Tecsun PL680 versus S8800

Introduction

In 2012 I compared two portable world band receivers: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and the Sangean ATS-909X. Since that time I bought two different Tecsun radios: the PL680 and the S8800. Tecsun is a Chinese manufacturer of world band radios and these days it is the leading brand. Quite a few models are currently available (June 2018), as shown in the table below:

Form factor SSB Sync airband Keypad
PL310ET Travel portable No No No Yes
PL380 Travel portable No No No Yes
PL365 Handheld Yes No No No
PL600 Travel portable Yes No No Yes
PL660 Travel portable Yes Yes Yes Yes
PL680 Travel portable Yes Yes Yes Yes
PL880 Travel portable Yes Half No Yes
S2000 Large portable Yes No Yes Yes
S8800 Large portable Yes No No On remote

On the low end of the range you find the PL310ET and PL380, both based on the Silicon Labs Si4734. They use this chip as their only receiver circuit. They do not have SSB and do not cover the entire shortwave range. The PL365 is an interesting model. It is the only model that is styled like a hand held walkie-talkie, it has no keypad and it is based on the Silicon Labs Si4735 with custom firmware, so it can demodulate SSB. It also offers general coverage on shortwave.

The PL600, PL660, PL680 and S2000 are all traditional PLL synthesised designs with a high first IF, double conversion and an analog final IF circuit with ceramic filters and an analog demodulator circuit. The PL660 and PL680 have a synchronous detector, the others don't. All except the PL600 cover the VHF aircraft band, but they do not perform very well on this band.

The PL880 and S8800 are the most recent receivers. They use a traditional double-conversion front and then use the SI4735 for the final IF stage. Like the PL365 they use custom firmware for SSB demodulation. The FM receiver uses the Si4735 by itself. The Sangean ATS909X uses the Si4735 in exactly the same way, but it does not offer all the filter bandwidths available on this chip. The PL880 has an undocumented synchronous detector mode, but it does not perform well.

In 2016 I bought the PL680, mainly to compare it with the Sangean and Sony radios I had, but I never updated the article to include that radio. It was introduced in 2015 and its feature set is identical to that of the PL660 (introduced in 2011) and technical differences appear to be minimal. Its almost identical in size to the Sony, but it's a bit lighter. This radio has a tuning knob and a bargraph signal strength indicator, which are features that I missed on the Sony. It also has a synchronous detector, like the Sony but unlike the Sangean.

Tecsun PL680
portable shortwave radio

In 2018 I bought the S8800, which is Tecsun's latest model (introduced in 2017). Interestingly enough the older S2000 is still available and this is even more expensive. This is a large portable with some superficial resemblance to the radios that were available in the late 1970s and early 1980s, retro style in that sense. In particular, the layout of the volume, bass and treble controls left of the tuning knob reminds me of the Panasonic DR22/RF2200. It has no numeric keypad on the radio itself. but it does come with an infrared remote control that has one. I picked the S8800 instead of the PL880 as it is reported to perform much better on shortwave, especially on SSB. It is a more modern shortwave receiver than the S2000 and apparently the S8800 has the best shortwave performance of all Tecsun models.

Tecsun S8800 portable shortwave radio

Both radios cover the entire radio spectrum from 100kHz to 30MHz with no gaps, well almost no gaps. When you configure 9kHz steps on mediumwave, this band only runs to 1620kHz and the shortwave range starts at 1711kHz, so you miss the range 1621-1710kHz). Of course you can switch to 10kHz steps and then the modiumwave goes up to 1710kHz and you can tune the entire band (and you can fine tune to any frequency that is not a multiple of 10kHz). In the Netherlands some pirate stations operate in this frequency range and while I do not endorse such activity, I do want to be able to monitor this range.

I think all SSB-capable Tecsun models have this misfeature. The Sangean ATS909X tunes to 1710kHz on mediumwave regardless of step size and the Sony tunes in 5kHz steps above 1620kHz and has no gap between mediumwave and shortwave either.

