Analogue line level recording with inexpensive handheld MP3 players

Recording with software on a computer provides an alternative to hand held MP3/WMA recorders. In this article, the recording potential of inexpensive hand held records will be examined.

Hand held recorders may suffer from a number of problems. The most obvious limitations of hand held MP3/WMA recorders are likely to be:

* Poor battery life. Sure, this can be rectified by fitting a replacement, but doing so can be a potentially risky & difficult task – assuming one can even find a replacement battery!

* Limited storage capacity for long recordings. Fixed capacity recorders force users to only keep a very small selection of music or videos on the player, otherwise there is inadequate recording space available when needed.

Other potential headaches experienced with portable MP3/WMA recorders include:

* Automatic Level Control (ALC) is implemented for recording, which is not ideal for all programme material. ALC artificially restricts the dynamic range of the recording. Limiting dynamic range is considered undesirable for music, although it is applied widely to radio broadcasts. A pair of RCA Line Level Audio Attenuators may be required to ‘tame’ audio output levels from analogue components (e.g. Harrison Labs’ manufacture 3, 6 & 12 dB models, which retail from $34).

* Encoding quality. Line-in recording is frequently restricted to relatively low bit rates such as 128 kbps, 160 kbps or 192 MP3 compressed audio recording. These bit rates are not ideally suited for recording music. Gabriel Bouvigne recommends 256 kbps MP3 as a minimum encoding rate for music. Today, even sub-$100 cellular phones support lossless FLAC audio. Does compressed audio files (such as open source MP3, Apple’s AAC or Microsoft’s WMA) still offer relevance?

Creative & Samsung Hand held MP3 Players

Perhaps two of the most suitable MP3 players for recording include the Creative Muvo Vidz & Samsung YP-T8 MP3 players. Both are available in 1 GB capacities. This capacity means these devices are capable of performing recordings from analogue components lasting over 11 hours at 192 kbps MP3 (their highest recording bit rate). That would fill over seven 90 minute cassettes. Unfortunately, these players are extremely rare to find & cost over $80 in the second hand market.

1 GB capacity Creative Zen Neeon 2 models fit 16 hours of recordings at 128 kbps WMA (their highest recording bit rate). These are readily available, refurbished by the manufacturer priced from $45 (1 GB) up to $85 (4 GB).  It is difficult to overlook the fact that the 4 GB model will fit an impressive 66 hours of recordings (128 kbps WMA), but Creative’s Zen Neeon series cannot be recommended by the author. This is due to unreliability of the hardware, in particular the widespread reports of hard drive failures. The author’s Neeon 1 model will not start up.

Olympus Hand held Recorders

The Olympus WS-832 & WS-833 (from $160 new) record with PCM format as well as 256 kbps MP3 but probably audibly wreck bass response (e.g. timpani, kick drum & bass guitar) because of a sharp 40 Hz cut-off. The specified PCM recording frequency response is only 40 Hz – 21 kHz. Such a shame, because these voice recorders also feature fully adjustable recording level control.

Mini Disc Portable Recorders

Mini Disc portable recorders which use ATRAC implementations also suffer from similar restrictions on quality like MP3/WMA. The exception is if one owns the relatively rare Hi-MD recording models (examples, pictured below) & can also readily source affordable discs.

dietrich_liao_2006_mz-rh10

Sony MZ-RH10 © 2006 Dietrich Liao.

SONY DSC

Sony RH-1 © 2012 Jaen Yu.

Example: Recording with Zen V Plus & Samsung Yepp T7

Personally, the writer has enjoyed immensely recording on these tiny devices over the last decade. The primary advantages are due to their size. An honest evaluation of their performance is warranted.

In theory, portable digital recorders should perform better recordings than modern compact cassette boom boxes. Modern boom boxes incorporate poor quality recording heads with rapidly falling treble response over 10 kHz, not to mention poor wow & flutter performance (due to poor quality generic mechanisms) compared to the relatively high quality found in boom boxes during the 1980s & 1990s. During this period, some of these at the high-end boom boxes such as the 1990 model AIWA Strasser CSD-SR8 (photos here & here) featured Dolby C & Dolby B noise reduction as well as manual recording level control. If functional, these high-end boom boxes command very high prices today on auction sites.

Take, for example the Creative Zen V series recorders which are no longer manufactured, but still sold (currently priced from $80, manufacturer refurbished).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Zen V © 2007 Brian Barnett.

When launched in 2006 for $230 USD the Creative Zen V Plus received favourable reviews. The playback audio quality was very good on the Zen V series with low levels of noise & distortion reported during measurements. The Zen V series uses the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) to transfer video & audio files (including uncompressed PCM, as well as compressed MP3/WMA) in Microsoft Windows operating systems.

Creative’s Zen V players (as well as the Zen Neeon 2, mentioned earlier) would be more useful if the player did not encode line-in recordings in 160 kbps WMA format. Today, WMA offers less playback support than MP3 & AAC files so the future is not rosy.

