Some Early Stats

I tuned the shortwave bands again for the first time in mid-March. After a few weeks of tentative listening, I started my new log book on April 5. So, a month (give-or-take) into my third go ’round as a SWL/DXer, it’s time to share a few observations and numbers.

In that month, I’ve purchased and tested three receivers. Two were returned, the first because it stopped working within the return period, the second because I felt like I needed a more powerful receiver. Today, I’m listening on an Icom R75.

I began listening on the whip antennas on my first two receivers. Later, I strung 40 or so feet of wire in a hidden part of our backyard. When the R75 arrived, I ordered a Par Electronics EF-SWL antenna which is now installed in our attic.

I’ve discovered some hellacious noise that comes from somewhere in our neighborhood that makes listening to anything under 7000 kHz very difficult most of the time. With the exception of the high powered US and Cuban stations, I’ve yet to hear anything in the Tropical Bands.

Putting in a couple hours, at most, each day, I’ve snagged 90 stations in 56 countries. All but one of those countries are ones I logged in my previous listening years. Some very light monitoring on the ham bands has netted 16 states and two Canadian provinces.

There are a lot of frustrations regarding shortwave radio that weren’t there when I was a teenager and spending way too much time listening to broadcasts in languages I couldn’t understand. That local RF noise. Radio Canada International is about to disappear with Radio Netherlands probably close behind. There are far fewer big broadcasters aiming towards the United States than there were 30 years ago, and assorted man-made noises make it more difficult to catch the domestic stations I would love to hear.

But this hobby is still a hell of a lot of fun. I think I’ll stick with it for awhile.

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Clear Path

I’m putting the final touches on my revamped shack today, and hope to write about it later this week.

Last night, though, I experienced one of the great joys of shortwave listening: an opening to a particular geographic region. I was cruising the bands around 0100 UT and kept coming across booming signals from the Middle East and southwestern Asia. Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Kuwait, and various former Soviet republics were dominating the bands. I checked off three new stations and two new countries in an hour or so of listening.

I’m not sure if any of this qualifies as true grey-line DXing, although the sun had just set at my listening post and it was roughly sunrise near each transmitter I heard. While the stations I monitored weren’t exactly tough DX targets, it was my first time having a particular region boom in since my return to listening. It reminded me of nights and mornings in the 1980s when Africans and Indos and Papuan stations I rarely heard would pop up across the bands when conditions were just right. It’s those rare occasions that hooked me on listening 30 years ago.

Trying to Hook a Big One

It was hard enough to explain listening to shortwave radio when I was a kid and it was loaded with international broadcasters booming signals around the world. It’s even harder today when getting information is so much easier.

Bill Husted wrote about this in his column for the Ventura County Star. It’s a nice piece on how retro our little hobby is.

My secret is revealed: I’m an analog guy in a digital world. Shortwave listening, once the drug of choice for nerds, is an unlikely hobby nowadays. After all, that distant station I’m straining to hear probably is also available as a crystal clear audio stream somewhere on the Internet.

Shortwave is Like a Fishing Expedition

Via Thomas at The SWLing Post.

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.

Cold, Quiet Nights

The listening post has been quiet for awhile. As currently constructed (or situated, I suppose), my radio area in the corner of our “three-season-room”. That’s a fancy name for a porch that has storm windows but not heating or cooling. With the temperatures very chilly here over the past week-plus, it’s been hard to sit down and chase DX. Which is frustrating, because I’m rediscovering my love for this hobby. I want to spend my evenings sitting next to the rig, scrolling through the bands looking for new signals. I want to scroll through DX Listening Digest, read about new stations, and then be able to chase them down.

Hopfully it will warm up soon and I can get back out there. I need a few more nights with my Sangean ATS-909X to be able to write up my thoughts, too.

I must admit my receiver lust has already moved to the next phase. In those evening hours when I should be listening, I’ve been sitting on the couch watching a baseball game while I work through eBay and other swap sites, looking for deals on better DX machines. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but I have a feeling it’s just a matter of time before I do.

Here’s to warmer weather and good DX.

First QSL

I’ve been debating whether to jump into the QSL game or not. In my previous DXing life, I loved the chase for verification almost as much as the chase for DX itself. I haven’t dug out my old records, but I know I was bumping up against 100 countries verified. I keep my albums of QSLs in a very safe place where my kids can’t get ahold of them.

 

I wasn’t sure I wanted to add the time, effort, and expense of QSLing every station I heard now that I’m listening again. Although, with email and station websites with contact pages, for certain broadcasters it is certainly much easier to build a collection these days.

 

All that said, it was still a thrill to get my first QSL over the weekend. While listening to Red Mercury Labs last week, I fired off an email letting them know I was hearing them. That got the shout out I wrote about then. (I got another shout out from Undercover Radio this weekend). Sunday my inbox held an electronic QSL from RML. While it wasn’t quite like getting a big envelope of goodies from Moscow or Hilversam, or a package with exotic African stamps on it, it was still pretty cool.

 

I’m still not sure I’m going to go hard after the QSLs. It’s hard enough to find the time to listen without having to write reports, track them, send follow-ups, etc. But it is fun to get something back from a broadcaster, whether a megawatt international station or an unlicensed station broadcasting from the middle of nowhere.

CCRadio-SW Review

A few quick notes about my brief time with the C Crane CCRadio-SW. As a reminder, after a couple weeks of use, the audio disappeared on all AM bands and I returned it, opting to try out a Sangean ATS-909X instead of just getting a replacement.

In the brief time I had the SW, I very much enjoyed it. I specifically chose it for its old school look on top of a new school product. The big tuning knob that dominated the buttons and dials on the radio’s front. The huge speaker, reminiscent of the radio my grandfather carted around with him on weekends. The total lack of digital buttons. I just loved the look.

In practice, it worked out well. While the lack of direct frequency entry could be troublesome when attempting to check parallel frequencies, it was not a deal-breaker for me. In fact, it reminded me of the first radio I ever monitored the bands with, a Panasonic boom box that had two shortwave bands. To get from the low end to the high end of a band on it, you had to manually chug through everything in between. As I was restarting my interest in the hobby, there was a nice symetry there.

The audio was fantastic. That big speaker isn’t just window dressing. It pumps out room-filling sound. With all but the weakest signals, I could sit back and monitor just the speaker output.

I can’t make a technical assessment of the radio’s sensitivity. I only used the bult-in whip antenna and monitored from inside my noisy home. I never came aross any true DX signals, so it’s tough to say whether this radio can dig out the weak ones when connected to a decent external wire.

While the radio is on the big end of the portable spectrum, I don’t think it’s too big for comfortable use. Flip the carrying handle up and you can easily take it wherever you want to do your monitoring from. It may be more difficult to pack for a trip, but for around-the-house listening, it was fine.

Who is this radio for? At its reasonable price, with its terrific audio and ease of use, I see it as the perfect entry radio. It’s not some cheap little portable on which you’ll be lucky to hear signals from even Sackville or Havana. While I’ve been more impressed by the performance of the ATS-909X, that radio also checks in at roughly twice the cost of the SW.

The C Crane Radio-SW is no bargain bin junker. It’s a solid performaing, easy to listen to radio that is fine for anyone who wants to scan the bands or lsiten to programs and doesn’t need bells and whistles to hunt for rare DX.