to-unit variability is also a huge problem with many less expensive current models where quality control seems to have been thrown completely out the window…fortunately, several of the better currently available models in this report show very good unit-to-unit consistency and I will comment on that where appropriate.
How To Test AM Sensitivity: Although many factors affect reception and overall usability of a radio, sensitivity is without a doubt one of the most important variables in a portable AM set. Nevertheless it is amazing to me how few people seem to understand this relatively simple concept. The most reliable way to test is in the daytime when signals are weakest and most stable. It is also necessary to test radios in a very low noise environment…where Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) is not the limiting factor in reception. In a low noise location the radio’s own noise floor will determine how clearly a weak signal is received. Noise is generated in the radio’s own circuits and is heard as hiss behind the signal…a sensitive radio…one with a low noise floor, can make some signals sound more like strong locals while they seem more distant and hissy on other radios. The problem is that in today’s homes there are many noise sources, such as TV’s, fluorescent and CFL bulbs, wired smoke detectors, computers, modems and some wall-wart AC power supplies/chargers to name just a few. Such noise is heard as a buzz which can obliterate weaker signals. In such conditions you cannot determine the true noise floor of the radio…the interference raises the noise floor and the differences in various radios can be hidden. It is also more difficult to judge sensitivity at night when AM signals tend to be stronger. At night other factors may be just as important, such as,
Selectivity: Selectivity is the ability of a radio to separate signals that are close to each other on the dial. Most better radios will separate adjacent signals, (say 610 versus 620 KHz) with no problem unless the desired signal is much weaker than the interfering signal. Since the ferrite rod antennas used in almost all portable AM radios (the Eton E1 is a very rare exception) are directional this can be aided by careful aiming if the signals are arriving from different directions.
Quieting Curve: Although Quieting Curves have long been specified with regards to FM tuners it is almost unheard of in AM radio tests, yet differences in this quality can make a huge difference to the program listener. Two radios may receive a very faint signal identically, but as the signal strength increases, one radio may achieve a better signal to noise ratio (less circuit hiss) far sooner than the other. This radio will generally be more pleasant to listen to because most signals you would actually be able to listen to will be less noisy on it. Yet the two might be considered by some to have equal sensitivity. To test for this I use many different signals of varying strengths, up and down the dial and note how the radios compare…after a while clear trends emerge.
Overload/RF Dynamic Range: While good weak signal sensitivity is desirable, another important factor is immunity to strong signal overload. If you live near an AM transmitter site you may find that a strong local signal spreads out on the dial wider than it normally would, or even pops up at other points on the dial, covering up stations you should otherwise be able to receive. If you live in a metropolitan area with many strong signals, a radio which is susceptible to overload will not be fun to use. Multiple mega-strength signals can mix and splatter spurious images all over the dial. My suburban testing location does not reveal much about overload performance although a few strong local signals do cause problems for lesser radios. However I did travel to some strong signal locations with a few radios known to have overload issues so I could see how they performed in those locations and I will note those in the reviews.
How well a radio handles both strong and weak signals is referred to as RF Dynamic range…a radio with a wide dynamic range will be very sensitive to weak signals yet still resist overload on strong ones. Since it is a bit more costly to design a radio with a good dynamic range, many portables are skewed one way or the other; that is, they may be sensitive to weak signals yet overload easily, or they may resist overload well but not be so good at hearing weak signals. The best designs will do both…generally they are the older analog designs, using a Tuned RF Stage which is an additional gain stage at the RF input.
AGC (Automatic Gain Control) : All of these radios have AGC which increases gain as signals get weaker – the goal is to keep volume levels as constant as possible with varying signal strengths. Without AGC weak signals would be as quiet as a whisper while strong signals would knock you over. Some radios do a better job at maintaining constant volume than others. There are other characteristics of AGC, such as the time constants of its attack and release, which can affect how well the radio handles those varying, “quivering” kinds of signals you encounter at twilight and at night but that is beyond the scope of this article. For our purposes I’ll simply note how well the radios maintain decent volume on weaker signals.
Audio Quality: Although this is a reception report first and foremost I will occasionally comment on sound quality where appropraite. A program listener may prefer a radio that hides noise a bit while the “Hard-Core” DXer may prefer a radio which gives maximum intelligibility to extremely faint traces of signals. Also a radio with very extended or pronounced high frequency audio response will accentuate noise more than a radio with a mellower tonal quality or less extended high end; there are areas of subjectivity here but the radios can also be objectively quantified so you will know what to expect.
Features & Ergonomics: Older radios were analog with simple tuning dials and controls. Most (but not all) current radios are digital, and have PLL (Phase Locked Loop) digital tuning where the frequency is locked in perfectly and displayed digitally. Most digital radios have many features, such as direct frequency entry via a keypad, clocks, timers, memory presets, auto scanning and more. Either type of radio can perform well or poorly…it depends on how well it is designed. There are good reasons to prefer either…I tend to use both types for different jobs. I enjoy band scanning on my old analog radios but I also use digitals to hop from one frequency to another quickly. There is no best choice.
