22 August 2009

grundig g3 review and eton e5 comparison

Along comes the Grundig G3. This radio offers three new significant features over the Eton E5/Grundig G5: synchronous detection, VHF aircraft band reception, and FM RDS. The concept of an Eton E5 plus synchronous detection was appealing, so I ordered the G3.

This product has a distinguished lineage. If I understand the history correctly, it starts with the Degen DE1103 (sold under the Kaito brand in the United States). This radio was widely regarded for its sensitivity, feature set, and sub-$100 selling price. However, the 1103 had a peculiar user interface: the numeric buttons were in a single row along the bottom, most of the user interface was taken up by a large LCD with an unnecessary simulated analog tuner, and volume control was indirect.

RadioIntel then posted a fax they received showing a new product called the Degen DE1106. Reportedly, it was a direct derivative of the DE1103 with a more traditional user interface. Then, Degen sold the DE1106 radio design to a foreign company. After that, the Eton E5 and subsequently the Grundig G5 were released, almost identical in design to the Degen DE1106 image from the fax. Now, the Grundig G3 adds three features to the predecessor E5/G5 but retains the same retail price.

Taking it out of the box

Eton Corporation (who markets and distributes Grundig-branded radios in the USA) does not usually impress me with their packaging. The G3 box features impressive artwork, but inside the box is a different story. The G3, manual, and accessories are packed in a thin cardboard tray, with the manual not fitting particularly well. To get anything out of the box, the outer artwork sleeve has to be removed from the box, then the inner cardboard tray has to be removed from the box. I have this same issue with the Eton E5 and Eton E100 packaging. It's a minor issue but gets things started on the wrong foot.

If you've never had the pleasure of unboxing a Kaito 1102, it goes like this: lift the box flap, then lift the box top, and you're in. The radio, headphones, and power adapter are accessible. Lift the cheap plastic tray to get to the radio pouch, batteries, and manual. Kaito's product boxes may have a less impressive exterior, but they're much more usable than Eton's.

Right after removing the G3 from the plastic wrapping, I detected a burned rubber odor that resembles the odor of a skunk. Who wants to bring a skunk into their home? The odor is still there, too, if I put my nose close to the radio. This thing has been sitting on a desk near a window that's often open, so this thing has a serious odor problem. Some of the odor transfers to my hands when I handle the radio.

While testing this radio, I have been powering it with four fresh Rayovac akaline batteries. I didn't try the included power adapter.

Visual comparison with the Eton E5

Since I own an Eton E5, I have a good benchmark for the new Grundig G3. Keep in mind, however, that my E5 is 3.5 years old at this point.

I'm a big fan of the G3's black enclosure. The left side of the radio, however, uses raised lettering to label the ports and the switch. The local/dx switch is one place where it would be useful to see the labels in low light. But that's not possible because the raised letters are the same color as the background. This is the same labeling method used on the left side of the E5, but the lighter color of the E5 enclosure allows the labeling to be somewhat visible in low light. Fortunately, the local/dx switch is one that reveals itself through usage.

The LCD backlight is attractive, brighter than on the E5, and does a better job of filling the screen. However, the G3 does not backlight its buttons. I like the backlit buttons on the E5. I don't need the backlit buttons to be completely legible, as I can work from memory once I have a basic frame of reference. Really, I just like the way it looks. It's more inviting, you know?

The LCD alphanumeric display is expanded from four characters on the E5/G5 to eight characters on the G3. This facilitates RDS data, and allows memory pages to use names of up to eight characters. Now I can finally create a memory page for Radio Netherlands that says something more than "HLND". The irony is that they're no longer broadcasting to North America.

An issue that my E5 has, and which is even worse on the G3, is alignment of the round buttons on the front panel. The numeric keypad is surrounded by five round buttons, and none of them are aligned properly.

Functional comparison with the Eton E5

According to my ears, the G3 produces more treble response through the speaker. I don't know if this is due to my E5's wear and tear, or a design change. Both radios had the tone switch in the "music" position when I did this comparison.

Using the numeric keypad to select frequencies on the G3 has a couple of problems. First, it takes a bit longer for the audio to come on after changing the frequency than on the E5. Second, sometimes when I press the "3" key, the radio enters a "4" instead. This has been happening about once every couple of days.

Scanning through a shortwave band is slower on the G3. It gets through the frequencies a lot slower. Also, scanning doesn't begin until "key up", whereas the E5 would begin scanning with "key down". I prefer the E5's "key down" scanning behavior.

