Restoring The Panasonic RF-2200
As a long-time radio enthusiast I have read about the legendary Panasonic RF-2200 for several years. Several sources refer to it reverently as “The Holy Grail” of AM Analog portables, while others more conservatively say “the best am portable radio ever made…a DX-er’s dream”. It also seemed apparent to me that the very popular Grundig S350/Tecsun BCL2000 radio was an obvious copy of the RF2200′s styling…Tecsun must have considered the RF2200 a “radio to be copied”…at least aesthetically. Not only is the general layout and appearance a very close copy, the smaller knobs look absolutely identical side by side! More on that later.
THE QUEST TO FIND AND RESTORE
I started to watch for an RF2200 on eBay, to see how they were being described and pictured and what they were selling for. I found there are generally anywhere from 1 to 3 units each week and they seemed to be going for between $120-$200 depending on condition.
After a month or so of looking I finally found a likely candidate…one I could get cheap because it needed a bit of work, so I snatched it up. When it arrived it looked really miserable…much dirtier than I would have guessed from the picture, and it smelled badly of cigarette smoke. It was also bigger than I had imagined (see picture). It seemed to function erratically but it seemed to be pretty sensitive on am, which is what I had hoped for. However, operation was problematical…all the controls were intermittent and erratic and dial calibration was further off on most bands than I deemed normal. FM didn’t work at all near the bottom end of the dial and it made loud static noises when the tuning knob was turned. I had expected it to operate better from the description on the auction, but I had already gotten a copy of the Service Manual from a local guy and the Owner’s Manual on-line so I was set to re-condition this thing and see just how good it could be.
The first step had to be a thorough cleaning because this thing was so grungy it made my hands dirty handling it and it smelled too much to be on my nightstand. Even the whip antenna smelled of old oil.
After taking the radio apart I took it outside and blew out as much as I could with compressed air…and a LOT of junk came flying out. I was able to clean the case with Windex, a toothbrush and cotton swabs. There was also a white crusty deposit all over it, probably the result of being stored in a damp location…this required some real scrubbing and use of a fingernail but eventually it all came off. I was amazed when I was done how nice the cabinet looked. With the exception of some extremely minor flaws it looks virtually new and I think the grime all over it actually protected it from worse damage. I had to soak all the knobs in soapy water then use a toothbrush to get them all perfect. After the rest of the repairs and adjustments were complete I used Novus Plastic polish and this really added to the luster overall…this thing really looks terrific now. But back to the minor repairs.
I was also lucky in that all the controls responded to a single quick squirt of De-Oxit Contact cleaner. I have found this stuff to work when the generic brands did not and now it is the only one I use. I had once tried to fix an intermittent selector switch on a Trans-Oceanic and failed several times, but the first time I tried De-Oxit the thing worked perfectly and has ever since. As for the whip antenna, there’s no way to take it apart to get inside so I simply cleaned it repeatedly, collapsed it, then pulled it out and cleaned it again. After several days and several such cleanings the old oil smell finally disappeared.
The FM problem (no reception on the low end of the band) turned out to be simply dirt in the tuning condenser. The plates are extremely thin and closely spaced, so I used small strips of paper soaked in alcohol to clean between them, much like flossing one’s teeth. Great idea, but it didn’t’ work. I worried that the plates might be bent, in which case it would be difficult to repair. I decided to wet the entire tuning condenser with alcohol. As I did so the FM band went completely dead – the liquid changed the capacity between the plates enough to throw the circuit totally out of alignment temporarily. When I then blew the liquid out with compressed air the FM roared back in and the low end of the band was now working properly! I breathed a huge sigh of relief, cleaned the condenser one more time for good measure and found the radio was now working properly on all bands. Reception seemed to be good, but dial calibration, although close on some bands was quite a bit off on others.
All that was left was to do a complete alignment of the radio to see just how much it had drifted and how good it could really be. This was quite an involved process with over 40 adjustment points. Luckily the Service Manual was well laid out and except for the fact that my photocopy wasn’t quite as clear as an original, I was able to identify all the caps, coils and pots correctly.
One tough point was the low end of the am band. In order to adjust the antenna trimmer you actually have to slide a coil of wire on the am ferrite loopstick antenna. Disassembling the Gyro-Antenna to get to the loopstick is actually quite easy…you pry the two halves open with a screw driver… but is a bit scary as I have heard the mechanical mount of this antenna is easily broken. (When buying a used Rf-2200 be sure the gyro-antenna pops up and locks in place properly). The alignment took about 3 hours (although now that I know my way around the radio subsequent work should go much faster). I did find that the Manual’s suggestion to use the bandspread system as part of the alignment resulted in what I would call less then perfect dial calibration. Since that system, although it does work as advertised, is a bit clunky nowadays, I would prefer the actual dial markings to be as accurate as possible so I decided to adjust the dial itself for as close to perfect calibration as possible instead. The result is that the bandspread system still works as it should but the dial markings are closer to correct on sw this way and that is what I wanted. I find it is easier to grab a digital radio when I need to absolutely identify or find a specific frequency than it is to use the bandspread system as it is implemented in this radio…it’s a fussy procedure.
