Benchmark Portable from New Manufacturer

By David Zantow, Lawrence Magne and Danny Wu

DEGEN DE1101 Degen is spanking new to world band, and it's off to a rip-roaring start. What it charges for what it offers has the potential of redefining the world band radio landscape.

Its initial model, the DE1101, isn't just a near-three-star travel portable!it's a near-three-star radio at a one-star price. At under RMB320 (about $40) in China, this is the best small-portable bargain ever made available. Nothing else even comes close to its intersection of price, performance, features and included accessories. But is there a catch?

Unusual Focus on Powering Radio

For starters, this is not your usual radio with an empty battery cavity. Not only does it come with a 220V AC adaptor, it also includes a full complement of nickel metal hydride "AA" batteries that recharge inside the radio, as well as a battery-level indicator to tip off the operator when a charge is needed. That indicator underreads when the radio is on, but is accurate when off.

The DE1101 is a power miser, too, with low battery drain. This is aided by what looks like an LED tuning indicator, but isn't. It is actually a small light sensor to prevent LCD illumination except in the dark. Even the battery cover is hinged so it can't be misplaced. This meticulous focus on power issues is commendable, and would have been even more so had the supplied AC adaptor been UL/CE approved and suitable for 100-240V AC. Presumably something along these lines is forthcoming.

Ergonomics Mixed

Not everything about its concern with power warrants kudos. When you try to turn on the radio by pressing the power button, you get an unwelcome surprise: It doesn't stay on. Instead, it triggers a sleep timer which turns off power after 99 minutes, presumably to keep batteries from running down if you forget the radio is on. Fortunately, it can run fulltime, but only if two buttons are pressed whenever you turn on the radio. Degen is not the first Chinese manufacturer to make use of this idea in recent months, but it is silly and annoying. There isn't a travel power lock, either, but because the power button is flush and only activates a timer this is not an issue.

The keypad is laid out in familiar telephone format, and its clicky keys, although small, have excellent tactile response. Other helpful tuning features include 50 station presets (20 for shortwave), up/down slewing and "signal-seek" frequency scanning. World band tuning is in handy 5 kHz steps, although there is no finer resolution or clarifier control for optimum reception of off-channel stations. There is no tuning knob.

The DE1101 has an "SW1" band for 3,000-10,000 kHz and "SW2" for 10,000-26,100 kHz!an archaic concept dropped long ago on most better world band portables. Presets, slewing and scanning are tied into this arrangement, so you have to push the bandswitch button four times when you need to choose from presets (or "hop the divider" with slew/scan controls) within SW1 if the radio is currently tuned to SW2; for going from SW2 to SW1, only one button push is needed. Thankfully, SW1/SW2 bandswitching is automatic when the keypad is used.

On our unit, when batteries are removed for a day the radio refuses to operate until the microprocessor reset mini-button is depressed.

Surprisingly Good Performance for Money, Size

The DE1101 is an unusually attractive performer in its price and size class. Among the unexpected findings is its superior dynamic range, thanks in part to a double-balanced mixer. As a result, overloading rarely occurs in North America unless the radio is connected to a large external antenna. Even in high-signal locations, such as Europe and North Africa, the DE1101's resistance to overloading stands out.

Double conversion circuitry, heretofore unheard of anywhere near this price, virtually banishes images; other types of spurious signals are rarely encountered unless the operator's hand is pressed firmly over the back cover. Two well-chosen bandwidths!radios near this price point virtually always have only one!allow the user to choose between enhanced adjacent-channel rejection and broadband audio response. Sensitivity is above average, although intelligibility of weaker signals suffering from fast fading is not up to that of the best larger models. Alas, there is no signal-strength indicator.

The DE1101, although small, comes with a decent-sized speaker with room-filling sound. It lacks bass response, but the radio still has better audio quality through its speaker than most models of its size, and there's little circuit hiss.

There is a line output socket for recording or feeding an amplified speaker, although its fixed level is too low to be of much practical use. There is also a stereo headphone jack, and earbuds are included.

Mediumwave AM Not for Americas...Yet

Now, if you're thinking that there has to be a catch, you're right: The DE1101 is not marketed outside China. Nowhere, nada, zip. And its control markings and operator's manual are only in!you guessed it!Chinese.

Accordingly, it tunes the mediumwave AM band only in the 9 kHz increments used in Asia, with no option to change this to the 10 kHz channel spacing found in the Western Hemisphere. Another reason this radio is inappropriate for the Americas or even Australia is that mediumwave AM coverage stops at 1620 kHz, missing 1625-1705 kHz. These limitations will almost certainly be cleared up should Degen make its products more widely available.

Unusually Flexible FM Coverage

The DE1101 performs nicely on FM, especially in fringe areas, although our sample's frequency readout was slightly out of alignment. It tunes not only the usual 87-108 MHz FM band, but also a separate "low FM" band from 70-95.5 MHz that includes the Japanese 76-90 MHz band and the 70-74 MHz portion of the 66-74 MHz FM band still used within some former Warsaw Pact countries. Shifting the low band to 66-90 MHz might have made the DE1101 the world's first truly global FM portable with synthesized tuning.

All these features and performance in a genuinely low-cost travel portable is without precedent, even during the occasional closeout sale. But like the question of a tree falling in the forest and nobody being around to hear it, unless you are in China the DE1101 is all but an illusion. Here, at last, is the splendid five-cent cigar so many have been waiting for, yet there isn't so much as a mail-order house offering it outside the People's Republic. Worse, there appear to be no established Western world band vendors or consumer products distributors interested in contracting with a one-or-two product manufacturer in China when existing manufacturers already offer products that are at least reasonably similar.

Degen reportedly has at least two more models in the works, and clearly has the potential to be a major player in the world band portable market, where price elasticity has been on the increase. For now, its products are not found outside China!except our solitary DE1101, which you can get only by prying it from our cold, dead fingers!but we'll put up a flag if this changes. There is no shortage of entrepreneurial Chinese expats in North America and Europe, and who known whether one or more may eventually opt to import and sell Degen products.

Another Degen model was scheduled to come out this June, but has been postponed because of the impact of the SARS epidemic in parts of China. The DE1102, if and when it finally materializes, is reportedly to be essentially identical to the DE1101, but include single-sideband operation.

Updates to Passport to World Band Radio - Edition 2003