Q: What Makes Some Radios Receive Better Than Others?
Hi! I have a question about AM radios. What makes the best AM radios have better reception than other radios?
Is that because of additional amplification in IF (intermediate Frequency) stage? Can I add an additional IF stage to a regular radio to give it top reception?
A: Probably not. There are several things needed for a radio to have top AM reception and there is more than one way to achieve it. However, it is unlikely you could improve a radio by adding an additional IF stage to it because that may not be where the improvement is needed, as well as the fact that such an upgrade would require engineering knowledge well beyond the capability of most users.
A good radio will handle signals well at every stage from the antenna right through the RF and IF amplification stages and they must work well together for top results. However, there is a large group of radio experimenters known as the Ultralighters who have done more with increasing the size and complexity of built-in AM ferrite rod antennas than anyone and this is where the most practical improvements can be realized. You can follow their experiments here:
In general, the best AM radios have a low noise floor, or to put it another way, a good signal to noise ratio. This is achieved by choosing RF/IF components with high gain and a low noise floor, along with acceptable overload limits. Usually it is also necessary to have a tuned rf stage right at the antenna input. This pre-selects the frequency you want to tune to and amplifies it before feeding the signal on to the mixer stage. This allows the radio to ignore unwanted frequencies while adding more gain to the frequency you want to hear. Cheaper radios omit the tuned RF stage.
Then the IF is also important because it is responsible for filtering and more gain, so it must have good gain with low noise and good filter characteristics.
However, one of the best AM portables ever made, the Panasonic RF-2200 achieves top performance without a tuned RF stage, because every other stage was perfectly designed for good gain, low noise and low overload.
Nowadays, DSP (Digital Signal Processing) is the norm. DSP allows manufacturers to build radios with top performance and much lower cost and complexity because most of the active circuits are contained in the DSP chip. This can provide top performance IF the manufacturer uses the chip properly. It is no guarantee as some DSP deigns are first rate while others are miserable.
In other words, it’s the total design that has to be right for best performance. No single aspect of design is the key to top performance.
Best AM Portables For Ballpark Listening
Q: I go to lots of baseball games and love listening to the AM radio broadcast while st the game. While at home, I frequently listen to games on the radio as the TV announcers are often insufferable.
I have used a pocket Sangean radio for years for convenience. However, I struggle with reception. I have tolerated it but at times will have to just pack it away because I can’t get a clear or strong enough signal while at the ball park. The FM channel is delayed by several seconds so that’s just too annoying.
So here’s my question: is there a pocket size radio that is tops in reception that will work at a ballpark? Is there some external modification that can be added (additional ferrite rod)? Or, am I going to have purchase something larger to carry with me?
It is unfortunately true that all pocket-sized radios will have somewhat limited AM sensitivity due to the small size of their built-in AM ferrite rod antenna. In fact, a true pocket-sized radio will generally rate about One Star. However, you should try the best ones to see if they are good enough for your needs before you consider lugging a larger (but much more sensitive) portable with you. That said, checking my AM Mega Shootout article:
There are a couple of Two Star choices which will receive weaker signals. The smallest Two Star radio is the Eton Traveler III: This may be your best performing smallish radio for AM sensitivity.
Just a bit larger is the Sangean PR-D18 – also a Two Star AM performer but a bit beefier in size and audio:
Below this you are down to One Star radios which may be equivalent to what you have now but I don’t know which Sangean you have so I can’t compare it.
If you want to go slightly larger, the Sony ICF-506 or ICF-19 are offer Three and 1/2 Star AM performance which is as good as you will get unless you move up another size level to what we call larger lunchbox-sized radios…these Sonys will be quite a bit better than the smaller Two Star Radios above. For your intended use the ICF-19 will give longer battery life as it uses larger batteries but the 506 and 19 are otherwise virtually identical.
Finally, there are several Walkman-style radios which, although some have speakers, are primarily designed for earbud use. Some of these have near state-of-the-art FM performance thanks to DSP technology but they are all One Star AM performers so the Eton Traveler III and Sangean PR-D18 will receive weak AM signals better than all of them.
I wouldn’t think an external antenna would be as practical for you as choosing a higher performing radio to begin with.
I hope this helps you.
By the way, if you buy anything through the Amazon links on my website, even other items after you get onto Amazon through the link you’ll get Amazon’s best price and help to support the website with no cost to you…thanks.
Q: How Much Is My Radio Worth?
(While this question refers to one specific radio this is a very common question which I receive frequently so my comments apply to almost any radio other than the specific amounts I quoted for this Zenith).
I have a Zenith Trans-0ceanic D7000Y radio for sale but I have no idea what its value might be. It has been in our attic for several years. When I plugged it in, it worked, but I am not sure if all the functions are normal. How much should I try to sell it for?
These radios can be worth anywhere from almost nothing to over $300 depending on physical and operational condition. There should also be an AC cord inside the back cover. Any additional accessories such as the owner’s manual or box could add greatly to the value.
Go to eBay and set up a search for this model and watch it for a week or more and you will see what I mean. You can’t write a good eBay sales description unless you see how other people describe theirs.
How much it will bring usually depends on how good your pictures are (good pictures should show how good the physical condition is). How well you can describe its operational condition also helps. You might show how clean the battery box is and you should describe how it works as best you can.
Getting Better Reception In Offices (And Apartments)
Q: I want a small radio for the desk in my office. The one I have is OK on FM but the AM is almost all noise with very weak signals. Is there any way to get better AM reception in the office?
