NASWA Journal Columns · Equipment Reviews, March 1996

Alan Johnson, N4LUS • 2490 Sharon Way • Reno, NV 89509 alanjohnson◊

Equipment Reviews, March 1996

A Hamfest Shopping Guide

Since there is currently a seeming dearth of new receivers and equipment to review (although it appears that the new AOR-7030 has been released in the European market) and since Spring is just around the corner, I thought that I would step back in time and take a look at receivers that may be appearing at hamfests and swapmeets near you in the coming months. Older receivers have a lot going for them–the older tube units may represent a nostalgic return to our youth for the older listener or may be an introduction to older technology and operating techniques for the younger ones. The later solid-state receivers are an excellent step-up from portables for the frugal hobbyist or newcomer. Either type can serve well as a second receiver for band-scanning, DX station spotting or, especially in the case of the tube units, program listening. The one main caveat concerning some of the older units are the poor frequency resolution of the dials. Accurate and precise frequency readout is something that we now take for granted with PLL frequency synthesis and digital readouts, but it wasn’t always this way. That’s why there may seem to be an excess emphasis in this review of the tuning resolution of particular receivers.

This compendium will be highly personal and subjective, but I hope to point out particular features that may make one unit more attractive than another. The rating criteria will be based primarily on usability, not collecting value. I will try to provide broad price ranges, but take these with a grain of salt, as collecting the older receivers has become quite popular lately, and prices have risen as a result. I will list the receivers by manufacturers and may not mention all the receivers that were made by a particular firm. For more specific information, there are two main sources that I most highly recommend: Shortwave Receivers Past and Present by Fred Osterman and Communications Receivers: The Vacuum Tube Era by Raymond S. Moore. These are available from the major SW suppliers. Other useful sources for more detailed info on specific receivers are back issues of the World Radio-TV Handbook and Radio Receivers: Chance Or Choice by Rainer Lichte. The classified ads in the back of ham radio magazines, the swap sections on computer BBS’s and the buy/sell newsletters such as the Ham Trader Yellow Sheets are the best source to determine current pricing for radios.

ALLIED (KNIGHT)–Allied was a large mail-order firm that sold receivers from many manufacturers as well as their own brand. The most “serious” receiver they made was the SX-190 from the early ‘70’s. This radio featured one kHz analog frequency readout and covered the 49 through 16 meter broadcasting bands, as well as the 80 and 20 meter ham bands in 500 kHz ranges. It is a solid-state, dual conversion design and was considered a good buy in its day. Beware of the AX-190, which is the ham-band only version. Prices should be under $100. In the late 50’s to early 60’s, Allied produced the R-55, R-100 and R-100A which were medium quality, single conversion tube units. There was also the very inexpensive Star Roamer which is of nostalgic interest only. The Ocean Hopper and Span Master were regenerative units which do not have much practicality for listening today, other than the “fun factor” of a regen set. The Ocean Hopper has become quite collectible, and if you find one with all the plug-in coils, it may be relatively expensive.

BARLOW-WADLEY–The Barlow-Wadley XCR-30 was a general coverage portable that utilized the “Wadley Loop” design that resulted in good stability and direct frequency readout to 5 kHz. This circuit was quite an innovation in its time and was later put to very good use in the Yaesu FRG-7. The XCR-30 is quirky to tune but still quite usable and has a BFO for SSB/CW reception. These are hard to find as most people hold on to them due to their uniqueness. My guess at current pricing would be $100 to $200.

COLLINS–The Collins R-390A has been a mainstay of hamfests for years. This is a large, heavy general coverage receiver with one kHz dial readout using a unique “odometer” display. The units are rugged and very good performers with excellent selectivity due to mechanical filters. Several NASWA members still use these as their primary receivers. Other Collins units to look for are the 51J series and the 51S-1. The 51J came in four different models with suffixes 1 through 4, and was built during the 1950’s. The 51J-4 is the preferred model, since it uses mechanical filters for improved selectivity. The 51J-3 model is probably the most common, in its military designation of R-388. There was also a military version of the 51J-4, the R-388A. The 51S-1 was a premium “laboratory grade” receiver that was built during the ‘60’s and commands a premium price due to its scarcity.

All of the above receivers are general coverage tube units, with a frequency range of 0.5 to 30 MHz. Collins also made amateur receivers, the 75A and 75S series. The 75S-3C has provisions for adding additional crystals to provide coverage of frequencies outside the ham bands, but each crystal only adds 200 kHz of coverage, so reconfiguring it for SWL use can get expensive.