Similar to the E5, the G3 will not jump to the seldom-used 15-meter band (18900-19020 kHz) when hopping between bands by pressing the AM button. Also, the G3 will not display "15M" when tuned to the 15-meter band frequencies, whereas it shows the meter band label for all other shortwave bands. Poor, neglected 15M band.

While trying to receive the NCDXF/IARU HF beacons on 21150 kHz, I heard the 98.1 MHz FM broadcast in garbled form. I did some basic calculations but couldn't figure out why I was hearing that station. A wire antenna was connected at the time that this happened. I connected my E5 to the wire antenna and tuned to 21150 kHz, but didn't hear the FM station interference.

The G3 has a problem with volume control. It offers volume levels in the range of 00 to 31, but the usable range for me is only between 08 and 14. Below 08, the radio doesn't seem to make any sound through the speaker. Above 14, the speaker is too loud. This experience was the same for AM, FM, and SW.

I tuned in to some amateur voice traffic on 3760 kHz in the 80-meter band. On the G3, I wasn't able to use the BFO dial to eliminate the robotic quality of the voices. With the E5, it was relatively easy to clarify the voices with the BFO. I received a reply to this comment on the rec.radio.shortwave newsgroup stating that input overload can sometimes cause this.

In my experience, shortwave sensitivity is comparable between the E5 and the G3. Both radios also provided a similar positive impact when attached to a 30-foot random wire antenna.

In one case, the G3 did slightly better on mediumwave with a weak signal than the E5. I was receiving KDIA on 1640 kHz, which is a 10 kW station about 30 miles away. The broadcast was fading noticeable on the E5, but the G3 held the signal steadily and provided greater reception.

Using synchronous detection

Synchronous detection is a premium feature that is more common these days on pricier tabletop receivers, whereas very few portable receivers offer it. The purpose of this feature is to enhance reception of a broadcast that is weak or is receiving interference on one of the two sidebands.

The Grundig G3's synchronous detection implementation could make or break this product. With a similar retail price to the well-respected Sony ICF SW7600GR receiver, the G3 will have to really deliver here.

While tuned to China Radio International on 6080 kHz (from Sackville, Canada), I wanted to clarify the weak signal. When I enabled the sync detection, the radio briefly muted, then emitted a loud whistling sound over the broadcast. This sequence repeated every few seconds, including both the muting and the loud whistling. An example of this noise and muting can be seen in the YouTube video below.

My Sony ICF SW7600GR receiver also mutes the audio when sync detection is enabled, but very briefly. To measure how long each radio mutes upon sync activation, I recorded each radio with my computer during sync activation, selected the muted region of the audio, and checked the length. The SW7600GR muting lasted 0.03 of a second, while the G3 muting lasted 0.25 of a second (over 8 times longer). The SW7600GR doesn't emit any whistling when sync is enabled, either.

I got the G3's sync detection to succeed on 1090 kHz (XEPRS, in Mexico), with adjacent channel interference mostly eliminated. Unfortunately, it only held on for approximately 20 seconds before having to restart the detection. I also had some success with sync detect on 780 kHz (KKOH, in Reno, NV).

Dr. Gene Scott's broadcast from the Caribbean Beacon on 6090 kHz was another place that sync failed to impress. This was a strong shortwave broadcast, and probably this radio's best chance to succeed with sync detect on shortwave. Sync also couldn't perform on 6165 kHz, which was a Radio Netherlands broadcast in Dutch to North America.

So, my experience with the G3 sync detection is that it works somewhat with moderate-to-strong mediumwave signals, and can eliminate adjacent channel interference, but is not effective at all for shortwave. Enabling sync detection is no guarantee of success, and if the signal is too weak or there's too much noise, enabling this feature can do more harm than good due to the muting and the whistling noise.

This experience brought to mind something that a radio enthusiast acquaintance once told me: usually, the human ear is the best filter. With synchronous detection as this product's most important advancement over the Eton E5, I am disappointed.

Using the VHF band

Before my G3 arrived, I visited liveatc.net and airnav.com to make a list of air traffic frequencies for the three closest airports. WIth the G3, I first tuned in to the SFO tower. I heard the plane crews, but not the tower controllers. It's like hearing one side of a phone conversation, something we all probably encounter a lot these days. VHF basically provides line-of-sight reception, so the hills in my area are preventing me from receiving the tower transmissions. Not much sense in owning an aircraft band receiver, then, when I can listen to the live feeds on liveatc.net and hear everything.

