A great portable radio
Simplicity, quality, FM performance, design, rechargeable battery.
Pricey. Some considerable constant background hiss/noise on mine.
The Bottom Line:
If you want the best then you have to be prepared to pay. But just watch out for the hiss.
I am quite a fan of Tivoli audio products, after fairly recently discovering the Model One table radio. I was so impressed by it that almost straight away I went and purchased a Model Two, the stereo version. Again, I was very pleased. After reading so many glowing reviews of Tivoli's portable PAL, I couldn't resist the temptation of spending yet more of my hard-earned cash to own one. Yes, I'm clearly a big Tivoli fan then! I have posted reviews of my Model One and Two, so please have a read of them if interested. This review inevitably makes frequent reference to the Model One, as in many ways it is its main competitor though of course it is not fully comparable as the PAL is a fully portable unit whereas the Model One is a 12VDC/mains unit.
I chose the black version, as I'm not really a fan of the bright coloured versions. Plain old black is fine, thanks! I like the simple looks and functionality. I was surprised just how small the unit is—a bit bigger than an endways-on bag of sugar. The case is plastic, but with a kind of matt, extremely thin rubberised coating; not really the kind of soft standard rubber finish I had been expecting. It feels solid and well made—the materials are nice quality—and is reassuringly weighty, no doubt due in a large part to the internal NiMH battery pack. This is a real 'back-to-basics' radio, with just three controls. It features a smaller version of the Model One's excellent tuning dial, beneath which are two knobs: one for on/off/band and the other volume. The controls all have a nice, quality feel to them, with good resistance. Between the two knobs sits a small green LED, which functions as an opertaion and charging/battery charge level indication. Below this is the metal grill covering the speaker.
The rear of the PAL features a top-mounted hinged telescopic antenna that can be swivelled down out of the way when not in use. I am pleased Tivoli went with a telesopic antenna rather than a less efficient 'rubber duck' type flexible antenna, as I have always found telescopic whips provide unbeatable performance on VHF radios of all kinds. There are three sockets with bungs to prevent moisture ingress when not in use. These are for aux in, headphones, and 12VDC @500mA.
The unit is described as being weather resistant, but I will try never to test out these claims. I don't want to get water inside the telescopic metal antenna for one thing, as I cannot see it doing much good. Besides, it cost too much! I am a tradesman, and wouldn't dare use such an expensive radio at work, unfortunately. A shame as it would be so good
I'll just have to stick with my trusty (and much less expensive) Sony ICF703L for work.
The only omission to the design of the PAL in my opinion is some sort of carrying strap attachment, or even a handle, as without this the PAL is a little awkward to pick up (though it has two slight indentations on the case sides to help you grip the unit). A soft case with a strap is an option, and I shall have to look into getting one, as I should hate to drop the unit when carrying it.
Like seemingly all Tivoli sets, the PAL seems to suffer from fairly poor AM sensitivity, based upon my rather limited use of that band (I'm not a huge AM listener however, so don't read too much into this). I get my local/semi-local stations just fine, however.
But the PAL certainly has a superb, sensitive FM receiver. I can receive most of my favourite FM stations without even extending the antenna, which is pretty cool and looks an impressive sight. ("How can it be receiving that distant station without an extended antenna!")? It pulls in some distant (70 miles) stations with very little background noise. In fact, sensitivity only appears to be limited by the high number of stations on the dial here and FM's inherent 'capture effect', whereby stronger stations wipe out the weaker ones. If this radio were used in a location where there is plenty of unused space on the band I suspect it would pull in some really distant stations.
The unit features Automatic Frequency Control (AFC)—a feature I've never come across before on FM broadcast radios—that 'locks on' to the centre of the FM signal you've tuned in, saving you from the need to fine-tune. It's a neat feature that makes tuning easier and faster, and you don't get to hear the distortion of a badly tuned station. Many years back I used to experiment with low-power miniature FM transmitter 'bugs'. (It was good fun!) They were very basic designs and drifted off tune alarmingly over time. If only I'd had my PAL back then! It would have made the ideal receiver with its AFC and great sensitivity (I couldn't use such devices these days as there is insufficient free space on the FM band now here).
One characteristic of the AFC feature is that strong stations can appear to take up almost 1Mhz as the dial is rotated. Often, there is an adjacent station that immediately pops up as you tune past stronger stations, and you may need to tune very slowly and carefully to avoid missing them.
