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Tecsun PL-880 AM/FM/SW/SSB Portable Radio

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The newest radio from Tecsun is the new, feature-rich PL-880. Described on Tecsun’s website as their new flagship model it is said to be an upgrade to the still available and much-liked PL-660. I’m not sure where that places Tecsun’s S-2000…OEM version of the Grundig Satellit 750 in the pecking order but I assume they were excluding that model as a table top from direct comparison with the PL-880, PL-660 and smaller portables, of which there are many in the Tecsun line.

After seeing pictures of the radio I expected it to be larger than the PL-660 but actually they are very similar in size with the ‘880- being about 1/4″ longer. It looks chunkier because it does not have the curved, sculpted design of the ‘660 with its narrower side panels but overall size is not much different. The radio seems very solid and has an amazing number of new features, many of which are “hidden” – that is, they are not referred to in the Tecsun/Kaito owner’s manual and there are not specific keys labeled with most of these functions. For example, Synchronous Detection is present but accessed via the SSB keys. A short press enables either USB or LSB SSB mode…a  longer press enables sync mode. Another press restores normal reception mode. That one is easy…others require that you press a specific button, sometimes with power on and sometimes with power off, to change other settings. I will present a list at the bottom of this review for handy reference…sort of a Quick Start Guide. I am indebted to members of the Yahoo PL-880 group who discovered these before my radio even arrived. I would hope that Kaito will revise their owner’s manual to reflect these. Perhaps one reason why they are not referenced is that some of these features can change when the firmware is updated…the first batch of 880’s sold were of two different firmware* versions (8819 and 8820) and there are some feature differences between them. Basic performance seems the same luckily.

Firmware Updates: OK…so there has been a virtual torrent of discussion on the PL-880’s firmware version…so what is firmware? Firmware is the software that the hardware runs on. (I can’t believe I said that). Simply put, today’s radios are computers and most now use DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chips to perform many of the functions that used to be handled by discrete components. Although improvements are still to come, DSP chips have already become the defacto standard and the results can be phenomenal, but there are sometimes undesirable side effects too. Many of the functions of these chips are fixed, but many others can be controlled by the radio’s associated circuitry and the firmware that the whole radio is operating under. Firmware updates can add or change operating features and performance. The initial release of PL-880’s to the public featured firmware version 8819 or 8820 with subtle differences in some features…you can  read literally hundreds of posts about this on the Yahoo PL-880 Group -many are important to be aware of if you want to get the most out of your PL-880:

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Tecsun_PL-880/info

Firmware updates are the norm rather than the exception – the well-known Eton E1 evolved through several firmware iterations but much less was ever said about it because most people weren’t aware of it until relatively late in the life of the radio. We’ll just have to wait and see if Tecsun or Kaito make any further changes…some could mean real differences in usability.

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The PL-880 is unusual in that it runs on a single (supplied) 18650 Lithium Ion cell which recharges in the radio. The radio has a smart charger which will not over charge the battery, and the radio tells you when charging is complete. Finally…a smart charger built into a radio. A USB charger and USB cable were included with my Kaito version but it uses a standard USB mini-plug so the radio can be charged from any standard USB adapter or a computer. In addition my radio came with the typical wire antenna, earbuds and a carrying case…the Tecsun China website shows a more deluxe leather case. You cannot operate the radio on AM or SW with the supplied charger…noise obliterates even strong signals. It is meant for charging only. I got days of operation before my battery had to be charged – it recharged fully in just over 5 hours which is very convenient. The supplied charger sports two USB charging outputs, labeled 1A and 2.4A. My first 5 hour 22 minute charge was done with the 1A port. When charging completes the radio tells you how long it took…interesting.

The PL-880 has the usual Earphone Output jack, Line Out (both stereo on FM) and  External  SW Antenna in. Basic controls include TWO tuning knobs (!), Fast and Slow for all bands, which is the most convenient setup I’ve seen for quick access to two-speed tuning…it is a joy to tune. There are the usual Volume Control knob, a three position Local/Normal/Distant switch for SW, a Hi/Lo Tone switch and an unusual Light switch labeled Auto Off/On. In Automatic Off mode the light operates in the usual way, remaining illuminated for several seconds following any key press. But in On mode the light is on all the time…even when the radio is off…odd. It would be nicer if it turned off with the radio, like the C. Crane CC Radio-EP. I’ve already left the light on once by accident.

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Trying it Out: There were no problems initially using the radio. Everything seemed simple and obvious. I had already read about some of those hidden features so that was a help too. My initial impression was how wonderful it sounded for this size radio. The PL-880 uses a new kind of speaker, perhaps similar to that in the Meloson M-7, described as a Mylar diaphragm with a front vent. I pulled out my trusty PL-660 and on all bands the’ 880 simply sounded so much more natural and extended…the PL-660 was obviously very peaked in the midrange by comparison. The new speaker producs a very flat (accurate) frequency response. While it does not have the bass a larger radio can have it is nevertheless very satisfying sonically which makes a huge difference in listening enjoyment. Much as I still like the PL-660 in many ways, it’s hard to go back to listening to it after hearing how sweet the PL-880 sounds next to it. It’s the kind of sound that catches the attention of non-radio nuts, several of whom commented to me about how great the radio sounded for its size. When I played the PL-660 compared with the PL-880 even casual observers said there was no comparison and I agree.

Filters: The PL-880 dazzles with 8 bandwidths, in two groups, one for AM mode (used on both AM band and SW) and one set for SSB and sync modes. In regular AM or SW modes the bandwidths are 9.0, 5.0, 3.5, and 2.3 KHz. In SSB or Sync modes the available bandwidths are 4.0, 3.0, 2.3, 1.2 and 0.5 KHz. It is unfortunate that the sync mode uses the SSB filters…that limits you to a maximum bandwidth of 4KHz in sync mode which sounds decidedly less crisp than the 5KHz and 9 KHz options available in normal mode.  This is the kind of feature that could possibly be changed with an updated firmware…perhaps sync could be used with the wider bandwidths if desired.

