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

Introduction

The Qodosen SR-286 set me back $129 US, a price tag that made me pause before purchasing. I wasn’t buying a radio on a whim. What drew me in was its novelty and the promise of improved performance compared to my current setup. An online review even touted its superiority on FM.1

As I share my findings and experiences with the SR-286 through information and videos, I expect to field questions about its value proposition. Is it worth the price, or would a more budget-friendly option like the XHDATA D-808 suffice? Perhaps some might wonder if it’s worth holding out for a pricier model like the Sangean ATS-909 X2.

It’s essential to recognize that different people prioritize different features. For instance, one comment on Facebook said, “If it doesn’t have SSB, it’s off my list.” If you share that sentiment, need AIR band coverage, or specifically require a radio that runs on AA batteries, then the SR-286 might not be the right fit for you. Its HF coverage tops off at 27,000 kHz, so you won’t pick up the US Citizens Band (CB) or the 10m amateur radio band. Additionally, it lacks weather band and VHF functionality. However, once you move past those limitations, the SR-286 starts to reveal its intriguing qualities.

Conventional wisdom in the world of portable receivers suggests that once you enter the upper echelon, all radios essentially receive the same stations; however, I’m inclined to challenge that assumption with the SR-286.

Special capabilities of the SR-286

The SR-286 stands out among portable radios for its support of an external antenna on MW/LW, a feature shared only by a select few models such as the Tecsun PL-990, PL-330, and PL-368 (the latter two through a “hidden” feature). The addition of an antenna can significantly enhance performance.

Today, I took the SR-286 outside in the early afternoon to conduct my usual daytime band scan. Residing in an area with weak signals, I was impressed when it managed to receive 18 MW stations, placing it near the top of my collection and on par with the D-808. However, the game changed when I connected a 20-foot Wire Up a Tree (WUT) antenna with a ground connection—the number of stations skyrocketed to 86! Many of these new stations came in strong, with some sounding as if they were local broadcasts. It’s worth noting that the D-808 doesn’t support an external antenna on MW/LW, limiting its performance in comparison. (While I’m aware of coupled loops, I don’t have one; however, I do have 20 feet of wire.)

Regarding longwave reception, the D-808 is notorious for losing sensitivity below 300 kHz. In fact, I receive no LW signals at all on that radio, so I can’t verify those reports. Conversely, with my Tecsun PL-990 and its connected WUT antenna, I can pick up nearby airport beacons. However, with the SR-286 and the same antenna setup, I can capture real broadcast stations from across the Atlantic—a feat unmatched by any other radio in my possession. This ability to explore new frontiers alone justifies the cost for me. Check out this incredible LW reception from Algeria:

Chaîne One, Algeria  — 153 kHz

Chaîne One is a potent 1 MW station that none of my other radios were able to pick up. I did manage to identify one image from a particularly strong WRMI shortwave broadcast originating in Florida on LW and I may have heard Brother Stair on top of BBC4, underscoring the need for caution when reporting LW stations without proper identification. Fortunately, Chaîne One streams online, making verification a breeze.

Additionally, there are numerous other minor details that I’ll delve into further 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 cosmetic damage. Both the 286 and the 808 come with something, a fold over case with Velcro closure for the 286 and a draw-string bag for the 808. I usually prefer the fold over because drawstring bags can be tricky to use. 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. When on the kickstand, 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 AN-07 antenna extender with a radio from them and it makes up for any difference and then some. These are available from ANON-CO on eBay.

Tecsun AN-07 telescopic antenna extender

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. The battery is not included with the SR-286 so be sure to have one on hand before your order arrives.

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 nothing 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. Here the D-808 was even given the advantage of the shallower angle.

You might also enjoy these SR-285 disassembly photos, or these D-808 disassembly photos.

Operation


I’ve frequently voiced my frustration with the D-808’s memory system, and today’s band scans only served to highlight its shortcomings. While the SR-286 offers convenient modes for both memory and frequency, allowing users to easily scroll through stored stations, the D-808 provides no such luxury. Instead, users are forced to input page and slot numbers individually for each station, with no option for seamless scrolling. It’s an incredibly frustrating experience and one of the main reasons why I hesitate to recommend the D-808 despite its other merits.

Similar to my experience with the Eton Elite Executive, the SR-286 supports alphanumeric labels on memory pages, a feature I’ve found useful despite my limited use of it on the Eton. In contrast, the D-808 only offers 500 memory locations, with a mere 100 allocated to each band—insufficient for serious shortwave enthusiasts. The SR-286, on the other hand, boasts 1000 memory locations, with a more equitable distribution across bands.

