Perhaps no topic has been covered so frequently or debated so often in recent years in the pages of rec.radio.shortwave, etc. I thought I would put this together as a resource to quickly refer people to as this question comes up all the time. What is the best shortwave travel portable with single sideband reception?
First, a few disclaimer and introductory statements. I own and use all three of these radios. All references to the Sangean ATS-909 apply equally to the discontinued Radio Shack DX-398. They are both one in the same radio with only Radio Shack's name on it and a color change on the radio's shell. My experience with the Sony is with the ICF-7600g model. I have not yet used the replacement ICF-7600GR. I will point out differences that I know about in the review. My understanding is that aside from a few improvements, it is basically the same radio.
Like all radio reviews, the "best" choice depends on what your intended uses are and how willing you are to work around or compensate for the radio's shortcomings. For this review, I am making the following assumptions:
Each comes with a vinyl carrying case. The Sony and Grundig have a carrying strap.
ATS-909 FM (.1/.05 MHz) LW (9/1 kHz) MW (9 or10 / 1 kHz) SW (5/1 kHz)
YB400PE FM (.05 MHz only) LW (9/1 kHz) MW (9 or 10 / 1 kHz) SW (5/1
Battery life on the Sangean is noticeably shorter than either the Sony or Grundig. I get 12-14 hours out of set of AA alkalines. The Sony will poop out in the 20-25 hour ranges as will the Grundig. Keep in mind that the Grundig has a 50% higher requirement.
The short battery life is one of the shortcomings of the ATS-909. (It can be overcome either via reliance on AC power or frequent swap-outs of rechargeable AA's, or use of an easily constructed C or D-cell "outboard" battery pack).
The ATS-909 also has a cool feature called "Priority." This is a memory with a dedicated button on the front panel. If there is a frequency you regularly listen to, you can program it as Priority and get there with the push on one button.
The Grundig YB400PE provides 40 total memories. These can be mixed and matched between any band. Modes are not memorized and there is no alpha-numeric tagging.
The Sony ICF-7600g is low on presets with only 22. Twelve of them can be dedicated to one band (AM - which includes SW - or FM) and 10 to the other. Modes are not memorized and there is no labeling capability. The newer ICF-7600GR has made a big improvement here by providing 100 total memory positions.
The Sangean ATS-909 is a good performer on sideband. It can be switched between LSB and USB also. While exact zero-beating may not be possible, you can get darn close with the 40 hz tuning increments of this radio.
Finishing far behind in this race is the Grundig YB400PE. There is no separate LSB or USB switching. Once you choose sideband, the Fine Tuning (BFO) control gives you clarification. The most annoying part of the YB400PE sideband reception is the distortion. The first syllable or initial part of even a moderately strong sideband signal tends to overwhelm the YB400PE which makes for difficult listening sessions on sideband. This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of this radio.
Both the ICF-7600g and the YB400PE do well in this area. Perhaps I would give a slight nod to the ICF-7600g.
The ATS-909 places a distant third in this comparison. This is an often repeated complaint of the ATS-909. Occasionally, a user will report that the ATS-909 is "really hot" suggesting that there is some unit-to-unit variability. However, my own experience with this radio and other user reports convince me that this complaint is real. Some have speculated that this was done intentionally by Sangean to prevent overloading for European listeners, where powerful shortwave stations abound.
Antenna / Attenuation
Depending on the length of the antenna and strength of the received signal, overloading is possible on each of these portables. However, the ATS-909 handles an external antenna much better with its' variable RF gain control. The ICF-7600g and YB400PE only have DX/Local controls. The newer 7600GR has included a variable attenuator.
The ATS-909 with an external antenna, of even moderate length, is a combination which never fails to impress me.
The ATS-909 and YB400PE have a stereo/mono switch.
The Sony ICF-7600g has a "fixed filter" and no ability to switch from wide to narrow.
On the surface, it would appear that the ICF-7600g is at a disadvantage. But my experience with the Grundig and Sangean is that the narrow filter is not very useful on AM signals as the audio becomes too muffled and muddy. Off tuning by a kHz or two helps brighten the audio in narrow. I do not know what the filter specs that Sony chose for the ICF-7600g, but it seems to be a great compromise choice between the narrow that you want for sideband and a wider filter for AM.
How you like your audio is very subjective. Frankly, I don't find myself wishing for multiple filters on the ICF-7600g.
The Sangean ATS-909 is the only radio of the bunch with an actual tuning knob. I still like tuning knobs, so I appreciate having it! All three radios offer up/down tuning.
