PL-330 or D-808?

Someone asked me on my Blog or Die! YouTube channel which radio I would recommend to someone just getting started with the shortwave listening hobby, the Tecsun PL-330 or the XHDATA D-808. Both were briefly featured in the video, and the viewer thought they sounded about the same. This article is as much about how I compare radios as it is about the particular viewer question. For the reader who just wants the answer: there is no wrong answer. Both are fine radios. I personally like the way the PL-330 works better — but there’s a lot more to it than that!

Video briefly featuring the PL-330 and D-808 receivers

I did a long review of the XHDATA D-808 previously, but I haven’t done one on the Tecsun PL-330. I included the PL-330 in my article: Comparing 3 Tecsun radios: PL-660, PL-380, PL-330, but that article is more about features than performance. Consider this my PL-330 review.

Appearance

Both radios look good. I think of the word “professional” when I see the PL-330. I think the layout is sharp and the button labels easy to read (white on black). The oversized tuning and volume control knobs are accessible from both the front and the side (a particularly valuable feature if you’re trying to adjust the volume with one hand while holding a camera).

Tecsun PL-330 Receiver

The D-808 is larger. I got the gray model branded XHDATA rather than the black one branded Sihuadon.

XHDATA D-808 Receiver

Both brands are the same radio, but the orange on gray front panel labels are impossible to read if the light is coming from above and behind (see below). This is a significant annoyance.

Hard to read XHDATA front panel printing

Still the layout is reasonable, and the buttons are larger. The D-808 has a metal speaker grill and overall a premium feel — except for the little tuning knob that almost seems to be an afterthought rather than a primary control.

The smaller PL-330 is a radio someone might actually put in a front pants pocket, but probably not the D-808. I use the PL-330 for travel, where small size and light weight are an advantage. The PL-330 is powered by a lightweight BL-5C rechargeable battery, the D-808 by a heavier and larger capacity 18650.

Audio

The smaller PL-330 accentuates the higher frequencies, and the larger D-808 accentuates the lower. Higher frequency emphasis can be interpreted by the ear as more hiss and thereby a poorer signal, but it can also carry a more intelligible signal. The D-808 with its lower tone emphasis may be easier to listen to, but not to catch the words. I wear hearing aids, so the speech bias in those instruments amplifies what the radio is doing. Adjust the AM bandwidth to reduce high frequency noise at the expense of intelligibility — on either radio.

I tuned to popular music on FM and used some Apple earbuds (no hearing aids) with an A/B switch to compare stereo audio quality. I couldn’t tell any difference between the radios. Bass response, midrange and highs were identical the best I could tell, and both radios sounded great.

The D-808 cannot be turned up very loud; the PL-330 is louder.

MW/FM

The PL-330 is my favorite largely because of its controls and operation, but I can’t really conclude that it performs better. I’ve tested MW and FM with these results:

MW was better on the XHDATA, considered a top-notch performer on MW; however, the PL-330 allows for connecting an external antenna to the antenna jack, turning it into an MW powerhouse. I suppose an inductively coupled external passive loop antenna would give a big boost to either of them.

In my test FM was a little better on the Tecsun. Moderately strong FM stations tend to bleed over into adjacent channels on the D-808, sometimes even two channels. It is reported that very strong FM signals breakthrough into the shortwave bands. I did a second test just with the two radios and got different results, the D-808 receiving weak stations a little better.

Testing is easier on MW and FM because I can do the tests in the daytime about the same time of day where atmospheric conditions really don’t matter. I test in the same location, and expect the results to be comparable across days. There is a ready gradient of stations from strong to weak. The source of error is my personal judgment of weak signals — what is “intelligible” and what is not. (Some radio reviewers have selected benchmark stations that they listen for when testing radios. I haven’t done that in the past, but I can certainly do that going forward.)

I don’t get LW stations here, so there’s nothing to test. LW can be disabled entirely on both radios. One knowledgeable reviewer, Gilles Letourneau, said that the D-808 LW performance drops off badly under 300 kHz, while the PL-330 is good.