Exacerbating this, is the fact WMA recordings are unsupported by loss less MP3 software editors such as MP3DirectCut if one needs to edit the recording. Converting recordings to PCM alleviates this but doing so offsets the primary advantage of compressed audio, the small file size!

josh_bancroft_2005_samsung_yepp

Samsung YEPP YP-T7 recorder in the bottom left © 2005 Josh Bancroft.

The other problems encountered when analyzing software measurements suggested that hiss & clipping may be problematic when recording on the Creative Zen V Plus & Samsung YEPP (Young Energetic Personal Passinate) model T7, pictured above. A Sangean PR-D8 (chosen because it supports 192 kbps MP3 line-in encoding) was used to double check any inconsistencies found with recordings made on the Zen & YEPP MP3 players.

Hiss

Surprisingly, recordings on the Zen exhibited 15 dB more high frequency noise (hiss) in a recording of silence compared to one made on a laptop sound card. These (admittedly imperfect) software measurements were of noise floor, made in Root Mean Square (RMS) amplitude. Another crude inspection using the meter (maximum range: -96 dB) suggested approximately 10 dB more noise in the Zen recording of silence.

Recording nothing ain't so silent on the Zen! © 2016 FM DXing.

Recording nothing ain’t so silent on the Zen! © 2016 FM DXing.

The Samsung YEPP recordings exhibited less than 3 dB more noise in recordings of ‘silence’ than the sound card which was expected – so very close to the performance of the sound card. Of three hand held recorders by different manufacturers, the YEPP outperformed all others in tests.

Recording nothing ain't so silent on the YEPP either! © 2016 FM DXing.

Recording nothing ain’t so silent on the YEPP either! © 2016 FM DXing.

Regardless, the A-weighted Signal to Noise Ratio (S/N) figures for analogue (line-in) recording from the sophisticated Wolfsen Microelectronics, Telechips, Texas Instruments & SigmaTel’s D-Major ‘codec’ Integrated Circuits (ICs) utilized inside these MP3 players do suggest 80-85 dB as minimum figures. But the noise is higher than the IC measurements because other hardware (such as LCD screens & poor component shielding) in the players may produce additional noise – perhaps even the encoding software. Hence, the actual real world S/N figures for recordings is typically lower than the ‘codec’ figures.

At this point it may be useful to compare more closely these low-cost digital recordings with their vintage analogue counterparts. The A-weighted Signal to Noise Ratio minimum figures for compact cassette tape recordings are as follows: tape recordings encoded with the commonly found Dolby B provide 68 dB S/N. The high-end, (but both less compatible & prevalent) Dolby C provides 78 dB S/N. The relatively rare high-end Dolby S provides 80 dB. There is likely to be negligible variation between ‘Dolbyized’ recording decks.

neil-_2009_jvc

JVC cassette deck © 2009 Neil.

frankpr_2014_gxc-760d

1978 vintage Akai GXC-760D cassette deck © 2014 FrankPR.

Modern low-end compact cassette recorders may not offer noise reduction provision, including many portable boom boxes & light weight mini systems. In fact, the new Prince re-issue cassette albums that were manufactured in the United States in latter half of 2016 are not recorded with Dolby B noise reduction for this reason; unlike vintage pre-recorded cassettes.

Yamaha PC-8 portable system with Dolby B & C noise reduction

Yamaha PC-8 portable system with Dolby B & C noise reduction.

sony-fh7-mkii

Sony FH-7 MkII portable system with Dolby B & C noise reduction.

Without noise reduction, the minimum Signal to Noise Ratio (A-weighted) is 58 dB, even worse on some machines with cheap mechanisms with figures as low as 52 dB S/N. In theory, these inexpensive modern tape recorders should create recordings with considerably higher hiss than is possible with digital recording using the aforementioned ‘codec’ ICs.

Clipping

Worse than noise added, a test recording from a compact disc component (original CD pressing of Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl) showed clipping  in all software & also failed the ABX recording level tests, with the recordings on both the Zen & YEPP peaking in excess of -3 dBFS. This is despite the recording being made well below the peak (red coloured) levels on the recording level display. 3-6 dB RCA Line Level Audio Attenuators do tame output levels so the clipping does not occur, but are an unnecessary expense.

The process of encoding to compressed audio formats may cause clipping, so turning the input volume down may not necessarily address the problem in every instance. In those circumstances, the clipping should be be tolerated – consider it to be a normal artifact of the encoding process. Be that as it may, in the few tests performed with these recorders, clipping could be entirely avoided in the WMA or MP3 by simply lowering the recording volume using an in-line Level Attenuator.

Frequency Response 

Let’s examine the frequency response of recordings in detail now. Particular detail will be paid to how analogue portable recorders perform as well, which will serve as a benchmark.

The encoder on the Zen will also discard frequencies above the sharp 15.5 kHz cut off so is most suited for FM radio recording. FM broadcasts exhibit approximately the same cut off. Frequencies also sharply rolled off after 16 kHz on the YEPP recordings.

Note that for digitally recording local FM broadcasts, the ADS Tech RDX-155 ($20, new) is the better route, due to the provision of lossless 192 kHz sample rate PCM recording. This Silicon Labs’ SI4701 tuner (marketed as ‘Instant Radio’, above) is a USB computer tuner which requires antenna modifications (including soldering) for connection to a rooftop antenna.

