The Sony Super Radio

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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.

The Sony TFM–7720W
The Sony TFM–7720W

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’

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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.

An Evening With a Couple of Broadcast Band Heavyweights

 

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Over the past couple of weeks, my humble patio has also become my radio room, giving me a chance to spend my evenings outside under the stars with a portable radio or two. I’ve really enjoyed these sessions, but last night was memorable in that I brought along two of the most highly regarded portables out there: the C. Crane CCRadio 2E and the venerable Panasonic rf-2200. Jay Allen rates both of these radios as the upper end of the five star scale, while Gerry Thomas over at Radio Plus Electronics lists them both in the top three of the best portables for MW DX.

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

IMG_20160705_200409168C 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.

IMG_20160705_205148324Unlike 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.

The rf-2200

IMG_20160705_200356370You 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.

 

 

Confessions of an eBay Addict

With all due respect to the original artist, Sarah Andersen

radios

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.

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.

#RadioLifeProblems