Today, the internet is such a vital part of our everyday lives that we can barely imagine life without it. We use social media sites to stay current with what our friends and family are doing. We can even make friends with people that live on the other side of the planet. But what if some kind of global disaster– like a solar flare, for example– knocked the internet offline?
If some worldwide calamity reduced our ability to communicate via the internet, shortwave radio operators could help fill the communication gaps. While shortwave radios may not be as popular as they once were, a dedicated community of radio enthusiasts are keeping the airwaves alive. Moreover, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has hailed shortwave radio technology as “a powerful communications tool during emergency situations.” Today’s shortwave radios are extremely energy efficient and can run for many hours on batteries. Another advantage shortwave has over the internet is that it’s impossible to censor a message once someone broadcasts it worldwide. Keep reading to learn about five of the best shortwave radios on the market today.
The shortwave radio with the best audio quality
Sound quality is the Tecsun PL880’s key advantage, while sync detection and SSB round out its feature set. The radio’s dimensions (7 1/2 inches wide, 4-5/8 inches high, and 1-1/4 inches thick) make it slightly larger than average compared to similar devices from other brands. The attractive yet practical analog knobs give it a classic, retro-style look.
- Top notch sound quality. The Tecsun PL880 combines a 450mW audio amplifier with a 3-watt speaker. The result is above-average audio quality.
- USB power option. The USB power port provides flexibility, since it means you can draw power from wall outlets, automotive power sockets and even computers.
- Comes with a rechargeable battery. In addition to USB, you can use either the included rechargeable battery or standard batteries for power.
- Synchronous detection. Sync detection mode helps reduce the distortion and fading that occurs when signal interference becomes a problem.
- Analog knobs for tuning and fine tuning. The knobs provide an easy way to hone in on the frequencies you want to hear.
- Picks up SSB transmissions. The built-in SSB decoder opens up additional channels for listening that can’t ordinarily be heard.
- 3050 configurable presets. The PL880 has more memory slots than any other shortwave radio we’ve seen so far.
- You can’t install the firmware updates on your own. If you want updates, you have to send the PL880 back to Tecsun every time new firmware comes out.
- No preset labeling. The fact that you can’t assign alphanumeric labels to the presets you save makes staying organized difficult.
In a nutshell
It’s hard to beat the Tecsun PL880 when it comes to sound quality. Its specifications in this area (450mW audio amplifier with a 3-watt speaker) give it a distinct edge over the competition. If listening to music stations from around the world is your main goal, it may be worth your consideration.
The most reliable shortwave radio
The history of the Sony ICF-SW7600GR dates all the way back to the 1970s. The world looks quite a bit different now than it did then, but Sony keeps on updating this model because of its continued popularity among shortwave radio hobbyists. It’s one of the bulkiest compact shortwave radios on the market, but it makes up for its large size with its above-average AGC and sync detection features.
- Time-tested design. Sony’s 7600 line of shortwave radios has a great reputation within the shortwave radio community. The first 7600s came out in 1977.
- Automatically amplifies weak signals. AGC (Automatic Gain Control) is a standard feature, but fans of the ICF-SW7600GR say that its AGC is particularly effective.
- Synchronous detection. The consensus among reviewers seems to be that the ICF-SW7600GR’s sync mode is particularly good at reducing signal distortion.
- Picks up SSB transmissions. The SSB feature lets you decode transmissions sent through sidebands.
- 100 configurable presets. Previous versions of the ICF-SW7600GR could only hold 50 presets.
- Preset labeling. You can enter in alphanumeric labels for each preset.
- World clock feature. This feature lets you quickly find out what time it is on different parts of the planet.
- Bulky compared to other shortwave radios. Measuring eight inches across and six inches tall, the ICF-SW7600GR is bulky compared to its competitors.
- Out-of-date interface. There is no analog tuning dial or USB port, and the small LCD screen is somewhat cramped.
In a nutshell
With a legacy dating back to the 1970s, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is about as classic as it gets. Its reliable features have earned it a strong reputation among ham radio enthusiasts. Fans of this radio agree that its AGC and sync detection features are particularly strong in comparison to similar products from other brands.
