Category Archives: Radios

A review of the Icom IC-7300 direct RF sampling transceiver

Icom-IC-7300-Front

In August 2015 at the Tokyo Hamfair, Icom debuted a new type of transceiver in their product line––one featuring a direct RF sampling receiver. Essentially, it was an SDR tabletop transceiver.

At about the same time that the IC-7300 started shipping around the world, Icom pulled their venerable IC-7200 off the market. Yet the IC-7200 was established as a well-loved product, due to its highly sensitive receiver, its relatively robust front end, and its quality audio. Moreover, it was simple to operate, which made superb as a Field Day or radio club rig.

Therefore, even though the IC-7300 promised much more versatility than the IC-7200, for its price point it had a tough act to follow.

So, of course––even more so than with any other radio Icom has introduced in the past few years––I was eager to get my hands on a IC-7300.  I’m very fortunate that my good friend, Dave Anderson (K4SV) was one of the first purchasers of the IC-7300, and that he didn’t mind (after only having the rig perhaps one week!) allowing me to borrow it for a several weeks for evaluation.

Note:  I should state here that since this rig was loaned to me, I evaluated it based on the firmware version it shipped with, and made no modifications to it.

Icom-IC-7300-FrontThis review primarily focuses on the receiver’s performance, functionality and usability.

Introducing the Icom IC-7300

In recent years, the “big three” ham radio manufacturers have been using color displays, and––Icom most especially––touch screens. While I’m no fan of backlit touch screens in mobile applications, I  think touch screen displays make a lot of sense in a base radio. If carefully designed, a touch screen can save an operator from heavily-buried menus and decrease the number of multi-function buttons on the front panel.

The challenge, of course, is making a display with intuitive controls, and one that is large enough, and with sufficient resolution, to be useful to the operator. In the past, I’ve been disappointed by many displays; the most successful have been incorporated in DX/Contest-class (i.e., pricier) transceivers, meanwhile, entry-level and mid-priced transceiver displays often seem half-baked. While the graphics may be crisp, spectrum displays at this price point are often too compressed to be useful, and if not a touch display, force the user to pause operation in order to find the correct knob or button to change settings. In such cases, I find myself wondering why the manufacturer went to the expense of a color display at all––?

Icom-IC-7300-Display

But what about the C-7300 display?  I’m thoroughly pleased to report that Icom did a fantastic job of balancing utility and function in design of the IC-7300’s color touch display and front panel. There are  number of ways you can chose to display and arrange elements on the screen–since I’m an SDR fan, I typically chose a display setting which gave the waterfall the most real estate. Of course, one can chose to give the frequency display priority or a number of other arrangements.

User interface

I can tell that Icom built upon their experience with the IC-7100––their first entry-level touch screen display transceiver.

I was able to get the IC-7300 on the air in very little time. Within five minutes of turning on the IC-7300, I was able to:

  • change the display to feature a spectrum waterfall;
  • change the span of the waterfall display;
  • adjust the TX power output;
  • change the filters selection and the transmit mode;
  • change bands and make direct-frequency entries;
  • adjust notch, passband, and filter width;
  • adjust AF and RF gain;
  • set A/B VFOs and operate split;
  • change AGC settings;
  • turn on Noise Reduction/Noise Blanker, and
  • adjust compression.

Basically, I found that all the essential functions are clearly laid out, accessible, and highly functional.  Impressive.

The IC-7300 ships with a manual–– aptly titled, the “Basic” manual––and a CD with the full and unabridged operations manual.  The Basic Manual covers a great deal a lot more than the manual which accompanied the Icom ID-51a. If you read through the manual, you’ll readily familiarize yourself with most of the IC-7300’s higher function operations, and especially, you’ll be able to adjust the settings to your operation style. The Manual is written in simple language, and includes a lot of diagrams and graphics.

If you’re like me, you will find you’ll also need to reference that unabridged manual, so hang on to the CD, too.

Still, I imagine there’s a large percentage of future IC-7300 owners that will never need to reference the manual––especially if they don’t care about tweaking band edges or similar settings. Yes, believe it or not, it’s that easy to use.

