Battle of the under $50 shortwave radios: Take 2

It’s only been 5 months since 13 shortwave radios did battle in the original Battle of the under $50 shortwave radios, but things have changed. There are new contenders.

XHDATA D-109WB

XHDATA D-109WB (top) and D-109 (bottom)

The XHDATA D-109 (shown above) was the winner of the first contest, a general coverage DSP based MW/LW/SW/FM radio that is an all-around good performer in its price class with notably good audio. There is a new model now, the D-109WB that adds, as you might expect, Weather Band. Reports are that the new kid performs the same as its older brother, so we’ll assume they are the same and to simplify things I’ll not revisit the D-109 in this challenge. I covered the original D-109 in my article, XHDATA D-109: A new radio. In addition to weather band, the D-109WB adds a Local/DX setting, tone control, an SOS siren and rubber buttons.

It is important to know that I live in a very weak MW signal area. People in areas with strong MW areas find shortwave on the D-109 radios almost unusable do to MW breakthrough.

Sihuadon R-108

Sihuadon R-108 (Amazon Product Photo)

The Sihuadon / Radiwow R-108 is my latest addition. I describe it as a “Mini Me” version of the Sihuadon / XHDATA D-808. The two radios are operationally similar and share many of the same features, operation and foibles, but without SSB and FM RDS on the R-108. The R-108 is significantly smaller, making it a better option for travel. Interestingly, it retains the AIR band feature. It also has a far better Operations Manual. Unlike the D-808, ATS memory is not divided into pages, simplifying operation.

LiJiANi Rd239

LiJiANi Rd239 (photo by author)

The Rd239 is an interesting new radio both for its coverage of Weather Band, VHF and Air Band, but also because it has an internal recording feature. It is the only conventional shortwave receiver I know of that has user-updatable firmware. The one tested here is version 2.9. My review of this radio is, LiJiANi Rd239: A different radio. I’ve previously compared the Rd239 and the D-109WB.

Feature Comparisons

FeatureXHDATA R-108XHDATA D-109WBLiJiANi Rd239
LWYY
AIRYY
SW1711 – 299991711 – 299993200 – 29995
WeatherYY
VHF30 – 200 MHz
SquelchYYAir only
Ext. Antenna JackYYY*
Tone controlMusic/VoiceMusic/Voice
SW Bandwidth settingsYY
Signal strength indicatorYYY
SW fine tuningYY
Tuning rate settingY
BatteryBL-5C18650BL-5C or 3 AA
ChargingUSB MicroUSB-CUSB-C
BluetoothYY
MP3YY
RecorderRadio / Mic
AUX inputY
ATS memories for shortwave10030099
Dimensions (mm)118 x 73 x 27155 x 86 x 35138 x 85 x 28
Antenna length19″20.5″23″
Clock/Alarm/
Sleep
YYY
Firmware version2.9
Updatable firmwareY
FlashlightY
Illuminated keysY
Rubber feetYY
ThermometerYY
Price (12/9/2023)$49
XHDATA
$46
XHDATA
$43
Amazon
.

* The external antenna jack on the Rd239 appears to be 1/8″ rather than 3.5mm, making it difficult to plug in some external antennas. Its location on the back of the radio also makes it awkward to use.

Unlike my prior battle, all of these radios are serious contenders and each might be considered a starter radio for the shortwave broadcast listener, noting however that none of them decode single sideband. None of the radios come with a case or pouch, also a bummer.

Operation

There are convenience differences between the radios dealing with how many buttons are required to do something. The D-109WB has separate buttons for each band: MW, FM, SW and AIR. LW shares a button with MW if LW is enabled (which mine is not). The other two have a BAND button that requires repeated pressing and interpretation of the display to get where you want to go. This is particularly problematic on the Rd239 since it has 6 bands to scroll through.

I use ATS memory scans when testing radios, to get sample stations for comparison. Radios are far from consistent in how they implement ATS memory, and many I find awkward and inconvenient to use. I’ve written an entire article on this issue, Radio memory systems. ATS doesn’t apply to Weather band on these radios.

