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The Top 9 Best Software Defined Radios in 2021 – (Reviews & Buying Guide)

If you are interested in getting into software-defined radios, you have likely asked yourself the question, “what is the best software defined radio?”. In this article, we will tell you exactly that.

In addition to telling you our top pick for the best software-defined radio, we will also give you eight other great picks in order to give you the best possible chance of finding the best radio for you.

We will give you the highlighted features, pros and cons, and an in-depth review for each and every entry on our list.

Not only that, but we will also tell you all the factors you should put some thought into before purchasing a technology-defined radio.

This section will tell you all the essential considerations you need to think about to purchase a perfect radio for you.

At the bottom of this article, we will have a FAQ section that answers all the most commonly asked questions about technology-defined radios. So, feel free to refer to that if you have any questions.

Why is NooElec HackRF The Best Software Defined Radio?

The NooElec HackRF easily takes the top spot on our list because of a variety of reasons.

This radio offers everything you could want from a software-defined radio, and it’s the best choice anyone could make whether they are new to the software-defined radio or a veteran.

Why is NooElec The Best Brand for a Software Defined Radio?

NooElec is the most trusted and reputable manufacturer of software-defined radios. All of their products are high quality and crafted with care.

In addition, NooElec offers direct support to anyone who buys one of the radios.

This can help a lot when it comes to installing or setting up one of the radios, and it’s something that none of their competitors currently offer.

[Updated 2021] Comparison Table of Best Software Defined Radio

PreviewBrand NameDetails
NooElec HackRF
RTL-SDR V3 HF
Nooelec NESDR
Nooelec NESDR v4
NooElec XTR
NESDR Nano 3
ADALM-Pluto SDR
NooElec XTR
Nooelec HackRF

Factors You Need to Consider When Looking to The Best Software Defined Radio in 2021

When purchasing a software defined radio, there are many factors you must consider to be able to know which radio will be the best pick for you.

Suppose you don’t consider some of the factors we mention.

In that case, it is highly likely that you will not have all the necessary knowledge to purchase the right software defined radio for you, and you may up regretting your purchase.

Alternatively, you may even end up with a radio that you can’t even use if you don’t factor in these considerations, which will be a complete waste of your valuable time and cash.

Application support

One of the most significant factors you need to consider when buying a software defined radio is the number of applications it has access to.

Software defined radios are made to be able to use a variety of different software and applications.

So if there’s an application in specific you want to be able to use, then it’s a good idea to check if the radio you are considering has access to it.

Although, even if there isn’t a specific software in particular that you are interested in.

It’s still a good idea to opt for a radio that has access to a vast number of applications in order to have the most options available to you.

Range

The range of a radio is critical.

If you get a software defined radio with a low range, you will struggle to connect to specific channels unless you are in extremely close proximity to the source.

Because of this, if you want to have access to a high number of channels, then it will be critical for you to go for a radio that has a far range.

Although you are only interested in tuning in to a specific channel near you, or you only want access to local channels, the range may not be as big of a factor for you.

So, depending on what you are looking for, the range will either be an incredibly significant factor or almost negatable.

Sensitivity

The sensitivity of a radio affects what how low and high of a frequency it can tune into.

If you get a software defined radio that isn’t very sensitive, you may miss out on a range of channels that are only available at the high or low end of the spectrum.

Usually, the more sensitive a radio, the better. However, most radios will be sensitive enough to pick up the majority of frequencies, which Is enough for most people.

Because of this, the sensitivity will only play a significant role in your buying decisions if you specifically want to have access to extremely low or high frequencies.

If not, then you won’t need to worry about the sensitivity too much.

Speed

The speed of a software defined radio is an essential factor because faster radios are much more comfortable to use and provide a better experience.

Slower radios can quickly become a nuisance and a chore to use, leaving many people getting bored of their radio.

Alternatively, for those who do stick with their radio, they will have a much more troublesome experience with it than their high-speed counterparts.

Because of the reasons listed above, it’s a good idea to go for a radio that is faster, although it is not necessary.

Popularity

Surprisingly, when it comes to software defined radios, the popularity and community around a radio should be one of the most influential factors.

Radios that are extremely popular are usually supported much more than their unpopular counterparts.

In fact, radios with large communities often have access to a wide range of different software than unpopular radios do not.

Because of the reasons listed above, if you want to have access to the newest and latest technology and the highest number of applications, it’s crucial that you go for a radio that has a large community following.

Although, that’s not to say radios without large followings are not supported.

It’s just better and safer to opt for ones that do have large communities as they are more likely to continue being supported.

Our top recommendations for the Best Software Defined Radio Reviews in 2021

01. NooElec HackRF

 

Highlighted features

  • Widely compatible
  • Range of 1MHz to 6GHz
  • compatible with a wide range of SDR software applications
  • connect a wide range of antennas
  • Installation support

The NooElec HackRF easily takes the number one spot on our list. Not only does it have a great range of 1MHz to 6GHz, but it is highly compatible in every sense of the word.

This radio is able to connect to a wide range of antennas as well as being capable of connecting to a wide range of SDR software applications.

