Tecsun PL-990X AM/SW/LW/MP Bluetooth MP3 Player

Tecsun PL-990X/PL-990 Multiband Radio/Bluetooth/MP3 Player

The PL-990X is an upgrade to the still-available and very popular PL-880. At this writing (Fall 2020) the PL-990X is just becoming available and some sites are selling early production units at wildly varying prices. Anon-co.com is now selling the regular production version for $235 while the PL-880 goes for $149 in its basic from or with a deluxe package going for $209.99. I have compared the PL-990X with the PL-880 extensively and also compared it with other models from Tecsun and other manufacturers and I’ll share all of that information with you in this report but first a bit of history about the PL-880.

PL-880 & PL-990X

When the PL-880 was first introduced back in 2013 it made a big splash for a couple of reasons. One was its breakthrough in audio quality for this size radio. Using a high-tech speaker, the PL-880 has much better sound with more wideband audio than other portables of similar size. In fact, at this size I would say the PL-880 is the best sounding radio I have.

But by far the biggest ballyhoo was the result of the discovery of a host of so-called “Hidden Features” …settings that could be changed by certain key strokes which were not mentioned in the Owner’s Manual. On top of that, shortly after introduction the PL-880’s Firmware was upgraded from 8819 to 8820. With this upgrade, additional Hidden Features became available and the online discussion of this and speculation of possible future firmware revisions reached fever…I might say viral proportions such that there was more discussion of this than any other aspect of the radio.

(See my Discussion Of Hidden Features at the end of this article):

Now we have the PL-990X/PL-990. Anon-co.com is selling the 909X version and has advised that the differences between them only affect users outside North & South America. The two radios behave identically when the AM Tuning Step is set to 10 KHz, but when set to 9 KHz there are a few differences.

 When set to MW 9kHz PL-990 PL-990x
LW range 100 – 519 kHz 50 – 522 kHz
SW range 1711 – 29999 kHz 1621 – 29999 kHz
FM range 87.5 – 108 MHz tuning steps of 100 kHz tuning steps of 50 kHz
Other FM ranges tuning steps of 100 kHz tuning steps of 100 kHz

The PL-990X/PL-990 also has a list of Hidden Features but Tecsun has provided them at the outset so we don’t’ have to discover them on our own. And one good thing I have to point out is that the defaults are now the way most of us will choose to use the radio, as opposed to the PL-880 where most of them had to be changed to make the radio perform at its best. For example, DNR defaults to Off which is the way most users will want it…this is good news. Click here to see the List of Hidden Features for the PL-990X/P-990.

Update! A New Hidden Feature:

A New Hidden Feature – Switch From The Ferrite Rod to the Whip for AM and LW

A new Hidden feature, allowing you to switch from the internal ferrite rod to the whip for AM and LW has been discovered and it is very easy to use. (It also applies to the new PL-330).

In AM or LW mode, Press and Hold for two seconds the Number 3 Key. The display will read CH-5 (standing for CH-S for SW which means the whip) and you are now using the telescoping whip for that band. The display will also show AM or LW and SW on the left-hand side.

Press and Hold the Number 3 Key for two seconds again and the display will show CH-A (for AM) and you will be  back to the ferrite rod. The display will read AM or LW (no SW).

This setting is retained after Power Off/On cycles.

As we’ve discussed before, news of new Hidden Features always causes an internet buzz, but now the important question is, how important is this? My take it that it is great for people who like to experiment and in my own tests it did improve AM reception in some cases, but in general the ferrite rod was superior. (I didn’t test it on LW).

When you compare a whip antenna to a ferrite rod antenna you discover why ferrite rods were put into use in the first place. They are compact. Being a form of loop antenna they often suppress noise better than a whip (or wire) antenna and they are directional which often helps to null out an offending signal or noise and peak the desired signal. But a whip can be a good signal grabber when it is long enough and when local RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) is low, and in my own tests there were some AM signals that were actually stronger and clearer with the whip. But on the majority of signals reception was similar or worse on the whip. This will come as no surprise to people who own the (excellent) Eton E1. One of the major criticisms of that radio was its use of the whip antenna for AM. We soon discovered though that in low noise environments (such as outdoors) the E1 with its whip was a formidable DXer, but in most people’s homes the noise desensitized the radio and made AM reception less good than on most ferrite rod equipped radios.

So enjoy this new feature of the PL-990 and PL-330, but know what to expect. It may work well for you or it may not. The lower the noise level in your setting the more you are likely to benefit from it but hey…it’s a fun thing to try out!

