A Review of the Sony ICF-EX5MkII

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!

First Impressions

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The Sony ICF-EX5MkII, right after unboxing.

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.

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The EX5MkII next to the SupeRadio II

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.

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Cubs win! sounds good on any radio.  Note the small turntable the radio is on. 

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

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A close up of the linear dial on the Sony EX5 MkII.

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.

What else?

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.

Final Thoughts

IMG_20160524_105644361 (2)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.

The Mystery Signal on 720 kHz

On January 8th this year (already January 9th UTC),  I found myself on the road between my home QTH and the small town of Story City, Iowa. My Mom was convalescing there after some surgery, and I decided I would drive up there and say hello at least, even if it was getting on the road after 8 PM local (0200 UTC). On the way up, I turn on the trusty Yaesu FT-857D I have in the truck and try to tune in 720 AM. The Chicago Blackhawks are getting ready to play, and I figure I’ll be able to catch most of the first period during my drive, but what I heard was definitely not the hockey game.

While WGN was in there some of the time, they were never very strong, and occasionally not there at all. What I did hear though was rock music. Instead of the familiar voices of John Wiedeman and Troy Murray, I heard a hard rock cover of Bob Seeger’s Turn the Page, probably by Metallica. Later on, as I was driving into Story City, I heard the Scorpion’s No One Like You before I arrived at my destination. I never heard any station ID, and I had other family business to deal with on the trip home, but this should be easy to identify. Hey, it can only be one of so many stations, right?

The Likely Suspects

A night time pattern map of stations on 720 kHz.
A night time pattern map of stations on 720 kHz.

Thanks to the excellent Radio Time Traveller blog, I managed to track down this night time pattern map for 720 kHz. Let’s take a look at each of these stations and what we know about them:

WGN, Chicago. This is the station I was trying to listen to, and I can vouch for the fact that they were carrying the Blackhawks game that night.
KSAH, San Antonio. I have heard this station before, usually underneath the more dominant WGN, but occasionally even stronger. They have a Spanish sports talk format though, so I think they can be ruled out.
WRZN, Hernando, FL. Their news-talk format doesn’t fit the profile of the station I’m looking for.
KDWN, Las Vegas. Another station that doesn’t fit the format I’m looking for. In this case, they’re a news, traffic, and weather station.
KFIR, Sweet Home, OR. A news-talk station licensed to broadcast with 184 watts at night.

This leaves us with a handful of other possibilities, namely KUAI out of Hawaii, which is a classic country station, and another long shot shot: KOTZ.

The gray line map for January 10th, 0220 UTC.
The gray line map for January 10th, 0220 UTC.

KOTZ 720 is a small public radio station, broadcasting with 10 kw of power out of Kotzebue, Alaska. Unlike our other stations, its format is simply listed as “variety” on Wikipedia, which certainly doesn’t rule it out as a candidate. What’s also interesting about this possibility is the sunrise map, which puts the gray line squarely over the coast of Alaska at 0220 UTC, which coincides perfectly with when I heard this station. Was it KOTZ I heard that night? Well, maybe. It is a longshot at best, but it’s my best hope without having to leave North America.

I have contacted KOTZ about this, but I haven’t received a reply yet. I will keep you posted. Until then, I’d be happy to hear some feedback from other mediumwave DXers out there about any other possibilities I’m overlooking.

The Great Antenna Shoot Out of 2014

The Big SAL has been up and running for over a month now, and all is well. The wind hasn’t taken it down, and I’ve peaked and tweaked it to get as much performance out of it as I can. But was it worth it? Can it hear things that the other antennas can’t? With that question in mind, I have put together a few comparisons of the SAL and my other two antennas on different frequencies and under different conditions. The results are dramatic to say the least.

First, a brief description of our contenders:

It doesn't get any simpler than this.
It doesn’t get any simpler than this.

