So there I was, enjoying another mind numbingly boring day at my office when I get an instant message from a friend of mine who lives in Arkansas.
“Dude, it turns out I’m not going to Dayton after all. How about I come up to Iowa and help you get an antenna put up?” “You wanna drive from Arkansas to Iowa to help me put up an antenna? Are you high??” “Well, yeah! But I’ll still ready to make the drive up. What do you say?” “Yeah, OK. Sounds good to me.”
At this point, I figured it was just the weed talking and didn’t think much of it. Well, at least until Thursday that is, when my friend sent me another message that morning.
“I’m getting kind of a late start on things, but I’m leaving here now. I should be at your place this evening!”
I guess it wasn’t just the weed talking after all.
It’s been a few years since I was active on the ham bands. The base station got put into storage, the sloping long wire fell victim to a terrible hedge clipping incident, and the mobile antenna was taken off of the 4Runner and never installed on the new Tacoma. I did manage to check in with the Maritime net on 14300 a couple of times while using a portable magnetic loop, but those check ins were few in far between.
Earlier this year though, I found the plans for a sloping inverted L that would fit inside the confines of my yard pretty well. I could use a walnut tree at the end of the driveway to hang the elbow of the L from, and run it over the driveway and across the width of my lot to a post on the other side. This should give me great coverage on 80, and it just might even give me some capabilities on 160, a band I’ve never used.
Excited by my plan to finally get back on the air, I called up the good folks at DX Engineering and soon had a box of coax and parts on its way. Soon I would be back on the bands, burning up the clouds with my FT-2000 and AL-811H amp, and I couldn’t wait.
And then it got cold.
Ridiculously cold. So cold that you could scrape the frozen RF off of the big loop’s antenna wires cold. Well ok, maybe not that cold, but if you live in the Midwest, you know what I mean. Needless to say I didn’t get my antenna up before the ground froze solid, and my plans came to a grinding halt. The box of antenna goodies sat in the corner unopened, and waiting for better days ahead.
Finally, with my friend’s truck in my driveway, a break in the never ending rain, and three whole days cleared off on my calendar, the time to put a bunch of metal up in the air had finally arrived. I drug out the box of antenna parts, rope, fishing line, sinker, and all the other stuff needed for the project and we got to work.
As you can see, we aren’t exactly breaking any new technological ground with this one. It is, as another friend would call it, “just a wire in a tree”, or as I like to call it, my 100% organic, bio-degradable tower. It’s definitely not fancy, but that’s the beauty of radio: it doesn’t have to be fancy to work. The question still remained though: would this antenna do what I hoped it would do? I mean, I was pretty confident this antenna would give me 80, but I ran out of yard before I hit the magic 120 feet mark. Would this thing work at all on 160?
So far, i would have to say the answer is yes. As I expected, the antenna seems to work on 20 through 80 with no problems, and that’s with our currently awful band conditions. As for 160? Well, I managed to make contacts with a few locals on Sunday afternoon. Ankeny and Altoona aren’t exactly exotic DX, but they sounded like music to my ears! We’ll see how it goes this winter, but I am pretty optimistic. All in all, I’d have to say I am very pleased. I still want to add a hex beam for 20 thru 10, but until that happens, this will work out fine.
My friend made it back to Arkansas Sunday night, where we had a brief 5/7 QSO on 80m. It turns out his radio is getting into his father in law’s microphone when he transmits. Maybe I’ll have to return the favor, and drive down there to help him get his radio back on the air.
Who knows what makes for good propagation? I mean, we certainly understand the role of the sun and its interaction with earth’s magnetic field, but sometimes there’s something else involved that is harder to predict. It’s like those crazy days during a solar minimum when 10 meters opens up, or those days when the sunspots are rolling, but the band is closed. At the end of the day, it can sometimes just come down to chance. The odds can be in your favor, but that doesn’t mean you’ll complete the circuit.
Even though the stage has been set for great trans-Atlantic and Pacific DX for over a month, things had been kind of slim. I had heard a couple of Spaniards on the band, and even a couple of Brits, but none of them were anything to get too excited about. A little audio here and there, but nothing else. My morning runs through the dial haven’t been much better, when I even bothered to wake up for them that is. You can only have so many mornings filled with a blistering noise level before you decide that bed feels a little too comfy, and you decide to sleep in.
I have no idea what possessed me to get out of bed at 5 AM this morning. Maybe it was the fact I didn’t work at Job #2 last night, and managed to get to bed at a fairly early hour? Maybe it was the cat, who decided it would be fun to walk across my face until I let him crawl under the covers? Or maybe it was the little voice in my head reminding me of how good the bands had been the last week? Whatever it was, I found myself cruising around the dial with the Perseus at around 5:15 this morning.
At first, I didn’t really hear much of interest. 4KW was audible on 5055 with music from Chris DeBurgh, but it was a really rough copy at best. The Solomons seemed to be strong on 5020, but they looked stronger than they sounded, and needed more modulation. I was thinking about going back to bed when I popped down to the mediumwave band, and found the propagation conditions of a lifetime. The bands that had been dead suddenly came to life. The propagation drought wasn’t just over, the perfect storm had arrived.