Operation

Icom-IC-7300-Function-Buttons

While I spent a great deal of time listening to CW and SSB in various band conditions and at various times of day, I spent less time on the air transmitting.

With that said, all of my transmitting time was in CW since the IC-7300 mic was accidentally left out when my friend loaned me the rig.

I’m please to report that CW operation is quite pleasant. All of the adjustments––RF Power, Key Speed, and CW Pitch––can be quickly modified using the multi-function knob. While in CW mode, you can also toggle full break-in mode, which is quite smooth, via the function button and touch screen.

SSB functions are similar. While in  SSB mode, the multi-function knob allows you to change the tx power, mic gain, and monitor level. The function button opens an on-screen menu with VOX, compression, TBW, and the monitor toggle.

Here’s a short video I made with my phone while I made a few adjustments to the IC-7300:

Of course, my smartphones’s microphone can’t accurately reproduce the audio from the IC-7300, but you probably get the idea.

The only annoyance I noted––and perhaps I’m more sensitive to this, being primarily a QRPer––is that the 7300’s cooling fan starts up each time you key up. It even comes on when transmit power is at its lowest setting. I find this a little distracting in CW.  Fortunately, however, the 7300’s fan is fairly quiet and operates smoothly.

Receiver performance and reader survey results

Since our radio comparison shoot-outs have been particularly popular (and useful; check out our shoot-out between top portables, and ultra-compact radios, and others), I decided it would make sense to invite our informed readership to evaluate the Icom IC-7300’s performance in a series of blind, informal tests. (For information about these surveys, please read the first survey.)

Below, I’ve matched the labels (Radio A/Radio B) with the radio models.  I’ve also included pie charts which show the results from the survey.

Icom IC-7300 vs. WinRadio Excalibur

Weak Signal CW (40 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur: Radio B

CW

Based on listener comments, those of you who preferred the ‘7300 did so because the CW was more interpretable and stable.

Some of you noted that I didn’t quite have CW at the same pitch on both rigs. I believe this is because the IC-7300’s calibration was ever so slightly off. This has since been addressed.

Weak/Strong SSB QSO (40 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur – Radio B

SSB

This result was almost tied. The Excalibur’s audio––without any adjustments––has a fuller and “bassier” sound. The ‘7300 can be adjusted to have similar characteristics, but the default EQ settings produce very flat audio. Many of you commented that the IC-7300 more faithfully produced audio optimized for SSB.


Shortwave Broadcast recordings

The following recordings were made on the 31 meter broadcast band in the evening. Both radios had the same filter width: 9 kHz and 8.2 kHz.

Weak Shortwave AM (Radio Bandeirantes 31 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur – Radio B

Weak-SW-AM

There was a noticeable preference for the WinRadio Excalibur in this particular audio set. Even though the Excalibur’s audio splattered a bit, the content was more interpretable. The IC-7300’s audio sounded flat in comparison––again, something that can be adjusted quite easily in the ‘7300’s audio settings.

Strong Shortwave AM (Radio Romania International, French 31 Meter Band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A 

WinRadio Excalibur: Radio B

Strong-SW-AM

Once again, the Excalibur won favor, but I imagine results would have been closer had I adjusted the ‘7300’s audio EQ.


Mediumwave Broadcast recordings

Note that the following mediumwave recordings were made during the morning hours (grayline). The strong station is the closest AM broadcaster to my home; it’s not a blow-torch “Class A” type station, merely the closest local broadcaster.

In the “weak” sample, I tuned to 630 kHz where multiple broadcasters could be heard on frequency, but one was dominant.

Both radios are set to a filter width of 9.0 kHz.

Strong Mediumwave AM (1010 kHz)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur: Radio B

Strong-MW-AM

Two out of three listeners preferred the Excalibur in this example.

Weak Mediumwave AM (630 kHz)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

WinRadio Excalibur – Radio B

Weak-MW-AM

In this particular example, the IC-7300 could not pull the strongest broadcaster out of the pile as well as the WinRadio Excalibur. In fairness, the Excalibur was using AM sync detection, something the IC-7300 lacks.

