The Burning Question: is the Qodosen SR-286 worth it?

Introduction

The Qodosen SR-286 cost me $129 US and at that price point I don’t buy a radio on a whim. I decided to buy this one because it was new and different and had the promise of being better in some ways than what I had. An online review said it was superior on FM.1 When I finish publishing information and videos on the SR-286, I anticipate questions about whether it’s worth the price or if perhaps a lower-cost alternative like the XHDATA D-808 is a better value or should one hold out for something more expensive like a Sangean ATS-909 X2?

People value different things. One comment on Facebook said: “If it doesn’t have SSB, it’s off my list.” If the reader shares that opinion, requires AIR band, or only considers a radio powered by AA batteries, then stop reading — the SR-286 is not for you. HF tops off at 27000 kHz so you won’t get the US Citizens Band (CB) nor the 10m amateur radio band. It doesn’t have weather band or VHF. But once you get beyond that, the radio starts looking pretty interesting.

One bit of portable receiver wisdom is that once you get into the upper class group, all the radios get the same stations. I’m going to challenge that assumption with the SR-286.

Special capabilities of the SR-286

The SR-286 is one of only 4 portable radios I know of that supports an external antenna on MW/LW; the other three being the Tecsun PL-990, PL-330 and PL-368 (the latter two through a not really hidden feature). An antenna makes a big difference. Today I went outside with the SR-286 in the early afternoon to do my standard daytime band scan. I live in a weak signal area and the 18 MW stations it received put it almost at the top of my radios and equal to the D-808; however, I plugged in a 20-foot Wire Up a Tree (WUT) antenna with ground and the number jumped to 86! Most of the new stations were strong, many sounding local. The D-808 doesn’t support an external antenna on MW/LW. (Yes, I know about coupled loops, but I don’t have one. I do have 2o feet of wire.)

Longwave on the D-808 is known to lose sensitivity drastically below 300 kHz. I get no LW on that radio at all. On my Tecsun PL-990 with WUT and ground, I can pick up some nearby airport beacons. But with the SR-286 and WUT I pick up real broadcast stations from across the Atlantic, something no other radio I own will do. It’s exciting to enter new territory and for me, this alone justifies the cost. Check out this amazing LW reception from Algeria.

Chaîne One, Algeria  — 153 kHz

There are lots of other little things that I will talk about in the Operation section later on.

Let’s get physical

One thing I like in a radio is a case. I like to keep my radios from getting scratched up. Both the 286 and the 808 come with something, a fold over case with Velcro closure and a draw-string bag respectively. I usually prefer the fold over because drawstring bags can be tricky. The stiffness of the XHDATA bag makes it easy to use. No extra points for one over the other. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but the SFR-286 has a screen protector that I haven’t yet removed.

Both radios have kickstands that place the radio roughly at the same angle. The antenna on the 808 can be turned closer to vertical than the 286.

The antenna is shorter on the 286, but many years ago Tecsun gave me an antenna extender with a radio from them and it makes up for any difference and then some.

Both radios use the same 18650 battery, and it must be a button top. The D-808 requires battery replacement within a few seconds or it loses all its settings (I had to turn off the beep again). The SR-286 keeps time and settings for at least 15 of minutes between batteries.

Both radios have an external antenna jack, but only the 286 can use it for LW/MW and its performance with a 20-foot antenna and ground on those bands is nothings short of phenomenal, better than I have ever seen on anything, even my PL-990.

One significant deficiency of the D-808 is that the display fades out viewed from angles much higher than straight on. So if the radio is on a desk and viewed from a higher point (like it usually is), the display is useless. The kickstand can help, but the antenna can’t be fully vertical with using the kickstand. The SR-286 display is sharp and clear from any angle.

You might also enjoy these disassembly photos.

Operation

I’ve ranted many times about how awful the memory system is on the D-808. Today I did band scans on the two radios to see how many FM stations they stored. The SR-286 has two modes, one for memory and one for frequency. One can pick “memory” and then scroll through the results. No such luck on the D-808; the user has to punch in every page and slot number every time for every station, and there is no easy way to find out how many stations are stored — no scrolling. It was darned frustrating. This is one of the reasons I typically admit that the 808 is a good radio but that I don’t recommend it.