Imagine my surprise when I received not just one, but multiple Japanese stations all across the dial. JOUB on 774 kHz was the strongest, with a Halloween themed English lesson. Check out the signal strength on this one. That station is 5866 miles away, and its peaking at just under an S9. Amazing!
This was the exact same English lesson that west coast DXer Ron Howard had reported a couple of weeks earlier on the World of Radio mailing list, so this was an easy one to identify. If that didn’t nail it down though, I heard the same programming in parallel on 693 kHz, JOAB.
Japan was audible on several other frequencies as well, including 747 kHz. The best audio of the morning though came from JOUB about an hour later, when their English lesson taught the listeners three important phrases:
This is not the end of the world
God will never give you anything that you can’t handle
All you can eat buffet
(FYI, cut the third one off in this clip. I will upload it in its entirety when I get a chance.)
And just to top it all off, the station that I caught a whiff of (at best) last fall was present this morning, and much stronger than before. My presumption at the time was that this was a China National Radio outlet, and I am sticking to it. Let me know what you think.
I was really hoping for a Korean station to pop up this morning, but no such luck. I think I may have heard a little from a KBS outlet up the band from 1098 (there’s something very distinct about the sharp, staccato cadence of North Korean radio), but there wasn’t a lot to work with. Who knows what the band will serve up tomorrow? If conditions hold out, the sun stays quiet, no one wobbles the magnetic field, that magic X factor sticks around, tomorrow could make for another interesting morning.
EDITORS NOTE: I have had some folks more knowledgeable than I am take a listen to the 1098 clips, and they have strong reason to believe it was CNR 11, part of the Tibetan service. If that transmitter was the one at Golmud, it is 11,248 km away from my receive antenna.
I don’t talk a lot about my personal life here, but think this is worthy of an exception. The following is a Facebook post I made on August 21st of 2018.
There are times in life when you can be shocked, but not surprised. You may know something is coming, and you have done your best to prepare yourself for that moment, but you still find the suddenness and finality of it all leaves you shocked, and dumbfounded.
It all began with yet another call from Mom’s nursing home. By this point, that was nearly a daily occurrence. I had gotten used to them informing me about any change in Mom’s condition, ranging from a change of socks to an extra dose of Tylenol, but that wasn’t the case this time. Instead of something mundane like a new doctor’s order, it was far more ominous.
‘We cannot control her pain anymore’, said the nurse on the other end of the line, ‘and her physical condition is continuing to deteriorate. ‘I sat in silence as I waited for the words that I dreaded to hear, but that I knew were coming.
‘We reommend hospice at this time. ‘
It’s one of the few times in my life where I have been shocked into silence.
Again, this wasn’t a surprise. This whole stay at the nursing home hadn’t gone according to plan from the very beginning. What I figured would be a brief stint in rehab wasn’t turning out that way. Instead of getting stronger like all those times before, she just kept getting weaker. The woman who had defied the odds so many times, and baffled her doctors with her miraculous comebacks was coming to the end of the line.
The following night, after consulting with her doctors, I went to see her again, and somehow found the strength and courage to tell her that she’d been recommended for hospice. After asking a couple of questions about the where and the why, she looked at me and said, ‘I think I can try that for a couple of days.’
At the time I wasn’t sure if she understood what I was telling her. In retrospect, i now realize it was me who didn’t understand. i think she knew better than I did how close she was. At the time she was admitted to hospice, we figured she had a few weeks. In reality, she had far less than that. Within five days of our conversation, she was gone.
That night though, as I sat next to her in her stifling hot room with its impossibly uncomfortable chair, I had no idea what the following hours would bring. What I did know though is that I had laundry to do, and two jobw to get ready for the next day, and started to get ready to leave. As I got up though, she grabbed my hand, with a strength and quickness that I didn’t know she still had, asked me to stay a little longer, giving me a look with her eyes that I don’t think I will ever forget. Of course, I sat back down, and stayed with her while she dozed off.
My one big regret is that I didn’t stay a little longer than I did.
A couple of days later, after we got her checked in to her room at the hospice center, I gave her a hug goodbye, and told her that I loved her. She told me that I was very special to her, and that she loved me as well.
It was the last time I ever spoke with her. The next time I saw her, she was semi-conscious at best.
It’s hard to believe, but that was over two months ago now. The ‘new normal’ is upon us, and we (the dogs, cats, and myself) are all holding our own. Two months into it though, I can tell you that the new normal will never feel anything like normal ever again.
We will go on, live our lives, and maybe even prosper, but it will never feel normal. All we can do it move forward, live our lives, and remember next time to stay a little longer with those we love.
Today, I dedicate this blog to my Mom, the woman who bought me a Realistic DX-360 for Christmas in 1987, allowed me to put up ‘all those wires’ around the house, and listened patiently while I explained to her that hearing the VL8 stations on 120m was a big deal.
Rest easy, Mom. You are loved and missed by all of us.
Outdoor listening sessions are nothing new for me. My Facebook feed has several shots of the Drake R8, HQ-145, and even a Racal 6790 sitting on the deck of my old house, an adult beverage nearby, and a strand of speaker wire for an antenna. These listening sessions never provided any exotic DX catches, but they were a lot of fun.