The FM range on both Tecsun models can be configured. The widest range on the PL680 is 76-108MHz (includes the Japanese FM band) and the widest range on the S8800 is 64-108MHz (includes the Russian OIRT FM band). Both the Sony and the Sangean have 76-108MHz, but the Sangean can also be configured for 64-108MHz (by pressing and holding the Power and Light buttons when powered off). The range 76-87.5MHz is pretty useless in Europe. DX reception of Japanese stations is impossible no matter how good the conditions are and we used to have police communication in the 76-87 range, but this no longer exists. On the other hand, reception of the OIRT band (65.8-74MHz) can be useful, as these signals may reach western Europe under favorable conditions. Countries like Russia and Ukraine still have stations in this band.
Tecsun PL680 Tecsun S8800
LW/MW/SW range 100-30000kHz 100-30000kHz
FM range 76-108MHz 64-108MHz
VHF Airband range 118-137MHz None
FM-stereo Yes Yes
FM-RDS No No
SSB selectable sideband Yes Yes
SSB step 1kHz, analog fine tune 10Hz
Sync detector Yes, selectable sideband No
Number of presets 2000, 12 pages freely selectable, plus one page per band 650, assigned per band
Size 181x115x28mm 270x175x70mm
Weight (including batteries) 581g 1500g
Battery type 4xAA (NiMH) 2x18650 (LiIon)

Reception quality

According to some reviews, mediumwave reception is not a strong point of the Tecsun S8800. I think it performs (almost) as well as the Sony and the Sangean radios that I have and then it has the better audio quality of the three. The PL680 appears to lag behind the other three. However, I did not test the radios in a super quiet rural area, so the man-made noise floor probably far exceeds that of these radios. I think performance of the Sony, Sangean and the S8800 is about equal, maybe the S8800 lagging slightly behind the other two in terms of receive sensitivity on the ferrite bar, but this is not a big difference. We don't have many stations on longwave, but I think the situation is about the same, the PL680 lagging slightly behind the other three.

On FM, I would rank the PL680 last, after the Sony. The Tecsun is just that bit less sensitive. The Sangean ATS909X is the clear winner on this band. The S8800 uses soft muting on FM, causing fringe stations to dramatically jump in volume if their signal strength crosses a threshold. The Sangean has the same FM receiver chip, but it wins the contest just because it does not enable soft muting on FM. Plus it is the only radio of the four that has RDS. Update: the soft muting on FM can be controlled on the S8800, so you can get rid of it. Fact is that there is no RDS display on the S8800.

Now for shortwave performance. Of course you buy any of these radios primarily for shortwave listening and they all perform well on this band. All have adequate selectivity for shortwave broadcast listening. The Sangean is less sensitive on the internal whip antenna on the lower bands (below 10MHz). On the external antenna connection, the Sangean performs no less than the Sony. The Tecsun S8800 appears to be the winner on shortwave, as other reviewers also report. Apparently the bigger radios do have better frontends than the portables and their external antenna inputs are meant to be really used. I have no equipment to measure the dynamic range of the radios though.

I live in an apartment that is plagued by PLC equipment, so there is not much shortwave to be enjoyed indoors. Fortunately the PLC equipment has notches on the ham bands, so this works a bit better. I can take the portable radios outdoors and listen in a nearby park and this helps a lot. And there the S8800 does pick up more signals than the other radios.

The Tecsun PL680 has a synchronous detector, which is a plus. If I have to choose, I think the one on the Sony works a bit better. The Sony comes with just one filter, great for picking up hard to get stations, but bad for audio quality. Both the Sangean and the PL680 have two filter bandwidths, which is better. The S8800 does not have a synchronous detector, but it has four filter bandwidths on AM and even five on SSB. And the S8800 works well enough on SSB to make manual ECSS practical in case of severe selective fading.

