Episode 6 – On The Buzzer

On-The-AirwavesOn this episode of the podcast, Chris talks about phone carriers pushing for FM radio in smartphones. Additionally, there is news about a host of a popular public radio show finally retiring and a new line of shortwave radios.

Also On The Airwaves, listeners will learn the history of the Russian numbers station called “The Buzzer,” or UVB-76.

Finally, Chris gives an update of rural radio reception on the new Tecsun PL-680.

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An Update on the Tecsun PL-680

20150706_114807Hey folks! Sorry for the delay on making this week’s episode of On The Airwaves. I intend to have the episode up and available by tonight, but don’t quote me on that.

There’s been a ton of breaking news in Memphis, especially in the past 24 hours and it has caused me to spend more time at work. These news developments haven’t allowed me time to make (or even create) the podcast so please bear with me a little bit longer.

Last week, I told you about taking a break for my birthday camping trip. In short, it was a blast at Enid Lake, MS.

During my outdoor trip, I took the Tecsun PL-680 with me and put it to further use. There are not any recordings with this post because my recorder wasn’t packed and my phone’s battery was drained most of the time.

I will, however, discuss my findings on how the Tecsun PL-680 operated in rural and outdoor settings.

On the FM and Shortwave side of things, sensitivity and clarity of radio stations was excellent. The distance from Memphis and Enid Lake is roughly 70 miles apart and I was able to receive every Memphis FM station (such as WKNO, WMXX, and WUMR) with little or no static.

Reception of broadcasters like Radio Australia and WRMI came in very well and sounded like a local station. Outdoors conditions were noticeably better than back home in Memphis.

Sadly, AM reception didn’t do so well. I think I mentioned on the review that local AM stations could not be received well in Atoka, TN, which is 20 miles away. They were audible but static and noise overwhelmed signals from Memphis stations like WREC 600.

Unfortunately, the PL-680’s MW limitations became more apparent. At Enid Lake, I could not receive any AM station from Memphis. There was nothing but static.

However, clear channel stations like KMOX 1120 AM from St. Louis, MO came in well. In fact, I listened to a Cardinals baseball game on the first night of camping.

It’s a bit odd that a faraway station came in better than a local one like WREC, but it is unsurprising given clear channels operate with more powerful transmitters. Still, it is disappointing that the Tecsun PL-680 isn’t good at AM reception.

It is fine in urban areas, but gets much worse as you move away from the signal’s origin. The PL-680 is certainly not the radio you want to use for AM reception. Otherwise, it is still a fantastic radio and well worth the money.

Tecsun PL-680 Review

It has arrived!

Introduction

The Tecsun PL-680 hit the radio market earlier in 2015. Despite the decline in shortwave broadcasting, the Chinese radio manufacturer has been churning out receivers and they are meeting some success for this niche market.

It is the first true successor to the PL-660 and follows the latest radios in the 600 series. I have had it for a few days, put it to test, and came up with some impressions of the Tecsun PL-680.

Appearance & Build Quality

20150706_114807This radio will immediately look familiar to SWL enthusiasts. It shares a similar design to the PL-600, the 660’s predecessor.

Even though the PL-680 replaces the 660, its casing is nearly a duplicate of the 600. The appearance is angular unlike the the PL-660 which was a round design.

For example, the numeric keypad buttons are bigger and flat, unlike the smaller and rounder buttons of the PL-660. This design choice make inputting frequencies and switching band easier and ergonomic.

Like the PL-600 and PL-660, the Tecsun PL-680 uses the same hard plastic. It isn’t glossy but not quite matte. It roughly weighs the same as those models. It is in that middle ground of not feeling cheap, but not quite as premium builds such as the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and Sangean ATS-909X.

The tuning and volume knobs are not wobbly and are firmly in place. In fact, there seems to be more resistance compared to the PL-660. Also, the face buttons more responsive compared to its predecessor.

Features

The Tecsun PL-680’s features are exactly the same as the PL-660. Internally, both radios are identical.

In case you missed out on the PL-660, here’s what can expect in this model.

20150706_114751The PL-680 has full continuous coverage of AM, FM, shortwave, LW, and aircraft bands. There is also selectable Single Sideband Band equipped with BFO (beat frequency oscillator) with fine tuning.

The feature that set the PL-660 apart for the 600 comes included in PL-680: synchronous detection. In short, it is a method of signal processing that extracts a weak signal and replaces it with a stronger channel.

