Category Archives: Reviews

Labor Day Fun: A hamfest, an NPOTA activation–and a new Elecraft KX2 QRP kit

NS07-Carl-Sandburg-Home

My station location on the trail near the Sandburg farm is indicated with the small grey marker (lower left quadrant).

I’ve enjoyed an especially “radio-active” Labor Day weekend.  Here’s hoping you did, too.

On Saturday I headed out the door at 4:15 AM to meet my buddy Vlado (N3CZ), the inimitable radio doctor; we aimed our headlights through the morning mist to the Shelby Hamfest. Though it took quite a bit more coffee to keep me going, the hamfest was a load of fun. Check out the photos I posted yesterday.

ARRL-NPOTAOn Sunday, I enjoyed some family time. Conveniently, our weekend travel took us near the Carl Sandburg Home in East Flat Rock, NC.  I managed to carve out a little time for a quick–very quick– NPOTA activation of the site.

I realized I would only have about an hour, though, to find a suitable site, setup my radio kit, make at least the minimum of ten contacts, then pack up and clear out.  Not an optimal amount of time, but certainly a fun challenge.

This was also a good excuse to try out my new Elecraft KX2 portable transceiver kit in the field. I haven’t even had the KX2 for a full week, but I quickly put together a field kit with the Elecraft as a centerpiece.  If you’re curious, the kit consists of the following:

  • The Elecraft KX2, with internal battery and ATU options
  • An LnR Precision EFT Trail-Friendly antenna (purchased at the Dayton Hamvention)
  • An assortment of connectors and adapters
  • A six-foot coax cable
  • An Elecraft hand mic, borrowed from my KX3
  • A CW paddle (the KXPD2)
  • A clipboard, log sheets, and mechanical pencil
  • Fishing line and a weight (to hang the antenna)

All of this, save the fishing line and weight, was protected by the compact and perfectly portable LowePro ViewPoint CS 60 padded case, and fit it like a glove.

LowePro CS 60 Closed

Let’s talk packs…

Those of you who know me, know that I’m a bit of a pack junkie.  So I’m kind of picky about what I choose to hold my gear. There are a few manufacturers whose packs pass the test, and that make gear here in the States, like Spec-Ops Brand, Red Oxx, and Tom Bihn. Their packs are sometimes pricey, but they’re nearly bullet-proof and guaranteed for life.  Timbuk2, based in San Francisco, is a more economical company with good gear, as well.

After purchasing my KX2, I searched but couldn’t find a suitable pack from my prefered manufacturers. I had remembered that at the Dayton Hamvention, Elecraft was actually selling two models of a LowePro pack that fit the KX2 exactly: the ViewPoint CS 40 and CS 60.

While I like to go as compact as possible, the CS 40 is just  a bit too small to hold everything I like to carry to the field (antenna, paddle, and mic). The CS 60, on the other hand, could hold everything and has a fold out panel organizer to hold connectors.

I knew the CS 60 would fit the KX2, and I knew the CS 60 was padded to protect its contents.  I also could see that the pack has excellent (and apparently genuine) ratings on Amazon, so I ordered one.

I’m pleased to report that the CS 60 is very well built indeed, and what’s more, accommodates everything I need. In fact, the only thing the CS 60 won’t hold is my reel of fishing line and 6′ coax cable (and yes, I daresay you could adapt both items to make them fit with a little effort).

I carried the CS 60 and reel in my trusty 20-year-old Dana Design lumbar pack:

Dana-Design-Pack

There was room to spare inside for water bottle and snacks, and the whole package was very lightweight.

The Carl Sandburg Home

Carl-Sandburg-NS07

The Carl Sandburg site was fairly teeming with visitors, also enjoying the warm weather of the Labor Day weekend. After arriving and (fortunately) finding a parking spot, I hiked 20 minutes to one of the trails, where I was given permission to hang an antenna and operate.

Knowing that I needed to rejoin my family soon, I wasn’t too choosy about my site this time. I just needed to get on the air and work the minimum of ten contacts. In truth, I wasn’t sure if all of this was possible in the one hour I had available.

I setup on the right side of this trail, near one of the park benches.

I setup on the right side of this sunlit trail, near one of the park benches. It turned out to be a pretty good spot.

It took me perhaps ten minutes to set up, with a few brief asides to explain what I was doing to passing hikers.

Since I configured my little Elecraft KX2 with an internal battery and antenna tuner, I had no need for extra power cables, connectors, ATU and coax.

Elecraft-KX2-Clipboard-NPOTA

Yep, my entire station easily fit on the clipboard I was using to hold my log sheets. On my lap, the clipboard became my operating table.

As soon as I sat down in my folding chair, I turned on the KX2, set the frequency to 14,286 kHz, and pressed the ATU button which gave me a 1:1 match (since the EFT is resonant).

Thank you, voice keyer!

Next, I recorded my CQ call into the KX2’s built-in voice keyer by:

  1. pressing and holding the MSG button,
  2. assigning the voice message to “memory allocation 1” by pressing the PRE (1) button,
  3. pressing XMIT to start the recording,
  4. reading off my CQ call “CQ, CQ, CQ, this is K4SWL calling CQ for National Parks on the Air…”, and
  5. pressing XMIT again to stop the recording.

Then I started calling CQ by simply pressing the MSG button and selecting my message stored in memory allocation 1 by pressing and holding the PRE (1) button.

By pressing and holding the PRE (1) button, I initiated a loop-playback of my CQ call where my KX2 would transmit my call from memory.  Then I waited a few seconds to listen for any replies, and played it again. (In loop-playback mode, the KX2 will repeat my CQ call until I interrupt it by pressing a button or keying my mic.)

