Radios I Have Known

Tecsun PL-380 AM/FM/LW/SW DSP radio

Tecsun PL-380

I began my search for a good travel radio in 2009 after my trip to Australia. It seemed I could get either good FM reception, or good AM reception, but not both. Rural Australia had far fewer FM stations than the United States, so this was something of a sore point. Most Walkman-style FM radios have hideous performance. They combine the worst of poor sensitivity and a tendency to pick up spurious signals that don't really exist. The technical term for that last point is front-end overload, which happens when a powerful local signal proves to be more than the radio can handle.

So in 2010, I ordered the Tecsun PL-380 from a Hong Kong reseller, hearing about its good AM performance and its excellent FM reception capabilities, made possible through the use of digital signal processing technology, in particular the Silicon Labs SI4734 chip. The FM performance (for reception) is nearly equivalent to the best tuner that I have in the house (though the hi-fi tuner still does better in terms of audio quality). AM performance is very good, too. It cost $75 ($25 of that for shipping from a Hong Kong seller on eBay).

The DSP radios are free of front-end overload, and are quite sensitive. A similar radio, readily available in the U.S., is the Grundig G8. It's also made by Tecsun, which carries it as the model PL-300WT. While its FM reception performance is exceptional, and the AM performance is good as well, AM sound quality is limited by design. Anything above 3 kHz is cut off. This is marginally OK for talk programming, but still not pleasant to listen to over the long haul.

The nice thing about the Tecsun PL-380 is that it offers multiple AM bandwidths - 1, 2, 3, 4, or 6 kHz. Wider bandwidths offer better sound fidelity, with the trade-off of being more subject to interference from nearby stations. At 6 kHz, music is pretty tolerable. An even wider bandwidth would have been better, but I can live with this set of choices. For FM listening, you can turn stereo reception off. This is most useful with weak, noisy signals.

The PL-380 also offers direct keyboard entry of station frequencies, with a keypad that occupies much of the front of the radio. It also offers ETM, for Easy Tuning Mode. The PL-380 has two separate memory systems. One is the usual method where you manually enter presets. An auto-scanning function is also available for this purpose, though I prefer the manual method.

Easy Tuning Mode is a second auto-scanning method, but one that doesn't disturb the memory settings you already have. For example, I could take my radio to Los Angeles, with its San Francisco presets, and then set up auto-scanning in L.A. to pick up the stations there, without erasing my San Francisco pre-sets.

The built-in speaker is small and doesn't sound all that great. This is obviously a radio to use with headphones.

There's also an alarm clock, and a little fold-out stand.

The telescoping antenna should have been longer - for FM, it should be 30 inches. There is no jack for an external FM antenna, unlike some other Tecsun models.

The Tecsun PL-310ET, a "second edition" of the Tecsun PL-310, was released in 2013 and is nearly identical to the PL-380. In my review of the PL-310ET, I compared them head-to-head along with the CC Skywave and CC Pocket radios from C. Crane.

For a portable radio, this is a well-balanced package, offering very good FM reception, and good AM reception and sound quality. The two memory systems are easy to use. The radio uses three rechargeable AA batteries; charging can be done with any USB charger. Over time, the PL-380 seems to drain batteries just a little faster compared to some other Tecsun models, so you should check the battery levels every couple of weeks or so to make sure the batteries don't run down altogether.

Until the smaller Tecsun PL-606 came along later in 2010, and after that, the Tecsun PL-505, this was my preferred radio for use while traveling.

Posted May 7, 2011; revised December 31, 2014 with additional information