Sony ICF-2003 reviews

Sony ICF-2003
Handheld HF/VHF Receiver

Price History Chart

Not bad for what it is


I've been playing around with this radio for a few weeks now, after picking one up (complete with case and wall wart) at a local thrift store. My impression is that, while this may not be as fully featured or selective as modern equipment, it's still a very capable radio that shouldn't be overlooked. It also has some documented modifications that can make it better for DXers.

Overall, if you're able to pick one of these up for a good deal (under$100) complete and in working order it would make a good beginner shortwave, backup radio, portable DXer, emergency radio, or main radio for a casual listener. For a beginner the simplicity may actually be a virtue. Those willing to mod the radio could use it for more serious DXing.

Fit and finish wise, this radio feels like a little brick. The plastic is reasonably sturdy, not creaky, buttons don't feel mushy or rattly, and it was obviously built to a pretty high price point in its day. The only age related malady is slightly yellowed buttons and worn paint.

The interface is intuitive for a digital radio, a trend setter for this form factor, and even as a shortwave beginner I was able to figure out almost all of the functionality in a single sitting without the manual. At its most basic, you just tap the band, punch in the frequency, and hit execute. Alternatively you use the up or down arrows to tune up and down the band, or with the select button held in, to pick the band. IF you can use a basic calculator you can figure out this radio, and the few unintuitive controls it has (like being able to 1-2 touch dial in increments of 1000khz on the MW/SW bands) are filled in by the manual.

The major UI complaints would be that the switches and dials along the side of the radio body (minus the fairly nice volume slider) feel relatively small and cheap in comparison to the rest of the radio. Modern units from companies like Tecsun seem to have bigger fine tuning controls and whatnot. I've also read that the area around the whip antenna can get cracked with use, but mine is fine.

Feature-wise, this was a powerhouse in its day for such a portable radio but nothing to write home about in 2023. You get access to the full radio spectrum from 153-29,995 khz, and the FM band from 76-108 mhz (meaning it can be used for the full FM frequency range in Japan.) Some European builds of this same radio have more limited band ranges, but fixing this a relatively easy jumper mod. In addition, you get an intuitive digital readout, a clock with sleep and standby functions (and its own digital readout), 10 presets, seeking capabilities, the ability to skip to different bands (legal bands are displayed on the dial when you're in range of them), mono headphone out, tape out, ext antenna in (on non-German models), MW/SW analog fine tuning, basic SSB BFO tuning, and some basic tone and sensitivity controls. In addition, the clock can be set to 12 or 24 hour mode, and the MW band can step in 9 or 10 khz steps via a dip switch behind the battery cover.

Modern convenience features that are conspicuously missing from this radio are a battery indicator light, a signal strength meter (this radio provides a single LED which doesn't tell you much), and a lighted dial for nighttime use. The seeking/scanning ability is also of limited use in practice, as it seems to be way too sensitive. These things are annoying, but not huge detractors in day to day use.

The radio takes 4 AA batteries for the main power and 2 AAs for the computer. Sony recommends replacing the computer batteries once a year to prevent corrosion, so that uses almost no power. The rated battery life for the radio is at a meager 12 hours, but according to the manual, this is using (then average but today bottom-of-the-barrel) Sony branded heavy duty carbon-zinc batteries. I haven't independently tested this, but since modern alkalines often have capacities at 3-5 times those of old carbon zinc batteries, real battery life can be conservatively estimated at 36+ hours using modern batteries, at whatever volume Sony used to get their numbers. I've mostly been using the wall outlet, and so still haven't killed my first set of batteries in this radio.

Radio performance is quite good, but there are weaknesses.

FM is fairly sensitive, but selectivity is lacking. The filters are quite wide. Strong stations can easily take out surrounding frequencies and attaching a long antenna can cause overloading. Documentation exists on installing narrower filters to compensate for this shortcoming, but this is fairly involved for a casual hobbyist. That said, on quieter parts of the band the radio can pull in quite distant stations with just the whip. I've had some luck pulling in weak stations over 100 miles away under very ideal conditions.

MW performance seems to be much stronger. There is some imaging with very strong stations, but unless you live in a very crowded AM market the filtering issues aren't nearly as pronounced as with FM. Once again, with just the internal ferrite antenna, and just a couple weeks of looking, I've been able to pull nighttime broadcasts from WBZ Boston at my location in central Wisconsin. This was indoors on the first floor.

The SW band is pretty quiet in 2023, but I have pulled faint broadcasts from as far as China using a reel antenna, and from France using the whip. SSB is tricky to beat match with the tiny included dial, but with some practice it can be done for both upper and lower sidebands. Here, the furthest documented conversation I captured two sides of (with a reel antenna) was one between somebody in southern Georgia and Denver Colorado.

Notable on all bands is that performance is better with the wall wart than off of batteries. You will see a small but sometimes significant jump in signal strength when you switch to wall power. Internet documentation says that this comes down to the batteries providing lower voltage than the required 6 volts, and once again mentions that modifications are possible to rectify this. In casual use it doesn't seem to make much of a difference, but when trying to pull distant stations it can make a difference. Aftermarket wall power supplies seem to be commonly available.

As far as muting is concerned when skipping through frequencies, I've heard way worse. The radio does mute but only for a tiny fraction of a second. You can still skip through frequencies quite quickly. On that subject, the radio skips in 3 khz steps in LW, 9 or 10 khz steps in MW, 5 khz steps in SW (fine tuning fills in the gaps in these bands). and 100khz steps in FM. The only place where this seems too coarse is in the ham bands, but is still usable with the fine tuning.

Speaking strictly about the speaker quality, the radio has a pleasing, inoffensive tone. You're given the option of "news" and "music"; the music setting adds some treble, which is a bit harsh in FM but works well in other bands. The news tone is perfect for inoffensive background listening.

Ultimately, what we're left with is a radio that's well constructed, with enough features to get the job done on all radio bands. It has some omissions compared to modern offerings, but isn't rendered as obsolete as one might think given its age. In fact, it's a very usable radio and has been pleasant to operate in my experience. The chunky feel, intuitive controls and 80s charm make up for shortcomings elsewhere, at least to a degree. If you're budgeting well north of $100 for a starter set there are better options on the market, but if the price and circumstances are right, the ICF2002/2003 (and related ICF7600D/S) is well worth your consideration. For more SW listeners, it might be fun to see what an older set like this is capable of (and what it isn't.)

Build quality
User friendliness
Value for money
Good condition in 2023
USD 2.00

Review the Sony ICF-2003