This year I got lucky. It hasn’t happened since my parents bought me one of those flip-top multi-band portables in the early 1970’s, but this year I actually got a great radio for Christmas. I was the merry recipient of a little black Grundig G5. I already knew this was a sweet receiver before I turned it on. Not just because I’ve read plenty of swell reviews, but also because I basically already have one. But now that I’ve gotten my hands the G5 itself, I can see that’s not really true. While this Grundig basically has the same electronic guts (and reception potential) as the Degen 1103 I purchased almost two years ago, the G5 is really a different animal. And in short order, it’s already become my radio of choice. I like it. And just to share the wealth, here’s a tasty bit of reception recorded just a few hours after I unwrapped this little beast.
Radio Bulgaria 9700kHz 12-26-07 0131 UTC 23:05
By my measure, the glorious minor-key wonders of these songs is reason enough to own a shortwave radio– just to be able to capture a bit of exotic music from an exotic faraway overseas transmitter. Okay, maybe the transmitter isn’t exotic, but you catch my drift. And while there is just a little fading here and there, there is no drift in this reception, as these 31 meter radio waves bounce over 4500 miles and across the Atlantic to my new portable. I believe the announcer is speaking French, but it hardly matters. This music is haunting and rich and seeped in electrical atmospherics of the planet. It’s Earth flavored.
The exuberant manufacturing boom in China has also provided a real revolution in shortwave radio product development. The 1103 radios (and the improved G5/E5 versions) are just a couple chapters in the canon of new and compelling Chinese world band radios coming to market. The Degen (or Kaito) 1103 is best known in radio circles for blowing minds and frustrating others with its awkward interface, although almost everyone acknowledges that the receiver is a good value. Generally available for eighty to a hundred bucks, the 1103’s are damn sensitive and selective (with dual conversion to cut back on wayward images). And it scans the dial almost as gracefully as an analog set, moving through the frequencies in 1kHz steps with NO muting and very little chuffing. And perhaps the near analog scanning capability of this radio may have led to one of the oddities of its design. Most of the LCD screen is of the 1103 is filled with a pseudo-analog multi-band display, much like you see on less expensive non-digital receivers. It’s the same trick Sony tried in the 1980’s with the ICF-7600 & 7700. While it’s kind of entertaining and somewhat informative, the fake display is not very accurate (the motion of the LCD "needle" is jumpy and very un-analog), and there’s not much room for much information other than the frequency. And all the text is quite small to make room for the imitation analog entertainment.
But the biggest complaint has been contrary ergonomics of operating the radio itself. The worst of it is the lack of a dedicated volume control. Before you can adjust the audio level you have to push a button, which briefly turns the tuning knob into the volume control. Likewise, when listening you have to press a "time" button to briefly change the frequency display into a digital clock. Add to that the abnormal straight line format of the frequency input number buttons, and the fact that you can’t see the frequency and the time at the same time, and it all adds up to a quirky little radio. Yet I was quite pleased with mine and got used to the eccentricities.
But I gotta tell ya, after playing with the G5 for an hour or so I was clearly impressed. Side by side with the 1103 the reception seemed on SW and AM seemed about exactly the same, but there was even less chuffing when zipping through the frequencies. And when I was really looking for something to listen to, everything happened more quickly. It made me realize that with the 1103 I really did have to pause to think when I would punch up a frequency or change the volume. It’s just a smoother operation. But when I had to choose between these two radios, the E5/G5 was almost twice the price of the 1103. And it is NOT twice as nice. But it is better and a little bit more fun. However, the E5/G5 can now be found for a little over a hundred bucks. And it’s well worth that.
Now if you’re keeping score, you may have noticed that so far I’ve been talking about two different radios (that are very similar) and they both have slightly different brand names. Well, there’s now three companies main companies that are manufacturing this new wave of portable shortwave receivers (Tecsun, Degen and Redsun) but through the idiosyncrasies of trade and profit they end up with another brand name before they wind up on American store shelves. They become Kaito radios, or Eton or Grundig or something else. While the original Chinese branded radios aren’t generally sold on the web either, there’s a loophole of sorts that’s allowed a handful of dealers in China to sell them on ebay. And from what I can tell, they must be selling thousands. They all follow the same basic formula. All their auctions are "buy it now" (fixed price, no bidding), and including the somewhat expensive shipping from China still about twenty to thirty percent cheaper. And from what I’ve seen, all these Chinese sellers have excellent ratings on ebay. I assume there’s some risk, and I accept that as part of the bargain I guess. But I’ve never had any trouble.
