Select-A-Tenna vs Terk AM Advantage

Select-A-Tenna vs Terk AM Advantage

TWO POPULAR AM LOOP ANTENNAS
Select-A-Tenna vs. Terk AM Advantage

Loop antennas have been in use since radio’s infancy. Some of the earliest radios employed set top loop antennas for times when an outdoor “aerial” was not practical. Many radios of the 40′s and 50′s had simple loops wound around the perimeter of their back covers. In the 50′s and 60′s as compact ferrite rod “loopstick” antennas became common, wire wound loops faded from common use to the point where the average person may have never seen or heard of a loop antenna. It’s easy to forget that these ferrite rod “loopsticks” are actually loop antennas using ferrite cores to increase their efficiency.

Loops come in all sizes and are still used in many applications where their efficient signal capture makes even relatively small loops amazingly effective at AM and SW frequencies, where traditional wire antennas often run from 30 to perhaps hundreds of feet. They can be either passive or active (amplified). Broadcasters often use larger, specifically-tuned loop antennas to insure a strong stable signal for monitoring purposes, and there are also large loops which can cover SW/AM/LW bands. These may be “tuned” or “untuned” designs suitable for remote mounting. (With a Tuned Loop you have to adjust the tuning as you change frequencies on your radio, so these are also known as “proximate designs”…they are generally used right next to the radio). The larger loops are generally constructed of pipe or tubing and are thus single-turn designs, while smaller loops have several windings. Finally, there are also specialty direction-finding loops which are designed for designated frequency ranges.

Loop antennas in general also have an ability to reject certain kinds of electrical interference compared with wire antennas. This is partly because a loop antenna reacts to the magnetic portion of the RF energy received and ignores the electrical component, where much of the noise is concentrated. A loop also has the ability to be directionally aimed to maximize signal pickup, and likewise, noise sources can often be nulled by careful placement and aiming of a loop antenna. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to experience miraculous relief from local noise compared with a wire antenna, but be aware that the ferrite rod “loopstick” antenna inside your radio possesses the same directional and noise-nulling capabilities, although being smaller it gathers less signal.

For this review I compared two of the most popular passive tuned loops available for AM (Medium Wave), the Select-A-Tenna (Models 541 and 541M), and the Terk AM Advantage Loop. It pays to shop for price. The Two Select-A-Tennas range from $59.95 to $69.95 for the Model 541M and from $49.95 to $64.95 for the 541. (One popular on-line retailer shows one of these models with a higher price than “List” as given on the Select-A-Tenna Home Page). The Terk lists at $49.95 but is generally available for $39.95 and I found it at an on-line electronics store for $27.95)! The Terk was previously also available as the Radio Shack AM Loop. The difference between the two Select-A-Tenna (or SAT) models is that the “M” model adds an input/output jack…the Terk also has this jack. It’s a standard 1/8″ mono mini-plug and is connected to a secondary loop wound next to the primary loop and can be used to connect the antenna directly to a radio with an antenna input jack or terminals. Alternatively you can feed the signal from, say, a random wire antenna into these antennas, then use the antenna to couple the signal to your radio, with a pre-tuner thrown in. Many users will never use the jack feature, but it can add to the antenna’s flexibility in some circumstances as we shall see. Otherwise the two SAT’s work identically. There is also an active model…the SAT Model 541S for $199.95 which adds an amplifier for additional gain and control. I did not test that model.

 

These are both “proximate” designs, meaning they are intended to be used near the radio. These are “tuned” loops, meaning you must tune them to peak each frequency received. Although it is an extra step when you are tuning stations it is easy and seems like a small price to pay for the reception boost these loops can provide. They are also relatively small; the Select-A-Tenna is a solid disc about 2 1/4″ deep and approximately 10 3/4″ in diameter with its tuning dial right at its center. The Terk is about 9 1/4″ diameter, 1 1/2″ deep although at its base it is about 2 ¼” deep and is an open loop with its tuning control in its base. The Terk also has a rubber bottom to protect the surface it sits on. Side by side there is little doubt that the Terk was designed to look good in a home setting while the SAT is more utilitarian in its appearance.

These two antennas are primarily used via inductive coupling; that is, with no direct connection to the radio whatsoever. One merely places the radio near the loop and the loop’s field is picked up by the radio’s built-in ferrite rod antenna. This is somewhat amazing if you’ve never seen it before and will allow you to impress your friends with your wizardry! One bit of advice: Initial setup up and testing of these antennas can be confusing if done at night. During nighttime reception, there are many more strong signals than during the daytime. When you increase the level still further with an external antenna, the radio’s AGC circuits reduce the gain to compensate, so you may not hear a difference. This is often miss-construed to mean that these loops don’t do much at night, but believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. The improvements gained through their use at night is a bit different than what you may get during the day but sometimes will be very helpful.

