Friday, February 15, 2013

Sony ICF-SW23 ICF-2010 ICF-7600G

This started off as a short review of the Sony ICF-SW23, which is an excellent analog world band radio and happily, still in production.  As I worked through this and had a friend ask me some questions about the unit, I began working through some of its commonalities with other receivers in the Sony line.  This may result in this article having a somewhat disjointed aspect, but there are some interesting points that I believe will be of interest to shortwave aficionados that I have not seen treated elsewhere.

In the history of shortwave, and perhaps AM radio in general, there have been two main companies that have set the standards for excellence for general listening radios, as opposed to tabletop and professional models.  Zenith came first, and then had a period of overlap with Sony and was eventually eclipsed by the Japanese company.

Both Zenith and Sony had two attributes that made them great.  They produced technologically excellent products and then housed them in cutting edge designs.  I might be tempted to put Grundig or Panasonic in that grouping but Panasonic's excellence was brilliant and short-lived, lasting only from about 1975 to 1990, while Grundig's excellence was hampered by fits and stops in the North American market, and the fact that by the mid-90's Grundig was more of a marketing front than a real company producing radios.  In my experience, the designs by Sony and Zenith have held up far better than the Grundig designs, which were often quite unorthodox, making them difficult to service and keep in working order.  Zenith tube designs from the 40's and 50's are easily serviced and continue to provide a high level of performance.  Many ICF-2010s bought in the mid-80's continue functioning perfectly.  Finally, both Zenith and Sony, in spite of becoming conglomerates, had famous CEO's who were lovers of radio and made sure their companies were always on the leading edge of the field.  It was personal with them.  Zenith and Sony radios were expected to be the best.

In the same way that Sony became famous for its Walkman, Sony also began trying to see just how small they could make their radios while still providing excellent performance.  Sony was essentially alone in this endeavor, producing several dual conversion designs that were smaller than anything else in the industry, among them the ICF-4900 series, the ICF-SW12, the ICF-SW20, the ICF-SW1, the ICF-SW07 and the ICF-SW100.

I remember encountering my college roommate's ICF-4920 and being essentially blown away by its performance.  I had used a Panasonic RF-2200 for years, something which spoiled me and made evaluating new models difficult.  With the exception of  receivers with functioning sync detection, like all of the Sony's with the feature, and the Grundig 800 and Eton E1, nothing I would ever use in the realm of shortwave receivers would be measurably better overall  in terms of reception than that Panasonic bought on clearance for a hundred dollars or so from Service Merchandise.  It was far from small, however, and to see that the Sony ICF-4920 could provide comparable levels of performance in something slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes completely surprised me.

This was par for the course for Sony in those days.

During a period where essentially no other company was even providing portable shortwaves with sync detection, and when roughly half of the tabletops that had the feature could not make it work properly, Sony shoehorned it into the SW07 and the SW100 miniatures.  Most of these miniature Sony receivers were digital, but the 4900 series and the similar but smaller still SW20 series were analog radios, something that I still find to have major performance advantages over digital radios.  For example, try finding stations in a strange area in a rental car with a digital radio.  Particularly, if one is outside an urban area, it is extremely frustrating.  You can try scanning if that feature is available, but usually the receiver simply scans and scans and never lands on anything, particularly on AM.  Or, one encounters the opposite problem.  The radio scans and lands on every single frequency whether there is anything on it or not.  You can't manually scan for stations because the digital car radios usually mute.  Thus one ends up having to tediously tune one step at a time.

Unfortunately, many digital shortwave receivers have the same issue.  This makes the continuing production of the ICF-SW20 series a most welcome thing.

 The current incarnation of the SW20 series, is the ICF-SW23.  In short, this is a great little radio.  With all the information available on the internet, I am often surprised when it is difficult to find as much information as I would like about certain products that I consider truly exceptional.  The Sony ICF-SW23 and its predecessors are radios that I would deem to be in this category.  One can only hope that Sony continues its production of this design which goes back to the mid-80's. 

