BECAUSE WE'RE ALL ABOUT RADIO
AM DX GEAR
While you can use any AM radio to DX, there are radios that will improve your chances of pulling in better DX catches. Two of the most important aspects of a great DX-grade AM radio is sensitivity and selectivity. You have to be able to hear a station and reject co-channel interference, especially when you have local stations crowding the band, as this will allow you to have a better chance at hearing weaker DX in between those local stations.
While SDRs are growing in popularity and performance for AM DXers, many DXers still search high and low for in-demand AM radios.
NOTE: What constitutes the "best" DX radio is always going to be a loaded question and matter of debate. People will have their personal favorites and place a premium on certain functionality and features that they are looking for over others. It is with that in mind, that we present to you the models that DX Central considers the top notch for AM DX. That doesn't mean everyone agrees, they are just the best that WE have come across and used in our own DX or have received feedback from trusted sources. This list may change over time, as we try out other equipment
BEST DESKTOP: Drake R8 A/B - Over the years, there have been a large number of desktop receivers that have come and gone in the market that have been cherished by AM DXers. Vintage radios such as those produced by Collins, Hammerlund and Halicrafters. Modern radios from AOR, Palstar or Japan Radio Company. However, there is one radio that consistently tops the majority of AM DXers' 'must have' list for desktop radios: the Drake R8. Growing up in a radio household, I was lucky to DX in a home that had a Drake R8. I spent many hours spinning the dials of this venerable champion for the AM DXer. Some of my finest DX catches came on our Drake R8, including my bnest DX catch ever: CHRB 1140 in High River, Alberta. Of all of the radios we had come through our shack for trials and reviews, none ever compared to the performance of the Drake. Drake is a name synonymous with excellent AM DX radios. The old Drake SPR-4 is another fantastic vintage radio that we were fortunate enough to have in our shack and was highly sought after amongst AM DXers in the 70s and 80s. Still, as good as that radio is, the R8 is no comparison. The sensitivity and selectivity are superb and the twin-passband tuning was revolutionary. The filtering options were second to none. If there was ever a Cadillac of AM DX radios, surely, this would be it. There were actually three variations of the R8, the standard base model, the R8A and the R8B. As you might imagine, the A and B models featured performance improvements over the original base model, including expanding the pre-amp to work on the AM band (which provides a signal boost for weak stations, but also noise). However, any AM DXer will find themselves quite satisfied with any of the three models adorning their radio collection. To this day, they still fetch quite a hefty price on the used market, but if you have the budget, there is simply no better radio for our money here at DX Central than the Drake R8.
BEST PORTABLE: Sony ICF-2010 - Choosing a "best' AM portable is a tough task. There are so many out there that absolutely deserve to be mentioned: the Panasonic RF-2200, the GE Superradio (I or II is better, I had good luck with the III though), Grundig Yachtboy, C. Crane Radio. These are all excellent portables and if you can find one, you will do quite well! However, if you want the absolute best portable you can find for AM radio, search high and low and get yourself a Sony ICF-2010. There is a reason this radio was produced for nearly 20 years from 1985-2002 and to this day remains a highly-sought after radio on used markets, eBay, etc. Finding one in good condition is important. When I purchased mine on eBay recently, the first one was not functioning on battery usage so I had to return and find another one which thankfully worked. This is another radio I grew up on, logging some fantastic DX catches on the 2010. My tests since picking up my own model have re-verified to me why this is such. amazing portable. On mediumwave, the sensitivity is simply unmatched in any other portable I have used and I have tried a lot of them. The large ferrite stick antenna in the 2010 really does a great job at pulling in signals. The selectivity is fantastic especially when you use the synchronous detection in either the upper or lower sideband to move away from adjacent channel interference. It's not great on FM DX, I will be completely transparent there, as it tends to not handle overload very well. I am told that the shortwave performance is good but not great compared to other models (although I once did receive Ghana Broadcasting Corporation on shortwave and did a full reception report using only the telescopic whip of this radio at my dinner table, so, take it for what you will). On the AM band, though, the ICF-2010 is an absolute legend. For years I tried everything I could to replicate an ICF-2010 without spending the money on the real thing, only to be disappointed every time. I finally made the choice to pony up the money as there is simply no substitute for this legendary portable radio on the AM bands. If I had the extra money right now, I would probably buy.a second one, that's how good it is.
