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01/21/2005 Archived Entry: "Selecting a shortwave radio"
A few months back I offered some general advice about selecting a shortwave radio, intending to write a followup blog after I'd done some more research.
"Research" in this case meant going to an amateur radio swapmeet, and chatting with one of the guys manning the Ontario DX Association (ODXA) table. These are folks for whom shortwave listening is more than just a hobby; it's a passion. If you have a similar SWL (ShortWave Listening) group near you, do get in touch with them -- there's no better source for advice and help.
I asked Brian of the ODXA two key questions: what radio should I buy, and what's the best single book to recommend for a newcomer?
He knows I'm not a newbie, so I shouldn't have been surprised that Brian started recommending the creme de la creme of radios: the Drake R8B, Icom R-8500, Ten-Tex RX-340, or AOR AR7030. These are what the passionate hobbyists use. Unfortunately, the passionate hobbyists are willing to pay $1500 or more for one of these receivers, and I'm not. I was looking for something a bit more affordable.
On my second question I had better luck. Brian recommended the Passport to World Band Radio, and after buying a copy I have to concur. If you're going to buy one book for shortwave listening, or if you're just starting out, this is the book for you. The product reviews alone are worth the price of the book. In each category -- portable, tabletop, professional, etc. -- they recommend a "Passport's Choice," and they give radios ratings from one to five stars, along with specifications and an explanation for their rating.
Looking at the specs, features, reviews, and price, I've decided that the best match for our needs is the Grundig Satellit 800. Passport invented a whole new category for this radio: the "portatop," somewhere in between a portable and a tabletop... both in features and price. I'm impressed by the fact that this radio is based on the R. L. Drake SW8A; I've always admired Drake radios. It's one of the few under-$1000 radios to offer selectable bandwidth and synchronous detection, and it's a "Passport's Choice" for performance and value. User reviews are generally excellent; I did learn to avoid the earliest production models because they had a problem with internally-generated noise.
Unlike the creme de la creme radios, Grundig 800s appear on eBay with some regularity. When I manage to snag a unit at a good price, I'll follow up with some firsthand opinions.
Until then, if you're shopping for a radio, first buy the Passport book. In addition to reviews, it has the "Compleat Idiot's Guide to Getting Started," a listing of worldwide broadcasts in English, and the "Blue Pages" listing who's broadcasting on which frequencies at what times. (This is helpful when you're trying to identify a mystery station.) It's a very useful, comprehensive, and understandable guide; the only major lack I've noticed so far is that it doesn't tell how to set up an outdoor antenna. (They do review some commercial antennas, but in general seem to recommend using the radio's built-in antenna. This is ok for strong stations but not for "weak-signal" SWL'ing.)
If I can't yet recommend a radio, at least I can recommend a book.