How To Gather Sound From The Sky From Almost Anywhere

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been recording radio for almost forty years. However when I first started I wasn’t collecting airchecks or bandscans. I was just doing what comes natural to a kid– grabbing free music. Instead of searching for hits on hard drives around the world I was dangling a cheap microphone in front of a radio speaker. For years I couldn’t hear the opening guitar lick of “Ticket To Ride” without imagining the pop of a front yard firecracker that occurred while I recorded the song with my Panasonic reel to reel.

A couple years later I got a bit more advanced with my radio/recorder interface by attaching a patch cord with two alligator clips to the radio's speaker terminals. But it wasn’t until the late 70's that cassette decks with built-in radios became popular, making it possible for anyone to record a high-quality aircheck. Unfortunately, I didn’t come to appreciate the value of archiving radio until the early 80's when I happened to gather some souvenir radio recordings while on an extended road trip. That was when I realized how cool it was to actually own the radio programming I had heard instead of trying to recall some fading memory.

Since that time I’ve always had a boombox around the house, and when there's something on the radio I'd like to keep I can simply slap in a cassette and make it happen. That urge to archive and all the subsequent enjoyment I’ve gotten from replaying captured broadcasting (and sharing it with others) gets to the heart of how this blog came about in the first place.

Of course cassettes are almost quaint these days, and most recording has gone digital. Me too. I’m as digital as anyone. Yet, all the airchecks and bandscans posted here so far began as cassette tapes. In essence I have to record the audio twice, once on tape and then again into the computer. While I’ve had some success recording local stations with the laptop, attempts to do the same thing while DXing has been problematic. Computers are full of RF noise on AM and the HF bands, and most MP3 devices aren’t much better. If you’ve ever wondered why almost all of the digital audio players with onboard radio only carry the FM band, try waving your iPod near a radio tuned to an AM station (…it doesn’t sound good). However, making AM reception viable on small low-power computer like a DAP isn't impossible. It just requires a little thoughtful engineering and some well-placed shielding.

As I’ve monitored the evolution of digital audio players over the last decade or so, for a long time there was only one MP3 player that included an AM radio. It was a Korean-made gadget marketed by “Pogo!,” an upstart California electronics importer, and they called it the “Radio Yourway.” Not only did it have an AM receiver, but it was also a radio recorder. While all this was intriguing, the price (over $200) and the paltry storage capacity (in megabytes back then, not gigabytes…) was a deal breaker for me. And probably for others as well.

I don’t know enough about Pogo and their products to speak authoritatively about their history, but the evidence of their rise and fall is just a google search away. Their “Radio Yourway” device had certainly gained a following here in the states before it was discontinued. While it remained rather expensive, when it came to MP3 players with AM radio (not to mention the recording option!) there just wasn't any competition. And once you figured out the firmware, the thing apparently performed pretty well. Pogo even put out an improved version of the Radio Yourway (which looked much more like an iPod…) as well as a promising mini-version of the device (as well as a few other Americanized electronic gadgets from Asia) when they suddenly went out of business a couple years ago.

As a shortwave listener in America, there’s been an odd disconnect over the last decade between available hardware and available broadcasting. While in the west there's been a mass exodus from shortwave broadcasting, there's also been a minor revolution in receiver technology where sets that are more powerful and versatile (and often cheaper)  than previously possible have entered the marketplace. And while I don’t buy a lot of gadgets, I do keep up with what's new and interesting on the radio market as well as what's happening with portable media players. And inspired by what Pogo proved was possible, I've hoped to one day come across an all-in-one gadget for listening to radio, recording radio and listening to anything I had as an MP3 file. In the last couple years I've thought my dream might come true once or twice, but each time a little bit of online investigation would reveal that the radio-recorder I’ve been trying to wish into existence is still a pipe dream.

The Degen (or Kaito) 1121 probably came closer to what I’ve been looking for than anything yet developed– a very portable shortwave radio that incorporates a detachable MP3 recorder. Sure it's a little expensive and the radio isn’t supposed to be quite as good some cheaper Degen models, but it does record true MP3 files and has a built-in timer for automated recording. However, it only records 32kbps MP3's and allows for just three programmed timer recordings. Most reviews bemoan the confusing firmware and a few mention systemic glitches where recordings were lost. However, it really fell off my wish list when I found out it only has 256 megabytes of memory you can't add more with a memory card. Even before digital storage became so cheap, the appeal of any audio device with less than a gigabyte of storage was never very appealing.