On to SSB. Both the Sony and the PL680 have the same type of tuning arrangement where you can tune with a resolution of 1kHz and you have analog fine tuning. I think SSB works a bit better on the Sony, but the Sony has no tuning knob, making tuning in the amateur bands awkward. I like the Sangean better than these two. But the clear winner for SSB is the S8800. The dual tuning knobs work surprisingly well and it provides 10Hz resolution, which is the standard for good communications receivers. SSB sounds good, the best of all the portables and it comes close to what you expect of a real communications receiver. But it still has some AGC distortion effects on strong signals and I think all portables have that.

The first batch of the S8800 was reported to have excessive birdies. My specimen of this radio is not free of birdies either, but I think they are acceptable. I have a strong birdie on 783 kHz on mediumwave. If I tune 2 kilohertz up, to 785 kHz I can hear the Spanish station on that channel again (with night time propagation). Other radios have their birdies too: for example the PL680 has a strong birdie around 990kHz. Shortwave has several strong birdies too, as far as I know only one in an amateur or broadcast band: 29095kHz. Other radios also have some strong birdies on shortwave.

Connectivity

All radios have a stereo headphone output (and all can play FM stereo through headphones). The Tecsun PL680 is the only one that does not have a line-out jack. The Tecsun SS8800 has two RCA sockets for stereo output, the Sangean and the Sony both have a 3.5 mm jack. In addition the Sangean has an audio input jack (which I never used). Further, the Sangean has a 2.5 mm jack to switch a recorder on and off.

All radios have inputs for external antennas, at least for shortwave. The Tecsun S8800 comes with both a 50 Ohm BNC input and clips for a high impedance longwire antenna. The high impedance inputs work on longwave, mediumwave and shortwave. For the longwave and mediumwave bands, the ferrite antenna remains in circuit, even if you select an external antenna. The BNC input works for shortwave and FM. The other three radios have a 3.5 mm antenna jack.

All radios have an external power input. On the Sony, it's a DC input (adapter not supplied) and it can be used to power the radio, but not to charge the batteries. On the Sangean it is an AC input (adapter supplied) and it can be used to power the radio and to charge batteries. On The PL680 it is a DC input (adapter supplied) and it can be used to power the radio and to charge batteries. On the S8800 it is a mini USB input (cable supplied, but the adapter is not) and it can be used to charge the batteries only. You will need to purchase a separate USB charger or use one that came with your mobile phone.

The Tecsun S8800 works on two 18650 Lithim-ion cells (supplied). These are not as widely available as AA batteries and there are restrictions on carrying them on an airplane.

Audio quality

I think the Sony has the dullest sound of them all, even on FM. On AM it is even worse because of the single filter bandwidth. The Tecsun PL680 already sounds a bit better on FM and it has two filter bandwidths on AM. The Sangean is better still. But of course the clear winner is the Tecsun S8800. I would say this makes listening to music on shortwave enjoyable again, but also on FM the sound quality is superb. It has the largest speaker and it has separate bass and treble controls.

Ergonomics

The Tecsun PL680 has a rotary tuning knob on the side of the radio. It has 40 steps per revolution. By default it has an adaptive tuning rate, so if you turn it slowly it tunes in 1kHz steps and if you turn it fast, it tunes in 5kHz (on shortwave) or 9kHz/10kHz steps (on mediumwave). I don't like the adaptive tuning rate in this way, especially not on SSB. By pressing and holding the STEP button you can set it to always tune slow (or fast). I set it to always slow tuning, which works nicely.

The Tecsun S8800 has two rotary tuning knobs, one for fast tuning and one for fine tuning. In AM mode, the main tuning knob tunes in 5kHz/9kHz/10kHz steps, the fine tuning knob tunes in 1kHz steps. Both knobs have 20 steps per revolution. In SSB mode, the main tuning knob tunes in 1kHz steps and the fine tuning knob tunes in 10Hz/50Hz steps with an adaptive tuning rate. The adaptive tuning rate for fine tuning in SSB works quite nicely. On the S8800 the main tuning knob is much larger than the fine tuning knob, on the PL800 (which has the same arrangement), both knobs are of equal size. Neither the PL680 nor the S8800 mute while tuning.