Let me start by stressing one point.  In a radio this small, Sony had to make some design decisions in terms of what bands to cover, and this differs depending on the version.  In the United States, on the East coast, anyway, the 41 meter band has taken on greater importance than in the past. There are not that many international broadcasters around anymore and I find myself using the 41 meter band more and more, both for SSB, which this radio lacks, and for broadcasting. This radio, as generally sold direct from Japan has instead the lower 75 meter band, which is apparently more important for Japan.

If a prospective purchaser wants the 41 meter band, then he or she is unlikely to be as happy with this new incarnation of the Sony design, as he or she would be with the Sony ICF-SW20 (or an export version of the ICF-SW22, which seems to be rare). One can do a google image search to compare the ICF-SW20 and ICF-SW23.  I may put up pictures of my own at a future date. Both the ICF-SW20 and ICF-SW23 are attractive radios in my estimation, and both have the same specs, size and  lay-out, but have different speaker components and buttons for operation.

Another choice is the original of this design, which is the Sony ICF-4920. In the U.S., these have the same coverage as the ICF-SW20, These are the same size vertically as the ICF-SW23, but are about three centimeters longer horizontally with the same specs.
The 20, 23 and 4920 all are double conversion.  They also all have effective tone controls.

I own all of these various models and performance seems to be about the same among all of them. They are all very attractive small radios that are perfect for putting in your breast pocket and heading to the game or fishing or wherever. All are a true pleasure to use, with their smooth analog tuning. If I had to pick, I would probably chose the ICF-4920 for tuning, because it just feels right in your hands and it is so easy to tune and change the volume.

On the other hand, the SW20 and SW23 are significantly more compact, and come with nifty carrying cases, which was something Sony failed to include with the ICF-4920, which may explain why they are often a bit rough when found on the used market.

I love this radio and anyone who loves taking a really good radio in his shirt pocket to the baseball game will be thrilled with it, both on AM and on shortwave. One caveat, all these radios need a mono to headphone adapter if you want to use headphones to listen as opposed to ear plugs. Otherwise, sound will only come through one channel.

As an aside, shortwave is far from dead. It is essentially, the only medium where you can get constant news without anyone knowing what you are listening to, be it Cuba, China, Iran, or Russia. Hmm, maybe that is why all of those countries are still broadcasting in English to the U.S. With a run of a mill shortwave radio, one can still easily listen to Cuba or China at virtually any time of day. Radio Romania has broadcast after broadcast in the evenings. I still find Radio Taiwan and Radio Japan in English and both have enjoyable programming.  ABC of Australia comes booming in each morning and the BBC is easily heard each afternoon on 9915 kHz. Yes, there are too many religious shows for my taste, but if the pastors and end of the world ilk can all afford to pay the freight, shortwave must not be all that expensive after all.

Finally, the above radios come with an aerial, ferrite, and clip-on antenna, but are not designed for use with outdoor antennas.  However using one with a slightly bigger unit, like an Eton E1 or Sony 2010,  it is possible to receive broadcasts from Africa fairly easily, in English, French and Portuguese. Radio is still a big deal in Africa and unlike the internet, you don't have to own a computer, or know how to read to use it and it is far more difficult for governments to shut down.  Shortwave is not going away.

What I have done with the SW23 is take it to a place that is far from electrical noise, say a large backyard or soccer field and then it will really perform on shortwave. The Voice of America transmitting to Africa came in loud and clear once I left the house and went out to the children's backyard swingset.

If you love Sony, shortwave and well designed miniatures, buy one of these. I have bought two ICF-SW23's through Amazon and I can vouch for their character.  The question does arise as to whether these radios are good value compared to some of the other digital options out there.

I generally wouldn't compare this radio to digital receivers.  To me it is in a different category, but if I had to, I would compare it to the  Sony ICF-SW1, which I also have.  From what I can piece together, it is more or less an analog version of the SW1 with less complete shortwave coverage, but which seems to have avoided the capacitor issues that the SW1 has.  The speaker on my SW1 hasn't worked in quite some time, a common, if not universal problem for these units as they age, but to the extent that I can remember, I think the SW23 sounds better through its speaker.  The Passport to World Band Radio Guide noted that adjacent channel rejection was similar among the two models.

The Chinese-made Degen 1103 was the last digital portable that I bought, to a large extent on the recommendation of Jay Allen, who formerly wrote for the now defunct RadioIntel site, and I don't think that it has been exceeded as an all-rounder in terms of overall performance and the joy of use. 