Also, under certain circumstances, I have noticed the AFC can cause the radio to swap stations by itself. Typically it would happen when listening to a weak station with a stronger one within a few hundred kHz away, and can occur due to reflections caused when someone walks around the room. I don't think it would cause anyone any real problem, but it's something to be aware is due to AFC.
This is a great radio for pulling in FM stations. When the telescopic antenna is adjusted properly--be that extended, lowered (for strong signals) or rotated, you can usually manage to tune in your desired station, providing the signal is there, of course! Sometimes this is because you are reducing the strength of adjacent unwanted stations, which helps you to receive your desired signal. In addition you can of course move the cordless PAL around to find the 'sweet spot' for best reception. This radio is very likely to receive you those awkward stations you may find impossible on most other radios.
Tivoli didn't include a connector for an external antenna as it did with the Model One. However, the telescopic antenna does such a great job, it would have been redundant for almost every owner.
The audio can I think best be described in one word: solid. Even when the volume dial is set at half its maximum, when the PAL is placed on the window sill in my bathroom the sound is sufficient that I can feel the floor resonate slightly beneath my feet! That's not to say it goes deafeningly loud because it doesn't, but for what it is it's powerful, and I've noticed no distortion.
And the audio sounds very good—considerably better than any other portable radio I've heard, and I strongly suspect it is the best sounding portable (i.e. with an internal power source) radio available. It is certainly clear and rich; though for speech there may be a little bit more boominess than is desired. The sound is 'bigger' and better than one would expect from such a small unit. But good as it undoubtedly is, it doesn't have the remarkable range and quality of the Model One. I can state this as I have compared the two side-by-side on the same FM stations, switching between the radios, and also playing back my minidisc player. The Model One is superior by some margin. But then, can anything touch the Model One for audio quality? I was never realistically expecting the PAL to, and as such am satisfied with the audio quality.
This difference between the two sets is probably mainly due to the speaker being smaller than the 3in unit in the Model One (quite a difference in size when it comes to speakers), and also remember that the PAL lacks the bass port. Other factors come into play too, such as case material, physical design and smaller dimensions. I suspect also that the designers didn't actually set out to chase the last bit of audio quality for this portable set as they did with the Model One, as there are other priorities with a rechargeable battery powered portable radio.
Now on to the one and only real disappointment with my PAL. There is a background noise noticeable when the volume is turned down low. It is a kind of rustling/hiss. It isn't noticeable if you are listening at a reasonable volume level (above say one third), but at low levels it is quite apparent. I suspect it is something to do with the battery powering of this radio. It is acceptable providing you listen at reasonable volumes levels.
If you need the ultimate 'cordless' portable radio, for taking out and about away from mains power, the PAL is probably it. But if you intend to use the unit indoors—especially if you don't plan on moving it from room to room too often—and mains electricity is available (or you can hook the unit up to a 12-volt source such as in a boat or RV), the Model One will be a better choice as it not only sounds better but is less expensive and, I reckon, possibly a bit better made/less of a design compromise. Also, remember there is no provision to connect an external antenna to the PAL, whereas the Model One has an F-type connector—potentially a big advantage in situations where you would be running on 12-volts such as inside an RV.
However, the Model One is mono only, whereas the PAL provides stereo through its headphone socket output.
The PAL is not inexpensive for such a little unit, costing me around 30 percent more than my Model One. On balance I think this price difference should be the other way round. You would assume this were you to see both side-by-side. So is it worth it? Well, that depends on how much you value performance. I can only speak for myself and say it was a worthwhile buy considering how many hours of quality listening pleasure I'll get from my PAL. For 'the masses' though, I suspect that this quality wouldn't be appreciated enough to warrant spending so much when there are a thousand other much cheaper radios out there in this day and age. After all, 'a radio is a radio', right? Shame, but it seems to me that most folks these days don't value performance as much as feature count. In summary, this is a radio enthusiast's radio, and personally, I'm prepared to make compromises elsewhere to afford quality items like this.
After a few weeks I decided to return my PAL due to the hiss. I was expecting an exchange but the retailer refunded me instead. So I no longer own a PAL. A shame, especially if the exchange would have been hiss free. I guess I may never know.
Well, I guess I have the Tivoli bug. After much deliberation (and missing my old PAL), I finally got round to buying a new one recently, in the hope the rustling/hiss I'd experienced was a one-off. I am pleased to report the new one (chrome fronted!) is free from the annoying rustle. It does emit a constant hiss when switched on, but not quite so much as the old one - I can just about hear it at arms length away with the volume turned right down. I can live with this as it just isn't a problem in normal use. This may bring into question quality control issues, but I guess I may just have been unlucky first time round.