Realistic DX-440/Sangean ATS-803A AM/LW/SW/FM Radio
Every now and then someone sends me a comment or asks me a question about a vintage radio that I’ve never seen or owned. There are so many of these that it is impossible to obtain all of them, but occasionally one seems to grab my attention, either because I’ve read about it and known about it for years or simply because it occupies a unique niche in portable radio history and seems to hold a special place in many people’s hearts.
One such radio is Radio Shack’s Realistic DX-440 which was available between 1988-1992. (A few sources say it was only sold until 1990 but I checked the old Radio Shack catalogs and found that it was sold through 1992). It was made by Sangean and is virtually identical to their ATS-803-A which was available between 1988-1995. The only difference was that the Sangean version had a Din (European) Record Output which was omitted on the Realistic version. The DX-440 originally sold for $199.95 while the Sangean sold for $169 – $245. The radio was also available in other countries as the Siemens RF-651, the Intersound WE-12 and the Eskab RX-33…possibly there were other versions as well. The ATS-803-A was an improved version of Sangean’s earlier ATS-803, adding two IF bandwidths and improved RF dynamic range for enhanced reception, and the DX-440 does have these enhancements. (Beginning in 1993 Radio Shack offered the DX-390 which was a rebadged Sangean ATS-818…another very popular model).
What Makes the DX-440/ATS-803A so special? Well, it was a top-of-the line model for both Sangean and Radio Shack, and it was the first shortwave portable made by Sangean and offered by Radio Shack. It was a fairly early digital radio so it generated lots of interest, and typical of Sangean’s products (both then and now) it was solidly built and offered a nice user experience. Finally, since Radio Shack was such a powerhouse marketing company in their heyday there were many DX-440’s sold, while Sangean sold many worldwide which makes it pretty easy to find nice ones available for sale today,. Before we get down to testing and using the DX-440 here are its vital stats:
Realistic DX-440/Sangean ATS-803A Specifications & Features:
Continuous Tuning from 150 KHz – 29.999 MHz
SW: 1.62 – 30 MHz in 12 bands
SSB Mode with BFO/Clarifier Knob
LW: 150-281 kHz
AM: 520-1620 kHz *(See Note) with 9/10k Tuning Steps
Dual Conversion on SW/AM/LW
FM: 87.5-108 MHz with stereo at headphone jack
Direct Frequency Entry Keypad
Variable Speed Tuning via Knob and Up/Down buttons
14 Memories – 9 regular presets plus 1 for the last frequency on each of 5 bands
Lighted LCD Display
Clock in 24 Hour Format with Sleep Timer & Alarm
Signal Strength Meter
RF Gain Control for SW (Knob/variable)
Bass & Treble Tone Controls
Balance Control for FM Stereo via Headphone jack
Wide/Narrow IF Bandwidth (Nominally 6.5 KHz Wide – Narrow not stated – I would guess it to be 2.5 or 3 KHz)
External Antenna Jack with Internal/External Switch for FM & SW
3.5 MM Stereo Earphone Jack
Din Record Output jack (Sangean only – signal is mic level)
Dimensions: W 11.5” x H 6.3 x D 2.4” // W 293 mm x H 160 mm x D 60 mm
Power: 6 D cells & 2 AA cells
External DC in Jack – 9 Volt Center Pin Negative/ AC Adapter Included
Weight Without batteries: 3.75 lbs./1.7 kg
Finding a DX-440/ATS-803A was easy…they are plentiful on eBay and I was able to find a nice DX-440 with the owner’s manual for a reasonable cost. Not only did the pictures of the radio look pristine but I reasoned that an owner who kept the owner’s manual after all these years might be someone who really takes good care of things. Sure enough, when the radio arrived, I was gratified that was well-packed and it looked almost perfect…it only required a little cleaning to look wonderful. I loaded up the required 8 batteries – two AA’s for the clock and memories plus 6 D cells to power the radio itself – this sort of arrangement was quite common in the early days of digital portables. All functions were smooth and everything sounded right. I did some quick scans through all the bands and the radio was working very well…it didn’t even have any dirty switch or control problems which is quite a testament to a radio from 1988. Evidently Sangean’s quality was as good back then as it is today. I am not a big fan of the slider controls which were so popular from most companies at the time but these all operated smoothly and were easy to use.
But what really struck me was the heft of the thing…this is one SOLID radio and seems to represent the quality of construction that makes many of us love older radios. It is just a joy to use. Especially after being loaded with batteries it is heavy.
Getting To Know The DX-440
The radio is very straight forward compared with today’s more complex designs. I did pre-read the owner’s manual before I set the clock and to learn how the memories worked but other than that operation was self-explanatory. See the DX-440 Owner’s manual here:
The Service Manual is an education as digital radios were new and their circuits were discreet and exceedingly complex. Whereas a modern multi-band portable may use a DSP chip which contains almost all of the radio’s circuitry, the DX-440 includes a mind-boggling 44 Transistors, 7 IC’s, 50 Diodes, 7 LED’s and many more miscellaneous components. Each of the digital circuits are described in detail from theory of operation through to alignment. To perform a complete alignment of this radio is a daunting task not to be undertaken unless necessary. I checked only the IF and RF adjustments on my radio and they were right on with no adjustments needed.