Shortwave testing

For shortwave stations, the radio’s automatic gain control compensates for differences in signal strength. A strong station can sound as loud as a mediocre one. Some radios display signal strength as a number, but those values aren’t comparable between radios. I look for a weak station that makes the radio struggle. Finding those weak signals is difficult because they fade in and out, but I need a station that is fairly consistent over the time of the test. Recently I’ve been trying to catch a signal from Germany, the Music 4 Joy broadcast. It’s well-suited for testing the limits of a radio, but it’s not an easy signal to catch, and it’s only on two days a week at specific times. I did have both the PL-330 and the D-808 connected to the same antenna earlier this week and both radios received M4J, but I didn’t record them or take notes. I don’t recall any significant difference.

Shortwave performance

One would expect the D-808 to have some sort of edge if for no other reason than its longer antenna.

D-808 and PL-330 antennas extended

Something wasn’t good this afternoon, and Radio Romania’s signal on 11975 was poor. I used that for a comparison test. The radios in the first video used their telescoping antennas with varying success. While the signal faded in and out, I think the D-808 did the better job.

The next video demonstrates considerable improvement from 20 ft. of wire strung diagonally up a tree, with the antenna clipped onto the end of the whip. Note the signal strength increase shown numerically on the display. Yes, antennas matter. On the video previews above and below you can see the signal strength improve from “00” to “31”.

It started raining about the time these videos were shot. (You might see a raindrop under the “7” in the frequency readout on the PL-330.) A thorough test would have included using the antenna jacks on these two radios rather than clipping on. On some radios this makes a significant difference. (Neither radio is rated for water repellence.)

I did some further testing indoors with a terribly weak signal from WWV on 10 MHz with a MLA-30+ antenna. I couldn’t detect any difference in sensitivity. Reception was so poor that it didn’t work for a recording.

I caught the Music 4 Joy broadcast the following Tuesday morning on 17670 kHz around 13:15 UTC. I have some video, but the difference between the two radios is hard to hear due to the noise and weak signal. It was my opinion, however, that the PL-330 did better in the test using a 20-foot wire antenna strung up a tree. One other thing I noticed is that when listening to the D-808 I turned up the volume control to its maximum setting to hear the signal. Normal level on the PL-330 required the volume control set to its middle setting. And I should note that the Tecsun PL-660 was far and away much better than either of the other two.

Here is a comparison video of several radios including the D-808 and the PL-330 on a strong signal with an external antenna connected to the antenna jack.

In making the following video of several radios, I found that the D-808 received the image both with an external antenna and the telescoping antenna. The PL-330 only received it with an external antenna, suggesting that it doesn’t overload as easily, but of course the PL-330 is a relatively less sensitive with its shorter telescopic antenna.

Performance conclusion

After additional testing, I think I can make a conclusion I’m comfortable with. Using the built-in antennas, the D-808 performs better on MW and a little better FM. Shortwave is almost a draw. Using an antenna plugged into the external antenna jack, the PL-330 performs massively better than the D-808 on MW and FM, and the PL-330 performs a little bit better on SW.

Single sideband

Both radios have single sideband (SSB) capability. The great advantage for the PL-330 is that the radio can be calibrated, as described in this video from the OfficialSWLChannel on YouTube, to make SSB tuning simple.

Tecsun PL-330 SSB frequency calibration

I find SSB tuning difficult, even though I’ve been doing it from time to time since the 1960s (my teenage years on a Lafayette KT-340 with a BFO). I think the difficulty is partially due to weak signals that fade in and out while I’m trying to zero in on what sounds right. A calibrated radio doesn’t usually need extra fiddling — just set the frequency and sideband reception will follow. The D-808 doesn’t have a calibration procedure. With that said, one could use the same tuning technique in the video and instead of calibrating the radio, just note how far off it is and then apply that same offset in the future, assuming the offset is constant across the entire shortwave spectrum.

In the video following, I show the PL-330 in AM mode receiving Canadian time station CHU on 7850 kHz as it is supposed to sound, next to the D-808 on upper sideband receiving the same station with the fine tuning control set to zero. You can hear the two tones beating against each other because the D-808 pitch is slightly off. Then I set the D-808 to “-11” (-110 Hz) and the two signals closely coincided. Assuming the D-808 is consistent from day to day and frequency to frequency, I should be able to use the Fine Tuning value set to “-11” and get easy SSB access to on-frequency SSB stations.