Then along came the Grundig G4 “World Recorder,” which appeared to be an integration of the Degen (or Kaito) 1102 with MP3 technology, and kind of exciting at first glance. And it has a gig or two of storage which can be easily doubled with an SD card.  However once the G4 went on sale there was a resounding online silence surrouding . Almost no reviews and a few questions from curious consumers like me who were looking for information as well. Then about the same time I heard the radio was being discontinued (although you can still buy from the original stock from a few dealers) The worst part? Although it does play your MP3s (either through its small speaker or headphones) it actually records radio as an uncompressed low-quality wav file. In other words, as a recorder the 1121 is a lo-fi budget operation that creates audio files in the same league as an inexpensive voice recorder. What were they thinking?

Then the Degen 1123 came along last year. A cute pocket gadget with shortwave and a gig of onboard storage (but no card slot). And while it’s the most portable AM/FM/shortwave recorder on the market, and the price is reasonable, the 1123 records in the same watered down wav format as well. There's plenty of online feedback out there, and the verdict seems to be that it's a cheap and imperfect (but interesting) toy, and if more care would have went into the design and manufacturing it could have been something much more substantial. A company like Sony could have done something really interesting in the same vein, but they gave up on shortwave radio R&D a long time ago.

And now with the world economy is disrepair it seems unlikely that another shortwave-MP3 recorder will be engineered anytime soon. However, last year an MP3 radio recorder of note seems to have risen from the ashes of the last version of the Radio Yourway. In this part of the world it’s known as the CC Witness, and except for a rather high price they seemed to have gotten almost everything else right. Except of course, no shortwave.

Unlike most of the radio recorders I’ve mentioned, the CC Witness seems to get a lot of positive reviews. For people who either insist on owning an MP3 player with an AM radio, or others who want to record all sorts of radio shows unattended via a programmable timer, the Witness is a bit of a godsend. Practically speaking, there is no competition. The biggest complaint? The price. A hefty two-hundred and thirty bucks. Perhaps it was the result of so many balking at the cost, or the faltering economy, but California-based C. Crane has decided to chop fifty bucks off the price of the CC Witness. And while that’s still not cheap, it’s a generous price cut. And I suppose a few people who’ve been putting off buying this unique device may take the bait.

And now that I’ve gotten a chance to actually get my hands on the heralded CC Witness I can tell you that if you think an AM/FM MP3 recorder might be useful to you. you’ll probably think this thing is worth every penny. Is it fantastic? No, not quite. But it is a well-built novelty that does almost everything it’s supposed to do rather well. Compared to some of today’s technological toys that are roughly in the same price league (smart phones or the latest generation of iPods) the CC Witness isn’t as outwardly impressive. The monochrome screen and lack of graphic magic position the aesthetics of the device with the first and second generation of digital audio devices. While it’s not wafer-thin, it is small. What you get in the box is a very portable work horse that efficiently bridges some new and old technology in a way no other gadget has done very well.

Before I turn this post into a love letter to an appliance, let me tell you what it doesn’t do. Or why it isn’t perfect. First off, don’t plan to DX with the CC Witness. The AM radio isn't bad, but it certainly could be more selective. If you live near powerful AM stations you'll probably notice their signals bleeding into adjacent frequencies. However, if a regional 50,000 watt station is in the clear you may be able to pick it up from a few states away. For example, I’ve picked up WHAS in Kentucky from here in Brooklyn. And when I was recently in the Cleveland area, WLS in came in strong from Chicago.

As far as the FM side of things, that isn’t so important to me. And like all the personal music players I’ve ever seen, including cassette and CD players with radios, it uses the connecting cord for the headphones as the antenna for the FM band. So if you’re walking around listening to a dodgy FM signal the reception may vary with every sway of the cable. Of local FM stations that interest me here, like WKCR, WNYC-FM and WBAI– they all came in strong. And recording them in stereo at a high bitrate gave nice clean results. Reception of WBGO in Newark was a little more problematic.

Another thing to consider about the CC Witness is that it’s more than just a radio that makes airchecks, it's also a shirt pocket digital recorder with a lot of storage potential. With the push of a button you can use the tiny embedded mic to make quick and dirty recordings. Or you can plug in a more substantial microphone and have yourself an audio field day. The onboard mic isn’t great. I noticed a handful of hiss when I tried it.

While I like the microphone options, it’s the “line in” recording potential that sparked my curiosity. Would the CC Witness allow me to record bandscans and airchecks direct to digital, and skip the step of recording them with magnetic tape? This is what I wanted to find out. While there are a number of MP3 players with line-in recording (including adapters for your iPod), from my experience every digital gadget seems to be a fountain of RF noise when it comes near an AM or shortwave radio. That iPod might be alluring, but it’s apt to be a rude annoyance when you’re trying to hear some little African country on 60 meters. I was hoping that the internal "shielding" might also help prevent the CC Witness from being an inappropriate transmitter when I plugged it into my shortwave. As a casual DXer, stray RF noise is my enemy. In fact, for a long time I've done all my DX radio recording using only batteries because I've found that plugging in the radio or the tape deck often introduces noise from the AC current or the power supply. But much to my delight, the CC Witness proved to be a very quiet companion to my G5. That made me happy. But I had to go through a few practice runs before I got it right.