A: Offices and apartments can be very difficult places to receive AM radio stations. When I worked for CBS Radio I could barely hear our own AM station at our office building approximately 10 miles from the 50kw transmitter site. (Outside the building the signal was very strong and clear). Not only do typical brick and steel girder buildings block AM signals, but the plethora of office equipment, lighting and other modern electrical devices can mask those weakened signals to the point of overpowering them completely. Conditions may range from good to impossible and you won’t know until you try a good radio in the specific location. If you have a window you are probably in luck…placing the radio on a windowsill will usually dramatically increase what you can receive under these conditions. Within the building, careful placement and orientation, discovered through experimentation may reveal a sweet spot where you can hear the stations you want. Sometimes moving the radio a few feet or re-aiming it will make the difference. In my radio studio I found one spot where reception was much better than other places in the room. Most AM radios are quite directional so rotating the radio is usually necessary.
Generally you generally want an AC-powered radio for all-day office use but plugging a radio into the AC line often dramatically increases noise and interference compared with battery operation. I would use a battery radio for occasional use…many radios can give 300 or more hours of battery run time on alkaline cells. But if it is going to run 8 hours a day or more you might want to use rechargeable batteries so you could disconnect from the AC line when you were listening, leaving it to charge overnight.
Here are some radios you could try…check these:
Crane CC-2E: The absolute best on all bands at about $170.
Crane CC-EP-Pro: No digital features but matches the CC-2E above for AM/FM reception.
Sangean PR-D4W: Close in AM performance at much lower cost.
Tecsun S-8800 – Good reception and sound, built in rechargeable batteries.
Also be sure to check the AM and FM Mega Shootout Articles for rankings of radios in order of AM or FM reception.
Q: Why Are Car Radios Better Than Any Portable or Table Radio, especially on AM? I hate having to go out to the car to listen to distant stations? Are any radios as good as a car radio?
A: It is true that car radios are usually excellent for several reasons, but there ARE home radios that can virtually match their performance if you understand the problems of AM reception in today’s typical home. In a nutshell, most AM reception in today’s typical home is limited by Radio Frequency Interference or RFI and dealing with RFI is as important as having a good radio. More on that later.
But here’s what you need to know.
First, good car radios, if sold as stand-alone products would cost much more than portable or home radios in general…just look at the cost of top after-market radios. Considering the quality involved a typical car radio might cost $500 or more today.
Second the car body acts as a counterpoise (an artificial ground reference) which aids reception, and the antenna element(s), now usually embedded in the glass, can be large. Newer cars have sophisticated multi-element antennas to allow true diversity reception which also improves reception.
Third the car provides a higher voltage and current power source than typical radio batteries which makes it easier to design a top-performing circuit.
Fourth, car systems can have many speakers and the car body provides what are essentially “speaker cabinets” to make the audio very powerful.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the car radio is not desensitized by the noise in your home…often this is the limiting factor on in-home AM reception, even if you have a very good radio. An excellent radio like the C. Crane CC-2E will usually perform far better outdoors away from your home, and if you were to bring it out to where your car radio is you will find its reception is much closer to the car radio than it is inside the house. (Read Combatting AM/SW Interference for more info on this).
Add it all up and the car radio has everything going for it, but in many cases, you can come close to it by eliminating sources of RFI, finding places in your home where reception is best, and using a top performing radio.
Q: I just bought a (XXXXXX) Passive AM Loop that you reviewed favorably and it does nothing. Did I get a bad one?
A: Highly unlikely.
Nothing frustrates me more than reading an online “review” by someone who says a particular loop “doesn’t do anything”. Over the years I have seen this comment many times, but since passive loops are very simple and contain no active circuitry it is highly unlikely one would ever fail to work and I have never yet seen a defective one. What these comments illustrate is that using a loop requires a bit of understanding of some radio basics so I will attempt to provide a clear explanation of what you can expect of a passive AM loop. Their effect can range from barely noticeable to dramatic and they can be a great tool to improve your reception.
First, learning how to orient the loop with respect to the radio can initially be tricky, especially where there are many strong signals. I recommend you try it in the daytime, or if at night, try to find a very weak signal. That will make the antenna’s effect most obvious. If you have a radio with a signal strength meter that also makes it easier but is not a necessity. Users should understand that, even though these loops provide a significant amount of signal gain, this added gain does not always translate into a difference you can hear – the effect can range from dramatic to non-existent. The reason is that more signal only helps in certain conditions. Generally, the more sensitive your radio is the less you may hear an improvement with any small loop. On an average AM radio, such as ones which rank Three Stars in the AM Mega Shootout the effect can be night and day. Tune in a barely receivable signal and you’ll find a huge boost when the loop is brought into play. But with super sensitive Five Star radios such as the Panasonic RF-2200, GE SR I, SR II or C. Crane CC-2E there are only a few instances where the improvement will be noticeable, even though the antenna is providing a stronger signal to the radio. Why does this happen? It is because while a mediocre radio may not be sensitive enough to receive a weak signal, more sensitive radios are able to deal with those very weak signals, making them sound louder and clearer than on lesser radios, so most reception is limited not by the radio’s sensitivity but by your local noise floor…the amount of background noise present in most of today’s homes. In these cases, increasing the signal level does less good. For more on this read the Combatting RFI Article.
Along these lines, be aware that some signals which seem to be weak because they sound lousy may not be weak at all…a radio with a signal strength meter will reveal many strong signals which are nevertheless unlistenable due to noise or interference. Loops may help a bit with these problem signals but may also appear to do nothing because increasing the signal level does not help at all. This doesn’t mean the loop isn’t working…it means it can’t help in this situation.
Another factor to consider is that some radios may have their internal ferrite antenna positioned front to back, rather than left to right in the radio. The Grundig Satellit 800 is one of these, and I have a clock radio which also has its internal antenna running front to back. With these the loop must be positioned perpendicular to the ferrite rod, not to the radio itself.