Station presets

I have a separate article on Radio Memory Systems that explains why the PL-330 ETM+ memory is fantastic and why the D-808 sucks. Suffice it to say that the PL-330 memory system enhances the SWL experience, while the D-808 memory implementation gets in its way.

Features

Here are some things that the D-808 has that the PL-330 lacks:

  • Kickstand
  • Air Band
  • FM RDS
  • Thermometer
  • Buzzer option on the Alarm

Here are some things the PL-330 has that the D-808 lacks

  • Display seconds on the clock
  • ETM+ tuning that stores station presets by hour in addition to regular ATS memory
  • Scroll through memory presets
  • Frequency calibration on SSB
  • Ability to use external antenna jack for LW/MW
  • Synchronous detection
  • Automatic memory preset reorganization
  • Store radio station for Wake to Radio alarm (most radios just use the last station tuned)

Operation

Operation of the D-808 bugs me. For one thing, the volume control is on the left side, while it’s on the right side for all my other good radios. In place of what I expect to be the volume control is the fine tuning control and I’m all the time messing up the tuning when I really want to change the volume. I also dislike thumbwheel controls in general because they usually require two hands, one to hold the radio.

I’ve already talked about the memory system. The worst part is that you cannot simply enter a frequency with the number keys on the D-808 because the radio always assumes you’re trying to enter a memory preset number. You have to prefix every frequency entry with the [FREQ] button and sometimes press it again afterwards. To enter 88.5 FM, press [FREQ]885[FREQ]. In the PL-330, it would be just “885”.

Documentation

I never miss the opportunity to say how abysmally bad the D-808 manual is. It’s incomplete, illiterate and sometimes flat out wrong. It is so bad that I wrote my own that you’re free to copy and print out for yourselves. I’ve owned over 100 radios at one time or another, and I’ve never done that before.

By contrast the PL-330 manual is a joy to use. It goes into great detail to explain the radio’s features, but there are some “hidden features” that are not in the manual. They are explained in an article at the SWLing Post blog. This is how we learn the method for SSB frequency calibration. Here is the graphic from that post:

Tecsun PL-330 Hidden features from swling.com (click to enlarge)

Clarification on the PL-330 hidden features:

A long press of “9” key when the radio is off enables or disables the ATS threshold setting and displays “ON” or “OFF.” The ATS threshold is the minimum signal strength required for a station to be automatically stored in memory during a scan.

When the ATS threshold setting is enabled, the value of the threshold can be set with the radio ON. Long press the “9” button until the current value of the threshold (01 – 30) is shown in the upper right of the display; it can be changed by rotating the tuning knob. After a few seconds it will automatically exit the setting mode.

The “Display Seconds” option is actually in the manual now. I have PL-330 firmware version 3306.

I don’t know any way to display the firmware version of the D-808 but there are at least 3 distinct versions of the radio. The first had a white background on the display, the second an amber background. Sometime around the end of 2022 or start of 2o23, a new version of the radio shipped. The new version is visually identifiable by its rubber feet and USB-C charging port (replacing a USB micro in the older units). Operationally, it’s reported that FM breakthrough is more of a problem on the new version, and switching to SSB mode takes much longer (I have the new version).

Conclusion

Both are very good radios, and get about the same stations, with a slight edge to the D-808. The D-808 has the edge on major features with air band and FM RDS, while the PL-330 has the edge on operation and convenience. The D-808 is more substantial and the PL-330 is more compact. It all depends on what you do with your radios and what things you value.

Update

Three months have passed since this review was originally written. I have radios upstairs (including the PL-330) that I can just grab and check out something, and radios downstairs (including the D-808) where the MLA-30+ terminates. I grab the PL-330 sometimes, but I’m more likely to pick up the Tecsun PL-880. I rarely turn on the D-808 unless I’m testing it in comparison with something; downstairs I’ll use the Tecsun PL-660 on the Eton Elite Executive. Of course for travel, it’s the PL-330 all the time.


References

About Kevin

Just an old guy with opinions that I like to bounce off other people.
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One Response to PL-330 or D-808?

  1. Emanuel says:

    Eu tenho ambos os rádios, acho que o Xh Data é o melhor radio que já tive para escutar banda aérea, já Tecsun 330 é melhor para escutar as ondas curtas, só tenho pena que não tenha manual em Português.

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