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N9EWO tests 3 Chinese Portables
Tecsun PL-660
Tecsun PL-680 (notes)
Tecsun PL-880

Be sure and view the comparison chart located on the bottom of this page
HUGE thanks to "John C."  and "Hal H." as without these folks, this page would NOT be here.

General Quality Control Note : As covered around the internet with ALL 3 of the models of these Chinese portables reviewed below, quality control can vary greatly. With the PL-680 test sample  (manufactured in May 2017), it was plagued with so many QC issues that made a "100 % proper" test not possible. It also had old firmware which did not allow the calibration of the MW and SW bands to be tested.

Dave N9EWO


Tecsun PL-660
(N9EWO Photo)

N9EWO Review : TECSUN PL-660

Firmware Version Tested: Unknown
Country of Manufacture: China
Approx. Serial Number of Test Sample (manufactured in March of 2014) : 396201403019xx

GOOD : Dual Up Conversion design . Decent SW/MW sensitivity (whip or external antenna), especially when the synchronous detector that includes selectable sideband, is used. Generally good ergonomics including excellent direct keyboard entry operation. LW and AirBand frequency coverage (not tested). Clean and open audio (even if sounding a bit shrill). Buttons have good tactile feel (see con). Unique 2 speed tuning selector that works well (Fast OR Slow modes only, not both on at once). 2 well-chosen bandwidth filters (for AM mode signals). 2 event timer and sleep functions. 2000 total memory channels. ATS (Auto Tuning Storage) that also operates on SW. 24 hour clock, display separate from frequency. SSB mode is average for price point and usable, includes a SSB fine tune control (see con). 2 step attenuator switch. LCD is large and well laid out (see con). FM Stereo indicator and selector. Built in ni-mh recharge circuit. Includes unregulated AC adapter, padded carrying case and 4 low capacity ni-mh rechargeable batteries.

BAD : Very weak MW / SW / FM signals get cut off with the soft muting circuit and this ill conceived idea cannot be switched off (using the Sync detector helps to tamp this bug, but not always). FM performance only so-so and adjacent channel rejection is fair. SSB and the fine tune control operate strangely and SSB audio contains “buzzy” audio traits that makes for strained use. Frequency display off (on FM about 50 kHz high / SW up to 5 KHz off), a real issue with weak signals being received properly (see text for adjustment tweak). Sync detector equally symmetrically off (but can be slightly off tuned). Auto tuning speed selection (fast and slow together) makes for difficult operation (thank goodness this is can be switched off) .5-step signal strength indicator pins on even the weakest of signals. No frequency slewing buttons. Limited dynamic range more so with external antenna’s at night (curable with the 2 step attenuator). FM whip antenna is still active when external jack is used (not an issue on SW). MW not supported on external antenna jack. Buttons are small and some are recessed to make matters even worse. LCD backlight is dim and no way for continuous operation even when connected to the AC Adapter. Single step tone control is just a high cut off filter. Cabinet quality fair and encoder / volume knobs feel low quality. Battery cover not hinged. No line audio output jack (see text). Confusing “Chinglish” owner’s manual. Included AC adapter cable too short. Power jack uses un-standard NEGATIVE tip.


The PL-660 works generally very well and usable Sync Detection (over the PL-880....arf !). No line record output either, which is huge drawback for us. Good news is the headphone output is so clean one can CAREFULLY connect this to a “line input” on a recorder or computer and get fairly good results (just watch the volume control not to get too loud).

We have the dreaded soft muting circuit where very weak signals can get cut off. If the sync is used on the MW and SW bands it can help the situation, sometimes greatly. The FM band sensitivity was only average on our test sample and can’t separate station as well either. So if you need above average FM Broadcast, this is not the set for you.

SSB while it does better than the PL-880 (massive distortion / clipping), is still not the greatest. Here we have a “buzzy” trait and also some clipping in the audio on really strong signals once in awhile. It's hard to tune and another strange background "whoosh" sound that varies with rotation of the fine tune control (an AGC bug?). Thank goodness it does use the more standard 4 AA battery operation and includes a non-switching and unregulated AC adapter (WARNING : Set uses a negative tip on the power jack !!). This AC adapter works well but the cable is too short however (only 4 feet long). One cannot keep the back light on "full time" even with the AC adapter in use (which is just plain stupid). Dynamic range is also limited with external antenna’s at night, so overloads say on 41~49 meters , but again can be tamed using the 2-step attenuator switch.

Sync detector works well even if the center point was off a bit with the test sample (so switching between USB and LSB Sync does not sound the same). It does have a pretty narrow lock in range (maybe 1 kHz either side maximum). But this allows for a tweak on either side of the signal to allow for a crisper audio response. When used it can greatly help with weak signal reception. It really does decrease fading distortion and adjacent channel interference well. The 2 bandwidth filters get the job done nicely and are electronically selected on the front panel. There are no side-mounted mechanical switches to have to fiddle with. It rarely looses lock even on the weakest of signals (something we can’t say about the old Sony ICF-SW7600GR, which has a lousy Sync in comparison. See here for my insight on the ICF-SW7600GR portable .