DRAKE–R. L. Drake receivers show up quite commonly at hamfests, since they were quite popular in their day due to their good performance at a reasonable price. The company built both ham-band only models as well as SWL-specific radios. The first SWL receiver they made was the SW-4, which was quickly updated to the SW-4A. This was a hybrid (tubes and transistors) double conversion receiver with analog readout to one kHz. Frequency coverage was in 500 kHz segments, covering LW, MW and SWBC from 49 to 11 meters. The radio has no BFO, so it only receives AM mode signals. The SPR-4 was a later model which was all solid-state and supported CW/SSB reception and had three IF bandwidths, rather than the single value of the SW-4A. It had essentially the same frequency coverage as the SW-4A, but had room for an additional 14 crystals to expand the radio’s coverage. This was a very popular SWL receiver in its day and is still used by many listeners. The SSR-1 receiver was a Wadley loop receiver that was built for Drake in Japan and does not have the reputation for performance that is enjoyed by its U.S. built siblings. The above radios are usually seen in the $100 to $250 range, with the SPR-4 being at the higher end, especially if equipped with additional crystals and other accessories, such as a crystal calibrator or noise blanker.

The premium Drake SWL receiver (until the advent of the R8 and R8A) was the R-7/R-7A, which was manufactured in the late ‘70’s and early 80’s. This set featured full general coverage, digital readout and excellent overall performance. The R-7 is still used by many as a standard to evaluate more modern receivers. It featured excellent selectivity due to its crystal filters and passband tuning. Expect to pay a lot, if you can find one. One interesting variant to look for is the R-4245, which was a professional grade R-7, with full frequency synthesis (the R-7 used an analog VFO). These are very rare.

The Drake hamband receivers are also worth looking for, since they can be expanded to SW coverage with additional crystals (each crystal adds 500 kHz of extra coverage). The models which are most desirable are the 2-B (look for one with the external 2BQ speaker/Q-multiplier), the R-4B and the R-4C. In its day the R-4B was preferred by SWL’s, since the narrower IF bandwidths and passband tuner were usable in AM mode. The R-4C used higher quality crystal IF filters, but passband tuning was only available in CW\SSB mode. All of these models offered direct analog frequency readout to one kHz. The nice thing about Drake receivers is that support is still available from Drake.

GALAXY–Galaxy primarily made ham transceivers, but their one receiver, the solid-state R530 may show up from time to time. It was full general coverage and used a novel frequency synthesis approach to provide one kHz dial readout. The main disadvantage to using the set for SWL’ing is that the only bandwidth that was standard was 2.1 kHz, which is a bit narrow for broadcast listening. There was an optional 6.0 kHz filter for AM mode.

GRUNDIG–I have not seen many Grundig portable receivers at hamfests, but their larger Satellit models are worth keeping an eye out for, since they offer superb sound quality for program listening.

HALLICRAFTERS–Hallicrafters must have been the most prolific manufacturers during radio’s golden years. The company produced a wide array of models of varying price and sophistication. Nearly all of the models of interest to the SWL feature a general coverage dial with bandspread tuning. This arrangement (which is common among nearly all of the classic tube-era receivers) can make tuning to a specific frequency very difficult. For example, the 31 meter band might represent 1/2” on the main dial and the entire range may be covered by one half or less revolution of the main tuning knob. The bandspread tuning provides for a slower speed fine-tuning, but the bandspread tuning dial is usually only calibrated for the ham bands or may have an arbitrary 0-100 logging scale. That is why SW stations developed the habit of playing interval signals prior to the start of their transmissions–the listener could slowly tune until he identified the distinctive signal for the desired station and then be on frequency for the program. Fortunately, for those so inclined, an external digital display can be hooked up to most of these older rigs for precise tuning.

Like many other manufacturers, Hallicrafters produced both general coverage and ham band only receivers. A close examination of the main tuning dial as well as the bandswitch markings will tell which type of receiver you’re looking at. As a general rule, any Hallicrafters receiver with a black crinkle-finish front panel was produced during or before World War II. These older receivers may require more TLC to get up and running than later models. In my opinion, the best models for the SW hobbyist are the SX-100 and the SX-122 because of their dual conversion design and excellent selectivity, but any of the Hallicrafters will provide lots of “glow in the dark” fun.

HAMMARLUND–The Hammarlund Company was a contemporary of Hallicrafters and, to my mind, produced a line of radios that was higher in quality. These receivers have the same problem of poor frequency readout precision. Also, there are ham-band only models as well, so look carefully. Popular models include the HQ-129X, HQ-150, HQ-160 and HQ-180, with the latter still a very popular radio–probably the best of the consumer grade all-tube radios. Hammarlund also made the SP-600 “Super Pro” for military/commercial applications, which is also a coveted receiver among collectors.

