Grundig Satellit 800
How A Portable Radio Fan Made The Switch To A Tabletop
*See Also Grundig Satellit 800 Speaker Upgrade Modification Article:
I’ve been a portable radio fan since I was a kid…way too long ago to be more specific. I always liked being able to carry my radio with me, and this includes shortwave radios. Since some portables are truly excellent I felt I was getting close to the best reception possible without being “tied down” to a fixed listening location with a tabletop receiver and perhaps an external antenna or two.
Well things changed. Due to a very lucky situation (an on-line closeout) I suddenly came into possession of a new Grundig Satellit 800. I’d read about this receiver since it appeared and even played with one briefly in a store but never expected to buy one, but now…here it was. Even though I had sat down in front of one before I was again surprised by the size of it. You always read that people are surprised when they see the 800 for the first time. Well, I think the reason is more than just its huge size…it’s the proportion and layout of the display and controls. The LCD display is amazingly large and is easy to read from across the room, even the smaller digits such as AGC, ATT, Bandwidth etc…you can see everything from many feet away. As it happened I had a spot ready for the radio…a side table in my office/den…displacing a Zenith Trans-oceanic…at least temporarily. This spot is good as I listen most while I am working at the desk, plus it’s an isolated spot where I can listen at most hours without bothering others (or being bothered BY others).
Just The Facts Ma’m… Basic Specs
Size approx: 21″ x 9 ¼” x 8 1/5″
Display: 6 1/5″ x 2 ¼”
Power: 6 D Cells, external power jack or supplied AC adapter
External Antenna Inputs: 500 Ohm balanced (spring clips), 50 Ohm unbalanced (SO239 jack), 75 Ohm F Connector for FM/AIR
External Outputs: Line, Stereo Speakers (2 watts), headphone
FM Stereo at Line Out And Speaker Outputs
Signal Strength Meter – Analog S-Meter
70 Non-volatile memories – also remembers mode (am or ssb), bandwidth, sync and AGC (Fast/Slow) settings
Attenuator – 1 step
AGC – Fast/Slow
Bandwidths: 6.0, 4.0, 2.3
2- 24 Hour clocks
Synchronous Selectable Sideband
Bass & treble Controls
Up/Down Tuning Buttons, Tuning Knob – Both Variable Rate
Tuning Resolution 0.1 KHz/ 100 Hz – 0.05Khz / 50 Hz in SSB mode
Air Band With Adjustable Squelch
I put in a set of new alkalines (6 “D” cells please), and did a quick sw band scan comparing it with my trusty Sony 2010, both radios on their batteries and whip antennas. I found that they had some minor differences in the way they handled tough signals. For outright whip sensitivity the 2010 was a bit better. Stations like WWV were generally similar on the two radios but if there was a difference the 2010 usually out-pointed the Satellit 800 by a hair. I wasn’t particularly surprised at this…the 2010 is legendary for whip sensitivity and the Satellit 800 is just a bit less sensitive in this mode (independent published specs support this). As I scanned up and down the bands though, I noticed occasions where stations seemed better on the 800 than on the 2010. It seemed that there was just less hash surrounding them on the Grundig, and I finally realized that this was occurring when a weak station was adjacent to a stronger one. This was actually a revelation. The two radios seemed to separate the signal well enough against the stronger adjacent or alternate frequency, but the recovered audio was clearer and easier to understand on the Satellit. My intuition tells me this is the result of the 800′s excellent blocking and ultimate rejection specs…the adjacent signal is causing less hash to interfere with the desired signal. I have verified that this seems to occur frequently when signals are stronger in the evening, and it is one reason I now find it worthwhile to “Sit in front of the Satellit” when I’m listening seriously.
One other side note is that when scanning I tended to identify and stop on more stations on the Grundig than on the Sony, as the Sony’s wide filter tended to mask some weaker signals adjacent to stronger ones. When I noticed the existence of the station on the Grundig, I could then find it on the Sony, and usually receive it well, either using the Narrow filter or the sync to lock onto the non-interfered sideband.
AM was a different story. Here the Sony 2010 fairly trounced the Grundig. The Sony just had much higher apparent sensitivity and brought in weak signals somewhat more clearly. It was an obvious difference on any weak daytime signal. Another problem is that the Grundig’s size makes it cumbersome, if not impossible, to orient the radio for best am reception. Also, the internal ferrite rod on the Satellit runs front to back – a change from earlier units which had the rod oriented in the more usual lengthwise position. This means the Satellit 800 will have to be aimed at 90′s to any radio with a lengthwise ferrite rod. It was obvious this set would not be much fun as an am receiver without an external antenna of some kind. More on that later.