Icom IC-7300 vs. Elecraft KX3

IMG_20160424_105444629

I also decided to pit the IC-7300 against my well-loved Elecraft KX3.


Audio Clip 1: CW (20 meter band)

Elecraft KX3: Radio A

Icom IC-7300: Radio B

Elecraft - CW

Based on comments, readers who preferred the IC-7300 felt the CW sounded more pleasant and stable.


Audio Clip 2: Weak Signal CW (20 meter band)

Elecraft KX3: Radio A

Icom IC-7300: Rado B

Elecraft - WeakCW

Your comments indicated that the CW seemed to “pop out” of the noise slightly better with the IC-7300.


Audio Clip 3: Weak/Strong SSB
(Sable Island working Asia/Pacific on 20 meter band)

Icom IC-7300: Radio A

Elecraft KX3: Radio B

Elecraft SSB

These results were spilt in the middle. Again, I believe this comes down to personal preference in the audio. And again––in both radios––the audio EQ can be adjusted to suit the operator.


Receiver performance summary

I enjoy producing audio clips for readers to compare and comment upon. Each time I’ve done so in the past, I’ve had listeners argue the virtues of a particular audio clip while others have the complete opposite reaction to that same clip. Not all of us prefer our audio served up in the same way. No doubt, there’s a great deal of subjectivity in this sort of test.

I’ve had the IC-7300 on the air every day since I took possession of it. I’ve listened to SSB, CW, and lots of AM/SW broadcasters.

And here’s my summary: the IC-7300 is an excellent receiver. It has a low noise floor, superb sensitivity and excellent selectivity. I even slightly prefer its audio to that of my Elecraft KX3, and I’m a huge fan of the little KX3.

I’ve written before about how difficult it is to compare SDRs; the problem is that there are so many ways to tweak your audio, filters, AGC, noise reduction, etc. that it’s hard to compare apples with apples.

In the audio samples above, the IC-7300 and WinRadio Excalibur were both set to their default audio settings. In SSB and CW, the IC-7300 excels, in my opinion. CW seems to pop out of the noise better and SSB is more pleasant and interpretable. The Excalibur has a better audio profile for AM broadcasters, though. Its default audio simply sounds fuller–more robust.

The audio from the IC-7300 on AM sounded absolutely flat. However, if I tweak the audio of the ‘7300, adding more bass, it instantly sounds more like a dedicated tabletop receiver.

Here’s a recent example of Radio Romania International:

I should also mention that while the IC-7300’s built-in digital recording is a fantastic and effective feature, it doesn’t produce audio true to what’s heard through headphones live. This is especially the case when you add more bass and treble response as in the RRI example above. When the audio EQ is set to a default flat, it’s quite accurate.

To be clear:  for broadcast listening, I’ll still reach for my SDRs (the Excalibur, FDM-S2, TitanSDR and CR-1a).

If, however, I have limited space and/or budget for multiple receivers, I’d be quite happy using the IC-7300 as a broadcast receiver on the HF bands.

Speaking from the Shortwave Radio Listener (SWL) perspective, meanwhile, am I pleased with how the ‘7300 handles the broadcast bands?  Most definitely.

And as a ham radio operator, am I pleased with the IC-7300’s receiver––?  Absolutely.

In short:  the IC-7300 seems to have some of the best all-around receiver qualities of any transceiver I know under $2,000.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes of my initial impressions. Here’s my list for the IC-7300:

Pros

  • Excellent sensitivity and selectivity
  • Excellent, highly-customizable RX and TX audio
  • Color touch screen interface
    • Spectrum display is large enough to be useful
    • Intuitive functions
  • Twin PBT is both intuitive to operate and effective
  • Effective RF gain to compensate for noisy band conditions
  • Built-in RX and TX recording, file transfers via common SD card
  • Front panel knobs and buttons are spaced appropriately and easy to use
  • Quiet cooling fan (see con)
  • Decodes RTTY on screen
  • Built-in ATU
  • Antenna analyzer function (not tested)

Cons

  • Lacks secondary receive antenna jack on rear panel
  • Cooling fan immediately starts up on CW/SSB transmit at any power setting (see pro regarding fan noise)
  • Occasionally you may get lost in deeper customized functions
  • Supplied printed basic owner’s manual, while well-written, doesn’t fully cover the IC-7300s functions and options; you must explore the digital owner’s manual in supplied CD.

