For what is being talked about as a dying hobby, shortwave radio is certainly blessed with a wealth of equipment to choose from. Here I’m going to talk about shortwave radios that can be purchased new on eBay, or Amazon or other online resellers. They may be out of production now, but are available. $50 includes shipping to the US.
Right up front, I’m going to say that the best radio is the Tecsun PL-380. 1 I make this conclusion based my on my experience, product reviews, and even YouTube videos of the radio in action. It’s available now from sellers on eBay (Oct. 10, 2014) for $48 with free shipping. I also base my conclusion on a lot of other radios under $50 that I have used.
“Best” makes little sense without context. I’m going to assume that someone is looking to get into shortwave listening or that they are a casual listener looking to upgrade an old radio. I want to talk about features that make a radio fun to use and not frustrating, features that make it more likely that the radio won’t end up in a closet or a yard sale. If you want more details on the radios discussed, follow the hyperlinks.
The first thing is that a radio has to pick up stations. If it’s not sensitive, it’s no good. The Tecsun PL-380 specifications show its sensitivity on shortwave is 18 microvolts. That’s as good or better than any portable I have found, and better than anything else under $50. The second thing needed to pick up stations is selectivity, the ability to focus in on one station and exclude the station next to it. The Tecsun PL-380 is best of breed in selectivity, giving the user selectable options to choose what sounds best.
You can see from the picture that this radio has a digital frequency display. That makes identifying the station you hear, or selecting a station from a schedule so very much easier. Many radios under $50 have this capability, but this is one of the few that let you enter the station’s frequency on a key pad. Others require that you have to figure which band (a range of frequencies the radio selects) the station is in from a list of perhaps 9, and then twiddle a tuning knob until you get there. These mechanically tuned radios have a little delay between the time you tune the station and when the display catches up. Also some mechanically tuned radios drift off frequency over time and you have to re-tune them.
One other feature is coverage. Will the radio receive the entire shortwave band or just pieces of it. How about the tropical band? The PL-380 covers from 2.3- 21.95 MHz continuously. That’s pretty good, although you won’t get CB radio with it. All the radios you might consider include FM and AM broadcast bands and some, including the PL-380 receive stereo FM with earphones. Earphones and a zipper carrying case are included. The radio is powered by 3 AA batteries and it can use and charge rechargeable batteries.
About the only thing this radio lacks is the ability to receive single-sideband transmissions, commonly used by amateur radio operators. This is also the case with any other radio under $50. (If you want SSB, try something like the Grundig G4000A for more than $50).
I’ll finish up dumping on some other radios under $50.
The Degen DE15 is around $38 delivered. There are similar models, some with MP3 players for more than $50. This is a super-compact shirt-pocket radio with a lovely bright display. Its primary shortcoming is sensitivity and the way the tuning works. It won’t pick up that weak signal and you end up having to punch a button dozens of times to tune a station (using the pre-set memories is important on this model – but they are erased every time you change the batteries). With internally rechargeable batteries, this one is still pretty nice and it has stereo FM with headphones, so if you get tired of shortwave, you still have a good FM stereo ultralight portable.
The discontinued Grundig Mini 300 (a rebranded Tecsun R-919) is ergonomically nice with a rubberized case and a sturdy antenna that doesn’t snag on stuff when it’s retracted. It’s also not as sensitive as it might be, the tuning display is inaccurate (on both of mine and others reviewed on the Internet), and the tuning wheel is hard to position precisely – it needs to be geared down slower. The side-mounted volume control and tuning knob are inevitably changed when moving the radio in and out of its case, so if you’re out exercising and want to tune the radio and slip it into the belt-mounted case, you’re out of luck. This radio also omits significant parts of the shortwave bands, for example, the tropical bands and some time stations. I also found the frequency to drift. There’s no dial light either. It’s a cool looking radio (that’s why I have a black and a yellow one), but I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody’s only radio. Around $33 at Amazon.com with free shipping.
Perhaps a better bet than the Grundig Mini 300 is the more recent Mini 400 around $28. It’s smaller and adds Stereo FM. I think the frequency display is accurate, but it suffers from low sensitivity and it doesn’t cover all of the shortwave spectrum.
Finally for under $25 there is the mechanically tuned Tecsun DR-920. This is my pick for under $25. The display is lighted and easy to read. The entire shortwave band isn’t covered, but at least you can get tropical band.
My PL-380 finally arrived and I have had a chance to put it through its paces, including taking it on an international trip. There were few surprises. My model had a rough/sticky position on the tuning knob that doesn’t affect operation, but is a little annoying. I would assume that other radios wouldn’t have the problem. The radio is easy to use. The Easy Tuning Mode (ETM) is great for marking all the working stations in the area when traveling. The dial light is bright enough and makes it easy to read in the dark. The buttons don’t light up, but it was easy to learn where the important ones were.
One might argue that the Tecsun PL-210, with its better AM radio performance is a better choice in the “best under $50” category, but I have read in multiple reviews that the tuning knob gets erratic after a while on that model. Plus, I don’t have one to test.