Two test signals were recorded in the Zen. On the left is the original, on the right is the copy. This spectral analysis illustrates the ability of the recording to capture the original.

sweep-zen

test-signaltest-signal-zen

In addition, an eighties rock song was recorded in the Zen.

metropolismetropolis-zen

These measurements are not considered to be problematic; many quality cassette recorders gently roll off content after 18 kHz. It is often suggested that unless one makes recordings with considerable of gong & cymbal percussive content, such high frequency roll off may not even be noticeable.

Vintage JVC one-piece boom box © 2011 Neil.

Vintage JVC one-piece boom box © 2011 Neil.

One low-end boom box tested (manufactured in the late nineties) exhibited little high frequency response after 14 kHz, whilst one high-end boom box tested (manufactured in the mid-eighties) lasted beyond 17 kHz. These had been professionally serviced with new belts fitted as necessary, the digital recorders do not require ongoing servicing.

Below is an example of a high-end boom box recording using Dolby B noise reduction & a medium grade TDK AD tape. Again, on the left is the original, on the right is the copy. Strikingly, the cassette recording significantly outperforms the Zen recording, shown above. But remember this machine has been well maintained; vintage analogue equipment requires ongoing attention if it is to continue performing close to the original manufacturer specifications.

jvc-cd-source-same-old-scenejvc-same-old-scene

Modern boom boxes offer considerably worse compact cassette recording performance than these (above) examples. For instance, observe (below) the performance of a regularly serviced, low-end boom box compared to the Zen digital recording. Whilst there is slightly higher frequency response on the cassette recording, this analogue quality improvement is offset by more hiss (evident in blue, above 12 kHz) than the Zen digital recording, as the low-end boom box recorder provides no noise reduction. In fairness, compression artifacts affect the digital recording (due to low 160 kHz encoding bitrate). Depending on the genre of music being recorded, these digital noises may be as irritating to listen to as audible hiss. It is a matter of personal preference as to which of these two low quality recordings is more natural sounding to listen to.

panasonic-selling-the-dramazen-selling-the-drama

Modern boom boxes (marketing pictures appear below) include the Panasonic RX-D55 (from $182, new) & Sony CFD-S50 (from $117, new).

panasonic-rx-d55

Panasonic RX-D55 boombox.

sony-cfd-s50

Sony CFD-S50 boombox.

Extremely poor recording performance with modern boom boxes is probably because the demand for quality is not strong, like it was in the eighties & nineties. Although currently fashionable amongst indie recording artists, these plastic boom boxes cannot be even recommended for the simple task of playback of pre-recorded cassettes! Today, manufacturers’ research & development priorities are likely to be focused on digital recording.

Final comments

It is hard to dispute that these portable hand held recorders can offer immense convenience & are likely produce higher fidelity recordings than modern low-end boom boxes. Firstly, a laptop or boom box recorder is much larger in size. Secondly, laptops must be regularly maintained with software & perhaps to a lesser extent, hardware upgrades. Boom boxes also require maintenance such as regular head cleaning & very rarely, belt replacement. Ongoing maintenance for these hand held recorders is negligible. Those commitments might include regularly charging the battery & very rarely, updating firmware!

However, the testing of Zen & YEPP indicated evidence of noisy or poor quality A-D conversion in these recorders, compared to even the most basic on board sound cards found in computers. Audio clipping is also a significant potential problem, especially for careless users. The Automatic Level Control cannot be blindly relied upon during recording. These factors potentially contribute to noisy, harsh-sounding or distorted recordings.

Accordingly, the next topic for discussion is the use of simple software for portable recording on superseded or surplus laptops. It is suggested that recording with a computer may allow better quality recordings than hand held recorders because of the less restrictive encoding options, full adjustment of recording levels & options to plug in high-end external sound cards into the computer. But it can be tricky to find free software that simplifies, rather than unnecessarily complicates the process!

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Dusting off old tech: Setting a daily unattended FM recording

Listeners may have a need for daily recordings of certain desirable FM broadcasts such as music programmes or sporting event calls. The use of online streaming to time shift broadcasts may offer an easy solution, but problems still exist:

  • Potential loss of audio quality, due to artifacts (audio distortion) associated with low bitrate streams
  • Anxiety over burning through the monthly internet data allowance, or the
  • Ever-increasing prevalence of ‘geoblocking’ due to music licensing restrictions.

Perhaps the radio recording app doesn’t permit recording of distant FM stations on the smart phone?

Radio Concierto "Concierto Enfoque" © 2005 Leo Prieto

Radio Concierto “Concierto Enfoque” © 2005 Leo Prieto

Enthusiasts who pursue long distance FM reception may need to monitor a specific vacant frequency every day to check the presence of signals propagated via Sporadic E or tropospheric ducting, especially during summer. This technique is often referred to as recording DX audio.

The ultimate solution to their specialist needs is to purchase a Software Defined Radio (SDR). An SDR probably represents the most efficient way to participate in long distance FM reception, without the often exhausting and time consuming burden of ‘live listening’ when propagation conditions happen to be favourable.

