Less Can Be More: Low-Cost Short Wave DXing
In this article, our regular correspondent and occasional contributor Clint Gouveia goes outdoors and looks at HF DXing
In this article, our regular correspondent and occasional contributor Clint Gouveia goes outdoors and looks at HF DXing with simple means, using inexpensive equipment to achieve astonishing results.
I receive a lot of messages from would-be shortwave listeners/ DXers who, having investigated the hobby online, decided to ‘take the plunge’ and buy a receiver – usually a portable one.
The HF DXing demographic seems binary; on the one hand, there are youngsters, who have little or no experience of the hobby and don’t remember life before the internet.
On the other hand, you have more mature operators who were, maybe, involved in the hobby many years back and are now looking to ‘re-engage’ with it now.
I imagine it can be quite daunting for a ’newbie’ to get into shortwave listening. You’ve only got to take a look at the ‘average’ DXer’s shack – and mine is a good example (Fig 1). There can a plethora of complex and expensive-looking radio equipment, amassed over some years, as well as antennas in the garden and coaxial cables all over the place.
It’s a perception hurdle, which can be difficult to overcome, as I know from talking to my subscribers.
In my own shack, I have many receivers, old and new, which, at the time of purchase, I deemed necessary to deliver the best possible modulation from the best possible signal-to-noise ratio.
And this is, of course, the crux of shortwave DXing: The signal-to-noise ratio. In our modern times, flat screen TVs, PLT adaptors and a multitude of other devices all spew out copious electrical noise. The noise floor of -130dB we enjoyed in the 1980s is often as bad as -100dB today. The higher the noise floor, the less modulation is detected, and with less modulation, there will be less recovered audio and so on.
At times, it almost feels like a war at my QTH! Ultimately, all this can result in very poor shortwave reception at home. What’s the general solution? Invest in expensive and sophisticated receivers, coupled to similarly expensive and sophisticated antennas?
Well, in my case, until recently, much of my DXing on MW and HF was conducted using an Elad FDM DUO receiver, coupled to a Wellbrook ALA1530 magnetic loop antenna. Throw in the cost of a laptop to make all this happen and you’re easily talking about a cost in excess of £1,600.
Simply a crazy amount of money for a newcomer to be investing in a hobby (Fig. 1).
However, there is a cheaper alternative, and it can deliver better results than expensive equipment.
Local QRM, generated by noisy appliances, is the one variable affecting what you can hear with whatever equipment. However, this is one factor which you can actually mitigate for by just getting yourself outside.
I have had a lifelong interest in tropical band DXing. Therefore, my focus often ranges from the 90m broadcast band, down to 60m.
A check back through more than 2,200 reception videos on my YouTube channel confirms that my best-ever reception of any station on the tropical band (and elsewhere on HF) was always achieved with a portable receiver, out on a ‘DXpedition’.
Why is this? Because the noise-floor in my shack is always at least 20dB higher than the local wood I use when I am out and about. This is a huge factor, determining what you will hear, and it will affect the quality of the reception in terms of both demodulation and audio.
Therefore, it is a simple equation: Low-cost DXing equipment outdoors = better results than high-cost DXing equipment at home.
Here is a real-world example: My vintage Sony ICF-2001D, which I bought on eBay for about £150, delivers a stronger and clearer signal from Rádio Clube do Pará (4885kHz, Belém, Brazil) than I could ever hope to hear on my £1,650 Elad/Wellbrook setup.
I could list many, many more examples, but the point is made. You don’t have to spend a fortune on equipment; clever use of some more modest gear will frequently deliver superb DX results.
And there’s more good news: The relative cost of really excellent shortwave portables has decreased significantly over the last two decades. Today, it is possible to purchase a portable with excellent performance for less than £100.
Under £10: Tesco RAD-108
So, what can you expect to hear and at what cost? Let us have a quick look. For under £10, you can buy the RAD-108 analogue world band receiver (Tesco £8) (Fig. 2).
It delivers decent enough results at a throwaway-price. It’s quite amazing to think that, in 2018, you can buy a world band radio for less than a tenner.
Admittedly, it is analogue, so you won’t be certain about what you’re listening to unless you actually listen! However, that is not a bad thing in my opinion. Bearing in mind that a receiver of this cost and simplicity could be easily dismissed as a ‘waste of time’, I ask what can you actually hear with it?
Well, it covers HF from 60 to 13m, in discrete bands, which is adequate for most shortwave listening. I like to check out 75 and 90m too, but these days there’s not so much on those bands and most signals that are present will be too weak for a radio of this simplicity and sensitivity.
