As a long-time radio enthusiast, I had read about the legendary Panasonic RF-2200 for several years before ever seeing one. Several sources refer to it reverently as “The Holy Grail” of AM analog portables, while others more conservatively say it’s “the best AM portable radio ever made…a DX-er’s dream”. Strong claims to be sure. It also has an excellent FM tuner.
Few radios remain at the top of a short list of favorites and since the RF-2200 is arguably as well-respected as any portable for AM performance I wanted to bring the review into a modern context. This is an update of my original review written more than 14 years ago. Many new radios have emerged, many with decidedly mediocre performance, but a few with superb performance and it seemed like a good time to report on how the RF-2200 fares against modern competition.
I started to watch for an RF-2200 on eBay, to see how they were being described and pictured and what they were selling for. Nowadays they are generally anywhere from $150 – $300 depending on condition. The earliest production units had a so-called olive color front panel…most units have a gray panel. I chose one which needed a bit of work and which was available at a good price. When it arrived, it looked really miserable…much dirtier than I would have guessed from the pictures, and it smelled badly of cigarette smoke. It was also a bit bigger and definitely more solid than I had imagined. It functioned erratically but seemed to be pretty sensitive on AM, which is what I had hoped for. However, 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 and Owner’s Manual on-line so I was ready to re-condition this thing and see just how good it could be.
The first step had to be a thorough cleaning because this radio 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 lubricant…the previous owner probably oiled it at some point.
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, indicating that the radio had been stored in a very dirty location. 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 dampness…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 looked virtually new and I think the grime all over it actually protected it from worse damage. I soaked the knobs in soapy water then used a toothbrush to get them all clean…what a difference that made to the overall appearance. After the rest of the repairs and adjustments were complete I used Novus Plastic polish and this really added to the luster overall…it really looks terrific now. I was also lucky in that all the controls responded to cleaning with Caig De-Ox-It Contact cleaner. I have found this stuff to work when the generic brands do not and now it is the only one I use. I had once tried to fix an intermittent selector switch on another radio and failed several times, but the first time I tried De-Ox-It the thing worked perfectly and has ever since. To clean the band switches you need only remove the back panel with 6 screws (one in the battery compartment). You can also pull off the power and antenna leads to separate the back half completely. You must spray into the small hole in the back of the rectangular switches and work them many times to clean them. Repeat, then clean up any overspray with isopropyl alcohol.
To clean the front panel switches you first remove the back panel, then remove the front panel by pulling off all the knobs and switch lever tips…they are all friction fit and will pull off. In the hole under the tuning knob is a plastic clip which holds the front cover down. Push it with your finger to release the front cover and CAREFULLY lift the cover. Hold the plastic dial glass and meter assembly down…they may tend to stick to the top cover and you don’t want to remove them because there are wires connected to them. Blow away any dirt you can see. The volume and tone control pots are now accessible for cleaning in the usual manner. The switch bank at the upper left is held in place by plastic fingers…you can carefully spread them and remove the entire assembly so you can put paper towels beneath it and spray the switches with De-Ox-It. Clean up the excess and snap the switch assembly back into place. The lever switches in the center are not so accessible but can usually be cleaned by spraying into their slots in front.
As for the whip antenna, there’s no easy way to take it apart to get inside so I simply cleaned it with isopropyl, collapsed it, then pulled it out and cleaned it again. After several days and several such cleanings, the old oil smell finally disappeared. A bit of WD40 may help it slide more easily if it seems stiff…freeing up tight whip antennas is one of the very few things I use WD40 for in a radio.
GYRO ANTENNA CLEAN & LUBE:
Panasonic’s unique rotating Gyro Antenna is a wonderful feature of the RF-2200 and a few other Panasonic models of that era, although none are as iconic as the RF-2200 because none of them quite match the RF-2200’s overall AM performance, although a few come close. The ability to aim the AM antenna without rotating the radio is something that is hard to give up once you’ve experienced it…in fact, I use a Lazy Susan with larger radios that don’t offer this feature and it adds greatly to my enjoyment of them.
The problem is that many of these radios found nowadays have broken gyro antennas that don’t lock into the upright position as they should. The common theory has it that people used these antennas as a handle, and while I certainly don’t recommend you do that I don’t think it is the real cause of the failures.
What I have found is that over the years the lubricant in the pop-up latching mechanism inside the antenna collects dirt, dries out and thickens and then the plastic parts can break, especially if the antenna is snapped up or down too quickly. The solution is to clean and lube that mechanism and use it gently…you will be rewarded with a gyro that does not feel like it is going to break every time you raise and lower it and if you are comfortable working on radios it is fairly easy to do.
First remove the back cover (see instructions above). Unsolder the black and brown wires from the gyro antenna from their studs on the circuit board. Remove the C-clip from the base of the antenna along with three washers – note their positions for re-assembly.
Once the entire gyro assembly has been removed you separate the two halves of the tube by twisting a flat blade screwdriver in the slots of its two ends to pry them open, separating the two parts of the tube…be careful not to stress the wires inside. When the tube comes apart you will now see a flat curved metal piece with a screw in its end which you should carefully remove. Do not lose the little ball bearing and its spring from the hinged plastic stud beneath.
Use isopropyl alcohol and Q-Tips to remove all the old grease from the associated parts and lightly re-lube them with white lithium grease or similar. Re-assemble in reverse order and note how smooth the latching mechanism now feels…but continue to use it with care as these plastic parts are old and may be more brittle than when new. However, I have never had one break after this procedure so it is well worth the effort.
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. Great idea, but it didn’t work. I worried that the plates might be bent, in which case it would be difficult or impossible to repair. I decided to wet the entire tuning condenser with alcohol. As I did 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 eventually faded back in and the low end of the band was now working properly. I cleaned the condenser one more time for good measure and with all the switches and controls already cleaned I 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 be. This was quite an involved process with over 40 adjustment points but being a standard analog design all went as expected.