With so many radios to compare on so many frequencies (I used up to 40 stations one each set of comparisons) these tests were done over the course of several weeks with all results logged. It is important to use as many frequencies as possible because I often find that a particular radio may do unusually well or poorly on one or two…using only a few frequencies can yield very misleading results. Tedious though it is, the more signals checked, the clearer the picture becomes. I logged and tabulated the results which I have summarized with the comments below. Please remember that these radios are rated within groups only…they are not in descending order within the groups except as noted. That would be impossible to do accurately but the overall trends are very clear and closely ranked models are just that…close. I will comment though when a radio is obviously worse than the models above it from time to time. Most of these radios have full reviews on this site…a few will be upcoming. I also welcome your comments and questions at email@example.com…those with general interest will be posted in the Q and A column under the Reader’s Questions Tab.
The Contestants (In Groups Rated For Overall AM Reception– Models Within Groups Approximately Equal Except As Noted) Full comments follow the lists.
***** Five Stars – The Crème de la Crème –
Five star radios provide AM reception as good as it gets in a portable. They will pull in weak and medium strength signals with an absolute minimum of background noise and let you hear any signal that is receivable in a given location.
Panasonic RF-2200 ***** (Still The Reference AM Portable)
Sony ICF-EX5MK2 ***** Almost as sensitive as the RF-2200 (just like the five-star radios below) but super selective
GE SR I/SR II *****
CC Radio-2 *****
CC Radio-EP *****
Grundig Satellit 205/Transistor 5000*****
Still excellent, four star radios are very close to the top radios except for very slightly more background hiss on weak to medium strength signals and usually a bit less ultimate selectivity. But remember…you won’t hear the difference between these and the best radios unless your local RFI (noise floor) is lower than the radio’s noise floor. In many settings these radios will therefore perform just as well as the Group 1 radios. They may also have other features or qualities that make them very desirable in many circumstances. I consider the Four Star radios to be excellent AM portables.
Hacker Herald RP-35/Sovereign RP-25****
Eton E1**** (Performs less well when there is local RFI which can render it nearly useless…see text)
Grundig Satellit 208/210/Transistor 6000/6001****
The following are still excellent but have slightly higher noise on medium strength signals.
GE P780 Series****
Zenith Royal 755M****
*** Three Star Radios are still very good AM radios, but show another step down in performance. These radios may have other strengths making them very worthwhile, but these ratings are for overall performance as stand-alone AM portables.
GE SR III***
Zenith Royal790YM/97 Navigator***
Roberts R-250 Revival***
Zenith Royal 7000 Trans-oceanic***
Zenith R-7000-2 Trans-oceanic***
CC Radio-SW (Redsun RP-2100)***
** and * Star Radios are smaller travel-sized radios, perfect for stowing in luggage, but also fun for just playing around with at home. They can’t be expected to compete with the full-size radios above; not only do they contain smaller ferrite rod antennas but they are less expensive designs. Nevertheless, the best of these radios are remarkably good for their size, some feature DSP (Digital Signal Processing) and excel in certain areas of performance. In fact, a subset of the radio hobby has sprung up called the Ultra-Lighters…their Ultra-Light Radios must be no more than 20 cubic centimeters and cost no more than $100 in order to qualify, yet these dedicated hobbyists log stations from all over the world with some of these radios “barefoot” (using no external antennas or aids), while others experiment with modifications or use huge antennas to feed signals into these tiny sets. Often the skill of the operator is more important than the quality of the radio in achieving good results and the Ultra-Lighters exemplify that concept. They are serious hobbyists and have achieved some amazing results using these small radios. But be aware that the Ultralighters, who often chase Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Pacific DX, often value selectivity above sensitivity because those foreign signals are sandwiched between domestic signals, and also, if you are using an external antenna, sensitivity may be less important than selectivity and overload resistance. And remember…when we discuss sensitivity with these small radios it is relative to other small radios…none of these have anywhere near the sensitivity of the higher rated radios above. More so than the groups above, these radios do generally get weaker as you near the bottom of the two groups so there is a marked difference between the top model and the bottom model in each group. Some of these radios would have more usable sensitivity if they were not plagued by spurious digital noises on the AM band and I will comment on particular strengths and weaknesses of certain models. And of course, closely ranked models may be indistinguishable from each other in most situations.