HEATHKIT–Many of us got our start in this hobby by building a Heathkit radio, therefore there is a high nostalgia value associated with them. Heath produced a wide range of SW radios over the years from the “bare bones” AR series of the 1950’s to the digital SW-7800 of the 1980’s. In between were the GR and SB series. The GR-64 was a four tube single conversion design produced for a minimum of price and performance (my first radio!) and the GR-54 was slightly more expensive, with better performance. The SW-717 is an all solid state version of the GR-64. The SB-310 (my second receiver) was Heath’s version of the contemporary Collins/Drake units with reception limited to a number of 500 kHz segments of the SW spectrum and featuring one kHz frequency readout. The radio has good performance but lacks tropical band coverage. The SB-313 was a later, transistorized version. The SB-300, 301 and 303 are ham band only receivers. The SW-7800 was felt to be a poor performer when it was introduced. The really cool Heathkits for collectors are the GC-1 and GR-78 portables and the GR-81 regenerative set. I must mention here a new book “Heathkit: A Guide to the Amateur Radio Products” by Chuck Penson which has photos and descriptions of all of Heath’s radio related gear.

HOWARD–Howard was a company that built communications receivers prior to World War II. These are rare, in my experience, and would best be categorized as “antiques”.

ICOM–Since most listeners want the latest and greatest radios, fairly recent models show up for sale as used models. These sets can represent great values for listeners on a budget or for those who are seeking to upgrade from a portable receiver. Although the Icom R-70 lacks many of the bells and whistles of later receivers such as keypad frequency entry and memory channels, it can offer solid basic performance at a reasonable price. The later R-71A can also be found used, although not as cheaply as the R-70.

JAPAN RADIO–Believe it or not, I have seen at least one JRC NRD-515 for sale at a hamfest, for a very good price. The NRD-515 was made at about the same time as the Drake R-7 and the Icom R-70. It is a solid performer, but was only capable of keypad tuning and frequency memorization with the addition of outboard options. The NRD-515 is a true classic and still sought after. The successor NRD-525 can also be found used, since many ‘525 owners upgraded to the NRD-535. The earlier NRD-505 is a very collectable radio, but very scarce.

KENWOOD–Kenwood has lost some of its lustre as a market leader since it hasn’t produced a new SWL receiver since the R-5000 was introduced in 1986. Kenwood made PLL frequency synthesis and direct digital frequency readout affordable and popular with the R-1000 which was introduced in 1979. The R-1000 offers solid, no-frills performance. The R-600 was a compact, stripped-down version of the R-1000. The R-2000 offered features between the R-1000 and R-5000 and can probably be found used at a good price since it never seemed to be very popular.

LAFAYETTE–Lafayette Radio was Allied’s main competitor during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. They also offered a variety of imported SW radios, both tube and solid-state. None were stellar performers, so I would put them in the “fun to operate” category, if the price is right.

LOWE–This British manufacturer does not have a long history (at least in the U.S.) but builds great radios. Look for used HF-150’s and HF-225’s (especially the Europa version of the latter) as new models are introduced in the coming year.

McKAY-DYMEK–This California company built very unusual radios during the 1970’s. They were styled to resemble hi-fi components and were supposed to offer good quality audio reproduction. They also used a unique tuning method in which each digit of the frequency was controlled by a separate knob. Unfortunately, they were prone to front-end overload from strong local signals and the tuning method made it hard to band-scan. The usual model seen is the DR-33. These radios are of more interest to the collector than the listener.

NATIONAL–This was another premier radio manufacturer of the ‘30’s through the ‘60’s. There were two main product lines: the premium HRO series and the more moderately priced NC series. The HRO used plug-in coil sets, at least until the solid-state HRO 500 appeared in 1964, so if you buy one, make sure the coils are with it. The one drawback to the HRO’s is that bandspread tuning is only available on the ham bands, so the tuning rate when the coil sets are set for general coverage is very fast. The NC series is better suited for SWL use–look for the NC-183D or NC-190, which were more advanced dual conversion designs. The NC-300 and NC-303 are ham-band only radios.

PANASONIC–Panasonic was a major force in the portable SW radio market in the 1970’s, with several of their models incorporating the major technological advance of digital frequency display.The analog RF-2200 was a favorite (the radio I bought to get back into the hobby in 1978). The more expensive RF-2600 and RF-2900 incorporated digital frequency readout. The RF-4800 and the improved version, the RF-4900, were desktop models. I wish Panasonic hadn’t dropped out of the market–these were good radios and they could have given Sony a run for their money.

PHILIPS/MAGNAVOX–This company produced two very good portables in the mid-’80’s. There was the compact D2935 (check to make sure the membrane switches work and aren’t cracked if you find one) and the larger D2999 which was reported to have very good sound quality–it had a two-way speaker built-in.