One alignment point people sometimes skip is the L6 MW Antenna coil for the low end of the AM band. It is tough and even close to impossible to do on many radios but is easily do-able on the RF-2200 and it is essential if you are to get the AM reception absolutely as good as it can be. To perform this step, you slide one of the coils on the AM ferrite loopstick antenna. Opening the Gyro-Antenna to get to the loopstick is actually quite easy…you pry the two halves open with a screw driver in slots at each end of the gyro tube. The coil is designated as L6 and is adjusted by first loosening the tacky goop that holds it in positon. Take your time. I use a razor blade to scrape along the ferrite rod up to the coil form to remove as much of it as possible. Then I grab the entire coil form with my fingers and by pushing on it and rotating it a bit finally working it loose. A careful application of heat may help if it is really stubborn. Then you slide it using a non-conductive tool of some sort, and when finished I lock it in positon with a dab of locking paint.
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 this old and had been treated so badly in its first life. The alignment did improve it a bit and it also improved the dial calibration dramatically, and for me this makes it a lot more fun tuning through the bands. The accuracy of the dial on AM is generally excellent deviating no more than 1KHz worst case and just about perfect over most of the band…FM calibration is also excellent. The dial also is very linear and does not compress the high end of the band into a narrow part of the dial scale as on most radios. It’s about as good as an analog portable can be expected to be. It’s a bit less precise on the SW bands, but in the world of analog radios it is quite acceptable.
RF PERFORMANCE – AM:
Here is where the RF-2200 really shines. Simply put, this is among the most sensitive AM radios I own…it is simply extraordinary. But what really makes the RF-2200 special on AM is its sensitivity or quieting curve and its unusually low (excellent) noise floor. I have other radios which match the Panasonic on down and out sensitivity…the ability to hear barely detectable signals at the threshold of audibility. But as signal strength begins to increase the RF-2200 is able to quickly reduce the background hiss and make those signals sound more like locals while other radios are still weaker and hissier sounding, so most signals you would actually listen to are cleaner and more local sounding on the Panasonic. It reminds me of the best car AM radios which seem to pull in signals with no background noise which you could barely pick up on typical portable or table radios. 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’re used it, it’s tough to go back to other radios, which require that you aim them away from you in order to get the best signal. The signal meter does function backwards to convention with stronger signals pushing the needle to the left rather than to the right but that’s an admittedly minor point.
Are There Other Portable Radios That Rival The RF-2200 On AM?
Only a handful. The well-known GE Superadio (aka SR I) and Superadio II come close. They are virtually as sensitive and just a hair less selective but are a bargain on the used market when found in good condition. There have been a handful of other vintage 60’s portables with truly excellent AM tuners – a Nordmende Globe Traveler and the Grundig Satellit 5000 – these are both larger, multi-band radios. There are also some sophisticated radios with the ability to dig extremely faint traces of signals out of the mud but even they are usually a bit noisier on listenable AM stations. For the program listener, as opposed to hard core Dxer. the RF-2200 remains king.
Among current production radios the popular C Crane CC Radio-2E matches the RF-2200 for overall AM reception in most locations but it is not recommended for extremely strong signal areas where it can overload badly ruining reception on parts of the band. Shortwave performance is somewhat stronger since the alignment and is surprisingly good too. Compared with my best SW radios, the RF-2200 is good but not top tier…it is not world-class, but its respectable on SW. SSB is not a strong point here either…although it has a BFO for rudimentary SSB capability it is somewhat unstable which is fairly typical of analog portables.
What About Those Other Panasonics – some people say they’re just as good???
Not quite. One such model is the RF-1150. Don’t get me wrong – the RF-1150 is an excellent radio, featuring the same gyro-antenna and a large speaker. And at first it seems just as “hot” on AM as the RF-2200 but after more critical testing it fails to match the ‘2200 on some problem signals. This seems to be related to the RF-1150’s ceramic vari-cap which is a compromise compared with the more expensive and more desirable air variable tuning condenser of the ‘2200. The IF circuit is also greatly simplified in the RF-1150. As a result of those two compromises, the ‘1150 misses a few tough signals which are masked by stronger signals compared to the RF-2200. Other Panasonics of the general era feature big speakers for great audio and have very good AM tuners but none match the RF-2200 on overall AM reception.
FM Performance is quite excellent…in fact…it was a surprise. When the radio was released at least one reviewer wrote that the RF2200 might be a world-class FM tuner, and was on a par with his McIntosh component FM tuner! I can’t verify that level of performance but can verify that the RF-2200′s FM tuner is better than most of the portables I compared it with until the advent of DSP which raised the bar in portable FM portable reception. Still, the RF-2200’s FM tuner is superb and far better than on radios like the GE Superadios or Sonys from that era. It is sensitive and selective and sounds great on FM.
The RF-2200 has powerful audio, producing 3 watts audio output on AC power and 2.4 watts from battery power…far more than most portables. The sound is very satisfying. It can easily fill a large room or even an outdoor setting with convincing sound, yet the radio is offers very long battery life from its 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 RF-2200. 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. The Gyro-antenna is a nice touch which every decent larger AM radio should have, and to have an analog radio with enough accuracy to clearly identify a frequency makes my Superadios dials seem crude by comparison.
It is also interesting that no other Panasonic model matches the RF-2200 on AM…none of them. Even the top of the line RF-4900/DR49, produced concurrently with the RF-2200, which has a superior SW tuner, is less good on AM, even though the AM circuit design is quite similar. Was it a lucky accident? I don’t know. But I do know that there something about the RF-2200 that is extremely effective – it remains my reference AM portable radio.