———————–FM Portables Mega-Shootout———————–
I’ve been receiving many emails requesting that I do an FM Portables Mega Shootout Article similar to the AM Portables Mega Shootout which has been very well received. After months of detailed tests the results are in – first a look at how FM portables may be most accurately assessed.
Almost all current production radios utilize DSP IC Chips (Digital Signal Processing). DSP has generally benefitted FM reception dramatically, raising the bar in portable FM performance, such that even some of today’s relatively inexpensive portables outperform many FM portables of any price and even some component FM tuners from just a few years ago. (On AM DSP has had a rockier track record, where a few radios have been truly outstanding on AM but many have been less good than their pre-DSP counterparts. As DSP technology matures AM and SW performance has improved). On FM however, these modern radios are often phenomenal, with excellent sensitivity, quieting curve, selectivity and capture ratio and excellent unit to unit consistency without many of the variables of critical alignment. This means that, unlike the AM Mega Shootout results, many of today’s FM portables rate Five and Four Stars, which is not surprising when you realize many of then are a built on the same chips. One, Two and Three Star radios generally are older or much less expensive sets. – many vintage radios have FM which is relatively sensitive but not as selective as the best of today’s FM tuners.
Comparing portable radios for FM performance is slightly different than for AM or SW. One of the problems concerns how critical radio placement and antenna positioning can be. When comparing two FM portables it is absolutely crucial that for every test signal you move the radio into different positions and aim its antenna in every direction to maximize reception. In many cases, with two radios side by side I will receive a given station on one radio but not the other. But swap their positions and that signal does not follow the radio that had it first…it may stay in that location, now being received by the other radio. Of course, this does not always happen but it occurs often enough that it must be checked on every station in order for comparisons to be valid. Therefore, if you see a test where the radios and their antennas remain stationary beware…the results may be misleading.
Today’s DSP chips are usually closely matched to the length of the whip antenna on the radio. Because of this, at least one radio with a shorter-than-average rod antenna is one of the best performing units…it is seemingly not at all compromised by its shorter whip. Adding more length to its antenna didn’t help at all. Some multiband radios which also cover the shortwave bands may have very long rod antennas…it is worth experimenting with antenna length as well as orientation when trying to maximize a problem FM signal. Also be aware that shortening the rod may help for one station but not others.
FM Walkman-style radios which use the earphone cord as their FM antenna present another challenge. Again you simply have to take your time, moving the radios and cords to get the best reception. Then I do actual use tests, walking around with them on certain difficult signals to see what the final user experience is like. I even go so far as to test two radios simultaneously, using one earbud from each radio and listening for subtle differences between them as I move about. Eventually one can tell which radios are the most stable and forgiving under difficult reception conditions.
Also, be aware when watching videos of portable radios being compared that the sound must be picked up by a microphone, not by a direct connection to the radio. Adding ANY connection to a portable radio, even taking audio from a Line Out or Headphone jack, can not only act as an antenna or counterpoise, increasing signal levels, but may also increase noise levels, and different radios may react differently to the same connection, thereby possibly invalidating the test in portable terms.
Another thing to keep in mind is that different geographic areas place different requirements on any radio and FM is no exception – whereas some locations feature very weak signals where sensitivity is of utmost importance, others areas feature so many competing and interfering signals that selectivity and capture ratio become more important. To make my tests as universal as possible I use different locations where reception conditions are different. This helps to reveal which characteristics of FM reception are most important in different situations.
To fully understand comparisons of FM radios it helps to understand some of the characteristics that separate truly excellent FM receivers from lesser ones.
Quick FM Glossary:
Sensitivity: The ability of a radio to receive signals that are very weak and make them sound noise-free and clear. This is of utmost importance when you are located far from the stations you want to receive or in areas where signals don’t penetrate well. FM signals propagate primarily by line of sight so the higher your elevation the better your FM reception is likely to be. Valleys, very hilly or mountainous regions and cities with many tall buildings can block or distort even nearby signals whereas hilltop locations may receive signals from hundreds of miles away.