Now that winter has finally surrendered its grip on Central Iowa, my radios have again found themselves outside on the patio for an enjoyable evening of listening under the night time sky. It gives me a chance to get away from my beloved Perseus and my trusty fleet of portables, and get re-acquainted with some old favorites.
Last night, I dug out an old war horse that hadn’t been fired up in a few years: the Drake SPR-4. Now for those who are not familiar with this radio, all I can really say about its operation is that it is a dial turner’s dream come true. Not only is the HF spectrum broken up into crystal controlled segments, there is also a preselector that needs to be adjusted with every turn of the tuning dial. In case you’re still not clear on how it all works, here’s a demo video someone put up on YouTube to give you a better idea.
Don’t let these ‘quirks’ fool you though, this is a real gem of a radio. Drake understood both the benefits and limitations of late 60s solid state technology, and designed a radio to maximize those strengths while minimizing the downsides. The result is a radio that is well regarded in DXing circles to this day. From my experience, I’d say it hears about as well as anything in the shack, and it has that beautiful blue dial to boot.
This particular SPR-4 had a couple of aftermarket modifications performed on it by the original vendor, which give it a couple of nice features that never made it into the stock versions. One of these is a gain control switch that allows it to be turned off when needed. That’s usually not a big deal, but it can mean the difference between hearing a weak signal and never pulling it out of the mud. The other mod present on this radio is a BFO injector, which basically allows you to use the USB and LSB settings as a secondary bandwidth filter without the noise of a squealing heterodyne. Handy indeed!
This radio also came with another super handy accessory: a frequency counter. While I wouldn’t say it’s completely necessary, it can be very helpful, especially if it’s the first time you’ve turned the rig on in over a year. It certainly answered my immediate question of ‘where in the world am I on the dial?‘ All I had to do was flip it on, take a look, and I was good to go. The display does generate a little bit of noise on the dial though. Normally it’s 100% inaudible, but since my Quantum Loop antenna was sitting right next to it, I never left it on for very long. I have bought an aftermarket VFO for this rig, but I prefer using the crystals.
This radio is especially well regarded among mediumwave DXers, and it doesn’t take long to realize why this radio has the reputation that it does. The first thing I picked up was a station with Washington Nationals baseball, WRVA 1140 out of Richmond, VA. Not exactly a difficult catch here, but still a very nice signal. I then moved down the dial to the Cardinals on KMOX St Louis, and managed to just about null them out with the Quantum Loop. I then headed further down the dial to 1030, just on the outskirts of my local clear channel flamethrower WHO Des Moines. Some adjustments to the loop helped to reduce the interference, but it was still pretty “crunchy”. A quick switch over to the lower sideband setting and a little fiddling of the notch filter though quickly revealed WCTS, the 1 kW religious station out of Maplewood, MN. Not the WBZ I was hoping for, but still a good test.
I continued my cruise down the dial, thoroughly enjoying everything about the night. One of the beauties about the AM broadcast band is that no two listening sessions are ever the same. What is coming in like gangbusters tonight may be gone without a trace tomorrow, and vice versa. Tonight was no exception, as I nulled out my beloved Chicago Cubs on 670 and listened as KGHZ and Cuba battled for supremacy on the frequency. Later, I watched a shooting star shoot across the sky as WSM played Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy by the great Lefty Frizzell.
How freaking cool is that, people?
I ended up the night by playing detective on 620 AM. Milwaukee was dominant, but KEXB out of Plano, TX was mixing with a couple of others. WRJZ out of Knoxville, TN was one (they were nice enough to come up just as they gave an ID, something that usually never happens), but I could also hear the hockey game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators. After eliminating a couple of possibilities through internet live streams, I figured out from a commercial mentioning Florida that it was sports station WDAE out of Tampa. With the mystery solved, it was time to wrap up another great “Propagation on the Patio” session and go to bed.
There are a lot of worse ways to spend an evening than spinning the dials on the Drake SPR-4. While it may not win any beauty contests, or awards for ergonomics, this radio has it where it counts. When I said this radio could hear as well as anything in the shack, I really do mean anything. It’s as good as the R-388, the Perseus, the Elad… you name it. When you can take a quality radio like this outside though, and enjoy it under the night time sky, that’s something very special. If you get the opportunity, take advantage of these cool late spring nights and do a little listening outside. It’s well worth the effort.
In fact, I may have another date with the Drake set for tonight.
For those who do not know, the General Electric Super Radio (SR) is a bit of a modern day classic. in fact, it introduced a lot of us to the world of “serious” broadcast band DXing. These radios, which sold for about $50, provided the listener with nice audio, decent selectivity, and that big, sensitive ferrite rod antenna. Their analog dial might not have been the most accurate, and the later production model IIIs could sound atrocious, but I don’t think you could do much better for the money.
A couple of years ago, I discovered that Panasonic made its own ‘version’ of the SR. For some reason, in spite of knowing all about the many competitors to the Trans-Oceanic, it never dawned on me that anyone would try to compete with GE in this marketplace. Sure enough, the Panasonic rf-1401 is certainly in the same league as its counterparts at GE. It has similar size, layout, and, after the ferrite rod antenna upgrade, can compete with GE’s best. Now that I knew about the Panasonic, and the Realistic brand ‘TRF’, what about other brands? I mean, if Panasonic felt the need to release a radio to compete with the GE, did Sony come out with a competitor as well? And if they did, well, what was it?