Now let me make another check mark in the “what’s not perfect” column. You cannot visually see the line levels when you’re recording and you cannot adjust the levels with any controls on the CC Witness. When I didn’t see any reference to recoding levels in the manual, I thought it might have been an oversight. And when I couldn't find anything about the input levels on the player itself I reasoned that it might have some type of default auto level control built-in. There’s a switch for it on the cassette deck I’ve been using for years to make airchecks. And it has a level meter too. That’s why I bought it.

On my Grundig G5, and most of the better portable shortwave sets, there’s a “line level” output that I always use for recording. That’s what it’s for. This way I can listen through the speaker or the headphones and adjust the volume any way I like and it won't affect the recording. I tried this with the CC Witness and was sorely disappointed. Too hot. These days I’m accustomed to looking at audio visually on the computer and I took a gander at what I’d recorded and could plainly see plenty of sections of the file were obviously over-modulated. In order to ameliorate this situation I had to switch things around and record through the headphone jack, doing some trial and error until I figured out the safe recording zone for the volume control. Since then I’ve looked at the C. Crane website (where there’s a lot of product support you won’t find in the manual) and they recommend purchasing some kind of attenuator so you can have more control over the recording levels. I actually have an in-line headphone volume adapter that would do the trick, somewhere around here…

Another thing. At first I was quite frustrated by the record button. I would press it and nothing would happen. And then I’d press it again. And perhaps once again. And then the CC Witness would suddenly start to record. Yet knowing myself as I do, as an occasionally impatient guy with electronics (especially when I’m dealing with four and five-year-old PC’s here at the house), so I though perhaps I should try pressing the record button once firmly and see if all those extra button punches were a waste of time. Sure enough. After several seconds (sometimes as many as ten) the recorder would indeed engage. And after some further observation I noticed the delay was worse when I was recording on the SD card instead of with the onboard memory. There is a variable lag either way, but a firm press on the right side of the REC button will eventually kick the recorder into gear. I suspect that the chip that powers the CC Witness isn’t the fastest on the DAP scene.

My last complaint about recording with the CC Witness seems like a real oversight. And it's something that often irritates me about MP3 encoding done by gadgets or people who oughtta know better. It's the simple fact that making stereo MP3 files of a mono source is wasteful and unnecessary. Period. Yet, by default all line-in and radio recordings you make with the CC Witness are in stereo. And even if AM stereo did have had one bright shining moment, it never caught on. It's over. All broadcasting AM is mono. Always. In practical terms, what that means is all the AM radio recordings on the CC Witness take up twice as much space as they should.

Okay, so storage is cheap. And you can put a 16GB SDHC card in the CC Witness and record radio for weeks or months without filling it up. Then I noticed that there’s a switch in the menu to record using an external stereo or mono microphone, which tells me that this issue could probably be fixed with a firmware upgrade. C. Crane has continued to provide firmware upgrades on their website, and the latest version (which I installed) was just released in July. And whoever is working on the next firmware update I say– give us the choice to record radio (or through the line-in input) in mono. Please.

Purely as an MP3 player, the CC Witness is not fancy. There are certainly more exciting and feature rich MP3 players on the market for the same price (or less). While I love the graphic EQ feature on my Rockbox enabled Sansa player, Witness only has the typical “pop,” “rock,” “classical” type EQ I see on too many audio gadgets these days. (Remember bass and treble?) As much as I'm irritated by these choices, I eventually found the “live” setting to be the brightest and most listenable for my purposes. But I have no idea why it's "live." And the CC Witness doesn’t have all the playlist functionality and tag parsing tricks you’ll find on many players, but it does play about any MP3 you throw at it and will shuffle anything in the same folder. But there are limits. It chokes if you have more than 2000 files or 500 folders on any memory source (on the card or the internal flash memory).