Tecsun's PL-660 is a nice set for the money spent (provided you don’t receive a dreaded Tecsun-Degen dud, or other bugs, eham link here). It is sold in Black and Silver cabinet colors. On a final note our early 2014 test sample never experienced the SSB or MW drift as reported elsewhere (it's SSB is rock stable for hours on end). Also the variable sensitivity bug reported elsewhere was another one that never cropped up with our later production sample .

FM Calibration Adjustment (Not Tested) : Kaito Electronics reports this hidden function to calibrate the FM frequency (if it's off) with the PL-660 or PL-680.

"Re-calibrating FM, radio needs to be on and set to FM band. Tune to the desired frequency/station you wish to listen to, press "SYNC" for about 3 seconds back light will flash. Tune up until the frequency/station sounds more clear press "1" to confirm re-calibration. If done correctly the correct frequency/station will be displayed on the display. Keep the battery in for all the time." (this probably means that when the batteries are replaced this needs to be done again ??)

Note : On LATER PL-660 samples the AIR band button can be used (using the same procedure as above) to calibrate the SW band filters if they are not centered with any given sample. WIDE and NARROW filters are independently set. Appears these settings are retained in EEPROM and can be put back to factory default by just entering the calibrate mode (AIR or SYNC button) without pressing the "1" confirm key.

Dave N9EWO
N9EWO
, all rights reserved
Ver 2.8





Tecsun PL-680 (a flat case PL-660)
(N9EWO Photo)
N9EWO Test Notes : TECSUN PL-680

Firmware Version Tested (Press and hold AIR Band Button while powering up) : 215 6617
Country of Manufacture: China
Approx. Serial Number of Test Sample (manufactured in May of 2017): 4352017050006x

Generally the PL-680 was near identical to the PL-660 above for performance and overall findings (see above). But not entirely. We were unable to do a side by side test (our PL-660 test sample was no longer available).

Ergonomics are much improved with the cabinet and buttons not being rounded as found on the PL-660 cousin. Having larger and flat buttons were a huge plus. Memory layout and entry is a dead ringer to the PL-660 and is decent including ATS.

Sync detector was a mixed bag on the test sample. Sometimes it had a hard time time keeping lock. It depended how deep the signal fading was. Even with extremely strong signals it was dropping in and out of lock, and with some signals frequently. Switching to narrower IF filter helped but not always. It was still useful mind you but was not a stellar "Sync Detector". To be fair other times the Sync Detector worked just fine. If this was a defect with our test sample is unknown ?

Another major "bug-a-boo" was with the with the AM WIDE filter (even worse than with the PL-660). A well known bug and one that plagues MANY Tecsun receivers (including the Grundig-eton Satellit 750 / Tecsun S-2000) is it sounds off frequency even up to 5 kHz off (where it SOUNDS proper).and that is where the test sample WIDE filter center is. Later samples of the PL-660 and PL-680 both have a calibration routine in the firmware where you can off set this (separate settings for the Narrow and Wide filters). Our test sample firmware was too old so was lacking this (only had the it for the FM Broadcast, information as given in the PL-660 review above...it works the same).

Dean Bianco alerted us with his later sample that does have the SW filter calibration settings (see this "you tube" video). The fix did not function properly as it made the receiver sound fuzzy and unusable / unstable (Sync ?). Just ANOTHER defective sample you might say...perhaps ? Oddly in our case the Sync DID LOCK on the proper frequency (where it should have been without the Sync on), but the passband being so skewed in WIDE Sync USB mode it's audio sounds quite shrill, much worse then off (again as with the PL-660).

However there is one desirable side effect to this bug, the audio recovery is strangely excellent here (when it locks properly which is most of the time) ! On the other side of the coin, when switched to WIDE Sync LSB it's a outrageous disaster being so far off from proper center (here the audio is all muffled), but oddly the Sync still locks. 

   
SW Dynamic range was still a mixed bag with any decent external antennas in use (but OK). Local strong MW intrusion into the SW bands was another bug that was detected with the 2 step attenuator off. Switching the middle (first) attenuator selection usually cleared this up on both counts at HQ. Another way to cure any local MW intrusion in the SW bands without the attenuator is with a High pass or Bandpass filter in the antenna line. We did this at the test location and cured this problem 100%.

Still no line record output which is huge drawback for us. Good news again is the headphone output is so clean one can CAREFULLY connect this to a “line input” on a recorder or computer and get fairly good results (just watch the volume control not to get too loud).

Yes the "soft muting" was still a nasty issue with the PL-680 test sample. Extremely weak signals get washed out in the muting circuits (all bands). It cannot be switched off. Back light still cannot be switched on continuous even with the AC adapter in use (a real pity). In any event it still sounds MUCH better than ANY version of the Sangean ATS-909X or the old Sony ICF-7600GR.

Is it still a worthy model to consider ? We will say yes, but it appears to have an above average "out of the box" dud rate just as with the PL-660 and other Tecsun receivers.
 

