I’ve owned my Tecsun PL-660 since 2011 (12 years). It’s not the newest version of that radio –there have been firmware updates since then — but it works well, and is arguably the best radio I own. More recently the antenna started to pull apart from wear, but an OEM replacement was easy to find and easy to install. Now the radio looks and works good as new — the screen protector still on the display.
But I like to try “new” things and I ordered a Tecsun PL-880 from Kaito USA on eBay. I say “new,” but this radio has been on sale for almost 10 years.
Bullet point differences
The PL-880, like its predecessor, is a PLL synthesized analog-tuned radio with digital display; the PL-660 is a dual conversion superheterodyne radio and the PL-880 is a triple conversion superhet. Unlike the PL-660, the PL-880 employs a digital signal processor for decoding signals and controlling bandwidth. The PL-660 has 2 bandwidth settings (wide and narrow) compared with the PL-880 that has 4 values (9, 5, 3.5 and 2.5 kHz) for AM and 5 options (4, 3, 2.3, 1.2 and 0.5 kHz) for SSB.
The two radios are operationally very similar, but there are some features of the PL-660 that are missing from the PL-880, specifically AIR band and synchronous detection (more on that below). The PL-880 adds 1150 additional ATS memories (12 pages x 100 memory presets, an extra 50 on Page 0, but less the air band presets), a separate Fine Tuning control, a dial light switch and a LINE OUT audio jack.
The PL-880 gives specific signal-strength and noise numbers, while the PL-660 has a 0-5 graphic scale that’s almost always on “5.” The PL-880 adds seconds to the clock display, and it has the ability to sort and remove duplicate station presets (later models of the PL-660 have this, but not mine).
The PL-880 has a LINE OUT jack for recording. The primary benefit is that the listener can hear the station on the speaker while a recording cable is plugged in the jack.
Synchronous detection is perhaps a good place to start when talking about “hidden features.” The PL-880 has a user’s manual that documents how to use it, but the radio has features not in the manual. Figuring out these features is somewhat of an internet cottage industry, and not everyone agrees on what they are. One compilation of hidden features is by S. Thomas Bradley. The PL-660 has synchronous detection, a technique for dealing with fading signals through replacement of the center carrier signal with one generated by the radio. The PL-660 synchronous detection is rated highly. The PL-880 doesn’t have the feature, according to the manual; however, it does exist as a “hidden feature” and reportedly works very poorly.
There are other “hidden features,” for example frequency calibration, that work very well and are a great advantage. The digital noise reduction feature is the cause of debate and we’ll just have to see how that one works. One undocumented feature is the ability to use the external antenna jack for LW/MW reception; however, the process for invoking it is amazingly complicated — much more convoluted than it is to invoke the feature on the PL-330 — and it does not appear to work on my version (I think it was a firmware bug rather than a hidden feature subsequently fixed). There is a setting for FM pre-emphasis (a US v Europe difference).
One hidden feature that could be of interest is the ability display the manufacture date and firmware version, but reportedly the former feature has been removed. My radio comes from Kaito USA, the Tecsun distributor in the US, so I am reasonably confident that I have the latest firmware version (mine shows “8820”), and indeed the tamper-resistant seal on the box says “2023, ” the battery was labeled “2023” and the serial number underneath the kickstand has the string “202302” suggesting the radio was made in February of 2023.
The PL-660 comes with an AC power adapter to charge its 4 AA batteries, while the PL-880’s 18650 battery can be charged with a mini USB cable (USB adapter and cable supplied). One obvious user upgrade to the PL-880 is switching to a higher capacity battery.
Both radios have an alarm feature, snooze timer, tone switch, sensitivity switch (DX / Normal / Local), earphone jack, external antenna jack, display light, variable MW tuning step, kickstand, auto tune storage (ATS), FM stereo reception via earphones, and SSB reception. The PL-880 adds the ability to disable the automatic shutoff of the display light and substitutes a fine tuning control for the BFO in the PL-660.
What comes in the box
I don’t really remember what came in the PL-660 box 12 years ago. I know there was a radio, a fold over flap carrying pouch and a very professional-looking manual from Kaito USA. It had an AC adapter to supply 6V for charging, earbuds and I think a Tecsun reel antenna like the AN-80 (there is an indentation in the packaging that would fit that antenna).
The PL-880 is packaged very similarly. It includes the radio, a leatherette (plastic) zipper case, a Tecsun AN06 external antenna, an AC to USB-mini power supply, a USB-A to USB-mini charging cable, earbuds, a 2000mAh 18650 rechargeable battery, a station logging booklet, a professional-looking manual from Kaito USA, warranty card and the biggest Quick Start sheet I have ever seen. There is a world map with amateur radio call sign prefixes on the back.
