The Best Shortwave Radios in 2020 – Full Buyer’s Guide With Product Reviews
Despite the surge of digital technologies and internet expansion in the 21st century, short-wave radios are still used around the globe for long-distance broadcasts, emergency stations, survivalists, and even the military. A century ago, these radios accounted for more than half of the world’s wireless communication. Even if the technology is old, however, some new models will strike you with their modern design and convenient functionality.
Some of the best shortwave radios on today’s market are highly-portable, allow a great bandwidth range selection, and have external antennas that provide great reception even at remote locations. In this guide, we will compare the top models for 2020 and then talk a little bit more about their features and various uses in the in-depth buyer’s guide section…
Retekess V115 Portable AM/FM/Shortwave Radio
The Retekess V115 Portable Shortwave radio is without a doubt one of the best deals on the market currently. Not only is it well-padded with features but it also comes at a bargain price compared to its competitors.
The V115 covers the shortwave band from 8 to 18 MHz which leaves some of the lower frequencies untapped. That is one of its biggest and only disadvantages. It also covers the FM band from 87 to 108 MHz, and the medium-wave band from 520 to 1710Hz, which covers most of the AM stations. It also covers the very high-frequency band with the aircraft frequencies.
The display, although not very functional is backlit (not constantly) and has 5-second intervals in which it can brightly illuminate to show you all of the information available on it. That is the radio frequency, your battery levels, and the receiver mode (AM/FM)/SW).
One of the last features that I want to talk about is the Digital Record support. That allows you to record from radio stations directly onto your micro SD card. You can even choose between three different recording qualities – 64 kbps, 96 kbps, and 128 kbps with the last one being very sharp and crisp but will need a lot more memory if you want to record something longer.
- Covers AM/FM/MW/SW and the VHR aircraft band
- Very cheap
- A good amount of buttons
- Li-ion rechargeable battery
- Has a recorder with 3 quality levels
- The display has a 5-second backlit option
- Doesn’t cover the lower parts of the SW band
- Sometimes there is a lot of noise
Eton Executive AM/FM/Shortwave Radio
The Eton Executive Radio is an option at the other end of the quality spectrum, as it is far more sophisticated, well-built, and expensive than the Retekess V115. One of the very first things you will notice with this radio is that it has a brown leather case wrap which not only makes it look stylish but also protects it on your journeys. This shortwave radio is particularly good for journeys also thanks to its power source – 4xAA batteries.
This radio taps in the AM band from 520 to 1710 kHz with 10k increments toggles. For FM stations, you can choose from 87.5 to 108 MHz in the same increments. For short-range stations, it can tune in anything between 3.15 and 21.950 MHz. It can also store up to 500 stations which is a feature not many radios can brag with. As for signal quality, this radio again excels over the rest of the competitors with its single-side band and PLL tuner which helps with AM and FM quality.
The few disadvantages here are that there are no Aircraft and weather bands on the Traveler version (only on the Executive Satellit). Still, the radio is compatible with external antennas and can receive signals in the longwave band (150-285 kHz). The price is another huge downside that pushes a lot of potential customers away to cheaper equally functional models.
- Great build quality
- Comes with a hand-stitched leather case
- Can receive signals in the AM/FM/SW/LW bands
- 500 memory slots
- Compatible with external antennas
- Great speaker quality
- Very expensive
- No aircraft band
- Single-side band is available only on the Executive Satellit version
C Crane CC Skywave Shortwave Portable Travel Radio
From all the radios on this list, the C Crane CC Skywave is the most versatile when it comes to receiving various signals from different radio bands. It can tap into AM/FM/SW/MW and VHF bands allowing you to toggle between all the available stations worldwide from a small and compact outer shell.
This radio also receives signals from the NOAA weather radio and has alerts integrated so that you can be warned if there is potentially dangerous weather heading your way. It also receives signals from the aviation band in the VHF. The 5W 30mm speaker does a good job of giving you a sharp and accurate sound, although it struggles a bit with larger open areas and outside noise.