The PL680 (like most Tecsun radios) has four buttons to switch bands: AM (to switch to mediumwave, press it one more time to switch to longwave), FM and two SW buttons (up and down) to select shortwave and to switch between meter bands when shortwave is already selected. Press one of these buttons longer and you activate the ATS function. When in AM the shortwave up/down buttons switch between broadcast bands, when in SSB mode, these same buttons switch between amateur bands. I find this a very nice feature. Oddly enough it also selects the 24m band (12600-13200), which is a marine band, not an amateur band, not even in China.

Direct frequency entry on the keypad works very nice on the PL680. Just press digit keys to select a frequency. So on mediumwave you press 1 4 8 5 to select 1485 kHz, on FM you press 9 2 6 to select 92.6MHz and on shortwave you press 6 0 7 0 to select 6070 kHz. Life could not be easier. Only when you have to enter a shortwave frequency below 3000 kHz you will need to press the enter key afterwards. Both the Sony and the Sangean require you to press an additional key both before and after entering a frequency on the keypad. Both they keypad on the PL680 and the keypad on the remote control of the S8800 allow you to touch type. The tactile quality of they keys is more than adequate for that.

The S8800 has these same four band buttons and the numeric keypad works the same, but only on the remote control. On the radio itself it has a rotary knob to switch between LW, MW, SW and FM and if you push the fine tuning knob, you can switch between shortwave bands. If I had designed that radio, I would have left out the rotary knobs for band selection and bandwidth and I would have used pushbuttons for these functions instead. On the S8800 you can select nearly all functions on the radio itself as well as on the remote control. But because the radio itself uses rotary knobs for some functions, both ways of controlling the radio are inconsistent. Also note that the 'second' functions on may keys are different between the front panel of the radio and the remote control.

The fact that the S8800 has a remote control has its benefits and drawbacks. A benefit is that it is easier to directly enter frequencies on a remote control than on a keypad on the front of the radio. The greatest drawback is that the remote control will get lost sooner or later, especially if you often take the radio with you on trips.

On the Sangean and Sony radios it is easier to select a preset. Just press a single digit key. On the Tecsun radios you have to select memory mode first (press the VF/VM button) and then you have to press 2 or 3 digits or fewer digits followed by enter. You can also select memory channels using the tuning knob in memory mode.

The greatest difference between the PL680 and the S8800 is that the latter omits the PAGE buttons. On the PL680 (and also on the PL880) you have one page numbered 0 per band (where ATS stations are stored) and in addition you have a number of pages (numbered 1 to 12 on the PL680) to freely store any frequencies you want. You can mix frequencies from different bands in a single page, for example all local AM and FM stations on your home address. Using these pages may be complex, but it really allows you to store frequencies more permanently in the pages 1 to 12 and then use page 0 for the ATS function.

As the S8800 has no page buttons, you have only one page of memory channels per band. Once you use ATS (with the exception of ATS mode B on shortwave) you lose all channels you stored manually for that band. I find this a big drawback. You cannot use ATS to find the local stations at your holiday address and at the same time keep your list of favorite stations at your home address intact.

While the PL680 has two timers, the S8800 has only one. None of the Tecsuns has time zone settings or a switch between local time and UTC. You are free to set the clock on any of these radios to UTC if you desire. The S8800 does not have any lock feature to prevent the radio from switching on accidentally when it is in your luggage. The PL680 does have a lock button (press and hold the zero key).