Grundig Satellit 750**
Degen DE-1103/ Eton E5/Grundig G5**
Zenith Royal 500H**
Degen DE-1106* *
Tecsun PL-200 (Eton E100)/PL-210*
Grundig G8/Tecsun PL300W*
CCrane CC Radio-SWP/Redsun RP300*
Sony SRF-59 *
Now on to the full report…click any picture to enlarge
*****Panasonic RF-2200 - Still the reference against which all others are compared. The RF-2200 has the ability to quiet the noise faster and more consistently than any other radio I’ve compared it with. Its rotating “gyro antenna” and signal meter make it a real joy to peak every signal you tune in without having to rotate the entire radio. It also has very good selectivity in its wide bandwidth mode, but being a multi-band radio which also tunes shortwave, it has an additional narrow filter which can dramatically improve its selectivity when needed. If the Panasonic has any weakness at all it is that it sometimes loses a bit of volume on some weak signals which did not lose volume on some of the other sets and this does vary a bit sample to sample. Also has excellent FM reception which is about as good as it gets in a portable. Full Review:
***** Sony ICF-EX5MKII – Close competition to the RF-2200 this Sony has the best Synchronous Detection I’ve ever seen in an AM portable which allows it to separate closely-spaced signals other radios can’t. It’s an unusual radio in several ways and worth of consideration as one of my two reference AM radios. Full Review:
*****GE SR I/SR II – Although there is a always a bit of variability among radios I rate the SR I and SR II to be so close to the RF-2200 that for most purposes it will be difficult to detect the differences in reception. There were just a few signals that were not quite as hiss-free on the SR’s… a few of the mid-strength signals which were virtually noise-free on the Panasonic had just the slightest tinge of hiss on the GE’s. Most signals were indistinguishable on the radios and with the GE’s “bigger” sound they will often be preferable to listen to. There were also a few signals where the GE’s maintained full volume where the RF-2200 had to be cranked up a bit further to match, but the GE also lost volume on two signals which the Panasonic did not. I also slightly prefer the SR I over the SR II due to subtle differences in their AM sound quality. The more extended treble response of the SR II with its separate tweeter sometimes accentuated noise a bit more than on the SR I yet the tweeter adds little to the sound quality on AM…it is there primarily to give enhanced high frequency response on FM (which it does). I also like the complete absence of wobble of the SR I’s volume and tone control knobs…they feel very solid compared with the later models. FM reception is also very good. Selectivity on AM is good enough for most general listening but not as good as the Pan or some of the specialized multi-band radios below. Full Review:
*****CC Radio-2 – For raw sensitivity the CC-2 is right up there with the best pulling in every weak and medium strength signal as well as the top two radios on the list. It also never lost any volume on any of the weak signals which the two radios above did indicating excellent AGC range. Its only downside is poor overload susceptibility…this is unfortunately not a good radio for areas with many super strong AM signals. The AM sound quality is also a bit bland compared with most of the radios on this list. C.Crane describes this radio as being “tailored for the human voice” and while that is partly true (restricted frequency response does minimize noise when it is present), I think it unnecessarily limits the sound quality on the vast majority of stations I would actually listen to. Since the radio has tone controls, one could use them to reduce the treble response when noise is objectionable, but you should be able to have some crispness in the audio for better signals. There was a spurious tone on one fairly good signal on 710 KHz which didn’t exist on any of the other radios except a few of the one and two star models, but I was able to get rid of it by fine tuning to 709 KHz. Superb FM reception was as good as any portable I’ve tried plus full digital features (station presets, clock, timers etc), weather and 2 meter ham bands. Also excellent unit-to-unit consistency. Overall a fine radio but not for most strong signal areas. Read The Full Review:
*****CC Radio-EP – Another fine offering from C.Crane, the EP actually offers some advantages over its higher-priced brother the CC-2, primarily its superb sound quality. This radio sounds impressive for its size with a wide, satisfying frequency response that is a joy to listen to. It also has wide and narrow bandwidths (labeled Voice & Music) which helps it separate tightly spaced signals on the dial when needed…a nice feature, and is the only radio in this to group which lets you disable the built-in AM antenna when using an external antenna…a decided advantage. A few stations were not quite as free of noise as on the radios above but the differences were small and didn’t affect many signals…usually the EP ran neck and neck with the top radios here. The additional Twin Coil Fine Tuning knob on the side can usually be left at its center detent, but on some signals, it can make a big difference, so for any signal that is less than perfect it’s worth experimenting with. Some reports indicate that the best setting of this fine tuning control may vary a bit from sample to sample…on mine it tended to be more needed near the bottom end of the dial where it made a night and day difference on some signals…over most of the band it generally remained centered. I also really love its brightly-lit slide rule dial…what a great value for $69.95. One caveat…as with the CC-2, poor overload immunity makes it problematical for super strong signal areas. Read The Full Review:
*****Grundig Satellit 205/Transistor 5000 – Another excellent radio overall. The SAT 205/Transistor 5000 is highly regarded among Grundig enthusiasts, but although most of the early Grundig Satelllits had phenomenal shortwave performance, this model has the best AM perforamance of any of the Satellit models I have had the chance to check out.