Quieting Curve: Related to sensitivity, this is the ability of a radio to quickly quiet the background noise as weak signals grow stronger. Two radios may be equal in sensitivity to very weak signals, but as that signal grows just a bit stronger it may improve much more quickly on a radio with a better quieting curve, producing a noise-free signal, while another radio might still sound weak and noisy. Since most FM listeners rarely listen to signals at the threshold of audibility, the quieting curve may be of more importance than raw sensitivity.
Selectivity: The ability of a radio to separate signals that are close together on the dial. Generally, this is more of a problem in metropolitan areas where there are many closely-spaced stations, and at high elevations where signals may be received from great distances, thereby crowding the dial with stations from several regions. Add to this the almost explosive recent growth of FM translator stations – low power FM transmitters which enhance the coverage area of an existing station, and the FM dial has become much more crowded than it once was. At my hill-side location I can receive signals from all over New England and New York. DSP radios have greatly improved selectivity which used to only be attainable with relatively high cost filters…now even relatively inexpensive FM radios may have excellent selectivity.
Images & Double Tuning: Related to selectivity, many older radios, especially portables, have a problem with double tuning. This is where an FM station appears to have two peaks as you tune across it. The problem is that the secondary peak, which is usually weaker, may cover another station close to it on the dial. This is very common with older portables and typical table and clock radios…most typical FM portables from the past have some degree of this problem and even proper alignment may not eliminate it. Images are ghosts of signals popping up at other places on the dial than their actual frequency where they can cover up signals you want to hear. This is a big problem with many older FM designs especially in inexpensive radios.
Capture Ratio: Exclusively an FM characteristic this is the ability of a radio to ignore the weaker of two or more signals on the SAME frequency (co-channel). The best FM receivers have an excellent capture ratio of 2 db or less so one signal only has to be a little stronger than the other to be received clearly. This allows that radio to receive different stations on the same frequency by re-orienting the antenna or moving the radio…first one station “pops in”, then the other. With a less good (higher number) capture ratio those two signals interfere with each other, and only one or sometimes neither may be heard clearly. Excellent capture ratio also helps minimize multipath distortion as discussed below.
Multipath: FM signals travel primarily in a line of sight between the transmitting and receiving antennas, with the earth’s curvature eventually blocking the signal from you. This is why FM transmitting antennas are generally located as high as possible and also why increasing your elevation or the height of your receiving antenna may improve reception noticeably. However, these signals may also bounce off of hills or buildings, so a reflected signal may also arrive at your receiving antenna. However, because this reflected signal has travelled a longer distance it arrives slightly later than the direct signal. This time delay disrupts the phase relationship of the two signals causing them to interfere with one another causing distortion. Sometimes re-orienting your antenna or using a more directional antenna which can ignore one of the signals will cure the problem, but in some cases a radio with better capture ratio will be able to ignore one of the two signals if it is sufficiently weaker than the primary signal.
The quality of FM reception is dependent upon these and other factors. Because radios may be better in some performance characteristics and weaker in others, you will often find that one radio favors some signals while another radio may favor others, rather than one radio being better on all stations. Again, comparisons of only one or two stations may be misleading because you must compare many signals which test all the various aspects of a radio’s performance capabilities. A good example of this often occurs when I am comparing radios on two of my “problem” frequencies, 107.5 and 107.7. 107.5 can feature up to three different stations from Cape Cod, New York and Maine.
107.5 – WBLS New York City
107.5 – WFNK (Frank Radio) Portland, ME
107.5 – WFCC Hyannis, MA.
107.7 – WWRX New London, CT
107.7 – WACC Enfield, CT
The better modern DSP portables can often resolve each of these signals by moving the radios and their antennas into every conceivable position, but some radios can only hear one or two while another radio may hear a different one or two no matter what I do. And some radios can’t separate these signals and thus deliver none of them, or one of them with interference. Differences in the performance areas I mentioned above account for this.
Different Radios For Different Areas: As you can see, your listening location may well dictate which characteristics of FM performance are most important to you. I use a few different testing locations – while my hilltop location is a great spot to test for selectivity and capture ratio, once I leave the hilltop those out of town signals are gone and sensitivity and quieting curve are much more important. Only by understanding some of the many factors that contribute to good FM reception can these tests be valid for the majority of listeners.