But many FM enthusiasts cannot justify the outlay of approximately $1,400 on a Micro Telecom Perseus Software Defined Receiver (SDR) with an FMplus down converter. And when one takes into account the minimum hardware requirements, their fellow Italian counterparts including the Elad FDM-S1/PDC-FM combination or FDM-S2 are not much cheaper either.

Recording FM broadcasts… on the smell of an oily rag!

By using simple but effective old technology, setting a daily unattended FM recording remains easily within reach for everybody.

There are likely to be numerous ways of achieving this, using an old computer. To implement this blogger’s preferred method, the following equipment is required:

  • Microsoft Windows XP operating system (or above)
  • Leadtek Winfast TV2000XP FM tuner card (or equivalent)
  • Rooftop FM/VHF/UHF antenna connection with ferrite chokes clipped onto cables.

The following equipment (as used in the final step) is desirable:

  • Desktop computer with a Bios that supports Auto Switch On.

The Leadtek Winfast TV2000XP is a sensitive FM tuner card which is readily available for $5 – $15 on the second hand market. The card has software available for Windows 7, Vista, XP and 2000. For simplicity, XP will be used in this guide since the TV2000XP software was optimized for this operating system.

Flexibility

Although the three mandatory steps below might initially look daunting, the beauty of this technique is that performing these steps is generally only required once. Furthermore, the technique is not restricted to unattended software recording tasks. To fully automate another task (such as a virus & malware scan) replace this task into steps one and two.

Old desktop computers © 2009 Brian Landis

Old desktop computers © 2009 Brian Landis

Virtually any old desktop PC (manufactured after 2002) should be a candidate for such ‘old school’ simplicity. It’s perhaps an opportune time to dust off disused Windows XP computers which may not be cost effectively upgraded to Windows 8 operating system after Microsoft’s cessation of support.

FIRST STEP – Setup Winfast FM in Windows Startup

A
Click on START
Search hard drive for WFFM.exe
Note which directory this application file resides in, for example: E:\Program Files\WinFast

B
Click on START
Search hard drive for Startup
In the list of results, there will be Startup next to a folder named something like:
E:\Documents and Settings\joebloggs\Start Menu\Programs
Click on Startup and leave window open.

C
Click on START
Click on RUN
Type in E:\Program Files\WinFast (or whatever directory it is, obtained from step A)
Locate WFFM.exe
Right click CREATE SHORTCUT
Drag the newly created shortcut into the Startup folder left open from step B.

Restart the computer. Please ensure Winfast FM starts up automatically.

Hint: Tuber Guru Fuel has made a video if the author’s approach (above) looks too boring to even contemplate!

SECOND STEP – Setup the timer in Winfast FM

The desired channel, number of hours and recording quality must be chosen in this step. Specific days may be chosen. For example, every Monday between 7-10 pm, Monday night football may be recorded.

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Obviously, please ensure that the chosen frequencies (radio stations or vacant channels) to be recorded have been added in. To do this, click on CONFIGURATION button in Winfast FM and navigate to the CHANNEL LIST on the top centre.

Ensure antenna is connected and enter the schedule as follows:

Click on CONFIGURATION button in Winfast FM
Click on SCHEDULE button on the top right

Click on ADD at the bottom left
Under ACTION select RADIO RECORD
Under CHANNEL pick the frequency
Under FORMAT choose a PCM or a compressed format if disk space is tight

Under DAILY tick the applicable days
Under FROM select the Start Time
Under TO select the End Time

Double check details and select OK. Please take note of End Time and Start Time chosen.

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

For additional information on setting an FM recording schedule please click on the ? button within the software.

Ideally run a test scheduled recording consisting of a few minutes duration. Once complete, please check the contents of the recorded file to ensure it contains the desired broadcast.

THIRD STEP – Setup shutdown in Windows Scheduled Tasks

The aim is to ensure the computer switches off after recording. Blogger the Spinning Donut has a step-by-step guide and video for guidance.

Windows Daily Shutdown Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Windows Daily Shutdown Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Ideally run a test scheduled shutdown for a few minutes into the future. Once the system is shut off, please restart it.

When setting the time for daily shutdown, please use the End Time specified in step two, but add an additional 5 minutes. For example, if the End Time of the radio recording in Winfast FM Schedule is 11:30 please ensure the Windows shutdown is set for 11:35.

This allowance will ensure that the end of the recording is written to the hard drive, meaning that a valid sound file will consequently be playable with all audio software.

Hint: Third party software that will schedule a daily Windows shut down may be used as an alternative.

FOURTH STEP – Setup daily startup in BIOS 

The aim is to ensure the computer switches on before recording, an optional but desirable process.

A PC World Wiki contains a step-by-step guide to Wake System settings with screen shots.

When performing this final (and the simplest) step, please take note of the Time and Date configured in the Bios. Ensure that the WAKE UP TIME / RTC ALARM TIME selected in the Bios is before the Start Time chosen in Step two. For example, if one sets the system to wake 10 minutes prior to the recording Start Time set in the FM recording scheduler, this ‘factors-in’ the starting up delay of Windows.

These screen shots show the settings to configure the computer to wake at 0730 hours every morning. Each Bios may be slightly different, if in doubt please refer to the printed instructions supplied with the motherboard.