**** Hacker Herald RP-35/Sovereign RP-25 - These two radios straight from the UK are in many ways top performers. The main difference between them is the added FM band on the RP-25. They have an excellent quieting curve meaning they are very good at making most listenable signals sound crisp and clear with very low background hiss. They have a relatively wide IF bandpass which means that clarity is achieved at the cost of ultimate selectivity…if you want a radio that excels at separating adjacent signals these are not the ones to choose. But for program listeners the Hackers separate most signals perfectly well and reward you with wonderful audio, clear, full and LOUD when needed. They run on two PP9 battereies which are hard and expensive to locate here in the US…mine came equipped with two seller-supplied adapters to allow them to run on 12 AA cells. Also have a swivel base which makes aiming for best reception very luxurious. Read Full RP 35 Review:
**** Panasonic RF-4900 – The RF-4900 was a top-of-the-line radio and was sold concurrently with the top-rated RF-2200. It is a large steel-cased tabletop model one would hardly consider a portable, especially since it contains only a ferrite rod antenna for AM but no rod antenna for SW or FM…yet it does have the ability to run on 8 D cells. Interestingly, although it is a much more sensitive and sophisticated SW receiver than the RF-2200, it does not match the2 2200’s AM performance. It pulls in weaker signals well but shows a bit more hiss on medium signals. It does offer full analog tuning with digital frequency readout which makes it a joy to use, superb SW reception with a short piece of wire (say 10 feet) for an antenna, and its FM is also superb with a 30” piece of wire for an antenna (and even better with a wire dipole antenna) but for whatever reason it falls just slightly short of the RF-2200 on direct side-by-side comparisons on AM. (This is actually one of my favorite SW receivers and I think it has been underrated in that category…in a round-up of favorite Shortwave receivers it would be in the top-most category and is among the best I have tried). Read The Full Restoration Article:
****Sangean PR-D5 – Unassuming in appearance and features this radio looks for all the world like it should be marketed as a shower radio, yet it’s AM performance is very close to the best…it’s in fact the most sensitive Sangean-branded AM radio I’ve ever had, far surpassing their top of the line ATS909 and ATS-909X multi-band radios on AM. It has standard digital features like presets and a clock, FM is in stereo, and sound is pleasant but restricted in range. It only tunes in 10 KHz steps, 900 910, 920 etc so there’s no fine tuning…like a car radio, but for a typical program listener, as opposed to a hard-core DXer, one can usually live with that. No spurious digital noises and solid AM reception…often available for around and even under $60…a great gift radio for non-tech types. FM stereo sounds great through the dual speakers on most signals but FM selectivity is only fair which is unfortunate. Read The Full Review:
****GE P780 Series - Often referred to as the fore-runner of the Superadios, the P780 is built like a tank, looks like the 1958 Detroit cars and sounds as good or better than the table-top tube radios it was designed to equal when the line was launched back in 1958. Excellent reception is just a small notch below the five-star radios, although the top end of the dial is better than the low end by a slight margin. The nostalgia and fun factor of these radios are undeniable. My favorite in this series is the first incarnation, the P780A or B which, evidently due to a slightly different speaker than the later versions, provides a throbbing bass that is sometimes amazing. But all of the 780’s sound terrific and offer seemingly identical RF performance. Most need some service as received to be restored to peak performance but they are amazingly consistent after restoration and alignment. Read The Restoration Article:
****Eton E1/E1/XM – Many people feel the E1 is downright poor on AM because it lacks a ferrite rod AM antenna, instead using its whip antenna for AM reception, but they are half right and half wrong. Remember all those vintage car radios that were so awesome on AM? They all used whip antennas, right? The real truth is that a whip antenna can be very effective on the AM band but is at a tremendous disadvantage in a typical home setting because it is much more sensitive to electrical interference…RFI… than the almost universally used ferrite rod. It also can’t be aimed to help null that noise out, so in an average household the E1’s AM dial is filled with noise which ruins reception and desensitizes the radio to weak signals. On the other hand, in a low noise setting, the E1 performs amazingly well and is, in fact, a favorite of DXpeditioners who have written extensively about it. In my own home I find the E1 performs very well in my low noise listening room, but in other rooms with higher noise levels it is very poor. Of course the E1 is an expensive, sophisticated receiver, with full external antenna switching facilities, excellent synchronous detection, three excellent IF bandwidth filters and many more features which put it above the typical AM only portable, and it definitely excels when used as a desktop replacement AM or shortwave radio. But it is sadly true that because it lacks a ferrite rod AM antenna it is generally disappointing on AM in a typical household setting. It’s a Five-Star radio overall, but as an AM portable it can range from 4 to 1 star… it depends entirely on your listening location. Read The Full Review:
****Grundig Satellit 208/210/Transistor 6000/6001 - The various model numbers listed here differentiate 4 variants of an essentially similar model. Long known as a super SW receiver this Grundig can be quite good on AM as well but the AM performance varies a bit more sample to sample…this rating pertains to the best of several samples I evaluated. Excellent selectivity but somewhat more high frequency