However the biggest distributor or these Chinese radios in the states, the Eton Corporation, has been troubled by all these alien radios crossing the border to compete with their re-branded versions. So behind the scenes they seem to have worked out some "arrangements" with their Chinese affiliates. A couple of years ago some key Chinese radios that were popular on ebay suddenly were labeled with Chinese text, not in English as they had been. And some new models (or re-models), like the E5/G5, seem to have gone straight to market in North America and Europe with no versions branded by the actual manufacturer even going on sale in China. Another reason people might have been getting the Tecsun version of these radios is that in China they’ve been selling them in bright colors– red, yellow, blue, etc. Now Eton is getting splashy with the colored plastic too. Some of their new crank up survival radios (made by Tecsun) now come in all sorts of fancy shades.
And you know, bravo to Eton for their marketing schemes, for the most part. But sometimes it gets a little silly. Like calling the Grundig S350 (or the Tecsun BCL-2000) a "retro field radio" and carrying on about its "rugged body and military-style controls.” It’s freakin’ plastic for chrissake. And military style? It all sounds like a brainstorming session gone wrong. I noticed a picture of a G5 box which also described it as a "field radio." What does that mean? It makes me think of a war utensil, a camouflaged walkie-talkie or something. While this is silly, my biggest complaint is that Eton has gone so far as to actually rebrand their own rebranded radios. Why? For example my christmas present, that Grundig G5 was originally called an Eton E5. It’s just a different color than the E5, with a different logo. And both of them remain on the market. They did the same thing with the S350DL. It was originally a Grundig radio. Now it’s either a Grundig or an Eton S350DL. Using separate brand names for regional distribution is one thing, but it seems to me that the only good reason to multi-brand an item within a given market should be to differentiate an alternate feature set in some way, not a slight change in the way it looks.
But the good news is this– thanks to these Chinese radio companies and their distributor cohorts, old crackly shortwave gadgets are still alive in this era of small and fantastic gadgetry. While serious DXers and big radio enthusiasts always have new toys and new technology (showing up in seductive trade publication ads), because they consistently are willing to pay for it. But for shortwave dabblers and casual listeners like me (and perhaps you), the array of more affordable radios had grown quite stale through the 1990’s. In that time a number of companies had gotten out of the shortwave business, and others (like Sony) were discontinuing models left and right, and weren’t coming out with anything really new. Much like the boring car designs of the 1990’s, the layout and functionality of the shortwave radios on the market was pretty universal and grey and boring. Unfortunately, I started to get an itch to start fooling around with shortwave listening again during those dark days.
I decided I needed to go out and buy a radio of some substance. Over, the years usually had a boombox around the house with shortwave reception, or a cheap Radio Shack (Sangean rebrand) portable in a drawer somewhere. But I’ve always looked longingly at the more expensive portables on the high shelf with their tempting green screens and scientifically accurate digital readouts, and wondered what it would be like to harness such power. So, this time I decided I was going to blow some real dough (relatively speaking) and get serious and invest in a digital shortwave receiver. In retrospect, I didn’t have all that much money to play with. But after some research my choice seemed to be between the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and the Sangean ATS-505. Fiscal realities led me to the 505. The cheapest of the two.
I should have saved up for the Sony.
A couple years later, the shortwave portable scene began to get back some of the cool factor that had always been its birthright There’s something about a small and discrete global radio that appeals to the "boy secret agent" in a lotta guys. I suspect there were contributing factors– like the passing renewed interest in world radio after the 9-11 events, combined with our ongoing lover affair with small complex gadgets. In 2002 and 2003 a number of innovative and powerful SW radios went on sale. Radios like the Degen/Kaito 1102 & 1103, and the Tecsun BCL-2000/Grundig S350 were all groundbreaking for their price, and these and other SW radios that China starting to make were user-friendly for bandscanning– combining the best elements of analog and digital tuning. And all of these sets could be found for a hundred dollars or less. Casual shortwave listener/consumers like me could get a little giddy. And since that time, more interesting SW radios in that price range have gone on sale. And the prices are dropping.
And what was kind of amazing to me, is that for next to nothing ($25 or so) you can actually get a real global radio made in China, that is just about the same size as an old transistor radio. And they’re not just feeble cheap toys. For example, I bought something called a Tecsun R-912, from China on ebay. It’s a multi-band analog cheapy that exists with a quite a number of model names that have slight design and color variations. In the U.S., the same little bad boy is called a WRX911. While this is a no-frills radio with a tiny speaker and a cheap thumb-wheel tuner, you get all the major shortwave broadcasters on it and it’s not a bad DX machine on AM as well. I’ve walked around the neighborhood with mine listening to stations as far away as Africa and Asia in my headphones. If I could send one thing back in time to me when I was a kid, it would be this little cheap and global radio wonder.
