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.