Vintage Versus Modern Radios
Q: In your review of the Eton Satellit you say, “… the Eton E1 which many (myself included) feel is the last great radio of the line… “. And in your conclusion, you further state, ” Unfortunately I can’t help but compare the new Satellit with the “real” Satellits of old, such as the venerable Satellit 208/210, 600/650 and 700 series, and the more recent yet still capable Eton/Grundig SAT 800 and Eton E1. Unfortunately, the new Satellit simply is not in the same category as those radios… they cost more than double the price of the new Satellit and performed better in many ways and offered more facilities and amenities.”
I don’ t see how you can say these things. The old radios were larger and heavier, many had lots of drift because they were not digitally tuned, had few features compared with today’s digital wonders, and when I compare my old (XXXX) radio with my new digital portables, the new radios can hear everything the old radio does. Aren’t today’s radios better than the old ones?
A: A very interesting question and the answer is both Yes and No. I am a radio lover and collector, and as such I own many of the fine old analog and early digital radios as well as most of the better new digital and DSP portables. In fairness I would say there are pros and cons to each and much depends on how you are going to use the radio which you might prefer. Perhaps some specific comparisons and explanations might be helpful.
When comparing vintage analog or early digital radios such as the Zenith Trans-oceanics, Grundig Satellits, Panasonic RF-2200 and RF-4900, Sony ICF-2010 and ICF-6800W and GE Superadios to name just a few, against modern day radios, there are strengths and weaknesses to all of them. As I often say, if any one radio were best at everything there would be no reason to own more than one radio. Yet I own many radios because I find I like many of them for different reasons.
Modern portable radios are indeed trend setting in some ways and, largely due to advances in DSP Chips (Digital Signal Processing), offer performance and features not found only a short time ago, but they are not yet perfected in all areas of performance. Also, where many vintage radios were no-holds-barred designs, modern electronic devices are all manufactured to meet a certain price point, and the emphasis in usually more on features more than performance.
Notably, these DSP chips have elevated FM reception to levels once found mainly in costly component FM tuners. DSP is indeed a startling breakthrough in FM performance for portable radios. For AM and SW bands there are more pros and cons. DSP makes possible many IF filter options, usually 5 bandwidths with superb filter characteristics, which used to be prohibitively expensive and impractical to use in portable radios. And memories? Forget about it…many radios now sport hundreds of memories…just amazing…and all at ever lower prices in present day dollars. According to an on-line inflation calculator, a $600 radio in 1965 would cost more than $5000 in 2018! So there are several ways in which today’s modern portables are great performers and offer excellent value for the money.
But the older radios have their own superiorities as well and perhaps the biggest area of difference is in RF Dynamic Range on AM and SW. This is the ability of a radio to remain extremely sensitive to the weakest signals even in the presence of extremely strong signals. I have not tested a single present-day radio that matches the older analog designs in this area! Not one. This is because the best older radios used air variable tuning capacitors and had a tuned RF stage at the input. This allows the radio to pre-select the desired signal before any amplification is done so the presence of extremely strong signals does not interfere with the weaker signals. In modern radios ALL signals are amplified before any frequency selection is applied. If the first stage of RF amplification has to deal with a staggering range of signals ranging from the faintest whisper to overpoweringly strong mega-signals it has an impossible job to do. It can be designed to pull in the weakest signals, but in the presence of stronger signals the radio will overload which will reduce its ability to hear the weaker signals. Or the designers can lower the sensitivity to prevent overload under almost all conditions, but then weak signal sensitivity will be less. There is no way around this at the current state of the art.
Looking at the Eton E1 which I described as the last great radio of the line, this radio has the finest digital tuning system I have ever seen…it is elegant and precise, along with Synchronous Detection which has better characteristics than that found in any of today’s radios and Passband Tuning which can be a great enhancement in SSB mode…PSB is not available on any current day portable. The E1 is highly sensitive yet handles a wide range of signals without overloading. In certain circumstances these extra capabilities can make a difference to a critical listener. Yet even this radio is not perfect…it’s AM reception is quirky as it uses the whip antenna for AM. In some cases, this works well but in most homes it does not. With an external AM antenna the E1’s AM reception is as good as it gets and it SW is superb as well.
There are other areas where the older radios may perform better too but again, for someone who owns many radios it’s a matter of balancing strengths and weaknesses rather than pronouncing one model or type of radio better or worse overall. There is no one best radio.
Q: Poor User Manuals
I just read your interesting review of the (XXX) radio. Just recently, I purchased one to replace my old portable that I’d had for about 15 years or more. I must say I’m very DISSATISFIED with the (XXX). It may be a fine radio, but the user manual is so poorly written and so lacking in essential detail that, even after a few months of owning it, I still haven’t figured out how to make/change some of the simplest settings, the alarm on/off and alarm time-of-day settings for example. It seems to me — and granted I’m a senior, but not a completely senile one — that they have attempted (rather unsuccessfully) to program far too many settings using far too few buttons.
That said, do you know of any “after market” manual for it that I could acquire? I’ve got the radio, so I would like to make full use of it if possible.
A: Well I can’t argue with what you say…many of today’s manuals are less than clear and sometimes not completely accurate, but understand all modern mini-sized radios suffer this same design philosophy with maximum features along with minimum controls serving multiple functions, and even the full-sized ones aren’t much easier to learn. The only thing you can do is to get yourself in a receptive mood and sit quietly without distractions with the radio and the manual and try doing the steps until you figure it out. It will happen if you are patient. There are no shortcut manuals I have ever seen and I have to do it this way myself. One option is to check out the various Yahoo discussion groups and see if someone there can help you with some specific questions.
Note: This person later emailed me that he had indeed figured it all out…patience is key.
