How would you like to be able to tune in more distant radio stations, particularly, but not exclusively AM stations, than you ever thought possible?  Would you like to receive weaker, local radio broadcasts with more clarity than ever before?  Would you like to own one really cool radio?  If you’re a talk radio junkie, I recently tested THE must-have tabletop portable, the CCRadio.  I also have recommendations for other methods that will improve AM performance.Most consumers buy a radio for the home or office based first upon visual appeal and then having a look at basic features as may or may not be understood.  Clock?  Digital or old-fashioned tuning along an analog scale?  Battery or AC powered?  AM/FM?  These are the basics.  Most of us assume that performance will be adequate for our needs.  Few among us are aware that there are performance options that could make a dramatic difference in the overall satisfaction with the radio.  There are differences.  OK, so most of you haven’t thought of this stuff.  That’s why I play with this my “toys” and tell you all about them!

Like the growing legions who love to listen to radio, I think it’s fun and exciting to search for far off stations not normally available to us.  (I also like a nice stroll along the beach, a chilled bottle of slightly sweet white wine and a couple of hours at my favorite sushi bar, but that’s another story.)  I became interested in AM radio performance many years ago when, as a child with apparently nothing better to do, I discovered that, especially at night, there was an entire new universe of stations available. Stations from far away could be heard with new and different talent and points of view. Commercials from far away markets were new to me and often quite interesting and entertaining.  Some of these distant stations boomed in loud and clear at night while others were alternately strong and then faded away or were consistently weak and barely discernable.  As the night became day, these new evening friends left until after the new darkness fell and the cycle started again.  (Pretty poetic, huh?)

I designed and implemented Rube Goldberg-esque concoctions of long wires strung outside leading back to cobbled connections inside some of my old radios in an effort to enhance their ability to receive distant AM broadcasts.  In recent years, I looked for more efficient receivers and found a few, most notably the legendary Sony 2010 and the GE SuperRadio, now in its third generation.

The Sony is a portable all-band receiver, which means it receives AM/FM/ the full spectrum of Short Wave bands and more.  At a cost of over $400 when purchased about 10 years ago, the 2010 was then a stellar performer and remains today a highly regarded receiver.  It is loaded with features and capabilities designed for the enthusiast and not as just a casual radio possessed with really good specifications.

The GE SuperRadio from Thomson Consumer Electronics at a cost of about $60, has been an excellent performing AM/FM-only, AC/DC portable in the larger vertical style of many 70s-era radios.  Unlike the all-digital precision and computer-like operation of the 2010, this receiver has the old fashioned tuning knob on the right side and a long station scale across the top of the front face of the radio.  The sound is good and strong, and the performance is the best in its price class.  An unusually large internal ferrite rod is the key to strong AM performance in this radio.  Incidentally, it is the ferrite rod inside ALL portable AM receivers that serves as at least the main signal-gathering device.  Extending the whip antenna on these radios is strictly for the benefit of FM reception (or just to look cool).  If you have an audio/video receiver, such as what would be a part of your home theater system, there is probably an externally connected loop antenna that picks up AM radio signals.  Until recently and for many years the GE has seen daily use here as a workside companion, and it has traveled along on many driving vacations just to see what new stations could be heard from other locales (Sorry, it’s in my blood.).

Ah, but this new CCRadio is clearly, uniquely a cut above.  First, some product details and specs:

• Designed and manufactured exclusively for C. Crane through their collaborative efforts with the experts at Taiwan-based Sangean, makers of several highly regarded digitally tuned world band radios

• Retail price — $159.95

• Available from the northern California-based catalog retailer, the C. Crane Company, 1-800-522-TUNE (8863)

• Measures approximately 11”W x 6.5”H x 4”D (at its deepest point on the base), weighs under four pounds (without batteries)

• Operates on four “D” cells (not included) for about 250 hours or plugs into the wall with the supplied AC cord (no adapter needed!)

• AM/FM/Weather band (seven channels) with Weather Alert/TV audio (channels 2-13)

• Audio output power; two Watts on AC.  Maximum output power; 900 mw on battery power, 900 – 2100 mw on AC power

• Custom five-inch speaker

• Switchable, lighted display large enough to read from across the room

• Five, one-touch memory channels per band

• Clock with alarm (radio or tone)

• Sleep timer

• Adjustable treble and bass controls

• Auto station scan stop

• External antenna connections

• Headphone jack

Look and feel

AM tuning is a breeze via four methods; five easy to set memory presets per band with big top-mounted buttons; scan tuning on the radio’s face, press for .5 second and release for the next station; manual tuning step by step up or down with a single touch of those same buttons; and rotary tuning with the large side-mounted knob.  The side knob tunes in one kHz increments allowing the location of weak stations.

