With winter holidays (and weather) fast approaching for those of us in the northern hemisphere of Earth, radio shopping may be on your mind. This is my guide for portable radio recommendations. Please note that this is based partially on experience with the radios and their manufacturers, and partially on my expectations for radios that I haven't used. Prices are approximate as of publishing time, and are in US dollars.
I've only covered a portion of the portable shortwave radio market here; some radio models, features, and manufacturers have been excluded. As always on this blog, reader comments are welcomed.
If you're considering a purchase through eBay, you may want to read my Shortwave radios on eBay article to familiarize yourself with the challenges you may encounter.
• $25: You can get a basic analog-tuned radio, typically requiring two AA batteries, with a short telescopic antenna. It'll be adequate for local AM and FM stations, and you can hear some strong shortwave stations if you avoid local interference sources. Slide-rule frequency displays are imprecise, so it can be hard to confirm what you're hearing. It's a fun way to scan the bands if you're not as concerned with finding a specific frequency. Many radios in this category are single-conversion, which invites the possibility of receiving unintended signals on the same frequency as the signals you want.
Recommended: Tecsun R-911 / Kaito WRX911, Tecsun R-912, Tecsun R-9012, Redsun RF1201.
Not recommended: Any products from Coby, jwin, Kaide, Kchibo, Bell & Howell.
• $50: This is the price range where radios tend to include a digital frequency display, helping you to find specific broadcasts.
Best in class: Kaito KA1101. This is the portable radio I would buy if I wanted something in the $50 price range.
Recommended: The Tecsun PL-300wt / Grundig G8 gets positive reviews, particularly for its mediumwave or AM broadcast band sensitivity. This isn't a radio I have tried, but it's an appealing option at this price. It is digitally tuned with digital frequency display, and its radio circuitry is DSP-based. Manual tuning is through the tuning dial or with memory recall, so there's no numeric keypad. Shortwave tuning from 2300 kHz to about 22000 kHz is divided among four bands, so tuning through the dial may be tedious, but the frequency display lets you know exactly what frequency you're hearing. A significant portion of the interface under the front cover is dedicated to a knob that allows selection of the timezone. So if you're mostly or always based in the same timezone, this radio's interface won't do much for you.
Take a chance: The C. Crane SWP appears to be a rebranded Redsun RP300. Redsun is one of the newer Chinese radio manufacturers and has a solid reputation. Check around to see if this radio has the reception sensitivity and reliability that warrants a purchase.
Take a chance: Eton has several dynamo (hand-crank) and solar-powered emergency radios near this price point. They make a good gift for anyone who needs to be concerned with emergency preparedness. This includes people living in areas prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, electrical storms, flooding, or disruptive power outages. Here in Northern California, where earthquakes are a part of life, we're reminded to have supplies on hand to keep us safe, hydrated, and fed for at least 72 hours.
Take a chance: The Tecsun PL-380 is another DSP-based receiver in a small package. I own the sibling radio, the PL-310, and I'm impressed with it.
• $100: This price category can get you a high-quality digitally tuned, dual conversion radio, with a long telescopic whip antenna, a signal strength meter, and typically requiring 3 or 4 AA batteries. These radios tend to be on the larger side; too big for pants pockets but not too big for jacket pockets.
Best in class: Kaito KA1102, Kaito KA1103. These radios are known for powerful reception capability in a small package. Both radios are nearly full-featured shortwave receivers, primarily lacking sync detection and switchable USB/LSB. Each radio has an interface quirk, with the 1102 requiring page 9 for SSB, and the 1103 using the big knob for both frequency and volume (volume setting is activated by pushing a button).
Recommended: Grundig G3. This radio is the successor to the Eton E5/Grundig G5 (the Eton E5 is the one I use the most). I had a bad experience with the early-production Grundig G3 unit that I tested, but I've heard that newer units work fine.
Not recommended: Grundig S350. These radios are bulky, heavy, single-conversion, and may suffer from tuning drift.
Not recommended: Sangean ATS-505: Overpriced and oversized for what it is, which is a poor substitute for one of the best-in-class Kaito radios.
• $150: In this price category, the Eton E5/Grundig G5 used to reside until it was replaced by the Grundig G3 (which is listed in the $100 category). Sony's top-of-the-line portable shortwave receiver is still widely available, with a few caveats versus other radios commonly available now.
Recommended: Sony ICF SW7600GR. This radio has a very high quality construction, includes a switch for LSB/USB, and includes sync detect. Negatives include the lack of a tuning knob, a small display area, and a rather conservative filter for AM.
Take a chance: Tecsun PL-660. Tecsun manufactures high-quality portable radios at a wide variety of price points. For 2011, this looks to be their top-of-the-line offering, with dual conversion, single sideband, synchronous detection, and a built-in battery charger.