Q: Reviews From Different Sites:
I see that you rate the CC Radio-2E very highly…I bought one because of your recommendation and I agree with you…I love it! I generally find your reviews to be interesting, clear and unbiased and when I try the radios you review I seem to have the same experiences you do so I’ve grown to trust you over the years as a reliable source. However I read a review on another site which rated the Sangean PRD-4W just as good as the CC-2E (and it costs a lot less) yet you rate that radio is only 4 1/2 Stars in your AM Mega Shootout Article. Why does this other reviewer rate it more highly than you do?
A: This is a great question and the answer has a few elements to it. First, the difference between a ***** and ****1/2 star rating are not that great…even *** star radios are generally far better than average. Second there are some differences that are indisputable, ie, the Sangean only tunes AM in 10 KHz increments while the CC-2E allows fine tuning with 1 KHz increments. The CC-2E has tone controls, the Sangean does not….etc.
But the bigger issue is testing methodology. Remember, I take responsibility for every article on my site…all of the reviews and articles are my own. Most other review sites allow submissions from various contributors whose expertise, environments and testing methodologies may vary widely. For example, if a person tests radios at night, small differences in sensitivity will probably go unnoticed. I run very exhaustive daytime tests covering 20-30 or more signals over the whole AM band and as I noted in my Sangean PR-D4W review, “the CC-2E beat it on several stations but usually by only a very small margin. Some stations which were completely free of background hiss on the CC had just a trace of noise on the Sangean, Some trace signals were just stronger and more clearly audible on the CC. And there were two stations (710KHz and 1010 KHz) that had spurious noises on them on the Sangean which were clear on the CC. But in the majority of cases the two radios behaved very similarly.” It’s hard to argue with these results. I think this kind of side-by-side comparison is more complete than most reviewers generally perform. Plus I test sensitivity in the daytime where it is much more obvious while I test other parameters at night and I test in a very low noise environment so local noise does not mask small differences in the radios….this is all very important to getting consistently reliable results.
Add to that the fact that the Sangean has a 6” ferrite rod AM antenna while the CC-2E has an 8” rod – this tends to coincide with my results. Generally when I have replaced 6″ rods with 8″ rods I get a perceived sensitivity increase of 15-20% unless the radio is not a good candidate for this kind of modification.
When tests are done scientifically, under controlled conditions, with an understanding of causes and effects, most reviewers will usually arrive at the same conclusions, but the internet allows anyone to post an article. Although there is a wealth of great information out there I have read many user reports on everything from radios to razor blades which are a bit naïve and tend to mislead, however well intended.
Q: Improving AM Reception On A Radio With No Antenna Input:
I’m wondering if there is any way to improve the AM reception of my small radio which has no provision for an external antenna.
A: There are a few ways to improve the performance of almost any small AM radio.
The most common method is to use an AM passive loop antenna such as the Terk AM Advantage, The Tecsun AN-100/200, or any of several others. I have many antenna reviews under the Antennas & Accessories Tab.
A second low or no cost approach is to use a wire out the window if possible or even deployed indoors. Any length of about 25 feet or more should do it. Here’s the amazing part…no connection to the radio is needed! Just wrap the near end of your wire around the radio once or twice then ground the inside end of the wire…this last step is crucial. Although a real ground is desirable such as a ground rod driven into the ground, a radiator pipe or screw in the center of an outlet plate will work but please be careful working around outlets. Signals should pop in like crazy. If you don’t want to wrap unsightly wires around the radio you can form a coil of 3-5 inch diameter with two or three turns and place it against the back of the radio…it might work just as well.
And finally be sure you find the best location. Take time to carry your radio around your home to look for spots that are particularly good for reception. This step alone can make a big difference…in my house some rooms afford much better reception than others
Q: I’ve got some noisy fluorescent lights. What can I do?
A: You cannot easily suppress the noise they make so your only options are:
Turn them off
Replace them with no noise lighting (becoming harder to find these days)
Move your radio to a quieter location
Try a loop antenna to help reduce the impact of the noise.
RFI mitigation is usually a mixture of all of these with some compromises.
Battery powered radios may receive less interference than radios plugged into the ac power.
That’s about it.
Q: Why Don’t You Date Your Articles?
A: There are a few reasons.
When I first started writing articles I was doing mainly restorations of vintage gear. Those articles don’t seem to become outdated and stand with the same relevance today as when they were written. Later I started doing reviews of new radios and while they do sometimes make changes (and I update the articles when there are significant changes), usually the running changes are unpredictable and not really worthy of comment. For example, the Tecsun PL-880 Yahoo group has lots of interesting info on the radio but is has become an almost paranoid discussion of firmware versions and date codes. Predictions of whether there might be another firmware version aren’t productive and cloud the waters which really should be all about the performance and how people are using their radios. To me the overriding user experience of the ‘880 is that it is one of the top contenders in its category, other major players being the PL-660, PL-680, Eton Satellit and Sangean ATS-909X. I go into the strengths and weaknesses of each of these models in my reviews, and I believe that to a potential buyer these traits will remain essentially unchanged through firmware revisions and date code changes. But again, as with major changes to the ATS-909X and Eton Traveler III, I update the articles and make a post about that as well.
I think adding date codes might make my articles seem irrelevant only weeks or months after posting, and even more so by people who are overly concerned about firmware versions and date codes…but if such a change brings about a real change in performance (as opposed to minor tweaks of features) I will report on them.
Q: I Bought a CountyComm GP-5 because it had option for an external MW antenna but it seems that I can’t improve reception regardless of what I plug into that jack. I tried the provided “High Sensitivity AM Antenna”, a simple long wire and other AM type antennas I had around from different radios and none seem to make reception better, and in some cases, worse with more noise. My overall goal is to improve reception of a 1280 KHz station with signal that typically degrades after sunset. What am I doing wrong or misunderstanding?