However, having spent a few weeks, two summers ago, testing this very radio, what I managed to copy was actually surprising. Among many other stations, I received: NHK World Radio Japan, transmitting from Madagascar on 11985kHz, Radio Thailand on 9390kHz, VOA, via Botswana relay, on 15580kHz, Radio Rebelde Cuba on 5035kHz, VOA transmitting in English, via Pinheira, São Tomé and Principe, on 4960kHz, and, quite incredibly, the Voice of Korea (DPRK) on 11645kHz.
All these signals were copied with a mere wire attached to the telescopic antenna, about 20m in length. Overloading is an issue for a budget portable such as this one and you have to be careful with antenna length.
But overall, what a fabulous performance from such a cheap portable – the sort of radio you could take camping and not worry if it got broken or lost. Brilliant stuff, at what is, obviously, ultra-low cost.
In this category, Tecsun deserves more than a passing mention (Fig. 3). The company offers two modestly priced, yet excellent, portables, the Tecsun PL-360 (left) and the Tecsun PL-310ET (right).
The PL-360 is available on eBay, and elsewhere on the internet, for less than £30.
What you get for your money, is a DSP shortwave receiver in a ‘walkie-talkie’ form-factor, with no push button direct frequency entry, no audio bandwidth options and no external antenna socket to enhance shortwave reception (although you do get this for the medium wave broadcast band).
On the upside, you get a level of sensitivity that punches above its price-point, a feature that allows you to ‘toggle’ between HF broadcast bands and a scanning mode, automatically storing any signal found.
I have used this receiver extensively outdoors, with 20 or 30m of wire wound around the base of the telescopic antenna or attached using a crocodile clip.
In this way, I copied Reach Beyond Australia HCJB on 12075kHz, Radio Dabanga, Madagascar on 15150 kHz, the Zanzibar Broadcasting Corporation on 11735kHz, the Voice of Korea (DPRK) on 11645kHz, Radio New Zealand International on 9700kHz, KSDA-AWR GUAM from Agat in the Western Pacific on 9800kHz, Radio Argentina Exterior on 15345kHz and many, many, more stations.
For less than £30, this little radio will deliver excellent results, way beyond the big, high-TX powered, international broadcasters. I can’t recommend it highly enough for beginners or those needing a low-cost, hardy radio to carry with them for some ad-hoc listening.
On average, the Tecsun PL-310ET is just £10 more expensive than its little brother the Pl-360.
What do you get for the extra outlay and what can you expect to hear? Well, the good news is that you are offered an external antenna socked for HF to enhance shortwave reception. You also get direct frequency access, which means you can select a frequency at the press of a few buttons. This makes tuning considerably more efficient and quicker than with the PL-360.
Perhaps most importantly, there are audio filtering options, which allow the listener to be much more selective in terms of audio quality versus mitigating adjacent channel interference.
This is a ‘must’ for any serious DXer because, even though the shortwave bands are much less congested than in yesteryear, you will find there are still more than enough signals offering very interesting DXing results.
Once again, I have used this radio extensively and copied many signals that one might think are beyond the capabilities of a sub-£40 portable receiver. It is a very sensitive DSP portable that also benefits from outstanding selectivity.
Table 1 displays a selection of stations heard with the Tecsun PL-310ET radio. While some of these are no longer broadcasting, their inclusion gives a sense of just how sensitive this little radio is.
This is an impressive list of HF DXing results, some of which any serious listener would be glad to copy at home, using an array of expensive receivers and antennas. To think that all of these stations were copied with a piece of wire and a sub-£40 portable radio says it all really.
Overall, many modern receivers are much better positioned, in terms of performance as a function of price. This shows clearly when you take one out on a DXpedition, to get away from noise pollution. Again, the Tecsun PL-310ET is a radio I strongly recommend, both to newcomers and to seasoned listeners alike.
Next up, is the rather ordinary looking – but spectacularly performing – XHDATA D-808 radio (Fig. 4).
I make no bones about it: This is a very unassuming looking radio. It is manufactured in China, at obviously low cost. At first glance, it doesn’t look very special. The plastic used for the external casing looks and feels a tad ‘cheap’, and, when I bought mine last Christmas, the £60 I paid online didn’t really feel like a bargain.
However, this all changed when I switched it on and used it for the first time. In terms of specifications, this is a multi-band DSP receiver with direct frequency input, SSB capability with fine-tuning, audio bandwidth filtering options (500Hz, 1, 1.2, 2.2, 3 and 4kHz).
There is a 1kHz tuning step on SW and an external antenna socket, which is all important. The audio on a strong AM signal or FM is a little ‘tinny’ because the speaker is relatively small and the ergonomics just about suitable. However, I am nit-picking really.
What differentiates this radio? Well, its performance, as a function of cost, is unsurpassed. This radio has an absolutely superb sensitivity (quoted as <10 µV on SW) and selectivity and can handle a long wire without overloading. The audio bandwidth filters are also very good. Demodulation of a weak AM signal still delivers discernible audio, even when using the narrowest (1kHz) filter.