This, in turn, reduces or eliminates fading and interference from adjacent stations. Sync detection only works on AM, LW, and SW bands.

There is an external antenna jack along with a tone switch for bass and treble and antenna sensitivity controls for DX, Normal, and Local. In addition, you can adjust the bandwidth on AM, LW, and SW for wide and narrow.

The radio also has 2000 memory presets with numerous pages to set them. For me, I would never use that many but there is certainly plenty to program favorite stations.

In the box, the Tecsun PL-680 comes with a pseudo-leather carrying case, rechargeable batteries, power adapter, owner’s manual, and a long wire antenna. Tecsun certainly gives you a lot of bang for your buck.

Display

The display is also the same as the PL-660’s. It gives you frequency readout, signal strength, time in 24-hour format, dual alarms, tuned band, bandwidth or in stereo (FM only), and sync hold. It’s not a large display but is large enough to display these indications clearly.

The screen is also backlit when you turn the radio on, press a button, or tune the bands. However the light stays on for roughly 30 seconds and turns off.

You can manually keep the it off, but the backlight can’t stay on.

Sound Quality

The speaker is sounds nearly the same as the Tecsun PL-660. It tends to have more bass than other radios in the market. Adjusting the tone controls to treble and bandwidth to wide certainly brings clarity, it allows more static to overpower it on weaker signals. I am usually content with having bass on and a narrow bandwidth.

The noise floor on the PL-680 seems to be considerably lower the PL-660. I’ve noticed this on AM and shortwave.

Sync Detection

As previously mentioned, the Tecsun PL-680 also has sync detection. Like the PL-660, it functions in a similar manner and locks the signal.

You’ll be happy to know that synchronous detection works well with this model. It is perhaps slightly better than its predecessor.

It holds the receive signal better and does a better job at fade and interference rejection. Even on weaker stations, the PL-680 has a firm grip on it and I haven’t notice any fades on SW and AM.

By far, this has the best synchronous detector that I have used on any radio.

AM Performance

First, it’s time to get some bad news out of the way. Compared to the PL-660, reception on AM is weaker.

While local AM stations here in Memphis were clearly received, distant ones were not as lucky.

I tested reception on some clear-channel distant stations as well as local ones. There was no trouble receiving them, but stations like KMOX in St. Louis, WGN in Chicago, and WLAC in Nashville were not as pleasant to hear as if I had received them on the Tecsun PL-660 or even my Sangean WR-22 (which made it sound local upon comparison).

It is not doom and gloom though. The weaker stations were subject to more noise, but using sync actually helped remove any fading, something that even the PL-660 couldn’t handle right on AM DXing.

Despite the noise, listening to clear-channels is tolerable on the PL-680. Lower power AM stations may be a trouble find, though.

If you plan on listening to local AM stations or others like KMOX, it should be fine but the performance is a step back from PL-660, which has less than stellar AM reception.

If you own an external loop antenna like the Tecsun AN-200, that might help improve reception.

KMOX 1120 (St. Louis, MO)

WGN 720 (Chicago, IL)

WLAC 1510 (Nashville, TN)

WSM 650 (Nashville, TN)

WREC 600 (Memphis, TN)

FM Performance

This rest is up hill from here. FM performance is the same as the Tecsun PL-660. Local and distant signals came in very well. I don’t do much FM DXing but there is a distant NPR station in Mississippi, WMAV 90.3, that comes in loud and clear and is more than 50 miles from Memphis.

Weaker local stations are received just as well, both on the telescoping whip antenna and external wire antenna bundled with this radio.

WEGR 102.7 Rock 103

WMAV 90.3 FM (Oxford, MS)

WMFS 92.9 ESPN Radio

WUMR 91.7 FM U92 “The Jazz Lover”

WYPL 89.3

Shortwave Performance

Like the PL-660, the Tecsun PL-680 really shines on shortwave. In terms of sensitivity, this one is marginally better than its predecessor. Both on the whip and external antenna’s sensitivity is top-notch.

Essentially every station that I was able to pick up on the PL-660 was received on the PL-680. However, this radio has the edge.

Some stations that I had a bit of trouble getting like WRMI, WBCQ, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle came in better and clearer. Using the synchronous detection improved it even further by not allowing the signal to fade.

Also, the noise floor on shortwave to be slightly lower compared to the PL-660. Signals just sound a bit better and more intelligible.

