NASWA Journal Columns · Equipment Reviews, October 1996

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

Equipment Reviews, October 1996

The Baygen Freeplay Portable Radio

The BayGen Freeplay is an innovative new product — a portable AM/FM/SW radio that requires no batteries! Power is provided by an internal spring-driven generator. It’s one of those “Why didn’t I think of that” products.

A Wind-Up Radio

The BayGen Freeplay radio incorporates the wind-up generator invented by Trevor Baylis. The user cranks a fold-out handle on the side of the radio to wind up a carbon steel spring. The clockwork spring then drives a DC generator though a transmission and the generator provides an output of about three volts to power the radio’s electronics. A full winding of the spring is accomplished with about 60 turns of the crank which takes about 20 seconds and the mechanical advantage provided by the handle makes winding the generator easy, although the radio needs to be steadied with the other hand. Once fully wound, the generator will power the radio for about 30 minutes. When the radio is switched off, the spring continues to unwind, although at a slower rate due to an electronic brake — but expect to rewind the radio if it is off for any significant length of time. If you get tired of cranking the radio, there is a coaxial socket for an external (optional) AC adapter capable of supplying 3 – 9 volts DC at approximately 200 milliamps.

There is a small amount of mechanical noise associated with the wind-up generator, but this is noticeable only when the volume control is set to minimum. There is also some apparent electrical noise that originates in the generator and this is more noticeable, although only on the shortwave band. It sounds like the radio frequency interference that is generated by automobile ignitions, i.e. a “popping” noise, and is very intermittent, both in timing and frequency. Perhaps some addtional filtering across the output of the generator will help this.

The Radio

The BayGen Freeplay is housed in a heavy-duty ABS plastic case that measures 15 3/4 x 12 1/2 x 8 inches. The size of the unit reminds me of one of those lunchboxes that holds a thermos in the lid. The radio weighs 6 3/4 pounds. Most of the space inside the unit is taken up by the generator mechanism. The frequency coverage is FM: 88 to 108 MHz, MW: 520 to 1600 kHz and SW: 5.8 to 18 MHz, at least on my model. According to the U.S. office, the SW frequency coverage for the current North American model is 3 to 12 MHz, a change which was made to allow for reception of the U.S. domestic stations which are currently using frequencies below 6 MHz. I personally prefer the higher frequency range coverage, since it allows for daytime reception of international broadcasters on the 22, 19 and 16 meter bands.

The generator crank handle is located on the right-hand side of the radio and the controls (volume, bandswitch, fast-tuning and power) are on the left side panel. There is a fine tuning control which is a large diameter disc that is mounted concentrically to the main tuning knob and projects in a thumb-wheel fashion through a cut-out in the upper left corner of the front panel. The dial is on the left side of the front panel and a 3.5 inch speaker is mounted in the center of the front panel. The black case is stylishly accented by the blue and yellow dial and logo marking.

The radio itself is the basic single-conversion design with analog “string and pointer” tuning. The nine megahertz of shortwave coverage is compressed into 2 3/4 inches of dial space. Frequency calibration marks are located at 5.8, 7, 8, 10, 13, 16 and 18 MHz. Calibration accuracy is rough, at best. It appears on casual inspection of the interior that the alignment adjustment points are not easy to get to for those who are inclined to tweak the dial calibration. This radio will teach those who are used to digitally tuned receivers how to use powerhouse stations as “dial markers” in order to interpolate the location of weaker stations. There is a small amount of backlash associated with the tuning, so the “fine-tuning” control is very useful in “rocking” the tuning to tune in a station. Because the radio uses single-conversion circuitry, images of strong signals can be found 910 kHz lower on the dial than the station’s actual frequency.

Sensitivity of the unit is good. I found that an additional 10 feet of wire clipped to the Freeplay’s 30 inch whip antenna boosted the sensitivity more on the higher end of the shortwave range than on the lower. The radio was very well-behaved when an outdoor wire antenna was connected without a lot of spurious signals occurring, at least during the daytime. Using an external power supply with a higher voltage (the radio is designed to handle nine volts maximum) than the 3 volts supplied by the wind-up generator also improved the radio’s sensitivity. Selectivity was surprisingly good – I was able to listen the BBC on 6,175 kHz, which is weak here in the West at night, without any splatter from R. Nederland on 6,165. This high level of selectivity does make the tuning of the radio rather sharp, which makes the fine-tuning control doubly appreciated. There is some “break-through” of local FM stations on the SW band, a phenomenon that is all too common with any plastic-cased radio. The sound of the radio is very enjoyable, especially on local FM stations. There is no earphone or headphone jack, however.

A Question Of Markets

The BayGen Freeplay radio is, at best, a pedestrian performer on shortwave. I would not recommend this radio to anyone who is looking for a first radio to serve as an introduction to shortwave – a digital model will provide better results and less-frustrating tuning. However, it’s a great radio to have to carry around the house and yard for listening to local stations and the major international broadcasters without having to worry about whether the batteries are fresh or not. It’s also great to have around for those times when the power goes out. (BayGen’s next mechanically powered product is supposedly a flashlight!).

In the North American and European markets, the BayGen Freeplay is somewhat of a novelty item. What is most exciting about this radio is its potential to expand the availability of information to the Third World, where its distribution is being subsidized by various humanitarian agencies. After the initial investment in the acquisition of the radio, the owner has unlimited, no-cost media access. Perhaps if the distribution is wide enough, we short-wave enthusiasts in developed countries will benefit from a resurgence of domestic shortwave broadcasting in the Third World to reach all those new Freeplay owners!

The list price for the BayGen Freeplay radio is $99.95 and is available through the major SW suppliers. There is a six month warranty. BayGen USA can be reached at 80 Amity Road, Warwick, NY 10990; (914) 258-5660 or (800) WIND 234; FAX (914) 258-3213. Their E-mail address is: and the Website is:

Note: The Christian Science Monitor for January 11, 1999, has an article about BayGen that links to this site and includes information about recent developments with BayGen radios.

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