The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Grundig Satellit 650 Radio

  • January 3, 2019

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    Though they’ll likely deny it, long-distance (DX) radio enthusiasts are also often romantics. For DXers, as they’re known, there’s a powerful enchantment surrounding the chance reception of a signal from somewhere remote and mysterious, like the Australian Outback, the Namib Desert, or a lonely island in the Shetlands. So when they come to favor a piece of equipment, they don’t just like it, they become devotees. And one receiver seems to have earned their undying affection more than any other: the Grundig Satellit 650.

    As a manufacturing company, Grundig traces its roots to Max Grundig, who began making and selling radios, some in kit form, in Germany shortly after the second World War. By the mid-1980s the company was doing well enough in Europe with tape recorders, televisions, high-fidelity stereo systems, dictation machines, VHS recorders, and, of course, radios. Grundig had had some success selling radios in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, but had since withdrawn from the relatively huge market. With the Satellit 650, though, it planned a return to worldwide distribution, including in the United States, according to Listening on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today by Jerome S. Berg (2008). Sources vary on the list price, but at introduction it seems to have ranged between US $900 and $1,000.

    The Grundig Satellit 650’s raison d’être was shortwave reception (1.6 to 30 megahertz), but it was equally capable with AM (about 510 to 1620 kilohertz, which was referred to as “medium wave” in olden times), and the spectrum below that once quaintly known as long wave (148 to 420 kHz), and also FM. The radio was designed with 60 presets that users could program, 32 of them set aside for shortwave frequencies. In terms of build quality, it was basically a tank and provided excellent sound quality.

    The sound quality started with the tuning system. The Satellit 650 was equipped with a preselector, essentially a low band-pass filter. The preselector is a mechanism for filtering out frequencies that are closely adjacent to the frequency the operator selects, minimizing the potential interference from other signals on those nearby frequencies. The feature appears to have been rare, possibly even unique, in the portable shortwave receiver category at the time.

    The Satellit 650 also incorporated a powerful 15-watt amplifier. Its single speaker was generously sized for a portable radio, but there was more to it than met the eye. Grundig chose to use pressure-chamber speakers, which can produce sound comparable to speakers twice as large.

    Among portable radios, the 650—at 8.5 kilograms (almost 19 pounds)—was heavier than most, but its fans liked the heft. To them, it was one of the rare consumer electronics triumphs in which the quality of the cabinet, controls, and display (it had both an analog tuner and a digital readout) was as high as that of the electronics inside.

    Even today, on the rare occasions when one shows up on eBay in good condition, a Satellit 650 can fetch upwards of $500. While the ongoing devotion to the model may be due in some measure to nostalgia, the radio was also from an era in which shortwave radio engineering had reached a high point, according to Berg. “By the mid-1990s, the period of innovation in portable shortwave receiver design had largely ended,” he wrote in his book. “Occasional new models came to the market, but they were old wine in new bottles. Slowly, most of the big names, including Sony, retired their portable shortwave lines.”

    Grundig hung on for a while. It manufactured the Satellit 650 from 1986 to 1990 or 1991 or perhaps even 1993 (sources disagree). Then it came out with a more modern-looking and nominally more advanced unit, the Satellit 700 (hams on various Internet message boards argue about the relative technical merits). And in 2000, it introduced the Satellit 800, which looked a lot more like the 650 than the 700, Berg notes.

    As time went on, and the spread of global networks made the magic of shortwave radio less appealing to a generation raised on wireless and the Internet, the shortwave radio market shrank fast. After filing for bankruptcy in 2003, Grundig was acquired in 2007 by a Turkish concern, now known as Arçelik A.Ş. Today, the Grundig name still appears on shortwave radios sold in the United States and Canada by Etón Corp. In Europe, meanwhile, Grundig appears to be thriving as a diversified consumer electronics firm. But conspicuously absent from the company’s sprawling lineup of large and small kitchen appliances, washing machines and dryers, televisions, stereos, vacuum cleaners, and personal-hygiene products are shortwave radios.

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    IEEE Spectrum

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