Sangean ATS-909X Review

Sometimes it’s hard to put aside what you already know when trying something new. That’s the best way to sum up my experience with the Sangean ATS-909X receiver. It’s good enough, in most ways. But compared to what I know, it’s not good enough for me.

I should preface this by saying my electrical/technical accumen is rather meager. Most of my impressions are based on what I heard and my experiences using the receiver rather than on carefully measured technical details.

From a looks standpoint, this is a fine receiver. With one exception, there’s nothing cheap looking or feeling about it. The buttons are all solid and respond to a normal amount of pressure. Direct frequency entry is easy and quick, as are the buttons dedicated to each meter band. For a portable, the display is excellent, packing a lot of information into an easy-to-read window. The backlight is outstanding as well.

The one physical failure of the radio is the tuning “knob”. I put it in quotes because it’s not a true knob but rather a rotating button on the front of the receiver. Instead of turning smoothly, it jumps from notch to notch. Nothing about the “knob” is pleasing to use. In addition to its poor feedback, it is easy to slip past the point you want to stop if you use too much pressure. Or, if you rock your finger a little as you remove it, you can force the radio to jump one more click. The mechanics of it are all wrong. I normally hate the up/down slewing buttons, but I often used those rather than the “knob”.

The sound quality of the ATS-909X is decent. Remember, I tried the Crane CCRadio-SW which has fantastic sound, before this. The 909X didn’t have the warm, room-filling quality of the Radio-SW. But for normal listening, it did the job. Digging for the quieter stations in noisy conditions required some kind of headphones.

Another annoyance was the radio’s memory management. I read the manual several times, but never quite understood the ‘pages’ concept. Perhaps that is just me, though, as I’ve few other complaints about it. My struggles with it prevented me from using more than a couple at a time, though.

How did it pull in the signals? It seemed to do a solid job when attached to a 40′ length of random wire strung in my yard. For comparison, I pulled out an old Grundig YB-400 and swapped the antenna between the two. Stations were consistently stronger on the 909X. I didn’t do any intense DXing, but did catch several North American pirates and grabbed a few higher frequency Africans and Middle Eastern stations I couldn’t get on the RadioSW.

I liked the DSP feature, which did seem to push signals up a bit. I’ve never listened with a DSP-enabled rig before, so can’t comment on how good the 909X is compared to a tabletop with DSP, for example.

The scan function was useless, at least for me, on the SW bands. I played around with the squelch, but could only get the receiver to stop on the strongest signals when using scan. I want a radio to stop each time it encounters a carrier. Again, this could just be user error but no squelch adjustment got the desired results.

As I said, it was tough to not compare this radio to what I know. I owned a Sony ICF-2010 for 15 years or so. Its SYNC function, easy memory management, and selectivity will always be the bar I measure portables against. Despite being designed nearly 30 years later, the ATS-909X just didn’t seem like as strong a radio as the 2010.

I also spent a year or so with a Drake R8B. It’s not fair to compare a $200 portable to a serious communications receiver, but I kept wanting the tools that the R8B offered.

The Sangean ATS-909X isn’t a bad radio. For what is available in the portable market today it’s quite good. It packs a lot of impressive elements into an extremely compact form. From my perspective, though, I don’t know that the $200+ you’ll drop on one wouldn’t be better spent finding an ICF-2010 or Eton E1 in decent condition.

As I purchased my 909X from Amazon, I’m taking advantage of their liberal return policy and sending it back. I want more out of a radio than it can provide. To replace it, I’ve made a purchase from the glorious virtual yard sale known as eBay that I’ll talk about here soon.