Like my Eton Elite Executive, the SR-286 supports alphanumeric labels on memory pages. The 808 has 500 memory locations, 100 for each band — a number inadequate for shortwave. The 286 has 1000 locations with a more reasonable band division. ATS recognizes 25 pages for FM, 5 pages for LW, 15 pages for MW and 55 pages for SW (with 10 locations per page). The 550 memory locations for shortwave are more than adequate. There are two ATS modes on the 2876, Jump and Cover; in the former mode stations will be saved in empty slots and in the latter will overwrite memory locations sequentially. Using manual entry, any station can be entered in any memory slot. Only overwrite mode exists on the 808.

The bandwidth and stereo setting are saved with the frequency on the 808 and the bandwidth and Music/Voice settings are saved with frequency on the 286.

That brings us to frequency entry. On the 808 every frequency entry most be prefixed with the FREQ key and if less than 5 digits, suffixed with the FREQ key. That’s in addition to selecting the band previously. If you forget FREQ, the radio assumes you’re loading from memory. The 286 interprets the frequency based on value. One could hit 500 AM and get LW, or 540 AM and get MW or 6070 AM and get shortwave. It’s much smoother. Repeatedly pressing the AM button iterates through the three AM bands.

The memory system and frequency entry are the reasons my D-808 spends most of its time on the shelf despite its good performance.

The 286 has more options than you can shake a stick at. One cool thing is automatic scanning. The Up and Down arrow keys initiate scans starting at the current frequency (or memory location in Memory mode — a mode the 808 doesn’t have). Some radios scan and stop and others scan and pause. This radio does either based on a setting, and when you use the Pause option, you can set how long, from 5 to 90 seconds and while it is paused, a countdown timer appears on the display.

Both the 808 and 286 have a squelch option; the radios mute if the signal goes below the set level. One squelch value applies to all bands. The 286, however, has an additional setting to set the ATS/Seek threshold. The three settings are 1, 2 and DEFAULT.

Both radios have an alarm system and a sleep timer. The clock is visible when both radios are turned of; however, the 286 has a time zone setting and when turned off, the radio can display BOTH local and UTC time — how cool is that? Both radios allow wake to tone or wake to radio; however, only the 286 allows storing the wake station in memory. The 808 just recalls the last station used.

Only the D-808 can display the temperature. The SR-286 has an interesting feature to completely blank the display. Both radios have similar control over the display light with an automatic off setting or an always-on setting. The auto-off time is 10 seconds for both radios.

The 286 has an amazing 17 different FM bandwidths. DEFAULT works really well. It’s fixed on the 808. AM on the 286 supports 3, 4, 6 and 8 kHz bandwidth. AM on the D-808 supports a more generous 6, 4, 3, 2.5, 2, 1.8 and 1 kHz (and others on SSB).

The 286 has a Music/Voice tone setting. The 808 does not.

The 286 has a setting to turn off the amplifier to the external antenna connection for LW/MW. I haven’t noticed overloading problems, but I live in a weak signal area. It has a separate antenna attenuator setting for each band that can be set in dB. When on, the value flashes on the display. The D-808 has no local/DX setting.

The D-808 has a set of channel spacings controlled by a Fast/Slow setting. For example on MW/SW, fast is 5 kHz and slow is 1 kHz. LW is 1/3 kHz. For FM, Fast is 100 kHz and Slow is 10 kHz. The SR-286 is more flexible on FM, with a Slow speed of 10 kHz and fast speeds of 50, 100 and 200 kHz. The FM 200kHz setting is useless because it doesn’t land on the US FM frequencies, but rather hits the even numbered 100 kHz values. I consider this a bug. The other band increments are the same as the D-808.

The SR-286, however, has more than the Slow/Fast/Stop modes of the 808. It also has an Auto mode that unlike most radios is not variable speed, but rather automatic scanning started by turning the tuning knob, duplicating the function of long pressing the arrow keys. It has a separate “SPEED ON” setting that implements the variable speed tuning based on how fast the knob is spun. With SPEED ON the Fast FM step is 1 MHz and on the other bans 100 kHz.

Both radios can skip between the SW meter bands by pressing a button, the SW button on the 808 and separate Meter +/- buttons on the 286.

Both radios display RDS data when available on FM. This feature is unusual at the price level of the D-808. Both radios can set the clock from RDS data when available, but local station has time data to test with. The 286 also has a group of FM detection modes supposedly useful for receiving weak signals, although I was unable to discern a significant difference between them.