I imagine the most popular reason to purchase the CC Witness would be to time-shift your radio listening (especially talk shows on AM radio). And from my experience, this thing performs that task like a champ. As long as the station comes in clearly you’re going to get a good recording. The menus are simple enough, and you don’t have to leave it on to have it light up and start recording on schedule all by itself. And there's a switch in the menu to turn the timers off and on. But be aware that if you plan to use this function extensively, you might wanna consider buying their "accessory kit," which will run you an extra twenty bucks. It includes an AC adapter, a docking cradle and a silicone protective jacket. With the cradle and wall-wart you can locate the CC Witness away from any RF noisy appliances around the house and always have the Witness fully charged for more recording or to take it with you. Otherwise the only other way to power the thing (or recharge the battery) is to hook it up to a computer with the USB cable. But if you’re recording AM radio, the computer and its peripheral devices are likely to degrade your reception. While the power adapter for the CC Witness is a bit large, it's quiet, and shouldn't affect your reception. Some of the worst RF issues at home are simply stray noise from a few bad AC adapters.

Now that I’ve had my chance to be cranky, let me be charitable again. I've found the CC Witness to be a commendable little appliance. A toy for some. A tool for others. Despite my complaints, I’m glad to have this one and I’m going to get a lot of use out of it. Even with the stereo AM recording issue, I went to make another test recording on there as I was writing this and noticed that at the encode rate I was using to record (192kbps) there was still room for over sixty-three hours of recording on the 8GB card I have in there. And there’s already many hours of recording on the card as well as a bunch of files leftover from something else. That, to me, is incredible. And if you’ve ever looked at a box of over thirty C-120 cassettes (as I have), perhaps you can appreciate why just that makes me happy.

We live in a time when cheap rules. This was already the case before the economic collapse last year with inexpensive goods flooding the marketplace taunting us to spend money we don’t have. And one of the reasons we’ve gotten use to seeking out the lowest price for everything is because we’re usually buying products from huge thoughtless transnational corporations who inherently cut corners on everything and offer poor service through the entire transaction chain.

I feel pretty lucky in this regard, because I live in New York where I deal with locally owned small businesses all the time. Sure, I’m occasionally seduced by an incredibly low price from faceless mega-capitalists, but when I’m buying something more substantial that it's important that I’m treated well during the shopping process. And afterward if something goes wrong I can be assured of some friendly assistance, if not a refund or exchange, without it being a difficult or unfriendly process.

For example, the owner of a neighborhood computer store here once let me take home three or four different sound cards and try them out on my computer before I found the one that worked for me. I’ve been a regular customer ever since, despite the fact that I could get some of the same things I buy from him cheaper at Staples or online. And there’s a diner down the street I avoided for years. The menu in the window made it pretty clear their dinners were too expensive. Then one night I ended up there and paid the price. While it did cost more than the roast chicken down the street, the portions were good, and so were all the extras that came with the meal. But it was the awesome old-school diner waitresses that have kept me coming back ever since. They tend to their customers and do everything within reason to make sure you get what you want and that you like it. That’s worth an extra couple bucks.

And from what I’ve seen, I think this might be the deal with the C. Crane Company as well. Almost everything in their catalog is a little more than a bargain hunter might be willing to pay. And some of their products can be purchased (as similar or identical products) from overseas for a little less dough. But from my experience, with C. Crane you get something extra– real customer service. And while many of their products come from the other side of the world, if you write or call C. Crane you get a response from California.

It's because C. Crane is actually a “mom and pop” distributor of specialty electronics. They don’t actually make stuff, but they do tweak and fine tune items for American consumers. And although they don’t sell a lot of stuff with mass appeal, they do seem to know how to market to their scattered flock of niche consumers. After Pogo dropped the ball, C. Crane picked up on the wizardry of the Korean gadgeteers who created the Radio Yourway and had worked with them to acclimate their new and improved version of the device for the U.S. market. The fact that the CC Witness even exists is because the founder the company, Bob Crane, is one of us. Someone who loves radio. Specifically the sound of amplitude modulation. And over the years he’s evolved a furniture and carpentry concern into an upstart mail order gadget business. However, there was big bump in the road along the way.

For years Crane put out a catalog of specialty radio stuff and advertising the AM radio faithful on talk radio. And made his name marketing the Select-A-Tenna (for pulling in those faraway AM signals) and the Baygen wind-up radio (one of the first human powered “disaster” radios). Then in 1998 he worked with the Taiwanese electronics company Sangean to refashion one of their radios into the first C. Crane branded product– The CC Radio. And he followed through with a promotional campaign that enticed more than a few medium wave diehards across the country. And one day when I had the money, I bought one for myself. And the radio that promised to pull in far away voices and offer them in pleasing audio clarity became the mascot of Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast” program for years.

The CC Radio was the first of a number of products from Asia that Crane had tweaked to his specifications for the new C. Crane brand, but the CC was by far their most famous product and seemed to always be the first thing you’d see on their website or when you opened their catalog. It was a little expensive, but still a very good radio. Except for one thing. The ribbon connection to the LED display Sangean had put in there were glued instead of soldered into place. And more than a few of them began to gradually lose contact with the radio, rendering the display useless. This was a big problem. And it happened to mine too.

