Monday, September 22, 2008

The Eton E5 Versus The Sony ICF-7600GR

I've owned numerous shortwave radios over the last 45 years, ranging from the very simple (like a three tube Hallicrafters S-119) to professional-grade units costing well over $1000 (like the Drake R8B, the best shortwave receiver I have ever owned). It's amazing how much performance can now be packed into a compact unit at a small price, as I noted a few months ago when I wrote about the Eton E5 shortwave radio. Much to my surprise, I soon found myself using the E5 for most of my listening due to its outstanding audio quality, sensitivity to weak signals, ease of use, and small size.

The best shortwave portable I have ever owned was the Sony ICF-2010, which I purchased back in 2000. Recently my unit started to develop a little "stickiness" in the frequency tuning knob, which told me the frequency encoder unit was starting to fail. Repairing/replacing that would have been a real pain in the nether regions, so I put my ICF-2010 for sale on eBay (with a full disclosure of the problem, of course!). Soon it was on its way to its new owner, and for the first time since 1982 I was without a Sony portable shortwave radio. I felt compelled to fill that void!

I began looking around for a replacement for the ICF-2010. I considered the Eton E1, but its quality control issues and size gave me pause. I did want a unit with good single sideband reception capability and synchronous AM detection, and the only unit fitting that bill other than the E1 was Sony's ICF-7600GR receiver. That and the Eton E5 are generally considered the best of the "compact" class of portable shortwave radios, and thus I was soon the proud owner of both models! In the photo below, the Sony is at the left and the Eton is at right:

Both of these radios are small. The Eton E5 (at right) measures 6.68x4.125x1.125 inches while the Sony ICF-7600GR to its left is 7.5x4.75x1.25 inches. Both are powered by 4 "AA" batteries and have AC "wall wart" power supplies. Each also has a built-in telescoping whip antenna and input jacks for external antennas. The "street price" of the ICF-7600GR is about $135-$150 while the E5 goes for $100-$125.

Both the ICF-7600GR and E5 tune from 150 kHz to 30 MHz, longwave through shortwave, in 1 kHz tuning steps. Both also tune the FM broadcast band in 10 kHz steps. Tuning in 1 kHz increments means its is not possible to "fine tune" frequencies-----if a station is operating on 3986.7 kHz, then 3987 kHz is as close as you can tune it-----but I have frankly not found that to be much of a bother when tuning AM mode broadcast signals. Each radio has a tunable beat-frequency oscillator (BFO) for tuning sideband signals, and the selectivity of both is such that tuning CW Morse code signals is no problem with the 1 kHz tuning step. Yes, some fetishists might argue it's essential to be able to tune to at least the nearest 100 Hz, but it's no big deal for 99% of listeners. Both models allow frequencies to be entered from the front panel keypads, much like entering a phone number.

Most reviews (like the one found in Passport to World Band Radio) rate the ICF-7600GR as being better than the E5. Both are fine receivers and I think most listeners would be very happy with either, but I prefer the E5 for most listening situations.

Why? The E5 is slightly more sensitive that the ICF-7600GR throughout its frequency range, except for a curious "blip" between 1800-3000 kHz where the Sony is significantly more sensitive; I have no idea whether this is a design flaw in the E5 or an anomaly peculiar to my unit. The internal noise level is slightly lower on the E5 than the ICF-7600GR (and both are noticeably quieter than the ICF-2010). While audio quality is very subjective, I feel the E5's audio is crisper and "cleaner" than on the ICF-7600GR. This difference goes beyond "it sounds nicer"-----weak signals are easier for me to understand on the E5 due to the better audio.

The E5 has two selectivity bandwidths, and the narrower bandwidth is a real help when, for example, listening to stations on 6175 and 6185 kHz when Cuba's powerhouse signal on 6180 is on the air. The same is true when tuning the ham bands on 75 and 40 meters, as the narrow bandwidth helps dig out stations covered by interference on the Sony. However, the Sony's one bandwidth is fully adequate for most reception situations.

On FM, there is no real contest between the two-----the Eton blows away the Sony. For example, I can hear KONO-101.1 in San Antonio most days with no trouble on the E5. On the the ICF-7600GR, 101.1 is covered by interference from a local Corpus Christi station on 101.3.

Where the ICF-7600GR has a clear advantage over the E5 is in single sideband reception. The Sony has selectable upper and lower sideband positions and a sideband fine tuning control. The result is sideband reception as good as that on the ICF-2010; it is stable and produces very impressive audio. If I were looking for a receiver to use with a low power (QRP) ham transmitter, the ICF-7600GR would definitely be my choice. The E5 can also receive sideband signals well, but the BFO tuning knob is very "touchy" and you have to readjust it every few minutes due to "drift" in the BFO circuit.

I am not impressed with the synchro AM detection circuit in the ICF-7600GR; it is much less capable than the one in the ICF-2010 (or Drake R8B). It works well, and improves the audio quality, when AM signals are relatively free of interference. However, it loses "lock" easily on signal fades and tends to get "confused" when more than one signal is on a frequency (such as on the AM broadcast band), producing "whooshing" sounds as it tries to decide which carrier to lock on to. It's a nice feature and I'm glad the ICF-7600GR has it, but it's not as useful as I had hoped. Because of the improved audio it produces, I normally leave the synchro detection on when tuning for AM signals but switch it off if it is having trouble keeping "lock" on a station's carrier.

The E5 has a tuning knob in addition to the keypad and "slewing" buttons for changing frequency. In contrast, the ICF-7600GR has 10 KHz and 1 kHz slewing buttons in addition to the keypad. I know it's just my personal preference, but I really like the tuning knob on the E5. I can sweep through a frequency band much faster with it than with the slewing keys on the ICF-7600GR.

Both units appear well made. I prefer the "stiffer" buttons on the E5. Only very light pressure is required to activate a button on the Sony, making it too easy to accidentally change frequency or a control setting. The controls on the E5 seem a little more intuitive to me than those of the ICF-7600GR. For example, to enter a frequency from the E5 keypad you simply enter the frequency and then press one button. But with the ICF-7600GR, you must first press a "Direct" button, then enter the frequency, and finally press an "Exe" button.

If top-notch single sideband reception is important to you, the ICF-7600GR is the way to go. Otherwise, I recommend the smaller and less expensive E5. You can't go wrong with either; I've done side-by-side reception comparisons and there was never a case where a signal audible on one wasn't audible on the other. I'm glad to own both!