Year Introduced: 1996
Power: 6 Volts DC, AC adaptor optional & 4.5 Volts DC (3 AA) batteries back-up
Size: 17.8 x 28.5 x 6.4 cm
Weight: 880 g with batteries
Coverage: AM, SW (continuous 150 kHz-30 MHz), FM
This review was compiled independently. The Medium Wave Circle and Radio Netherlands has no financial connection with Sangean, the manufacturer of this receiver.
Reviewers: Jonathan Marks, Diana Janssen, & Willem Bos; DX-398 updates by Tom Sundstrom.
Note that Siemens is no longer carrying the Sangean brand of short-wave sets, so stocks of the RK-777 are rapidly disappearing from the stores in Germany and the Benelux. In the UK, the Sangean ATS-909 is also marketed as the Roberts R861. The Sangean ATS-909 is also marketed by Radio Shack (Tandy stores) as the DX-398.
Price is an important factor for many people when they buy a shortwave portable radio for travelling around. Here in Europe, if you just want something light to throw into a suitcase to pick up the stronger international broadcasters, analogue sets of less than 60 US dollars. But there are those who want the convenience of digital keypad tuning, lots of memories to store favourite stations.
In August 1996 the Taiwanese company of Sangean launched its latest portable, the top of the range ATS-909. It was marketed in Europe by the German company of Siemens as the RK-777 until Seimens discontinued importing receivers in mid-1997. Apart from the name on the radio, the set is identical in all respects. This also applies to the Roberts R861. Roberts is an old English radio manufacturer, although UK production of sets seems to have ceased in preference to buying in from manufacturers in the Far East. Sangean has developed into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of shortwave portable receivers and makes sets from the very cheap budget end to sets like the new 909. The design team in the United States and Taiwan have developed quite a few original ideas over the last few years and a lot of innovations have been combined into the new ATS-909.
The grey-coloured cabinet takes up 225 by 132 by 35 millimetres of space in the suitcase. The front panel is larger than most portables, but this is compensated for by the fact that its quite thin. The radio uses four penlight batteries that clip into a back panel. The set uses about 250 mA depending on volume and which band you’re tuned to. Of course it is much cheaper to run the set on mains electricity and, in the package sold in Europe at least, you get an intelligent dual-voltage AC power supply. That means when you plug it into the wall the supply automatically detects whether it is 220 or 110 volts AC and adjusts itself. The power supply is on the heavy side at 530 grams, but it is much cheaper to run the radio on the mains than using ordinary dry batteries. You could also use rechargeable batteries. The radio itself weighs in at 874 grams including batteries.
The Radio Shack DX-398 package does not include the AC adaptor, earphones or the roll-up antenna.
The front panel of the radio is dominated by a green liquid crystal display which can be backlight so you can use the radio in a darkened room with no problem. There is continuous coverage between 150 kHz right up to 29999 kHz, plus FM between 87.5 up to 108 MHz.
Sangean have a useful feature called ATS, automatic tuning system. Say you arrive in a foreign city and don’t know what’s on locally, if you press the FM waveband button for a couple of seconds the radio scans the dial for signals and stores the 18 strongest stations in the memory. You can just zap through these using the keypad. It does the same for MW, and will store the 9 strongest stations it finds on longwave. That’s a handy feature. Of course it doesn’t work on shortwave because the strongest stations are not necessarily local.
There are more conventional ways of tuning. There’s an up and down set of buttons as well as a two-speed rotary tuning knob for regular manual tuning. You can also set the radio to start scanning up or down the dial until it hits the next strongest station. There’s also an elaborate memory system involving the concept of pages. You can not only store frequencies, but the ATS-909 remembers if the station was in AM, lower sideband or upper sideband. All three modes are featured on the radio. If you have the patience you can quite easily store the name and frequency of up to 261 stations on shortwave, 18 each on mediumwave and FM, and 9 on longwave. Fortunately, the radio comes complete with some 29 station’s frequencies already programmed. House frequencies for stations like Deutsche Welle, BBC World Service, Radio Netherlands, Voice of America, Radio Vlaanderen International, and Radio Japan. Of course these frequencies are subject to change, but updating the information yourself is possible. You need to use the tuning knob and the up and down buttons to enter the data.
Note that the Radio Shack DX-398 manual says 212 of the 261 shortwave memories are pre-programmed and cannot be changed. We checked, and the instructions are incorrect. Pre-programmed memories and alphanumeric labels may be updated as required or desired.
This radio is one of the few portables in Europe to offer the Radio Data System on FM. If your country uses this system then the radio decodes the data stream sent out with the stations programming and a few seconds after you have tuned a station it, it shows the name of the station in the display. You need to have a fairly strong signal for this to work though. You also note that some stations are now using the RDS format to put up messages about the weather and commercial slogans.
In some countries, the RDS system also provides time information and if that is present in the signal, the ATS-909 uses it to set the clock. You can also recall the time in 42 cities worldwide and add your own if you want. The radio realises that the time difference between some countries can be half an hour. There’s a sophisticated clock timer function too so you can set the ATS-909 to wake you up at three different times with three different stations. In short, all this is well thought out.
On all wavebands, sensitivity of this radio is more than adequate. In the more remote parts of Australia the retractable “washing-line” type of external antenna should be fine for low signal areas. And if signals get too strong in Europe you can reduce the sensitivity using the rotary RF gain control on the side of the radio. You can’t adjust the sensitivity on FM, but it seems about right for suburban situations.
As far as tuning is concerned, on shortwave the steps are other 1 or 5 kHz, on mediumwave 1, 9 or 10 kHz steps are possible, 1 or 9 kHz steps on longwave and as far as FM is concerned, there you can choose between 100 or 50 kilohertz.
On the dynamic selectivity side, there are two filter positions in this set. wide and narrow. The shape factor of the filters is fair. The wide setting of 6.5 kHz at – 6 dB is best suited for mediumwave and stronger shortwave signals. Switching to the narrow 4 kHz position does reduce the sideband splatter from a station 5 kHz away a little bit, but frankly the narrow filter position could have offered a sharper filter with a steeper shape factor. It certainly doesn’t match sophisticated table top receivers. If there’s a weak point, then it’s here. But of course sharper filters would raise the price.
Some radios in this price category offer synchronous detection. The radio locks onto the carrier of the broadcast signal being received and is able to compensate somewhat for the fading and subsequent audio distortion that is always a problem with shortwave reception. The ATS-909 does not offer synchronous detection. The development costs have obviously gone into other features such as RDS.
We did like the “sound” of this radio. The 7 cm speaker is crisp and there’s a three position tone control switch.
At a street price of around US$230 in the USA (list price is US$400, check with dealers) and a street price of £130 in Britain, the ATS-909 is a welcome addition to the shortwave desk top market. The ease of tuning is one of the main attractions for this set.
In December 1996, this radio was awarded “Best Portable for 1996/7” by the World Radio TV Handbook in Amsterdam.
In the 4th quarter of 1997, Radio Shack added the Sangean-made DX-398 to its 1998 product lineup. The price is US$250. Occasionally the receiver goes on sale for a price of US$200.
This review first appeared on the Radio Netherlands website.