A: There are two important aspects to this question. First, the AM antenna jack on the CountyComm GP-5/SSB (and similar Tecsun PL-365) is not a standard Auxiliary Antenna jack as found on most portable radios. It is designed specifically to be used only with the supplied antenna. It directly connects to the DSP chip’s AM RF input and wants to see the specific inductance of the supplied antenna. Plugging any other antenna into this jack is similar to opening up a radio, disconnecting the internal ferrite rod antenna and attaching your external antenna to its connecting points…the result is a gross mismatch. One solution is to buy the after-market 8” ferrite rod antenna which I reported on in the CountyComm GP-5/SSB – Tecsun PL-365 Review…it is designed to work properly with this radio. Another solution would be to try a passive AM loop antenna with inductive coupling…no direct connection… I have many antenna reviews under the Antennas Tab at the top left of the Home Page.
The other consideration is that the signal you want to hear may simply not be receivable at your location in the evening. One good test is to see if you can hear it on a good car radio. If you can, then a good AM radio should be able to bring it in inside your house unless interference is over-riding it.
Q: Is it better to use the external antenna jack or clip to the whip antenna?
A: You don’t say what kind of radio, antenna and installation you have but with most portable radios trial and error is often the best way to determine this for a few reasons. First, there is usually a gain difference between the whip and the aux antenna input on a portable radio. Some Ant in jacks have attenuation to prevent signal overload, and many radios have added gain on the whip not present on the Ant in jack. Second, some radios don’t feed the signal from the Ant in to all bands…for example, many exclude AM.
Finally, the impedance of the Ant in jack is seldom given for portables but is theoretically lower than the whip input…typically the whip input is high impedance…maybe around 500 ohms and the Ant in closer to low impedance…hopefully around 50 ohms although many portables seem to have a higher ant in impedance. But the impedance of many home antennas is less than certain across the frequency spectrum unless it is a manufactured antenna or it is a proper installation using a balun if needed and coax lead-in. If you are using a random wire and a simple lead-in wire your antenna is high impedance…around 500 Ohms.
Therefore there are many variables at play with respect to gain and impedance differences as well as band coverage differences between the whip and ant in jack. So, all theory aside, if you compare performance using the two methods of connection you will see which seems to work best for you.
The following is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive:
Q: I live in (fill in the blank) town and want to receive station XXXX from YYY miles away. Will (ZZZ) radio receive that station in my location?
A: Unfortunately that’s almost impossible to answer without a lot more information. No one can predict what stations are receivable in your area so some scouting is necessary, but first a bit of background. AM signals travel further at night, so some stations can be heard at great distances…hundreds of miles is common. On the other hand, to reduce interference, other stations are required to reduce power, or change to a directional pattern that does not favor your area. And some stations are required to go off the air completely…they are called daytimers. Also there are so-called Regional and Local channels where stations may recevie interference from out of town signals, making some stations receivable during the day but not at night or vice versa. Therefore, some signals may be receivable where you live only during the day or only at night.
One good way to check this is to see if you can receive the stations you want to hear on your car radio. Most car radios have excellent reception and they operate out in the open, usually away from the kinds of interference in modern homes. If you can receive a given station on your car radio you should be able to achieve the same reception in your home – providing: A ) You have a good radio, and B) You don’t have excessive local interference known as Radio Frequency Interference or RFI. RFI is very often the limiting factor on AM reception…I have an article about RFI at the top of the home page so check that out.
Also, some buildings, such as steel frame offices and apartment buildings, stucco or aluminum siding tend to block AM signals but we’ll discuss how to deal with that in a bit.
If you cannot get the signals you want on your car radio you probably won’t get them on any radio except possibly with some very sophisticated hobbyist antennas which are beyond what most people will be able to muster.
Then you might consider an internet radio which will bring you stations from around the world with ease. It may lack the excitement of actual reception from far away places but there’s no denying the practicality of it when there’s no other option.
So, what if you live in a shielded building as I mentioned? FM signals, because of their shorter wavelengths will usually penetrate such buildings but AM and SW signals will be blocked. In that case you have to import a stronger signal from outside. The best way to do this is with an outdoor antenna. An easier method is to put your radio on a windowsill…you will be amazed how much stronger AM signals will be there. If this is not convenient an antenna such as the C. Crane Twin Coil antenna can be put on the windowsill and connected to your radio several feet away…you’ll also get a big increase in gain which can make a world of difference in some cases. Finally, windowsill placement may also help you reduce that nasty RFI I spoke about.
In the end it’s very much a matter of trial and error to see what works in your location.
Crane Skywave Versus The Digitech AR-1733
I received a somewhat nasty email from a reader who claimed that these two radios are identical, and since he describes the Digitech as “a piece of garbage” that the Skywave must be as well, so how could I rate it so highly?
I can’t totally blame him for jumping to the erroneous conclusion that the two radios must be identical for indeed, they do LOOK identical. We have often seen radios rebadged with different name brands for marketing purposes.
However, in this case, the radios are, indeed, completely different animals. They are based on entirely different DSP chips, cover different bands and in fact, have completely different performance. Whereas I have read that the AR-1733 is not a great radio, I can attest to the fact that the Skywave is a great radio in its class and I’m not the only one saying so…every competent reviewer who has written about the Skywave has been as enthusiastic about it as I was in my review:
An upgrade to the still-available Skywave is the Skywave SSB:
So the moral is clear. Don’t assume that because two radios look alike they must be alike…especially when reviewers you trust say they aren’t. You may be wrong!