In terms of power sources, the radio can be either charged with 2 AA batteries or run on AC. With 2 standard AA batteries, it can run for up to 70 hours. If you’re on the go, I recommend getting 2 pairs of NiMH rechargeable batteries that will both last you longer than 70 hours and will also be a far better long-term investment. The backlit LCD display has an orange background which, in my opinion, is the best for daylight and seeing in very bright environments. It does drain the batteries faster, however.
- LCD backlit display
- Good battery life
- Compact size
- Can receive from all radio bands
- The speaker quality is decent
- Has 400 memory presets
- A bit expensive
- Struggles with reception of AM bands in some locations
Tecsun PL880 Portable Digital Radio
The Tecsun PL880 Portable digital radio is one of the premium models you can get currently. It is also one of the most expensive radios on this list and there might be a good few reasons for that.
First of all, this SSB radio gives you a wide range of coverage including AM/FM/SW/LW bands. Inside, the radio signal goes through a PLL synthesized dual-conversion radio receiver which has a market-leading sensitivity and selectivity. What that means, is that this radio will be better at detecting signal changes and will, therefore, have a crisper and superior sound quality for all the stations it goes through. The AM and FM bands have toggling increments of 10Hz which is 10 times better than the typical 100Hz increments of other cheaper models.
While radio displays usually drain the battery faster, this LCD backlit display can be toggled off conserving power. Still, even with it on, the radio’s Li-ion rechargeable battery can last you up to 20 hours of usage. Another notable feature here is the speaker which is one of the reasons for the bigger price tag. While it is a fairly standard-sized speaker at 40mm (3W, 4Ohm), it delivers a superior sound quality which is also a huge selling point for Tecsun radios.
- Excellent build quality
- Crisp speaker sound quality
- Great sensitivity and selectivity
- Wide frequency range
- Li-ion rechargeable battery
- Has a USB port
- Fine-tuning knob
- Extremely expensive compared to other shortwave radios
Eton Grundig Satellit 750 Ultimate
The Eton Grundig Satellit 750 Ultimate is the “ultimate” shortwave radio receiver. In fact, it is one of the best, most versatile receives you can get for your money right now.
The dual antenna setup here is the main reason for the large price tag. The AM antenna can rotate at 360-degrees to further amplify and receive signals supporting the main one. The radio receiver has a line-out socket which can transfer the radio signal to other radios. There are also options for additional external antennas with both AM and FM jacks.
One of the things that Eton radios are known for is their wide range of covered frequency bands. The Grundig Satellit 750 covers all the AM and FM bands, along with the Shortwave band from 1711 to 30,000KHz. It also taps into the aircraft band from 118 to 137MHz but unfortunately lacks the weather frequencies, making it unsuitable for an emergency radio that receives NOAA stations. The AM band can also be toggled in increments of 10KHz. The radio can also memorize 1000 radio stations distributed 100 for each band and 500 that can be fully personalized.
The two main disvantages here are the lack of portability and the fact that this radio is dependant on a power socket and runs only on a 6V DC input.
Sangean ATS-909X World Band Receiver
While comapct shortwave radios are known for their budget nature, some companies insist on their premium quality and premium price tags. Eton, Tecsun, and Sangean are a few of them. The Sangean ATS-909X world band receiver is a versatile radio which takes a more modern approach combined with an old fashioned design.
The first thing that stands out about the ATS-909X is that it is the only model here with a white LED display. That display allows for maximum contrast and visibility even under direct sunlight. It is also very conservative in terms of its battery life and has a lot of information laid out on it.
The receiver can tap into AM/FM/SW and LW bands with a big tunning knob which has 5 different tuning methods. Those are DFT (direct frequency tuning), AST (auto-scan tuning), MT (manual tuning), MRC (memory-recall tuning), and the standard rotary tuning. There are 406 memory presets here distributed like that – 351 for SW, 18 AM stations, 27 FM ones, and 9 LW ones.