INITIAL SETUP
So if you’ve just gotten a loop I recommend you first try it out in the daytime. Tune your radio (virtually any ferrite rod-equipped AM radio will do) to a very weak station…one that is way down in the noise. Place your loop perpendicular to the radio’s internal antenna and tune the loop’s frequency knob until you hear the signal jump, or see an increase in signal strength on the radio’s meter if it has one. Now you can experiment with the placement of the loop with respect to the radio…move it slowly in all directions until you find the “sweet spot” of maximum signal transfer. This spot will be best for all signals received so there’s no need to do it again, although you might sometimes want to move the loop away a little to attenuate the signal if you are overloading the radio. Most portable radios have their rods running lengthwise in the cabinet near the top which means your loop will be oriented perpendicularly to the radio. (There are some exceptions. Most – not all -Grundig Satellit 800′s have their ferrite rod running front to back along the left edge of the top panel so you will place your loop parallel with the front of the radio). To facilitate rotating a portable radio and loop antenna together a Lazy Susan is a terrific accessory. I found a 14″ wooden one at a kitchen shop which is large enough to accommodate either of these loops and even a relatively large portable radio.

If your radio has no internal ferrite rod antenna (such as the Eton E-1 or vintage radios with wire-wound loops on their back panels), inductive coupling won’t work so you will have to use the direct connection. Both of the mini-jack equipped models (the SAT Model 541 M and the Terk) come with an adapter cable terminating in bare wires. Neither of these antennas furnish much information about output impedance, but when I tested them on a radio equipped with both high and low impedance antenna inputs (nominally 50 ohms and 500 ohms), both of the loops showed slightly higher signal levels with the high impedance connection, although they worked acceptably into either impedance so matching your particular radio’s input shouldn’t be a problem. However each antenna showed markedly stronger signal levels when used with inductive coupling so you may want to experiment to see which setup works best for you.

HOW DO THEY COMPARE?
The first thing you will notice is that the SAT is a little larger than the Terk. Theoretically this means it could potentially deliver a slightly stronger signal, and in fact that seems to be the general consensus…that the SAT is slightly superior to the Terk. In fact, I have owned a SAT 541M for several years and just acquired the Terk for this comparison and fully expected the Terk to be a slightly weaker performer, but I’m surprised to say that’s not what I found. I used both loops over the course of a week with well over a dozen portable radios of all descriptions, using both direct and inductive coupling, and compiled some interesting results. Below I will outline my results with various specific radios but in general I can tell you that these two antennas performed so similarly that it’s tough to say one is better than the other. To put it into perspective, any measurable differences (on a signal meter) or audible differences were so slight that small variations in exact placement or tuning tended to cover them up.
USING A DIRECT CONNECTION
As I mentioned earlier both of these loops provided a much stronger signal when used via inductive coupling than with a direct connection. I tried several radios in both modes…radios will vary in how AM signals are handled by their auxiliary antenna inputs. With the radios I tried in both modes of connection (Grundig Satellit 800, Satellit 600, Sony 2010, Eton S350DL, Panasonic RF-2200) there was clearly much stronger signal with inductive coupling. I would say this is generally the mode of choice with both of these antennas. But sometimes you will have to use the direct connection, such as with any radio that does not have a ferrite rod antenna like the Eton E-1. I tried the E-1 with these loops and although they worked to some extent, I got less signal strength than using the E-1′s whip antenna for AM…the only advantage to these loops might be in terms of noise nulling or directionality, but overall signal levels will be quite a bit lower than what you will get off the whip. With the E-1, neither of these loops is nearly as effective a match as the C.Crane Twin Coil which delivered a much stronger signal.

These loops also tout their use with AM radios which already have simple external loops, such as home Hi Fi systems and some table radios. I tried them with one such radio and got results somewhat better than with the supplied untuned loop antenna.

As I previously mentioned, that mini-jack on the SAT 541M and Terk can also be used as an input although Terk does not mention this in their literature. If you are in a shielded location, such as an apartment, office building or an RV, you can use these loops to not only inductively couple an outdoor wire antenna to your radio but to also use it as a pre-selector which could help prevent overload and interference. I did not test them in this configuration but see no reason why they wouldn’t work as advertised.

