Pocket AM/FM Portables – 5 Radios Compared
Shirt pocket-sized transistor radios have been with us since the late 1950’s. When first released they were quite expensive and were AM only, but their prices soon dropped, FM was added, and today they are so inexpensive there’s no reason not to own one if you like the idea of a personal-sized radio you can take just about anywhere, or even if you just miss your old “transistor” and want to recapture some of the magic those small radios held for us. Thinking it would be interesting to take a look at what’s available today I avoided any Walkman-type radios that require earbuds or are digitally tuned. There are many of those available…my favorite, and one of the best performing radios in this category is the $60-$70 Sangean DT-400W.* For this report I wanted radios that reminded me of the transistor radios of old… to catch a ball game, hear the latest news or just have with you when you don’t want to lug a larger radio around. I wanted to stay with inexpensive analog radios reminiscent of the transistor portables we knew from long ago. They are in alphabetical order:
Kaito KA-200 – Black 12.99 or Silver $14.99 plus shipping from Amazon, or 19.99 with free shipping from Kaitousa.com
Panasonic – RF-P50 $10 – $24 shipping varies
Radio Shack – 12-586 $14.99 in store
Sangean – SR-35 – lists at $40 but currently $22 plus shipping at Amazon and elsewhere
Sony – ICF-S10 MK2 – currently $9.99 plus shipping at Amazon, also common at discount & drugstores
One does not expect great performance from such radios – as long as they pull in your local signals reasonably well, sound decent , are dependable and easy to use they will fulfill their design objectives. The best of these radios succeeded on all counts and performed admirably considering their throw-away cost. These radios do vary in price by more than a two-to-one ratio, have different characteristics and performance so I’ll describe them to give you an idea of what to expect. And although all but the tiny Kaito are a bit bulky for a shirt pocket, they do fit into one and so in a pinch can be carried about hands-free, even though you probably wouldn’t want to “wear” one for an extended period. And of course they can be easily put into a larger pocket, briefcase, purse or desk drawer. The Kaito is considerably smaller than the others as you can see and is thus the easiest to have with you anywhere. Does it’s incredibly small size compromise performance? The answer is…yes…and no.
Out of the box: Actually only the Kaito comes in a box. The others are sold in those ubiquitous plastic clam shells. None come with ear buds although each has an earphone jack. None come with batteries; they each run on two AA cells except the Kaito which runs on two AAA cells, and will give decent battery life (about 40-50 hours with alkaline cells) unless you play them very loudly…as with all transistor portables, battery life is inversely proportional to the volume. The four larger units vary only slightly in size; each is approximately 4.5 x 1.3 x 3 inches…the Sangean is about ¼” taller than the others. The tiny Kaito measures 3.5 X 2.25 X .75 inches”.
The Sony has somewhat of a cult following. Not only was the Sony name once virtually synonymous with innovation and quality, but one inventive eBay seller for years claimed that this unit was singularly excellent…describing it as a breakthrough and one of the best AM/FM tuners ever offered to the public at any price…a truly outrageous claim. Even while taking this description with several grains of salt, it was impossible to ignore it completely so given the fact that it was only about $10 I had to try one…thus the Sony was the first of these units I purchased several years ago (it originally appeared in 1996 which date still appears on the packaging). I won’t keep you in suspense. The radio works fine for what it is but a breakthrough it is not.
Kaito’s website also makes strong claims about the KA-200’s superiority. Its humorously translated English says in part “…super Hi-quality circuitry” …”You will be surprised by the sound quality and reception, wonderful radio in the world!”. The website also claims AM expanded band coverage to 1710 which is incorrect…the Kaito’s dial is calibrated to “16” and my sample topped out at 1665 KHz.
The Sangean, Radio Shack and Panasonic radios arrived with no advance publicity other than what I could dig up on the Internet – I had no idea
what to expect from them whatsoever.