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

If Daily is not listed in the Bios facility, ensure the WAKE UP DATE / RTC ALARM DATE is to be set to 0 for daily system wakes. Whilst it is very simple, as always a trial run is recommended to ensure familiarity with the date and time format. Finally, don’t forget to save WAKE SYSTEM / RTC ALARM settings to CMOS when exiting the Bios facility! With this Bios, F10 does the trick.

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Hint: Obviously when there is no longer any ongoing requirement to automatically start the PC for daily recording etc. it may be convenient to DISABLE the above WAKE SYSTEM / RTC ALARM settings!

Practical considerations

Some computer Bios facilities may not offer a Wake or Alarm System setting where the computer will switch on without intervention, as described in step four. Nonetheless, under those circumstances one can still follow the instructions to schedule recordings to commence and then shutdown, as listed in steps one to three above. Of course, one must be home to physically start the computer or already be using the computer for other tasks. For this reason, the provision for WAKE SYSTEM FROM S5 or similar Auto On facility in the Bios is considered a prerequisite for implementing a fully unattended recording system as proposed in this guide.

Windows Password & Login Settings © 2014 FM DXing

Windows Password & Login Settings © 2014 FM DXing

Step four will not work if the User Accounts in Windows XP (above) are set to require users to enter passwords & / or press Control-Alt-Delete as a security measure on Windows startup to operate software. These logins require user intervention, which is incompatible with the goal of unattended recording. These Windows logins are easily disabled (reference video). Moreover, password protected logins are overkill for old desktop computers that are not connected to the internet, but dedicated to the task of recording!

Alternative Power Management features such as reduced power Hiberation or Standy By modes are beyond the scope of this guide. The method above allows for maximum power saving. Since the computer system is only operational when required, there is also no potentially annoying fan and hard drive mechanism noise; older desktops can indeed be noisy.

Once it has been established that settings are configured properly during a test run, daily recording settings can be implemented. Enjoy the automation and the maintenance of old tech!

Testing: the method has been tested numerous times with several disused single-core CPU (3 GHz) computers using ASRock K7VT6 & Asus P5GZ-MX motherboards. These of course, feature a Bios that supports Auto Switch On. 

Sangean PR-D8 recorder on AM: Crude review

The Sangean PR-D8 is a two band portable radio for Medium Wave (MW) and FM. The radio is designed to easily record radio broadcasts, wherever one may roam. The test unit was purchased from Amazon dot com. Carriage took two weeks via USPS First Class International postage.

How does recording work?

Press the ‘Rec’ button for five seconds on the unit and the tuned station is recorded to an SD card. The end product is a relatively high resolution 192 kbps MP3 file that can be immediately shared via the internet. Modern computers typically furnish SD card readers as a standard feature. For older computers, USB ‘all-in-one’ card readers can be purchased (for next to nothing) to access the recordings encoded to the SD card.

Recording screen including dual VU meters - Sangean PR-D8

ADVANTAGES

Excellent recording fidelity at 192 kbps bitrate. Digital artifacts may be audible if the 128 kbps encoding quality is chosen.
Accurate recording level meter suits both radio and line-in recordings.
Fully customizable timer recording and alarm functions. May be used as an alarm clock.
Tuning stations is user-friendly. Easy to navigate, review and delete clips.
Well designed instruction manual which is readable & written with satisfactory grammar.
Excellent build quality. Strong likelihood of maintaining value in the secondary market.
Compatible with modern SD cards, including smaller breeds via an adapter. A 32 gigabyte HC Class 10 card was used in test.
Satisfactory sensitivity on MW. The 20 kW broadcast Premiere (1ère) 666 kHz Noumea is received with this radio on a daily basis at 920 miles. As is the 50 kW broadcast Radio New Zealand National 567 kHz Wellington, at a distance of 1,565 miles. Antenna is a 11.5 x 100 mm ferrite bar inside the unit.
Satisfactory sensitivity on FM. 4JJJ 99.3 MHz Biggenden was received on a daily basis at 143 miles. Antenna is a telescoping antenna, sited directly above the MP3 recorder.
Tuning increments can be selected to suit the listener’s region.
Includes quality AC power supply for indoor use. Satisfactory battery life whilst recording (up to 10 hours).
Full suite of features. Twin (stereo) microphones suit outdoor recordings. Line level audio output is provided in addition to the standard Headphone output.
Reasonable FM sensitivity when connected to an external antenna.

 

DISADVANTAGES

NOT recommended for portable FM recordings. Please refer to the detailed discussion in the body of the article.
Wide filters are NOT suitable for separating all FM stations 200 kHz apart. The FM selectivity may be improved by a simple ceramic filter mod. Such a project voids the warranty & requires a conventional front end design.
Expensive purchase price relative to offerings made by the group that produces the Degen/Tecsun portable radios.
No provision for external antenna, but this can be circumvented with minimal effort.
No signal meter although a stereo indicator is included.
The inclusion of the 64 kbps bitrate recording option seems superfluous. Those recordings exhibit significant compression artifacts, to the point of the clips NOT being usable.