roll-off than I prefer, yet overall a beautiful radio with a that big “Grundig Sound”. Read The Full review:
****Zenith Royal 755M - Surprisingly, out of my entire collection of Zenith radios including several of the Trans-oceanics, this model is my hottest performing AM portable with very high sensitivity and low noise just a hair below the five-star radios. The 755 is not the most selective radio in this group and sometimes has trouble separating closely crowded stations on the dial, but other than that its reception is excellent. It has an easy-to-read slide rule dial, pleasing sound and packs a lot of performance into its lunch-box sized case. It’s my favorite of the Zenith lunchbox radios. Read The Zenith Lunchboxes Article:
****ITT 103 – Not many people here in the US are aware of the name ITT/Schaub Lorenz. This vintage mid 70’s European analog radio is without a doubt the most powerful, accurate sounding radio anywhere near its size I’ve ever heard. This radio puts out an honest 2 1/2watts of undistorted audio power when running on D cells and 4 ½ watts when running on AC and simply put, it can fill a large room authoritatively, and it has some real bass articulation…not booming one-note bass. AM reception is excellent…it does not quiet quite as quickly as the five star radios which means some mid strength signals will have just a bit more hiss behind them, but when it gets down to signals at the threshold of audibility the ITT holds its own. The ITT is also super selective and is thus a great candidate for serious DXing and features an AM band which is split into two segments which allows good precision on its analog dial scales. FM is very good but shows some kind of signal break-through in my location so some signals were unable to be received…but again, on most signals its FM sound is amazing. It offers good SW performance and the styling is beautiful. (Full review coming soon).
***Sony ICF-6500 – The 6500 never got many positive reviews when it was released, perhaps due to its rather unexceptional SW performance. However it does much better on AM than SW, bringing in weak signals with less noise than the highly-regarded 2010 and it sounds better too. The 6500 is also a fun radio with analog, slide rule tuning with a digital readout and analog signal meter, which unfortunately, over-reads. It also features two-speed tuning and is just a pleasant radio to use. Somewhat of a sleeper, this is one of Sony’s best AM performers.
***Sony ICF-2010 – I know I’ll get angry emails over this one. Let me say up front, “I love the 2010” and have owned several. I still use mine quite often, but although it is a classic in every sense of the word, with strong performance in many areas, including better synchronous detection than any of the current crop of mid-priced radios along with excellent SW reception, its raw AM performance has been eclipsed by all the radios above it on this list. On my band scans it was unable to hear any trace of some of the very weak signals which I could pick up on the more sensitive radios…a victim of a bit of unsuppressed digital noise. Some, not all, of the medium strength AM signals seemed a bit noisy on it too, partly due to its extremely crisp frequency response…this same character which helps the 2010 make weak SW signals decipherable also makes noise more obvious for the program listener. The 2010 is still a joy to use with the simplest memory system of any multi-band radio and legendary Sony quality. I actually hate putting the 2010 this low on the list; if it were an overall rating including shortwave the radio would rank higher, but this is an AM portable list and in that narrow area it doesn’t compete as well as it once did.
***GE SR III – The last of the Superadios, the III is both liked and disliked depending on who you talk to. The reality is that it has strengths and weaknesses compared with the earlier SR I and II models. Weaknesses: Mechanical quality was obviously reduced -the SR III feels very “plasticy” compared with the much heavier SR I and II, and the three-gang air variable tuning capacitor of the earlier models was replaced with a varactor tuner which compromises ultimate performance. The slide rule tuning dial is harder to see and generally less well calibrated and the controls feel a bit flimsy. The main problem is its slightly higher noise floor than the higher-rated radios…weaker signals are heard with a bit more hiss in the background. But overall reception is very credible. On the positive side I think the SR III represented a heck of a lot of radio for the cost and is a decent performer overall. The radio sounds amazing in some ways…comparing it with the older SR’s the SR III has obviously wider frequency response…it sounds very full and robust on AM…lots of fun to listen to. It achieves that wide response through a bit of judicious tonal shaping which has one drawback of limiting the maximum clean volume the radio can put out. It sounds full and lush at reasonable levels but don’t push it or it will distort unless you reduce the bass a bit. It also has a once-common but now very unique feature…a Wideband AM mode that allows strong local AM signals to sound like FM. If you’ve never heard an SR III you’re in for a treat. One caveat: A big problem affected the SR III for approximately the last two years of its production – evidently the varactor tuning pot was changed to a new one which causes very erratic, almost unusable tuning action. This problem affects many, but not all of the last of the units which still carried the GE name and many of those carrying the RCA name. The problem is that it is almost impossible to get the radio to tune to some stations, especially near the upper end of the band. The only solution is to replace that pot with a better one but evidently no exact match has yet been found so only enterprising souls who are able to modify things can install them…buy any late-manufactured SR III, either a GE or an RCA, with this potential problem in mind. This is one case where finding an older unit may be more desirable.