I then wanted to test the two radios with a bit more antenna to see how they compared. As I don’t have a decent outdoor antenna at the moment, I did the next best thing…I ran about 75 feet of wire from one end of my house to the other, followed with about 15 additional feet of unshielded lead-in. I also powered each radio with its supplied ac adapter and made sure each radio was properly grounded (the Satellit was grounded through it’s 3 prong AC plug, the Sony by running a wire to the same electrical ground with a connection to the shield of it’s antenna jack. The test setup seemed to work well as both radios now received much stronger signals, and electrical interference was relatively low on most frequencies.
As I expected the Grundig acquitted itself much better in this arrangement. The Sony definitely showed some signs of overload. I used the RF and IF gain controls on it quite a bit to improve several stations. The Satellit was much happier with this additional antenna. It allowed many stations to come in listenably which I couldn’t separate from the background interference on the 2010. Very weak signals, especially when somewhat near stronger ones came out on the Satellit 800 that just weren’t to be found on the Sony. Clearly the additional antenna did a lot to help the Grundig and not much to help the Sony, verifying the claim that portables are designed to be best on their whips, but a well-designed tabletop can really shine with an external antenna.
Since then I have spent many hours band scanning on the Satellit 800 and I must say it is an almost total joy. I find I’m logging many new signals, and with the combination of 3 excellent bandwidths, excellent sync, and two-speed AGC I seem to be able to have enough control so as to improve many signals I hadn’t considered listenable before. SSB also works very well, usually resolving Hams and AFRTS very cleanly and very solidly.
I have only briefly checked out the Air Band but can report that each time I have scanned around using the whip antenna I have received many transmissions fairly clearly. Again, I am not an air band listener, but I haven’t usually heard much of anything when I scanned it on other radios which offered it, so the Grundig’s seems to be at least decent in this regard.
FM reception seems sensitive and selective. As I mentioned elsewhere the S-Meter grossly over-reads on FM, butother than that quirk performance was excellent. I compared it with some of my other FM radios and the Satellit seemed to be very sensitive and selective. Sound was good through the speaker. FM sounded clean and crisp.
The sound of the 800 is a joy compared with my other sw radios. I think it’s good to point out that this is by shortwave standards…the Grundig is the best sounding sw radio I’ve heard, but it doesn’t sound as good as perhaps the GE SRIII on clean am signals, or a real boom box would on FM. It’s single 4″ speaker is not the best quality nor the largest Grundig could have fit into that massive cabinet, yet for sw and am listening it beats the heck out of any of my portables, sounding more like my vintage tubed Trans-oceanic. I haven’t tried external stereo speakers with it but would imagine the sound quality to be excellent given the right ones. One curious note that I’ve read about and verified is that the Bass & treble controls are actually flattest when they are both all the way up. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it is worth knowing when trying to get the best sound out of it. For most sw and am listening the controls seem to provide a comfortable range of adjustment, and music programs on all bands sound really nice on the Satellit 800.
The three bandwidths seem to be well chosen too. At 6 KHz, 4 Khz and 2.3KHz you have a reasonable selection for just about any signal worth listening to, and coupled with the sync which locks like a vice grip you can go a long way towards making a miserable signal sound decent. The Slow/Fast AGC is not explained well in the Owner’s Manual, but it doesn’t take long to learn how to use it properly. Generally, Fast setting is best for band scanning, and Slow is best for minimizing the effects of a fading signal while you are listening to one station. It is also apparent that my other radios with only one AGC speed are similar to the “Fast” setting, so the second slower setting is an added nicety that further helps to improve the listenability of fading signals on the Satellit 800.
One nit I have is with the tuning procedures. First, although I’m not a big fan of auto scanning, this radio doesn’t have any kind of signal seek or scan…no auto tuning. It will auto scan through your presets, but this is much slower than stepping through them with the Up/Down buttons or accessing them directly via the keypad. Second, the Up/Down buttons step in 5 KHz increments on sw, and 9 or 10 KHz on AM, but the tuning knob only tunes in 1KHz steps. I therefore find the tuning knob is used a lot less than the Up/Down buttons; it’s mainly for zeroing in on a station I’ve already found with the buttons. As I mentioned earlier, both the buttons and the knob are variable speed controls, but the effect on the knob is subtle.