Then again, If you’re looking for the cream of the current crop of new SW radios, you probably want to investigate the modern mega-portable– the Eton E1 (which curiously has no handle) Unlike the others, the E1 is actually put together in India. The original price– $499. But recently this price has been is falling too (rather drastically at one particular outlet), and now there’s rumors that it may (or may not) be discontinued. And once the price started to fall, I started to fantasize about picking up an E1 one day. And then I saw the new monster portable that’s about to hit the market– The Grundig Satellit 750 (or Tecsun S-2000). Oooh. The mind reels. The initial price? Only $300, or so…
Okay, that’s still too pricey for me right now. And I am still amazed by the growing list of affordable portables that are ready to receive signals from around the world for $100 or less and a set of batteries. Besides the Degen 1102, 1103, 1104 and 1102 radios, there’s the E5 &/G5 (and the coming E4 and E6 and the BCL receivers, there ‘s the rather new Redsun RP2100 (or the Kaito version), and there’s this Kchibo KK-S500 that supposed to be interesting too. And there’s more, and more coming. And as far as the old stalwarts shortwave brands like Sony and Sangean? They’re still selling the same yawner models that have been around for over a decade now.
There was a brief media storm on the internet in 2006 about a supposed radio in development– the Degen 1108. It was supposed to be a hot new SW-AM-FM portable with stereo speakers and onboard MP3 recording and playback. Lots of buzz about this radio– message boards, discussion groups and massive hype. Yet, it was all a boondoggle. It was like some big marketing experiment to extract the wish list fantasies of online radio geeks. However, something slightly like the alleged Degen 1108 came to pass, the Degen/Kaito 1121. It’s a digital shortwave radio with a built-in (and detachable) 256MB mp3 player/recorder unit that can be set up to record a number of shows with a timer. And with my penchant for recording radio, I’ve certainly been intrigued by the 1121. But 256 megabytes of storage is needlessly stingy for onboard storage these days, and from what I’ve read online, the interface is rather convoluted. Then again, the price has dropped to around $130, so my lingering temptation continued… until I saw something very intriguing on Eton’s website.
The new Grundig G4 World Recorder, which was introduced to the world at the recent 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is scheduled to go on sale in March, 2008. From the promo photos the G4 seems to be a tweaked version of the Degen/Kaito 1102, a receiver I have yet to play with, but one that gets a lot of affection and praise in online reviews. And the minor miracle is that they’ve built-in a 2GB MP3 recorder/player into the G4. Nothing like this has ever been done before. With that much storage you’ll be able to record a lot radio on this thing, and I’m sure it will have timer (VCR-like) recording and all that jazz. I also has a flash card slot for additional storage and USB connection to bleed the recordings onto your computer. I have to tell you, this is one of those products that I’ve wished would be invented (and produced) for years (like car cassette decks that can record from the radio and boomboxes with built-in hard drives that digitally record too).
I’ve been looking for years just to find a portable MP3 player that actually includes an AM radio, let alone one that records. While there has been one (and only one) around for a while that does record (the Pogo "Radio Your Way"), the reviews have been consistently mediocre and there’s very little storage on board. Other than that, I’m not sure if there’s been one MP3 player with an AM radio inside (try to find one…). Just FM. And although the AM band isn’t so big with the swingin’ iPod set, the real reason there are no MP3/AM radio combo toys around is because it’s kind of a hassle to make one work well. Like any little computer, the MP3 players emit a lot of RF noise in the same frequencies where you find AM & SW signals Turn on your AM radio and your MP3 player, and see how the AM reception degrades when you wave the digital anywhere near it. It’s a matter of shielding.
All that said, I have yet to read a review of the Grundig G4 online yet. Just hype. But if the G4 does all they say it will, and does it well, I’m betting this gadget might make a big splash, at least for a shortwave radio. And maybe it will start a trend of including onboard MP3 recording on more portable receivers. I hope so. Meanwhile, I think I’m starting to get a crush on this G4. The idea of being able to record a bandscan without a cassette rig attached, and having TiVo-like capability with a multi-band radio is kind of exciting. It’s almost enough to make me imagine that amplitude modulation shortwave radio itself might have one last era of glory before its probable path to oblivion.
Note: The Grundig G4 has already been discontinued. You can read about that and find more information about radio/recorders in the follow-up to this post here.