Tecsun PL-ease: Comparing the PL-330, PL-660, PL-880 and PL-990 Shortwave Radios

Here I compare 4 great Tecsun radios; Three are still in production, and the PL-660 can still be purchased new.

PL-660 Introduction

The PL-660 was introduced in 2010 and I’ve owned mine since December of 2011; it’s been a great radio and continues to perform magnificently. The PL-660 is a dual-conversion phase locked loop synthesized superheterodyne analog radio that covers LW/MW/SW/FM and AIR bands (this is the only radio on the list with AIR band). It receives SSB and supports synchronous detection. It has auto tune storage (ATS). Mine is firmware version 6601, an earlier model that doesn’t have the memory sorting and duplicate deletion feature; the other radios have the feature.

It’s been included in several articles at Blog or Die!:

PL-330 Introduction

My next acquisition was the PL-330, introduced in 2021, and bought soon afterwards as a travel radio to replace my PL-380, adding some useful features, most notably SSB and frequency coverage up to 29.999 MHz. The PL-330 is an all-digital radio based on a digital signal processing (DSP) chip. Mine is firmware version 3306. I haven’t done a proper review of the PL-330, but I have included it in some articles:

PL-880 Introduction

The PL-880 was introduced in December of 2013 but mine was manufactured in 2023 and I’ve had it just a couple of months. It’s gotten a lot of my attention in that short time because I have been very interested in how it performs, and whether it will be the “best radio” to use when I want to hear something challenging. The PL-880 is a triple conversion superheterodyne radio, but with digital signal decoding through a DSP chip. Mine displays firmware version 8820.

Here are some of my articles that cover the PL-880:

PL-990 Introduction

The PL-990 was introduced in 2020 and it’s brand new for me. Normally this radio costs more than I would pay, but I found a pristine used one on eBay sold by Kaito USA for about the same price as the PL-880. Mine displays firmware version 9902 followed by a small “8” that might be a “B”.

In many ways, this radio is a refined version of the PL-880, but with an official synchronous detection feature, unofficial Bluetooth, and an MP3 player.

Note: There are two radios under the 990 banner, the PL-990 and the PL-990x (the European export model). The only distinction between the two that I was able to find was in LW band frequencies and FM step when the MW step is set for 9 kHz

Manuals

As of this writing, user manuals for these radios can be found online at:

Feature Comparisons

The radios share many features in common. They all receive shortwave signals from 1.711 to 29.999 MHz. They all have an external antenna jack, sleep timer and an alarm. They all show the clock when the radio is off, play stereo FM and decode single sideband (SSB). The reader will note in the feature table that follows that there are very few differences between the PL-880 and the PL-990. The table does not show the PL-880 with synchronous detection because it’s an undocumented hidden feature that really works too poorly to count.

FeaturePL-330PL-660PL-880PL-990
TuningDigitalAnalogAnalogAnalog
DetectionDigitalAnalogDigitalDigital
ATS Memories850200031503150
ATS Pagesn/a132525
ETM+ Memories8800
Air bandY
Line OutYY
BluetoothY
MP3 PlayY
BFOY
10 Hz SSB tuneYYY
Clock secondsYYY
Frequency Cal.YYY
AM SW Bandwidths3244
SSB Bandwidths5255
Synchronous det.YYY
Separate fine
tuning knob
YY
KickstandYYY
Tone controlYYY
Sensitivity controlYYY
Firmware Version33066601882099028
List Price1$80$140$170$250
Feature matrix

1 Prices from Amazon.com 7/28/2023

Hidden Features

There are also features not found in the manuals, referred to as “hidden features” by the user community. Some, such as the ability to calibrate the frequency and use the external antenna jack on LW/MW are quite useful. They vary by model. Here are links to this material on the internet:

Another PL-660 “hidden feature” is checking the firmware version. With the radio off, press and hold the AIR button until the display changes to show all the LCD segments active. Release the button and the firmware version will show in the upper right of the display in the form “66nn.” Frequency calibration is a hidden feature in some versions of the PL-660, but not mine.

Supplemental information on PL-330 hidden feature:

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.

Specifications

Here are the sensitivity, selectivity and S/N Radio values from the radio manuals (noting that some values were not included in the PL-330 manual). This table is ordered in the date that the radio was first introduced, perhaps to show some progression in performance.