The good news is that many of today’s top DSP portables excel in all areas and will likely bring you reception as good as it gets in most locations. I chose a representative group of more than 65 radios, both current and vintage models, to get an idea of how many popular radios compare on FM…the results were interesting to say the least!
Now, on to the results.
***** Five Star – These radios have FM reception as good as it gets in a portable radio and are excellent choices for almost any reception conditions. Almost all are modern, DSP equipped designs with a few notable exceptions:
***** C. Crane CC-2E – One of only two radios which rate 5 stars on both AM and FM the CC-2E is a favorite of mine and has many other features including NOAA Weather with Alert,the 2 Meter ham Band for local emergencies and a built-in AC power supply, along with great sound. A current day classic!
***** Degen DE-1103 – Still in production after many years both the original and current DSP versions have top FM performance if you can live with the unusual ergonomics. AM was also Excellent in the older versions but has declined to Good in the current version. ..SW is very good for this size radio as well.
***** Eton E1 – Considered by many to be the last of the great multiband portables ever made the E1 delivers top FM and SW performance. AM uses the whip antenna which makes it susceptible to local interference, but in low-noise remote locations or with an external antenna the E1’s AM is about as good as it gets in a portable radio. The E1 is arguably Eton’s crowning achievement.
***** Eton Field 550/Field BT – Great FM reception. The Field 550 was replaced by the Field BT which features a much better sounding speaker but unfortunately AM performance has declined. Very good SW as well.
***** Eton Satellit and Executive Satellit (No Model No) – The smallish Satellit offers top FM and also has very good SW and the best AM reception in this size category of any current production radio…also great sound for this size. The Executive Edition features an updated faux leather case and a new color scheme but the radios themselves are the same.
***** Eton/Grundig Satellit 750/Tecsun S-2000 – Great FM performance but two of three samples I tried required some fine tuning to achieve the best FM reception. Sensitive FM and SW reception distinguish the Satellit 750 while AM is slightly less sensitive. Excellent external antenna connection facilities.
***** Panasonic RF-2200 – The famed all-analog RF-2200 has always been an AM reference portable…well it performs just as well on FM. This is one of the only older FM portables in this review to match the other Five Star radios and along with the CC-2E is the only other radio to rate Five Stars on both AM and FM bands.
Read The Panasonic RF-2200 Review (Update In Progress)
***** Panasonic RF-4900/DR49 A contemporary of the RF-2200, the RF-4900 is analog-tuned with digital readout and offers excellent FM performance. However, the US version lacks a rod antenna so you must attach a wire or dipole for FM reception. The DR49 version has a rod antenna and matches the RF-2200 on FM. These are tank-like radios featuring very solid construction and are a knob-twirler’s dream.
***** Sangean ATS-909/909X – Although a bit less sensitive than most competing portables on AM and SW unless paired with an external antenna, the Sangean’s FM reception off its whip is first rate. Exceptional build quality is a Sangean hallmark.
***** Sangean HDR-16 – Top FM reception with the addition of HD Digital (IBOC) reception. One of the very few (perhaps only) HD IBOC radios to offer AM and FM. If you live near HD stations you are in for a treat with AM that sounds like FM and extra FM channels which can only be received on an HD radio.
***** Sangean W-50/WR-50P – Available in stereo and mono versions this radio offers similar reception to the two radios above with bigger audio, adding Bluetooth connectivity but deleting HD/IBOC features.
***** Tecsun PL-880, PL-680,PL-660 Tecsun’s three popular mid-size radios have different features and overall performance but all share top tier FM reception. The most deluxe is the PL-880 with its built-in dedicated rechargeable battery and high tech speaker for surprising sound from this size radio. The PL-880 is known for its long list of “Hidden Features” (see review). FM and SW reception are very good…AM mediocre. The PL-660 has very limited sound quality compared with the PL-880 but otherwise performs similarly but with good synchronous detection for AM and SW. The PL-680 features better audio than the PL-660 but even weaker AM.