The best shortwave radio for DXing
Eton Elite Executive
The Eton Elite Executive has all the same internal components as the older Eton Executive Satellit. What’s new is the look. In terms of performance, fans of this radio agree that it’s particularly sensitive when it comes to picking up distant AM and FM stations. This makes it ideal for DXing. Its dimensions (4.1″ x 6.6″ x 1.2″) are about average compared to shortwave radios from other brands. The leather carrying case accessory adds a nice touch of style, but it probably won’t provide much protection against anything more than light dings and scratches.
- Excellent AM/FM reception. Most Elton Elite Executives owners agree that this shortwave radio is particularly good at picking up the faintest AM/FM signals.
- Reasonably priced. It’s one of the least expensive shortwave radios you’ll find.
- Picks up SSB transmissions. The SSB decoder provides access to transmissions that sound distorted on non-SSB radios.
- Synchronous detection. The sync detection feature lets you automatically switch between carrier and sideband signals.
- Leather carrying case. The classy-looking case prevents scratches when traveling and adds visual appeal.
- 700 channel presets. The number of channels you can store is high compared to competing shortwave radios.
- Preset labeling. This convenient feature lets you keep track of saved channels through the use of alphanumeric labels.
- Muting while manual tuning can be distracting. The audio cuts out for a split second each time you switch channels.
In a nutshell
If you are into DXing, you may want to give the Eton Elite Executive some consideration. Shortwave radio hobbyists say that this radio is particularly sensitive when it comes to picking up long-distance transmissions. It costs a bit less compared to the competition and it comes with a spiffy-looking leather travel case.
The most user-friendly shortwave radio
The makers of the Sangean ATS-909X probably wanted to emphasize ergonomics. The form factor is curved so that you can easily hold it with one hand, while the unique ridged tuning wheel seems to have been designed for thumb operation. Moreover, the display is large and features easy-to-read text. You can save up to 406 stations to memory and label them so that you’ll always be able to remember what they are. In terms of size (7 3/4” x 5 1/4” x 1 1/2”), the ATS-909X is on the large side of the spectrum.
- Ergonomic design. The curved shape of the radio helps it fit nicely in your hand.
- Large manual tuning wheel. The unique tuning wheel has ridges, which let you make adjustments using your thumb.
- Large display. The display is significantly larger and easier to read compared to the competition.
- Picks up SSB transmissions. The Sangean ATS-909X can decode transmissions that other radios can’t, thanks to its SSB circuit.
- 406 configurable presets. You can save up to 406 stations to memory.
- Preset labeling. The alphanumeric labeling feature is convenient because it lets you tag each station that you save.
- HWS (Humane Wake System) alarm. The alarm starts at a low volume and gradually becomes louder.
- Expensive compared to other shortwave radios. The Sangean ATS-909X is somewhat pricey relative to other devices in its class.
- No synchronous detection. Cheaper shortwave radios have this feature, but for some reason the Sangean ATS-909X doesn’t.
In a nutshell
The Sangean ATS-909X is all about ergonomics, from the large, ridged tuning dial to the curved form factor that makes it easy to hold in the palm of your hand. The screen is larger than average and all the information that it displays is organized in an intuitive way. It can pick up SSB transmissions, as well.
The best portable shortwave radio for outdoor use
C Crane CC Skywave
The C Crane CC Skywave is a reasonably priced, energy efficient shortwave radio that’s ideal for camping trips and other similar outdoor activities. It’s not waterproof, but it is one of the most compact shortwave radios on the market. In addition, it’s one of the only radios of its kind we’ve seen that supports NOAA weather alerts. It’s only five inches long, three inches tall and one and 1/3 inch thick.
- Compact design. Measuring just five inches long and three inches tall, the C Crane CC Skywave is almost small enough to fit inside a pocket.
- Supports NOAA weather broadcasts. The C Crane CC Skywave is one of the only NOAA-compatible shortwave radios we’ve seen.
- USB power option. It can draw power from a wide range of sources, from computers to wall outlets to the cigarette jacks you’ll find in most cars.
- Energy efficient. C Crane CC Skywave owners report that they get anywhere from 30 to 70 hours of use time on battery power.
- Improved volume controls. The button-style volume control was glitchy in previous versions of this model, but the new analog volume dial solves that issue.
- Comes with a carrying pouch. The pouch will protect the Skywave from dings and scratches when you’re traveling.
- No synchronous detection. The absence of this feature means that you won’t be able to pick up weak signals that other shortwave radios can hone in on.
- Does not receive SSB transmissions. There’s no way to listen to sideband transmissions.