So in the mid-2000's while C. Crane was firmly establishing itself as an electronics distributor of note, a growing (and often online-enabled) number of disgruntled CC Radio owners began to mumble bad things about Mr. Crane and his company. And as I began to find other people on the web who had the same problem as I was having with my CC Radio, I grumbled too. And as a guy who made who promised good customer service as part of his advertising campaign, you can bet he was doing some grumbling of his own. Perhaps burning up the phone lines to Taiwan…

I don’t recall all the details now, but I it seems to me that I started reading online about how C. Crane was trying to rectify the situation with the affected CC Radio owners by offering an inexpensive repair and paying the return shipping, or something like that. But when I finally got around to contacting them to see about bringing my CC Radio back to life, all I had to do was kind of prove that I had bought the radio and then they give me all the information on how to send it in for a free repair. Hot damn, I thought. While I had to pay to ship it across the country, they took care of the rest. And this radio was a few years old. I was impressed. And while they may not have to deal with product snafu on that kind of scale again, it suddenly becomes clear why you pay a little more money for C. Crane products.

And it would only be fair to add that the CC Radio display issue is history, and in the current (and third) incarnation of the receiver the ribbon cable is firmly and forever attached to the display unit. At least that ‘s what they say. And I believe ‘em. They call it the CC Radio 2, and you can read all about it at their site.

I didn’t mean to turn this post into an advertisement. I just call ‘em as I see ‘em. Even beyond the problems with the CC display, C. Crane gets some razzing and abuse from radio heads and techno-troublemakers online. (And if you didn’t already notice almost everybody seems to be itching for a fight these days.) But as merchandisers like Radio Shack are abandoning their old base of radio listeners and electronic-minded average guys, C. Crane has been moving in the opposite direction. Yes, you can find a lot stuff similar to C. Crane’s roster of goods for a cheaper price if you go through ebay. And if you’re a hard core DXer you already know there’s a whole world of super fancy and fantastical gear out there beyond the C. Crane catalog that will make your heart race and perhaps pull in a one kilowatt signal from the South Pole on a good day. But it will cost you.

C. Crane takes the middle-ground, where casual geeks and normal folks with electronic desires can find stuff they like, and stuff they dream of. Like a little radio that can record itself and store more airchecks than you could probably hear in a year. Yet, while I am impressed with their customer service I do wonder about their branding strategy sometimes. Like the name “CC Witness.” I do wonder… “a witness to what?” And as a further testament to my halfheartedness about the name, as I was waving this around to friends and family over the last few weeks I just had a hard time saying– “Take a look at this CC Witness.” I just called it my new radio recorder, or something like that. Maybe they could call it the “VersaCorder…” No, wait. They already have something a lot less amazing with that name. But it would make more sense.

Back in Korea (the land where the CC Witness was born) they call it the DDR-4300. Catchy, eh? However, in Japan they have the best name of all. In the land of the rising sun they call it the “Talkmaster Slim.” And that IS the name. In English. In fact, this device is probably more popular in Japan than anywhere else. From what I gather, the Talkmaster Slim is the gadget of choice for young Japanese learning the English language. And from what I’ve read many of these English “classes” are broadcast on AM radio in Japan, which can be easily captured by their Talkmaster Slim. I suppose this accounts for the feature on the device that allows you to slow down, or speed up, the audio files during playback. It’s all about comprehension.

And if there’s some irony in this, it’s that a modern piece of electronics that probably has its broadest appeal with middle-aged (or older) Americans who haven’t abandoned the AM band, in Japan it’s apparently youth culture technology. And in Japan you can get the Talk Master Slim in all sorts of bright “young” colors. It’s an accessory! And just to get a taste of the exciting alternative lifestyle of the CC Witness in Japan, check out this video. It’ll make you realize just how sexy this digital recorder can really be, if you let it happen.

(download)

I received my CC Witness at a very opportune time, right before my yearly trip to see the family in Michigan. And as I usually do a lot of airchecking when I get out of the city. So I really got a chance to put the Witness through its paces. Other than the quirks I mentioned in this post, I was able to make a lot of fine radio recordings with this device. While it ain’t hi-fi, the DX recordings I made with the CC Witness were at least as good as what I was able to get on cassette. And the battery life seemed very good. Charging during the day kept it alive through the night as I recorded. And not only that, but the CC Witness also enabled me to do something I’ve always wanted to do. Something I hadn’t even considered until I started my long drive to the Midwest.

As I mentioned before, I’ve always wondered why car cassette players couldn’t do what every boombox can do so easily– record directly from the radio. I always find it interesting to check out radio while on a road trip as I pass through the reception zones of stations I wouldn't hear any other way. In fact, I’ve dedicated a couple posts so far to doing just that as a passenger on a road trip back in 1988.