*****Tecsun PL-390/PL-398MP/PL-398BT Small stereo models with top FM reception.
PL-398 MP version available which adds MP3 Playback, PL-398BT Adds Bluetooth. Thin sounding, albeit stereo audio in a small box. You can choose from variant models with different features, but all have top rate FM reception.
**** Four Star radios are generally still very sensitive but lack the razor-sharp selectivity of the Five Star radios above. Bu these are still fine FM receivers for most uses.
**** C. Crane CC-EP – As an analog design the EP delights the radio enthusiast who doesn’t mind that tuning is less precise than with a digital radio. This is a Five Star AM radio and Four Star on FM but overall performance is excellent with great sound. Some refer to it as the current day Superadio and I agree with that…if you don’t need or want digital features this is a lot of radio for the money.
**** C. Crane CC-Pocket – Excellent FM sensitivity and selectivity but as with other Walkman-style radios which use the headphone cable as their FM antenna actual reception is sometimes compromised by the fact that the cable cannot usually be precisely aimed as it moves with you. The CC Pocket and Sangean DT-160 are currently the best Walkman-style radios in terms of FM reception.
**** C. Crane Skywave – An amazing travel companion with unusually broad band coverage (AM/FM/SW/Air/NOAA Weather with Alert) in such a compact package, the Skywave features greatt FM performance. Actually contains not one but TWO DSP chips to cover all of those bands.
**** C. Crane CC-SW/Redsun RP-2100 – Unfortunately now discontinued this multi-band AM/FM/SW radio featured big audio and good overall performance, following the “Field radio” concept of analog-style tuning with digital readout.
**** Eton/Grundig G8 Traveler II/Tecsun PL-300W – A multiband AM/FM/SW travel-sized radio with excellent FM reception. The G8 Traveler II was one of the first of the new DSP-based radios that showed the amazing FM performance that can be achieved at this size and price level.
**** Eton/Grundig Field S350/350DL/Tecsun BCL-2000/BCL-3000 – The first of Eton’s Field series, these radios feature analog tuning with digital readout. The FM on these is their main strength…it is a bit better than the AM/SW performance. There is some drift during warm-up which was improved with the later models but FM performance remained unchanged and quite good.
**** Eton/Grundig Mini – A very short antenna with no swivel but this radio is primarily designed for handheld use and has amazing FM performance for this size radio with a built-in speaker. This is today’s shirt-pocket-sized radio for FM lovers.
**** General Electric P990 – Another classic radio from GE the P990 is typical of portable pre-DSP designs…good FM sensitivity but less sharp selectivity and some double-tuning which reduces reception of some closely-spaced stations. Not one of GE’s top performing AM or SW radios it is nevertheless a heavy, rugged and beautiful design in a leather case.
**** General Electric GE Superadio/Superadio II – Perennial Five Star AM radios with great audio, the FM, which is also quite sensitive, rates Four Stars due to less selectivity than today’s modern FM designs, and some double-tuning further hampers reception of some closely-spaced signals. Nevertheless, a very good FM radio overall with great sound quality and usually available used at a bargain price. Read The GE Superadio Article
**** Grundig Satellit 800 – An unusual combination of very good selectivity but a tad less sensitivity than the Five Star radios above, the SAT 800 is especially well-suited to permanent installation with an external antenna in which case it’s slight lack of sensitivity doesn’t mean much and its good selectivity is a virtue. As for AM and SW reception the Satellit 800 is superb and together with Eton’s later E1 are among the best digital, multi band portables ever made.
**** ITT 101/102/103 – My reference for powerful, accurate audio in a large lunchbox-sized radio the ITT is another vintage analog design which features good sensitivity but less selectivity and capture ratio than the Five Star radios above. Still I often use the ITT for FM due to its phenomenal sound quality for routine listening.
Full review In Progress
**** Panasonic RF-1401 – FM performance is comparable with similar radios of the era including the GE SR’s…it is quite sensitive but not as selective as today’s DSP-equipped portables. It is fine for routine reception and it sounds wonderful in general on both bands with more powerful audio than the SR’s.
