Equipment Reviews, January 2006
The Eton E1XM Portable Receiver
This is probably the longest anticipated product release in the history of the radio industry. The Grundig Satellit 900 was announced in the 1996 edition of Passport To World Band Radio, with an anticipated release date of “early 1996”. It was to be the replacement for the Satellit 700. Here we are almost ten years later with (finally!) the introduction of the Eton E1, which has a physical appearance almost identical to the early prototypes of the Satellit 900. Interestingly, this renamed radio will receive satellite radio, a form of broadcasting that didn’t exist when the original Satellits were produced. It is produced by Eton, which took over Grundig’s radio line and the new receiver is manufactured in India. Allegedly, the R. L. Drake Co. was involved with the engineering of the radio, which I think is entirely likely as it shares several features with the Satellit 800 and Drake appears to be providing service support. The street price is $500. Was it worth the wait? Is it worth the price?—let’s see.
This is a big radio, although certainly not on the scale of the boom-box style Satellit 800. It measures 13.1 x 7.1 x 2.3 inches (WxHxD) and weighs 4 pounds without batteries. This compares with 12.25 x 7.25 x 3 inches and 4 pounds for the Satellit 700, 11.4 x 6.25 x 2.25 inches and 4 pounds for the Sony ICF-2010 and 11 x 7 x 2 inches and 3.25 pounds for the Sony ICF-SW77. Although the measurements are similar, the E1 seems to dwarf the Sonys when they are lined up side-by-side on a table. The extra size is put to good use, as the E1 has a 4 inch speaker and 4.5 x 3.3 inch LCD display with four levels of backlighting (including off). The display shows frequency, time (either local or GMT) in 24 hour format, S-meter, squelch setting and selections for the 13 pushbuttons arranged along the bottom and right side of the display which set the various operating parameters. The case is finished with a pliable rubberized material that feels nice, but picks up skin oils well, although these are easily removed with a soft cloth. The tilt stand that folds out from the back of the case tilts the radio to a very ergonomic angle and is stable. The main anomaly in the case design is that there is no handle with which to carry this “portable” radio! Frequency coverage is from 100 kHz to 30 MHz and the FM coverage can be selected via the menu to be either 76 to 90 MHz or 87 to 108 MHz. The radio is powered by a supplied AC adapter cube (three prong grounded design) or by 4 internal “D” cell batteries. Installing the batteries entails flipping open the battery door on the lower left of the front panel, removing a second battery door and sliding the batteries into the battery holder. Alternatively, the radio can be powered by an external source of 7 to 15 volts DC. Maximum current drain using an external 9 volt supply is 900 mA, but this drops when using batteries to 175 mA in FM mode, 210 mA on LW/MW/SW and 350 mA in XM mode (latter three figures with backlighting off).
“Pro” Features Galore
One of my complaints over the years has been that radio manufacturers don’t seem to pay attention to what listeners want in a radio. This is not the case with the E1, as it appears that a lot of thought went into this radio’s design. This is certainly not a communications receiver, but it is certainly capable of more than just casual program listening. For starters are the well-chosen IF filter bandwidths of 7.0, 4.0 and 2.3 kHz (manufacturer’s specifications). The 7 kHz is great for program listening “in the clear”, the 4 kHz is a good choice for listening to broadcasts under interference conditions and the 2.3 kHz is a good width for listening to amateur SSB signals or using ECSS technique for DX. Based on photographs of a disassembled E1 at: http://www.radiointel.com/review-etonE1photo.htm, the IF filters are metal cased units, which tend to have better shape factors than the smaller, cheaper plastic cube units used in many portables. The shape factors at the -6/-60 dB points as listed in the manual are 1.7, 2.25 and 2.17 from wide to narrow. The SSB selectivity is further improved by the “Enhanced SSB” feature which can be enabled from the Radio Settings menu. Engaging this feature turns on an audio phasing circuit that attenuates the undesired sideband by an additional 30 dB.
Another tuning control that distinguishes the E1 as a connoisseur’s portable is the Passband Tuning (PBT) control. This front panel knob shifts the passband by +/- 2 kHz in 100 Hz steps and works in all modes (including Sync) except FM and XM. This permits shifting the passband to enhance intelligibility/fidelity, even when a narrower filter is selected to reduce interference. I found the PBT to be very useful when used with the 4 kHz filter in AM or Sync modes and even permits use of the 2.3 kHz filter in AM mode when interference is particularly marked. Additionally, when Enhanced ssb is selected in the options menu the PBT can be used to reduce the nominal filter bandwidth by tuning the PBT to the opposite sideband. This worked well for me when listening in SSB mode with the 2.3 kHz filter. The E1 also has selectable Fast/Slow AGC (but no Off position or RF gain control), which is rarely seen in a portable receiver. There is also an “Auto” AGC setting, which switches to Fast when the radio is being tuned and goes back to Slow once the radio is tuned to a station. Instead of an RF gain control, the front panel “DX” pushbutton switches in a 10 dB RF preamplifier. There is a squelch control which has a graphic display just below the S meter. When the squelch control is engaged, only signals stronger than the squelch setting will be received. The visual feedback provided makes the squelch a pleasure to use.