Of course, my first stop was (where else?) eBay. I sorted through all kinds of Sony portables and didn’t find much that would match up with what I was looking for. I found lots of 2010s, but that started being made in 1985, and was well above the price range I was looking for. I also found several Earth Orbiters, but that was a TransOceanic competitor, not a Super Radio.
I did, however, manage to turn up the The Sony TFM–7720W, a double conversion receiver that looks a lot like the SRs. It has a similar size to its GE counterparts, complete with an analog dial, but its tone adjustment is limited to a low/high switch. Its production run may have started as early as 1970 as well, which would predate the GE’s, so it’s not quite what I am looking for. It’s still an intriguing looking radio though, and one that is still surrounded by a bit of mystery as well. There just isn’t a lot on the web about these radios, although I did find a post saying that it wasn’t quite up to the performance of the SR II. I have a feeling one of these will probably end up in Tim’s Wayward Home for Radios, and might even get the same antenna upgrade as the rf-1401.
Enter the ‘Superstar’
I figured my quest had come to an end with the TFM, but that all changed when I stumbled across a demonstration video made by the AM DXer Gary DeBock. Mr. DeBock has done a lot of work in developing the ferrite sleeve loop (FSL) antenna for ultralight DXing, and has a log book I can only dream of. His YouTube channel is full of great stuff, and I highly recommend checking it out. It was in one of these loop demonstration videos where the Sony portable he was using immediately caught my eye. This one looked kind of like the Sony TFM, but it had sliding controls along the side, and no other visible front controls. Nope, this was definitely not the TFM, but what in the world was it??
As it turns out, the radio is a Sony ICF-S5, and it has a rather legendary reputation in the broadcast band DXing community, When it comes to pure sensitivity, this radio may be the king of the mediumwave portables. Not only that though, they also had a Murata 455 kHz filter inside, giving them good selectivity as well. In addition, they had that certain Sony touch that the best of their designs always seem to have. In this case, it was a green and red LED indicator on the dial to give you an idea of your best signal strength.
These remarkable radios had an Achilles heel though. All that sensitivity came at the cost of strong signal images in several places across the band. If you thought that local broadcaster was a pest before now, this radio gave you the chance to hear it again on 910 kHz. In spite of this drawback, the S5 developed a cult like following, and is still well regarded to this day. To quote Gary DeBock’s write up on this radio for the IRCA reflector:
For the Japanese, who have far more radio enthusiasts
per capita than do North Americans, the ICF-S5 was an overnight sensation, with AM sensitivity superior to anything else on the market at the time. It gained the nickname of the "Superstar," and when I was stationed at Yokosuka, Japan in the Navy (in early 1980), its photo was displayed in train stations and shopping centers, similar to those of the most popular Japanese actresses
and pop singers.
In other words, how in the world had I not heard of this one before??
Well, that question is an easy one. The S5 was only released in the Japanese domestic market, so there are not a lot of them over here in the states. They did make a North American version called the S5W, but they only made it for one year (1981) before ceasing production of both models. That makes the S5W a very rare beast indeed, and a very expensive one as well. If you can find one, you can expect to pay upwards of $200.
The good news is that its replacement in the JDM was the ICF-EX5, a radio I have come to know and love. It shares a lot of the features of the S5 line, plus the addition of that bulldog of a synch detector. While this radio is not technically available in North America, you can pick one up on Amazon or eBay. It’s a fitting heir to the throne, but you know I will be on the lookout for an S5 from here on out.
While my wallet may have different feeling about all of this, I would like to thank Mr. DeBock for sharing his information about this gem of a radio. This post couldn’t have been written without it.
So I read somewhere that it’s not good to go 547 days between blog posts. Well, it’s a good thing that we’ve only gone 546 days between posts here at HF Radio Review, and will manage to get a new post in just before that magic 547 day deadline.* What can I say, people? If life takes its toll on the best of us., you can only imagine what it does at times to a schmuck like me. fortunately I am coming up for air long enough to let you know what’s been going on around here as far as radios go.
The portable radio kick continues with a couple of new additions to the menagerie. The GE Monitor 10 is pure nostalgia for me. I could only dream about having a radio like this when I was a kid, so it only seemed fitting to give this one a home now. It can’t hold a candle to some of the other portables in the shack, but its still an enjoyable radio. The weather band is a useful feature, and that big speaker pays off with a nice, rich tone. It may not be a DXing beast, but it’s great for listening to a ballgame.
While it would be easy to dismiss the Zenith Royal 94 as little more than nostalgia as well, this one can hold its own, especially on the mediumwave band. All in all, I’d say it’s about on par with its big brother the TransOceanic, which is pretty good in my book. It could use a little TLC to get it in real fighting shape, but it will be worth the effort, as this is already a great radio. Besides, this one is a real looker. Even people who aren’t into radios can appreciate this beauty. Commander mcDonald really outdid himself with this one.