One other point I want to mention, and that is the manual. When writing this section I did not refer to the 808 manual because it is sometimes wrong, incomplete and confusing. I referred to the manual that I wrote myself. The 286 manual has some weaknesses and is hard to follow in places, but it is usable and I have feel no need to rewrite it.

Each radio carries some unique advantages. I think it fair to say that the 286 is more of a radio enthusiast’s receiver.

Performance

The telescopic antenna on the 286 is 19 1/2″ compared to 24 3/4″ on the 808. One question to answer before testing is whether to equalize the length of the telescopic antennas, either by shortening one adding to the other. One argument is to test the radios the way they come, but on the other hand it’s so easy to extend a telescopic antenna. I’ll stick with the manufactured length for testing.

I ran my standard daytime band scan on MW and FM. Results are approximate with variation from day to day and in my evaluation of what constitutes a weak signal and what is “there but not countable.”

MW

MW was notably good for such a small radio, but the Sihuadon R-108 was even better and the same size.

FM

The results for the D-808 and SR-286 were similar within the margin of error. I was disappointed; based on the reviews I thought the 286 would blow everything away on FM, but it was just very good and in line with my top radios.

I was bothered by the unexpected FM results and concerned about the possibility that different days might have influenced the result. I decided to try some direct comparisons. For this test I also brought in my Eton Elite Executive. I can say two things confidently. The 808 and the 286 are more sensitive than the Elite Executive (that has the longest antenna), and I can say that the 286 speaker is the clear winner listening to music. Sensitivity between the 286 and 808 was still hard to differentiate; first one seemed a little better and then the other. In any case, they’re close. Reception of weak stations really depended on precisely how the radios were positioned and how they were held. Both got a huge boost when I full handed grabbed the top of the antenna.

I was still bothered by the fact that the 808 antenna was longer. Rather than hook on the extender, I thought I would hook up an old set of rabbit ears installed on the top of some cabinets in my study. Both radios have an external antenna jack that is supposed to work on FM.

I tried some weak stations and the 286 seemed a little better, but on one particular station it was markedly better. I also tried the Elite Executive that was the worst and the Tecsun PL-990 that was a little weaker — on par with the D-808. I also tried the Sihuadon R-108 and Tecsun PL-339 that received the signal poorly. What got me, however, was one other radio I tried, my LiJiANi Rd239. This radio got nothing on the rabbit ears, but a very good signal on the telescopic antenna (that radio’s external jack has been acting up). The SR-286 didn’t get hardly anything on telescopic. The video below shows the comparison between the D-808 and the SR-286 receiving 91.7 FM, WEMC, Harrisonburg, VA. According to the FCC, the station is only 4.6 kW at a distance of 49.26 miles. There are some mountains in the way.

I’m beyond the fringe

Outdoors I can get that station on a few other portable radios using the telescopic antenna.

I went out around 9 PM and got very nice reception of WEMC with the telescopic antenna. What surprised me was plugging in a 20-foot external antenna wiped the station out. Even clipping that wire to the telescopic antenna severely degraded reception. (An external antenna works great on the other bands.)

LW

None of my radios get any longwave stations with their internal ferrite antennas. It’s dead, Jim. But the SR-286 with an antenna and a ground beats the socks off all my other radios including the Tecsun PL-990 that also supports an external antenna on LW. (My Tecsun PL-330 also supports an external LW antenna through a hidden feature and gets a few local airport nondirectional beacons.) I wish there were an indicator on the 286 display to tell you which antenna is selected like the PL-330 has.

Shortwave

Shortwave is the main event. I didn’t find much difference. Here is an A/B comparison between the 286 and the 808. It was reception I think of CLA Dengê Gel in Kurdish, heard at 19:48 UTC on 11510 kHz with the telescopic antennas. Both radios were hooked up to a Sony speaker through the A/B switch. Listening to it live, I thought the D-808 sounded better, but on the recording maybe not.

This is just a bit of a long testing session including half a dozen radios. Sure they sound different, but is different better? I don’t know.

SR-286 and D-808 comparison – telescopic antennas

After all the testing, I wanted to get better reception to help identify the station. I had a sack of radios with me that I could have plugged into the WUT antenna, but it was the SR-286 that I chose. That tells me something about how I feel about the radio.

Audio

The D-808 sounds more muffled and the SR-286 more crisp. Good signals of music sound better to me on the SR- 286, while speech on shortwave seems a little clearer on the D-808. One would not describe either radio as having “premium sound.” The PL-990 has premium sound (and costs a lot more).