The E1’s tuning flexibilty sets it apart from other portables. The minimum tuning step is 10 Hertz, which makes ECSS tuning possible—a rare feature in portable receivers. The tuning rate can be set to either 10, 100 or 1,000 Hertz in MW or SW AM/Sync mode (10 and 1,000 Hertz in SSB mode) by pressing the “Fast/Tuning Lock” pushbutton—tuning lock is engaged by pressing and holding the button for two seconds. The 1.25 inch diameter tuning knob turns smoothly and tunes without chuffing. Although there is no tuning dimple on the knob, I’m able to spin it easily with my thumb when the radio is angled on its fold-out stand. Keypad tuning is available, and can be set to enter frequencies in either MHz or kHz formats. The radio tunes automatically when all display digits are filled or by pressing the decimal point key as an “Enter” key. This varies with the minimum tuning step selected—i.e. if the tuning step is set for one kHz, entering 9755 kHz requires two presses of the “.” button to enter the frequency, while entering frequencies of 10,000 kHz or above requires no pressing of the decimal point key. The Select pushbar will step the tuning up or down in 5 kHz steps on SW, 9 or 10 kHz on MW and 100 kHz in FM mode. The radio can also be tuned to the low end of the standard international broadcasting meter bands by pressing the SW/Band key and either keying in the meter band numeric designation or selecting a meter band with the tuning knob or Select bar—this is a nice feature for bandscanning the various broadcasting bands. A Seek tuning feature is available which steps through the shortwave bands in 5 kHz steps and stops on signals that exceed the squelch setting.
The Sony ICF-2010 set the standard for synchronous detection in a portable, but the E1 exceeds that standard. The sync allows for selection of either sideband or double sideband. All filters are available in sync mode and the PBT can be used in sync mode, although the sync has to relock when the PBT is adjusted. The sync locks quickly and holds lock well even during deep fades. The sync detector’s ability to reject the undesired sideband is exceptional. I did encounter some occasions where the sync would lose lock if there was a very nearby (less than one kHz) interfering station or on very deep signal fades.
Yes, the E1 has them—1700 to be exact. The first five hundred channels are displayed as ten channels per screen. Memory channels store frequency, mode, bandwidth, AGC and PBT setting, sync setting and can be labelled with up to 14 alphanumeric characters. The Select bar can be used to switch between memory pages and the tuning knob can be used to select memory channels on a particular page. The remaining 1200 memory channels are used by the “Country” pages with 10 channels per country ranging from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. This takes up 1110 channels with the remaining 90 channels available for custom assignments. The country names can be edited, but the stored channels on a country page cannot be labelled. I’m not a big user of receiver memory channels, but I found the Country memory scheme to be very user friendly. The 90 unlabelled channels in the country memories permits having nine screens of 10 channels per screen which could be used for favorite listening targets such as pirates or utilities. The country memory screens can be quickly stepped through by holding down the Select bar. All memory channels can be scanned or only tagged memory channels can be scanned. In either scanning mode the squelch control can be set so that only signals of a certain strength are received. In the tagged scan mode (only), the radio can be set to either stop on a channel for 5 seconds and then resume scanning or to remain on the channel as long as the signal strength exceeds the squelch setting. This choice is made through the Radio Settings menu.