Controls and Operation: Each of these radios is as simple as it gets with the usual On/Off switch/Volume thumbwheel, a, AM/FM selector switch and a Tuning thumbwheel. All but the Radio Shack have a neat “Tune” Led which is a help with fine tuning and also roughly indicates signal strength. The Sony’s LED works on strong and weak signals and so is more of a tuning aid…with the Sangean and Panasonic weaker signals will not light it up so it gives an indication of signal strength. I guess there’s something to be said for each approach. Each radio uses a necessarily small internal ferrite rod antenna for AM and a telescoping rod antenna for FM…the rod swivels out from the left side on the Panasonic, Sony and Sangean and pulls straight up (and does not swivel) on the Radio Shack and Kaito. Only the Sangean allows adjustment in any direction. Each his direct (rather than vernier) tuning which means tuning is fast and touchy…it’s a skill you soon develop a feel for in which you nudge the tuning knob with subtle pressure back and forth until the station is properly tuned in. None has stereo FM at the headphone jack but the Sangean , Radio Shack and Kaito have stereo jacks which allow their monaural sound to be heard through both sides of stereo earbuds…with the Sony and Panasonic you will hear sound out of the left side only unless you use a mono to stereo adapter. Finally, although the Sangean and Radio Shack cover the Expanded AM band from 1610 to 1700 KHz, the Sony (which dates to 1996), Panasonic and Kaito do not, although Kaito’s website claims coverage to 1710 KHz its dial is calibrated only to “16” and my sample topped out at 1665. The Sony and Panasonic also maxed out at about 1660.
Performance: Sound quality: One doesn’t want to over-analyze sound quality on such small portables but they are really quite different. The Panasonic , Sony and Kaito are the sharpest or brightest sounding…you could call them tinny…their sizzly sound also emphasizes noise when reception is poor. The Sangean is the mellowest or sweetest sounding and the Radio Shack is right in the middle. If forced to choose I’d have to go with the either the Sangean or Radio Shack for overall best balance of sound quality and ultimate volume but I hesitate to pick which of those two is best overall. For example, the Sangean seemed much more “Hi-Fi” with more bass and treble (in the context of these tiny sets) and a much “larger” sound than the others, especially on FM, but it could not play as loudly as the others before distorting. Yet when I switched to AM to catch a ballgame the Radio Shack seemed much clearer and it could play louder, with the Sangean sounding a bit muted in the midrange. The Panasonic and Sony sound lackluster by comparison and the Kaito sounds like the much smaller radio it is.
AM Reception: The Radio Shack, Sangean and Sony had good AM reception for this class of radio. The Kaito came in a bit behind them…its tiny internal ferrite rod just can’t grab much AM signal from the air. But for its size it does work as well as could be expected and I could receive my local signals adequately on it. Unfortunately the Panasonic is so weak and insensitive on AM I would have thought it was defective until I read many similar user comments on the Internet. To be sure, many “reviewers” said they thought it was just fine, but the people who compared it with other radios generally mentioned that it had trouble picking up anything other than strong local AM’s which is exactly what I found. I used several AM stations as test signals. Generally on AM the Radio Shack was the most sensitive, pulling in signals at least as loudly and clearly as the others, sometimes better. On a few weaker stations the Sangean could not reach full volume as the others could although it generally was as noise free as any of them. The Sony generally maintained full volume but weaker signals were nosier than on the Radio Shack and Sangean. On the Panasonic my strong locals were OK but my semi-locals, which come in fine on any other properly-working radio were faint signals buried in the hiss…not listenable. The Kaito actually beat the Panasonic on AM…the Panasonic is the only one I would rate as not acceptable on AM.
I also checked AM reception at night when the ability to separate signals on the much more crowded nighttime AM dial is just as important as daytime weak signal sensitivity and the radios did fairly well, separating most signals just fine, as long as the desired signal was not much weaker than the interfering signal. The Radio Shack, Sangean, Sony and Kaito dials were full of signals from near and far…you could have lots of fun with any of these tuning around at night but still, the Radio Shack or Sangean, followed closely by the Sony would be my choices here. The Panasonic’s AM is so insensitive it could not detect any nighttime skip…only the strong locals were there.