This is not something I’ve experienced previously with any other radio. Sensitivity on the telescopic antenna and on a long wire is just about as good as any portable I have used previously, and I include Sony’s venerable ICF-2001D and ICF-SW77 receivers in that category. It’s that good.
Excellent online reviews posted by me and others caused this radio to sell out a few months back, but they’re available again, for around £85. This is an absolute bargain. Experienced and new DXers alike should grab one.
So, once again, what can you expect to hear with this radio? Table 2 contains a list of some of the stations I copied a few months back. I think this is very impressive for what is essentially a budget receiver.
I could go on, but you get the picture. All stations in Tables 1 and 2 were copied from my shack, except one (Super Rádio Boa Vontade), which I had never heard before, and which I copied with the D-808.
In every case, reception outdoors, with a long wire or other antenna resulted in a stronger signal on the D-808 portable than on any of my expensive, supposedly superior receivers at home – and that’s the point. For less than £100 (if you include the radio, a reel of cheap equipment wire and a few bits and pieces) you only need to get outdoors, at the right time, for a superb DXing result.
What Else do you Need?
Not much really. You will need some wire. I buy reels of standard ‘equipment wire’ in 100m lengths very cheaply (for less than £10). Naturally, any antenna you deploy out in the field can be reused.
You might want to make up a fly-lead, with a crocodile clip at either end, for attaching different lengths of wire directly to the telescopic antenna of a radio with no external antenna jack (Fig. 5).
If you’re using a portable with an external antenna jack, you will need a 3.5mm plug – available online for a couple of pounds. Access to the internet via a smartphone will also help, or, better still, a reliable piece of software for instant access to shortwave schedules.
I use the Black Cat Systems HF Schedule software on an iPhone 7, which is working well. It automatically updates so I’m never in the dark - on short wave programming at least.
One last item I always suggest buying is the World Radio and TV Handbook. I say that because it’s simply the most accurate source of shortwave transmission frequency information. It costs quite a lot of money (£35). However, when you do get serious about DXing, you will definitely need a copy.
If nothing else, the myth that you need more and more expensive equipment to mitigate the ever-growing electrical noise pollution – a consequence of technological advancement - has been dispelled.
The best way to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of shortwave reception, and to enhance your listening experience, is simply to get outdoors on a DXpedition with a decent portable.
This is reinforced by the fact that this approach is also the cheapest and simplest way to get into the hobby in the first place: Less than £10 gets you in and less than £100 gets you a setup capable of competing with the best receivers currently available, outside of professional grade equipment.
Table 1: An A-Z of stations received with the Tecsun PL-310ET
ABC Northern Territories Alice Springs, 4835 kHz
AIR Jeypore India, 5040kHz,
Bangladesh Betar, 4750kHz
KBS World Radio Kimjae, South Korea, 9515kHz
KCBS Pyongyang North Korea, 11680kHz
Radio Amhara Ethiopia, 6090kHz
Radio Australia Shepparton, 12065kHz
Radio Fana Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 6110kHz,
Radio Guinée Conakry, Guinea, 9650kHz
Radio Nacional Brasilia 11780kHz
Radio Oromiya Addis Ababa-Gedja, Ethiopia, 603kHz
Radio Publique Africaine Talata-Volonondry, Madagascar, 1155kHz,
TWR Africa 9500 kHz, Manzini, Swaziland, 5040kHz
Voice of Islamic Republic of Iran, 6060kHz
Voice of Korea North Korea, 11645kHz
Zambia NBC Radio 1, Lusaka, 5915kHz
Table 2: An A-Z of stations received with the XHDATA D-808
KCBS Pyongyang, North Korea 2850 kHz
KCBS Pyongyang, North Korea 9665kHz
Rádio 9 de Julho, São Paulo, Brazil, 9819kHz
Radio Aparecida, Brazil 11855kHz
Rádio Clube do Pará Belém Brazil, 4885kHz
Radio Cultural Amauta, Huanta, Peru 4955kHz
Radio Difusora Roraima, Boa Vista, Brazil 4875kHz
Rádio Evangelizar Curitiba, Brazil, 11935kHz
Radio Guinée, Conakry 9650kHz
Radio Hargeysa Somaliland 7120kHz
Radio Nacional da Amazônia, Brazil, 11780kHz
Rádio Nacional de Angola 4949.7kHz
Radio Sora de Congonhas, Brazil, 4775kHz
Radio Tarma Internacional, Peru 4774.9kHz
Radio Voz Missionaria, Brazil 9665kHz
Super Rádio Boa Vontade, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 11895kHz
Voice of the Broad Masses 2, Eritrea, 7182kHz
This article was featured in the October 2018 issue of Radio User