Deutsche Welle at 0430 UTC (9800 kHz)

Radio Australia at 0445 UTC (17840 kHz)

Radio New Zealand International at 0500 UTC (11725 kHz)

Voice of America at 1700 UTC (17895 kHz)

WRMI at 0440 UTC (9955 kHz)

LW and Aircraft Band Performance

In the United States, there are not any broadcasters that use longwave transmissions. I did give it a test and didn’t pick up one station.

In Europe or other regions that still use LW, there may be better results. However, there is simply no way of knowing how it performs here in the U.S.

Therefore I don’t see that as a negative or positive on the PL-680.

I wasn’t able to pick up aircraft communications either, not for lack of trying. The Memphis International Airport is roughly 5 miles from my home, but perhaps it is not close enough to pick up any air traffic chatter.

I don’t listen to any aircraft signals, but someone who does may like this feature.
It wasn’t able to pick up anything when I tested it, but I don’t see it as a huge feature to consider when scoring this radio. With that said, there were similar results on the Tecsun PL-660 in this area.

Overall

To sum up my experience with the Tecsun PL-680, it is worthy as an successor to one of the best multiband receivers created in recent times. It performs better than the PL-660 in most areas, except AM.

I truly love this radio and don’t see myself going back to the PL-660. However, I really can’t recommend the PL-680 to anyone who owns the PL-660 or even PL-880.

It does have better performance overall, but it is marginal compared to those radios. All three are nearly neck and neck when it comes to sensitivity, synchronous detection, sound quality, and signal to noise ratio. If you already own one of these receivers, then there’s really no point to upgrade. Heck, the PL-660 is slightly cheaper and performs close to par.

However, if one doesn’t already have a shortwave radio or perhaps upgrade from the PL-600 or other cheaper models from Eton, Sangean, Kaito, or Degen, then I’d say go for it.

The Tecsun PL-680 will not disappoint. It is now my favorite all-time shortwave radio and definitely a keeper.

Score Breakdown

Build Quality: 4/5
Sound Quality: 4/5
Affordability: 4/5
Features: 5/5
Portability: 5/5
AM Performance: 3/5
FM Performance: 5/5
SW Performance: 5/5
Sync Detection: 5/5

Overall Score: 4.5/5

The Tecsun PL-680 Is Here!

After two weeks of waiting, I have finally received the Tecsun PL-680, the successor to the popular PL-660, from Anon-Co this morning. Before reviewing this radio, it has to be unboxed and pictures of its contents are provided below.

It has arrived!

Quick look inside the box shows the manual and carrying case.

Tecsun always packs a ton of cool things with their radios.

The PL-680 unwrapped!

My body is ready!

Here are some quick impressions. In short, the PL-680 seems to be a fine radio. It is very similar to what you can expect out of a PL-660.

Shortwave reception and sync detection hold up very well. FM is top notch. Also, there is some merit to a deafening on distant AM stations, but clear channels and local broadcasters seem to be just fine if you don’t DX.

I have yet to put it through its paces but I should have enough experience with it before my review this Friday. So far, it is a worthy successor of the PL-660.  Although, it isn’t much of an upgrade if you already own one.

If you will excuse me, I will get back to listening to Radio New Zealand International, which is coming in crystal clear.

Episode 23 – CFOR (2.20.2015)

In CFOR’s Episode 23, Chris talks about the aftermath of Winter Storm Octavia in addition to more icy weather. He also notes some new changes this month on A Prairie Home Companion, particularly a guest host. For shortwave listeners, this show has a retro review for the Radio Shack DX-397 and some details on the upcoming Tecsun PL-680. Download & enjoy the show.

Here is the track list for Episode 23.

Circus Marcus: “Le poids”
Ergo Phizmiz: “To Swap Heads By”
The Gateless Gate: “Light”
The Jerkon Five: “Hand Jive”
Tamara Laurel: “Sweet”
Mr. & Mrs. Smith: “Tiger of a Tale”
staRpauSe: “Hooky Hicky”
The Trumpeteers: “Little Wooden Church”
Lee Maddeford: “Be what you wanna be”
Lá Eles: “Ouro Bahia”
La Troba Kung-Fu: “Volant”
Jahzzar: “Roads that burned our boots”

P.S. Here’s a special shoutout to Thomas Witherspoon for sharing the retro review on The SWLing Post. Also, thanks to Gene Janas from Prana-Pindu for listening to the podcast and providing tunes like “A Heart That Devises Wicked Plots” on last week via Free Music Archive.

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