FM Reception of the four larger radios was closer with the Kaito bringing up the rear, but the Sangean and Radio Shack were a hair more selective – better than the others at receiving problem signals…weaker stations hemmed in between stronger ones. As a class these radios are quite sensitive but only moderately selective so crowded signals are harder to receive than weaker ones in the clear. Often reception is improved by shortening the rod antennas so you should try every orientation of the rod possible. Even the Panasonic seemed reasonable on FM…much better than it did on AM. All but the Kaito received local and even some out of town signals surprisingly well and as a group I’d say their FM reception was surprisingly good given their cost. The Kaito missed several stations I could hear on the other four and also had problems with stronger signals splattering randomly anywhere on the dial. As expected there were many weaker signals, sandwiched between stronger ones which I could receive on a reference radio which none of these portables could hear even a trace of, but by and large, for typical FM listening they were OK. Again, a very big difference on FM was the sound…the Sangean clearly employs aggressive equalization to tame the midrange peak typical of very small speakers thus providing a nicely balanced sound on FM that sometimes seemed amazing for its size. Music on FM just sounded more impressive on the Sangean compared with the others. As I said earlier, the trade off is ultimate volume.
I did note that the Radio Shack model was slightly more difficult to fine tune exactly because of how stiff its tuning thumbwheel is…as you nudge the knob back and forth to achieve optimum tuning the Radio Shack’s knob resists at first and then tends to overshoot making fine adjustments more difficult. You can do it but it takes more effort. The Kaito suffers from this to an even greater extent…its tiny thumbwheel is even tighter and extremely difficult to control precisely…tuning the Kaito is a chore.
I also noted some hand capacitance effects on each of the radios. The way you hold the radio can make some AM stations fade in or out, and sometimes, after carefully tuning a signal, if you put the radio down the signal strength may weaken or the fine tuning may drift a bit. Again this is a random effect and affects most small radios on some stations and not others.
Comparisons With Some Vintage Pocket Portables: As you can see from the pictures I have collected a few vintage pocket portables…some of these were top performers in their day, others were perhaps visually appealing but of lesser performance. The older ones of course are AM only. None of the small vintage pocket portables matches the overall performance of this new crop of radios…especially the early FM sets which had very crude FM performance by today‘s standards. The technology has advanced so much that even with the cheapest of parts the best of the current crop of small radios outperforms the best of the smallest radios from the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. Of course, just as is the case today, performance generally improves as you go up in size…the whole attraction of shirt pocket portables is their size.
Quick Ratings By Model:
#1 – A Tie between the Sangean and Radio Shack Models:
Sangean SR-35: Best Sound on FM by a mile – Best FM Reception by a hair. Decent AM.
Radio Shack 12-586: Good Value – Best AM reception by a hair – sometimes AM sound is clearer than Sangean. FM Reception very close to the Sangean.
#2 – Sony ICF-S10 MK2: Good Value – Good overall AM/FM reception – Thinner sound and noisier weak signal AM than the two radios above – mono earphone jack – AM only to about 1660 KHz or so.
#3 – Kaito KA-200: Inexpensive – By far the smallest of the group – Decent reception and sound for its tiny size but not in the league of the radios above. Dial not very accurately calibrated. AM only to about 1660 KHz. A very cute toy…it’s so small.
#4 – Panasonic® RF-P50: Although FM reception is decent its AM is so horrible I can’t recommend it. Something is very wrong with the design of this radio’s AM tuner. AM only to about 1660.
Conclusion: At these price levels you can hardly go wrong with the #1 or #2 radios. All three seemed quite solid and sturdy and should give years of good service. Choose the #3 Kaito only if its tiny size is very important as you will give up some performance.
*If you want to spend more money to get better performance I recommend the Sangean DT-400W . It will set you back about $70 but offers many more features (digital tuning, memories, auto shut off, weather band etc) and much more selective FM reception. However its built-in speaker is for utility purposes only as this set is designed primarily to be used with earbuds.