PL-660PL-880PL-990PL-330
Sensitivity
LW (S/N=26dB)<5mV/m<5mV/m<3mV/m<10mV/m
MW (S/N=26dB)<1mV/m<3mV/m<1mV/m<1mV/m
SW (S/N=26dB <20uV<20μV<20μV<20μV
FM (S/N=30dB)<3uV<3μV<3μV<3μV
SSB (S/N=10dB)<1uV<3μV<1μV
AIR (S/N=10db)< 5uV
Selectivity
LW/MW>40 dB>40dB>40dB>60 dB
SW>40 dB>40dB>40dB>60 dB
FM>30 dB>35 dB>65dB>60 dB
S/N Ratio
LW/MW>45 dB>40 dB>40dB
SW>50 dB>45 dB>45dB
FM>60dB>65 dB>60dB
Specifications

Operation

All of these radios come from a common tradition, and they are operationally similar. This is very convenient moving from model to model. There are, however, some differences like switching to SSB, ETM+ memory on the PL-330, and dial light control.

Tuning

All of the radios have direct entry of frequencies via a key pad. The user first selects a mode, LW, MW, FM, SW or AIR (on the PL-660) and then presses the number buttons to select the specific frequency. In the case of an ambiguous entry, there is an enter key to complete the entry.

The PL-660 is an all-analog radio. It has a main tuning knob that doubles as a fine tuning knob. There is a button to switch it from 5 kHz steps on shortwave to 1 kHz. It can also make the shift automatically depending on how fast the knob is turned. The PL-330 works the same way; however on single sideband (SSB) the PL-330 has an additional 10 Hz step. The PL-880 and PL-660 have a separate knob for fine tuning; on shortwave the main knob is 5 kHz and the fine tuning knob is 1 kHz; in SSB they transition to 1 kHz and 10 Hz respectively.

There are disadvantages to the step button. First, one has to press it to change steps. The second problem is that the user has to look to see what the current step is in order to decide whether to switch it. With a separate knob, one always knows where they are and what to do. Another advantage to the fine tuning knob is that it can be used while the radio is in view memory (VM) mode to tune the radio, while the main tuning knob scrolls through memory presets.

A separate BFO control with center detent is used for precise clarification of SSB signals on the PL-660, and the 10 Hz fine tuning control is used for the other 3.

Given the bandwidth of these radios, there is no need for tuning resolution greater than 1 kHz for AM signals. The fine tuning to 10 Hz is solely available for SSB.

My PL-660 has a peculiar unevenness with the buttons. The left side numeric buttons protrude farther out than the ones on the right. I don’t always hit the button on the first try. My PL-330 buttons are even, but I have always had a very difficult time pressing the numbers reliably; if I take my time and go slow, they work, but more often than not I end up entering a frequency more than twice.

Memory Presets

The PL-660, PL-880 and PL-990 have very similar memory preset systems, consisting of memory pages, each of which contains a number of station frequencies that can be stored automatically, or added manually. The first page, Page 0, is distinct in that it is partitioned into groups by type of station, LW, MW, FM, SW, AIR (PL-660) and SSB. The other pages can store 100 stations each of any type. Here’s the memory map from the PL-660 manual:

The PL-880 and PL-990 are similar except they lack AIR band, have 250 SW memories on Page 0 and have 24 additional pages instead of 12.

The PL-330 also has ATS memories, similar to Page 0 on the other radios. Rather than 12 or 24 additional pages, there is a separate Enhanced Tuning Mode (ETM+) where the radio selects a separate group of memories based on the time of day. For shortwave, there are 24 hourly groups, for LW/MW there are 6 4-hour groups, and a single one for FM. Tecsun doesn’t publish a total number of these memories, but I put it at 8,800.

For more on this topic, check out my article on Radio memory systems.

All the radios can automatically scan and store stations found in memory in two modes. One mode scans a single international broadcast band on shortwave or the entire band for MW/LW/SW, adding stations found. The other mode scans all international shortwave bands, and destructively adds the stations it finds to memory. The PL-660 does not have ATS on the AIR band. All radios also have an automatic scan function where the radio will scan and pause when a station is found allowing the user the opportunity to store the station. All the radios invoke this scan feature with a long press of the VF/VM button, but only the PL-660 and PL-880 have a “Scan” label under that button.

When I tested ATS on the PL-660, I found that a large number of “noise” frequencies were stored, so many that the 100 memories filled up long before reaching the end of the band scan. By comparison the PL-880 stored mostly real signals and didn’t fill up.