Features & Specifications:

(Frequency Limits Vary with Tuning Step Settings)

LW: 50- 519/50 – 522 KHz (LW can be disabled if desired)

MW/AM: 522-1620/ 520 – 1710 KHz

SW: 1621-29,999/1711- 29,999 KHz

FM: 64-108 MHz (Lower Limit Selectable At 64, 76, 87 or 87.5 MHz)

Tuning Steps: LW/MW 9Kkz/10Khz/1Khz

FM:100 KHz/10 KHz     (PL-990X Only: 50 KHz when AM set to 9 KHz steps)

Direct Keypad Frequency Entry

Page Memory System with VF (View Frequency) / VM (View Memory) switch

Up/Down Scan/Auto or Manual Auto Tuning Storage

Main and Fine-Tuning Knobs

FM Stereo/Mono Switch

Triple Conversion on LW/MW/SW

SSB with LSB/USB modes

Synchronous Detection with LSB/USB modes

SW Meter Band Buttons

Memories: 3150 total locations with 25 memory pages

DX/Norm/Local Gain Switch for All Bands

Clock (24 Hour Mode) with Alarm, Sleep Timer, Snooze

Multi-function Display with Time/Signal/SN Ratio

LED Lighting can be set to Auto or Always On

Audio Player – Micro SD Card 128 GB max (Playback only)

Supported Audio: 16 bit/44.1 KHz; FLAC / WAV / APE / WMA / MP3

Bluetooth Audio Playback

Computer Speaker Mode via USB Input

Bass/Treble Tone Switch

Key Lock

Output Power 450 mw

Speaker: 4 ohms 3W

Headphone Output 1/8” Jack 300 ohms

Line Out 1/8” Jack (Level Adjustable for FM Individually and as a group LW/AM/SW)

Aux Antenna Input Jack for ALL Bands 1/8: Mini Jack

Antenna switch disconnects both internal antennas when using external antennas

Power Supply: 3.7 V (18650 Li-ion Battery or External DC 5V (USB Type B Mini Socket)

Dimensions (Approx.) 198 mm/7.8” (W) x 120 mm/4.7” (H) x 38 mm/1.5” (D)

Weight without battery 611 g/21.55 oz.

Unboxing The PL-990X: Once again Tecsun has provided very nice packaging for their radio. In addition to an Owner’s Manual, Tecsun EP-20 stereo earbuds of the noise blocking type, and a very nice faux leather carrying case there are TWO rechargeable 3.7 V 18650 Li-ion batteries provided – the radio runs on one so you have a spare to keep charged in case the one you are using runs low or just stash the extra one away for future use. There is also a two outlet USB AC charger, a USB cable, an AN-03L reel-up antenna and a huge one-sheet on very heavy stock paper. It’s a Quick Start Guide on one side and a World Amateur Map on the other side…something I had never seen before. Those earbuds are much better than the ones you normally get with radios…they fit me well and sounded quite good. Very efficient too…they were much louder than my reference buds but there was no audible circuit noise at low listening levels.

Initial Observations: As soon as I set the Tuning Steps to 10 KHz and the FM band limits to 88-108 I began tuning around to get the general feel of the radio and I’m happy to say it was easy to put into use with no surprises and general performance seemed very nice. It tunes with no muting or chuffing and the Fine Tuning control is continuous. You can Auto Scan Up or Down and choose to save individual stations it lands on, or you can use ATS (Auto Tuning Storage) although I seldom use that feature on any radio…that’s just me. Tecsun has done us a service this time around by making their list of Hidden Features known to us but even better than that, all of the defaults are OFF…the way most of us would want them.  DNR is OFF, Muting Threshold is set to 00) etc. Unlike with the PL-880 there is no need to go through each setting to defeat it. Yes, I did go through all of them to confirm their settings but nonetheless it appears that you don’t have to. (At this point in time the Zero Beat setting for SSB doesn’t seem to work as outlined in the attached PDF (that’s why it is in red) but on my sample it is quite close as is so until the correct procedure becomes available SSB tuning is very easy with the 909X. I also noticed that the Antenna Switch on the front panel disconnects both the whip and ferrite rod antennas and external antennas can thus be directly connected and used to best advantage on all bands…these are major features not found of most of today’s portable radios. In fact most of today’s portables don’t let you connect an external antenna for AM and this may be reason enough for many users to like the 990X.

The PL-990X features Triple Conversion and uses the FM IF of 10.7 MHz along with a first IF of 55.845 MHz and the third is 455 KHz. Tecsun identifies that third IF as DSP, so evidently the other IF’s are done in analog mode. I do know of other radios using such a design.

Features: The PL-990X is feature-full and offers many new enhancements.