Another area that shows a great deal of thought are the audio inputs and outputs. There are 1/8 inch stereo in and out jacks which allow connecting a CD, MP3 player, etc. to the E1 and playing it through the radio or connecting a tape recorder to the radio for recording. The line out jack is independent of the volume and tone controls. I used it to feed the E1’s audio to my computer speakers. There is a 1/8 inch mono jack for an external speaker and a 1/8 inch stereo jack for headphones—the headphone output is true stereo for FM and XM only. Some E1 owners on the Yahoo E1 group complained that headphones only worked if the plug was only partially inserted into the jack, but this was not a problem on my unit. The external antenna jack is a PAL connector which is used for TV antenna connections in Europe but is unusual here in North America. Radio Shack sells a PAL to F adapter or PAL connectors can be purchased on eBay (plastic body) or from MCM Electronics (metal body) for those who want to make their own antenna cables. Universal Radio has a very nice adapter consisting of a in-line SO-239 connector and female PAL connector joined with 10 inches of coaxial cable. This permits using the common PL-259 connector and the short length of cable takes the strain off the E1’s antenna jack. There are antenna switches (one for FM and one for HF) to select between the internal 39 inch whip antenna and the external antenna jack. The antenna selection is shown on the display—be sure to check the switch first if the radio seems deaf—I’ve gotten fooled by it! The only output that is missing is a timer relay output to control a tape recorder—this can be worked around by using a tape recorder with voice activation mode.
The radio is programmed to recognize whether it is being powered by batteries or external power. The maximum audio output power decreases to 1.25 watts when on batteries from the maximum of 3 watts on external power. The display backlighting becomes momentary under battery power, coming on for a few seconds following control inputs. Similarly, the backlighting comes on briefly when the radio is turned off while on batteries vs. staying on at a dim level (can be set to off) when the radio is off. The “Light” button on the top of the radio can be pressed momentarily to provide 10 seconds of illumination or can be held down for three seconds to provide continuous illumination.
A unique intelligent feature of the E1 is the automatic clock setting function. If the radio is powered from the AC adapter and is powered off, the radio will tune to WWV and set the clock automatically. The internal antenna must be extended or an external antenna must be connected for this feature to work. The auto clock setting can be defeated through the clock menu, if desired. While on the subject of clocks, the E1 has two timers, each with independently settable on/off times.
The E1 is, simply put, a joy to operate. All the rotary controls work smoothly and the knobs are reasonably sized. The tuning is smooth, without chuffing. The pushbuttons have a solid, non-wobbly feel with positive action. The display is sharp and clear and is readable within a range of 30 degrees above and below the perpendicular to the display face—using the tilt out stand puts the radio at a good angle for desktop use and operation. Universal Radio sells a plastic stand ($14.95) which puts the radio into a more upright position. There is a contrast control for the display behind the battery door.
I used the E1 with a ten inch Hallicrafters speaker which the radio drove with ease, but the built-in speaker provides full, rich sound on its own. I used a Wellbrook ALA330s active loop antenna and had no problems with front-end overload, even with the radio’s pre-amp engaged. I also checked with my other outdoor antennas and the radio’s front-end remained well-behaved. I was unable to detect any significant birdies as I tuned across the spectrum, although my testing was limited by an increased amount of external rectification at my station since the weather has gotten cold. Any strange noises/buzzes I heard on the E1 (with no antenna connected and antenna switch set to “external”) could also be heard on a Sony 2010 as well.
The functions all worked as advertised. The ability to combine sideband sync detection, narrow filters and passband tuning make the E1 a formidable competitor. The sync detector holds lock very well and the opposite sideband rejection is very good. This is more than just a program listening portable radio. I think it would make for a easy to transport radio for serious listening in the field or on DXpeditions.
One potential benefit of the E1 is its capability to receive XM satellite radio. This requires the purchase of an external antenna/receiver module which plugs into the right side of the radio. I used the Audiovox CNP1000 XM module, which sells for around $50, to test the radio’s XM capability. XM activation costs $9.95 and the service costs $12.95 per month. I placed the antenna out on my air conditioning unit, turned it to face south-east, ran the 25 ft. cable to the radio and I had XM. I had been resistant to trying satellite radio, but must admit I enjoy having access to many genres of commercial-free music. I personally prefer Sirius, since it carries BBC World Service, CBC Radio One, PRI, two NPR streams and the World Radio Network, while XM only has the BBC and one public radio channel. The XM BBC stream is the Americas stream, which has feature programs as well as news and Sirius carries the news-oriented PRI stream. The best way to decide between the two services is to go to their websites, compare the programming lineups and subscribe for a free trial on-line subscription which lets you listen for three days on your computer.