Conclusion

In a nutshell: Icom has hit a home run with the IC-7300.  If I didn’t already have an Elecraft KX3 and K2, I would buy the IC-7300 without hesitation.

Though the price point is a little high for an “entry level transceiver,” it’s worth every penny, in my opinion. For $1500 US, you get a fantastic general-coverage transceiver with an intuitive interface, nearly every function you can imagine, and performance that would please even a seasoned DXer.

Though I haven’t done and A/B comparison with the IC-7200, I imagine the IC-7300 would prevail in a test. The IC-7300 would certainly wipe the floor with it’s more economical brother, the IC-718.

Radio clubs, take note:

In my view, the IC-7300 has the makings of an excellent radio club rig in which performance, functionality, as well as ease of use are important. I expect that the IC-7300 will not only cope very well with crowded and crazy Field Day conditions, but it will also give any newcomers to the hobby a little experience with a proper modern transceiver. The fact that you can view signals so easily on the spectrum display means that it will be easier to chase contacts and monitor bands as they open and close. Indeed, what better way to mentor a newly-minted ham in modes, contacts, carriers, QRN, QRM, and so forth, than to simply point these out on the IC-7300’s bright, clear display––?

If your club is considering a transceiver upgrade or purchase, do seriously consider the IC-7300. I think you’ll find this rig is up to the task.

And for home? The Icom IC-7300 may be all of the rig you’ll ever need.

The Kenwood R-1000: A resurgence in popularity?

Kenwood R-1000 (Source: Universal Radio)

Kenwood R-1000 (Source: Universal Radio)

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who writes:

The Kenwood R-1000 has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, fueled in part by a positive re-review of the receiver at http://webpages.charter.net/n9ewo2/news.html

While new condition R-1000s, and you would be surprised how many of them are out there, have gone for $400, few have gone for as much as this one did [$451 US shipped]:

Kenwood-R-1000-eBay

Click here to view on eBay.

My appreciation for this radio has only grown since acquiring it last year. Mine was in like new condition and I had it modified by KIWA to provide multiple selectivity positions.

Click here to search eBay for an R-1000.

Thanks, Dan! I think the R-1000 is a handsome rig and certainly represents everything I love about solid state receivers of the era: simple design, beautiful audio, admirable performance and a proper weighted tuning knob.

Note that if you’re an owner of the R-1000–or any receiver of a similar age–you should set aside a budget for the occasional repair. With regular maintenance, these receivers will give you decades of good DX.

Luke considers the Panasonic RF-9000 an investment and solid performer

Panasonic-RF-9000

In response to our post about a Panasonic RF-9000 being offered on eBay for $20,000(!), SWLing Post reader, Luke, comments:

I actually just bought a RF-9000 from a Spanish Ebay seller. It might show up in the ‘completed auctions’, not sure. I made an offer of 2,000 Euros and he accepted. Of course I am like most of you who might have seen one in a magazine or book for over 20 years, but never dreamed of actually owning one.

My unit had a few imperfections like a couple of dings and the grille was not 100% with some slight discoloration but I cleaned it up nicely and got some Testors paint to fill in the dings. It came with the cover but with no documentation. Everything works perfectly and there are no dirty or inoperable switches or buttons. Even the lights all work which is a relief.

I can only really compare it to the Sony ICF-2010 and the Satellit 700, both of which I have owned at one time. I still have the Sony. The Panasonic is on a much different level as far as ease of use. And the tuning is super fast with absolutely no audio lag between channels if that is the right description. It is really smooth sailing all the way across the dial and you can go straight from FM into the LW band which is pretty cool.

Another nice feature is the band selection buttons actually have the corresponding frequencies also so there is no guesswork. The odd thing about the unit is that all of those cool buttons that you see pertain mainly to the clock and timer functions.

The shortwave side is fairly stripped down with just a 3-way bandwidth selector, a switch for a noise blanker, a RF gain knob, and a 4 position switch for USB, LSB, etc. That is pretty much it for tuning and knob twiddling and I would had preferred to have a few more knobs for antenna trim and other features to eek out faint signals. I guess I was expecting more I don’t know?