***Zenith Royal790YM/97 Navigator A beautifully built radio with some unusual features, including rotating ferrite antenna on the top, a bright dial light, variable RF gain control, two additional bands and Zenith’s unique navigational features, it is unfortunate that the raw AM performance on these radios is a notch below the simpler AM-only Royal 755M which it resembles. Side by side the Navigator is noticeably hissier on weak signals than the 755M which means it rates only three stars.
***Sony CRF-5100 – Sony’s answer to the later Zenith Trans-oceanics, the CRF-5100 was one of Sony’s “Super Sensitive” series of top of the line radios in the mid 70s and features extremely sensitive SW and very good AM sensitivity and selectivity. Not as quiet as the very best AM radios above it is nevertheless able to make very weak signals intelligible and better signals pleasant to listen to. A solid all-around performer and the cool signal/tuning LED, in addition to an analog tuning meter is a nice, singularly Sony touch. The SW bands do suffer from some images which can be annoying but SW sensitivity is very high. Read The Restoration Article:
*** Roberts Revival R250 (C.Crane US Import Version) Once available in leather now being sold in leatherette this is an attractive retro-styled analog radio. A reworking of Roberts first transistorized model, the 1958 RT-1, the Roberts is a charming radio with its Euro-style, full-time lighted analog dial and simple, quality design. Sensitivity is very good even if not the best and selectivity is razor sharp so it can deal with European, closely-spaced signals. Beautiful to look at and a joy to own , this is definitely a radio for the nostalgia buff but its performance is good enough that it does not have to make any apologies for also being a cutie. Slightly muted tonal quality compared with most other radios but pleasant enough on its own. Read The Full Review:
*** Zenith Royal 7000 Trans-oceanic – Zenith’s Royal 7000 is a small notch below the CRF-5100 on AM, although with two bandwidths the Zenith offers the option of greater selectivity when needed. It has slightly less crisp audio than the Sony so very weak signals are not as easily intelligible, but noise is usually a bit higher on weak to medium strength signals. And although both radios are of overall high quality the Zeniths in general are far easier to service. (On SW the Zenith is not quite as sensitive as the Sony but is free of the images which plague the Sony…the Zenith also handles an external SW antenna better than the Sony). Read The Restoration Article:
***Zenith R-7000-2 Trans-oceanic – The last of the Trans-oceanics, the R-7000-2 was a complete internal re-design and shares nothing in common (except perhaps the cabinet) with the Royal 7000 which preceded it. The two models vary considerably in their SW design and performance but are relatively closer on AM. Sensitivity and selectivity are about the same although they varied on several weak signals…some seemed a bit more solid on the Royal 7000 while some were better on the R-7000-2. The difference was primarily in the character of their noise floors with each radio being clearly superior on some signals over the other one. The R-7000-2 has somewhat richer sounding audio which makes most listenable signals sound a bit nicer. Full Review Coming Soon
***CC Radio-SW (Redsun RP-2100) – These two radios are pretty much the same except that the C.Crane version uses an external Wall-Wart AC power supply while the Redsun versions have it built-in, but when ordering be aware that the Redsun versions are available with English or Chinese lettering and set up for 220 volt or 120 volt operation so be sure to specify the correct version for your area. This radio offers decent AM performance and great audio. Again, weak AM signals will have just a bit more hiss behind them than the radios higher on this list. You will also get excellent FM reception and decent SW, along with two IF filters for extra selectivity when needed. A great value on the current market although direct frequency entry would have made it a bit easier to navigate throughout the bands.
Grundig Satellit 750 - This radio is almost irresistably cute and is fun to use. It also has relatively sensitive SW/FM reception but unfortunately its AM performance is well below the radios listed above. It’s overall AM reception is weaker than any of the three star radios which means that in a low noise environment its internal noise floor will be noticeable on a side-by-side comparison. The rotating AM antenna should be a big plus but its operation is so erratic that I found myself rotating the entire radio to find the best orientation…there was so much static while rotating it I could not tell when the actual signal was best. This flaw can usually be ameliorated if you care to venture inside however. I have tried many samples of this radio and have found the noise floor was high on all of them…it does do well though with an external antenna.