The D-109WB has 100 memory locations (numbered 00-99) on each band except for shortwave with 300. The extra shortwave memories are important because local interference can create false signals, and sometimes there are just too many stations, causing the scan to stop prematurely then the memory slots fill. The D-109WB avoids the problem with extra memories. The radio has two modes, VF (view frequency) and VM (view memory) and depending on the mode, numbers keyed access frequencies or memory locations. The tuning knob scrolls through frequencies or memory locations. The up and down buttons pass through frequencies or memory locations. One can directly enter the memory location on the key pad.

Ah, if only the other two radios worked as simply. The Rd239 has 99 memory locations for each band, including 99 on the shortwave bands, a number that I have filled up before reaching the end of the ATS scan. Like the D-109WB, there is a VF/VM mode (called FREQ and MEMORY) where the tuning knob scans through frequencies or numbered memory locations; however, it automatically switches back to FREQ mode after a few seconds of inactivity. Also the up and down arrow buttons always scroll through frequencies. One can directly enter the memory location on the key pad. Unlike the other two, frequency scans on this radio cover all the HF frequencies, not just the international broadcast bands. An ATS scan takes over 8 minutes.

While the D-109WB is overall the easiest and most straightforward to use for most things, it has one huge flaw: the variable speed tuning knob. If you turn the knob fast, the radio tunes at one rate and if you turn it slowly, it tunes at a different rate. Take MW as an example. The slow rate is 1 kHz and the fast rate is 10 kHz. Let’s say you want to manually scan the MW band to see how many stations can be picked up. The slow rate of 1 kHz makes no sense — 10 clicks to get to the next station, so you turn faster and at some point the fast rate kicks in and you’re incrementing at 10 kHz, but when it does that, you have no time to react and have skipped over the station, so you turn back, only to find you’re at 1 kHz again. One ends up tuning back and forth to get the station. What I’ve found is that it is faster to enter every single frequency on the key bad than turn the tuning knob. The same problem exists on the other bands with 10 kHz slow spacing on FM. (The R-108 has an explicit step rate setting and the Rd239 only has a single step value.)

I’m one who thinks that the power button ought to be on the top right of every radio. The Rd239 designers did not share my opinion. Power is a diminutive button in the center top of the unit next to two similarly sized buttons, and it has to be pressed twice to turn the radio on.

The R-108 has 100 memory locations on each band. On this one there is no provision for direct entry of a memory location; the only way to access one is through repeated use of the tuning knob. The up and down arrows always scroll through frequencies. There’s no direct entry of a memory location on the keypad.

Direct entry of frequencies is easy on the D-109 — just key in the number. On the other two radios, a key prefix (FREQ) must be entered to indicate that a frequency follows and unless a full 5 digits is entered, a suffix key is also required (FREQ on the R-108 and ENTER on the Rd239). Repeated presses of the SW+ or SW- keys on the D-109WB skip through the 14 international broadcast bands; the “0” key on the on the R-108 does this (this feature appears to be undocumented). I have not found a comparable function on the Rd239 (maybe in a future firmware version).

Performance

Ultimately, the purpose of a shortwave radio is to receive shortwave radio stations. I typically like to test with the time stations or CFRX (6070) in Toronto (about 400 miles away). I like to run ATS scans and see what the radios pick up. I’ll test with both the telescopic antenna and an external antenna. While all three radios have an external antenna jack, it doesn’t seem to work on the LiJiANi, so I’ll clip on for that one. While advertised as 3.5mm, the LiJiANi external antenna jack appears to be a smaller 1/8″ size and plugging in 3.5mm phone plugs is very tight.

While this comparison is about shortwave, I always run a manual band scan on MW and FM on my radios.

FM performance on the Rd239 was nothing short of phenomenal, not only blowing away the other two in this competition, but beating out every other radio I own except for the Tecsun PL-880 and PL-990!

And if that weren’t enough of a shock, the Sihuadon R-108 outperformed all the others, even my vintage Panasonic, on MW! I’m still trying to get my head around that result. While not specifically looking for it, I did not notice any birdies on my R-108.

The test made one thing painfully obvious: manually scrolling through the FM and MW bands with the tuning knob on the XHDATA D-109WB is a royal pain. It’s switching between slow and fast modes is almost uncontrollable.

Shortwave results were not surprising. For a first test I just picked a station (one carrying Brother Stair) on 5850 kHz around 04:10 UTC. The station was fading and I gave each radio multiple attempts. The MLA-30+ antenna was operated from a battery for this test. The Rd239 seemed at a definite disadvantage here, with better performance from the other two.