I did further testing with Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones and the A/B switch with radios tuned to an FM pop station. Both radios seemed to have roughly the same good bass response but the mid tones and high frequencies were notably muffled on the D-808 and rather disappointing. The stereo separation was not as noticeable on the D-808 probably due to lower midrange and high frequency response. The SR-286 was clearly superior. I think on shortwave, the muffling is heard as a reduction of hiss, making the D-808 seem more sensitive than it is.

Alternatives

If you want a fun radio for less money and don’t care about SSB, the recently updated Sihuadon R-108 is cool (look for USB-C port). Also the LiJiANi Rd239 has very good overall performance and lots of options. Both of those have AIR band and the LiJiANi has VHF, Weather, Bluetooth and MP3. The mainstay of small portables is the Tecsun PL-330, a solid well-respected radio with SSB and the absolute best station memory system. Any of these is under $80.

Conclusion

I always hate writing this part. What I will say is that the SR-286 gets stations my other radios don’t get, especially on Longwave with external antenna, somewhat better on FM and probably on MW too (although I didn’t test it with an external antenna).

While the SR-286 makes some excellent design choices, performs very well and has solid build quality, I feel that it’s overpriced. It has FM performance better than my Eton Elite Executive that sells for a lot more. Nevertheless, it seems particularly overpriced when it lacks SSB and AIR band. At the $129 price point I would have expected even better audio and perhaps a matte finish on the buttons. A bigger and smoother turning tuning knob would help. I would also have expected SSB.

I’m hard pressed to come up with another radio that costs $129; I asked Amazon for shortwave radios between $120 and $140. About all I came up is the 10-year-old Tecsun PL-680 at $139 that has SSB and AIR band. The others were these touch screen software defined things.

I’m happy with my purchase. It’s been fun. LW performance has opened up a totally new area of the hobby. I believe that I am going to use this radio a lot. It might become my car radio although a few more bands would have been nice for the only radio in a location. The rough draft of a user manual and the lack of a box suggests to me that the SR-286 is in early production. Perhaps if they ramp up and start to sell on Amazon, the price will go down. My feeling is that a $50-$70 price is more in line with the market.

  1. https://radiojayallen.com/qodosen-sr-286-am-fm-sw-high-performance-portable/ ↩︎
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Qodosen SR-286: First Impressions

Qodosen SR-286 (photo by author)

I’ve been waiting for 21 days for the radio to arrive and in that time I wrote a blog article in anticipation and studied the manual. Now that it’s here I want to share my first impressions. During the wait I researched and decided that I was going pronounce the brand, “CHO do sen.”

First, the radio felt heavy, but really isn’t particularly heavy; it’s just small. It actually weighed 8.6 oz. with the battery installed. I checked and yes, it has rubber feet. It comes in a fold over Velcro fastened case, sort of a khaki color. I like having a case. The kit also includes a USB Micro charging cable. What aren’t included are earphones, a product box and a manual. Good thing I found a manual on line. The manual says that the radio comes with a manual. OOPS.

The radio is small, in fact identical in size to the Sihuadon R-108, with the same 19 1/4″ antenna length.

I quickly noted that I really like the way this radio tunes. You don’t have to set a band. If you want 351 kHz LW, just punch in 351 and hit AM. If you want 1070 kHz MW, just punch in 1070 and hit AM. If you want 6070 kHz SW, just punch in 6070 and hit AM. If you repeatedly press AM without entering a frequency, it will skip from LW to MW to SW. The buttons feel good too.

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Sihuadon R-108: an overlooked radio

I’ve seen nice things said about the Sihuadon R-108 radio for some time, but I never bought one because it seemed redundant for my personal use. The radio is quite small (5″ L x 1.2″ W x 3″ H), it convenient to pack or carry. It’s powered by a BL-5C battery and sports LW, MW, FM, general coverage SW and AIR bands.

Sihuadon R-108 Receiver (Amazon product photo)

I thought that if I had the XHDATA D-808, I wouldn’t have any use for this scaled down version without SSB and without RDS. And that made sense, but not everyone has a D-808, and those who don’t might want a review of the R-108.

Pricing

I’m always looking for the best price for. This radio’s price has varied quite a bit. Today on Amazon US it costs $59.90 less a 12% coupon, or $51.71. On the XHDATA website it’s $52.90 less 30% promotion plus around $6.50 shipping from China, or $43.53. I paid $49 for mine including shipping from XHDATA.