In addition, there is also direct installation support from NooElec themselves through helpful guides or customer support on their websites.

The only actual drawback for the NooElec HackRF is that it can produce buzzing sounds when transmitting audio.

Although, this isn’t really something to worry about, and it will go unnoticed by the majority of people. The buzzing will only really be a factor for you audio heads out there.

Pros

  • Good range
  • Massively compatible
  • Installation support

Cons

  • Can produce buzz

02. RTL-SDR V3 HF

 

Highlighted features

  • Access to a wide range of applications
  • Incredibly compact
  • 500 kHz to 1.7 GHz
  • portable dipole antenna kit

The RTL-SDR V3 HF offers so much for such a small radio.

It has access to an impressive number of applications, including public radio, emergency stations, weather satellites, and many more.

For such a small and unassuming radio, there is a whole lot of bang for your buck.

Because of its incredibly compact size, It is easily transportable, and it can be taken anywhere without any hassle at all.

The one negative that people seem to mention when it comes to this radio is that it has a relatively low range.

This means that you will have to be quite close to the source in order to pick up a signal. Although, from such a small radio, what can you expect?

For what it is, the RTL-SDR V3 HF offers a whole lot compared to its other competitors.

Pros

  • Extremely compact
  • Able to access a massive number of applications
  • Easily portable

Cons

  • Low range

03. Nooelec NESDR Bundle

 

Highlighted features

  • The bundle includes everything you need
  • High sensitivity
  • Able to pick up HAM signals
  • 24/7 technical support availability

The Nooelec NESDR Bundle is an excellent choice for beginners as it includes everything you need to get started with software-defined radio.

It comes with all the necessary antennas and features, as well as a “ham-it-up” box that allows people to tune into HAM radio signals.

Another great benefit to this radio is its surprisingly good range. This radio seems to be able to pick up signals from further away than other competitors in its category.

In addition, there is also 24/7 technical support available to people who purchase this radio, which is a handy thing to have, and it brings an element of security.

Although, the Nooelec NESDR Bundle can be quite hard to use. There are a lot of people who get this radio only to struggle to use it and set it up.

However, if you’re willing to put in the time to learn how this radio functions, you will get a great all-in-one package.

Pros

  • Bundle
  • Comes with “ham-it-up” box
  • Extremely sensitive

Cons

  • Can be complicated to use

04. Nooelec NESDR v4 Bundle

 

Highlighted features

  • The bundle includes everything you need
  • ultra-low phase noise
  • 25MHz-1700MHz
  • Additional addons

The Nooelec NESDR v4 Bundle includes everything you need in order to get started with software-defined radio, which can make it a perfect choice for people who are newer to this kind of radio.

It has a lot of great features that some of its competitors don’t have, such as the impressive frequency range of 25MHz-1700MHz and the ultra-low phase noise function.

Furthermore, a variety of addons are available for this defined radio, such as a ham-it-up radio or a carrying case, both of which were explicitly designed for this radio.

The issue with the Nooelec NESDR v4 Bundle is that it can be pretty tricky and complicated to set up. This is pretty counter-intuitive as the bundle makes this radio great for beginners, but it can be hard to get the hang of setting it up and using it.

Pros

  • Bundle
  • Low phase noise
  • High-frequency range
  • Lots of additions

Cons

  • Difficult to use

05. NooElec XTR HF Bundle

 

Highlighted features

  • full, wide-band RF solution
  • 300Hz-2.3GHz
  • Ham It Up Plus upconverter
  • Variety of gain controls
  • Bundle

Next up, we have another bundle, which is the NooElec  XTR HF Bundle. The same points can be made for this entry that was made for the last one.

It’s a bundle containing everything you need to get started with technology-defined radio, except this one comes with ham it up convertor.

It also shares the same flaw as our last entry; it can be challenging to set up and use.

People report it taking around half an hour to get this set up every time you want to use it, which will be a big drawback for many people.

Aside from those points, the NooElec XTR HF Bundle has some redeeming qualities, such as ample gain/audio options.

If you are new to technology-defined radio but pretty savvy with technology in general, this may be a good pick for you.

Pros

  • A multitude of audio controls
  • Bundle
  • Ham It Up Plus upconverter

Cons

  • Difficult to use

06. NESDR Nano 3

 

Highlighted features

  • Bundle
  • Extremely portable
  • Tiny

If you are looking for a software defined radio that is highly portable, then the NESDR Nano 3 may be the perfect fit for you.

This radio is insanely tiny and compact. It would be so easy to take this whole bundle with you anywhere you go, and it would only take up less than a pockets space.

However, there is a big downside to the NESDR Nano 3. It doesn’t seem to work with all the widely available software that most other software-defined radios seem to have access to.

So, if you want the maximum number of applications possible for your radio, then this may not be a good choice. Although, if you are just looking for a radio to put in your pocket and forget about, this would be a great choice.

Pros

  • Incredibly compact
  • Portable
  • Bundle

Cons

07. ADALM-Pluto SDR

 

Highlighted features

  • Compact
  • 325 MHz to 3.8 GHz
  • 20 MHz of instantaneous bandwidth
  • Durable
  • Different design

The ADALM-Pluto SDR takes a different approach to its design than most other software-defined radios. It puts all the components into a plastic box, which makes it incredibly compact.

