Your First HF Receiver

From The RadioReference Wiki

  • I want to get started in listening to shortwave, and I don’t know anything about receivers

This is the first question many potential SW listeners ask, and one that’s very hard one to answer. Much depends on what you want to hear, and what your budget limits are. However, there are some general hints that you can consider to help you in your decision.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the available handhelds and portables;

  • Wide Band Handhelds - (includes wide banded amateur handhelds like the Kenwood TH-F6A) While this type of radio might be attractive to both the scanner and HF listener, there are some notable gotchas with these radios. HF performance is sometimes designed as a afterthought, so considerations like selectivity (being able to separate two stations that are close together in frequency) and dynamic range (the ability to resist overloading with many strong stations in the vicinity) go out the window. Some, but not all, have SSB capability - important for hearing hams and many voice utility stations. They’re fine for hearing the powerhouse stations like the BBC or VOA, but don’t expect much more than that. They won’t take well to having a large antenna, either – the front end will simply overload. You’re better off with a 20 or 30 foot piece of wire (perhaps less than that, depending on your local environment) with an appropriate jack at the end. Examples of these receivers include the AOR AR8200 and Icom IC-R20.
  • Ultra Lite Portables – Often defined as being very small (palm sized). Some like the Grundig G6 offer full coverage of the HF spectrum (usually 3-30 mhz, although purists will sometimes point out that there is a 2 mhz broadcasting band..), dual bandwidths and even SSB reception. These radios are great for travel as they’re easy on the power budget (a couple of AA or AAA cells does the job), and easy to pack. However due to shortcuts taken by the manufacturers, they can have issues when working in an urban environment. Problems often creep up with these radios in a lack of dynamic range and FM/TV ‘’breakthrough’’ (hearing FM or TV stations in the HF bands).
  • Full Size Portables – These are sometimes better performers when it comes to overloading issues in urban environments. Depending on their size, they are also easy to carry, and on power requirements. Performance can sometimes be improved by using small active antennas such as amplified loops (which will be discussed in another article). Examples of these radios include the Sangean ATS-909X and Sony ICF-SW7600GR.

What if you are looking for something that will be powered from your local AC mains and not used as a travel radio?

  • Portatops – This term, first coined by Larry Magne of the now –defunct ‘Passport to World Band Radio’ publication, describes a radio that has portable characteristics (such as a carrying handle and a DC power source) as well as abilities usually found on higher end tabletop models. Their performance is usually very good, but are really more suitable for being on a local camping trip or local DXpedition, rather than being carried on a plane, where their size might attract unwanted attention. Examples of this radio include the discontinued Drake SW8 series, the Eton E1 and E1XM and Grundig Satellit 750. It should be noted that the Eton radios have a history of serious quality control defects – however those that don’t have them are exceptional performers.
  • Desktops – Sadly this category of radio has all but disappeared in recent years. Powered from local AC sources (or through a wall wart), they’re simply not designed for travel. Many desktop models such as the Drake R8 series and the Japan Radio Corporation (JRC) NRD series radios are highly sought after for their performance, and as a result, are quite pricey, but are sometimes found on the used market. The only desktop known to still be in production is the Alinco DX-R8T.
  • Multi Band Desktops – Again this category appeals to both scanner listeners and HF enthusiasts. They are usually very pricey, but unlike their handheld counterparts, usually perform well as a basic receiver. These are radios that are very costly, and cater to governments or hi-end professional users. Some don’t have multiple bandwidths or other niceties. Older examples that show up on eBay or sales sites include the Icom IC-R7000 and AOR AR8600 (beware of overloading issues on this radio, however). The Yaesu VR-5000 is another radio in this category, but has a reputation of very poor performance on HF.
  • Amateur Radio Transceivers – Ever since the late 80s or so, ham manufacturers have recognized that many also like to listen to HF broadcasts, or use the 2nd receiver as a monitoring tool for other stations. These radios are pricey, but you often get what you pay for. It’s convenient for a ham in a shack that has space issues; these transceivers often have excellent selectivity and dynamic range. You can find bargains at hamfests if you know precisely what you are looking for.

What about radios that can be addressed by a personal computer? These radios use- sometimes they need- a USB connection (or a USB/serial cable), as well as appropriate software to make them work. One thing to keep in mind with these radios is that local noise from the PC and any associated peripherals such as cable modems, mice, monitors and other devices might limit their usefulness in the shack.

  • Desktops and Amateur Radio Transceivers – In recent years, these radios often have a serial or USB port. These radios function just fine without a PC, but using software can add functions or memory that would not be otherwise available. Some even have logging functions, audio processing and digital decoding.
  • Software Driven Radios – This category is defined by radios that have a standard design (they have their own audio amplifier, for example). Examples include the Icom PCR-1500 and IC-PCR1000 series. While they are good performers (and some are widebanded enough that they cover scanner frequencies as well as HF), they too have a tendency to be prone to overloading and having dynamic range issues. Having multiple bandwidths to enhance selectivity is often missing in these radios. The Ten Tec RX-320D is a Software Driven Radio is a notable exception to the rule; it’s a MW/HF radio only, up to 32 different bandwidths are available independent of the mode, and doesn’t overload nearly as easily as an Icom.
  • Software Defined Radios – These radios have all of their functions defined entirely in software. As a result, these radios can have a serious learning curve, depending on the model, but offer tremendous flexibility. For example, some have a screen that allows you to see activity on a wide range of frequencies, and allows you to click on a point on the screen, and –voila – you’re listening. Many have found them to be very effective DX tools as well. See the SDRs with HF Coverage article for listing of SDRs in the under USD1000 category that cover HF.

As you can see, you have a number of categories and radios from which to choose. Your first step in making a decision is research. Passport published a series of White Papers on various radios that go into tremendous depth in their reviews and are still available from Universal Shortwave in Reynoldsburg Ohio. In addition, our Receiver Reviews category has a series of links where reviews can be found. Many of these radios have mailing lists set up on Yahoo groups or where you can ask questions of actual owners of these radios. That’s often the best way to get a handle on what users think of their radios; the good, bad and ugly is usually discussed frequently.

Additional Resources