BEST SDR: SDRPlay RSPdx: Another one of those great debates "what is the best SDR for AM DX?" will get you a ton of different answers. For years, the Perseus was the gold standard for AM DX. It seemed every serious DXer, the ones you look up to and become jealous of when you read their logs in the DX club bulletins, had a Perseus. Then in the late 2010s, that started changing. New and cheaper SDRs were starting to come to market. While none could rival a Perseus, they were starting to make some waves. Then, came the Airspy HF+. This little wonder touted Perseus-like performance for under $200. I snatched one up and was blown away. I immediately became obsessed with the SDR revolution and what it meant for my AM DX. A few years later, my father started telling me about the Airspy HF+ Discovery. This SDR was touted as having even better low band performance, unmatched filtering and noise cancellation and more. Again, the price was nice at around $200. Right before I could pull the trigger, though, SDRPlay came out with their RSPdx. The buzz around this little unit was high as it claimed to have the best long and mediumwave performance of any SDR in its price range (again, around $200) and could even stack up well with SDRs priced in the $1000 or more range. Part of the allure for mediumwave was the HDR function, a high-dynamic range specifically in the lower bands such as MW and LW that increased sensitivity, noice cancellation and rejection of signals from outside of the band that would cause overload, etc. I ordered one almost immediately and within a few days, was hooked. Since I picked this SDR up, I have taken it on portable coastal DX sessions, traveled to New Orleans amongst a blanket of RF, have sat in the back of my Kia Sorento with it and my W6LVP loop in a monsoon, DXing Trans-Atlantic signals. Everything I have thrown at this little box, EVERYTHING, it handled it with no effort. I still want to pick up that Airspy HF+ Discovery, so I can compre the two with my own ears. Whether if you are looking to finally enter the world of SDR AM DX or you just want to add an excellent performer to your collection, you really cannot go wrong with the RSPdx. For the price, I simply have not found anything like it on the market yet!
When it comes to AM radio antennas, your options are pretty wide open. Anything from commercially available antennas you can purchase to homebrew antennas you make yourself, you have a lot of choices to choose from and knowing what to pick can be tricky. What is best for one DXer, may not even be an option for another. So, we will just explore types of AM antennas here and let each DXer choose what works best for their situation, interest and budget. The list below is not to be considered an exhaustive, all-inclusive list, but rather a primer of sorts for an AM DXer looking to get increased performance from an external antenna of some sort.
Not included, below, will be anything on basic longwire antennas or simple AM loops such as the Terk Antenna or other 'signal booster' type models. These are great starters, but what we will explore below are a bit more advanced. If you are interested in longwire antennas, one really only need to get a bit of copper wire (insulated works great, but whatever you have available to you) and string as long of a run as you can as high as you can. Trees make great supports for longwire antennas.
Those options are fantastic for getting started and have served me well for the vast majority of my AM DXing career. The abundance of the nearly 1,300 AM radio station loggings I have acquired over the past nearly 30 years were obtained using either a basic longwire antenna or some sort of basic consumer-grade antenna solution. What we explore, below, are the options for a DXer that craves a little more performance to seek out more elusive DX.
Sitting on a farm or otherwise large. tract of land? I am talking 5 or more acres. If you have the space, there is simply no better option for AM DX than a well-constructed Beverage antenna. Be ready to install a 500-1,000-foot long wire, 6-8 feet off the ground, with ground rods at either end and a terminating resistor on one end. The results though will be completely worth it if you have the room. You want to know how harcore DXers are able to pull in DX from across the globe with ease? Most likely, they are using at least one Beverage antenna. There are some great sources of information that can be found here or here that provide some background and construction information if you are so inclined. You can also get an idea of a typical Beverage construction by watching the video, below, from amateur radio operator VE6WZ in Canada.
For those that want something similar to Beverage performance but do not have quite enough real estate, you can try using a Beverage-On-Ground (BOG). These typically come in at around 200' in length and also come in reversible options where you can achieve two directions of directionality with a single antenna (as opposed to most beverages which require a single antenna for each desired direction). There is some performance compromise that comes from these styles of beverage, but they still perform very well for most AM DXers.