NIGHTTIME WITH THE LOOPS
As I mentioned earlier, the improvement you get with these loops is more noticeable in the daytime when signals are weak. At night the overall signal levels are much higher on the AM band, so that gain you noticed in the daytime may go unnoticed at night. But be aware that the gain is still there. This means that a given signal may sound the same while it is strong, but as it fades your radio will receive a stronger signal overall so the fade may be less deep. You may also be able to tune the loops slightly high or low to help ward off an unwanted signal adjacent to the one you are trying to hear, and their directional nulling can aid in rejecting either an interfering station or unwanted noise and local interference.

YEAH: BUT I HEARD THESE LOOPS DON’T WORK WITH MODEL “XXX” RADIO
True! In general, the better your radio is the less improvement you will get with one of these antennas. This is one of those rare cases where the less sensitive your radio is the more it will benefit. Here are some specific examples.

Panasonic RF-2200
GE Superadio I & II

These are the most sensitive AM portables I have and they showed virtually no improvement with either loop. The loops still increased the signal levels a bit but there was little if any improvement in reception quality…these two radios are already near the theoretical limits of signal-to-noise ratio on weak signals and the additional gain had a subtle effect at best.

But just to show how radio-individual these results are, my GE Superadio III and CCRadio Plus, which are still quite sensitive but which both have a slightly higher noise floor than the two radios above, showed some improvement with the loops. The CC’s LED Level Meter rose from ¼ to full scale on some signals…from my readings on S-Meter-equipped radios I would guess this equates to something around 6 db of gain. Listening to several stations 100 – 130 miles away (daytime) the background hiss was noticeably improved with the loops. I got similar improvements with other good AM portables too, like the Grundig Satellit 800 & 600, Eton/Grundig S350/Tecsun BCL2000/3000 series. Slightly less sensitive (generally smaller) radios showed even more improvement, such as the Eton E-5/Degen DE-1103 series, Sony 7600GR and any number of smaller radios I happened to have around. The smaller internal antennas and less sophisticated front end circuits in these radios limit their sensitivity to the point where either of these loops can make a huge difference. Weak signals can literally rise from faint whispers in the noise to full-blown signals that are pleasantly listenable.

WHAT THEY WON’T DO?
Fair question – one of the most common questions I am asked is how someone can receive a distant AM station they want to listen to. The unfortunate answer is that if the station doesn’t deliver a signal to your location, no antenna will bring it in for you. If you want to listen to a 500 mile-distant station in the daytime I’m sorry to tell you that you will not be able to in most conditions. What these loops CAN DO is to improve the quality of reception you already get, so if you have a “problem” station, they may just make it more listenable. If you like to tune around to see what’s out there, these loops will help ensure that you will hear more of what is hearable. For instance, if your favorite station comes in better on your car’s AM radio than on your portable, these loops will help your portable approach or match what you can hear in the car. At night when AM signals can span hundreds of miles these loops can give you just a bit more gain and ability to control interference. They are also a great “equalizer” because with either of these loops almost any halfway decent AM radio can become a real DX machine. Remember…the less sensitive your radio is, the more these loops will help. With less sensitive radios the results can be dramatic.

One other thing these loops won’t do is match the performance of more expensive/sophisticated antennas. Both the C.Crane Twin Coil Ferrite and Quantum & Wellbrook Loops (see my reviews) can provide substantially stronger signal levels and more control with better noise rejection, but of course, you have to pay for that performance ($100, $200 and about $370 respectively). With my Eton E-1 I routinely use both the C.Crane and the Quantum to great effect…they make a killer combo, but I would not recommend either the SAT nor the Terk for this radio…the signal level just won’t be there for you. And of course, truly dedicated AM hobbyists may be able build larger loops with more signal capture or to erect outdoor antennas that may outperform any indoor antenna, such as 1000 foot and longer Beverage wire antennas or K9AY loop antennas…there’s no limit to what you can do if properly motivated.

Conclusions
The Select-A-Tenna is a bit larger and most will agree, not nearly as elegant looking as the Terk. Surprisingly though its greater bulk does not translate into better performance. Each time I thought I saw a slight superiority on the SAT, I would try another station or another radio and get a slightly stronger reading from the Terk…they were that close. Overall they each offer great performance for what they cost. Yes, the $100 C.Crane Twin Coil amplified antenna is clearly better than either of these loops, but as passive devices that need no power and are fairly simple to use, these loops are not only a throwback to radios’ earliest days, but they are still an elegantly simple and efficient way to improve the AM listening experience. Using them may inspire you to try a larger loop which can improve the performance of even the very finest receivers…do some Googling around and you’ll find many interesting articles and resource links for loop information. There are many loops available for sale and lots of plans to build your own. It’s all part of the magic of pulling a signal out of thin air…and that’s what antennas are all about.

Good listening!

Comments or questions? Email me at radiojayallen@gmail.com

Jay Allen

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