Preferences

One thing really bugs me about these radios, and that is the lock button: it’s in a different place on every radio. Here are the locations:

The two radios with Line Out jacks have them reversed with the headphone jack. The step button is different between the PL330 and PL-660 (the others have no step button).

And they have different concepts for turning on the dial light, and in fact I never knew how they all worked until I wrote this article. The PL-990 is the easiest: it has a switch on the front panel giving the option of always on or automatic on (on for a few seconds when a control is operated). The PL-880 is similar except that the switch is on the right side panel. The PL-330 uses a long press of the “5” key to switch between always on and automatic and the PL-660 has two controls for lighting: a long press of the “5” [Light Set] controls how the LIGHT button works. When it’s set to “OFF” the LIGHT button switches the display backlight off or on for 30 seconds. When [Light Set] is on, the LIGHT button switches between automatic (5 seconds on) and on for 30 seconds.

Performance

I added the PL-990 results to my standard midday band scan tabulation on MW and FM; here are the results:

MW

I don’t get many MW stations in the daytime as you can see. The measurements are all done with the internal ferrite loop antenna with the radio pointed along the northeast / southeast axis. The PL-330 is capable of using an external antenna plugged into the external antenna jack (a hidden feature enabled with a long press of the “3” with the radio on) and the PL-990 has a switch to use an external antenna. An external antenna makes a phenomenal difference and results far surpass what’s in the table. Radios without MW antenna jacks can benefit from inductively coupled external antennas, both commercial ones and a long wire whose end is wrapped a few times around the radio. There is a convoluted and awkward “hidden feature” to use an external MW antenna on the PL-880; I think it’s more of a bug than a feature and it doesn’t work on my new firmware.

I’ve never received a daytime station in the upper part of the MW broadcast band between 1620 – 1710 before, but I did today with a 20-foot wire up a tree (WUT) attached to the PL-330 and PL-990 external antenna jacks. As you can gather from the video following, the PL-990 has markedly better reception, and is also the top performer of this group for daytime MW reception. Note that the display shows on the PL-330 has both SW and MW. The added SW indicates that the external antenna is in use. Long press the “3” key to switch. The PL-990 also has this hidden feature, but it appeared to me that the external antenna was more sensitive with the physical switch than with the hidden feature.

WPTX AM, Lexington Park, Maryland — 104 miles — Tecsun PL-330

FM

The chart shows that the PL-880 is the top performer on FM, followed by the PL-990, PL-660 and PL-330 in that order. The PL-880 and PL-990 have superior speakers and provide a better musical experience on FM.

AM performance on shortwave

The various videos below may give some hints. Shortwave signals vary from minute to minute and I have a very hard time drawing conclusions. Today, if I were going after a very elusive signal, I would probably still get out my PL-660; it seems to have lower noise. Because of the high noise level where I live, I seldom listen to weak stations adjacent to strong ones, a situation where bandwidth and filter sharpness matter. I just note that the PL-660 only has two bandwidth settings, and I almost always have it set on narrow; the others have more options, but I keep them set on 3 or 3.5 kHz. All the radios have identical shortwave sensitivity specifications.

We’re back at the park for this rather strong signal from Radio Habana Cuba on 15140 kHz, using the telescopic antenna. Keep in mind that there is an extra step, a switch, when going from telescopic to external antenna on the PL-990.

(Sorry about the typo in video — the frequency is 15140.)

This short video features reception of WWV on 15 MHz with the telescoping antennas in the park, and what is interesting is not what I heard, but what I felt. I could feel the picnic table vibrating to the low frequency subcarrier of WWV from the PL-880, but none of the others.

The following video of CFRX, Toronto on 6070 kHz was pretty weak. The takeaway from this video is that signals vary widely from minute to minute. The PL-990 comes out the loser, but I think this was mostly coincidence with weak signal times. It’s come out on top other times.

NHK Japan provided a strong signal indoors at 2:11 UTC with an MLA-30+ magnetic loop antenna, and the radios are compared in this video selection. The signal was so strong that the external antenna wasn’t really needed. The video highlights the difference in speaker.

Synchronous detection

Since this article was originally published, I have had an epiphany about synchronous detection, thanks to this article at SWLing Post: A synchronous detector crash course! I confess that most of what I thought I knew on the topic was wrong, and those misconceptions led to a great deal of confusion on my part about what I saw when I tried to use the feature and why I’ve had so much failure trying to compare radios with the feature.

