Review of the Degen DE1121
A MW/FM/SW Radio with a docking mp3 recorder


Note: Since writing this review, I've compiled an DE1121 FAQ with more information on this radio's operation

This radio is generating a lot of interest, as it's the first shortwave radio receiver with a built in mp3 recorder. I'm quite happy with it, but many people will find it frustrating and a disappointment. It costs half again as much as Degen's excellent DE1103, yet performs worse. It has the worst user interface and users manual I've ever seen. So why do I like it? For someone like myself who likes to make unattended daily recordings of over-the-air broadcasts, this is probably the best choice. In my view the only real alternative to the DE1121 is the Radio Yourway, which costs twice as much, performs horribly on FM and lacks SW altogether. The Radio Yourway offers a better (though still poor) user interface and more flexible weekly timer options.

The DE1121's problem is that it is an awkward marriage of two separate devices. Both the mp3 recorder and radio are fully functional devices and can be used independently. The integration of these two devices seems haphazard. A couple examples: radio frequencies are displayed on the screen of the mp3 player, and to access the charge menu on the mp3 player you need to turn the radio on. The Radio Yourway by contrast is a single device with a much more consistent interface. Every time I use the DE1121, I wonder what the designers were thinking. Yet, the more I use it, the more I enjoy it as a very nifty, and unique radio.

For all it does, the DE1121 is very reasonably priced. I bought mine on ebay from tquchina. I ordered it December 15th, it left China December 16th, and arrived at my house in the San Francisco Bay Area on December 30th. It cost $79.90 + $24 shipping. The radio is also available in two other versions. In the US Kaito offers the KA1121 with additional LW & NOAA weather coverage. Retail price is $199.95, though Radios4you.com has them for $139.95. In Germany Thieking & Koch are selling the DE1121 Weltempfänger which lists for 219 euros, or $286 at the current conversion rate. In exhange for the large price disparity, their version of the DE1121 offers continuous 50Khz to 29.999Mhz coverage as well as 70 - 108 MHZ FM and according to the manufacturer "Only Thieking & Koch DE1121 model are RohS compliant, they are manufactured separately from any other productions and each single part used down to resistors is laboratory documented to fullfill the RoHS standard."

Radio Operation and Performance

Operation of the radio is frustrating. It uses a menu based, multi page system for many operations. Buttons have multiple meanings depending on which menu you are in, and the icons on the buttons themselves are small and extremely vague. The "enter" button has an icon of an arrow pointing to the left. The "exit" button also has a very similar looking left facing arrow icon. The "play" button has the standard right facing triangle, but so does the "eq mode/sw band button." A quick glance at the 2 page quick guide to the Kaito KA1121 in pdf format posted on the Kaito website will give you a good idea of the potential confusion. The 32 page owner's manual is the worst I've seen. It isn't much help in explaining operation, and I pretty much had to use a guess and check approach to operating the radio. I made a screenshot of the section that talks about unattended timer recordings to the right. What is it telling you to do? I have no idea! If ever there was a radio that needed a users group, it's this one. Luckily, there is a very helpful group up and running at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/KA1121_DE1121/. It's a definite must visit for anyone with this radio.

I'm starting to get more comfortable after a couple weeks with the DE1121, and I'm realizing that I use the three keys under the mp3 recorder constantly: The "menu" key (the one with the book icon) and the two keys on either side of it (the "select" keys forward and back). The key to using this radio is to become comfortable with the basic menu system: For just about anything you want to do, you start by turning power on to either the mp3 recorder or radio. Then you press the menu key to enter the menu mode, and use the select keys to navigate through the menu choices. When you find the choice you want, you use the menu key to select it.