**** Sangean ATS-405 – Very selective but not quite as sensitive as the Five Star radios this model also offers AM reception about as good as it gets in this size class equaling the small Eton Satellit. This radio also allows more user control over some of its DSP functions such as soft muting and tuning muting and is a great bargain at its low price.
**** Sangean DT-160 – An excellent Walkman-style radio (no speaker – earbuds only) with excellent FM reception, limited only by the use of the earphone cable as an FM antenna. The CC Pocket and Sangean DT-160 are currently the best Walkman-style radios in terms of FM reception.
**** Sangean MMR-88 is one of the nicest emergency radios I have seen. In addition to digital tuning it offers all the bells and whistles of such radios such as crank, solar or external USB charging for its internal battery, cell phone charging, flashlight and NOAA Weather Band with Alert and it also musters Four Stars for its great FM reception. And it’s brick-like design is both practical and very cute!
**** Sangean PR-D5 – The innocent-looking stereo radio that surprised us with its superb Four 1/2 Star AM reception, rates Four Stars on FM due to its poor FM selectivity and mediocre sound.
**** Sangean PR-D15 – The upgrade to the PR-D5 offers somewhat more selective FM and slightly stronger AM with enhanced features such as switchable Loudness Compensation, bass and treble controls and finer tuning increments.
**** Sangean PR-D18 – A great little travel companion in a rubberized case available in several of eye-catching colors here is another low-price entry into great FM performance close to the best at a bargain price. And they’re just so cute!
**** Sangean SR-35 – A true pocket portable with analog tuning and surprising FM reception together with nice sound from such a small radio. Rated as best Pocket FM portable in my latest Pocket Portables article. A bargain!
****/** The new Sangean U4 Rugged/Worksite Radio gets two separate FM ratings due to its short rubber duckie style FM antenna. It is designed to be damage proof and it is but with this small antenna the FM rates only **. This is just fine for typical local FM reception and most users will be totally happy with it but by simply adding a few feet of wire it jumps to **** if you need high sensitivity for weak stations. (More details in full article). The radio offers powerful audio to fill outdoor areas and features Digital Tuning with all the usual features such as presets, alarms and timers, Bass, Treble and Loudness controls, FM-RBDS with Auto Clock Set, AM, NOAA Weather Band with Alert, Bluetooth connectivity, Aux-In and built-in AC power with Smart Charging capability, all in a rugged, rainproof cabinet. Read The Sangean U4 Review
**** Sony CRF-5100/CRF-5090 – One of Sony’s Super Sensitive series the multi band CRF-5100 offers solid reception on all bands including FM and it is one of Sony’s more prestigious classic radios. Really a radio for multi band enthusiasts but the FM reception and sound are quite nice.
**** Sony ICF-2010 – The legendary 2010 with its cult-status, one-time world-class SW performance and excellent AM is also surprisingly capable on FM with better selectivity than many of Sony’s lineup of that era which generally offer pedestrian selectivity but good sensitivity.
**** Sony ICF-6800W – One of Sony’s most sensitive SW portables ever, the ‘6800 offers good FM sensitivity and average selectivity. This radio also has a well-deserved cult following among SW listeners.
**** Sony ICF-EX5MKII – In many ways an unusual model because it offers SW reception only on 6 preset frequencies (See Article), the EX5 is a superb AM receiver but its FM suffers from less selectivity than today’s best portables. However, at Four Stars it can hardly be called bad.
**** Sony TFM-8000 – Another solid Sony Super Sensitive multi band radio the TFM-8000 offers typically good Pre-DSP performance which means great sensitivity but average selectivity. It also is the only portable in my collection with true flywheel tuning which is a delight. Audio is on the mellow side.
**** Tecsun – PL-310 – One of Tecsun’s smaller radios once a favorite of the Ultra-light AM lovers the PL-310 offers very good FM reception. The newest version PL-310 ET has not been tested here and may have had some initial (???) quality control problems but the FM performance is said to be unchanged.