Love AM? This may be the radio for you

The author of this review has a bias towards FM. With that disclosure out of the way, the most fundamental flaw of the design is not catering for FM recording enthusiasts. Why make the MW section virtually immune to interference when encoding recordings, whilst not doing the same for FM? It seems bizarre for Sangean to pursue such a strategy. Did (former) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or Opposition Leader Tony Abbott (now Prime Minister) help design this ill conceived recording radio? And why can’t Turnbull (Communications Minister) can fix it?

MW enthusiasts vastly outnumber FM enthusiasts. Effectively FM listeners ‘lose out’ since the manufacturer seems to have designed a recording radio to satisfy the largest segment of consumers.

Recording mode & Backlight - Sangean PR-D8

According to C. Crane:

Traditionally AM radio is very difficult to record into MP3 format because of unwanted noise generated by the digital components inside the radio. The PR-D8 overcomes this problem by using good circuit craftsmanship techniques.

This radio does cause some interference when recording weak MW signals from an external tuner, even in ‘Recording Pause’ mode. This symptom seems to be easily solved by moving the component’s passive indoor MW loop well away from the recording radio, using a higher gain loop (especially an amplified variety) or an outdoor antenna.

For those seeking to purchase this radio for the sole intention of MW recording, this receiver performs admirably and would be recommended primarily for this purpose.

Samples of MW recordings

873 kHz talk: interstate fringe signal

1242 kHz music: fringe signal

1368 KHz music: interstate fringe signal

Recording mode & Backlight - Sangean PR-D8

 

Further reading

Enthusiast Review – Herculodge blog

Customer Reviews – Amazon & C.Crane

The author acknowledges the assistance of David in the composition of this review. Photos of the Sangean PR-D8 may be reused under a Creative Commons license. Simply link to this blog or attribute the blog in a photograph mouse hover or caption. Medium Wave distance calculations calculated using coordinates from Asia Waves.

Portable FM radios

European hard core FM enthusiasts tend to use the Grundig satellite 700, Eton E5 (Grundig G5), Degen 1103 (Kaito 1103), Grundig satellite 3400, Grundig satellite 500 & Sangean ATS-909.

These radios require a filter modification in order exceed the selectivity of modern radios with Digital Signal Processing (DSP). Usually replacing the last 150 kHz or 180 kHz filter in the Intermediate Frequency (IF) circuit for a 80 kHz variety does the trick. In unmodified form, the radios rarely provide equivalent selectivity of a DSP radio.

Sangean ATS-909 worldband receiver © 1996 Mysid

Sangean ATS-909 © 1996 Mysid

So why do European enthusiasts go to this trouble? Apart from the obvious fun of learning about the internal circuitry of the particular radio, in this blogger’s experience there are overwhelming advantages in ‘modding’:

  • better performance 200 kHz above local stations;
  • better separation of stations spaced at 100 kHz;
  • better sensitivity due to the narrower filters; &
  • ability to plug in an external antenna (without a plague of images) due to sophisticated attenuation switches.

DSP based radios such as the Tecsun PL606 probably still offer better immunity from strong signals, a key feature of the Silicon Laboratories’ (Silabs) tuner design. For example, at a high rise apartment tower within 20 kilometres (12 mi) of a major FM broadcast site, the Degen DE1121 will start to overload before the Tecsun PL300WT (Grundig G8) will. It is also hard to overlook a Silabs design for the convenience factor: it is a functional radio ‘out of the box’.

De1103 © 2007 Igor K ico.livejournal.com

De1103 © 2007 ico.livejournal.com

In the field

The chief problem with portable radios is that all receivers tend to overload near mountain tops. This can be immensely frustrating. What tends to happen is the listener is increasingly likely to inadvertently make mistakes. Whether it is mistaking images for legitimate stations or missing weak signals (because the weak stations are covered up by distorted images) the experience is often not rewarding!

For this reason, this blogger argues that a portable radio has a limited role to play for field trips. Their use is primarily suitable for inaccessible terrain or very remote areas perhaps 30 kilometres (19 mi) away from broadcast sites. Perhaps this suggestion is a controversial and extreme stance?  (It is important for every writer to remember that enthusiasts often hold strong views. Respect these differing opinions. Entering into robust on-line debates typically ends with instances of dysfunctional behaviour and worse case scenario, a loss of friendships).

Importantly, using a portable radio in a popular location makes it likely for others to think the listener is strange. As this difficult hobby is supposed to be about enjoyment and fun, no one needs to be ridiculed in public. The trick is to switch to a cricket or football broadcast – pretend that is the reason for lugging the radio. Of course, this writer does not need to pretend, although listening to cricket matches (hell, even briefly) can be tiresome when Australia exhibits poor form!

Nonetheless, it’s yet another reason to stick to the safety of a car receiver. Moreover, by using a car radio, a better antenna may be utilized (in many cars, a proper monopole). Car tuner performance makes listening far more comfortable, especially with regard to inter modulation distortion (IMD) – the unwanted mixing of two or more stations. Protection from adverse temperature extremes, in particular summer heat and thunderstorms cannot be lightly dismissed. For example, air conditioning is essential for comfortable mobile DX in cities and towns along eastern Australia.

