Tecsun Pl-380 Radio

Review: Tecsun PL-380 DSP Radio

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An old gang condenser which uses air as its dielectric medium

I love radio. I’ve wanted to be a Ham since I was a kid and ordered numerous resources, however due to cost constraints, nothing worthwhile happened. Later on, I took up electronics and assembled two of my own radios, the old ones -not the very old ones with valves, but the analogue pre-IC ones using transistors, coils and transformers and a polyester gang condensor for the tuner. I have older memories and remember my ex-army uncle from EME who had once given me a gang condenser with plates which used air as its dielectric medium but Iost touch after IC’s became standard and replaced discrete components. Even though I had a Sony ICF-F12S radio, my heart longed for something which used PLL tuning and had a DSP and digital tuning and storage.

img_20161013_092429469_topMy dream set of course was the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. However the price kept me at bay. Now when I am in a position to buy it, I have my misgivings about Sony. Every product I bought from them has never worked well for me. Sony has lost its edge. Even though the ICF-SW7600GR is a fantastic set with SSB support, it would not be a wise decision to buy it as it is out of production and getting spares would be an issue. It also sellis for at least twice its original list price on Amazon and Ebay.

I settled on the PL-380 for several reasons. Firstly it was cheap. Secondly I wanted to try out the brand and check out its quality before splurging big money on its elder sibling the PL-880. Thirdly, there were a lot of reviews which praised the set for its VFM. I bought mine on Amazon India, although buying it off eBay.com would have been cheaper. It cost me INR 6094 and the price has now increased even more. If I had bought it off eBay, I would have got it for USD 45 and free rechargeable batteries and a mini USB charging cable! All this for half the price I paid. Well, since I didn’t buy from there, I had to spend another INR 75 on a long mini USB charging cable from the Nehru Place market and a set of Eneloop 2000maH Ni-MH rechargeable batteries which further set me back by INR 799.

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The display sits comfortably a short distance away from the plastic window. No amount of pressing deforms any text on the LCD 🙂

The following is part of the package: A soft cover with a pocket to carry the compact radio, a good pair of earphones and a clip on antenna which did not seem to make any difference inside my house. I’m assuming it should make a difference outdoors. The manual and a flyer have all the parts labelled in Chinese and English, but that is where its utility ends. You can’t make sense of anything else although many features can be guessed out by the markings on the keys. You long press on the keys to select the option mentioned over/under the button. Some features can be set only in the radio off mode. Some can’t be guessed at all, like how to set sleep mode and need the manual to understand it. However the manufacturer has put up the English manual online. I will also be linking to a local copy at the end of this post.

img_20161013_092314829 img_20161013_092302168There are several memories. The main one is called ETM and searches and stores the stations which can then be accessed from the tuning wheel which has good a good feel to it and clicks when turned. It is identical to the volume control in feel. The other memory, I think two memories as they are marked A & B can be used when travelling so that you don’t mess up the radio memories you use at home. (Mode A is search and store just like ETM, however mode B only does a search and store in the current meter band) In the default mode -the state the set is supplied in, Sleep mode and LW is turned off (The manual says sleep is set for 30 minutes) and beep is turned on which quickly becomes annoying on regular use. In addition, the battery mode is set to normal. Due to this, my fully charged Eneloop batteries showed 3/4th full in the battery indicator and would not charge no matter what. I couldn’t get any help from Google, and only when I found and read the manual was I able to change the battery mode to Ni-MH after which it started charging and also showing the right level of charge. However other reviewers say that the battery indicator is not very accurate and sometimes, even when it automatically shuts down, removing one cell and putting it back bucks the charge indicator and this can be done multiple times. I have been using the radio frequently for a week and the battery indicator still shows full, however it could also be due to the fact that I was using 2000mAH batteries which are overkill for this application. Hopefully, it will reduce my charge cycles and result in my batteries lasting longer.

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The Flap with Tecsun written extends out to support the radio diagonally. View with opened battery compartment.

Sleep mode is selected by long pressing the power button and turning the tuning knob to the right duration within 3 seconds. You need fast reflexes to do this and might have to do it a few times before you get it right. Sleep can also be turned off from there. The light has 3 modes, always on, push to on or can be set to come on automatically when any button is pushed. I use the last mode which is quite convenient.  The VFM button can be used to either scan for stations with a 5 second playback or for stations in memory which is a neat feature. In addition, there is a thermometer, signal strength indicator (which doesn’t make any sense to me) an alarm clock which I haven’t used and AM bandwidth adjustment. There is also a MW bandwidth step adjustment setting which goes hand in hand with the temperature units. For example, changing it to 10KHz changes the temperature display from Celcius to Fahrenheit, which isn’t a good feature.

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The soft zippered case has a pocket to hold the headphones and clip on antenna. However any pressure from outside might damage the accessories or the screen.

All said and done, I’m having a lovely time of  listening to the radio at a very competent price (Even after paying double on Amazon) I love most of the features including the compact dimensions. FM stereo works great via the headphone jack or when connected to external stereo speakers (although the wire acts as an antenna like in mobile phones which can disturb the quality of sound and you are left routing the wire in weird ways to retain the clarity of the transmission). I know I’m going to carry this on all my travels as it is highly portable and I love that I can charge my batteries inside the radio itself from any laptop or USB charger. MW and SW reception is pretty grainy and I mostly end up with Indian on Chinese SW stations, and not like Radio Ceylon, Voice of America or BBC as I had expected. However I live in a congested and cramped neighbourhood with a lot of electrical noise. I have an upcoming trip to Mussoorie which should give me some excellent opportunities to test the radio out in the hills!! 🙂

Dropped the radio once from a few feet and luckily no damage. I did have a scare when none of the buttons except the light button worked last night. I didn’t want to take out the battery to reset the set as I would have to set the time again. I’m not sure if time and settings are stored in non volatile memory. I hope they are. Will test this when I have to do it. The only con I can see is that it doesn’t support RDS. I guess many Indian stations don’t use it, so I’m hoping that I’m not missing the feature. I wholeheartedly recommend this radio for purchase -especially for your bugout bag or for travel.

Cons:

  • No RDS
  • Light turns on even when the buttons are locked. Battery might run down when th eradio is backed in a tightly packed suitcase.
  • While radio reception is not bad, Chinese stations seem to sound better and clearer than the rest. I hope the set is not customised to promote their stations over the rest.
  • The indoor wire antenna made no difference to reception inside my apartment
  • SW reception is almost non existent in the hills upwards of 700 meters (just an observation)
  • Signal strength indicator seems very technical
  • Buttons are a bit uncomfortable and could have been of better quality
  • Antenna is pretty brittle. Mine bent abit and broke when trying to straighten it 🙁

Pros

  • Accurate frequency indication on display
  • Very compact and frugal on battery
  • Easy to figure out most of the functions
  • Seems to be a good survival radio and low power consumption means it might be able to be powered directly from a solar panel (with a regulator of course)
  • Push button on/off and sleep
  • Rotary tuning and volume knob is very comfortable

 You can download the manual for the radio here:

Tecsun PL-380 Manual

 

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