Conventional wisdom is that the PL-660 is the more sensitive receiver, but that’s offset by the multiple bandwidth options on the PL-880, and that the PL-880 has better audio. Both are very good radios, and differences will be subtle.
Both radios have relatively long telescopic antennas, but the one on on the PL-880 is a bit longer, 38.75″ (98.5 cm) vs 35″ (89 cm) for the PL-660. Folded up, both antennas are the same size, so the extra length on the PL-880 antenna comes from it having more segments, and to get more segments within the same 7.9 mm diameter, the segments have to be thinner. Indeed the top-most antenna segments on the PL-880 are very thin indeed, so take care not to bend it and be warned that the antenna is unusually stiff to collapse.
MW / FM
I ran my usual outdoor daytime band scans on the Tecsun PL-880 and re-confirmed prior results from the PL-660. In the MW scans, the radio is facing southeast, the general direction of most stations. I don’t turn the radio for best reception, but compare all radios oriented the same for consistency. The FM scans all use the radio’s fully-extended telescopic antenna.
Following are the cumulative results for all tested radios:
The PL-660 blew away all challengers on FM up until now, but the PL-880 forged into new territory, receiving 80 stations. Just WOW!
In my initial test of around 60 stations at 03:00 UTC in central Virginia with an MLA-30+ antenna, I found the radios very similar in sensitivity, with maybe a slight edge in favor of the PL-660. It’s hard to tell as conditions vary from minute to minute and the difference in speakers affects the listening in addition to differences in the radio’s sensitivity. The PL-880 has a markedly superior speaker and was much more pleasant to listen to. More on that below in the section on Audio Performance.
One of my favorite test stations is CFRX, 6070 kHz, in Toronto, Canada. It rebroadcasts the content of MW station CFRB. It’s not a strong station here in Virginia, but it is a consistent one audible at some level day and night. I gave it a shot in the afternoon outdoors with the telescopic antenna on the two radios. I got similar results, keeping in mind that conditions change from minute to minute on shortwave.
A note on grounding
Some radios, including these two, benefit from a ground connection when using a long wire antenna. A ground connection can make the difference between hearing a weak signal and nothing at all. The ground is connected to the shield of the 3.5 mm external antenna plug.
Audio performance is one area where there’s a clear difference. The PL-880 has an awesome speaker although limited to 450 mW. I have $35 radios with more power, but the PL-880 sound is the best of any portable radio I own. Here’s a video with the two radios receiving Radio Algerienne just before midnight local time (04:00 UTC) on 13,790 kHz with an MLA-30+ antenna here in central Virginia. The tone control was set to treble on both radios. The PL-660 was set to “narrow” bandwidth and the PL-880 was set to 3.5 kHz.
One of the test stations was WWV. In addition to ticks and tones, WWV also includes low-frequency content:
“WWV and WWVH continuously broadcast a binary coded decimal (BCD) time code on a 100-Hz subcarrier. The time code presents UTC information in serial fashion at a rate of 1 pulse per second.”NIST website
One can perhaps hear the modulation of the 100-Hz subcarrier as a little buzz, but on the PL-880 you can feel the subcarrier as vibration of the radio. You can’t feel it on the PL-660.
I’m going to cover SSB in a separate article, comparing not only these two radios, but also the Tecsun PL-330, XHDATA D-808, Eton Elite Executive and the RTL-SDR Blog dongle with SDR Sharp software. Both the PL-660 and the PL-880 did quite well in my first round of testing.
The two radios have a different approach to SSB detection. The PL-660 uses a beat frequency oscillator (BFO) to generate the missing carrier wave and second sideband. The mixture is then decoded in the same way an AM signal is processed. The PL-660 tunes to the precision of 1 kHz and the BFO control makes up for any smaller frequency step. By contrast, the PL-880 uses a digital signal processing (DSP) chip to decode SSB. This radio tunes to a precision of 10 Hz on SSB and that precision tuning is what clarifies the signal, rather than adjusting the BFO frequency separately.
I found the calibration on my old PL-660 to be dead on. The BFO knob has a detent to show its center position, and in almost every case, that setting was optimal, or just a hair off from optimal. I listened to ham radio operators on lower sideband (LSB) at 7140 kHz. The problem I encountered was that the BFO knob was too sensitive, with the smallest turn I could make overshooting the optimum sound. When it was set correctly, the clarity of the signal was outstanding.
I’m still trying to make sure I have the best calibration method for SSB on the PL-880. My first impression (and that may be correct) is that the radio arrived perfectly calibrated already. In any case, when the radio is calibrated correctly, SSB tuning is trivial — just set the frequency and pick the sideband.
The problem I have with SSB stems from inexperience, from not knowing which way to turn the knob to improve clarity, and not knowing what “exactly right” sounds like. “Exactly right” seems to vary from radio to radio. I get the impression that ham radio operators are very picky about how their signals sound, and perhaps some of the negative comments about the PL-880 are based on comparisons with serious ham radios that are beyond my experience. In any case, the PL-880 works fine on SSB and it is pleasant to listen to.