- Premium sound and build quality
- AM/FM/SW/LW bands
- Large LED display
- 5 tuning methods
- Rechargeable battery
- 3 alarm types
- Extremely expensive
- Speaker can struggle in loud environments
- No NOAA (weather) and aircraft bands
Shortwave Radios Buyer’s Guide
The alternative to shortwave radios is long-wave (or low-frequency) radios which are still fairly common for local broadcasts and local radio stations. While both signal types have seen their stock plummet, shortwave communications have held their ground, as they are still a reliable way of intercontinental communication. Before we dive deeper into the various kinds of shortwave radios, their features, and what they’re used for, let’s first answer the most important questions here…
What Are Shortwave Radios?
Shortwave radios are radio receivers that are built to catch radio frequencies within the 1600kHz (1.6MHz) – 30MHz range. Converted into Hz that is 1600 to 30,000Hz. Although the band isn’t narrowly specified, the shortwave range typically includes all of the HF band (high-frequency) which is 3-30MHz. That allows you to tap into the higher end of the AM band, even though some new models come with an all-in-one capability of receiving FM/AM modulations and all types of wave frequencies.
The theory behind the shortwave radio signal is that these waves can be reflected from the earth’s ionosphere thanks to their high frequency and energy. Therefore, the shortwave radio signal bounces up and down way beyond the horizon allowing it to reach places that you cannot see. This is called a “skip propagation” and is responsible for shortwave communications being able to travel the globe. The opposite of that is the low-frequency long wave radio signal which is typically traveling in a “line-of-sight propagation” meaning it only goes straight and struggles to reach points beyond the horizon (around 40 miles of range) due to its lack of energy.
All radio frequencies (short-wave, medium-wave, and long-wave) can be subjected to AM or FM modulation with AM changing the signal based on its amplitude and FM changing it based on its frequency. The FM band typically occupies the range from 50 to 150 MHz with commercial radio stations being between 87 and 108 MHz, while the AM frequency band sits in the 550 – 1720 kHz (0.55 – 1.72 MHz) range. Following that information, you can see that some Shortwave radios which operate at 1.7 – 30 MHz won’t really be able to catch neither of those FM/AM bands. That is why they are equipped with additional FM/AM receivers which allow them to read those signals and tap into the lower AM and higher FM frequency bands.
Different Types Of Shortwave Radios
In terms of their form-factor and usability, shortwave radios can be divided into the following groups:
- Portable – Portable shortwave radios are the most common type of these devices along with the all-in-ones. They are fairly cheap and are very easy to carry around while you’re traveling. The downside of them is that they aren’t very feature-rich and are mostly analog, even though there are some high-end digital models that cost quite a lot. One thing that I love about these radios is that most models come with an alternative charging method such as solar-power, meaning you can travel with them without worrying about dead batteries.
- Desktop / Tabletop – These are the oldest types of radios in general and the shortwave version makes no exception. They are typically quite large and well-padded with a variety of features. These desktop shortwave radios are also the go-to choice of radio enthusiasts and people that love listening to radio from home. However, they are rarely battery-powered and you will have to rely on a power outlet to keep them running.
- All-in-one – These radios specialize in picking most of the AM and FM bands. A lot of portable and desktop models are also all-in-one models considering their wide range of available frequencies.
- SDRs – SDRs, otherwise known as Software-defined radios, are the top-of-the-line radio receivers, invented not that long ago compared to the other types. They need a computer to run and can typically receive all radio frequencies controlled by software on your computer.
Based on their functionality and display features, they can also be divided into Analog and Digital. Analog, as the name suggests, use a simple plastic screen with numbers printed on it and a (red) dial behind it that you move with the dial on the side of the radio. While they have a bulletproof construction that will stand the test of time, they are no match to Digital shortwave radios when it comes to signal accuracy. If you want to listen to a specific radio station, there is no match to the accuracy with which you can pinpoint it with the digital model.