**Degen DE-1103/ Eton E5/Grundig G5 – These radios share the same RF circuitry and therefore have the same overall reception, although styling and features are very different. They also undergo seemingly continuous updates so current versions may perform a bit better in some ways than older ones. They are the most sensitive AM travel-size portables I’ve ever used and in that respect they beat out the Sony 7600GR, Yacht Boy 400 and similar radios. Only the DE-1103 is still in production at this writing and if you can live with its ergonomically-challenged volume control arrangement I recommend it highly. The E5 and G5 are sadly discontinued, replaced with the G3 below, but used ones are still available at good prices. They also have nice clarity and balanced audio for their size and are overall a pleasure to use. Their SW and FM reception is also excellent in this category. These radios nearly match the RP-2100/CC Radio-SW on AM which given their size is surprising. My travel radio of choice. Read The E5/G5 Review:
**Zenith Royal 500H – Reality check time – browse down on this list and see how many radios don’t measure up to this $70 radio from the early 1960′s! The 500H was the best of Zenith’s “pocket radios” – although you’d need a very big pocket. Nevertheless the 500H will pull in weak stations better than most of today’s sub-$150 radios. It’s just a good combination of sensitivity and decent audio that is very satisfying and as you tune across the dial you will find it full of listenable signals that will sound much more noisy on lesser radios. Very comparable to the DE-1103 group above, although not as selective. Royal 500 Series Article Coming Soon.
**Sony ICF-7600GR – The last of the quality Sony multi-band portables, the 7600GR (and its similarly-performing predecessor the 7600G) were for years the standard-bearer in this segment as the only sub $200 radios to offer synchronous detection. (They have now been joined by several less expensive models from Degen, Tecsun, and Grundig). The Sony shows a level of quality and unit-to-unit consistency sadly lacking on most of the current models from China…the only weaknesses in the 7600GR seem to involve noisy volume controls and a rod antenna mount that can break if you are not careful. Performance is adequate but not exceptional…AM sensitivity is good but weak stations are a bit noisier than on the radios above on the list. The synchronous detection can sometimes improve a signal dramatically (but not for US AM stations which are broadcasting in IBOC (HD). The Sony’s sound is a bit midrangy with no top end extension which makes it sound sometimes honky yet still muffled and it lacks a tuning knob…tuning is via Up/Down buttons only which to many people is a negative…it’s not a fun radio to band scan with. FM reception is average…far below the DE-1103 and similar radios above primarily due to poorer selectivity.
**Sony TFM-8000W – Another entry in Sony’s Super Sensitive Series this is the baby brother to the three star CRF-5100 above. It is a hair less sensitive on AM and has rather mellow audio but it is the only radio in this entire list to offer true flywheel tuning which is wonderful to use. The straight-forward dial scales are visually appealing and a signal meter is also a nice addition…this is a fun radio to band scan with.
**Grundig G3 – Among the two-star radios the G3 is only inferior to the three-star DE-1103/E5/G5 on the AM band where it is slightly less sensitive, especially near the top of the band. (The G3 actually matches or beats those radios on SW and FM but this is an AM Shootout). The G3 offers the advantage of synchronous detection but unfortunately suffers from a bit of spurious digital garbage on AM which is heard as tones or whistles which makes reception of some stations less listenable. Samples vary in this regard so you may have to exchange a bad unit for a better one as I did – twice! How well the sync locks also varies with some samples far better than others. The G3 will reward you though with a pleasing, full sound quality for its size and very good FM and SW are added into the mix but there’s no denying that quality control and unit to unit variability are poor on the G3…too bad. Read The Full Review:
**Degen DE-1106 – Quite similar overall to the G3 with the same general comments. Some samples have more digital woes on AM than others…some have thin noisy audio; others are fine in this respect. Better on SW and FM than on AM and a great display. Also has synchronous detection which sometimes can really help.
** Tecsun PL-660 – Overall the PL-660 rates about as well as the G3/DE-1106 due to similar RF performance with overall slightly better ergonomics, including a real volume control knob and seemingly better quality control. Its AM performance is a bit puzzling though. It has decent AM sensitivity because it pulls in very weak AM signals as well as the radios above, but as signal strength improves the hiss does not drop down nearly as fast as it should, meaning that many medium strength signals have some hiss behind them that is not there on the G3 or DE-1106. Often using a small passive loop doesn’t bring much improvement because the signal has to get a good deal stronger before that hiss goes down…in other words, the radio is fairly sensitive but has a poor quieting curve. Too bad since it is so good in other areas with good sync and it also does a much better job handling a good external antenna than the G3. Read The Full Review:
** Sangean ATS-909X – By rights this radio should score higher and on an overall basis it would, but its AM and SW stand-alone reception is fairly insensitive. Medium strength signals which are free-enough of noise to be pleasant to listen to on the radios higher on this list have a strong hiss component on the 909’s similar to the PL-660 which makes them hard to enjoy. The 909x is overall a much improved radio over the original 909 with much better sound quality and features but on both AM and SW it really needs an external antenna to be competitive. FM reception is very good on the whip though although the sound is a bit thin and tipped up in the highs on FM. Read The Full Review:
*Sangean DT400W – Reminiscent of the old Sony Sports Walkman series, the bright yellow DT400W is irresistibly cute. It is also among the best AM receiver of all the smaller radios I have in my collection. Designed primarily for use with earbuds there is a minimal built-in speaker plus digital tuning, weather band, a really good FM tuner and a bass boost switch that can be pleasant depending on the earbuds you are using and the particular signals you are listening to.. Highly recommended if you want a Walkman-style AM radio. Has a handy removable belt clip but the cabinet’s rounded bottom means it can’t stand upright reliably for speaker use. (It’s also a very good FM radio…full review coming soon).
