My Current Best Shortwave Receiver
I have owned a lot of shortwave radios over the course of 30 years of listening. . .from my first “real” shortwave receiver, the Zenith 10S668 to the venerable Sony ICF-2010 that served as my “high end rig” until its untimely demise a few months ago. Like most shortwave listeners, I am always on the lookout for the next best thing when it comes to shortwave receivers. Unlike a few of my friends who also listen to shortwave, I tend to hang on to most of my radios. Like most of you, all of my radios serve different purposes for me. Some I have for the sound, some I have for the looks, some I have because of their excellent sync detection, others for their SSB capabilities or portability and others for their sensitivity. I am often asked why I need so many of them. In truth, all of us really only need one. But what’s the fun in that?! That said, because I tend to keep all that I buy, my buying has slowed down over the years. . .until recently.
I went to fire up my Sony ICF-2010 and noticed that some of the buttons weren’t working. . .or rather, were only working sporadically. being the “Mr. FixIt” that I am, I opened up the back and went from just the buttons not working to the whole unit not working. I called Craig Siegenthaler over at Kiwa Electronics, knowing that he had a special way with these older radios and he told me, sadly, that they no longer dig into the 2010s because what was necessary to repair the issue I had would require basically ruining other parts to fix the one that was dying on my radio. Needless to say, I was crushed. I got one of the last samples that were made before Sony announced they were discontinuing the unit, so I thought I would be immune to several of the issues that older 2010s suffered from. Not only was my beloved radio suffering, but it had died suffering. I was just sick to my stomach.
As I had mentioned earlier, I had no intention of purchasing a new radio given that I had several and I would have a bit of a hard time justifying to my wife why I needed another. But I couldn’t help myself. I had to find a suitable replacement for my dearly departed 2010.
After an unplanned windfall and some shameless begging, my wife agreed to let me purchase a new radio. I did my research and decided upon the Tecsun PL-880 and a Sony AN-LP1 active loop antenna. I could not have been happier! I was hearing things with a clarity I hadn’t heard in a long time and the PL-880 has an amazing sound on pretty much every band. I will share my experience with that radio another time. I was done. . .and happy. . . .
So I thought. . .
Remember how I mentioned that I had friends that were shortwave listeners that sometimes didn’t hang on to their radios? Well, one of them had just purchased a Tecsun PL-660, just a couple of weeks before my PL-880 purchase. He confided to me that he felt his resources were better spent on SDR as he spent the majority of his time on a PC. He asked if I would be interested in it. I had really struggled between the 660 and the 880 when choosing and ultimately had chosen the latter, as it was a newer model and surely was the better of the two. . .and in many ways it was. But I had read multiple reviews on other sites where they said when choosing their favorite portable, they seemed to reach for the 660 more often than other portables. I had also wanted to replace the air band capability that my 2010 had and remembered that the 880 did not possess the ability to listen to air traffic. So I said, “What the heck” and worked out a deal with him. I was now in possession of my second ever Tecsun radio.
One of the first things I noticed about the PL-660 was it’s unique shape. Instead of the traditional rectangle shape, this radio seemed to “bulge” in the middle. I mean that in a positive way. The next thing that caught my eye was the keypad layout. It had the standard telephone layout that so many modern shortwaves have, but then had buttons on the right hand side, in the same rows as the top 3 on the numbered keypad for memory pages, AM and FM and shortwave bands. Most of the buttons on nearly every Tecsun radio serves more than one purpose. Surprisingly, unlike a lot of more expensive radios, the dual-service buttons actually are quite intuitive and make sense in their placement. To the right of the band buttons were “Air”, “SSB”, “Sync” and a button that serves as both an FM stereo on/off button and a bandwidth selector when in shortwave mode. The display was big and easy to read and the radio boasts two programmable timers, a pleasing backlight display, sleep timers and three knobs on the right hand side for tuning, BFO and volume.
On the back side of the radio, the whip antenna could be easily viewed, as well as the now common kickstand with the frequencies imprinted on it and a glance of the layout of the batteries. I also noticed a peculiar looking “wire” that seemed to be protruding out of the bottom of the radio in the back, situated in the center. I was to later learn that this was a stand of sorts for using the radio in a completely vertical setup. This pleased me a great deal as a lot of manufacturers overlook the fact that not everybody wants to use the kickstand on our radios and some of us like to use them vertically. Well done, Tecsun! The radio also sports the obligatory carrying handle, though I don’t know many serious shortwave listeners that are willing to trust those straps enough to actually carry their receivers around by what amounts to a thin string, but it’s nice to have that option. On the left side of the radio we find an external antenna jack for using a wire antenna to improve reception on shortwave and FM. There’s also an antenna gain switch, which unlike a lot of my radios, I have actually had to put on the “local” setting, or at least off of the “DX” setting due to extreme sensitivity of this radio. There is a tone switch to choose between bass and treble and while nowhere in the class of its sibling 880, it does what it needs to do. Also on this side is the headphone jack (stereo on FM, by the way) and the 6 VDC input for use with the appropriate AC adapter.
Aside from the radio itself, I was pleased to find the following: An instruction manual that was actually both well-written and informative. . .in English, rechargeable batteries (Yes, the radio can actually recharge the batteries!), a set of ear buds, a 23 foot external wire antenna with accompanying clip, a 6 VDC adapter for charging and listening and a Velcro pouch, which is actually a bit nicer than a lot of radios generally provide.
And now the important part. . .the performance.
In short. . .amazing. The radio, as I alluded to earlier, is extremely sensitive, even off the whip antenna. When I hooked it up to my 100 foot longwire antenna, I actually had to move the switch from “DX” to “Normal” for stations like Radio Havana Cuba and WBCQ. There are only 2 bandwidths on the 660, but both seem to be well chosen and provide a pleasant listening experience. The receiver seems to pull signals out of the static and has a relatively low noise floor. The SSB is extremely good and the BFO really allows you to get granular with SSB signals. Amateur radio operators are a pleasure to listen to. . .perhaps among the better experiences I have had with a portable. The tone switch, as mentioned before, is pretty basic and does a serviceable job, but I most often find myself leaving it on treble, as the bass can almost be too muffled. The sync detector was probably the most pleasant surprise of all. It is rock solid and I can’t think of a time where it has ever lost sync. Unlike on the 880, where the sync detection is undocumented and apparently an under-developed afterthought, the sync on the 660 is purposeful and effective, surpassing my 2010, in my opinion. Unlike with a lot of radios, this does what it is supposed to do and actually enhances the listening experience. Battery life is awesome on this unit and I find I have to charge the radio once every couple of weeks with moderate to heavy use.
In conclusion, I have to say that this has become my go-to radio. I have others that are more portable, better sounding, better looking or have advanced features like ETM, but this radio seems to do it all and do it right. Just like reviewers before me, I find myself grabbing this radio more often than any other. As technology changes and innovations make radios better and better, I imagine at some point this won’t be the top dog in my current arsenal. But that time looks to be a long way away and until then, I will happily enjoy the Tecsun PL-660 and will cheer myself for having the smarts to pick it up when I was able.