My only complaint is that the light won't stay on more than 15 seconds when using batteries.  I like to scan in the dark or semi-dark, quite often and the Degen 1103 is about as good as it gets for doing that with a handheld portable.  Nevertheless, I find myself using either my SW23 or 4920 much more often, because they are considerably smaller and lighter than the 1103, which itself is considerably smaller than my ICF-SW7600G.

They are also a cinch to use in the dark.  The controls are intuitive and these radios would be excellent I think for people lacking eyesight.  Compare this to the ICF-SW7600G, which is a great daytime radio, especially when one knows the frequency one wishes to hear, but is a miserable radio to use in low light conditions.  I absolutely despise digital radios that mute when scanning and the ICF-7600G sort of mutes when you scan slowly and always mutes when you scan quickly.  (As an aside, a vendor on eBay claims to have unmuted the Satellit 700's scanning, which is primarily why I never bought one.)

The 7600G also lacks a tuning knob.  It is very difficult to find stations in the dark when a unit is not backlit, has no tuning knob, mutes, and has important controls on the side of the radio, like the sync detector.  Performance wise, the 7600G is great on known frequencies during the day and has been a real bargain the last 15 years or so.

To me the Degen 1103 and the 7600G have been the best overall handheld portables.  I have been following the newer Degen and Tecsun models, but they always seem to have some enervating defect, from the sloppy quality control on the G3 and G5 models from Grundig/Eton, and reviewers never seemed completely won over by the nice looking Degen 1106, which doesn't seem to be sold on eBay anymore.  I know that a couple of the Tecsuns that have recently come out have some impressive attributes but they always seem to have some glaring omission or weak spot.

In terms of price, the ICF-SW23 can be found for approximately $130 including shipping from Japan, and used versions of the ICF-4920 and ICF-SW20, can be purchased on eBay in good shape for approximately half of this amount.  This means a new one will cost more than a Degen 1103, while a used one in good condition should cost less.  The market for used Chinese portables is not vigorous.  These radios are constructed more in the cellphone manner of being throwaways not expect to survive drops and are essentially never serviced.  The Sony, if treated normally, can be expected to last years, if not decades.  I have tried several of these analog Sonys from the 80's from eBay which were sold as being in working condition, and all seem to work perfectly.  The one main issue involves the contacts for the power button and band selectors, but is easily dealt with.

The SW20 and 4900 series do not have separate bandwidths or SSB or sync detection, but the bandwidth is well chosen, and usually I don't miss sync on analog radios.  On digital radios, it seems more important to me, although the 1103 doesn't seem to miss it much.

The tone controls are quite effective.  And here I end with my segue into a general point about the audio of Sony shortwaves that I feel needs to be made.

Sony has been criticized greatly for having lackluster audio in its shortwave offerings, at least compared to the overall level of performance which they offer otherwise.  I have seen this criticism online, in places like eham, and Passport hammered Sony year after year for this supposed failing.  We all have different audio preferences, but I find a lot of the criticism to be misdirected, and due to the somewhat misleading way that Sony marks the tone controls throughout its range of shortwave receivers.  Because the two-position controls are always marked Music/News, I believe that most people listen to Sony shortwave receivers with the tone control set to News.  To me, this is incorrect.  The default tone position should be Music, as virtually any program in the clear sounds better when this setting is used.  News should only be chosen when there is hiss or interference. 

Some reviewers have complained about the audio of the ICF-2010 and 7600G for years, but I have always found both radios to sound fine.  Especially with the ICF-2010, I find criticism of the Wide/Narrow filters to be completely off-base when using it for shortwave listening, as opposed to SSB or CW.

Here is what I find maximizes the medium wave and shortwave audio of any Sony shortwave receiver, but especially that of the legendary Sony ICF-2010, which is perhaps the greatest receiver ever made.

The listener should start off with the tone controls set to Music and the filter choice set to Wide.  If there is interference, engage the sync control and choose the sideband that sounds better.  Make sure that the tuning steps are set to Slow.  This is key.  Sync detection will not work properly unless the tuning steps are set to Slow.  There was a period where I stopped using my 2010 very much because I thought there was an issue with the Sync.  It was simply that I had the tuning steps set to Fast.