**** Tecsun PL-365/ County Comm GP-5-SSB– An unusual model shaped like a thin remote control, designed primarily for handheld use with SW and SSB reception the PL-365 offers solid Four Star FM reception, but this radio is meant for communications use (aka voice) and offers very thin sound quality for the FM listener except through earbuds. An unusual model primarily targeted to a specific group of users.
*** Three Star Radios are represented by many smaller modern-day DSP designs and older radios with still better-than-average FM sections. They are fine for most typical reception needs.
*** Eton/Grundig Traveler III – Slightly less sensitive FM than the older Traveler II, the III is still a good performer for this size and price and adds FM RDS. AM performance is unusually good and a big improvement over the earlier G8 Traveler II.
*** GR SRIII – Although not top ranked the SR III I still a decent FM radio with awesome audio in a larger portable. Compared with the older SR and SRII, the SRIII feels distinctly cheaper and more plastic-y, and tuning weak, tightly-spaced FM signals is a bit touchy. However basic reception is pretty good and the great audio of the SR III makes it a good choice. Avoid the latest production under the RCA name as many had issues with bad tuning encoders.
*** Sangean DT-400W – Before the DSP-equipped Sangean DT-160 and CC Pocket, the DT-400W, with its bright yellow “Walkman-Sports” styling was my go-to ear bud portable. It is quite sensitive on FM but not as selective as those two newer models. I still like the overall package a lot, but for better FM reception the DSP pocketables clearly outperform it.
*** Sangean PR-D6 – This $30 radio, available in several colors features great AM and nice sound quality with, believe it or not, Bass and Treble control knobs! However, the FM is a bit less sensitive and selective than today’s best FM portables. Still, quite a bargain and fine for general listening.
*** Sony 7600D/DS/7600G/7600GR – Although the 7600D/DA/DS are quite different than the more recent 7600G/GR series, they share a similar-performing, mediocre FM section. Many Sony’s of this era are relatively sensitive but not very selective and they also have some images which can cover up desired signals. Actually this is typical FM performance for the era.
*** Sony ICF-6500 – A cool vintage portable with typical FM sensitivity and selectivity for its day. I also noticed an apparently inferior capture ratio which jumbled some co-channel (same channel) signals which other radios could separate by antenna aiming. One tuning quirk is that it tended to skip over weaker frequencies toward stronger adjacent signals even though the radio does not employ AFC. Using the Fine Tuning mode I was able to get it to lock on to those crowded signals but usually they did not come in very well.
*** Tandberg Portable 41/Model 41 – A beautiful wood-encased 70’s era radio from Norway, the Tandberg is typical of its vintage – FM reception is relatively sensitive but only average for selectivity. Still, an easy radio to love for its striking appearance and pleasant audio.
** Two Star Radios are fine for typical FM reception. Just don’t expect them to pull in very weak or crowded signals.
** Eton E100/Tecsun PL-200/PL-210 This family of radios is very compact and thus great for backpacking or general travel use or to hear a ball game out on the deck. The 210 uses an updated chip but its FM performance is about the same as the original versions.
** Panasonic RF-2400 – A nice, inexpensive portable for utility use and has built-in AC power which makes it a good choice as desk or shop radio that will play all day. FM reception is adequate but suffers from images and poor selectivity so use it for routine FM reception only.
* One Star – These form a baseline for FM performance and represent the most minimal FM performance that is still usable. * Star radios, while not particularly sensitive or selective, are nevertheless still fine for receiving your local FM stations and for many uses will be just what you need. Want a radio to stick in a pocket or purse? These might be all you need.
* Kaito WRX-111 – Longtime favorite inexpensive analog multi band portable the WRX will let you hear your local FM’s or AM’s with minimal size and cost.
* Sony ICF-18 – A larger radio with bigger sound than the two radios above the ICF-18 has long battery life from its D cells and offers decent FM reception of local and semi-local signals. AM is OK as well.
* Sony ICF-38 – Good build quality and built-in AC power make this a nice shop or desktop radio for all day use. FM reception is OK but it does miss some signals as a result of mediocre FM selectivity and some images. OK AM too.