Each of these portables has tiny switches on the sides of the radios. The switches on the ICF-7600g are tiniest and seem the most difficult to either find or engage. One thing I do find somewhat annoying about the Sony are the buttons that are flush to the cabinet. This makes them quite difficult to find in low light or darkness.
Changing batteries is a lot easier in the ICF-7600g than the other two radios. I think the battery hatch cover is a "broken part waiting to happen" on the ATS-909. It is not that easy to remove and replace. Since battery life is so short on the ATS-909, you could be into the battery compartment a lot.
All three radios have a built in flip stand. Apparently the ATS-909 flip stand is easy to snap off and break. I have not broken mine (yet!).
Clocks. Each of our competitors has a clock. It is always visible on the display of the YB400PE and the ATS-909. The YB400PE and the ATS-909 both have two clock choices. One can display local time and the other can display another time zone or universal time. The ATS-909 actually enables you to display the time in any of 42 preset cities around the world or whatever you wish to program in. The ATS-909 also thoughtfully provides a Daylight Savings Time button to add an hour to the local clock.
For some inexplicable reason, Sony does not allow you to view the clock while the radio is on! To view the clock, you have to turn off the ICF-7600g. At that point, the clock comes up on the display. This is a pain. Fortunately, this has been corrected somewhat in the 7600GR. The clock is still not constantly visible on the display, but you can push a button to view it while the radio is still on.
For each of the radios, time is expressed in 24-hour format
Alarms-Timers. The ATS-909 and YB400PE allows the user to choose between a beeping alarm or having the radio turn on. The ICF-7600g is radio-on only. The ATS-909 has 3 timers and the user can set three different timer on times. Each one can be set to different frequencies (must be frequency in memory). The ICF-7600g and the YB400PE have two timers. For radio-on, the YB400PE is limited to the last frequency listened to. The ICF-7600g can have a different pre-set frequency for each of its two timers.
The timer period is 1 hour for each radio.
Lock. Each radio has a lock feature to prevent accidental power on/off or changing frequency.
MW Step Adjustment. Each radio can be adjusted for either 9 kHz or 10 kHz steps for Medium Wave tuning.
Tone Control. All three portables have a tone control switch. The ICF-7600g has two position switch (News-Music). Similarly, the YB400PE provides a two position High-Low choice. There is a 3-position tone switch on the ATS-909 (News-Normal-Music).
Scanning. Each of these radios can scan until it encounters a strong station. The ATS-909 and ICF-7600g will stop upon receiving a strong station. The YB400PE pauses for two seconds and then continues to scan.
Record Jack. Both the ICF-7600g and the ATS-909 have a record jack for tape recording. The 400 PE does not have this feature.
Features (not already pointed out)
The ICF-7600g also has dedicated buttons for fast/slow tuning steps. I really like not having to engage a switch first to change the tuning rate.
Sangean ATS-909 - Without a doubt, there are a lot more bells and whistles on this portable than the other two. There is a wide advantage in memories that has already been covered as well as the ability for alpha-numeric tagging. The ATS-909 provides Radio Data System (RDS) reception capability. This is used widely in Europe but not very much in the U.S. FM stations that transmit an RDS signal can have their call letters appear in the display or the correct time. This one is a "so what" for me, but it is a unique feature of the ATS-909.
The ATS-909 offers Automatic Tuning System (ATS) as well. By engaging ATS, the ATS-909 will fill up its memories (on FM, AM and LW) with the strongest stations it receives. Users might find this feature useful as they visit cities they are unfamiliar with, etc.
Grundig YB400PE - I really cannot characterize anything significant that is unique to the YB400PE.
What's The Bottom Line?
For me, it's clearly the ICF-7600g. Excellent sideband reception, good whip sensitivity, easy on the batteries. I find the synch detector useful at times in MW DXing sessions. It is also the smallest of the three.
Two important factors prevent me from recommending the ATS-909 for this purpose - its voracious appetite for AA cells and relative deafness off the whip. Who wants to drag along an external antenna or extra sets of batteries when you hit the road? Kind of hurts the portability factor. That being said, I think the ATS-909 is the best of the three as a mini-desktop radio that can be connected to an external antenna and AC power. I use mine a lot this way. It is a heck of a radio and I'd hate to be without it in the radio room.
Sideband reception on the YB400PE is disappointing. That is a knock-out factor for me. To me, it's not nearly as good as the Sony for travel and is weaker than the Sangean as a mini-desktop radio. It spends a lot of time on the shelf.
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