The DX-440 covers standard FM broadcast from 87.5 – 108 MHz and LW/AM/SW continuously from 150 KHz through 29.999 MHz. One confusing oddity is the presence of both an” AM” and ”MW” button among the band selector buttons and their distinction is subtle. According to the manual the AM button selects all AM mode broadcasts from 150 KHz thru 29.9990 MHz which includes LW, MW and SW. The MW button selects the MW (aka AM) Broadcast Band from 520 – 1620 KHz. And although each button “remembers” the last tuned to frequency, pressing the MW button will never bring you any lower than 520 Hz, the start of the radio’s MW Band…it makes sense after a while.
*One note is that this radio, as all radios made before 1990 considers the standard AM Broadcast band to end at 1620 KHz, so as you tune between 1621 to 1700 KHz for today’s expanded AM band the radio will switch over from the built-in ferrite rod to the whip. Incidentally, many radios of the day including the Sony 2010 behave the same way, switching into SW mode (thus using the whip antenna) as you tune above 1620 KHz). The display will light up with LW, AM or SW depending on what frequency is tuned irrespective of which band switch was initially selected. Repeated presses of the SW button scroll through the SW bands and as used to be the practice each band is listed on the front panel with its associated frequency range…very cool.
As a digital radio the DX-440 offers direct frequency entry via its keypad, but it also allows tuning via the knob or Up/Down buttons, along with Scan tuning. Tuning via the Tuning knob and the Up/Down buttons is variable speed and has multiple speeds depending on band. For example, on AM, the knob tunes in increments of 1KHz, 10 KHz and 100 KHz depending on how fast you spin the knob. This allows you span a band quickly then home in on the exact frequency. It takes some getting used to though because you can overshoot then be stuck in a slow mode as you try to home in on the exact frequency. It does get easier with practice and I have to say that I have had the same feeling with many of today’s radios which do similar things but it can sometimes be a bit frustrating. Even the Up/Down buttons have fast/slow speeds depending on whether you press them momentarily or hold them down. Again, a great feature but you have to get the feel of it.
In Use Tests: Naturally I wanted to see how well the DX-440 operates and receives signals compared with some reference radios, and although I eventually put the DX-440 alongside several other radios for direct A/B comparisons my first tests were done against the venerable Sony ICF-2010 , partly because they were both early digital designs and also because I have seen the DX-440 referred to as the poor man’s Sony 2010. To be sure, $199 in 1988 was not peanuts by any measure, but the Sony listed for $449 and was generally available for around $399… double the cost of the DX-440. Not surprisingly, the Sony was a bit more sensitive on SW and its sync circuit is a big bonus not available on the DX-440 but I’ve got to say that the differences were usually not huge. Many signals sounded similar…only on some did the Sony render them with just a bit less background hiss and a slightly greater intelligibility. But the DX-440 has overall better audio, subjectively better IF bandwidths and with its bass and treble controls it was easy to get the audio balance just right. On AM the DX-440 was just a hair noisier than the 2010 ranking *** 1/2 on the AM Mega Shootout list. It was quite sensitive to weak daytime AM signals and at night it seemed to do an excellent job of grabbing clear audio out of pile ups that sounded like mush on many other radios. The Signal meter does tend to over read however. I do wish they had used a larger ferrite rod in place of the thin 5” rod used here but its AM performance is still very good. The Sony offers more sophisticated tuning which feels almost analog-like with no muting or noises while tuning whereas the DX-440 mutes slightly with each tuning step, but it’s not so bad that you can’t enjoy band scanning. There is no free lunch – I definitely consider the 2010 to be an overall better performer but the DX-440 does have some points in its favor, including very solid construction and good audio quality. There is something about this radio that makes it a joy to use.
I also tuned in to some HAMS to test SSB performance and again, the DX-440 was very good. I was able to tune for natural sound fairly easily and although the radio was not as rock solid as more sophisticated radios it is not bad at all by portable standards. The variable gain control is a big asset here.
Like most portable radios of the era, FM reception is quite sensitive but not very selective. With today’s extremely crowded FM band in many locations these older radios can’t separate adjacent and even alternate frequencies as well as the best of today’s portables, but again, the DX-440 is very typical of its era and most of my usual catches came in very well and sounded great. The DX-440 rates *** on the FM Mega Shootout list , and if you happen to live in a remote area where the FM band is not extremely crowded your results will be even better. The DX-440 also offers Stereo FM with a balance control and Stereo/Mono switch – very nice indeed. Also, because it has a stereo earphone jack, even mono programs on AM will be heard through both the left and right earphones without the need for a mono to stereo adapter. Interestingly, the Sangean owner’s manual says that for FM you should extend the rod antenna to 70 – 90 CM (27.5” – 35.4”) while the Realistic manual says to extend it fully. The full length of the rod antenna is 52” which is great for SW but for FM I did note some weaker stations did come in a hair better when the rod was shortened from its full length. As always, the key for best FM is to orient the antenna for best reception.
Conclusion: All in all, the DX-440/ATS-803A lived up to its reputation. It is a fun radio to operate and easy to get to know. I find it very satisfying in use because of its combination of good looks, very sturdy construction and straight forward controls. It offers very good reception, pleasant sound, a nice set of easy to use features and feels like it will last another 30 years. I’m glad I finally got to own one.