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Charging Radios – USB-C

USB-C connector – Raddy RF75A

Houston, we have a problem.

A reader commented on a problem charging an XHDATA D-808 radio with a USB-C to USB-C cable. The XHDATA supplied USB-A to USB-C cable worked, but not the other.

This reminded me of something from a user guide:

TYPE-C input
a. TYPE-C data cable… Please connect 5V charger, computer interface, standard USB output port, etc. Please do not connect the phone fast charger; the phone fast charger output has 9V or 12V. It may burn the machine. This machine has done this protection, but the risk still exists. …

— LiJiANi Rd239 User Guide (V3.0)

I’ve been doing some testing with a standard USB-C end-to-end cable with 4 USB chargers:

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Radio Confusion

And no, I’m not talking about the clandestine radio station that sent me this QSL card.

Radio Confusion QSL from 1980

My confusion is over is the frequency range for FM radio in the United States. This should be an easy question, and the official answer is:

The FM broadcast in the United States starts at 88.0 MHz and ends at 108.0 MHz.  The band is divided into 100 channels, each 200 kHz (0.2 MHz) wide.  The center frequency is located at 1/2 the bandwidth of the FM Channel, or 100 kHz (0.1 MHz) up from the lower end of the channel.

Federal Communications Commission

And further research indicates that there other frequency ranges in other parts of the world.

In Europe and Africa (defined as International Telecommunication Union (ITU) region 1) and in Australia and New Zealand,[1] it spans from 87.5 to 108 megahertz (MHz) – also known as VHF Band II – while in the Americas (ITU region 2) it ranges from 88 to 108 MHz. The FM broadcast band in Japan uses 76 to 95 MHz, and in Brazil, 76 to 108 MHz. The International Radio and Television Organisation (OIRT) band in Eastern Europe is from 65.9 to 74.0 MHz, although these countries now primarily use the 87.5 to 108 MHz band, as in the case of Russia. Some other countries have already discontinued the OIRT band and have changed to the 87.5 to 108 MHz band.

Wikipedia

To simplify, US starts at 88 and Europe/Africa/Oceania starts at 87.5 MHz.

My confusion comes from dealing with real radios. Many portable radios with FM have a setting for the FM range, allowing the radio to function in a familiar way in different regions. On some of those radios, the FM setting also controls other things like the MW step (10 kHz in the Americas and 9 kHz most everywhere else) and sometimes the temperature scale, C or F.

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Incoming Radio! Qodosen SR-286

If all goes well, I’ll be receiving a Qodosen SR-286 (aka Xiaoqiang SR-286) radio mid-February from AliExpress. I learned about it from RadioJayAllen’s review and it pushed a few of my buttons.

First off, the SR-286 is small: 128 x 75.5 x 38 mm. I like a portable radio to be portable.

Qodosen SR-286 Product Photo (AliExpress)

Allen says that this is the best portable for FM that he’s seen, and the addition of RDS gives me an opening for more DXing on that band. I also like the fact that the external antenna can be used for all bands, including LW/MW. With tax and shipping from China, my order totaled $134.78, not exactly a bargain radio, but much less than a Tecsun PL-990 or Sangean ATS-909 X2.

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Visiting McGrath, Alaska

I’ve been taking surveys for the YouGov polling company for some years now (you can sign up here) and for the past year or so at least one poll a week asks the question, “What did you do last weekend?” and of the possible answers is always, “Visited McGrath, Alaska.”

With temperatures at -40° (at that temperature Fahrenheit and Centigrade are equal), I’m not about to travel there, but there was an event this afternoon involving McGrath that caught my attention after seeing the name so many times in polls. The local McGrath radio station KSKO today started a regular experimental transmission to occur every Friday afternoon at 4 PM Eastern Time (21:00 UTC) that relays their local broadcast via Space Line, Bulgaria, on 5900 kHz shortwave.

Station KSKO (photo from SWLING.COM)

I headed down to the pond to see if I could hear it. There was nothing at 21:00 but gradually the signal grew until the point that I could listen to it on an inexpensive radio using its whip antenna. Who knew?

I have lots of recordings from my radio travel adventure involving various antennas and radios, but much of it is copyrighted music and I don’t want the hassle of defending a fair use claim, so I’ll just include a bit from the weather report.

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