SO HOW DID IT TURN OUT?
In a word…GREAT! My observations are that the overall reception was quite good even before the alignment, and that is impressive for a radio that’s at least 25 years old and has been treated so badly in its first life. The alignment did improve the dial calibration dramatically, though, and this makes it a lot more fun tuning through the bands. The accuracy of the dial is good enough that you can actually tune in a mw station with the radio off and it will be there when you turn it on. It is not perfect but it is dead on over most of the dial, never deviating more than about .05 KHz at any point. . It’s about as good as an analog portable can be expected to be. It’s a bit more crowded on the sw bands, but again, the primary stations look to be exactly where they should be and that is gratifying as well. It will never be as quick or easy to locate a specific frequency as a digital radio, but that was not the goal of this project. The goal was to see how good the reception was.
Here is where the RF2200 really shines. Simply put, this is now the most sensitive am radio I own. Comparing it with my previous am references, the Panasonic is extraordinary. In addition, it has an uncanny ability to null out local interference, and background noise is vanishingly low, even on weak signals. It reminds me of old car am radios which seemed to pull in signals with no background noise which you could barely pick up on typical portable or table radios. Even in my den, where a computer generally causes much interference on 100 to 150 mile distant signals, the RF2200 usually lets me null that noise down to an acceptable level. In fact, it does about as well as my other top radios do when they are using the Justice Twin Coil Ferrite antenna, and that is an incredible achievement. It’s possible that the 5 IF stages this radio utilizes on mw might have something to do with it…I have never seen this on another radio. And don’t’ forget that “Gyro Antenna” that can be rotated to peak or null signals as needed. Coupled with an analog signal strength meter, this simple yet elegant system allows you to optimize reception very easily and once you’ve used it, it’s tough to go back to other radios, which sometimes require that you aim them away from you in order to get the best signal.
Shortwave performance is somewhat stronger since the alignment and is surprisingly good too. Compared with my best sw radios, the RF2200 does a good job even with tough signals, although it is not world class by today’s standards. It’s very good, though and no slouch. SSB is not a strong point here either…although it has a BFO for rudimentary SSB capability it is so unstable as to not be worth fooling around with for any serious listening.
FM Performance is quite excellent too…in fact…it was a surprise. AT least one reviewer back in the late 70′s or early 80′s wrote that his RF2200 might be a world-class FM tuner, and was clearly superior to his McIntosh component FM tuner! I can’t verify that level of performance but can verify that the RF2200′s FM tuner is better than most of the portables I compared it with. In fact, I was able to receive at least one signal on the RF2200 that I couldn’t find on any of several top portables because it was buried under splatter from other stations.
The Rf-2200 has very powerful audio, producing 3 watts audio output on AC power and 2.4 watts from battery power…far more than any of my other portables (except possibly the Trans-Oceanics). The sound was very satisfying on FM. It can easily fill a large room or even an outdoor setting with convincing sound, yet the radio is reputed to offer very long battery life from it’s 4 D cells.
I’ve got to tell you that I have been using and collecting radios for a long time, but none has surprised and delighted me quite the same way as the RF2200. Without a doubt, it’s major strength is its ability to make distant and weak signals sound more like locals, with strong audio and very little background noise. It so far outstrips all my other radios in that regard (unless they are aided by an outboard antenna) that it has become my favorite AM radio for general listening. The Gyro-antenna is a nice touch which every decent am radio should have, and to have an analog radio with enough accuracy to clearly identify a frequency makes my Superadio III’s dial look like crude by comparison. To give perspective I do have some other radios which sometimes do a better job of separating many strong signals during nighttime listening on both am and sw, so there may be times when another radio may outperform the Panasonic it in one way or another.
Oh yes, so how does the Grundig S-350/Tecsun BCL2000 (which were obviously styled to look like the RF2200) compare to it? Well, considering that the RF2200 listed at about $160 back in the late 70′s/early 80′s, that would translate to at least $300 at today’s prices, and in that respect the Grundig is a bargain. It offers digital readout and better high frequency response in the audio. In terms of raw performance, the RF2200 is a clear winner on all bands…weak signals sound less weak on it than they do on the Grundig. Likewise the audio is more powerful on the Panasonic with more convincing bass, and there is that ever present capability of making weak signals sound less weak. Is this due to the 5 IF stages, or was there something about the RF circuits that was extremely well planned and executed? I don’t know exactly what it is about the Panasonic RF-2200, but in some ways, I believe it is a one-of-a-kind.
August 6, 2004
2011 Update: The RF-2200 remains my reference AM Portable radio. Since I wrote the original review in 2004 I have tested and compared every serious AM radio against it I could lay my hands on, and although some beat it in certain areas, particularly sound quality, none have beat it overall for AM reception with built-in antenna. with the exception of one specialty product..a marine radio direction finder. Also I have learned that a few top radios do match it for their ability to reveal trace signals right at the threshold of audibility, but few match its ability to quiet the noise down as signal levels begin to improve as does the RF-2200. For listenable signals (ones above the barely detectable level), the Panasonic remains unchallenged in my collection of radios…although I keep looking!