To listen to standard NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) weather channels and local weather information, just press the “Band” button until WX is indicated on the display, raise the antenna and step through the seven channels to the available broadcast for your area. During an emergency NOAA issues an emergency tone that will set off an audible and/or visual alarm on the radio.  The Weather Alert feature is easily activated with a top-mounted button.  Pressing the button for two seconds will sound a tone and put “ALERT” on the display.  If there is a weather-related emergency, the CCRadio will automatically alert via a flashing light near the top of the radio.  The light flashes until any button is pushed.

Pushing the “ALERT” button a second time for two seconds accesses the second weather alert mode, alert with flashing light and tone.  The red light at the top front of the radio comes on continuously.  In a weather emergency, the top light flashes and a siren sounds for one minute or until any button is pushed.  If headphones are attached, the alarm sound is automatically directed to the speakers.

FM performance was found to be excellent and similarly easily tuned, though the CCRadio is monaural, even through the headphone jack.

The TV audio capability is another pleasant plus.  When watching TV is not possible or inconvenient, listening to the news, weather, soap operas or talk shows is the next best thing.  I have other radios with this capability and found the CCRadio provides superior performance.

Vertically oriented with a wide base for stability, there’s a big, bright backlit display with numbers large enough to be read from across the room.  On battery power (four “D” cells, not included), push the backlight button and the light will stay on for a couple of minutes, or it can be turned off manually with another push of the button, a clever design touch.  On AC power (an AC power cord is included – NO bulky adapter is required, another nice touch), the light stays on until it is manually turned off.  C. Crane expects users to get around 250 hours of use out of a set of batteries.  I have yet to exhaust the original set of batteries despite heavy usage.

Special circuitry creates sound optimized for voice. The large, custom designed five-inch speaker delivers sound that is rich, crisp and clean for talk radio as well as for music.  Separate bass and treble controls are on the radio face.  The audio amp is a two-stage design.  On battery power, the volume can be set so it’s nice and loud without noticeable distortion.  Plug it in and benefit from additional power and more sound if needed.  It’s plenty loud when powered by batteries. This is another deliberate feature so that power is conserved while operating on batteries.

The built-in clock is accurate, displaying hours, minutes and seconds.  The thoughtfully designed display button (on the radio face) toggles between the station indication and the time.  It remains the way it’s set, time or date, until the button is pushed again.  Most other radios toggle the display only momentarily.

Why have just a clock?  Those clever designers have also provided a sleep timer (90-min, 60-, 30, 15-) and tone or radio alarm with five-minute snooze feature.  Not satisfied with that alone, C. Crane added what is called HWS (Human Wake System) to the alarm.  With HWS on the tone alarm setting, the tone volume increases gradually every 15 seconds for one minute followed by one minute of silence before repeating the cycle.

Setting the alarm is a matter of pressing the large “Alarm” button on the top panel at the left end.  One press brings the display to alarm set mode, flashing the hour.  This first tap brings up the radio alarm mode and is indicated on the display.  A second tap changes the alarm mode to HWS.  Once the mode is determined, then the seek tuning buttons take the time forward or backward.  A tap of the Band/Time Set button changes the flashing display to enable minute setting.  After setting the minutes, another tap of the Band/Time Set button finishes the job and locks in the setting.  If radio alarm mode is selected, the current station set is the one that comes on at the alarm time, and at the volume last set.

When the alarm sounds or the radio switches on at the appointed time, tapping any button activates a five-minute snooze feature.

There’s a headphone jack and, as a final, caring touch, a solid-feeling lock switch on the side.  This switch is thoughtfully provided to lock out the operation of the other buttons and switches.  This can prevent accidentally turning on the radio during transit or accidentally making a change at any other time.

All the knobs and switches have a positive, quality, feel of precision to them.  There’s nothing mushy or tentative.  There are even non-slip feet on the bottom of the radio that actually do the job.

Each time the radio is switched on while on battery power, a battery indicator is visible on the display for a few seconds showing from one to four bars as the amount of battery life remaining.

Performance

The CCRadio is a great looking and solidly built portable desktop model that grabs an AM signal better than any other I have used.  More AM stations have been found tuning from one end of the band to the other than with any other radio tested.  It’s amazing.  With every step up and down the AM band, new stations were detected, many of which we had never heard before.  Some of you may wonder why all the fuss.