Not only that, but its design also makes it perfect for traveling as it is incredibly portable, and the box design also makes it more robust due to its increased protection.

This means that you may be able to get away with dropping this radio once or twice without it breaking, which cannot be said for most other radios.

On the other hand, the design also makes this radio feel clunky and hard to use.

It can be hard to navigate what you want to use, and it can feel challenging to work with – it may be a good idea to avoid this one if you have large hands.

Pros

  • Less fragile than most other radios
  • Different design approach
  • Compact
  • Robust

Cons

  • Clunky

08. NooElec XTR SDR

 

Highlighted features

  • Compact
  • Portable
  • USB design
  • 65MHz-2300MHz
  • ultra-low phase noise

The NooElec XTR SDR is super portable and compact due to its USB design. It will be perfect for carrying around with you on a day-to-day basis or when travelling.

In addition, its ultra-low phase noise blocker does a great job at keeping away unwanted noises and sounds – which is excellent for such a small device.

However, there is a pretty big drawback to the NooElec XTR SDR.

There are many complaints about how this radio doesn’t seem to be compatible with a large majority of devices such as laptops, macs, or computers, even though it has a USB port that is compatible with them.

Because of this, it may be better to do some independent research to see if you will even be able to use this software-defined radio.

Pros

  • Easily portable
  • Streamlined USB design
  • Low phase noise blocker
  • Compact

Cons

  • Doesn’t work with all USB ports

09. Nooelec HackRF Bundle

 

Highlighted features

  • Bundle
  • range of 1MHz to 6000MHz
  • Accurate tuning
  • Installation support and assistance
  • Compatible with a variety of antennas

The Nooelec HackRF Bundle is one of the best software defined radio bundles for beginners. It isn’t too complicated to use, and it comes with everything you need to get started.

It also has a plethora of impressive features, such as its expansive frequency range and its super accurate tuning.

That goes without mentioning the impressive list of antennas this radio is compatible with.

Another great plus for this radio is that Nooelec gives direct installation support to everyone who buys this radio.

So far, so good, but there’s one significant drawback that puts this radio so low down on our list.

This radio does not last for very long. The preamps seem to blow out extremely quickly, and there are reports of people setting it up and only being able to use it for under a minute before it stops working – although that is likely a rare case.

Pros

  • All in one bundle
  • High range
  • Sensitive
  • Installation support
  • Widely compatible

Cons

  • Pre-amps blow out quickly

The Basic FAQ’s Best Software Defined Radio

What is a software-defined radio?

Software-defined radio is a radio that has access to a wide variety of different features that other radios don’t.

It’s more of an inclusive all-in-one package that includes a bit of everything.

You get the typical features of radios, such as tuning into specific frequencies to listen to channels and a plethora of additional features due to the fact that software can be made for technology-defined radios on a continual basis.

Because of this, the number of applications and software these radios have access to is constantly growing and expanding.

What does a software-defined radio do?

Software-defined radios have a vast expanse of different functions. To list a few of the available options, they can tune into weather forecasts, emergency programs, astronomical alerts, and a wide range of others.

Because these radios are only limited by the software that has been made for them, the list of possibilities is endless and ever-expanding.

Is there a subscription needed to use a software-defined radio?

No. Usually, there is no subscription needed for software-defined radio. There is a one-time purchase for the radio, and then after that, you are set.

Although, you may have to pay to have access to certain software or applications that developers may make for software defined radios.

What’s the difference between a high or low-quality software-defined radio?

The discrepancies between high and low-quality software-defined radios can be pretty significant.

Some of the most significant differences are the sound quality, the sensitivity, the frequency range, the number of applications that are available, and the general overall quality.

There are a lot of other factors that seem to change between high and low-end radios, but the ones we listed above will be the main ones.

Another thing you will need to look out for lower quality software-defined radios because it is likely that they will not get the latest software and updates, which their higher-end counterparts may have access to.

Do I need a license to use a software-defined radio?

This depends on where you are located. Usually, there are no licenses specifically required to buy or use a software-defined radio, but because these radios are a mismatch of other radios and have access to their frequencies, you may need to get a license to use them.

What is the range for software-defined radio?

The range of a software-defined radio differs significantly between each radio.

Better quality radios will usually have a much further range than lower quality ones, and the antennas they come with will usually be much better.

Although, some radios may be able to be used with third-party antennas, which could drastically increase the range in which they are able to pick up transmissions.

This is because you will be able to replace the stock antenna they come with, which will usually be sub-par, and there will be way better options to choose from out there from third-party providers.

Conclusion

You should now have a much better understanding of what the best technology-defined radio is, as well as all the essential factors you need to consider when picking a radio.

In order to pick the best radio for you, you should go through our entire list of radios and choose the one the sounds the best to you.

Although, the best choice overall will be our number one pick, so if you are struggling, feel free to just go with that. Trust us; you cannot go wrong.

In addition, our handy FAQs section should answer most of the questions you may have when it comes to software defined radios.

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