The PL-880 does not have a documented synchronous detection feature, although it can be invoked by a long press of the USB or LSB buttons. The others have a documented feature (long press of the SSB/SYNC button on the PL-330/PL-990 and short press of SYNC on the PL-660). The PL-660 accomplishes sync through a beat frequency oscillator (BFO), while the others use digital signal processing (DSP).

The intended goal of synchronous detection is not to dig very weak signals out of the noise — that is only an occasional byproduct — nor is the feature designed for fading in general, but rather compensation for selective fading and multipath distortion.

I’ve been intrigued by a broadcast from an unknown source, transmitted by a commercial shortwave broadcast company in Nauen, Germany, described in schedules as Music 4 Joy. It’s just repetitive techno music transmitted without any announcement. The transmissions are directed away from my location and so are usually quite weak and subject to fading. (For more information on the station schedule and frequencies, see my article: Music (?) 4 Joy, where videos are linked.) My first radio to catch one was the PL-660, and it sounded better using synchronous detection.

The following video shows all 4 radios receiving Music 4 Joy on 17670 kHz during its 9 AM (01:00 UTC) broadcast in each of the three modes: AM, Sync USB, Sync LSB. And they pretty much show that synchronous detection really isn’t designed for that particular signal. It didn’t seem to me that sync helped much, if at all.

SSB

I caught the long weather forecast on WLO, 8788 kHz USB, and recorded the signal on all the radios. This was done outdoors in a park with minimal environmental noise. I used a 20-foot reel antenna attached to a tree limb. I switched between radios as fast as I could, and I’ll edit out the fumbling part. The viewer may find this video tedious to watch as I try to clarify the SSB signal out of the noise. I include it to show a realistic listening scenario, and now signal quality varies from minute to minute. The general conclusion is that the PL-660 is easier to tune and seems to have a lower noise floor.

I’ve already done SSB testing on three of the radios with amateur radio traffic, reported in my article SSB!.

Audio Performance

Speaker

Some radios just sound better than others. The PL-660 seems optimized for speech. The result is intelligible speech but a stronger hiss. The PL-880 has significant bass response, but in comparison it can sound booming and muffled. The PL-330 has a small speaker, and you can tell. The PL-990 is a step up from the PL-330 and PL-660, but not at the bass level of the PL-880.

The video following is reception of Radio Habana Cuba during a power failure with a MLA-30+ antenna. It’s a good example of the listening experience with the four. The audio shortcomings of the PL-330 and PL-660 are emphasized by the comparison. I thought all the speakers were equally intelligible.

Radio Habana Cuba Mailbag Program

Headphones

I hooked up a pair of Audio-Technica monitor headphones to the radios in pairs through an A/B switch. I listened to pop music from a local FM station. I could detect no difference in any of the radios. They all performed uniformly well. I suspect the bass response of the headphones, however, was not as good as the PL-880 speaker.

Bluetooth

The manual doesn’t describe the Bluetooth speaker feature of the PL-990. When shipped, the radio has a Music/Radio button that cycles through these options. A long press of this button enables a third option to the cycle, Bluetooth. An external Bluetooth audio source will see the radio as “TECSUN PL-990.” It easily paired with my Windows 11 desktop computer.

Conclusion?

I wish I could declare a winner, but I can’t. If you want strong bass from the external speaker, pick the PL-880, but if you prefer headphones, they all sound the same. If you prefer a lightweight for travel or low cost, pick the PL-330. If you want AIR band and great SSB, pick the PL-660. If you want a music player, then the PL-990 is your baby. I prefer the separate fine tuning knob of the PL-880 and PL-990 a lot. I like the ETM+ memory scan and storage of the PL-330. I like that the clock is on the display all the time on the PL-660 whether the radio is on or off, but I like the numerical signal strength display (where the clock is on the PL-660) on the others. I like the buttons on the PL-880 and PL-990 better. But really, at the end of the day, they all get the same stations.

I’m trying to figure out whether to sell the PL-880 or PL-990, as they’re so similar. No clarity on that question was found in this exercise. [Update: I sold the PL-880.]

References:

About Kevin

Just an old guy with opinions that I like to bounce off other people.
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2 Responses to Tecsun PL-ease: Comparing the PL-330, PL-660, PL-880 and PL-990 Shortwave Radios

  1. Kevin says:

    I don’t have an H-501x to test.

  2. Akinlade Oladeinde says:

    I will say thank you guys for the clarity on the set of Tescun but nothing was said or compared with or about Tescun H-501x.

    Thank you

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