Well this time I was driving alone, where it was certainly impossible to hold a boombox up to the window to grab signals from the countryside. But I did have my CC Witness. And with the Witness plugged into the car stereo via a cassette adapter I was able to tune in to stations and record them as I drove. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to you, but I was almost giddy. On my way through Ohio and Michigan I recorded quite a bit of AM radio while in the driver’s seat. And not only that, but there’s a setting in the menu that enables the CC Witness to include the frequency of the station recorded as well as the time and date of the recording. Incredible. No need to log anything.

As a guy who looks at any escape from New York as an adventure in amplitude modulation the CC Witness is the perfect companion. And in another post or two I’ll probably dump out my net and let you hear some of what I captured with my new toy. There's not much local radio of note along interstate 80 in Pennsylvania, or New Jersey for that matter. But there was plenty to hear along the interstates in Ohio and Michigan– two states hit hard by hard times. Add to that the bizarre alternate realities spreading on the radio these days, and I caught a strange mix of American radio from 2009. Some of it rather scary.

More about that later.

G4 No More & 1123 Skidoo

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Do you ever find yourself waiting for something to be invented? I take that back. What I really mean is– do you ever wait for a specific type of gadget to hit the market, so you can buy one? I’m not talking about science fiction, but just wishing for a practical tool to be created, built and sold; one that seems well within reach of current technology. I want an MP3 player/recorder with AM & shortwave radio. Is that too much to ask?

My desire is a utilitarian thing. A simple tool (and not too big) which will easily record and store MP3 recordings of reasonable quality from an onboard SW/AM radio. It’s not a crazy idea. Plenty of cassette boomboxes in the early 80′s did almost all that more (but took up more space). Of course, I want it to work well. And I’d prefer that I could also schedule automated recordings, like a VCR or a TiVo does for video. FM band? I don’t need it, but other consumers will probably want that too. This whole idea is not beyond today’s technology. Yet, I wait.

When I record radio for this blog, I use old-fashioned audio cassettes (which I then digitize). It’s still a reliable technology for which I have admitted affection. But in practical terms it using them eats up critical time and space in my already cramped and cluttered lifestyle. Unless I’m just recording a strong or local station, I generally have to rig together a tape deck and a favored shortwave portable with a patch cord. This can be more problematic than you think. Cords and connections may short out when moving the radio or antenna around to improve reception. (And I don’t know enough about electronics but there’s some kind of a buzz that seems to get into some kind of a feedback loop that at least seems to be caused by the patch cord.) And then everything takes twice as long as I end up dumping all the audio into my laptop, and then compressing them to MP3 for my archives. Recording straight to MP3 would just make sense for me. And while there’s probably not a mob of radio consumers who actively archive shortwave radio out there, as I do. However, the ability to schedule MP3 recordings of AM or shortwave would benefit all sorts of folks.

Actually, there is such a device. The Kaito 1121 (or DE1121) does record radio as MP3 files, but the online reviews have kept me from investing in one. Although the reception is supposed to be pretty good (as most of the Degen made radios), but firmware is supposed to be rather quirky and difficult to use. Sadly, it’s notoriously buggy and has only a half a gig of storage. The general consensus I’ve seen online is that it’s a cool concept when you can get it to work, but more research and development could have come up with a better product. And for all the excitement generated by the new and innovative shortwave receivers coming out of China, that’s a consistant problem. Instead of perfecting the engineering of their new radios, the Chinese companies end up putting them on the market too early and let the consumers find the flaws.

To be fair, those of us in the states who care about shortwave radio are happy the Chinese care. Almost every heritage brand name in consumer shortwave portables has gotten out of the business, or like Sangean and Sony they just keep selling their 1990′s era models (perhaps until they run out of stock). Unlike here, for people in China and around the globe (especially in the third world and isolated areas) shortwave is still a significant source of news and information. So for an ignored and oppressed minority like North American shortwave radio consumers, we look with hope to China via the web to see what the Chinese radio manufacturers like Degen, Tecsun and Redsun are putting out on the market overseas. And with the vast success of the MP3 format over the last decade (not for the record companies, but for electronic manufactures, their consumers and podcasters and more…), but the marriage of MP3 technology and shortwave reception hasn’t gone well. At least not yet.

Before the 1121, there was a great radio of the decade that was never was– The Degen 1108. There was a fanboy conga line booming along for a while a couple years ago, where more and more features were anticipated into the damn thing that it was eventually imagined as some great merging of the Sony 2010, the Bose wave radio and an iPod… only better. Okay, even I was stupid enough to join the Yahoo group for this fantasy radio. It never happened. I’ve never heard for certain, but it seemed like the project was simply killed without warning and the development work on the 1108 probably was cobbled together to put out the mediocre but interesting 1121.