Fast forward a couple of decades to the early 80s, when the Panasonic rf-1401 made its debut. I picked this one up a while ago, but it didn’t do much for me.While it had that nice big audio that I’ve come to know and love from Panasonic, it just fell short in the performance department. Deedless to say, this one didn’t do it for me, and it ended up on the shelf for the better part of two years.
A few weeks ago, I finally decided to do the Jay Allen antenna mod on this radio, and I swear the thing came to life! The AM sensitivity is much better, maybe even better than the GE 7-2990. it still has some ‘quirks’ around strong signals, but that new ferrite rod antenna has turned an OK radio into a great one, and is an upgrade that’s well worth the effort. I’m looking forward to really putting this one through its paces.
A Second Loop Antenna
If you don’t have the room to put a lot of metal up in the air, or live in a noisy urban environment, the magnetic loop is a godsend. These small wonders are famous for their ability to cut through the man made noise and get to the signal you’re looking for. Larry Plummer, W6LVP, took the magnetic loop and made it portable. Thanks to a loop made from coax cable, this antenna gives you all the benefits of a Wellbrook or Pro-1B in a package that can be put up and taken down in minutes. I’ve had the opportunity to play around with this antenna for a while now, and it has proven itself to be a great performer. Expect a comparison between it and the Pro-1B here shortly.
By the way, Larry has a $25 off sale for his loops this month. If you are in the market for a new receive antenna, I would jump on this one. If you already have one of his loops but would like to make it even more portable, you can get a battery box like the ones used on his new portable loop from Adafruit industries.
A New Mediumwave Catch
While I may seem a little fixated on portables these days, that doesn’t mean that the Perseus hasn’t been put to good use. I made this recording last october, but didn’t do much with it as I wasn’t all that pleased with the quality. After giving it a second listen though, it’s much better than I remembered. Still rough mind you, but it’s easily my best mediumwave catch ever. This recording is of a signal I caught around local sunrise on 1098 kHz with the SAL-30 pointed to the Northwest. While I should’ve looked for parallel transmissions on the shortwave bands, the audio and frequency would match up with the 1000 KW (and no, that is not a typo) China National Radio transmitter out of Golmud.
6989 miles away from my SAL.
Here’s a clip of what I heard that morning in October. Take a listen and decide for yourself.
So How Many Days Will You Go between Posts This Time?
Hey, what can I say? Sometimes life gets in the way of things, and your passions need to take a back seat. Hopefully I will have a little more time to devote to my beloved hobby soon though, and if things go well, 2018 could be a great year for my radio addiction. I am hoping to put together a ferrite sleeve loop antenna this summer, which will make my portables even better. I am also in the preliminary stages of possibly doing a DXPedition this fall, but we’ll see have to wait and see. Stay tuned, folks.
*Yes, I had to go back and edit this part when I was unable to finish the post on time. Don’t judge me. That’s Boris’s job.
I first heard of long distance mediumwave DX from the pages of Monitoring Times in the mid 90s, when they mentioned a fellow in the Pacific Northwest who, equipped with his Drake R8 and a Beverage antenna, was hearing mediumwave stations out of India and Japan. I had no idea this was even possible until this point, and was immediately fascinated by the idea.
A few years later, I discovered Werner Funkenhauser’s WHAMLOG, as well as Mark Connelly’s Your First 50 Trans-Atlantic Countries, which was like pouring gasoline on a fire. From that point on, I was bound and determined to hear a mediumwave station from overseas, but it never happened. My noisy QTH of Baltimore City and a lack of serious antennas did me no favors, plus I was rarely available during evening grayline, the best TA hunting hours. I figured when I moved to Iowa, my chances of hearing anything would be slim to none. TA signals rapidly drop in strength as you move inland from the coast, and figured I’d have to go on some sort of DXpedition to a quiet coastal location in order to hear anything at all.
Enter Tim Tromp, and his YouTube channel Kilokat7. In my opinion, Tim has become one of the best DXers in North America, and his YouTube channel backs that up. His short Beverage and D-Kaz antennas produce nothing short of amazing results, including mediumwave catches from the South Pacific and Australia. His knowledge of the bands are second to none. Most importantly though, he’s a land-locked Midwesterner just like me, DXing from the state of Michigan. So it was possible after all!
Last night, I found myself in front of the radios, trying to avoid the debate ant the Cubs game. The shortwave conditions were terrible, so I decided to go and play around on the broadcast band for a while. It didn’t take long for me to notice a couple of odd blips on the spectrum in between the North American 10 kHz spacing, but i didn’t think too much of it. My location is prone to false images (there’s a large metal machine shed about 100′ from my antenna), but I don’t usually see them at night. these were also lining up perfectly with the 9 kHz split frequencies used outside of North America. I settled on one that seemed to be relatively in the clear on 1053 and started playing with the filters. Lo and behold, I got this:
Of course I immediately message Tim, who tells me that what I’m hearing it Libya. Yes, THAT Libya! After years of trying, I’d finally bagged my first TA catch from about 6000 miles away. Score!
What is really interesting about this is that neither Libya or Central Iowa was in the grayline at that time, as you can see from the DX Toolbox map I pulled up. I can’t think of any propagation mechanism that would get a signal this far inland at that time, but that’s the beauty of radio, isn’t it? You just never really know what you’re going to hear, do you?
