What’s the best shortwave radio under $50?

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 out on a limb and say that the best radio is the Tecsun PL-380, a radio I’ve never used (it’s on order). 1 I make this conclusion based on product reviews, and even YouTube videos of the radio in action. It’s available now from sellers on eBay for $44 with free shipping. I also base my conclusion on a lot of other radios under $50 that I have used.

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“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 AAA 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.

1 Update:

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.

About Kevin

Just an old guy with opinions that I like to bounce off other people.
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7 Responses to What’s the best shortwave radio under $50?

  1. Nick says:

    Degen 1103 forever ;)
    But this is for more than $50

  2. CHOPPERGIRL says:

    The PL-380 seems like a winner, until you start reading about what defects folks try to mod out of it: http://www.zen22142.zen.co.uk/Media/tecsun380.htm

    A way too small ferrite bar antenna seems to be a big problem on most of these low end units, killing MW reception, and from what I read this is true on the 380. On the PL-360 the ferrite antenna its external, so at least you could substitute something larger, bu then you lose the num pad.

    I mainly worry about the lack of a real rig style dial knob on the PL-380, I actually like to dial through bands old school hunting and tweaking a station up and down. That’s the whole fun of shortwave to me; sure you save a lot of time with the easy tuning in a pinch, finding all the strongest stations, but if you’re DXing, you’re actually looking for the weakest stations. You can roll up or down once you find a station to find its apex in the middle, while still hearing it. The DE-1103 in videos seems superior for that.

    The model that looks appealng to me is the DE-1106, which loses the pointless band graph taking up most of the front of the unit on the DE-1103. It also is very hard to find and more pricey $$$ like the PL-660, so out of my range.

    With the DE-380, I also worry about the chuffing, nobody has seemed to come up with an anti-chuffing mod. The little japanese cheap flat plate AM radio dial, and the chuffing, will probably drive me up the wall.

    The DE-380 has a tinny little speaker, you wonder what they were thinking when you see inside pics of it. Its no better than whats in the KK-D202.

    Also, on a lot of these units, I worry about overloading the antenna. I like using a long wire of 100 yards for DXing, and I’m probably going to have to just move the end of it about and only feed the unit via induction.

    The DEGENs use a dual conversion approach which is much different that the Si4374, and I’ll probably have to get one of those as a complementary unit to an Si4374 unit. From what I read people buy a 380, and then stick it in the closet as a backup while they use their DEGEN simply because the DEGEN sounds better and picks up faint stations better on SW.

    One of these days I’ll get a non-working 30′s Zenith shutterdial chassis to restore, but until then, it looks like I’m bottom feeding the lowest priced chinese chip radios on ebay. In the finally analysis, when bottom feeding, you end up buying the best you can snag after a lot of study in a snipe and with a lot of luck. Ebay isn’t like it use to be, there’s too many stupid people on it now driving up used equipment prices.

    • Kevin says:

      I’ve ordered a Tecsun R9702 at about $40 from DinoDirect. This one looks promising for an ultralight. It’s dual conversion, digital frequency readout and analog tuning.

      Finding a deal on eBay is all about patience. I think the Eton E100 is a great little radio, but you have to wait to get it at a good price. The Grundig G5 and G6 are good too. I also like the CC Radio SWP.

      I am not, however, an AM enthusiast so whatever I like in a radio should seen in that light.

  3. Kevin says:

    I have a PL-210 now (red) and I like it. The tuning knob is nice. The problem I have is that I now have more radios than I can get to know well.

  4. George says:

    Hi everybody I just got the tecsun pl-380 on Saturday I’m not a expert at world band radios but I know my way around after reading the reviews on amazon which there were like 190 reviews 144 of them were 5 stars on average came out to be 4/half out of 5 very good plus other websites like this say this is the best portable radio under $100. After I got it through fedx was a little Leary I thought the tecsun 660 would be better for me but then I say to myself will I ever use the SSB problay not while the 660 is a great radio the 380 is more compact it doesn’t have SSB so what during the day today I picked up like 10 sw stations fm is great comes in clear am not bad at all but remember it’s night over there in the other countries these work better here toward night I guess 7pm and later plus your location big city like New York or Philadelphia you would get better recption. But it’s your choice what suits your needs better. But great review I must say for what I need mine for the 380 will do the job

    • Kevin says:

      The PL-660 has a few advantages including:

      : Better MW and LW reception probably due to a longer loopstick
      : Longer whip antenna
      : Aircraft band reception
      : Synchronous tuning which can avoid interference in certain situations
      : SSB of course

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