Then there was the Grundig G4. Man, this thing sounded like a winner. Announced with a smattering of fanfare at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a year ago, the G4 (otherwise known as the DE1122 in China if you’re keeping track) was going to solve some of the problems of the 1121. No nifty pull-out MP3 recorder like the 1121, but easier to navigate controls and firmware with an SD card slot wisely included to add digital storage if desired. And the MP3 technology was piggybacked on a radio that was already well-liked– the Kaito/Degen 1102. I blogged about the G4 not long after it was announced, and the post was followed by quite a number of comments and people interested in the radio continue to find that post. And now, it appears that the Grundig/Eton G4 radio has been discontinued. Wow.

Oh, you can still buy it. There seems to be quite a few around from online sellers like Amazon, ebay, Universal, etc. However, it’s been listed on Eton’s site as part of their “Past Collection.” And then Passport’s Receiver News blog announced the demise of the G4 last month. But while the radio did and does exist, as far as what most of us thought it would do, it’s practically a vapor-gadget like the Degen 1108.

Since I researched and wrote a post about it several months ago, I’ve occasionally strolled onto the web to follow up on the G4. Generally, when I’m interested in a radio I go to sites like eham or Radio Intel where almost any shortwave radio worth much gets a round of reviews and write ups from consumers and people who know radios. At this writing, there’s still not one review of the G4 on either site. Strange. And then there’s Amazon, where any electronic gadget usually gets quite a bit of feedback. Sometimes the people who write there are less than knowledgeable about shortwave radios, but there’s usually dozens of critiques to wade through. Last I looked at Amazon there were only three reviews of the G4. One very favorable (but short on feature specifics), and two panning the portable. Actually, one seems to have been written about a completely different radio. (In case you’re wondering, there seems to be no real quality control for Amazon reviews in general. Plan on reading some ignorant customer reactions, and figure that a few favorable write-ups are probably planted by the manufacturer.)

What I’ve finally learned is this– the G2/1122 is an overpriced dog. Period. The reception isn’t bad, but the original Kaito/Degen 1102 receiver is around half the price. The recordings are reportedly awful. Instead of recording MP3′s like its sister gadget– the 1121, the 1122 records down and dirty lo-fi wav files, like a budget voice recorder. Now I don’t want to get into a big discussion about digital recording and audio compression, but believe me this is a big mistake. The fact is, large full-fidelity wav files (like those ripped from a commercial CD) are HUGE. And when you try to make a wav file small by cutting way back on the resolution and sampling rate, instead of using a carefully long-developed compression algorithm like MP3, you create something that sounds pretty nasty. And while there are valid arguments for more efficient compression algorithms (ogg or AC4 for example), MP3 is ubiquitous now, and can be utilized in almost any contemporary application imaginable. The fact that all reviews I’ve read say the recordings made with the G4′s recordings sound muddy and godawful is not surprising. I understand the radios will actually playback decent MP3 files until the cows come home, but all it can create are buzzy and hollow sounding recordings like a twenty-five dollar digital voice recorder, and you won’t be able to play them back on most MP3 players on the market.

Meanwhile, it’s important to note that not only has there been a dearth of shortwave/MP3 devices on the market, but it’s been almost impossible to find an MP3 player with a mainstream medium wave (AM radio) receiver on board. Many, if not most, MP3 players now have FM radios but up until recently only a company called Pogo Electronics actually made an MP3 player/recorder with an AM/FM radio. They had their fans online, but storage was an issue with their “Radio YourWay” products. As I recall they used to have one with only 128MB of storage, and eventually graduated up to an LX model with a half a gig of room for files. I don’t recall that any of their players have had a card slot, and their latest model is listed on Amazon, although unavailable. And now I notice their website is gone too. Oh well. Bye Pogo.

The C. Crane “Witness” seems more promising. Although their toys are pricy, C. Crane does cater to the AM and shortwave radio geek in a more real and sincere fashion than Radio Shack these days. And they have comprehensive customer service. Their “Witness” seems to be a viable and well thought out AM/FM radio MP3 recorder, with the ability to pre-program the recording of up to 20 shows. Impressive if it works as well as they say. I’d like to get my hands on one, but at well over two-hundred dollars I’m just not ready to pay that much for an AM radio, or an MP3 device. I don‘t own an iPhone either.