* Sangean DT200 – Same physical case and concept as the DT400W above but in black, this earlier version has the now defunct VHF TV channels 2-13 rather than the weather band. It also sounds a bit thinner and does not receive AM stations quite as well as the 400.
*SS Sangean SG-622 – The Plain Jane SG-622 has been around for several years and is so unassuming and inexpensive that most people ignore it. It happens though to be a rather nice, inexpensive radio with nice sound that also includes SW and FM. Not quite as small as the ultralights it is still small enough to be a convenient travel radio but it’s also a great little set to catch a ball game with wherever you happen to be, and it’s so inexpensive…a great value. All analog.
*Tecsun PL200(Eton E100)/PL210 – I grouped these together because they are quite similar on AM but they are an interesting study. Available in eye-popping red, the PL200 and E100 (in silver only) was a traditional PLL design available for several years and recently replaced by the almost identical-looking PL-210 which, nevertheless represents a total internal re-design. The radios are very different in many ways…the 210 is much improved on FM and SW and it’s software is more friendly and quicker to boot up at turn on, and even though the AM’s have slightly different characteristics they seem comparable overall.
*Tecsun PL-310/Grundig G-8(Tecsun PL300WT)/Redsun RP300(CC Radio-SWP)/ Tecsun PL-606
Grouped together as they are too close to call and unit to difference variations are larger than model to model differences on stand-alone AM reception
A current favorite among the Ultralight group the PL-310 has some stellar qualities, such as multiple bandwidths for great selectivity, and a nice overall feature set. But stand-alone AM reception is rather noisy and it does have some spurious digital noises on the AM band. The G-8 and virtually identical PL300WT are more noted for excellent FM reception, but again, not excellent on an absolute basis…they are good for the size and cost, but AM is again weak and suffers from DSP tones and noises as well as a soft-muting feature which reduces the volume if you off-tune even slightly which can be annoying. The somewhat similar PL-380 (which I have not tested) is said to have slightly less AM sensitivity but less soft-muting and so may be more desirable than the 310.
The G-8/PL300WT is a bit weaker on AM and also has those spurious tones. It is very much liked for its FM prowess and I did confirm that it is very selective on FM but its sensitivity is nowhere near as good as some of the better radios on this list…but it is good for its size,.
The Redsun RP300 and essentially identical CCrane CC Radio SWP (short wave pocket) radios are in the same general category as the above…one problem with mine is that it seems to have big volume increments at the low end of its volume control…one notch goes from quiet to loud.
The Tecsun PL-606 is comparable overall to the RP300/CCRadio SWP above on AM. Oddly it has a very short rod antenna (for FM and SW) but comes with an extension rod…the rod seemed to help the FM more than the SW which was a bit of a surprise.
* Sony SRF-59 – Another favorite of the Ultralighters, the SRF-59 is or was available in a clear prison version and was one of the radios that may have sparked the Ultralight craze. It is so inexpensive people could tear into them to modify them without fear of damaging it. A walkman style AM/FM radio the SRF-59 sounds mellow in earbuds and delivers decent AM reception on a tight budget. No hets…no DSP noises…and a decided notch above the two radios below. My two samples were pretty much the same but these are said to vary sample to sample.
*Kaito WRX-911/Sony ICF-S10MKII – Rounding out this list, the Kaito is a multi-band radio (I love it in blue) and the Sony is a retro-styled vertical AM/FM model. Both are dirt cheap…I just found the Sony for under $10, and serviceable but not great…but what would you expect? At least they work properly…there are lesser radios that I don’t even consider to be anything more than toys, with such names as Lifelong and Bell & Howell, so you could do worse than these two.
Addendum: There are other potentially good AM radios I did not have on hand to test for this article, although there are some I have had for quite some time and know some of them would rate well. If any of them come into my possession I will test them and add them to this list.
So that’s it…as always email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org