Once the better sounding sideband is selected, if there is still some hiss or interference, don't make the mistake of immediately switching filters from Wide to Narrow.  This will indeed make the sound muffled and one-dimensional.  Start by keeping the Wide filter engaged, but switch the tone control on the side to News.  This will usually provide an audible improvement over using the Narrow filter with the Music tone control. 

If this isn't satisfactory and there is still hiss or interference, then it may be necessary to finally switch to the dreaded Narrow filter.  Here is the trick, however.  Switch the tone control on the side, back to Music.  This will slightly open up the sound, making it brighter and less muffled.  If there is still interference or hiss, then one has finally arrived to the dreaded Narrow/News dual setting.  This will sound muffled, but will also remove much of the interference if possible. There are aftermarket companies that will swap out the stock filters and this may be of use to some people, especially if they are using the 2010 more in the way people generally use tabletop models, but I like Sony's broad filter for general listening.  Eton did something similar with its equally great E1, and provided a broad wide filter, also receiving criticism, although Passport deemed the E1's separate bass and treble tone control scheme to be superior to that of the 2010.  Frankly, I disagree with that assessment.  Using the Sony filter and tone controls as delineated above provides clear changes in audio that can immediately be assessed as either improving or worsening the audio.  One can fiddle continuously with the E1's bass and treble controls and it never seems to change the sound all that much, plus doing so is tedious.

Sony must have known what they were doing when they designed the filter and tone control scheme  given the incredible success of this model.

Try the above tip before swapping your filters.

The ICF-SW7600G has a sync detector and tone controls that work similarly, but lacks dual bandwidths.  Use Music as your default tone control and only switch to News if there is hiss or interference.  Sony's adjacent signal rejection is quite good on their handheld portables, and  its sync detectors work so well that a second bandwidth rarely seems necessary on their handhelds.  In fact, Sony came out with 2 expensive models that appeared to be shoehorned versions of the SW7600G, the SW07 and the SW100, and neither one had dual bandwidths.  Another recent model with sync detection, the AM-FM ICF-EX5MK2 has also recently been evaluated as providing excellent selectivity with only one bandwidth.  See


Anonymous said...

I didn't read your post..I do remember being in a music place in Bethesda years ago and they were playing some classical music through a real expensive system with tall speakers that were TOP of the was usrreal..i made out every instrument..gorgeous

anyways i'm the guy who left the message on your voice mail..your comment about haren was exceptional..what a terrible performance....hard to nlame the player..he is what he's nlot like he's not trying (unless he's on the drugs or alcolohol)..the blame has to be directed at Rizzo...

William O. Douglas Loeffler said...

Hopefully, I wasn't too hard on Haren. I think we all wanted to like him. He is an articulate, well spoken, strapping young guy, but something is not right. He now has the highest ERA in baseball, while pitching in the notoriously low scoring NL East, and had no known or disclosed injuries.

I think it is time for Mr. Haren to take a trip around the world. Even after taxes, $13 million will buy some luxurious cruises.

Godspeed to Mr. Haren and, buy a Sony before you go. It won't line my pockets any, but they are great shortwave radios.

UldisB said...

Thanks about Sony ICF-SW23 review, it is excellent. I have bought the set recently and I am fully agreed that this is the best small-sized radio in the meantime. I have 5 years experience with ICF-SW76600GR, this is really great radio for "semi-HAMs", set is like a heavy artilerry, but ICF-SW23 is like a very effective light weapon. Of course, this is petty that the set (SW23-Japan import) does not have 41m band, it is very important in Europe. After purchasing of ICF-SW23 I am carrying it with me like a "gadzet", but it's not a "gadzet" this set is the best item for understanding of propagation radio waves / electrodynamics. MW reception is very good, rejection of neighbour stations - very good, only sometime is difficult to recognise "null-reception" direction into magnetic aerial diagram, possibly to the very effective work of AGC (automatic-gain-control) system.
Sony ICF-SW23 is a very good SW/MW/MW small-sized receiver with a realiable price (during 08/2014 price in was rised)for radio fans for starting understanding basics of radio transmissions in SW/MW/FM. With best regards, Uldis B. from Latvia.