The S8800 has two volume controls: one analog potmeter on the front of the radio and one electronic control that is operated by the remote control. These two are in cascade. If you put one control at zero volume, there is no way you can increase the volume using the other control. The radio may seem defective because the volume control you use cannot increase the volume. Some hifi sets have a motorized potmeter that can be turned manually and can be controlled by the remote control. Most tv sets have volume buttons both on the front panel and on the remote and both sets of buttons operate the same control. In both cases you can lower the volume using the remote and raise it again using the front panel control, but not on the S8800.

The S8800 has some quirks in its firmware. One such thing is that if you change the bandwidth with the rotary knob on the front and you rotate another knob (such as fine tune) while the display still shows the bandwidth, then the other knob changes the bandwidth instead of doing its normal thing.XS

When the S8800 is switched off it lights a tiny blue LED to indicate that the remote control sensor is still active. This remains active for one hour. Though this LED is only small it can be an annoyance in the bedroom and it can make security personnel at airports nervous.

Hidden features

Like the PL880 the S8800 has some hidden features, that are not mentioned in the manual. All are controlled via the remote control. This was mentioned on this Italian site (I don't read Italian), but it shares many of them with the PL880, for which more documentation can be found of the SWLing blog. The following I found on my radio. The function of digit key 7 (controlling line out level on FM), that exists on the PL880, appears to be missing, as is the broken sync detector that you get on the PL880 by pressing and holding down the LSB or USB button.

Conclusion

Both Tecsun radios are very different. The S880 is more than twice the price and more than twice the weight of the PL680.

The PL680 is a travel portable that is the same size as the Sony radio. The Sony may have a slight edge in raw reception quality (more so on mediumwave), but the Tecsun has some quite interesting features (like a tuning knob and signal strength meter) and better sound quality. Of course the Sony is no longer in production. Would I recommend the PL680 as a travel portable? Definitely yes if you buy it for shortwave listening!

The S8800 is definitely not a travel portable. This is not just caused by its size and weight. After all it's less than twice the weight of the Sangean ATS909X. It's less than most portables of the 1970s were and it's only a sixth of the weight of the true dinosaur of that era: the Grundig Satellit 3400. The lack of a lock switch and the lithium-ion batteries pretty much require you to take this radio in your carry-on luggage when boarding a plane. Add to this the remote control that you can easily lose. Of course you can pack this radio when traveling by car, but it is mainly a radio for in and around the house.

The lithium-ion batteries in the S8800 are a mixed blessing. They have a higher capacity than NiMH cells. but spare batteries are harder to get and these 'firebombs' do require more care when carrying. They must be carefully packed and airlines don't like them very much. The USB-port is for charging only, so the radio cannot be powered directly from AC.

The S8800 is definitely a true winner on shortwave and it performs quite nicely on SSB. It has the communications receiver quality that I missed in the Sony and Sangean radios. You can tune around the ham bands quite nicely on this radio. The S8800 is also quite capable on FM and it is still a good radio for MW and LW and it has better audio quality than any of the smaller portables.

Would I recommend the S8800? If you are mainly interested in shortwave you will get a quite capable receiver that has great audio quality. You will get a better performing shortwave radio than the smaller portables. And this radio is still portable, so you can easily move outside the big city and listen to what's out there.

But what would be the alternative? The only true HF communications receiver that is still in production is the Alinco R8E/R8T. This is significantly more expensive than the S8800 (about 100 euros more here in The Netherlands), but it is a more serious communications receiver. It is ideal for SSB, but the standard AM filter is too wide for serious shortwave DX, You cannot (easily) use this radio as a portable as you need both an external 12V battery pack and an external antenna. Another alternative would be one of the many SDR radios on the market, some of which offer more bang for the buck, but you will always depend on a computer to use them. If you have an amateur license, you could think of buying a transceiver instead of a shortwave receiver. This will be much more expensive than the Alinco receiver, so you should only buy one if you have plans to transmit on shortwave. And then there is a huge used market of shortwave radios.

And yes, I can recommend the S8800 if your requirements match what this radio has to offer.