In addition to Libya on 1053, I got some fragments of audio from something on 747 kHz, but I’ll have to hear that one again to see if there’s anything really there.
With that in mind, I decided to take them out and see how they compared during a night of listening. Now please remember that this isn’t a true head to head review, but more like a few observations from a single night of listening. A head to head review would take a lot longer, and probably wouldn’t be all that revealing in the end anyway. Think of this as more of a friendly jam session between to equally competent musicians. They’re both very good at what they do, but they both do it with their own sense of style.
The CCRadio 2E
C Crane’s CCRadio 2E reminds me a lot of the old Realistic DX-390, and for good reason. Like that old Radio Shack offering from the early 90s, the CCRadio is made by Sangean, which might explain the similar feel these radios share. The size, control placement, and sound are all similar to the old DX-390. Unfortunately, the CCRadio 2E (aka CCR2E) also tunes like that old radio, with the same muted audio and “chugging” sound whenever you change frequencies. I would think they could’ve done something about this over the last twenty plus years, but I would be wrong.
Aside from this quirk though, the radio is laid out in an easy to use arrangement, with the tuning knob and volume control on the side, and the presets, power, and band selection on top. The front panel features a separate bass and treble control, up and down tuning buttons (10 kHz at a time on AM), and a variety of clock and alarm controls I will probably never use. Unlike most of my other portables, the CCR2E features a digital frequency display, with an optional backlight. While it isn’t a requirement, a digital readout can certainly make your life a lot easier. Last night, for example, I turned the CCrane to 610 to compare it to what I was hearing on the old Panasonic only to find I was really listening to 590 kHz. Oops!
While I realize that the audio of this radio was designed for human speech and not music, it still sounds kind of narrow and compressed to my ears. Even with the separate bass and treble controls, it still doesn’t seem to have the full sound one would expect from a radio of this size (another trait it shares with its DX-390 ancestor). It does work as advertised though, with speech being clear and quite understandable from even distant stations.
And it is in hunting out distant radio stations where this radio shines. I could hear everything on the CCrane that I could hear on the Panasonic and vice versa. In fact, in sheer sensitivity, I couldn’t really tell them apart. The CCrane also impressed me with its selectivity as well, passing my “1030 test” with flying colors. It was a little harder to get a good null on WHO with the CCR2E than it was the rf-2200 and its rotating antenna, but it is still doable.
Don’t put any stock into the fact that there’s no audio on 1030 during this test video. It’s AM radio you know, and things come and go. It just so happens that, when I had the video running, there was nothing to receive. What is important is that you’re not hearing WHO.
A rotating cake decorating plate from WalMart or Amazon will make finding nulls a lot easier, but a real signal strength meter would be even better. When you’re trying to find that perfect sweet spot that will give you the maximum null, a real signal meter is a huge help. The uncalibrated signal meter along the right side of the CCrane display is too slow to respond to be of any use with this. Its probably more a factor of the radio’s automatic gain control than it is the meter, but there’s no user controlled AGC setting. What you have is what you have.
Unlike the Panasonic, the CCrane allows you to use a tuned loop, like a Select-a-Tenna or Q-Stick, to further enhance your listening. I took advantage of this to couple my Quantum Loop antenna to the radio using nothing but magnetic coupling. I had to ride the gain control pretty hard on the antenna to keep the radio’s AGC from overloading, but it made a big difference in what I could hear. I found i could get deeper nulls much easier with the loop than I could with the radio alone, which shouldn’t be a surprise.
Expect more about this antenna in a future post.
You don’t have to sit in front of this radio for long before you can see why its still the gold standard in broadcast band portables. Even after 40 years, this radio is still a very hot performer.
As you may know, I have spent a lot of time this summer listening in with the Sony EX5 MkII, which is a very nice portable in its own right. When I tune that radio to 1030 AM, engage in some careful nulling of nearby WHO on 1040 and activate the lower sideband synch detector, I can squeeze out some signal, but not without some adjacent channel splatter. When I performed this test on the rf-2200, I made WHO radio disappear entirely, and found WBZ Boston in the clear. While i could tell it was Dan Rey’s Nightside show with the Sony, the Panasonic let me listen to the show, and follow the discussion about whether or not callers would attend the Olympics in Brazil. That’s very impressive to say the least.
This isn’t my best video, but you get the idea. By the way, that weak station that’s barely audible in the video is WCTS out of Maplewood, MN.
A lot of that impressive performance comes from the rotating antenna mounted on top of the radio. The ball bearing action gives you smooth, precise control of the nulls without having to rotate the actual radio. That means your eyes never have to leave the signal meter, and lets you get the deepest null possible.
Unfortunately, that rotating antenna is also part of the reason why I cannot use Q-Stick or Select-a-Tenna with this radio. According to Gerry Thomas, there’s something in the circuitry of this radio and other Panasonics that won’t allow you to magnetically couple. Both it and the CCrane do have external antenna terminals though, so can still connect directly to the Quantum Loop or any other antenna.
