Tecsun PL-330 or Qodosen SR-286?

UPDATE

This article has been sitting around unfinished for some weeks. In the interim, Qodosen has come out with a new model, the DX-286 that appears to be the same physical radio, but with updated firmware and a lower price ($79.99 on Amazon). I’m going to publish this article, not quite complete, because I intend to be reviewing the new model shortly.

I have access to the new, very polished, manual for the DX-286 for your reading pleasure.

Continuing with the article:

The Tecsun PL-330 is a well-respected radio. I’ve had mine for two years and it’s traveled across the globe with me. The Qodosen is brand new, with powerful reception on some bands and interesting features. Which one is the best? I’m a Gemini and I’m of two minds about everything. The best selection depends on what you value in a radio and here I hope to give you enough to help make up your own mind.

Qodosen SR-286 (top) and Tecsun PL-330 (bottom) – Click to expand

The big picture

There are some important feature differences and they might be make or break in your decision, so let’s get them out of the way first:

Things the PL-330 has that the Qodosen SR-286 does not:

  • SSB
  • Synchronous detection
  • SW coverage from 27 to 29.999 MHz.
  • BL-5C rechargeable battery

Things that the SR-286 has that the PL-330 does not have:

  • FM RDS/RBDS
  • Kickstand
  • 18650 rechargeable battery (not included)
  • Squelch

Both charge with a USB Micro cable, and neither has a thermometer.

The PL-330 is the choice for a shortwave listener. The SR-286 is a powerhouse on MW/LW and on those bands the lack of SSB doesn’t matter.

Other references

The Qodosen is a new model and for that reason there’s been a lot of interest in it, and I’ve already devoted a few articles to it:

The PL-330 on the other hand has been around a few years, has earned a reputation, and settled into its place. I’ve spent less time writing about it:

Let’s get physical

The perspective in the photo makes the PL-33o look bigger than it actually is, but still its cross section is bigger in real life than the SR-286, although the latter is thicker to accommodate the 18650 battery compared to the ultra-thin BL-5C battery in the PL-330. The dimensions (Width, Height, Depth) are:

  • PL-330 – 130 x 80 x 26 mm
  • SR-286 – 128 x 75.5 x 38 mm

The antennas are the same length, 49 cm.

One very apparent difference is in the controls. The buttons on the PL-330 are almost flush with the case and the numbers are small, while the buttons on the SR-286 protrude and have large bright labels. The SR-286 is far easier to read, and button presses are much more reliable. The Step and ETM buttons on the PL-330 are particularly tiny and hard to press.

And speaking of that tiny STEP button, the SR-286 implements step in a completely, and more intuitive way; pressing the tuning knob inward as a button. The tuning step can be set without taking a hand off the tuning knob, as opposed to the PL-330 where you have to squint to find the button and then press it. The PL-330 has a volume control knob which is nice and does double duty as a bandwidth control; the SR-286 has a scroll wheel for volume that is slightly less convenient.

Operation

I went out yesterday to a remote location to test shortwave (more about that later) on the two radios. It was in the mid afternoon when CFRX, Toronto, is a weak signal that fades in and out. I also did some band scans on shortwave and made comparison videos. Operationally, the PL-330 was annoying.

The first and biggest issue is the number buttons. They do not work reliably. The buttons don’t stick out much. If you press them too quickly they don’t register. From the beginning with this radio I’ve had to make direct frequency entries multiple times for them to work, and I end up having to make the entries very slowly and deliberately. I don’t have this problem with the SR-286.

The other issue only appears when comparing radios; it’s the lack of a mute function (a problem with all Tecsun radios I’ve encountered, even the PL-990). When comparing two radios, it’s helpful to switch between them quickly, before a station has a chance to fade in or out. The Qodosen SR-286 (and most other radios that add an MP3 play function) have a play/pause or mute capability. The PL-330 can only be muted by turning it off completely or turning the volume control all the way down (it takes multiple complete turns); that’s clumsy and takes time. Comparing two radios with a mute button is simple, and with two hands the two buttons can be pressed at the same time instantly switching between the radios. The PL-330 can’t do that.

Firmware and hidden features

The PL-330 has a group of hidden features. Only two of them have been useful for me, the feature to allow the external antenna to be used for MW/LW (long press of the number “3”) and the feature to display the firmware version.

There are no known hidden features in the SR-286, nor any way to display the firmware version. Using the external antenna for MW/LW is a documented feature.

Memory and scans

The memory systems in the two radios are very different and for that I’ll refer the reader to my article: Radio memory systems, but ETM+ on the PL-330 is the best memory system I’ve ever encountered on a portable radio. The SR-286 memory system is fairly good. The PL-330 has the ability to store shortwave memory scan results by time of day, encouraging the use of memories for scan results. The SR-286 has the ability to alphanumerically label memory pages encouraging its use for storing favorites. Notably, the SR-286 performs a memory scan about twice as fast as the PL-330 for SW. The number of storage slots is ample on both radios. The SR-286 has a 3-level sensitivity adjustment on its scans.

There are some differences between frequency scans apart from ATS worth noting. Both radios have a scan and pause function without memory storage. On the PL-330 the radio is first placed in VF mode, then the VF/VM button is long pressed. The radio scans upward in frequency until it finds a station, stops for 5 seconds and continues unless any button is pressed again t0 stop the scan. In VM mode the PL-330 searches stations stored in memory.