The G3 will not scan through the VHF frequencies when holding and releasing the auto search buttons. You need to adjust the frequency with the tuning knob or the numeric keypad. Some may see this as an oversight, but I don't consider it practical to scan through a frequency range where in-use frequencies don't have constant transmissions.

A minor nitpick: the G3 displays air band frequencies as six unseparated digits. I would like to see the frequency displayed as MHz instead of kHz.

Using FM and RDS

Radio Data System (RDS) is another new feature on the Grundig G3. When tuned to an RDS-enabled FM station, the G3 will display or scroll the provided text using the eight on-screen alphanumeric characters. RDS is off by default, so the LCD will show either "MONO" or "STEREO" when tuned to a station, which is actually irrelevant unless stereo headphones are used. Technology companies often show off their new features, so I'm surprised that RDS isn't automatically enabled for FM.

I almost never listen to the FM broadcast band, so RDS doesn't really interest me. But I scanned the FM band to find out which stations use it. I received RDS data for 15 stations (88.5 KQED, 90.3 KUSF, 91.7 KALW, 92.7 KNGY, 94.1 KPFA, 95.3 KUIC, 96.5 KOIT, 97.3 KLLC, 98.1 KISQ, 98.9 KSOL, 100.3 KBRG, 102.1 KDFC, 103.7 KWNI, 104.5 KFOG, 106.9 KCBS/KFRC).

In one case, I saw the current artist identified as Sting when it was actually Journey. I'm guessing that this problem was on the provider's end, however.

Since all of the clear stations I was able to tune in were spaced at least 0.4 MHz apart, I didn't notice any problems with FM selectivity.


I like my Eton E5 a lot, and I have to really think about it when prompted to suggest improvements. Getting me to switch from the Eton E5 to the Grundig G3 would require a significant new feature or a significant capability upgrade. Unfortunately, the Grundig G3 just doesn't meet my expectations. Synchronous detection, the feature with the most potential to impress, behaved poorly in my trials. If I had no choice between these two radios, I would accept the Grundig G3 as a replacement. But since I have a choice, I'm sticking with the Eton E5.


carmen said...

thorough review. thanks. DE1103 here is nary a year old, and the faceplate already fell off (cheap + nonexistent amounts of glue) antenna broke (magloop alligator clipped to stub) and lineout bent internally (fell to floor w/ cable plugged in) and of course the speaker is tiny

mainly i use a DX-440 which is 18 years old. i will continue to use it until it dies, then check out the Sangaen ATS-909XR

Matthias Meckel said...

I'm also disappointed with the sync detection on my G3, but have to say that zero beat tuning is so easy on my G3 (which it isn't at all on my E5) that I'm still happy.

horseathalt said...

Thanks for the honest review. I have the E5 as well and while I like it it really doesn't come to close to the old Sony 7600GR for serious DX whether HAM or SWL.

The Sony is all business, yeah it isn't a nice to listen to but ignore all the internet hype about the G5/1103/E5, they still are left trailing the old 7600GR when it comes to the tough stuff. Also the 7600GR is a quality product built with consistancy the only niggle I had when new was a stiff swivel on the whip antenna. Now over 5 years later the only thing I can make a complaint about is the slight occasional warbling on USB above the 31mb and that could be because I have dropped it several times LOL. The quality of the E5 is ok but my unit is off by 1khz at all frequencies however I got this on closeout and after informing the retailer of the issue they gave me the unit for 39$ shipped with a 1 yr factory warranty so I can't complain. But the E5 just seems fragile to me.

I am willing to give the G3 a look next year. Hopefully by then they will have improved the sync to the level of the 7600GR I might be interested at that point But they need to do some improvement.


Arius said...

How is the G3 sync detect when the radio is hooked up to some sort of external antenna? One would think that the extra signal strength couldn't hurt.

Mr. Schwartz said...

I tell you one under-rated feature on the G3 is the line in-out. I can now plug my ipod into the line in for the G3, and listen to the audio from the ipod on the G3. Pretty neat feature that the G5 didn't have.

For me, it's below the G5 on AM and Longwave. About the same on shortwave. But what makes the G3 shine is it's separate USB/LSB, especially if you listen to hams. It is soo much easier to listen to those tranmissions on the G3.