Sony CRF-5100 Earth-Orbiter Problems
Hello – I read your article at radiojayallen.com, on the Sony Earth-Orbiter 5100. I just purchased one from Craigslist which had been advertised as being in mint condition. Cosmetically the unit looks all right, but when I turned it on, it had the following issues: I can only receive the local AM station at 1260 because I am only a mile from the transmitter. The RF gain control is not the problem because it was all the way “up”. The AM audio is not distorted – it just will not pick up anything beyond the local station. FM was very intermittent, changing from good reception to none at all, without being bumped physically. Shortwave bands seemed okay. The weather band behaved just like the FM, picking up intermittently. The big bandswitch on the side does not seem to be the problem – it does not crackle when switching bands.
I saw your picture of the vertical switches when the radio was disassembled, and your remark that a good cleaning solved the problem for you on your radio, but your problem was on FM. I can probably disassemble the radio to a limited degree, but soldering a circuit board is beyond my ability.
I purchased a service manual for the Sony 5100 online as an acrobat file, but it is very technical, and beyond my abilities. I am hoping for a bit of advice on a simple repair, like taking it somewhere to be cleaned.
Thanks for your excellent online article, and I hope to hear from you on (perhaps) what to try before signing up for expensive repairs.
I’m sorry you’re having this problem…nothing is more disheartening then getting a new (or old) radio only to find it has a problem. The intermittent FM/Weather band issue is almost always caused by the two vertical slide switches I pointed out in the review…cleaning them usually resolves this problem.
Unfortunately, the very weak AM reception problem will probably require expert service and may or may not be easy. With respect to the RF Gain control it should be full CCW in “Normal”.
First, rule out the main bandswitches. I would check this again…take a minute with it set to AM, working the knob around the detented AM position to see if there are any blips or bursts of sound. If you are sure the switch is 100% solid and reliable (it could still be bad but will usually show intermittent noise when exercised), I would check that the ferrite rod is not broken – this sometimes happens in shipping and will render the AM just as you describe. Remove the back cover following the disassembly instructions in the service manual and check the rod. If it is broken it can usually be repaired to work 100% as well as new if carefully glued together. Check for a perfect fit between the two halves and use superglue. The perfect fit is necessary for the antenna to work properly without being retuned so get it right and the set should then work properly on AM.
There are a myriad of other possibilities which would require a technician to locate such as a failed component in the AM circuit, a bad solder joint, broken lead wire (possibly from the ferrite rod), a bad adjustment pot or coil etc.
So check the bandswitch and ferrite rod and if you rule those out you will need help getting it fixed…please let me know how you make out with this.
Q: Jay, I love your site. I’m an old guy who did not get the math gene, so I never had a chance to pursue my major love of electronics as a kid. I have some time now to play around with electronics and look forward to getting into this hobby in a serious way.
I am very interested in what you had to say about aligning the (Zenith Royal) 500H. Could you provide precise instructions or even better, a youtube video of exactly how you did this for us new guys? I have some young kids who are showing an interest in all of this. Hope I can get them as excited as I was at their age about radio stuff.
Did I say I love your site?
A: Ron, Although I could give you the general flow of the alignment procedure, it is spelled out explicitly in the Service Manual and it varies a bit from model to model. It presupposes that you have at least a basic understanding of the circuits being adjusted (otherwise you won’t know if the alignment is going properly or not…there are pitfalls that can lead to poor results), that you use an RF Signal generator and ideally some sort of meter to read the output. An oscilloscope is not usually necessary for simple AM radio alignments although it would work in place of a simple meter.
The service manual also provides diagrams which give you the physical adjustment locations…without that you don’t know which adjustments are which even if you know the procedure. The Royal 500H has 8 adjustment points, and although a seasoned pro might be able to figure out which are which, even he might get stuck on one unusual IF blocking adjustment in the 500H…so you really need the manual. It will also give you the frequency limits which vary from model to model. Again, someone who has aligned hundreds of radios can usually do an AM only portable totally by ear, especially if he is very familiar with what stations are available in that particular area to use as test targets, and get results very close to what he would get with test gear, but if you’ve never aligned a radio before, following the exact procedure with the test gear is much easier than doing it without. And of course, for anything more complex, such as multiband radios, trying to adjust the radio without service info is a bad idea.
If you decide to get the manual and proceed I’ll be happy to help you in any way that I can, but you must start with the service manual. You will also need an RF signal generator and some sort of frequency reference…my signal generator is not very accurate so I use a PLL-tuned radio as a frequency reference along with a frequency counter…alternatively you need a very accurate sig gen so you will be able to generate exactly the right frequencies needed.
Panasonic RF-2200 With Intermittent Switches
Q: Hi Jay.
I’ve got an RF2200 that, when selecting SW1 or SW6, I have to manually hold the SW switch selector down hard to get either of those bands to come in. If I let go of the switch, the bands are weak and can barely be heard. Switch positions for SW2 thru 5 work just fine.
Would popping off the switch and spraying a little De-Oxit be advisable to try to resolve this problem…or is this a fix that needs to be performed from inside the radio?
This problem is very common in this radio but it is also easy to fix. However, it must be done from inside…spraying the control shafts from the front will not get the cleaner into the band switches at all …you will just make a mess.
But don’t despair…removing the back for access to the switches is easy, and you will see why spraying from the front would have done nothing once you see how the switches are constructed.
Lay the radio on its face on a soft surface such as a folded towel, remove the battery compartment cover and 6 screws (one in the battery compartment). Carefully lift the rear panel away noting that there are three wires which have to be removed…they can only be plugged back in one way so don’t worry about putting them back incorrectly.
Now you can see that the band switches are large, horizontally-running items. I recommend De-Ox-It from Caig Labs as the best switch cleaner/enhancer. Be sure to use Q Tips or paper towels and alcohol to wipe away any spillage…use the least amount of spray possible while working the switches many times…many times back and forth. You should find normal operation restored.