Some other popular AM DX wire antennas include the EWE antenna and its variants such as the Super EWE. I am actually working up plans myself for a EWE antenna here in Charleston, something that will give me directionality towards Latin America and possibly a second towards Europe. These antennas have excellent directionality which give an AM DXer a bit of a boost as it lowers the overall noise floor from other stations not in the desired direction of the antenna. This can pull out weaker DX much easier than with a non-directional antenna. The video below shows a comparison of performance of a EWE antenna to a longwire, demonstrated by Scotish DXer Mark Borthwick:
Another popular wire AM DX antenna is the KAZ antenna, named after famed AM DXer Neil Kazaross. This antenna is a favorite of many hardcore DXers including some of those in the Northeast US that are well known for their efforts in Trans-Atlantic and Latin American DX (DXers such as Mark Connelly (WA1ON) for example). A basic KAZ was designed to be usable for even urban DXers with smaller backyards, so definitely should be something for most DXers to at least explore. You can see Scotish DXer Mark Borthwick's nstall of a "Super KAZ" in the video below:
In addition to wire antennas like those mentioned above, many DXers find great success using some sort of loop antenna. There are many variations from air-core loops, box loops, magnetic loops, and a more recent development called the ferrite sleeve loop.
Personally, I am using a W6LVP magnetic loop antenna sitting at around 12' from the ground. This antenna has been very helpful for me in improving my DX reception, lowering noise and pulling in weaker signals. It still cannot compare with a Beverage/Kaz/EWE type antenna, but it does do a great job for what I have tried to do with it, especially in portable coastal DX. This is a cheaper alternative to another loop antenna that many DXers have taken a liking to in recent years, the Wellbrook series of loop antnnas. These are high performing antennas, broadband and amplified, just as the W6LVP loop is. The main difference is that, for US DXers at least, the Wellbrook carries a considerable price tag due to shipping. You will see many AM DXers reporting use of some variation of the Wellbrook ALA-1530 loop antenna and achieving great results! These are great options for any DXer tight on space or under covenant of an HOA or other neighborhood restrictions.
In recent years, however, a new phenomenon has begun to take hold in the AM DX community, especially among those using ultralight portable radios for Trans-oceanic DX: the ferrite. sleeve loop antenna (FSL). Famed Pacific Northwestern US DXer, Gary DeBock, has been experimenting with these FSLs for several years now and has achieved remarkable results. Through using FSLs of varying sizes, he has pulled in Trans-Pacific DX from Oregon and Washington that quite frankly boggles the mind. The best part is that some of the smaller models are portable and can even be stowed in luggage for air travel! They are not broadband by design, so do require some level of tuning to reach desired amounts of gain. There are some DXers though experimenting with a broadband version of the FSL that can be used with an SDR for entire band recording. This is an exciting innovation and one that I am keenly interested in following more myself! The video below shows Gary demonstrating one of his FSL antennas:
Many DXers will eventually look to add additional capability to their DX setup through the use of additional accessories.
One of the most popular tools in any AM Dxer's arsenal, especially those serious about pulling out elusive DX signals or combating with pesky local stations that clog the AM band, is a phaser. A phaser essentially pulls in the signals found on two different antennas and allows the DXer to adjust the level of signal phase to reduce or completely eliminate the signal of problem stations. That problem station can be a local station causing overloading or adjacent channel issues, or it could be any domestic station that is in the way of signals from a foreign DX station.
A popular model for many AM DXers is the Quantum Phaser from Radio Plus. Gerry Thomas has been putting out high quality phasing units for signal starved DXers for more than 20 years but does have plans to soon hang up his soldering iron in well-deserved retirement. This is the phaser unit I have in my own radio shack and can vouch that it is a superb help in nulling out unwanted stations and mining for the DX underneath. You can check out my video, below, that provides step-by-step on how to use a Quantum Phaser so you can see just how well they work!
There are a handful of phasers on the market besides the Quantum. SOme can be found on eBay, some on DX sites for a premium cost. You can also, if you are handy with that sort of thing, build your own. You can find details for models such as Mark Connelly's Superphaser-1 or Mini MWDX-6 unit that can help you get started.
Another helpful accessory for an AM DX with an outdoor loop antenna such as the W6LVP or the Wellbrook, is a small rotor. In the Van Horn shack, we are using a VH226F made by RCA. It's a small TV-antenna type rotor but works magically in allowing you to turn your outdoor loop to eliminate unwanted stations, or target specific areas.
RCA VH226F Antenna Rotor
Quantum Phaser by Radio Plus
W6LVP Magnetic Loop Antenna