The analog S-meter is a real joy. When you are making fine adjustments, an analog meter shows finer gradations than a digital meter. Whether or not any radio’s S-meter is perfectly calibrated to the original standard (most aren’t), it is nice to have a quantitative readout of signal strength. It makes for interesting log entry notes, and you can see just how much gain you are getting from an external antenna, or it can help you aim or tune an antenna for best reception or best null. The meter’s range seems good on am and sw…unfortunately it virtually pegs on any FM signal, an annoying trait that has been reported by many.
Speaking of external antennas, I have been using the Satellit 800 with four of them…the indoor 75 foot random wire I mentioned earlier, a Sony ANLP-1, the Justice Twin Coil Ferrite (now C Crane Twin Coil Ferrite), and a Select-A-Tenna “M”. The Grundig likes all of them. The random wire gives a reasonable boost in signal level across the board compared with the whip. The ANLP-1, hooked up through the 50 Ohm input gives a real boost to most sw signals, although little or no boost at some frequencies compared with the whip. This probably reveals how the ANLP-1′s gain varies from frequency to frequency as it has only 9 tuning steps. Some frequencies show a several db rise compared with the whip, some show no change. None are worse so overall the ANLP-1 works decently for its price. The Justice antenna for am really makes the Grundig shine. Using the inductive coupler it provides whopping gain across the am band, and it allows aiming for best reception without turning the radio. The combination of the fine tuning on this antenna, as well as the great sideband-selectable sync on the Satellit 800 make a great am dx-ing combo, and also allows aggressive nulling of local interference, such as from my computer (which of course, I turn off for any serious dx sessions). The Select-A-Tenna works too but offers less gain and less rotatability than the Justice in this setup. Still, it perks up the radio’s average AM sensitivity quite a bit, and would seem to substantiate the experience of several owners who are happily using the Terk and discontinued Radio Shack loops with their Satellit 800′s.
How about the quality control?
Shortwave radios undergo a debugging process after their initial introduction which seems more extreme than in most consumer goods these days. It has been documented with many otherwise legendary receivers from Sony to Sangean to Degen to Grundig/Eton/Tecsun et al. Whether it’s their relatively greater complexity or smaller manufacturing quantities I don’t know, but it is common for initial product runs to be flawed with myriad ailments, and the Satellit 800 was no exception. In fact, its initial runs were so buggy with an assortment of woes ranging from wobbly tuning knobs to poor phase response, variable IF rejection and synthesizer-generated hash that the model got a “black eye.” Problems with defective units were so widely reported that Grundig eventually released a collective update; the so- called “Third Generation” with almost as many bug-fixes as a Microsoft Service Pack. It appeared that the big problems were corrected, although it took another year or so before production quality control really settled down. Some unlucky would-be owners suffered through multiple lemons before getting a “good one;” often a hand-tested sample from a reputable dealer. Others availed themselves of R.L. Drake’s excellent Service Department to get their new Satellit 800′s operating to specs. Several others gave up and walked away. The overall build feel is typical of consumer goods these days…it is reasonable, yet plastic quality if you know what I mean. My take is that for what the radio costs it offers a lot in the way of performance…you’re not going to get a lot of metal at this level. According to testers the Satellit 800 approaches the performance of much costlier units, and is a benchmark receiver at its price point.
Now, just as I become a happy Satellit 800 owner, it has been officially discontinued, destined to be replaced with the Eton E1 by Christmas of this year. It remains to be seen if this will materialize…this has been a much-delayed and much-anticipated product release since the original plans were unveiled for a Satellit 900 several years ago. The buzz prior to this announcement was that the now-renamed E1 would not replace the 800 as the E1 is primarily a portable and adds Satellite reception, but evidently Eton has different ideas. At any rate, the Grundig Satellit 800 is still available new and refurbished and street prices have dropped in the past few months. If you want near table top performance at a fraction of the cost, along with sound that will beat most sw radios available unless they are connected to an external speaker, you just may want to grab yourself one of these while you can.
And what about my long-time friend, the Trans-Oceanic that was moved to make room for the Satellit 800? Well, the 800 wins the spot of honor in the den because, although the T/O has warm, rich sound, is a real aesthetic beauty and a nostalgic home run for me, the Satellit is just so much more radio that I can listen to more on it and navigate around much more quickly. I’m sure it will also maximize the performance I’ll get when my new antenna arrives this fall. But that’s another story.