To see how the E1 stacked up against other portables, especially the “gold standard” Sony ICF-2010, I put fresh batteries in the E1, a ‘2010 and a Sony ICF-SW77 and lined them up on the dining room table, using just the radio’s built-in whip antennas. I was surprised to find that both Sonys were more sensitive than the Eton, requiring that I switch in the pre-amp on the Eton to receive stations that could be received with the ‘2010 set to “DX” and the SW77 set to “Normal”. So, the Eton would probably benefit from some additional antenna wire clipped to the whip. However, the E1’s addtion of a 4 kHz filter and PBT allowed for better recovery of intelligible audio, even though the signals were weaker. I did notice that using the AC adapter with the E1 boosted signal strengths by 3 to 4 S units, but this phenomenon occurred with all three portables. This is most likely due to coupling of the antenna/ground to the AC mains, since just using a 12 volt battery as the external power supply for the E1 made no difference in signal levels. The E1 had the fullest sound—the ‘2010 had a “crisper” sound, since it has a smaller speaker, hence less bass response. Both the E1 and the SW77 have separate bass and treble tone controls which really helps to tailor the audio response. The ability of the sync detectors to hold lock during fading was about equal among the three radios. The E1 has much better SSB/ECSS reception capability due to its 10 hertz minimum tuning step versus 50 kHz for the ‘2010 and SW77. In addition, I preferred the tuning knob on the E1, which is closer to that of a “real radio”, unlike the side wheel of the ‘2010 and tuning disc on the SW77. The ‘2010 has 32 memory channels (which are easy to use since each channel has a dedicated front panel button), the SW77 has 162 which can be labelled with station identifiers and the E1 has 1700 memory channels.
Unfortunately, no radio is perfect and the E1 does have some faults, which may bother some users more than others. The things that bugged me the most are that the radio is not “spot-on” frequency and there is an asymmetry in the tonal response of the filters. When zero-beating an AM station in SSB mode I had to tune up 60 Hertz from the station’s actual frequency on one E1 sample and 90 Hertz on another. The variation didn’t seem to change significantly with temperature or with length of time that the radio was on. This doesn’t affect the operation of the radio, but you have do have to do some mental math if you use zero-beating to determine a station’s exact frequency. Apparently there is an adjustment that can be made to improve the frequency accuracy, but it is not recommended that users try this, since it requires circuit board removal. In fairness to Eton, the stated specification for frequency accuracy is +/- 100 Hertz, so both units are within spec. What bothered me more was that there was more audio treble and “brightness” in LSB, both in SSB and AM Sync modes. This was more pronounced when using the 4 and 2.3 kHz filters, less so with the 7 kHz filter. This was with the PBT turned off and the radio tuned to zero-beat. I’m not sure if the cause is due to the filters themselves or due to a misalignment of oscillators within the radio. This phenomenon can be compensated for by adjustment of the PBT.
Other deficiencies I noted were the previously mentioned lack of a carrying handle, which means that two hands are usually needed to move the radio about. One lack that some owners may find very problematic is the absence of an internal ferrite rod antenna for LW/MW reception (the E1 uses its whip antenna for these frequency ranges). The lack of such an antenna means that the radio can’t be rotated to null out interfering stations on mediumwave. Mediumwave DXers will probably want to use an external loop or ferrite rod antenna for best results. One minor annoyance for me was the tone controls—the bass and treble turnover points are set too low and too high respectively to be optimally useful on shortwave due to its inherent narrower bandwidth, although they work work well on FM and XM. The treble control did work well to reduce high frequency hiss on shortwave. Some users have complained that there seems to be a lot of hiss in the audio—I didn’t notice excessive hiss on mine, at least not more than I would expect with a 7 kHz bandwidth filter. There is no noise blanker on the radio, but I seldom use them anyway.
The bottom line
I think the Sony ICF-2010 finally has a worthy successor in the Eton E1. This radio has features that will be extremely useful to the serious listener, but is easy enough to use for the casual listener. I would consider it to be an upgrade of the Drake SW8, as regards its performance and features. While it is not truly a portable, due primarily to its size, weight and lack of a handle, it is certainly transportable. I do not feel that it is a complete replacement for a desktop receiver, especially for anyone with room for a decent outdoor antenna and who is interested in utility listening or serious DXing. The E1 has no competition in the premium portable range (there aren’t any others anymore), but the Icom R75 and Winradio G-303 are only slightly more expensive and offer better performance for utility listening, although they require outdoor antennas, are not self-contained and don’t offer FM or XM reception.
For those who want more information on this radio, I would recommend joining the Yahoo E1 group at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ETON-E1-XM-Radio/ and follow the discussions there. The owner’s manual and quick start guides can be downloaded in PDF format from the files section of the Yahoo group. The E1 is available from several sources, including Universal Radio and Grove, as well as from general electronics retailers such as Circuit City and Sharper Image. Sharper Image has had the E1 on sale for 15% and 20% off for brief periods. Initially, the E1 was in short supply, but the radio now appears to be readily available from most sources. I would like to thank George Zeller and Jerry Berg (both satisfied E1 owners) for their input for this review.