Unlike the CCrane, the rf-2200 has a big, full audio that’s common to a lot of radios in the Panasonic line. Even with the narrow bandwidth selected, the audio still has a nice, rich sound to it. I don’t feel as though that richness gets in the way of intelligibility either. In spite of the rf-2200 not having audio tailored to human speech like the CCR2E, I found each radio to have equally intelligible audio.
While it’s hard to tell with the less than stellar audio pickup of a cell phone camera, you can definitely hear a difference in the audio of the two radios. Notice that both are set to neutral tone, with the bass and treble controls all pointing straight up.
Unlike the CCrane, with its different controls spread out across the front, side, and top of the radio, all of the Panasonic’s controls are on the front. In other words, you’re going to need a flashlight to make your way around all of those controls in the dark, especially if you decide to switch over to shortwave. I’m sure in time you’ll figure it out in time, but a flashlight will make things a lot easier. The good news is that the radio has a dial light, something that’s painfully missing from the Sony EX5. Unfortunately its nestled in between two identical switches that control the BFO and the power. If you’re in the dark, and your radio begins to squeal or goes silent when you’re reaching for the dial light, you hit the wrong switch.
As I mentioned earlier, the rf-2200 does have shortwave capabilities, and it seems to be a fairly decent performer. I checked for New Zealand, Australia, and Brazil a couple of times this last week and found them all. I even listened to the pirate station X-FM the other night as well. No SDR, SAL loop, or DSP needed either. Just me, the rf-2200, and a couple of tiki torches. Life is good, people. Life is good!
So Which One is Better?
I will be the first to admit that I have a crush on the Panasonic rf-2200. It’s not small or light, but it hears things that other portables don’t. Not only does it hear them, it hears them well. Its a big beast of a radio that is sensitive, selective, and capable of deep, precise nulls with its rotatable antenna. Simply put, the rf-2200 kicks the doors off of just about every other portable I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
But it doesn’t kick the doors off of the CCR2E.
In fact, I couldn’t find any real difference in their ability to hear things at all. I certainly like the audio on the Panasonic better than I do the CCrane, and the rotatable antenna on the rf-2200 is fantastic, but I can use the Q-Stick or other magnetically coupled antennas with the CCrane too. It also has the advantage of a digital readout, so I don’t have to guess where I am on the dial.
I really wanted this “showdown” to be a slam dunk for the Panasonic, but it is not. If the Panasonic could hear a station, the CCrane could hear it too. In fact, no matter what I threw at both of these radios, their performance was virtually neck and neck. It’s even a wash when you look to other features each radio has. The Panasonic is a decent performer (for a portable) on shortwave, but the CCrane can pick up the 2M band and the NOAA weather radio frequencies. It can can even alert you to when there’s a storm warning issued. It also has a built in clock with alarm. Not a feature I’d use, but it is there nonetheless.
In the end, I’ll probably stick to the Panasonic, but I won’t be putting the CCrane up for sale anytime soon either. Both are outstanding radios, and well worth having in your collection.
I hate eBay the same way a drug addict hates his pusher. Every time you think you’ve kicked the habit, another temptation makes its way to your search list. Before you know it, another box is showing up at the office, and another radio finds its way to the collection.
I suppose there are worse habits , like a heroin addiction, or being a serial killer or something, so I guess I should count my blessings. Still, one has to set limits on these sorts of things before they get out of control. In my case, I usually leave that whole “limits” thing up to my credit card company. So far, they’ve been pretty understanding.
Recently, my addiction has taken me into uncharted territory: the portable. The EX5MkII has reminded me how much fun a portable radio could be, and its opened up a whole new world of radio hoarding.
Just what I needed.
Case in point: The Panasonic rf-1115.
While looking up the new Sony, I happened to stumble across a blog that said the rf-1115 out performed it on the AM broadcast band, and then went on to say that it was about 85% as good as the venerable rf-2200, the holy grail of portable broadcast band receivers. Well, needless to say I immediately went on the hunt for one, and wouldn’t you know it? One just happened to jump into my eBay shopping cart, with delivery expected for sometime Monday afternoon.
See? I told you I had a problem.
My watch list is now full of portables that I’m itching to put through their paces, but I’m always on the lookout for others that need a home as well. The good news is that they’re usually cheaper than the big comm receivers in the radio room, which means I can buy more without running into those “limits” I mentioned earlier. The bad news is that I’ll go broke putting batteries into all of them.
I find that a lot of things I buy today have their roots deep in my past. Whether it be pocket knives, watches, or yes, radios, they can all be traced back to either a childhood desire or some other want that went unfulfilled at the time. This radio is no exception.
The Sony EX5 is a radio that’s intrigued me ever since I heard about it on Radio Netherlands Media Network. This radio, featuring an analog, linear AM dial and a synch detector, was reported to be a very hot performer on mediumwave, but it was also available only in the Japanese market. After toying with the idea of trying to get a friend of mine in Japan to pick one up, I resigned myself to the fact I would never get my paws on one.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I am looking at the many different eBay options available for obtaining this radio, all promising to deliver withing 10 to 21 days. Before hitting the buy now though, I decide to do a quick check of Amazon to see if there are any available there. Not only do they carry them, they’re cheaper than eBay and are eligible for two day delivery! I quickly add the radio to the cart, and within a few days, I had a brand new Sony ICF-EX5 MkII sitting on my desk. Thank you, internet!