The Longwire. This antenna is about as basic as it gets. It’s a sloping longwire going from a ground rod up into a nearby walnut tree. It’s about 65′ long, slopes at about a 30 degree angle, and is about 30′ at it’s highest point. There’s no balun, just a direct solder into a SO-239 connector. It shouldn’t work as well as it should, but all in all its a pretty nice antenna. The antenna runs from North to South.

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The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B

The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B. This would’ve been a godsend when I lived in Baltimore, and spent most of my time fighting the leaky transformers and transmission lines that ran down my back alley. Since it receives off of the ends, it spends most of its time oriented North and South, but it can be rotated.

You can read more about the loop, and see some of the shaky cell phone demo videos in a previous blog post.

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The SAL on construction day.

The Shared Apex Loop array (SAL 20). The latest tool in my listening arsenal, and the one I’m sure my readers are about sick of hearing about. Hey, what’s not to love though? This is easily the most directional of the three antennas I have, allowing me to choose incoming signals from any of eight points on the compass. With the additional computer interface, I can also steer this antenna with a couple clicks of a mouse, making it about ideal for remote listening.

Each of these three antennas is connected to a four port Alpha Delta antenna switch, which feeds into another four port Alpha Delta switch that allows me to select one of four different radios. Only the Perseus was used in this case.

With all this in mind, let’s see if the SAL can earn its keep so to speak, or if I would’ve been better off spending my hard earned money on a dummy load and a keg of beer.

Comparison 1: Radio Vanuatu, October 29, 2014. Approx. 1230 UTC.

This video is pretty much a slam dunk for the SAL-20. It takes a signal that neither the magnetic loop or the longwire could really hear and makes it intelligible.

While I could tell something was there with the other antennas, the SAL was the only one to recover any listenable audio.

Comparison 2: VL8A, November 5, 2014. Approximately 1230 UTC

Radio Australia (VL8A out of Alice Springs) on 4835 isn’t a very difficult catch, it is very difficult to get an intelligible audio before WWCR’s sign off at 1300. Their transmission on 4840 usually overwhelms the Aussies. note the really narrow passband on the Perseus.

Comparison 3: 1030 kHz, mediumwave. November 6th, 2014. Approximately 0300 UTC.

This is another case of seeing how each antenna handles co-channel interference. In this case, it’s the 50,000 watt WHO radio on 1040, located about 40 miles to the Southeast of my location.

Comparison 4: WPSO, October 7, 2014. Approximately 0230 UTC

Not much of a comparison really, but interesting nonetheless. All three antennas had a loud copy on ESPN Radio out of Indianapolis on 1500, but I could hear something else underneath it on some of the deeper fades. When I pointed the SAL to the Southeast, I heard Greek music. After some digging around, it turned out to be 250 watt WPSO out of Port Richey, FL. The music matched up with their web stream, so no doubt about this one. No video, but I do have some audio:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/171128979″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Some Final Observations

Obviously the SAL-20 is a beast, and I’m happy to have one at my disposal. Its performance and relatively compact size make it a no brainer for guys like me who do not have the real estate for a Beverage wire. No, it is not a cheap antenna, but what in this hobby is? Getting the last 10% of performance out of any hobby will cost you, and this is definitely an antenna that gets you into that last 10%. Is it better than a Beverage? No, probably not, but that would be a really interesting comparison.

There’s an old adage in the ham community that says more receive antennas are better than less, and I would agree with that. Each of these antennas has a role to play at my listening post, and each can excel under different conditions. One example of this was Dr. Benway’s recent Undercover Radio transmission on 1720. While I don’t have any audio or video of this, I found the magnetic loop to be the best performer of the three. It gave me just a little more signal strength than the SAL in a situation where I really needed it, and the longwire didn’t hear much of anything.

So yes, the SAL definitely earns its keep and then some. I’m glad I have my other antennas to fall back on, but the SAL will definitely be doing most of the heavy lifting from here on out.

I highly recommend this antenna.