Synchronous Detection has been improved a bit over the PL-880 but is still way behind that of the PL-660. Although the distortion of the 880’s sync is gone the sound is still unnecessarily awful in sync mode and my sample sometimes had to be off-tuned a notch or two to lock into sync at all. (It is possible that once the SSB Zero Beat Adjustment becomes known this asymmetrical sync lock may be alleviated…I hope so and I will let you know). On the PL-660, as well as other radios with properly designed sync such as the Sony ICF-2010, The Grundig Satellit 700 (when properly aligned) , Satellit 800 and Eton E1, there is no gross change in sound quality when sync is engaged. Sure, there are conditions where this will happen which depends on the signal being received, but overall the radio does not change its basic sound in sync mode. On the PL-990X sync imposes a severe filtering of the audio and there is no good reason for this to be so. It is unfortunate and I don’t understand how Tecsun can have such a good sounding sync in their PL-660 but not on their more expensive and otherwise superior radios.

Bluetooth Playback:  This is a great addition and is a handy tool to have available when you want it. I paired my 990X with my phone quickly and it sounds great.

Audio Player: Here too this is a great added function and Tecsun has actually provided a feature in their player I have long wished for…the ability to scan forward and backward within a track. This might not sound like a very important thing but I often use this sort of player to listen to Old Time Radio Shows which are generally 30 minutes in length. The other audio players I have don’t allow one to scan forward or backward within the track and for me this is a major plus. My radio arrived with a SanDisk 16 Gb card installed in the slot containing one song; “Please Remember Me” by Aaron Neville…perhaps it was used for testing and was left by mistake??? Unit is for playback only.

Computer Speaker Mode: I didn’t test this feature which lets you use the PL-990X as a computer speaker via its USB input jack (normally used for battery charging).

Tecsun has also upgraded their standard accessory package for the PL-990X by offering their nicer carry case, a windup reel antenna to replace the plain wire provided in the past, some upgraded earbuds, a spare battery and that very nice, large foldout one-sheet.

Performance: OK – it is clear that Tecsun considers the PL-990X to be an upgrade to the PL-880 and I agree that it is in most, but not all ways. The PL-880 retains one area of superiority over all the other similarly-sized Tecsuns and that is its sound quality. That fabulous rich sound the ‘880 is known for has taken a slight step backward in the 990x. Now don’t get me wrong – the 990X is still a fine sounding portable for its size and sounds worlds better than most competing radios including the PL-660, PL-600 or Eton Elite Executive, but on a side by side comparison the PL-880 has fuller, richer audio and sometimes a bit more extra gain on its volume control for very low level signals. If you primarily listen to good quality signals where sound is very important the PL-880 may still be your best choice but I’ve got to say that for many other reasons I prefer the 990X.

Reception: Here the PL-990X and PL-880 are more similar than different. Their forte are SW and FM where they rate as well as any portables in this category. Scanning the shortwave bands both day and night each radio competed head to head. At times a given signal might seem just a hair stronger on one of the other but moving the radios or changing stations reversed the differences. I noticed no hand capacitance effects on either radio across all frequency ranges…this could be different for different conditions such as in the presence of a counterpoise near the radios. At any rate it was not present on my 990X. One test showed similar AGC characteristics – I tuned into very weak and fading signals and adjusted each radio for equal volume, then listened as the signals faded into the noise. Generally, the two radios tracked identically…when they didn’t, reversing their positions reversed the results. I would also judge the AGC on the 990X to be slightly slower (superior) to the ‘880 at reducing that fluttery sound one often hears at twilight and at night, but again, the differences were usually subtle. The PL-990X filters had slightly better characteristics with steeper skirts and/or deeper ultimate rejection and were thus slightly better at rejecting adjacent channel splatter in crowded band conditions which sometimes meant a wider bandwidth setting could be used to provide clearer audio with less interference.  One note is that the 990x and 880 have a few different bandwidth choices on SW: they both offer 2.3, 3.5 and 5.5 KHz but then the PL-990X offers 6 KHz while the PL-880 has 9 KHz. On the AM band both follow the 880’s bandwidth options with a 9 KHz Wide setting. On SW SSB mode they both have the same bandwidth options of 0.5, 1.2, 2.3, 3 and 4.0. I found tuning into SSB transmissions very easy on both radios and both were generally able to provide clear, natural copy of such signals.

FM Performance is absolutely top tier on both of these radios and they rank with the best of the Five Star FM performers in my FM Mega Shootout Article.

I have several extremely severe test signals at my new hilltop location here in Kentucky. It features even more crowded FM band conditions than I faced in Connecticut with a mish mash of strong and weak signals with many frequencies sporting two or even three competing signals thanks to the proliferation of new FM translators operating at low power. (In fact, there are NO completely clear frequencies for my home FM transmitter…I have to find a channel with the least interference on it). On the very best FM portables I can separate these signals by careful positioning of the radio and its whip antenna and both the 990X and 880 did as well as any of my reference radios in these admittedly severe tests. No portable FM radio is likely to do better than either of these two Tecsuns.