Even if you’re not interested in this kind of fun, the CCRadio is also an excellent choice for bringing in all your favorite stations clearer than ever.  In the L.A. area, home base for this reporter, not all local stations are easily received.  With the CCRadio, those weaker stations are now less prone to interference.  Instead of skipping them due to a fuzzy and weak signal, it is now possible to listen comfortably.  While traveling, we have enjoyed scanning the dial for new and interesting listening opportunities.  From far away, while visiting more than 500 miles to the north, way past San Francisco, we could pick up a low-powered, 5,000 Watt L.A talk radio station at night without any assistance from an additional antenna or signal boosting device.  It was quite an accomplishment.  While home, the process was reversed, easily receiving San Francisco stations as well as Reno, Denver, Utah, and tons more.

Alternatives

Despite the best-of-the-best performance experienced with the CCRadio and the knowledge that no other radio can match features and positive feel of this product, I wanted to test for any other improvement that could be made.  I managed to slightly improve AM performance by operating the radio on battery power and venturing outside where I connected a 100-foot wire played out high and straight from one of the antenna terminals and a short wire to a ground source (the hose bib) connected to the other antenna terminal.  Frankly, it wasn’t worth the effort and would not be something many users would likely do except on rare occasion (such as during an electrical storm).  But, to prove the point, I tried it and would expect further improvements with an even longer wire attached.  Without any additional apparatus, the CCRadio outperformed any portable radio tested, even those that were tested with additional antenna enhancements in operation.

Two other AM radio signal enhancements were tested with the CCRadio in the interest of thorough reporting.  One was the classic Select-A-Tenna.  The other, the new and stylish Terk AM Advantage.  Both products are designed to provide stronger radio signals that can improve weak local station reception, bring in distant stations and reduce fade.  They may be used to improve the AM radio signal on any ordinary radio, including a stereo system tuner or portable radio.

Select-A-Tenna has been around for at least 20 to 30 years and is basically unchanged from the original design.  Attractive it ain’t! Marketed by numerous retailers and selling for about $55 to $65, it is a vertically oriented disc about two inches thick and about 11-inches in diameter.  On the front face is a large tuning knob with markings like an AM radio dial.  It performs like a giant signal collector.  Inside is lots of fine wire wound round and round the outside edge of the circle.  It gathers radio signals better than the standard ferrite metal rod in almost all other portable or table radios.  To use Select-A-Tenna, it is placed next to or above a radio tuned to the target station.  Then, the Select-A-Tenna knob is tuned to approximately the same frequency as the target station.  The accumulated radio signal from the Select-A-Tenna is passively transferred to the radio’s internal antenna in a process known as inductance.  In other words, the Select-A-Tenna is acting passively (without applied power) and the received energy is radiating around the device and inductively (without direct contact) transferred to the radio.  This is the same principle by which a glass-mounted cell phone antenna on a car transfers its signal through the glass to the connector on the inside of the glass and on to the phone.

Did it work?  I experienced only marginal improvement, and only with the Select-A-Tenna held immediately atop the CCRadio, a decidedly goofy arrangement. This was neither convenient nor worth the effort and I can’t imagine anyone doing this in regular practice.

The Terk AM Advantage, about $55 from New York-based Terk Technologies, is a similar concept, but more pleasant to look at.  Actually, the design is kind of cool.  The Terk is about nine-inches in diameter and open in the center of the circle.  The tuning wheel is located on the inside at the base.  The tuning scale is visible through a plastic cover.  Performance improvement was about the same as with the Select-A-Tenna, subjectively slightly less, but the Terk is lots less geeky looking an appliance.  The AM Advantage ships with a wire jack to connect the AM Advantage directly to a radio’s external AM antenna input, if it is so equipped.  This method did nothing to improve performance on the CCRadio.

For reference, I tested both devices on a handful of other radios around here at Gadget Central.  Dramatic improvement was realized when both were used with lesser radios, but no combination could even come close to the performance of the stand-alone CCRadio.  Besides, I found it inconvenient to the point of removing any pleasure from using the other radios in combination with these enhancement devices unless I was interested in sticking with one station.  Tuning became tedious and a two-step, excruciatingly slow process if searching for lots of stations.  Once I became accustomed to the quality and ease of use of the CCRadio, the thought of adding another step to tuning and having to use an inferior radio was patently unappealing.

To be fair, consumers interested in dramatic improvement but not quite ready to step up to the CCRadio would be well served with either the Terk AM Advantage or the venerable Select-A-Tenna in combination with their favorite already-owned AM radio.  By itself, the GE SuperRadio III is also a good choice, but not in the same class as the CCRadio.  (The Terk AM Advantage, Select-A-Tenna and the GE SuperRadio III are also available from the C. Crane. Co.)

I, however, have become pleasantly, unabashedly spoiled by the CCRadio performance and I prefer it now to any other in my repertoire.  I recommend it highly.  You’re gonna love it, too!

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