The BEST Intercept Radio
Watkins-Johnson WJ-8718A

Over the years. I have restored several Watkins-Johnson 87XX-series
radios. The WJ-8716 is the basic unit, which for all realistic intents and
purposes, is the father and work horse of the series. Following that was the
WJ-8718 and the “A” version. These sons-of-royalty added ISB detection and
tuning down into the LF and VLF bands.
The radio I currently use is the mutt of the lot - a real mongrel. It is a
contrived, mixed parted, soldered, drilled, glued, riveted, painted and re-
polished bastard ... and I love it. It originally came to me as a “demilled”
Governmental Security Agency dumpster-filler. But with some midnight
surgery, several dozens of hours of rehab, and a lot of motherly TLC, she
was given a second life. The last time I felt like this about an object was
when I first laid my eyes upon that basket case 1961 Corvette that badly
needed my fiberglass and Chevy engine expertise, but that was more than
45 years ago. I suppose these inner spiritual emotions don’t come along too
many times in one’s lifetime.
This puppy is now essentially a WJ-8718A. I added a small 7 watt audio
amplifier and speaker jack, along with a 600 to 8 ohm transformer, so that
either output could drive an external speaker or low impedance
headphones. I also added an LED meter lighting board that matches the
yellow LED frequency display.
So why do I crow so proudly about this 20-year-old parts radio? Well, for one
thing, it’s a Watkins-Johnson. Is that enough said? Okay, here’s some of the
bullet points:
* Dead quiet noise floor. I don’t know the exact MDS (minimum discernible
signal), but it’s got to be somewhere near the -140 (something) dB level. It is
quiet!
* The ergonomics couldn’t be better. Usually, commercial receivers don’t
offer the niceties found on hobbyist receivers and Ham Radio rigs, like IF
Shift, noise blankers, notch filters, variable passband shaping, and tone
controls, and this case is no different. But the necessary controls are located
and executed perfectly.
* Along side the Cadillac-feeling tuning knob and encoder control are the
(Schadow type) push buttons for tuning step selection; 10Hz, 100Hz, 1kHz,
10kHz, and lock. No matter what you are trying to fine-tune in a particular
band, or where in the HF spectrum you need to zoom to, there’s a “step”
button for your joy.
* In the middle of the front panel are two rows of the same kind of buttons.
One is for mode-six of them-and the other for bandwidth. The W-J offers five
superb IF filters at 16kHz, 8kHz, 3.2kHz, 1kHz, and 300Hz. They are tight,
have great skirt ratios, and I can’t detect any ringing, phase shift, or ripple.
* AGC is selected by another three push buttons, the ISB mode by two more
and the meter reads audio or RF level via two more buttons.
* There is a clever BFO 3-digit thumb wheel decoder switch, sometimes
referred to as “odometer switch,” to tell you exactly where you have set the
oscillator.
Whether listening to the local traffic and weather station before work, or
relaxing with a delightful cocktail while surfing 41 meters during the hours of
darkness, this sweetheart is always a pleasure to share your life with.

The BEST Surveillance Radio
Racal RA6790/GM

All the high marks go to the Racal RA6790/GM. Everyone knows that Racal
celebrates a great history and reputation for commercial radios. This radio
also has its formative roots in some National Agency, but that is of little
consequence now. Again, the 6790, like so many of its friends who share
free room and board with me, required quite a bit of medical attention. It was
mostly therapy for me, but I think the radio got the best of the deal. The
traditional design “ooops” with this receiver is the grain-of-wheat display
light bulbs. Like anything tungsten, in time they fail. Thanks to Gary Wingerd,
I installed his LED lighting kit and finished up the restoration. I’m not a big
fan of LCD displays or bargraph S-meters, or membrane push buttons, but
those minor annoyances aside, the 6790 has become the de facto, all-time
favorite surveillance monitor in my life. I have never, and I stress “never,”
have seen or used a radio as stable as this Racal. It reads to 1Hz. When you
dial up a frequency to one-millionth of a megahertz, that’s where it goes …
and that’s where it stays … period.
The ergos are basic and without frills. It’s easy and intuitive to operate, built
like something from a tractor factory, and has the control feel of a precision
lathe. I’m trying to think of some other virtues of this fine radio, but all that
comes to mind is, “dial and listen.” If you can’t hear it on the RA6790/GM,
then you need a better antenna or location.