The radio comes ready to use, with a carrying strap, four C size batteries, and a manual and warranty card, both of which are written in Japanese. It should be noted that the radio does not come with an AC adapter, which is fine, as it wouldn’t fit an American outlet anyway. If if you want to use this radio with AC power though, you’ll need a 6v adapter to make it happen. FYI.
I did notice that my particular unit at least is that the tuning knob seemed to ‘catch’ as it turned. I do not know if this is common with all units or not (who knows, maybe it’s a feature that’s addressed in the manual?), but I solved the problem by gently pulling the tuning knob out about an 8th of an inch, which solved the problem with no other issues.
One of the first things that grabbed me about this radio is that it is fairly compact, especially compared to some of the portables I’m used to. Measuring in about 10.5 inches long, 5.5 inches tall, and maybe 2.5 inches wide, I’d guess it’s a little smaller than a Sony 2010, quite a bit smaller than any of the SupeRadios, and downright minuscule when compared to the behemoth that is the Satellit 800. The C batteries, while not as common as their bigger D sized brothers, help to keep the size and weight down, making this radio a great choice for a quick DXpedition to the beach, your local park, or anywhere else that’s away from electrical interference.
Since the radio arrived, I’ve spent a lot of enjoyable evenings out on the patio with this radio exploring the AM dial, and putting it through its paces. Like most Sonys, this radio has very nice audio, with an upper and lower tone adjustment switch to tailor your listening preferences. Not as handy as separate bass and treble controls, but still a nice feature for a radio this compact.
The Linear Dial
Maybe my analog radio skills are rusty, but I am surprised at how long it’s taken me to get used to the linear dial on this radio. Unlike most analog dials, which stretch out the lower frequencies while crunching the higher ones closer together, this radio has uniform spacing from the left hand of the dial to the right. While it seems like an easy adjustment(it’s really no different than the Hammarlund or Collins in the shack), I’ve struggled with it. I continually find myself going back to known stations to get a bearing on where I’m really at, and then feeling my way up or down to my target station. This is something that one goes through with every new analog portable though regardless of how the dial is configured, it just seems like more of an adjustment with this radio than others. Your mileage may vary.
That Synch Detector!
My location is about fifty miles away from WHO radio and their 50 KW transmitters on 1040 kHz. This makes 1030 AM a great test for any radio or antenna system, and it’s where I started with the EX5. Finding WHO on the dial, I slowly made my way down to 1030. I could hear a couple of different stations with the radio turned to null out the WHO transmitters, but I was still getting a fair amount of splatter from WHO’s lower sideband. It’s here where the synch detector on this radio shines! A flip of a switch, and 90% of the splatter disappears, revealing a couple of weak stations someone so fittingly described as “in the soup.” I recognized one of the voices in that jumbled up mess as that of Dan Rea, the host of WBZ’s Nightside program out of Boston. I performed a similar test on 650 AM, where I managed to hear Eddie Stubbs’ music program on WSM in spite of the local WOI on 640. Neither of these tests were much of a challenge for the Sony and it’s synch detector.
Unlike a lot of synch detectors I’ve experienced, which take a moment or two to lock and may have to reacquire the carrier from time to time, this one seems to lock on instantaneously and never lets go. That’s a great thing to have when you’re trying to get an ID on a weak, fluttery station coming in from who knows where. In these cases, the synch detector minimizes the flutter and washing of the signal, and gets you the clearest reception possible. Nicely done, Sony.
Did you notice the red light in the tuning indicator? That little light not only makes the indicator easier to see, but it also doubles as a tuning indicator. The brighter the light, the more in tune you are with the station, sort of reminiscent of the old Sony Earth Orbiter. It can also double as a signal strength meter of sorts as well, which comes in handy when you’re using a tuned loop, or some other external antenna that couples with the radio via the internal ferrite rod. One thing that I do find missing though is a dial light. Yes, I know, that’s what they make flashlights for, but it would still be a nice addition to what is already a very fine radio.
I have no idea how this radio performs on FM as I’ve never bothered to give it a try. I have heard reports of the dial being off a few MHz on FM though, so if this is a concern to you, keep it in mind. I haven’t tried the Radio Nikkei reception just yet either, but that will definitely happen sooner or later. Once i get bored enough to hook this thing up to the SAL, I’m sure I’ll hear both Nikkei 1 and 2 on 3925 and 3945 with no problem. And yes, I will definitely make a YouTube video of the occasion.
I think it’s safe to say that this radio lives up to the hype. Its sensitive enough to hear KKDA out of Dallas on 730 kHz, but has a strong enough front end that I’m not swamped by a couple of strong, local stations. The synch detector is nothing short of remarkable, and it all comes in a relatively compact package. While the linear dial takes some getting used to, the tuning light is pretty handy, and you can pack your own flashlight to see where you’re tuning. Is it going to replace the perseus and the SAL-30? Of course not! But the SAL won’t fit in a small book bag either.
I’ve had a lot of fun with this radio the last few weeks, and I highly recommend picking one up.