And lately there’s been more rumors wafting across the Pacific about a MP3/shortwave combo toy in the works in China. And this time it’s not only a brand new design, but it’s also a real pocket shortwave/AM/FM radio and MP3 player. And it’s also a Degen product, one model number up from the failed 1122– the DE1123.

Honestly, most of what I’ve seen has been on Chinese language sites. So most of what I’ve known about the radio has been gleaned from photos and short cryptic feature lists in English. Then there’s been a couple updates at these two sites (the second requires a simple free membership login to read the article). But after the DE1108 radio mirage of a couple years ago, I wasn’t sure if this was a real product yet. Now I’ve seen it on ebay, so it seems to be both real and for sale in the real world. But again, it’s apparently not exactly what it should or could be.

So far, the good news is that the radio isn’t going to cost a lotta dough. About the price of the DE1103, which is less than half the cost of the CC Witness (with shipping from China). And it’s cute. Of course, we have no idea of how well the radio or recorder works, or whether it’s easy to operate. It actually sports a built-in speaker, but will undoubtably sound better through headphones. But the bad news? Only one gig of storage. And NO card slot to upgrade the storage yourself. But worse? Like the G4, according to the feature list on the ebay auction it only records crappy voice recorder quality (wav) files. Why? While it also plays MP3 files, who cares? Just about any digital toy will do that these days.

So we’ll see what happens. But if you wanna take a risk, you can go to ebay and buy one from China right now. But I’d advise waiting for the reviews to start coming in. And be aware that Degen and Tecsun occasionally improve their radios while in production and later models may be better buys and less buggy. In fact, I was just reading that the Tecsun PL200, otherwise known as the Eton 100 (link requires login) here, has recently been upgraded from a single conversion receiver to a dual conversion model with no public announcement or price increase. But on the other hand, there’s something more fundamental that makes the DE1123 interesting, and perhaps exciting as well. It’s a different kind of receiver, with a recently invented DSP chip serving as the brain and guts of the device. It’s known as the Si4734/35. And this chip, or just the technology it introduces, could reinvigorate shortwave radio for the masses. Or maybe it’s just my imagination on the loose.

The Si4734/35 is a first, squeezing a whole circuit board of an AM/FM/SW radio into a little teeny wafer. It’s kind of like shortwave radio crossed over into this century. Not only does DSP technology open up the possibilities of vastly improved noise reduction and other audio enhancements, but the incredible shrinking radio chip could bring shortwave functionality to almost any audio appliance out there (including pocket devices like MP3 players or cell phones). Almost any radio or audio appliance could have AM or shortwave radio on board with practically no sacrifice of space inside the machine, all at a low cost and with almost no extra labor (from what I understand there’s no need for tuning at the factory, which has always added to the cost of the production of SW receivers). There are certainly issues like RF shielding to avoid interference in the HF bands (I guess the CC Witness radio recommends that you shut off the display to reduce noise on the recordings), but these problems shouldn’t be that difficult to solve. But what’s really interesting about this chip, is that you’ll be able to actually upgrade the radio yourself, without breaking out a soldering iron or a repair manual. Just like almost any digital device with onboard memory, you’ll be able to flash the chip and upgrade the firmware (the software that controls the gadget) whenever a new version is available. This is a big plus.

So here’s what I don’t know (besides whether this chip is actually hot little receiver or a dud). When or if this radio will be marketed here as an Eton/Grundig, Kaito or C. Crane radio. But I’ll tell you one thing, Eton seems even more confusing and convoluted promotion and marketing schemes for their radios in action. They’ve been changing colors and nameplates at will and making about 36 different varieties of emergency hand-crank radios (collect ‘em all, trade ‘em with your friends). And right now on their front page they have these two “Porche designed” monstrosities that are supposed to be shortwave radios, as well as twelve other things. I don’t know who or what is the target market for these bizarre looking objects, but I’ll be they’re really expensive. And I’ll bet they fail almost as quickly as the G4 World Recorder.

And I also don’t know if the recorder can be upgraded to MP3 capability with a firmware upgrade, but it seems within the realm of possibility. There’s a number of open source projects online (like Rockbox for digital audio players and CHDK for Canon digital cameras) where sharp geeks and consumers have created completely alternate firmware for these gadgets, and they are constantly improving it. I love this whole concept, taking control of your gizmos and making them better and more useful.

Speaking of useful, between the economic meltdown and the (increasingly unlikely) threat of Sarah Palin possibly becoming one frail John McCain heartbeat away from the helm of our nation, I’m starting to think that it might not be a bad idea to have one of those emergency crank up radios around the house. I mean, you never know. If you can’t afford batteries, at least you’ll be able to crank out some armegeddon updates.

Okay, I’m letting my imagination run wild again. But don’t forget to vote.

And you can find a follow-up of sorts to this post right here.