The BEST Armchair Radio
JRC NRD-535D

I have always been enamored with JRC receivers. Japan Radio Company is
one of the oldest still in existence. I believe their first products appeared in
1915. At one time or another, I’ve had all of the JRC consumer catalog
models here for work … repair or modification. And I’ve worked on some of
the commercial models as well. These guys almost always seem to get it all
correct. Yes, there are those little foibles that you’ll hear from time to time,
but none of which are unfixable. I guess the most common complaint related
to the NRD family of radios, specifically the 515, 525, 535D, is that they have
limited upper-end audio frequency response. Change some of the
capacitors in the audio chain, maybe some different filter selections, and by
all means, use an external speaker of good quality, and all the little nit
picking goes away. The 535D is too good of a radio to have limited audio
spoil the package. Fix it and please, get over it – it’ll be a love affair forever.
This receiver has all the controls in the right place. Being marketed to the
high-end hobbyist customer, the NRD radios have a lot of the “nice to have”
options. Pass Band Shift, Notch, and Band Width Control are amongst the
most handy knobs to twiddle. The Noise Blanker is adjustable and of great
utility.
It’s earlier sibling, the NRD-525 is a worthy relative as well, but I just prefer
the newer 535D.

The BEST Bedside Table Radio
JRC NRD-515

This gem is as about as close to a military or commercial grade receiver that
JRC has ever offered to the home entertainment market. It is just solid
beyond belief. The look, feel and knob-turning tactility scream of solid,
permanent performance. It’s 4 generations removed from JRC’s last
offering, but hardly anywhere near obsolete or outdated. This critter sits on a
bedside shelf and is connected to a hi-fi, 2-way, 6-inch coaxial loudspeaker.
If you want to recline and read while listening to foreign music, or absorb
some European or Asian culture discussion, or analyze political talk radio, or
just plain fiddle away a rainy weekend afternoon, this baby is for you.
The display’s red LEDs are easy to see in any light, the controls really don’t
need nomenclature due to their perfect ergonomic positioning, the panel’s
layout is superbly clean, uncluttered, and businesslike. The radio is stable
as a rock and such a super pleasure to use – I find myself tuning around
just for the sake of tuning around.

The BEST Portable Radio
Sangean 803A

Okay, I confess to having, or having had, most all the popular super
portables. There are the many offerings from Degen, Tecsun, Redsun, Kaito,
and Grundig – notably the BCL-2000/S-350 comes to mind, as does the
excellent RP-2100. Do a Web search on these models and
manufacturers/distributors if you want a very nice shortwave portable, sans
single sideband. But after all my buying, testing, and ebaying, I still had to
return to (yet another) 15+ year-old icon, and favorite. The 803A is another of
those “almost everything right” kind of radios. If you see a Radio Shack DX-
440, consider grabbing it; it’s almost the same thing. Here, the bonus is
SSB reception. The Sangean has good filtering, good audio, nice sensitivity,
and a very good noise floor for an inexpensive all-band portable.
I know that portable favorites are probably much more a personal choice
than the 4-digit-dollar big rigs, and that some folks will disagree with me as
to the best value. I expect that, and would be rather disappointed if everyone
thought like I do. It’s the opinions and idea exchanges that keep all this stuff
fresh, informative and exciting. But that is my position for the 803A … so
much so that I have 3 of them. Oh, and I also have a 2000/350 and 2100
which I like very much. If you don’t know what they are, surf around a bit and
study what you pay for and what you get – you really can’t go wrong with any
of them – just be sure you know what you are buying.
The BEST Receiver
Before you argue with me, understand that It's "my" opinion, from "my" ears, and "my" test
lab ...  all connected to my antennas. If your opinion differs, that's good - I'd never want to think
that I'm the be-all, end-all of receiver evaluation.
Back
More to come ... in time.
4/09
Counter
What is the best receiver? The word “best” really needs to be defined. I think I can qualify that 4-letter word, by
illustrating its various contextual applications, in how it concerns some of my favorite receivers.
If you haven’t seen my little caveat in the “Receiver’ Review” article, here it is paraphrased:
“I almost never listen to a communications receiver through its internal speaker.” Good receivers are designed to
supply the absolutely best detected audio that the engineers can supply, for the design constraints they are
given. After all, that’s the goal of a receiver, rendering quality audio signals to the operator. Notice I didn’t say
anything about acoustics. A radio is not a loudspeaker system. It receives RF energy, processes it, detects it and
converts the filtered and conditioned signals to AF - audio energy - it’s all electronic. There is nothing written that
says a radio has to convert the AF signal to acoustical (mechanical) energy. “Consequently, I generally plug an
external loudspeaker in to the receiver’s audio output. Sometimes, I even play the audio through a high-quality
audio system, which offers various tone equalization. shaping, and noise filtering options.” Generally speaking,
high-end communications receivers do not have internal speakers. If they do, it’s because the designers wanted a
“monitor” function. But I’m sure that if you asked anyone on the engineering team, that little speaker that they
have sandwiched down into the chassis’ guts was never meant for long term listening, or hearing the last dit-dah
or vowel of a DX signal nestled down under high atmospheric noise conditions.
I also have offered an antenna caveat, but will save you the boredom here. I think that if you are reading this, you
probably are painfully aware of the requirements for an antenna that is suitable for these kinds of receivers ...
otherwise, why would you have one of these automobile-priced radios in the first place! Besides, antenna
selection, and associated love affairs is such a religion, that I feel a need to tread with extreme trepidation every
time an antenna conversation begins.