Friday, 7 February 2014

Shootout: Shortwave for 50 dollars


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Update: since posting this review, new RTL sticks with better capabilities, and a vastly improved Ham-It-Up came out.
The post has been left untouched as a reminder that the question even came up.

Disclaimer: I purchased all products in this review from my own funds, no manufacturer involved.
Shortwave Listening (SWLing for short) is still a popular pastime: a simple 50 dollar receiver and turning a dial results in a cacophony of foreign broadcasts and exotic tunes.
Using a software defined radio makes finding stations easier, as you actually see the signals.
An RTL-SDR and Upconverter combo is around 50-60 dollars, a mid-range portable, such as the Eton G8 can be also had for around 50-60 dollars.
Apples to oranges? Absolutely. The RTL setup has a steeper learning curve, but rewards with more settings available to fine-tune the signal, the portable requires 3 AA batteries and your finger to find a station.
The real question is: should you get an upconverter or a portable shortwave receiver? How to spend 50 bucks? Usability, portability and personal preferences aside, the bottom line is: listening to shortwave stations. 

In the standalone corner: Eton / Grunding G8 Traveler II Digital


A palm-sized receiver with mostly positive reviews from the ham community, digital frequency readout with 1kHz tuning steps, alarm, more details in the user guide.

In the Software Defined Radio corner: Ham-It-Up Upconverter from Nooelec.

Probably the most widely used upconverter, as alternatives are more expensive. Same cost SDR UP 100 is out of production, and as I had good customer service from the manufacturer, I'd recommend this.

Testing setup

Test is purely about shortwave reception capabilities, so please no comments on either system's perceived advantage over the other; same money on the table after all, the rest is personal bias.
"SDR setup" in this text refers to a Nooelec RTL stick with 820T chipset plus a Ham It Up v 1.2; "G8" refers to the Eton / Grunding G8 Traveler II Digital.
Built-in antennas: for indoor testing, the SDR setup has no antenna, so I connected a telescopic antenna via adaptors to the ANT IN of the upconverter.
External antennas: two identical longwires thrown outside, lengths 20 feet / 6 m. Longwire directly connected to antenna input for the SDR setup, and wrapped around the G3's telescopic antenna base. No preamp.
Note on antennas: no-frills setup, no antenna isolators nor electrical noise reduction of any kind.
RFI: Both receivers equal distances from laptop (same electrical noise pickup), in front of a window, wire led outside and swinging 10 feet off the ground.
Power: Ham It Up powered by USB cable from laptop. G3 powered by three non-rechargeable AA batteries.
Audio setup: Laptop's built-in speakers and G3's speakers equal distance from listening position. Identical sound level ensured by tuning to broadcast FM station and measuring sound pressure level at the listening location; two free apps installed on two smartphones and a tablet utilized as I have no SPL microphone, the resulting six different readings gave identical SPL levels, so any difference in audio level or quality is due to the actual receiver system.
Gain: Gain, digital noise reduction and filter bandwidth used in SDRSharp to find best compromise between signal to noise ratio and intelligibility; no gain nor DX / local switch available on the G8.
Timeframe: both setups tested for several days, side-by-side, night and day.
Your operating enviroment will be different from mine; I devoted the largest part of my book to electrical noise reduction, as 1) simplest, 2) cheapest and 3) most effective way of improving reception. No noise reduction used in this test, because using 100+ dollar worth of cables, antenna isolators, stubs, or a better antenna system will yield better results.
The question is: should you get an upconverter or a portable shortwave receiver? How to spend 50 bucks?
This test tries to simulate an average user connecting a longwire to either receiver hoping to listen to a station of his/her choice.

Test Results

Update February 2016: New R820T2 tuners and updated Ham-It-Up upconverter is a major step ahead.

Sorry, no video this time, I made one but no audible difference with major stations / strong signals, weak signals are noise interspersed with voice, not video material.
If you can clearly see the signal in SDRSharp the G8 can receive it without any problem.
If you have to strain your eyes or play with contrast - G8 will receive it 1kHz below indicated SDRSharp frequency. Faint, but still audible.
Indoors: same performance. No surprise here, placate wife and neighbors, erect an outside antenna.
20 feet / 6m outdoor antenna: Major broadcasters - government propaganda, religious and foreign  language programming all booming in. No difference between Ham It Up and portable shortwave for enjoyment factor.
20 m (around 14.2) CW and SSB chat caught on Ham It Up, indistinguishable with the G8.
Ham It Up is very slightly better with lots of software tweaking, gain and digital noise reduction is your friend. The difference is there, but really, really small. More often than not, you end up with voice fading in and out.
Weak signals are a hit-and-miss with either setup, at least with the RTL setup, play with contrast,  gain and digital noise reduction and click on the faint waterfall. Many minutes later you might get a voice from the other of the globe. Or not.

Recommendations


1. You will be better off with a portable shortwave receiver. Easier to use. Better to listen to.
2. The Ham It Up needs a preamp. Badly. When I got tired of noise I plugged in the LNA4HF.

The Ham It Up is slightly better in terms of reception capability, added software features make it an enticing proposition. But if you're hunting weak signals (read: love to listen to hissing noise) a proper antenna, noise reduction tricks from the book and a preamp is a must.
The "better to listen to" part is impossible to explain. Live music will be always better than recorded, and to my ears, the portable is better for listening.

For shortwave listening spend your hard-earned money on a portable.

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