The SR-286’s ATS feature recognizes 25 pages for FM, 5 for LW, 15 for MW, and an impressive 55 for SW, with 10 locations per page—more than enough for even the most avid shortwave listener. Furthermore, the SR-286 offers two ATS modes: Jump and Cover. In Jump mode, stations are saved in empty slots, while in Cover mode, they overwrite memory locations sequentially. Manual entry also allows users to input stations into any memory slot as needed. In contrast, the D-808 only offers an overwrite mode.

Additionally, the SR-286 saves bandwidth and Music/Voice settings along with frequency, whereas the D-808 saves bandwidth and stereo settings alongside frequency.

That brings us to frequency entry. On the 808 every frequency entry must 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 153 AM and get LW, or 540 AM and get MW or 6070 AM and get shortwave. It’s much smoother; however, it is not necessary to press AM at all; for example, on the MW band one could press “77” and do nothing; 2 seconds later the radio will tune to “770.” Repeatedly pressing the AM button iterates through the three AM bands.

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. In addition, there is an AUTO mode for the Tuning knob; just turn the knob a little and radio automatically goes to the next station, with no chuffing noise. It’s truly amazing how intuitive this tuning mode is.

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 off; 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, but only the 286 allows storing the selected 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 1, 1.8, 2, 2.5, 3, 4 and 6 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 with values of 6, 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36. When on, “At” flashes on the display. The D-808 has no local/DX setting and reportedly can suffer from images in a strong FM signal area.

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 bands 100 kHz.

Both radios can skip between the SW broadcast 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 no local station I can receive 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. It was so bad that I gave up on it and wrote my own. The 286 manual seems more of a draft and is hard to follow in places, but it is usable and I 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. Of course only the SR-286 supports an external on MW, putting it into another league altogether

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 when 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 grabbed the top of the antenna with my hand.

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-330 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 sported a very good signal on the telescopic antenna alone. 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 on the SR-286. 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.) My conclusion is that the SR-286 is optimized for its antenna.

Both radios display FM RDS information; however, only the SR-286 displays the PI segment (a coded identification of the station displayed as a 4-digit hexadecimal). Display of this segment is unusual for portable receivers. Here is a table of assigned values for US FM stations. Both radios are supposed are supposed to display radio text (RT), but the SR-286 never does, always saying “NO RT.” This seems to be a defect.

LW

None of my other radios get any longwave stations with their internal ferrite antennas. It’s dead, Jim. The SR-286 has very weak reception on the strongest nondirectional aircraft beacon. 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 a long testing session, I found myself reaching for the SR-286 when I wanted to improve reception to aid in station identification. Despite having a sack of radios at my disposal that could have been connected to the long wire antenna, it was the SR-286 that I reached for. This choice speaks volumes about my affinity for this radio and reinforces my positive feelings toward it.

Audio

The D-808 exhibits a more muffled sound quality compared to the crisper audio of the SR-286. Generally, music signals come across as more vibrant on the SR-286, whereas speech on shortwave appears slightly clearer on the D-808. Neither radio could be characterized as having “premium sound,” a distinction reserved for models like the PL-990, which commands a higher price tag.

Further testing with Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones and an A/B switch revealed that both radios offer similar levels of bass response, but the mid tones and high frequencies sounded notably muffled on the D-808, resulting in a somewhat disappointing listening experience. Stereo separation was less pronounced on the D-808, likely due to its lower midrange and high frequency response. In contrast, the SR-286 demonstrated clear superiority in audio quality.

On shortwave, this muffling effect might be perceived as a reduction in hiss, giving the impression that the D-808 is more sensitive than it actually is.

Alternatives

If you’re in the market for an enjoyable radio without breaking the bank and SSB isn’t a must-have, consider checking out the recently updated Sihuadon R-108 with very good performance. Additionally, the LiJiANi Rd239 offers excellent overall performance along with a plethora of options such as AIR band, VHF, Weather band, Bluetooth, recording, and MP3 playback. Both of these options provide compelling features at an affordable price point.

For those seeking a tried-and-true performer, the Tecsun PL-330 remains a well-respected choice in the realm of small portables. Renowned for its solid build and reputation, the PL-330 comes equipped with SSB functionality and boasts the absolute best station memory system in its class. Best of all, each of these options comes in at under $80, making them accessible choices for budget-conscious radio enthusiasts.

Conclusion

I always find this part of the review challenging to write. In essence, the SR-286 has proven itself by capturing stations that other radios in my collection struggle to receive, especially on Longwave with an external antenna. Additionally, its performance on FM appears to be somewhat superior, and MW is also very good–even better with an external antenna.

