Radios that don’t just receive AM and FM…

Posted on March 12th, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

But having said that, in addition to normal AM/FM radios in the house and car, I have two other radios. One is a Uniden 200 channel scanner that I use to listen to local emergency services – police, fire, ambulance – and also the local trains. I don’t switch it on all that often but if there’s an emergency – and I live in a bushfire-prone area – or I feel like an interesting hour or so, I’ll turn the knobs and let it automatically scan through its two hundred selected frequencies.

The Uniden came from a local secondhand store – I think it was about AUD$100 – and luckily enough, it came fully programmed. (It’s usually pretty easy to find a bunch of relevant frequencies by doing a web search. The pain is punching them all in.) I don’t know what model the Uniden is (and working out how to use it was initially a little difficult) because most of the writing seems to have rubbed off the main body of the radio. Until recently I also didn’t have much idea of how good or bad it was. Despite living in a valley at the top of some hills, the local services come through loud and clearly from a radius of about 50 kilometres – and that’s just using the standard rubber ducky aerial. But whether another radio would be much better or worse, without trying one, I didn’t know.

Click for larger image The second radio I have is a Sony SW-77 – another radio bought secondhand, this time for about AUD$80. It’s designed for shortwave listening – hearing the powerful radio stations that (still) pretty well every country in the world run as their national broadcaster. That’s Voice of America, the BBC, and stations in Japan, China, New Zealand, Russia – and dozens of other countries.

Shortwave listening is an art in itself – depending on atmospheric factors, the reception on some frequencies is sometimes good and sometimes bad. So stations broadcast on multiple frequencies, either simultaneously or changing from one to another. Chasing them around the dial is a quite different experience! The signals also fade in strength and have pops and crackles and weird noises sometimes overlain.

These shortwave stations might be powerful but they’re often literally on the other side of the world, so serious listeners use a long wire aerial – say 20 metres in length and supported on masts 6 or more metres high. I am not a serious listener, so while I have an aerial rigged up, most of the time the Sony is used just with its whip antenna extended.

Again, until recently, I had nothing with which to compare it. And so the fact that some nights I can tune in perhaps 30 shortwave radio stations from around the world – and other nights only five – I wasn’t sure was good or bad.

(Incidentally, the best thing about shortwave is getting the political perspective of the country straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s sometimes startling to hear just how the US government views some world events – especially when you then immediately hear a very different viewpoint from China!)

Click for larger image But in the last few days my perspective on my radios has changed. You see, I bought what I thought was going to be a replacement for both. A Yaesu VR-500, it packs into its tiny size a huge range of frequencies. You can hear everything from normal AM/FM broadcast radio, to police, fire, aircraft, amateur radio enthusiasts, shortwave – you name it and you can pretty well get it. All in a radio that literally fits into a shirt pocket and takes just two AA batteries.

Like the other radios, I bought it secondhand – this time by tender. When tendering for items, it’s a case of if your bid is highest (and is above any reserve), you get it. But unlike say an eBay auction, if you outbid others by a large amount, well, that’s how much you end up paying! The Yaesu is still a current model and a web search revealed local prices anything from AUD$500 to AUD$750…. So I bid AUD$221.

And got it.

So why did I want another radio? Well, this one is so small and its frequency range so great I thought it would make an ideal car companion. Whether I was attending a motor race (hear car-to-pit communication), an airshow (flight control instructions), on a long trip (hear the truckies and the emergency services), wanted to listen to shortwave, or simply wanted to hear TV audio or AM/FM broadcast stations, this radio looked like it would do it all.

The ultimate glovebox companion.

And, surely, this high-tech marvel (did I mention the 1000 memory channels for scanning?) would really show up the battered Uniden and cheaply bought Sony for what they are and simply vacuum stations from the ether?

Well, not quite.

Despite Yaesu having a very good reputation, for my application it’s Godawful. For starters, even though it came with two different whip antennas, its shortwave reception is so far behind the Sony SW-77 it isn’t even funny. Like, the Sony signal will be booming in at near full signal strength… and you literally can’t even hear it on the Yaesu! And get this: even with my long wire aerial (and an earth) connected to the Yaesu, it is still no better on shortwave than the Sony is using just its extended whip! And on emergency service frequencies – police and so on? Well, the old Uniden is better – clearer and with less drop-outs. The difference isn’t as marked as between the Yaesu and the Sony, but the pick of the pair for local emergency services is definitely the Uniden. Hmmm, no point in keeping the Yaesu then. I did a quick search of eBay to find that one has sold just the other day for – wait for it – AUD$320. Exxceeelllleeent. Now, where’s my camera – the Yaesu is going on eBay this afternoon…

Comments are closed.