Dave N9EWO
N9EWO
, all rights reserved
Ver 1.3


Tecsun PL-880
(N9EWO Photo)

N9EWO Review : TECSUN PL-880

Firmware Version Tested: 8820
Country of Manufacture: China
Approx. Serial Number of #1 (defective) Test Sample: 426201312004xx
(The defective sample was even slightly less sensitive on SW than the replacement below)
Approx. Serial Number of #2 Test Sample (manufactured in December 2013) : 426201312005xx

GOOD : Dual Up Conversion analog design that also includes a DSP IF (Si4735) for the decent IF bandwidth filtering. Outstanding super clean MW / SW / FM audio quality with it’s sealed active and passive speaker system (see con). 2-step attenuator switch. Generally good ergonomics including excellent direct keyboard entry. 2 knob fast and slow tuning (allows for super fine tuning on SSB, a rarity on portables in this price category). All keys have very good tactile response. Display button allows for clock to be displayed independently from frequency display. Line Output jack (see con). LCD backlight can be easily switched on full time. Signal Strength / SNR digital display is decent (after one gets used to it). ATS (auto tuning system) that also works on SW. 3050 total memory channels. 1 event timer and sleep function. LW band coverage (not tested). Built in auto Lithium battery charger. A slew of un-documented adjustments for operation tweaks (do a internet search). Stereo-mono indicator and selector. Attractive metal speaker grill and long “snooze bar” on top. Includes a zippered carrying case and one 18650 lithium ion battery.

BAD : Audio may be considered too “bassy” by some (is not selectable). A single-step tone control is nothing more than a simple high cut switch. General whip and overall sensitivity is not so hot (however using a better external antenna makes it reasonably good). Limited dynamic range when external antenna’s in use more so at night (curable with the 2 step attenuator). Very weak MW / SW signals tend to get swamped out in the AGC. No frequency slewing (up-down buttons). Line audio output is bit too hot (high level), but not to any distortion levels. The “unofficial” Synchronous Detector is useless (more distortion and warble than signal). With our test sample SSB modes were are awash with distortion, makes SSB modes also totally useless. Battery cover not hinged. SW bandwidth always defaults to 5 kHz when first selected (in VF mode). Limited "wider" SSB mode bandwidths. MW not supported on external antenna jack. Flimsy whip antenna (top segments are easily bent). Uses an untraditional 18650 Lithium Ion battery for power, standard AA’s operation is not possible. Power input (charging and operation) is via a 5-volt (at 500ma) mini-USB power supply, locating a suitable NON-switching AC adapter is difficult (and NOT included).


Tecsun does it’s IF filter business in the PL880 within the Si4735 DSP chip. So for the many bandwidth selections offered. We have a bug where the SW bandwidth always defaults (at first power up) to 5 kHz when first selected (in VF mode). Tinkering with the secret menus did nothing to correct his either.

Tecsun PL-880 "IF Bandwidth's"
AM Mode : 2.3, 3.5, 5, 9 kHz
SSB Mode : 500 hz, 1.2, 2.3, 3.0, 4.0 kHz


The PL-880 has a killer sounding speaker using a passive sealed internal enclosure. Nice clean audio too with a 9 kHz AM max bandwidth and AB type amplifier. Most of us already know about the stinky sync performance and the “Hidden Menu’s. Our testing was done with DRN to OFF and the soft mute at "zero”.

I'm not a fan of it's 18650 lithium ion battery ONLY operation (no AA battery use). The external DC jack is via a mini-USB port for charging or operation. Using this set connected to a computer or with any “cell phone” or other 5-volt power adapter does not work on MW / SW with the switching power supply RF noise. Our first test sample was actually defective, had no fine-tuning and also a loose whip antenna base. Also the whip antenna has some very thin elements the closer you get to the top. It can bend very easily if not careful
.

Biggest "bug-a-boo" with the PL-880 is the downright nasty distortion with SSB modes. No amount of radio adjustments helped to control it . It's so bad as to almost make ones eyes water and SSB modes are totally useless. With the unofficial "Sync Detector" in use the distortion is so bad as to add warble in the mix as well. We can't say if this major issue has been cleared up in later production (reports are mixed) ?

Dave N9EWO
N9EWO,
all rights reserved
Ver 2.1



N9EWO's PL-680 , PL-660 and PL-880 Comparison Chart

"....and the winner is ??..."

Looking for a low cost in this size with decent MW / SW Broadcasting traits ?? Our pick out of these two is the Tecsun PL-660. Even with the PL-880's fantastic audio with MW / SW AM mode signals and FM , the rest of it was a fast downhill slide. SSB is OK and usable on the PL-660 / PL-680, but it has a "buzzy" trait in the audio . How bad can you make a set sound with SSB signals ?? The PL-880 sample we used in our tests has to be one of the worst (portable or desktop) sets for SSB we have ever encountered . It's SW whip sensitivity was poor in our tests too. However the PL-660 / PL-680's FM performance is not the greatest either (but OK).  Dave N9EWO


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