Sure, you can now listen to the major shortwave stations on your computer via the Internet, but what about when you are traveling or camping or just want to get away from the computer?
You can turn to the latest generation of shortwave portable radios. Even the most compact of the six units we tested did a good job of pulling in far-flung stations and playing them with fidelity ranging from acceptable to surprisingly good.
Over a couple of hours on a weekday evening (shortwave broadcasts are far easier to receive at night), I used our test radios to listen to a variety of international broadcasts, including news from Deutsche Welle in Germany, sports from the BBC, jazz on Radio Netherlands and news features from Radio Australia.
As a small kid in rural Pennsylvania, I would join friends in tuning in to these broadcasts on an old wooden-case, tube-driven shortwave that sat on the porch of a neighbor's house. Because this was before satellite communications became commonplace, most of our contact with far-flung places in the world came from books, photographs and movies.
We would listen late at night, struck with awe by the fact that halfway around the globe, someone was speaking at the very same moment we were listening. It made us feel a part of a much larger world.
Shortwave's awe factor has shrunk considerably, but it still provides an aural window on the events, issues and people that are of interest to the rest of the world.
Just how much longer that programming will be delivered by shortwave is in question. On June 30, the powerhouse BBC is shutting down its transmitters aimed at North America and parts of the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand. The Voice of America recently quit its shortwave service to Central Europe and the much smaller Swiss Radio International has reduced its shortwave offerings by 80%.
The reasons behind the cutbacks are the growing prominence of Internet streaming audio, which is much cheaper to use for distribution than shortwave broadcasting. Also, services such as the BBC and VOA are contracting with local AM and FM stations to carry their programming.
But because much of the world is still dependent on shortwave, especially for news, it's likely to continue going strong for decades to come.
Portable shortwave radios come in two flavors--analog and digital. The analog models use old-fashioned knobs for tuning; the digitals use push buttons and display frequency on little screens.
The analog units tend to be less expensive and easier to use. The digitals allow for more exact tuning.
We tried one of each from the major manufacturers: Grundig, Sangean and Sony. In general, the Sony models were the superior radios but also the most expensive. The Sangeans were solid performers--and bargains, to boot. The Grundigs worked well but suffered in comparison with the others.
All the units tested receive AM and FM broadcasts in addition to shortwave. All but one--the Sangean SG 622--came with an alarm.
Prices listed are those advertised by various online shopping sites and usually are lower than those issued by the manufacturers.
The biggest and most expensive of the portables tested, the $160 SW7600GR does everything well. It pulls in stations like a magnet and minimizes propagation--the fading in and out that plagues distant shortwave signals. Its attenuator function, which is supposed to filter out some noise and interference, had little useful effect. But no matter, the SW7600GR does fine without it.
The radio's scan mode (a particularly useful feature in shortwave) is efficient and smartly designed, allowing strong stations to be easily found. Even the SW7600GR's display light for reading the frequency and time in the dark is a pleasure to use.
Drawbacks? Digital tuning is complicated, requiring the pressing of several buttons to get the desired results. The SW7600GR is true to form in that respect. Plan on several practice runs with manual in hand before becoming comfortable with tuning. If you don't use the radio regularly, you'll probably have to put yourself through an occasional refresher course.
The SW7600GR is at its worst when you have to configure its wake-up alarm--an overly complicated process that takes several steps. That alarm could be louder too. I'm not sure it would wake me up if I were really resisting.
A final nit-pick is that no headphones are included with the radio. It does have a nice carrying pouch, however.
Sangean ATS 404
A good thing in a small, relatively inexpensive package, this $80 unit pulls in stations well and sounds nearly as good as the larger Sony. There is a bit more propagation and static when the 404 is tuned to remote stations, and at high volume levels the sound becomes distorted. But considering the 404 is about half the price, the sound quality is quite satisfactory.
Because this radio is smaller and lighter, it's also easier to tote when traveling.