Overall Performance is good. FM reception is excellent. This is, I think, the big advantage of this radio over Pogo's Radio Yourway. If you want to record NPR on a daily basis, I'd say this radio is the way to go. MW reception is good as well. On SW, the radio is not as sensitive as my Redsun RP2100, but it's not bad. There is some ghosting of AM broadcast stations on SW. Like my Kaito KA11, there are two tuning modes: "Search" and "Step." Search will take you through the one hundred memories in sequential order, or you can use the numeric keypad to directly access that memory. Each memory can be given an identifier of up to 8 characters, and each memory can store up to 4 frequencies. So for example, I have one memory for NHK with the frequencies 5975, 6110, 7230, and 15195. Once the memory is accessed, the "eq mode/sw band button" will step through those four frequencies. I personally like the memory set up a lot, but it requires using a computer to edit the FREQ.TXT file (described later). Search mode let's you scan frequencies, or use the numeric keypad to directly enter the frequency.

Recording the Radio with the mp3 Recorder

There are three daily alarms that can be used to trigger the recorder, so you can record up to 3 different daily programs. The recorder itself is 256Mb in size and can hold about 10hrs of recordings at 32Kbs. Unfortunately the memory can not be upgraded from 256Mb, and there is no card slot for additional memory as there is on the Radio Yourway.

So how do you set up the radio to make daily, unattended recordings? The manual is so poor that many people don't realize it's possible. Here are the steps that work for me:

  1. Turn the power to the radio on.
  2. Press the Menu key (2nd button above the MW label)
  3. Use the "Select Keys" (up or down arrow icons that are 2 buttons above the FM or SW labels) to chose "Setting" and then press the Menu key again
  4. Choose "Time" and press the Menu key again
  5. Choose "Alarm 1" and press the Menu key again
  6. Enter the digits for the start time, press "FM", "MW" or "SW" then press the digits for the frequency
  7. Press the menu key again so that the clock icon appears (instead of the circle x icon)
  8. Press the "Select Key/Step Forward" (The button above the EQ button) twice so that the cursor is next to the radio icon. Use the menu key to select the picture of a radio with a microphone next to it.
  9. Press the volume up or down buttons to select the play volume when the unit records
  10. Press the "Select Key/Step Forward" to move the cursor to the final two digits of the display. Enter the duration in minutes.
  11. Turn the power off. The radio should now turn itself on and record the program

It took several tries before I got it right. You only have a few seconds between each button press, otherwise the radio drops out of that menu. While frustrating to program, it's performed solidly since I set it up, recording without fail, no matter how many times I plugged and unplugged it. I certainly can't say that about my Radio Yourway.

FREQ.TXT

One feature of the radio that is going to drive some people crazy is that many of the more interesting features require editing a text file on a computer. If you connect the mp3 recorder to a computer by USB you can open FREQ.TXT, preferably with a simple text editor like notepad. This allows to set the date, the MW step at 9 or 10Khz, and enter preset frequencies with identifiers or call signs. For each station identifier you can store up to four frequencies. I've uploaded my FREQ.TXT to the Yahoo DE1121 users group, and I hope other users will share theirs so we can avoid retyping many of the more popular frequencies.

Just editing the file isn't enough, once the FREQ.TXT file is changed it needs to be "imported" to the radio. One way to do it is to store the FREQ.TXT file on the mp3 player. Then turn the radio on, press menu and choose STATION. From there you choose IMPORT, and the frequencies and ids are loaded into the radio. Pretty neat, and a lot easier than entering station ids on a numeric keypad of the typical radio. It also provides a backup of all your memories, and the ability to share and trade memories with other users.

Conclusion

The only reason to buy this radio is to use the mp3 recorder. The Degen DE1103 would be a better choice in virtually every other respect. But if you want to make daily recordings off the radio while you are out of the house, there aren't too many games in town. If you aren't interested in shortwave, and have good FM reception, then the Pogo Radio Yourway may serve you well. For half the price, I like the DE1121 better. It pulls in some of the weaker public FM stations in my area like a champ, and can record them with hi-fi worthy fidelity. Decent SW reception is the final bonus. After some initial struggle, I can get the radio to do want I want it to (well, most of the time) and I'm very happy with the results.

-Art Simon
email me with questions or comments.