The unusually wide 9KHz filter allows AM to sound remarkably clear and detailed..it approaches FM clarity by portable standards. Just be sure to switch to 5 Khz or less when band scanning as the wide 9K bandwidth will dilute weaker signals with their surrounding noise and interference…9K is best for medium to strong signals.

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Left: PL-660 – Right: PL-880

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Left: PL-660 – Right: PL-880

RF Performance: Here I found some plusses and minuses comparing it with the PL-660 and a few other radios.

AM (MW) performance is a bit better on the PL-880 than the PL-660 which I always felt was noisy on AM compared with other radios. The PL-880 has the same weak signal sensitivity as the PL-660 which is quite good. I tuned into many very weak signals which ranged from barely intelligible up to medium strength and the two radios seemed to perform similarly. But as signal levels begin to increase the background hiss disappeared on the PL-880 sooner than on the PL-660. In my suburban location that means that many AM signals which are a bit hissy on the PL-660 can be received with silent or near-silent backgrounds  on the PL-880. It is a very real improvement. That, along with the improved audio, makes the PL-880 a far more enjoyable radio for me than the older model. The PL-880 was also refreshingly free of the digital noises which plague so many modern radios on the AM band…in fact only one frequency (640 on my sample) showed a minor tone…I was able to remove it by retuning 1KHz off center.

SW Reception was always the strong suit of the PL-660 and I’m happy to report that the SW on the PL-880 seems just about as good.  I compared many signals of wildly varying quality and found that the two radios behaved quite similarly…each one occasionally outpointed the other but I could discern no clear cut superiority of either over the other. The supplied wire antenna adds lots of signal gain and is highly recommended when you can use it. I also tried the PL-880 with my Wellbrook loop, and with the help of the Local Distant switch I got great results.

FM Performance was remarkable in the PL-660 and seems a hair better in the PL-880. Comparing the two radios side by side I determined that the PL-880 is slightly more selective than the PL-660 so it is better at separating closely-spaced signals adjacent to each other on the dial. I was able to isolate and receive a few signals on the PL-880 that were tough or non-existent on the PL-660 .  These are among the best FM portables around…there are only a few that do slightly better.

SSB seemed to work as it should and was in fact easier to tune in on the PL-880 than the PL-660 due to the 880’s coarse and fine tuning knobs. I was able to get the signal tuned in for best audio more quickly on the 880, although the eventual reception was remarkably similar on the two radios. Some users have reported SSB quirkiness in their 880’s…I was not able to duplicate those issues here on my initial tests…SSB reception seemed free of unusual artifacts and was, as I said quit easy to tune for natural audio…not always easy with SSB on portable radios.

Sync Mode is the only disappointment…it is poorly implemented on the ‘880. Many early adopters have criticized the sync saying it does not hold lock as well as the PL-660 but that has not been my experience. It holds quite well and also sounds symmetrical with both sidebands sounding similar on most signals, whereas most PL-660’s have one sideband considerably brighter than the other most likely due to wide circuit tolerances vagaries of alignment which have been eliminated in the 880. However the recovered audio in sync mode is poor compared with the PL-660 so signals almost always sound better without it. Is it possible that a future update could improve this? I don’t know. I can only comment on the current crop of radios…speculating about future tweaks is impossible but I will let you know if I hear of any changes.

Soft Muting:  Most of today’s radios using DSP Technology incorporate something called “Soft Muting”.  It is generally a BAD idea. It is designed to make the radio quieter when tuning between signals. Good idea I guess but the problem is that as you listen to a signal which is fading in and out, if it falls below a specific muting threshold the signals drops out suddenly, then pops back in as the signal again rises above that threshold. This so-called pumping is annoying and few serious radio listeners want soft muting. Luckily you can disable it on the PL-880…details are in the list of hidden features at the end of the review.

Some users also report that strong adjacent signals can cause a desired signal to partially mute annoyingly…I was not able to duplicate that issue but it could well be an issue in certain very specific circumstances.

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Some Recommended Initial Settings:  Due to different  firmware versions not all will work on every PL-880 so try them out and see for yourself.

Muting Threshold – Power On –  Press & Hold The 9 Key – Dial it down to 00 . Press 9 again to set. You must do this for AM, SW, and SSB modes.

Toggle Seconds Display On/Off – Power Off – Press & Hold 8 key.

Digital Noise Reduction – Power On Press 6 Key – set it to Off.

FM De-emphasis – Power On . Press 5 – Set to 75 uS USA or 50 uS Europe

Low Battery Limit Adjustment – Power Off Press 4 Key 3.4 – 3.7

To display all LCD elements, Power Off Press – AM-BW button

A second press displays the firmware version

A Third Press shows the firmware date
There are several more arcane adjustments that I won’t go into here and some of which did not work on my radio but suffice it to say that the PL-880 offers lots of room for personalization. Again, an unusually exhaustive discussion of all the settings is available at the Yahoo PL-880 Group:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TecsunPL-880/

Conclusion: Firmware versions and the possibilities of improvements aside for now,  the PL-880 is overall a worthy performer. While it’s Synchronous Detection performance is disappointing, I think the PL-880 is a great performer. Comparing it overall side-by-side with my PL-660 I find the PL-880 much better sounding, easier to tune on SSB and somewhat improved on AM and FM reception. It’s SW is too close to the PL-660 to pick a winner so my overall nod goes to the PL-880…I think it’s a winner.

Jay Allen

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