The toggle switches on the front are also usually problematical. Removing the front panel to get at them is also easy. After removing the back panel, pull off all the knobs and press downward on the plastic latch in the hole uncovered by the tuning knob and the front panel will pull off. Be careful because the signal meter may stick to the front panel…push it down so it stays in place and does not break its wires. Spray into the switches while working them many times and clean up any spillage.
This should restore your radio to normal operation.
Sangean ATS-909X Questions – Is It Hot Or Not?
I’ve been reading many conflicting reports on this radio. Some say it is very sensitive, others say it is not. Isn’t this likely to be unit-to-unit variations? I also heard there have been upgrades…maybe new units are better than the initial production runs? What do you think? I really want your opinions on this because I’ve been reading your columns for years and you are one of the most knowledgeable and balanced reviewers I’ve found. Your experiences always seem to mirror my own. And I love your web site!
First, thanks very much for your kind email…I really appreciate it!
The differences of opinion on the ATS-909X (like the ATS-909 before it) are due almost entirely to the way the radio is tested and used rather than unit-to-unit differences…these radios are of high build quality and generally vary very little sample to sample. In a nutshell the radio is not very sensitive to very weak signals on AM or SW on its built-in antennas but you have to compare them with other radios under identical circumstances to see this. If you just use the radio and have no basis for comparison it will seem fine. But put it side by side with any of several competing radios and the Sangean will be very weak on many signals which come in much better on the more sensitive radios. This is true on AM and SW and it has been compared and verified on many samples. This seems to affect very weak signals on the Sangean more than medium strength signals which it seems to receive quite well compared with the other radios I compared it with. So if you are using an external antenna or if you are comparing radios on stronger signals the Sangean is just fine.
The Sangean has many plusses too. It is one of very few modern portables which allow the use of the external antenna jack on AM…most portables only use the external antenna for SW. If you use the ‘909 it with an external antenna, including the supplied wire antenna, it works very well. With a serious external antenna it also does well for a portable so in this mode it is a good choice. Many happy users of the original model and now the new one report it excellent as a desktop replacement and realize this is its best mode of operation. My only complaints are on stand-alone performance as a portable on AM and SW. It does very well on FM off the whip by the way…it’s FM whip performance is superb.
So when people say they have a 909 or 909X and it works well I don’t disagree…it’s all in how you are using it. No radio is best at everything. But if you compare it side by side with a more sensitive AM/SW portable (such as a Degen DE-1103, Tecsun PL-660 and PL-880, Eton Satellit and many others) you will see a huge difference in AM/SW reception…it’s very obvious.
Many people get their egos into a “my radio is best” mode and “if you don’t like my radio you must be wrong” attitude. I’ve seen some ridiculously heated exchanges because of this in some of the radio discussion groups. How silly. I have a large radio collection and none is best at everything, even though I love most of them. If you read my reviews you’ll see that I try to present each radio’s strengths and weaknesses to help readers decide what best fits their needs.
Is There One Best Radio Or Antenna?
I have been researching things on the Internet, in many ways simply increasing my confusion. However, you appear to know what you are talking about and have helped many. I hope that you can advise me and clear up my points of confusion.
My needs: Optimal AM, FM, and SW sensitivity.
FM: I live in the mountains and listen to an FM station (maybe 50-60 miles away) during the day (music and some talk) which is very hard to tune on my 30 year old Sony as it is wedged between two other signals. When I am not getting interference from the station immediately above or below the desired one, the radio actually jumps to one or the other station altogether. It is sheer luck when I can land on the spot where it stays on the desired station and without interference from another.
AM: I work at night and listen to AM talk all night, usually on clear channel stations hundreds of miles away. Additionally, I would love to have the capability to do some decent DXing. Also I would love to be able to pick up “local” AM stations (~50 miles away) during the daytime which I presently cannot (at least not without unbearable background noise). I would also love to have minimal static and/or hum from the wires in the walls and the computer in the room.
SW: I have not had a functioning SW radio in years but would like to resume listening to it, both for DXing and regular daily programming.
Additional: I have never had SSB so I am not sure whether I should regard it as necessary. Air band would be fun to have just for playing around.
After quite a bit of research online, I am inclined toward either the Eton/Grundig Satellit 750 or the C. Crane CC Radio-SW. Which would you prefer? Or is there a better one I am missing? What radio out there best meets my needs?
An interesting thing I saw you discuss with somebody online is antenna setup. Did I understand you to say that even if one buys a C. Crane with built-in Twin Coil Ferrite, one still actually needs to buy the external TCF for optimal reception? You also mentioned loops. Is a TCF always better than a loop? Will a loop add anything to a TCF? What is the optimal antenna setup for the radio which best meets my needs?
One thing that caught my eye about the Satellit 750 is that, although reviews are very mixed, somebody said that it has the best reception without an external antenna of any comparable radio. But even if true, how good is that reception? How much improvement might an external TCF provide? What about an external TCF on a CCRadio-SW? Is there still a marked improvement? Does the internal TCF disconnect when the external TCF is plugged in or does it even matter?
I would appreciate any recommendations you might provide.
Wow…a huge load of questions! Without realizing it, your questions are so all-encompassing that it virtually requires me to tell you everything I know about AM/FM/SW radios and antennas in one email, which if course, is not possible. I will try to explain areas you have to be aware of to try to guide you into making some informed decisions.
First, you are asking, “What radio is best for AM and FM and SW? There is no simple answer to that as there is no perfect radio…no radio is best at everything. Every radio of the hundreds I’ve seen has strengths and weaknesses so I can only tell you which radios are generally considered best in certain areas of performance.
Next you are asking about external antennas. That will depend on which radio you get and what your area is like. Then local interference…that is different in each case, as are the ways to deal with it. I can’t recommend a radio which will ignore your local noise…you have to tackle it as best you can and as it matters to you. Huge topics all!
