A Brief Survey of HF Receiving Equipment
As the name implies, portable radios are small radios that can easily be moved around. They are often the size of a hardbound book. They can be quite inexpensive, starting at around $50 or so, up to several hundred dollars. The advantages of portable radios include the low price, small size, and built in whip antenna. The major disadvantage is that they do not perform as well as more expensive communications receivers. That said, many of them are a good way to get started with pirate radio, without having to spend a lot of money.
Be careful if you try to put a large antenna on a portable as this can overload the radio. They are simply not designed to handle the amount of energy a large antenna will deliver. This depends on your local RF environment; East Coast listeners usually have to be more careful as HF signals tend to come in stronger here.
However, portatops - a term coined by Larry Magne of the now defunct Passport to World Band Radio - often fare much better, although at a higher cost. These radios have many of the qualities of a portable with performance and options you would find on a communications receiver. Examples of these would include the Drake SW-8A and the Eton/Grundig E1 (both discontinued).
Broadbanded Handheld Radios
These radios have tremendous frequency coverage, although they are often quite pricey. Their performance on HF can and does vary widely; units like the Icom R30 and the AOR8200 are examples. However these radios are also plagued by the same issues as many portables; if you try to put a lot of antenna on them, overloading is often the result. 20 or 30 foot of wire clipped on the whip or into the external antenna jack (if it has one) is about as much as these radios will take.
Communications receivers are larger, more expensive radios. They start at several hundred dollars, and run up to several thousand dollars. They offer substantially better performance than portable radios. They generally are more sensitive, so they can pick up weaker signals. They are more selective, so they will better reject interference from other stations. Many communications receivers have Digital Signal Processing (DSP) features that provide better filtering than otherwise possible with physical filters.
Unfortunately the days of these receivers are long gone, although one can still find them on used lists. Alinco just announced they are discontinuing their R8T (and their companion HF transceiver). The only one still known to be produced is the Palstar R30A. You can find a few examples at Technical_Topics#Receivers
Amateur Radio HF Transceivers
Most newer HF ham transceivers have HF general coverage receivers built in. This is quite an advantage, as many transceivers also pack many signal enhancing options such as different filter selections, passband tuning, notches and others. These radios would have little trouble with good sized antennas. There are numerous models these days; you can see a few examples of them at Technical_Topics#Transmitters
Widebanded Desktop Radios
Like the widebanded portables, these offer tremendous frequency coverage, albeit at a pricey cost. A recent example of this is Icom's R-8600. On HF performance of more modern radios tends to be much better than their widebanded portable cousins. However, note that the old AR8600 was famous for having overloading issues when used with a good antenna.
Computer Controlled Radios
Computer Controlled Ham Transceivers and Receivers
Many but not all communications receivers and ham transceivers have the ability to be addressed, and/or controlled by a PC. This opens up a huge box of possibilities, everything from logging, recording, developing frequency lists and more. What the software can do is largely dictated by the radio it is trying to utilize. Here are a couple of links with various applications
Radios In A Box
For a time there was a movement toward the 'Radio in a box' concept. Also called 'IF Receivers' these radios had most of the electronics in a box, but the control functions were addressed by a PC. Icom had several of these as widebanded radios; none were all that successful on HF. They were plagued by poor dynamic range (meaning they overloaded easily), poor selectivity and other issues. They have long since disappeared from the active market although you might find them on used lists;
About the same time the IC-PCR1000 was still available, TenTec came out with their RX320. The 'd' after the models number indicated that it had been modified with a 12 khz tap for Digital Radio Mondiale usage. This radio was far superior on HF to any of the Icom offerings. It didn't overload nearly as easily as the Icoms, and depending on the application, there were up to 32 different options for selectivity, making it the most selective of these radios to date. Even Passport to World Band Radio gave this radio a 4 star rating out of 5.
A few years after the RX320 came out, a new version of this radio came out - dubbed the RX-321. This radio was, and to a certain extent still is, shrouded in mystery. The most consistent story was that Globe Wireless (a telecommunications firm, no longer in business) bought almost 2000 of these and upgraded the front end to by more resistant to overloading, better stability and other improvements. The thinking at the time was that these would be used for 518 khz NAVTEX receivers. Then, all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, the project was abandoned and the receivers started showing up on the market. Because of the upgrades, they are highly prized and command a higher price (if you can find them) then a RX320D. TenTec has steadfastly denied any knowledge of these radios, what they were used for, or even denied servicing them.
Even if you manage to find either radio, there are a number of significant stumbling blocks. These radios were designed with a serial interface, when Windows7 was the popular operating system. This cable from eBay may be an answer. Next is software; it's currently unknown whether any of the popular apps that used to work for Win7 will still work today. Finally, there appears to be very few, if any, mailing lists for these radios. Bottom line, you may be on your own.
Bonito of Germany came out with their Bonito Radiojet 1102S some time ago, and it was reviewed on SWLing.com here. This unit is now discontinued, and has been replaced by the Radiojet 1305 plus. While the 1102s review was stellar, there is a serious Windows10 compatibility problem with the software. To their credit, Bonito put a brief note about this on their website. Whether this issue has ever been resolved is unknown.
Software Defined Radios (SDR)
Software Defined Radios have much of the functionality that previously existed in electronic components instead performed by software, running either inside the SDR itself or in the computer connected to it. They can perform Digital Signal Processing (DSP) operations not possible with actual electronic circuitry, allowing them to offer better rejection of interfering signals. Unlike communications receivers, the DSP parameters can usually be controlled to a greater degree. Entire new functions can be added to the radio by just downloading new software to it. Finally, SDRs often allow entire bands to be recorded to disk. Then, at a later time, one can go back and search for / listen to transmissions that were recorded. Many consider SDRs to be the future of radio. Much of the required computing power already exists in the computer that you own, that must be connected to the SDR to operate. . They generally start at 20 or 30 US Dollars, and go up to several thousand dollars. You can find an extensive list of models, reviews, software and more here.
Where Can I Find Reviews of Various Radios?
You can often find detailed reviews on HF ham transceivers in places like QST magazine (from the American Radio Relay League or ARRL) and on the popular eHam website. For other radios look at the Receiver Reviews page. In addition, many radios now have mailing lists on places like Groups io and Facebook.
If you want to get started listening to pirate radio stations, but don't want to invest in a shortwave radio and antenna, listen via the many radios that individuals have put online. Go to the Internet Receivers article for links.
- Return to Pirate Radio New Listener Guide and FAQ
- Return to Where Can I Find Pirate Activity
- Go to Some Basic HF Antennas
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