Memory and Auto Tune Storage (ATS)
The PL-660 has a total of 2000 station preset memory locations organized in 13 pages. Page 0 is unique, with 100 memory locations dedicated to each band (FM, MW, LW, AIR) and 200 each for SW and SSB. The remaining 12 pages can store 100 stations each, from any band. The PL-880 expands the second group of pages to 24, and increases the number of shortwave slots on Page 0 to 250, but of course drops AIR band for a total number of 3050 presets. Such a big number seems like overkill, but if the user wanted to simulate the Enhanced Tuning Mode (ETM+) memory scans on other radios such as the PL-330 with separate memories for each hour of the day, then 24 pages is what one would need.
ATS on the PL-880 is clearly superior. I connected my MLA-30+ antenna to both radios and did a full band scan on shortwave. The PL-880 stored 69 stations; the PL-660 got to 100 (somewhere around 9 MHz) and stopped without finishing when the page filled up. Many if not most of the stored frequencies were just noise. By contrast, virtually all were real stations on the PL-880 scan. The PL-660 might perhaps work better in a less noisy environment but it was next to useless when I tried it. Page zero has more shortwave stations available, 200 to be specific. I reran the ATS scan and the PL-660 filled them all (up to around 12 MHz) and quit again.
In electronics, a synchronous detector is a device that recovers information from a modulated signal by mixing the signal with a replica of the unmodulated carrier. This can be locally generated at the receiver using a phase-locked loop or other techniques.Wikipedia
The Tecsun PL-660 has the feature and it is reputed to work quite well. I’ve tried it on occasion and found that it improves reception of some marginal signals. For synchronous detection to work, the radio must be able to generate a precise local unmodulated carrier and synchronize it with the incoming radio signal. It only works well when the local signal is locked onto the received signal. The PL-880 does not have a documented synchronous detection feature, but there is a SYNC indicator glyph on the display, and that indicator can be turned on with a long press of either the USB or LSB buttons. People say it doesn’t work well and that it doesn’t “lock on.” I didn’t find it helped anything. With that said, it’s unfair to say that a feature doesn’t work well when Tecsun never claimed to have the feature in the first place.
Usability is a personal viewpoint, and I prefer the PL-880 operation over the PL-660. One significant improvement is the buttons. I often misfire when entering frequencies on the PL-660 (and on the PL-330 for that matter). I either don’t push the button hard enough, or I am too fast or too slow. It’s annoying to have to re-enter the frequency two or more times. I don’t find this to be an issue with the PL-880, perhaps because of its larger buttons that make a distinct click when activated.
There is a great deal of similarity between the PL-660 and the PL-880 in terms of how to do things. The buttons are pretty much the same and the radios work the same way. The big difference that I like very much on the PL-880 is its fine tuning knob. The PL-660 has one knob that either tunes fast, tunes slow or automatically switches between them depending on how fast the knob is turned. Switching between modes is tedious. The PL-880’s separate fine tuning knob makes it trivial to go back and forth between 5 kHz and 1 kHz (1 kHz and 10 Hz on SSB). They work the way you need them to work without having to set anything.
I personally like the 18650 battery system that can be recharged through a USB cable. It’s a huge convenience not to have to track down an AC adapter to charge the radio, or switch batteries and load them into a charger. I’ll probably never have to open the battery compartment again. It is a negative, this late in the game, that the USB port is a mini, instead of a type C, but I have a box full of suitable cables in addition to the one that came with the radio.
The LINE OUT jack is very helpful for recording, not so much because of its lower level, but because you can continue to listen to the radio when it is plugged in.
Another welcome addition to the PL-880 is a light switch; in addition to automatic display lights when pressing buttons or turning knobs that go off after a few seconds, the switch lets the user choose for it to remain on. The PL-660 turns on automatically, but only briefly, a very inconvenient event when making a video of the radio at night; it has a light button but the maximum on time is about 30 seconds.
The PL-880 user manual fails to mention it, but while charging, the radio indicates on the upper right of the display the elapsed time of the charging session in hours and minutes.
The Tecsun PL-880 is an excellent radio, but it’s not a replacement for the PL-660. The PL-880 has a great speaker for listening to music, plus a LINE OUT jack; it has some added operational convenience; it has more ATS memories; it has a separate fine tuning control; but it doesn’t receive more stations, it doesn’t have AIR band and it doesn’t have working synchronous detection.
If I were stranded on a deserted island with a solar panel and just one radio, I suppose I’d pick the PL-880 because of its convenience and pleasing audio, but the PL-660 would work about as well (if I could get 6V out of the solar panel).