For everyday use in high rise dwellings, the weaknesses of portables become much less evident. In fact, packing a portable in the luggage is a simple way to turn a potentially boring trip into a DX opportunity.

De1121 © 2010 nice.kaze.com

De1121 guts © 2010 nice.kaze.com

Favourite FM portable

The beauty pictured above and below is the DE1121. Despite the relatively high purchase price, the modified Degen DE1121 is the blogger’s favourite! The designers did made some mistakes; flaws include a complicated user interface and relatively poor build quality. However, this modified radio provides superior FM performance compared to DSP-based competitors with both indoor and outdoor antennas.

Little wonder that Degen’s sister DE1103 remains so popular amongst European FM enthusiasts. Between 76-108 MHz, the DE1103 features better 12 dB SINAD sensitivity than the Sangean ATS-909, that is 0.5 versus 1.8 microvolts.

De1121 station labelling © 2013 FMdxing

De1121 station labelling © 2013 FMdxing

Features of the DE1121 include:

  • Station labelling (all stations can be labelled using a computer);
  • Three level signal attenuator;
  • External antenna input;
  • Full length telescopic FM antenna;
  • 128 kbps MP3 recording (with noticeable artifacts);
  • MP3 playback;
  • Direct frequency entry;
  • Audio Input from other portable radios (to permit recording);
  • High sensitivity tuner (virtually identical to the DE1103);
  • Full aluminium tuner shielding  &
  • SSB decoding up to 30 MHz.
De1121 © 2010 nice.kaze.com

De1121 accessories © 2010 nice.kaze.com

De1121 © 2013 FMdxing

De1121 © 2013 FMdxing

De1121 © 2013 FMdxing

De1121 backlit © 2013 FMdxing

Recommended reading

2012 comparison of portable shortwave FM receivers by Universal Radio (Archived PDF file)

DE1121 world band receiver review by Dave N9EWO

Is DXing a hobby only for the rich?

Mt Canobolas Sharx in-car band scan by Dr Nobody (No longer available)

Portable DSP pain at Point Glorious by FM DXing

European data is compiled from tropospheric loggings in 2012. Enthusiasts who provided loggings reside in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy & Poland. This article was updated in December 2013.

Samsung Yepp MP3 recorder

This terribly rare species is fantastic for making MP3 recordings via line-in. In addition, playback of the highly-rated aoTuV (Aoyumi’s Tuned Vorbis) Ogg Vorbis files is supported.

If this little blogger didn’t already own the same model (except in the smaller 256 megabyte capacity) the above Ebay offer would be snapped up quickly. This species is extinct.

Here is a photo of the Yepp feasting on a recording. Delicious. Further information can be found here.

A new Yepp T8 (512 megabytes) sells on Ebay for about $130. Like the T7, that species is also extinct.

Subjective comparison of Recording Methods

DVD Recorders

– quickest transfer times to computer
– when using XP mode (256 kbps MPEG AC3 stereo recording), the best digital recording quality is achieved
– can record overnight using LP quality (192 kbps AC3)
– fully automated timer recordings
– full editing capability without using computer

– trans-coding compressed AC3 files to MP3 is unavoidable for easy internet distribution
– DVD recorders are expensive
– media damages easily (excluding DVD-RAM) so backups are mandatory
– time consuming to learn programmes for transferring such as Virtual Dub Mod

Cassette Deck

– only method that can user can control recording levels to avoid clipping
– when using Dolby C noise reduction & metal tapes (or Dolby S with a signal-to-noise ratio of 87 decibels)  the best analogue recording quality is achieved
– simple

– time consuming to transfer recordings (real time copying)
– cassette decks are expensive
– full length cassettes will only permit two hours recording
– best blank media (chrome & metal position tapes) are harder to find than DVD blanks

MP3/WMA Portable Recorders

– for recordings lasting over an hour, it may take a long time to decompress & load files (depending on computer processing speed)
– full battery charge may only permit three hours of recording (Zen V Plus)
– a charger is a necessity (must be purchased separately for Zen)
– Creative Zen models have well-publicized durability flaws

– inexpensive
– only portable method, tiny footprint
– never run out of media supplies as blanks are not required
– plenty of space for recording storage on models with at least one gigabyte of storage
– quickest method for ‘one-off’ recordings, e.g. 10 minutes
– simple
– very few audible digital artifacts are typically evident when recording at the highest quality available (e.g. 192 kbps MP3 & 160 kbps WMA)

Hifi VHS

– time consuming to transfer recordings (real time copying)
– companding system inherent in the FM azimuth recording technique may result in analogue compression artifacts
– potential tracking problems on poor quality machines (incompatibility between machines)
– VHS media are harder to find than DVD blanks
– fast access to the start of recorded sections may be difficult

– can record overnight using E240 videotapes on LP quality
– fully automated timer recordings
– Hifi VHS video recorders are inexpensive
– a large percentage of households may own one already

Talk to me. What is your favoured method for recording? Why do you prefer it?

3 machines in 1: Teac AD-800

The Teac AD-800 is an eye-catching hifi component which costs roughly $300 Australian dollars delivered when purchased from on-line sellers in the United States.