Radios also differ from each other in terms of their signal sensitivity, frequency band coverage, and other features which we will discuss below…
Features To Keep In Mind
While radios are fairly simple devices, new models are packed full of features which can make you fairly confused if you don’t know how to stick to the essentials. These essential features that make any shortwave radio worth your time and money are:
- Frequency Coverage
- Sound Quality
- The Antenna
- Button layout
- Additional Features
The first thing that you have to take into account is the type of radio. As I already mentioned, there are a few types based on their size and functionality. If you travel a lot and want to tune in to different frequency bands and radio stations across the globe, getting an all-in-one portable radio will be your best bet. If you prefer to nerd out from the comfort of your home, getting a desktop one is also a good idea. Better yet, a software-defined radio connected with your PC is your most advanced option to date but those typically cost a bit more and have a steep learning curve.
In terms of analog vs digital, it is a no brainer to get an analog one while most modern digital radios are pretty evenly matched price-wise to the analog ones but are far more precise. The problem with digital models is that their displays might malfunction and they do drain extra battery power, while analog models are pretty long-lasting on a single pair of batteries and are much less prone to malfunctioning or breaking, especially in the higher price ranges.
For a shortwave radio, this is one of the most important features. The wider the coverage of your radio, the more radio stations will it be able to pick up. As a standard, shortwave radios pick up different frequency bands. If you’re getting an all-in-one model, look for the different ranges in the different modes. For instance, a radio picking signals in the FM, MW, and SW bands will have three ranges for each of them. For FM stations, radios typically pick up signals between 87 and 108 MHz, for the MW (AM) band, a standard range is 500 – 1700 kHz, and for SW it is from around 1MHz up to more than 30 MHz.
Radios that cover the VHF (very high frequency) range are also able to tap into the aircraft and weather bands which are used for air traffic communications and NOAA emergency stations. Those models are few and far between and are typically slightly more expensive.
The sensitivity of the radio receiver will determine how well it reproduces the sound based on the amplitude differences it can detect. Sensitivity is measured in Volts with most metrics being in the micro (u) or mili (m) Volt range. Each frequency band and modulation has its own ideal sensitivity.
For the FM and AM bands, you want to get a radio with a sensitivity of less than 4mV (for AM it is less than 4mV/m). Long-wave bands benefit from a sensitivity of less than 6mv/m, while shortwave signals will be best decoded with a sensitivity of less than 20 uV.
The sound quality of the radio depends on whether you are going to use it with headphones or use the built-in speaker. If you’re going to use your shortwave radio primarily with headphones, look for models that have built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converter) which acts as an amplifier for the headphones and increases sound levels and overall quality.
For the speakers, their loudness is determined by their Watts and diameter. Without going too deep into speaker sound quality and the science behind it, you can only base a speaker on paper based on its W metric and diameter (mm). For instance, a 5W 40mm speaker might not sound better than a 3W one but it will surely be louder. If you want to dwell deeper, look for the Ohms of the speaker and the manufacturer behind it. A good impedance (Ohms) is anything between 4 and 10. for a standard 40mm speaker. As a whole, speakers most commonly suffer from a lack of wide sound specter. What that means, is that they will either be lacking in their basses or highs, while they are almost always good in the midsections.
Antennas are vital to the quality of the radio’s reception. The longer and better-made the antenna is, the better it will capture the radio signals, especially in remote locations. As a whole, pretty much anything you get additionally is going to outperform your stock radio antenna. If you want to enhance your radio signal and have a clearer sound quality, getting an external antenna is going to do wonders. You can find many of those antennas under the name “SWL Antennas” (SWL is short for Shortwave Listener).
With antennas, it is always good to see if the radio supports external antennas at all. Some models like the Elite Mini radio don’t have external antenna connectivity which limits their performance to an extent.