The SR-286 has more scan options. One scan option is invoked with a long press of the UP or DOWN buttons with the radio scanning upward or downward in frequency depending on which button is used. There is a STOP/DELAY setting that determines whether the scan stops on finding a station or whether it pauses and automatically resumes, including the ability to specify the delay (5-90 seconds) before resuming. The second scan is invoked with the tuning knob. Repeated inward presses of the knob select the tuning mode: FAST, SLOW, STOP or AUTO. With AUTO, the radio scans for the next (or previous) station, the same as long pressing an arrow key — this is actually pretty cool with the STOP setting; it’s just like regular tuning except all the empty frequencies are skipped. The radio can also search memory locations in PAGE mode, although only the arrow keys can invoke the search in his mode.

Both radios have strong points for their memory and scan functions, albeit different ones.

Performance

FM

I always start with my daytime band scan results, which show the Qodosen SR-286 clearly superior on FM, 71 vs 66 stations.

The SR-286 adds FM Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS/RDS) information on the display from stations that provide it. At first, this might seem to be a great tool for the FM DXer, but this radio, and I think its competitors too, only show the data for strong stations. Unlike any other radio I know of, the SR-286 displays the PI data segment, which is a number that can be looked up online to uniquely identify the station. Refer to my article: RDS / RBDS: FM on Display for details on this.

Mediumwave

The SR-286 is also superior on MW where hobbyists have adopted it as an experimental platform:

Photo from Gary DeBock

Both radios (unmodified) support an external antenna on LW/MW attached to the antenna jack through a documented feature on the SR-286 and an undocumented feature on the PL-330. Adding the external and antenna and ground to the PL-330 improved the number of stations received from 12 to 15. Adding the same antenna to the SR-286 improved the number from 18 to 79! This is at noon in a weak signal area. OK, I hope that got your attention.

Longwave

Both radios benefit from an external antenna and ground on LW, but the SR-286 continues to amaze. It gets numerous airport beacons and in the evening I pulled in Chaine One from Algeria with a 20-ft long wire. The PL-330 goes from none to a few aircraft beacons with the external antenna.

Shortwave

I mentioned some SW tests and videos. The results were inconclusive. I really couldn’t find that one was better than the other using the telescopic antennas. Music sounded clearer on the SR-286, but speech was equally good between them. I’ll cover quality audio later.

I went out to the park and tried CFRX, 6070 kHz, Toronto, Canada, about 400 miles from me in mid afternoon. The signal varied from medium to inaudible as it faded in and out. I couldn’t conclude that one radio received better than the other. I tried CHU Ottawa on 7830 and WWV on 15000 and 20000 kHz. Really no difference. The conventional wisdom is that all mid-class shortwave radios are about the same in sensitivity and these are no exception.

With an external antenna they’re about the same and both very good.

Specifications

There was a time that I looked at specifications for radios. I don’t much any more but here are some:

Qodosen SR-286 Specifications
Tecsun PL-330 Specifications

Notice that the FM sensitivity of the SR-286 is 6 times that that of the PL-330.

Audio

Here there is a clear winner. Music is far more dramatic on the SR-286 than the PL-330. The PL-330 comes out pale sounding by comparison; however, the PL-330 can be turned up louder with some distortion. Loudness is an advantage on a weak station. Both radios support stereo with an external headphone speaker.

Documentation

I pick on shortwave radio manuals a lot, and I’ve even written my own version of some particularly bad ones. The PL-330 manual is one of the good ones. It’s accurate, informative and literate. I use the one from Tecsun Australia.

I should first note that my SR-286 did not come with a manual. The user has to find one and download it. The one I have is the Ovember (sic) 2023 1.0 Version. I would describe the SR-286 manual as a “rough draft.” For example, it has a lengthy troubleshooting section with references to pages in the main part of the manual — the page numbers are wrong. It has little typography problems and the English language can be awkward. Here’s a sample:

Notice that the font for “unit” is bigger than the other text. There are three main clauses connected with commas. Also “positive protruding lithium batteries” gets the idea across, but normal usage would say “button top.” The SR-286 manual is often awkward, but the user can figure it out. I would not cite the manual as a reason to avoid the radio.

Update: the new DX-386 manual has the same text, but the typography is much nicer:

Overall the new manual is a great improvement.

Value

If someone is an SWL, a shortwave listener (with the emphasis on “short”), whose emphasis is 1.7 – 30 MHz embracing all forms of communications, then the PL-330 is probably your best value at $80 US. The SR-286 has significant drawbacks, specifically no SSB and no coverage above 27 MHz, plus it’s more expensive.

On the other hand, if one is a broadcast radio enthusiast whose interests include FM, MW and LW or if someone (like me) who has significant interests in radio comparisons and operation, then the SR-286 can justify its cost because of vastly superior LW/MW performance and FM RDS/RBDS. It also has a ton of settings to play with! I have a separate article on that: The Burning Question: is the Qodosen SR-286 worth it?

Update:

The price on the updated version, the DX-286 is $79.99 on Amazon. That’s definitely worth it.

Conclusion

SR-286 or PL-330? The answer is clear: both.

About Kevin

Just an old guy with opinions that I like to bounce off other people.
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One Response to Tecsun PL-330 or Qodosen SR-286?

  1. Ronald zuccala says:

    Hello kevin.iam a mw dxer from the start. I alsowill enjoy both radios. Ive ordered the dx 286 from amazon and hope to receive it soon. I own THE NORTH AMERICAN SHORTWAVE RADIO AND TOY ROBOT MUSEUM AT SPRINGDALE PA. 140 radios and 150 toy robots
    Should you ever in the springdale pa. Area please feel free to stop by for a visit. Ron. Z.

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