- So what CAN I tell you? Well, if you must limit your purchase to one radio to cover all three bands (AM/FM/SW), here are some top radios in no particular order with their strengths and weaknesses.
Eton E1/E1/XM (discontinued but some still available through Universal Radio or on eBay):
Best with external antennas…very good reception on all bands and decent sound. AM problematical on whip antenna except in the RF quietest areas. Expensive.
Grundig Satellit 750/Tecsun S-2000: Designed for excellent SW sensitivity off the whip and unusually versatile with external antennas. Mediocre AM unless you use an external antenna or even a small loop. FM good. Quirky tuning behavior (see review).
Tecsun S-8800: Overall excellent reception on SW and FM…Good on AM, but AM has a few frequencies marred by birdies (See Article). Great sound – built in Li-ion rechargeable batteries. Remote Control.
CC Radio-2E: Excellent AM/FM reception with built-in antennas…about as good as it gets except in extremely strong signal areas, but no SW. Does have 2 Meter HAM and Weather bands with Alert. Battery or AC built-in. Great audio…good value for AM/FM.
CC Radio-EP Pro: Similar AM/FM reception to CC Radio-2E, with great sound including Wideband AM. No digital features or SW…quirky tuning (See Review). But overall excellent reception and sound make it a real AM/FM bargain.
Eton Satellit, Tecsun PL-660, 680, 880 – Ideal smaller portables with great FM and SW performance The small Satellit has the best AM but the others are not bad. PL-880 has the best sound.
There are a few options in used radios on eBay but dealing with used radios is way beyond the scope of this email.
Antennas: I don’t know if you need an external antenna until we know how a known radio performs in your area. Most of the above radios will be much more selective on FM than your old radio so you should not have the problem of trying to separate your favorite FM signals.
AM: Again, a very sensitive AM radio like the CC-2E or CC-EP-Pro will “hear” every signal that is available in your location, limited only by your local noise (RFI) on their own. Radios which are less sensitive on AM will benefit more from a loop antenna or the separate Twin Coil antenna. The passive AM loops such as the Terk, Tecsun, Degen, Select-A-Tenna et al, follow the laws of physics and tend to perform similarly. I have reviewed most of them for you to read about. A larger loop such as the MTM will provide more signal as will the C.Crane Twin Coil. Again, if you chose a less sensitive AM radio in order to get better SW performance, the benefit of the loop will be greater, so get the radio first and see how it does. You can also tackle RFI once you see how good your reception is.
Well…there’s a start for you…I hope I’ve helped you. Feel free to contact me again with specific questions.
Longwire/Random Wire General Questions:
I have ample distance to string a 200’ long-wire antenna outside but it could be strung only 4’ above ground alongside a non-metallic yard fence. Actually, I could string one up to 500’ feet if that would be better. Can this be bare wire or do I need something coated or shielded?
We do have a lot of RF noise sources at our residence such as a 100KW solar power inverter for house electrical power (lots of EMI), many dimmer switches (lots of RFI) and many motors for pond, pool and fountains that run 24/7. None of this equipment interferes with our modern radios or TVs, which is not the case with our AM tube radios.
Maybe I should forget about SW and buy a couple C. Crane Antennas.
An outdoor antenna would be great for you assuming there is lower noise outside your house where the antenna would be. It could work very well for SW as well as AM. You can check for this using a portable radio. Ideally you would tune it to some weaker station which is covered with noise in your house and take a walk out where your antenna might be. Try several frequencies. If the reception is better there…less or no noise and a good signal that is a good spot for your antenna. Such an antenna is often referred to as a longwire antenna but is properly called a random wire…random wires are the simplest wire antennas because they do not have to be cut or tuned to specific frequencies…any reasonable length from perhaps 50 up to hundreds of feet will work well…in practice 50 to 200 feet is a common range. 300 – 500 feet could be incredible but you would probably need a top quality receiver to handle all that signal without overload, and possibly also an external RF attenuator or pre-selector. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First some basics.
One of the good things about random wires is that the details are usually not very critical. 4 feet is not an ideal height…20 – 30 feet would be better, but even at 4 feet a long random wire should be awesome. Any type of wire will do…wires are usually chosen for durability more than electrical differences.
Use plain wire for the antenna itself, but to prevent noise from being picked up on the lead-in wire which comes into your house it is essential to bring that signal in using shielded co-axial cable. If you use a plain lead-in wire much of the low noise properties of your antenna will be lost. You will have to obtain a proper balun matching transformer to convert the high impedance wire to the low impedance coaxial lead-in and you should also install a ground rod at the point where the coax enters your house to bleed off static and protect your equipment. You can research the web to find out some details of this…one good site for this is:
The Twin Coil antenna on the other hand will usually give you the best AM reception you are likely to get inside your house short of an external antenna, and you could also get an extension cord with it to locate the receiving element in the lowest noise spot in or around your home. However, antennas are always trial-and-error. It’s a great antenna and it can sometimes do wonders in reducing nose and amplifying signals better than most indoor AM antennas but whether it will bring you the reception you desire can only be determined by trying it. I own several.
Let me know how you make out!
Zenith Transoceanic D7000Y Dead On AM & SW – Troubleshooting Tips
Q: I plan to look at a Zenith Transoceanic D7000Y, with chassis 500MDR70 this weekend. The owner claims it doesn’t work on AM and SW bands but ok on FM. I see from your website that you have some experience with this model. Do you have any idea of what could cause this particular problem ?
A: Don, First you should rule out the usual problem areas in these sets…dirty bandswitch contacts and poor contact at the plug-in transistor sockets – always check both of these first. After that it could be anywhere in the areas common to AM and SW; the local AM oscillator, Mixer, and IF stages and the detector. Let me know what you find.