January 19, 2013
One of our Patreon supporters dropped us a line to ask if we'd take up the question of how to improve reception of low-powered stations. It's a challenge most radio lovers have faced, not quite being able to tune in your favorite college or community station, especially inside a house or office, even when that station comes in on your car stereo.
Internet radio is certainly one way to solve that problem, assuming that the station you want to hear has a stream. However, for any number of reasons some stations don't stream on the internet. For some the extra cost is too much, and some new LPFMs just getting off the ground just haven't gotten that far yet. Plus, internet radio isn't always convenient for the listener. Perhaps you're just outside of a good wi-fi signal, or you rely on mobile service where every hour spent listening uses up your precious monthly data.
To help answer this question we turned to Jay Allen, a broadcast professional and proprietor of the Radio Jay Allen website, home to his in-depth radio reviews and "radio shootouts" that are famous amongst radio hobbyists and DXers the world over. Jay guested on episode 84 of our podcast, and explained that newer radio models designed in the last five years or so have digital signal processing (DSP) that allows them to be both sensitive and selective.
Sensitivity means what you think it does, that the radio is able to pick up weak signals. Selective means that the receiver can distinguish between two adjacent signals that might confuse a lesser radio, where they would mash together into a hash of interference.
Most of these radios are aimed at hobbyists and hardcore radio nerds, and don't come from familiar brands like Sony or Panasonic. But they are all readily available online. Jay graciously agreed to share his top recommendations with Radio Survivor readers. He only mentioned a few models on the podcast, since rattling off a series of arcane model numbers hardly makes for great listening. However, he followed up with a nice written list of radios he recommends for us to share with you. That list is below.
Without a doubt, Jay's best advice is to get one of these newer model radios with DSP. However, if spending $50 or so on a new radio isn't in your budget, he also shared some general advice that is useful if you're using a radio that you already have, using an A/V or home stereo receiver, or using one of his recommended radios.
Use the Antenna and Move Around
FM radio signals are directional, so if you're using a portable radio extend its antenna and move around to find a good spot where the signal is strongest. Most radios are optimized for the built-in antenna, so trying to improve things by clipping extra wire or metal onto the antenna probably will make things worse, not better.
Also, because most radio transmitters--even LPFMs--are up high, at least 100 feet off the ground, reception will generally be better if you're located high up, too. If you have multiple floors in your house, an upper floor will be better than a lower floor.
Attach an Antenna to Your Receiver
If you have an A/V, home theater or home stereo receiver that includes a radio the best thing you can do is to attach a decent dipole antenna and tack it up on the wall. Many receivers come with a single-wire antenna that most people just let hang off the back with the rest of the cables. This is fine for the big, strong stations, but will be inadequate for weaker ones.
You can pick up a wire dipole antenna for about $5. Connect that to your receiver then get it up off the ground and you'll probably be surprised at how many more stations come in.
Use an Outdoor or Attic Antenna
An outdoor antenna will definitely improve reception, though for most people it's too much hassle to install one just for radio. However, if you already have an old TV antenna on your house that will probably work, since the old analog VHF TV channels 2 - 6 were located just underneath the FM band. If you have that connection, try it with your receiver.
If you want to install an antenna, putting it in an attic is a good alternative because it won't be exposed to weather, won't need grounding for lightning protection, and you won't need to climb up on the roof.
Jay Allen's FM Radio Recommendations
FM Portables – Radios Selected For Excellent FM Reception – All Are Approximate Street Prices
Find them at Amazon.com, CCRrane.com or eBay
(Editor's note: When you buy using the Amazon links below you help support Radio Survivor with no additional cost to you.)
- C. Crane CC-2E - $180 Large Portable, battery or AC - Best overall AM/FM plus weather and 1 Ham band - Jay's review
- Eton Mini - $50 Pocketable size – Slightly weaker on FM than the others here - Jay's review
- Eton Traveler III $70 - Slightly weaker on FM than the others here - Jay's review
- GE Superadio II $100 - Large portable/battery or AC power, easy to find used on eBay - Jay's review
- Sangean PR-D4W $60 - FM as good as the C. Crane CC-2E - Jay's review
- Sangean PR-D18 $45 - Great FM in a medium sized portable - Jay's review
- Sangean PR-D19 $55 - Same as Sangean PR-D18 but with stereo speakers - Jay's review
- Sangean MMR-88 $50 – Best reception of any emergency crank-powered radio tested -
- Sangean HDR-16 $100 - Portable with HD, RBDS and excellent overall reception - Jay's review
- Sangean HDR-18 $170 - AC Powered desktop radio in wooden case with HDRBDS and excellent reception - Jay's review
- Sangean WR-50/WR-50P $125/$180 Mono or stereo versions - Desktop radio with excellent sound and Bluetooth - Jay's review
- Tecsun PL-660 $120 - Great FM with average AM and excellent shortwave - Jay's review
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