In terms of batteries, shortwave radios operate either on AA/AAA batteries or use lithium-ion rechargeable batteries similar to the ones in modern smartphones. Each type has its benefits and drawbacks, of course. Having a radio with disposable AA/AAA batteries will allow you to take extra packs with you if you know that there won’t be a power outlet to charge a Lithium-ion battery. That on its own is both an advantage and a disadvantage since it will keep your running costs high, while a lithium-ion battery will only need occasional recharges. Built-in batteries also don’t tend to hold that long. As a whole, these radios are slightly geared towards emergency situations, so having the option to remove and change different batteries all the time comes as a slight advantage in favor of those types of models.
For run times, most models with 2 AA batteries and a digital display can last you about 80 hours. Some models offer to run on both 2 and 4 AA batteries. Rechargeable Lithium-ion batteries are typically in the 1000-4000mAh range and can last you around 20-30 hours on a single charge. The biggest factor when it comes to battery life is the display, followed by the speaker. By that logic, analog models used with headphones will drain their batteries the slowest and provide the longest single-charge battery duration.
Most radio models feature an LCD screen. LCD screens are excellent for direct sunlight readability and are also fairly easy on the battery. Some models have optional backlights which makes the display visible in complete darkness, even though that will drain the battery much faster. LCD screens on shortwave radios also vary slightly in terms of their colors. There are three main types – green, grey, and orange. Personally, I like the orange ones the most since they are the most contrast-rich and easiest to read in a variety of conditions. Some displays even use white LED technologies to further increase the screen’s brightness but that tends to bulk up the price by quite a bit.
Typically, radio enthusiasts like complicated radios with a ton of functionality to them. In short, the more buttons, the better! Still, if you’re looking for something which is simpler to navigate and doesn’t overcomplicate things with its layout and controls, look for models that have just the basic buttons – SW/AM/FM Toggle, Menu button, Number pad, Frequency and volume toggles. Having additional hard-buttons for the Time and Alarm functions and some display features is also handy.
There are countless additional features that you can get for your shortwave radio. One of the most important ones are:
- City/Country time and time zones
- Lock buttons and sleep modes
- LED display
- Signal strength gauge
- Improved (stereo) speaker(s)
- An enhanced antenna
- Fine-tuning knob
None of these features are mandatory for the basic user experience but having them will certainly increase the functionality of your radio and make it much better to use in the long run, especially if you start demanding more from it.
When buying a shortwave radio, look for accessories that will add value to your purchase. Some of the premium models come with leather cases that wrap nicely around them and protect them from the elements. An additional carry bag and a wrist/shoulder strap is also handy if you travel a lot. Even if I have already mentioned that, getting an additionally improved antenna as an extra accessory is going to be great for the quality of the radio signal in remote locations. Lastly, look for models that come with extra batteries if you don’t want to invest additionally in those.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can I listen to on shortwave radio?
Some of the most common things you can listen to are referred to as “ute” (shortwave utility). This includes transmissions used in sailing, shipping, aviation, military, diplomatic communications, and others. You can also tune in amateur radio stations or listen for intelligence signals within the numbers stations. Additionally, there are still some big radios such as the BBC which have shortwave transmission listened from people all over the globe.
How far can shortwave radio signals reach?
Thanks to the “skip propagation” method the shortwave radio signals utilize, they can travel up to several thousands of miles.
Can I listen to shortwave radios on the internet?
Yes, there are some shortwave radio stations that broadcast or stream online which makes them even more accessible by all sorts of people.
Shortwave radio technology hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. Shortwave radio receives, on the other hand, have become much more complex and diverse in their features and functionality. That is what makes choosing the best shortwave radios hard nowadays and that is the reason so many people are confused when they are faced with the countless of all-in-one portable models that can seemingly do it all but fail to cater to the biggest demand – simplicity.