While the SR-286 boasts several commendable design features, performs admirably, and exhibits sturdy build quality, I can’t help but feel that its price is inflated. Comparing it to my Eton Elite Executive, which retails for a significantly higher price, the SR-286’s FM performance stands out. However, its lack of SSB and AIR band capabilities makes its price tag seem particularly steep. At $129, I anticipated even better audio quality and perhaps a matte finish on the buttons. A larger, smoother tuning knob would also enhance the user experience. Moreover, the absence of SSB is a notable drawback.

When searching for radios within a similar price range, I struggled to find alternatives. Amazon yielded only one option between $120 and $140, the well-respected 10-year-old Tecsun PL-680 with SSB and AIR band, priced at $139. The remaining options were primarily touchscreen software-defined radios, which is a completely different market.

Despite my reservations about the price, I’m satisfied with my purchase. It has been an enjoyable experience, particularly with the newfound access to LW stations, which has expanded my radio hobby into new territory. I anticipate using this radio frequently, and it may even find a place as my car radio, although additional bands would have been a welcomed feature for a radio intended for for use without a supporting cast.

The absence of a finished user manual and packaging leads me to believe that the SR-286 is still in early production stages. Perhaps as production ramps up and the radio becomes more widely available on platforms like Amazon, the price may become more reasonable. In my opinion, a price range of $50-$70 would be more aligned with market expectations.

Note: Portions of this review were revised using ChatGPT to enhance the writing style. Portions of the ChatGPT text were revised to give them more punch.

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

About Kevin

Just an old guy with opinions that I like to bounce off other people.
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5 Responses to The Burning Question: is the Qodosen SR-286 worth it?

  1. Janey says:

    I am one of those people who is like now, I have tried every single shortwave radio but not many of those boat anchors which are intimidating. I have single Magne book except the second one for some reason. There have been some great radios but nothing is ever quite perfect. I think radio aficionados and stereo aficionados are hard to please and I salut that. This one does get a lot of FM station and it can negotiate between them but it gets tedious because of the endless clicking.

    Over this, I would recommend the Sony below if you can find one in good working order.

    It tunes like a dream and you can go from band to band easily. Probably not the greatest FM but this was a classic journalist radio along with one’s heavy duty Nikon for covering the war in Nicaragua, for instance. I always break mine but I treat radios roughly it seems. Kaito 1103 is probably the greatest short wave radio of all time as an all-rounder. The Eton E1 was/is amazing as is the Sony ICF 2010, all sitting here. One is too sticky and the other has loose batter contacts, eh. So many radios I have had and so many beautiful ones. Artistic design in the field of radios is generally outstanding. I have a Tivoli here and I love analog but then again, it’s impossible to find sports stations for AM baseball around the nation of which there remains much.

    Thanks for writing about this. It seems as though the hobby is dissipating.

    This radio looks a lot like the ICF SW1 which had leaky capacitors but it’s not as cool or fun or really any more advanced.
    https://www.radiomuseum.org/r/sony_fmmwsw_receiver_ifc_4920.html

  2. Old Tech Guy says:

    In your review, you mention that “One thing I like in a radio is a case.” I’ve found that a cheapo non-name brand EVA hard drive carrying case (about $6 each) that you can find on Amazon, fits the radio PERFECTLY and provides exceptional protection. I had an extra because I only have one HD that I needed to store, so had a spare floating around my office…and gave it a try (they come in pairs). It’s like it was made for radios of this size. Here’s the one I bought – but there are literally hundreds of others sold for same use case.

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07NW7PR68/

  3. John says:

    Really helpful, Kevin. I had a Tecsun PL-330 which I misplaced and was thinking of buying another when I ran across the sr-286, which is tempting. You helped me to decide to stay with the 330. From other reviews I expected the 286 to be spectacularly better and that seems not to be the case. Too, the 330 has SSB which I value.

  4. Arthur Pirika says:

    While I agree that the manual is quite OK, the grammar is certainly far better than other manuals for radios out of China… There’s one particular issue I have, related to the fact I’m relying on accessibility software to read the pdf, where it doesn’t announce the names of the buttons in the text. Leading on from this, but in the hope that this might be a useful thing for everyone, I think a function summary would be very useful! Since the buttons have multiple functions, the text could include the labels on the buttons, and the various functions each button performs. Considering that functions can trigger when the radio is off, is powered on, long press, or in combo with other buttons… That summary would be useful!

  5. Kelly Mills says:

    Another excellent review Kevin. Thank you for writing it!

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