I personally find it to be the best radio I have ever used as far as audio and ease of use. I did some side by side tests against the ICF-2010 for sensitivity and it is about a wash. But for 1/10 the price the Sony wins all day long and you cant beat the sync detector! I find myself amazed that I would ever own a RF-9000 and consider it a great investment. I think this seller is dreaming if he thinks he can get that price for it though.

Thanks for sharing your review of the RF-9000! You certainly have a rare and classy receiver that actually performs–a keeper for sure. If I recall correctly, even the tuning knob feels perfectly weighted on the ‘9000.

Based on what these sell for, I don’t think you overpaid for your ‘9000–indeed, you got it at a bit of a discount.

Click here to search eBay for the Panasonic RF-9000.

Click here to view the RF-9000 at Universal Radio.

Bob recalls working at Harris and putting the RF-505A on the air

Fullscreen capture 5102016 114119 AM

In response to our post mentioning the Harris RF-505ASWLing Post contributor, Bob LaRose (W6ACU), writes:

I know the RF-505A very well. It was introduced in about 1969 while I worked at Harris in Rochester. I started working there as a Co-Op student while at RIT and then after I got my BSEE I joined them full time, initially as a Field Engineer but quickly found my way into Marketing and eventually Sales.

Right after the first version came out, the RF-505, I took one home to my parent’s house for a weekend and did some SWLing with it. It was very neat in one respect – it tuned ISB (Independent Side Band) and in those days there were a number of utility stations using ISB (separate traffic on each sideband). To an SWL some of the most interesting of these were the VOA point-to-point links from the East and West Coast, each carrying two simultaneous program feeds for the overseas relay stations!

Harris-RF-505A

While overall a good receiver my personal results on the sensitivity of the original RF-505 were not very positive. On the bench with exactly a 50 ohm source it looked good but on a real world antenna it was pretty numb. Eventually, after a lot of internal arguments, they came out with the RF-505A that included a tunable active preselector as shown in the photos. Problem solved.

For a ham or SWL the RF-505 was a real pain in the butt to tune. You could dial in any exact frequency but the decade switches didn’t roll over (either mechanically or electrically) so you had to do a lot of knob twiddling to do any kind of band scanning. The detents on the switches connected to the knobs were pretty stiff so you could easily take some finger skin off tuning around!

If I remember correctly Harris built them for about a five year period and then replaced them with the RF-550, which was a monster of a receiver with all kinds of advanced features. It included a keyboard with electronic display.

Great memories!

Thanks so much for this RF-505A insight, Bob! I had a hunch that band-scanning wasn’t the RF-505A’s strong suit–it would be incredibly cumbersome to scan with so much “knob twiddling.”

It must have been pretty amazing to work for the legendary Harris corporation. Thanks for sharing!

eBay: Dan notes astronomical price sought for Panasonic RF-9000

Fullscreen capture 5112016 121009 PMMany thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who writes:

This is the highest price ever sought by an RF-9000 seller.  [The last RF-9000] went for around $9,000-10,000.

s-l1600-001

[…]The RF-9000, as many veterans of SWL know, was produced by Panasonic as a kind of showpiece.

From information available, only some hundreds were ever made.  The price new, as detailed in the Osterman book, was about $3800.

Note Dan's RF-9000 at the far end of the listening lounge table.

Note Dan’s RF-9000 at the far end of the SWL Fest’s Listening Lounge table.

Those who attended this year’s SWL Fest got a rare opportunity to lay hands on this technology showpiece (at least the technology as it was back when it was being made between 1982 and 1985).

Click here to view on eBay.

And, Dan, thanks for lugging your RF-9000 to the SWL Fest!  It was indeed a treat to operate the RF-9000. I must say that the RF-9000’s audio fidelity is outstanding–beautifully balanced! What an amazing radio.

Still–this eBay seller is asking too much at $20,000 US (and $300 shipping). This might well be a collector that has no intention of letting the RF-9000 go. I could understand that! Thanks again, Dan!