Overview of features

This device plays MP3 tracks from a USB device, MP3 & CD tracks from a CD-R or CD-RW & analogue tracks from compact cassette. What is instantly impressive with this highly-rated component is the full remote control for all functions of the USB, CD & cassette. Recording can be performed via remote control. The machine will record to USB from a CD, cassette or an external analogue source such as a turntable or FM tuner. In addition, Timer Recordings to cassette can be performed. The machine uses an adjustable recording level which are rarely found on portable MP3 recorders but can be important to maintain distortion-free digital recording.

The cassette section is full-logic with auto-reverse & pitch control which would be familiar to disc jockeys & announcers. Pitch control raises or lowers the playback speed by 10 percent. Pitch control can be valuable ‘if it does not sound right to you or does not match the playback speed of the original vinyl record it was taped from,’ according to an anonymous tester.

MP3 recording

On closer inspection, it seems that the machine is far from perfect. 128 Kbps MP3 recordings may not do the MP3 algorithm justice. Audiophile Zomax writes in his review:

I realized when playing back the MP3s on my computer through headphones: 128 [Kbps] does not cut it. Edith [Piaf records] actually sounded fairly good (probably given that the original recording already sounds like it’s am radio), but after I recorded some Nirvana, there was no ignoring the telltale wishy washy cymbals of low-rez digital. Unfortunately 128 [Kbps] is the only option — this will obviously be a deal-breaker for anyone looking to make serious digital recordings of their analogue sources.

192 Kbps MP3 recordings are subject to significant loss of high frequency sounds above 16 KHz, while 128 Kbps MP3 recordings hit the dust above 14 kHz.

Will Ryu of Ars Technica explains the inadequacy of 128 in the modern environment where a 2 GB Secure Digital storage card costs less than a pint of lager:

…At 128 [Kbps] I had no trouble discriminating the CD from the MP3s. At higher bit rates this became increasingly more difficult, but even at 256 [Kbps] I believe I could hear differences by concentrating on certain parts of the track which were more susceptible to encoding error.

..The listening conditions for MP3s have changed, but the standard bit rate of MP3 encoding hasn’t. If you can’t hear the difference between 128 [Kbps] & 192 [Kbps] then congratulations, the more hard disk space to you. But if you can, why settle for 128 [Kbps]?

Recently, three music writers for the Guardian tested the MP3 format:

In my view, there was a real discernible difference between the MP3 or CD and the studio master tracks…

What was very apparent is just how bad a poor-quality MP3 sounded, how good a 320kbps MP3 and CD sounded, and how cutting out the middle man in the audio production chain with a studio master could have unexpected results.


Cassette playback & recording

The Teac combo’s flat response between 50 Hz – 12 kHz with playback of metal cassette tape is barely satisfactory. Wow & Flutter (speed variation) is 0.25 percent using the standard Weighed Root Mean Square measurement, a specification not comparable to the better decks.

Cassette deck spectrum

By frequency response, this is what we are talking about. The spectrum from Programmer & Electronics Engineering Lecturer Albé Bredekamp, shows a white noise signal recorded onto Philips Chrome tape analyzed using Audacity software. The frequency response is measured using a signal at -20dB.

An analysis of 13 cassette decks by Industrial Engineer Alex Nikitin using Audio Tester software indicates that most will exhibit a flat response (that is, one with deviation above or below 3 decibels only below the graphical line) right up to 18 kHz – 20 kHz based on a -10dB recording level. Sony UX-Pro or TDK SA Chrome tapes were used by Alex.

On the Teac deck, the signal-to-noise ratio (even without noise reduction switched on) is excellent. Dolby B, the benchmark noise reduction for decoding pre-recorded cassettes, is included. Metal tapes can be played back but not recorded.

To sum up, the cassette mechanism has poor specifications relative to component hi-fi decks produced in the last twenty years. For example, the current Ion Tape 2 PC deck has far better specs for half the price. A better deck such as this could be plugged into the line-in inputs, but this seems like an unnecessary burden. Nonetheless, the response is superior to the average boombox. Audiophile Zomax (who evidently has great taste in music) maintains:

Tape playback was surprisingly good. Rush Chronicles and Nirvana’s Nevermind, both of which have been sitting around gathering dust for 15 years sounded crisp and surprisingly dynamic. It’s also great to be able to operate the tape playback using the remote.

A final word about recording

With respect to losing high frequency response when recording music using 128 kbps & 192 kbps MP3 bitrates or below-average grade cassette decks, Audiophile Goldear points out:

…Most material does not have such high-level [High Frequency] content. So, unless you are recording moog sythesizers which have a lot of HF energy, at high levels this really isn’t a problem (sic). Take a look at music on a spectrum analyser some time, and you will discover that the HF content above 10 kHz is usually 10 or 15 dB below the midrange in amplitude. So most of the time, you really don’t have that much of a problem.

Further information

Teac website. Full operating instructions can be downloaded.

American Ebay sellers. New stock is priced from $250 Australian dollars excluding air freight.

This entry was updated in August 2014. The article should not be construed as an endorsement of any particular device. Prospective buyers should carefully make their own enquiries. Now if we can persuade Teac for a test model? Pretty please…