Pocket Portable AM/FM Radios – Update
One of my most prized possessions as a kid was my first portable transistor radio…a Constant 6T-200. I thought it was beautiful just to look at and indeed the Japanese reverse-painted radios on the late 50’s/early 60’s were very eye-catching. It wasn’t long though until I realized there were better radios to be had and as I’ve written in my bio this started a lifelong passion for high performing radios… mainly portable radios.
Many of today’s inexpensive AM/FM pocket-sized portables offer good enough performance to be truly enjoyable companions in situations where you would not want to lug a larger radio. The best of them are decent on AM and some are very good on FM. Interestingly, modern portables have improved in FM performance more than AM – many early FM portables, especially less expensive models suffered from poor FM selectivity which is much more of a problem today than it was in the 70’s and 80’s because the FM band has become so much more crowded. Many newer portables feature razor-sharp FM selectivity, letting you easily separate signals which are closely spaced on the dial.
Dwarfed by my 1958 Zenith Royal A600L Trans-oceanic are this year’s 13 pocket portables along with Zenith’s first pocket portable from 1960, a red and white AM only Royal 50 (Left Rear. For Zenith fans that Royal 50, Zenith’s least expensive radio of its day, is among the best performing radios of its size and era – it is at least as good as the best of today’s pocket portables on AM).
When I first compared AM/FM Pocket Portable Radios a few years ago I found 5 relatively popular units, all of which are still available today. However a little internet searching revealed many new models, two with digital readouts (one is digitally tuned, the other is analog tuned with a digital display), at “pocket” prices. Clearly it was time for an update with more AM/FM portables.
To be included in this review the radio must be self-contained which means built-in antennas for AM and FM and speaker. I did not include pocket portables meant primarily for earbud use, even if they contain a built-in speaker (such as the excellent Sangean DT-400W and CC Pocket), because they are not only more expensive and generally a higher quality level, but they rely on the earphone cable or a dummy wire as their FM antenna and so are not really convenient for FM portable use with the speaker. Pocket portables are for convenience above all else
In addition a pocket portable should obviously be small enough to fit into a pocket but some of these are half the size of the others. It should be inexpensive enough that if it is lost or dropped the loss is minimal, and it should be good enough that your local and most semi-local suburban-grade signals will come in well enough to be listened to enjoyably. Some are of course better than this minimum requirement. Finally one doesn’t expect Hi-Fi sound from any tiny device but it should be pleasant enough that you can enjoy the program you are listening to. Most of these are OK in that regard but some are not so great.
Luckily many of the radios in this report deliver on all those points and you can’t go too far wrong with any of the recommended models. However some are definitely better in one area of performance (such as AM versus FM reception or sound quality) so your preferences may dictate or rule out a particular model.
And unfortunately there are a few I cannot recommend – they are just so cheaply made that they don’t function properly, or they work so poorly they can’t be regarded as anything more than toys. One unit (the MFine L-938B) was both quirky and defective so I did not rate it.
- Several of these are just plain miserable on AM, barely receiving even local and semi-local signals, but surprisingly, all were at least acceptable on FM, so if your needs are not too fancy almost any will do for FM only use.
- Only one of these radios provides FM stereo reception with earbuds, the digital Radio Shack 1201475, but most of the others, except as noted, have stereo earphone jacks so you can hear their mono sound through stereo earbuds. Units with mono jacks will play only through the left channel unless you use a mono to stereo adapter.
- The average size of the larger pocket portables is approximately 4 ½ x 3 x 1 1/4. The smaller units are approximately 3 x 2 by 1 – see the group picture to see visually how they compare.
- Some models are noted as “tuning in steps”- a result of the increasing digitalization of their design. They actually increment up and down rather than progressing smoothly as in fully analog designs. However these steps are fine enough that in this class of equipment it is of little concern and many users won’t even notice it.
Best For AM & FM:
Radio Shack – Cat No. 1200586 (Formerly Cat No 12-586) $14.99 http://www.radioshack.com or in-store
Best AM Sensitivity – Mono earphone jack – Average FM Performance – Good Sound for a small portable – Tuning feel slightly stiff but manageable – a good bargain
Sangean SR-35 lists at $40 but currently $18.75 at Amazon http://amzn.to/2bmXqBN
Very Good FM – Best Audio In This Article with Best Tonal Balance among all of these radios but at the sacrifice of maximum volume – Good AM almost as good as the model above – Seems to tune in steps – Tune LED
Sony ICF-S10 MK2 currently $15.93 at Amazon http://amzn.to/2b0qw6n also sometimes found at discount & drugstores for even
less – I found mine for $9.99
AM just slightly noisier than the above radios but still respectable – Good FM – Mono earphone jack – no expanded AM band – Tune LED.
Radio Shack Cat No 1201475 $29.99 http://www.radioshack.com
Only True Digital Tuner In This Report – Stereo FM through earbuds but no mono switch – Adequate AM – Scan Tuning – 20 Presets – Key Lock – Good Sound
Sony ICF-P26 $19.99 http://amzn.to/2biruvn
Total re-design of ICF-S10 MK2 above but overall a slight step backwards in performance with slightly weaker reception and audio. However it adds the Expanded AM band and stereo earphone jack.
Smaller than the radios above (see group picture) but solidly made – decent reception and sound for the size. No Expanded AM Band
Best For FM Only (AM Is considerably weaker than the models above)
Kchibo – KK-523 $16.99 At Amazon http://amzn.to/2bmC3BO
Sensitive AM is unfortunately hampered by loud digital noise – FM Fair – Analog-tuning is somewhat touchy but digital readout is a plus – Very small
Seems to tune in steps – FM OK – AM Weak – Very thin audio – tall but very slim
Panasonic – RF-P50 $16.95 Amazon http://amzn.to/2bmBc4c
Adequate FM – Very weak AM – Mono earphone jack
Jaras – JJ-216 $10.99 At Amazon http://amzn.to/2b0rn7a
Adequate FM for the price – Very weak AM – small – seems to tune in steps – very small
Fair FM – Worst AM Of Group – actually makes electronic game-like beeps while tuning on AM – medium size
Indin – BC-R20 $10.99 At Amazon http://amzn.to/2bmBM1V
Adequate FM for the price – small – very tiny hard to read dial scale – minimal AM reception – fairly small
Defective Sample: MFIne L-938B $13.99 At Amazon http://amzn.to/2aV9jiX
Unacceptable AM: These were very insensitive or had interference or noise issues making anything but the strongest of local AM signals unlistenable: Listed alphabetically:
Indin – BC-R20
Conclusion: As a group there were more good FM performers than AM. In fact none of these were really poor on FM…even the worst were acceptable, at least for local signals, whereas on AM there were some that barely worked at all and had a tough time tuning in even locals.
If you’re more into FM you have more choices. The Sangean SR-35 has great overall FM performance and is also by far the nicest sounding of all of these units. It might not play as loudly as the other top AM radios on weaker AM signals, but on FM its tuner is excellent and its sound seems almost Hi-Fi by pocket standards…you really have to hear the SR-35 on FM compared with any of the others to appreciate the difference. The two Radio Shack models on the other hand were very close on FM and the 12-586 was slightly better on AM while the digital 1201475 has digital tuning and Stereo FM with earbuds. The smaller Kaito KA-200 was the best performing radio in its size group…half the size of the radios above it in the Top AM Group.