AM Performance: Although the Tecsun does as well as any current day multiband portable at this size, it is not at the top of the heap on AM compared with some of the hottest AM performers. The PL-990X squeaks into a *** ranking on the AM Mega Shootout with the added bonus of being able to use the Aux antenna input on the AM band…very rare in today’s portables. The ‘990X slightly edged out the ** ½ Star Eton Elite Executive and XHDATA D-808  because its better audio made weak signals more enjoyable to listen to even though it is not quite as good as the *** Tecsun S-8800. It will hear very faint AM signals but their quieting curve doesn’t match the **** and ***** star AM radios because as signals grow stronger the best radios become hiss-free much sooner. It is this slightly higher noise floor and poor quieting curve for weak daytime signals that separates the Tecsun at *** from the very best AM portables, but again, it is the best you will find in a multiband radio of this size. It also performs very well at night where its excellent filter characteristics and AGC help make poor signals sound clearer and it outperformed the Eton Elite Executive and XHDATA D-808 under these conditions, where its fuller audio also helped quite a bit. I also noticed a slight improvement in Fine Tuning action on AM where the PL-880 had very faint ticks with each step which were complexly absent on the PL990X. I did notice a very weak het on a weak station at 700 KHz, which oddly was also there on my PL-880 but not on any of the other radios I compared them with. Very minor and it could be tuned out and this frequency could vary sample to sample.

Conclusion: The big question people will ask is, “I already have a PL-880 – is it worth it to upgrade to the PL-990X? Many people will try to answer that for you but to me it all comes down to what you like in radios, what your needs are, how much of a hit the cost will make to your budget and what kind of a radio nut you are! As we’ve seen there are subtle differences in performance. Raw reception is extremely close on all bands, such that deploying the reel up antenna will make a far greater difference than any differences in the radios themselves. The PL-880 still has the better sounding speaker while the PL-990X offers slightly improved sync, better filters and many new features. So overall, the PL-990X is as good as it gets for AM, SW and FM reception in this category and I’m very happy to own it. I do use its new features such as Bluetooth and MP3 playback and using external antennas I love the fact that they can now be used on all bands with the internal antennas disconnected. As I said earlier, that feature alone will be worth it to many users.

Recommended!

Jay Allen                                 

                                                          HIDDEN FEATURES – Pros and Cons

There are a few aspects of Hidden Features that bear some thought. Although such things existed to some extent before the PL-880 was released in 2013, the PL-880 turned them into Superstars. The internet discussion groups almost exploded with talk of firmware versions and the hidden features of that radio. The revision from firmware version 8819 – 8820 eclipsed discussions of any other aspect of that radio because some of those hidden features didn’t work on the earlier version. Fair enough. But why were those features hidden in the first place rather than just put into the owner’s manual?  And what about some of those “features”, many of which most users immediately disabled? Are they really worthwhile?

No one knows what Tecsun was thinking during their design and marketing processes so we can only guess. One explanation is fairly obvious – those features could be changed during future production runs which is exactly what happened to the PL-880 between version 8819 and 8820. Of course, if they were included in the manual, a revised manual would have to be produced and indeed this is something we see occasionally with other radios. Additionally, is it possible that, in the case of the PL-880, they knew the Synchronous Detection didn’t work very well so they didn’t want to advertise it or make it official, yet still wanted to make it available for those who wanted experiment with it? This too is possible.

Finally, and I’ve said this before, although it is nice to be able to, for example adjust the Line Output level, that should just be a regular feature included in the owner’s manual. But DNR should just never exist in the first place. Not only does DNR as designed in some of today’s DSP chips work to defeat the AGC which is a necessary part of all modern radios, but it can also render some signals unlistenable. AGC (Automatic Gain Control) attempts to reduce volume changes as signals go from strong to weak…listening would be very unpleasant without it. But DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) and Muting Thresholds do just the opposite. As signals fall below a certain threshold, DNR pushes their volume down even more in a misguided attempt to reduce noise. But the reality is that when listening to such varying signals, the audio surging and pumping caused by DNR makes those signals very unpleasant to listen to. So just what is the benefit of DNR? The best thing I can say about it here is that at least with the new PL990X it is “Off” by default and it can be turned off. In the earlier days of DSP chips many radios had non-defeatable DNR and it made those radios very unpopular.

Now Tecsun has decided to advertise the sync capability of the 990X and it has a button dedicated to that. Great! I certainly hope that in future production its characteristics can be improved at least to the performance level of the sync in the PL-660. More importantly, we don’t really need features like DNR. The ones we do need such as setting Tuning Steps and Band Limits aren’t hidden so why should any other ones be? Just put them in the manual.

Or am I missing something here? Comments appreciated at radiojayallen@gmail.com

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