In a nutshell
Fans of late night radio may recognize the C Crane CC Skywave from advertisements on the Coast to Coast AM with George Noory talk show. It’s an excellent shortwave radio to have in the event of an emergency, thanks to its built-in support for NOAA weather alerts and updates. Its small form factor and included carrying pouch makes it easy to transport and store.
Buying guide for shortwave radios
SSB (Single Side Band) support
SSB-equipped shortwave radios can pick up sideband signals that non-SSB shortwave radios can’t decode. If you try to listen to a sideband signal on a non-SSB shortwave radio, any human voices you hear will sound like quacking ducks.
A shortwave radio that has a synchronous detection feature can automatically jump between a transmission’s carrier and its sideband. The end result is less distortion and greater clarity.
Battery power vs. wall adapter
Some shortwave radios require constant wall power, while others can run on battery power. Shortwave radios that can run on either power source are more versatile than those that only support one or the other. Be sure to find out how many hours of battery life you can expect to get if you go with a battery-powered shortwave radio.
If your shortwave radio accepts USB power, you’ll be able to draw power from any computer that’s equipped with a USB port. Another perk is that USB cords are cheap and easy to replace. Manufacturer-supplied AC adapters are bulkier and less readily available.
Take a look at your prospective shortwave radio’s spec sheet before you buy if you intend on using it to listen to music. More watts means better quality sound. The best-sounding shortwave radios have three-watt speakers or higher.
Do you prefer analog controls over digital screens and plastic buttons? Some shortwave radio manufacturers have gone with all-digital interfaces, while others have stuck with classic-style toggle switches and dials.
Number of presets
Some shortwave radios can only save 50 stations to memory. That’s probably enough capacity for most people, but frequent Ham radio operators may need more. On the other side of the spectrum, other shortwave radios come equipped with 3000 or more station slots.
Preset labeling lets you assign alphanumeric labels to each station that you save. It’s a very handy feature that can help you stay organized, particularly if you intend on listening to a wide variety of different frequencies.
Size and bulkiness
Portable shortwave radios can be as small as five inches across or as long as eight inches. The smaller shortwaves typically don’t have as many features as the larger ones do.
Carrying case and other accessories
Many small-size shortwave radios come with carrying pouches. Earphones are another common accessory. Most shortwave radios that support USB come with a USB cable.
If you’re willing to spend about $170, you’ll be able to purchase a decent quality low-cost shortwave radio. Often, key features (like SSB compatibility and sync detection) are absent.
At the $200 price point, you’ll begin to see shortwave radios with better-looking displays and more intuitive controls. Frequency slot labeling is another common feature.
The most well-known brands in this space have been making and improving shortwave radios for decades. The head start they have might be one reason why their shortwave radios are often more reliable. Expect to pay around $220 for a premium shortwave radio.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What’s the difference between SSB (Single Side Band) USB (Upper Side Band) and LSB (Lower Side Band)?
A: Any SSB-capable shortwave radio can receive both USB and LSB signals. SSB gives you access to all the sidebands attached to a carrier. Some shortwave radios don’t distinguish between USB and LSB, while others allow you to specifically target those sideband ranges.
Q: What’s the point of using a shortwave radio in 2020?
A: Even though the internet and other technologies have caused a decline in interest in shortwave technology, shortwave radios are not obsolete. If a large solar flare struck the earth and disabled power grids all over the world, emergency responders would probably switch to shortwave transmissions to coordinate their relief efforts. Since shortwave radio signals are impossible to block or censor, they help people in totalitarian societies communicate with the outside world.
Q: What does SINPO mean?
A: SINPO is an acronym that stands for Signal, Interference, Noise, Propagation, Overall. Ham radio operators use it to quickly send each other ratings that indicate how well their signals are coming in.
- If you’re having trouble listening to the transmissions you want to hear, try changing your location. Increasing your altitude can help, as can getting away from metropolitan areas where interference is a problem. Portable, battery-powered shortwave radios give you the ability to listen from just about anywhere.
- Shortwave radios with high-end speakers tend to cost a lot more than shortwave radios with basic speakers. If you’re willing to use headphones instead of a speaker, you can save some money. You can also use a male-to-male 3.5mm headphone cable to connect your shortwave radio to an external stereo system.
- Having trouble making out garbled transmissions? Keep practicing. With time, your ears will adapt and you’ll be able to make out conversations that ham radio rookies can’t discern.