RACAL–Racal is still producing professional grade receivers. Numerous models appear on the surplus market from time to time. The latest model that is commonly available is the RA6790, which was produced in the mid-1980’s. Prices are usually around $1000.

RCA–Although primarily known for consumer broadcast radios, RCA built the outstanding AR-88 and CR-88 during World War II. For some reason, most of these ended up in England and are hard to find here–if you see one at an affordable price, snap it up.

REALISTIC–Radio Shack became the successor to Allied and Lafayette in the 1970’s, and even sold the SX-190 after Tandy bought out Allied. Their most famous receivers are the DX-150 and DX-160, which were single conversion, solid state, analog slide-rule dial receivers. This are more for fun use rather than real DX’ing, although they were responsible for many loggings over the years. Radio Shack entered the digital age with the DX-300 and DX-302 which used a variation on the Wadley loop design. The DX-302 is the preferred model since it offered a choice of two IF filters, while the DX-300 used audio filtering for its Wide/Narrow bandwidth. Both are prone to overload and are quite “twitchy” to tune properly, which is a boon for confirmed knob twiddlers. The DX-100 is a complete dog, of interest to collectors only, and the DX-200 is not much better. The DX-400 was a relabeled Uniden CR-2021 and was a good portable in its day.

RME–Radio Manufacturing Engineers built communications receivers during the ‘30’s, but after WWII primarily built ham receivers. The RME-79 and RME-84 were post-war general coverage receivers.

SANGEAN–This Taiwanese company has made a name for itself in the portable market and currently makes most of Radio Shack’s SW radios. The one to look for used is the ATS-803 which is a fine portable and should be available for $100 or less.

SONY–There is a plethora of older models from this Japanese giant, ranging from inexpensive analog dial models to upscale digital portables. The ICF-2001 started the keypad tuning revolution, but be sure to get an AC adapter, as it’s a real battery hog. The ICF-5900 was one of the last analog portables that offered accurate frequency readout, similar to the scheme that was used by the Panasonic RF-2200. The CRF-1 is the status rig, which originally sold for $1500, along with the ICF-6800W, which is a shoebox sized portable with good sound and performance. Avoid the ‘6700W, which is a look-alike with poor performance. ICF-2010’s and ICF-2002 (and later variations) abound and are still very serviceable portables, especially the ‘2010 (I’m looking for one in fact).

SQUIRES-SANDERS–This company made a couple of cutting edge models in the ‘60’s. They were expensive and are therefore quite rare. The SS-1R was the ham receiver and the SS-1BS covered the international broadcasting bands. If you really want to make me jealous, find the matching SS-1V panoramic bandscope.

TME–The Technical Materiel Corporation built professional grade general coverage tube units in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Look for the GPR-90, -91 and -92.

YAESU–This company produced the “Volksradio” of the late 1970’s–the FRG-7, which popularized the Wadley loop circuit, which allowed general coverage reception with frequency readout to 5 kHz across the HF spectrum. These are very common and even Sears sold them for a while. The usual price is around $100. They are very good for a second or standby receiver and can be powered with internal D cells for portable use. The successor FRG-7000 is basically a FRG-7 with a digital frequency display and a digital clock. The FRG-7700 is a fully synthesized unit and a reasonable performer (wish I hadn’t sold the one I had!). The FRG-8800 added keypad tuning, but wasn’t considered a red-hot performer in its time.

ZENITH–The Trans-Oceanic series was a long running series of classy portables. They offer great sound and reasonable performance. They have become quite popular collector’s items lately, which has driven the price up (thanks a lot, Bryant and Cones!). They are worth buying if in good condition.

ACCESSORIES–Don’t overlook such useful auxiliary items such as external speakers, antenna tuners, preselectors, etc. which can often be picked up quite cheaply. Hamfests are usually also good sources for tubes, coaxial cable and antenna wire.

Happy Hunting! and don’t be afraid to bargain with the seller. If you live in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, I can tell you from personal experience that it’s hamfest heaven. If you live in that area, pick up a copy of Auto-Call magazine at your favorite local radio store to get a listing of the upcoming hamfests. In other areas, check with local hams or check the listing in QST magazine at the library.

Read more Equipment Reviews columns.


  1. Elizabeth Kays said:

    I am looking for a schematic on the Panasonic Model RF-2200. My Dad is desperate to get his working again, though his local repairman cannot find a schematic on this model. Make an old man happy!


    January 14, 2006 at 10:43 pm

  2. Ralph Brandi said:


    One source I found for the RF-2200 service manual is A.G. Tannenbaum in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Check out I haven’t used their service, so this isn’t a recommendation, per se, just a pointer.

    I have an RF-2200, and while it’s not the radio I use every day, it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy using it a lot. Good luck.

    January 15, 2006 at 1:04 pm

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