Indoor shortwave comparisons with MLA-30+

Next it was outdoors in mid afternoon using just the telescopic antennas, here receiving the Voice of Turkey, CFRX Toronto, and China Radio International (supposedly in Esperanto).

Voice of Turkey 5980 kHz at 19:45 UTC
CFRX Toronto, 6070 kHz at 19:57 UTC
China Radio International, 9745 kHz at 10:03 UTC

My impression was that the XHDATA and the Sihuadon performed about the same. The LiJiANi lagged a little bit behind. I thought they were all fairly close. In the first video I had the audio set for voice on the XHDATA and switched to music during the second.

Making these videos reminded me of the value of a mute function on a radio. It makes it very easy to switch between them in a video.

Audio

Audio is no contest. The D-109WB is hands down the best sound. It actually has some bass. I have older radios that I describe as “tinny” sounding, and none of these fit that description. They are simply geared for speech over music. The D-109WB actually has a voice/music setting with more treble available on voice (something I would consider backwards).

The R-108 can’t be turned up very loud, and that can be a frustration with a weak signal. You know it’s there, the noise isn’t bad, but you just can’t turn up the volume high enough. (This issue is shared with big brother D-808).

Conclusion

Each radio has its points. The D-109WB has the best audio and has the best ATS memory system. Direct frequency entry is quicker. The Rd239 has VHF and a built-in record function and can use AA batteries; it also has super FM performance. The R-108 has a tuning rate setting for the easiest manual band scanning, phenomenal MW performance and it is the smallest of the group.

I named this article, “Battle of the under $50 shortwave radios: Take 2” with the idea of a movie scene filmed again as “Take 2.” But in fact one might consider having two of these radios, or even all three. (Actually, this is the third iteration of this topic, so it should have been titled “Take 3.”

The top one, as it was in the original battle, is the D-109 (weather band this time) if for no other reason than its outstanding audio and ease of operation. 300 shortwave ATS memories is a significant advantage if one uses ATS. Direct frequency entry is easier on it than on the others. It did reasonably well in all categories; however, as I said above, the D-109 is not a radio you would want in a strong MW signal area do to breakthrough into shortwave.

The Rd239 radio adds AIR band to the mix, a recording capability, VHF coverage and rock star FM reception.

The R-108 also adds AIR band, superior manual scrolling through the frequency bands, and rock star MW performance.

As with all my reviews and posts, specific points may be revisited and revised in the future.

Update

Since writing this, XHDATA sent me a D-608WB radio. It is quite sensitive and has a nice speaker; however, the lack of numeric frequency entry rules out for shortwave listening. It’s intended as an emergency radio.

About Kevin

Just an old guy with opinions that I like to bounce off other people.
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3 Responses to Battle of the under $50 shortwave radios: Take 2

  1. Johann says:

    The only cheap RDS radio I am aware of is the Silvercrest SWDR 500 C1/C2 (rbds for us). Covers FM mw lw SW for 20 USD. Yes, it’s a Lidl

  2. Kelly says:

    I noticed an interesting problem while using the XHDATA 2000 mAh 18650 battery with the XHDATA 3000 mAh battery.

    The D-109WB will lock up after being turned off and will need to be reset and will need to be reset before using again. After this occurred several times, I put the original 2000 mAh batter back in and the radio no longer locks up.

    I got a good deal on the 3000 mAh batteries and I’m now using them in a flashlight and in my Tecsun PL-880 with no problems.

  3. Kelly says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs! I also have the XHDATA D-109WB. I was on the hunt for a cheap radio to add to my collection and this was it!
    I’m glad I got it because I use the Bluetooth to listen to my Raspberry-Pi / RTL-SDR for the local police, the SD card is filled with old time radio programs, and I really enjoy a good ATS system on AM/FM and SW that is easily scrolled through. The radio reception is good enough to be your only radio.
    Add an XHDATA coupon and I got the radio shipped from China for a total of $41. Lots of fun!
    I miss RDS, a good tuning knob, etc. But for a cheap radio, I really enjoy the D-109WB. If they fix the tuning knob problems, I’ll buy the “upgrade”.
    Thanks,
    Kelly

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