It’s a brilliant and easy function which saves my voice! By automatically calling CQ, it  gives me an opportunity to answer questions from curious passersby,  naturally fascinated by a guy sitting on the side of a trail, talking into a little box connected to a tree-branch suspended wire.

In the end, I didn’t even need to use the voice keyer that much. I was spotted on the DX cluster and within moments had a small pile-up of stations. Remarkably, I worked my minimum of ten stations within six minutes! Of course, I continued to call CQ until I worked everyone in the pile-up (including stations from California, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and Mexico). Though I was running out of time quickly, I did switch to the less-active 40 meter band and called CQ. In a period of a few minutes, I worked two stations on forty: one from Alabama and one from Florida. Not bad for 10 watts of power!

Elecraft Kx2 ON Clipboard

Packing up

Normally I would have stayed on the air for at least an hour to give chasers an opportunity to work my station, but I was pleased that I’d managed to fit this activation into a very busy schedule. I was glad to have racked up so many stations, so quickly!

Taking down the antenna and packing up my portable station took all of eight minutes.

Without a doubt–once I had hiked to my operating site–this was my fastest deployment, activation, and pack-up to date. It was all possible because:

  1. the KX2 has a built-in battery pack and ATU, and is so small it fits on my clipboard,
  2. the EFT Trail-Friendly antenna is a breeze to install, take down and pack, and
  3. the CS 60 pack organizes the radio and accessories so handily.

LowePro-CS-60-Open

In short: I’m totally pumped by my new QRP field kit!

More radio adventures await…To the field!

Ivan’s preliminary review of the new RTL-SDR dongle on shortwave/mediumwave

RTL-SDR-RTL2832U-e1471375714199Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Ivan Cholakov (NO2CW), who shares the following video review of the new RTL-SDR dongle on the shortwave and mediumwave bands.

Ivan notes:

This is daytime reception comparison. Nighttime could be a different picture. [The RTL-SDR dongle] tunes and frequency is 100% on spot.

Using SDR Sharp you have several AGC settings to play with and find the best combination. The best setting seems to vary with band and signal strength.

The [SDR receiver] comes with a short (20 cm) and long (120cm) telescopic antennas. Neither one is usable for HF or Medium wave.

When ordering the radio you have to get a USB extension cord for the dongle. When plugged in directly into a laptop and then antenna coax it can become bulky. You also will most likely need an SMA adapter to BNC and SO 238.

I hope this helps.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Many thanks for sharing your video, Ivan! For a $25 SDR, I’m pretty impressed so far! I’m also very curious how it will hold up to stronger nighttime signals and, especially, adjacent signal interference. I imagine it may be prone to overloading as well. Please keep us posted!

Have any other Post readers tested the new RTL-SDR dongle on HF? If so, please comment! 

Francis loves the Sony ICF-SW11

Sony_ICF-SW11_4

Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Francis, who left the following reply on our Battery Endurance Contest Results post:

Dear Thomas,

I have been using a Sony ICF-11 for 5-6 years now, still sold new at 50-70 euro. It’s analog and rather well featured: FM (stereo on earbuds), LW, AM, and 9 SW bands. It runs on 2 cheap AA batteries I get in low-cost supermarket, for sure not the best ones.

Sony_ICF-SW11_3

Using it at least one hour a day on the speaker, I have to change the batteries after 9-12 months. I am convinced a set of good Duracell or Energizer batteries would last some more months.

Sony_ICF-SW11
I am not a radio expert, but I am quite pleased with its audio performances, specially on LW (used most of the time ) and AM, where it is vastly superior to my Tecsun PL-660. SW looks OK for what I can say from listening quite occasionally these bands. I would be curious to see a serious review of this Sony to know how it compares with others, but I didn’t find any on the web so far (hint?). [Yes, Francis, hint taken!]

Sony_ICF-SW11_2
I am so pleased with this small radio that I recently bought a second one as a spare.
Thanks for your very interesting blog and reviews.
Francis

Thank you, Francis, for sharing your thoughts on the Sony ICF-SW11 and your photos as well!

It appears Amazon.com (US) has a few options for ordering a Sony ICF-SW11–click here to show search results. Prices vary between $50-$55; Amazon even has replacement telescopic whips available.

Of course, an eBay search will also uncover a number of SW11’s.

I searched the web, but couldn’t find many other retailers selling new ICF-SW11’s. It appears many of the ones on Amazon are imports from Japan.

At $50 shipped, it seems like a bargain to me, so I just pulled the trigger on one.

Battery Endurance Contest Results: Sangean DT-160CL vs Sony SRF-39FP

Sangean_DT-160CL_17

On August 4, 2016, the same day I received my new Sangean DT-160CL, I popped a fresh set of CVS Max Alkaline batteries into the DT-160CL as well as into my trusted Sony SRF-39FP. The mission? To see which radio could perform longest on a set of batteries.

I set my stopwatch as I turned on both radios, tuned to the same frequency, set the volume to the same levels…and waited.

And waited.  And waited.  And as I waited, I posted updates.

But at last, the waiting is at an end:  here are the contest’s final results.

Sangean DT-160CL: Impressive Performance

IMG_9137

On August 9, I reported that the Sangean DT-160CL finally threw in the towel, logging an impressive 116 hours 30 minutes of operating time–!

Without a doubt, this is one of the longest run times I’ve ever experienced from an AM/FM radio with digital display.

Interestingly, the day after the DT-160CL shut down, I turned it back on, and it operated for an additional 45 minutes or so, obviously absorbing a little more voltage from rested cells. During that 45 minutes period of time, the audio and overall performance was respectable. No doubt the DT-160 shuts down before audio is terribly compromised.

Sony SRF-39FP: The Endurance King!

Sony-SRF-39FP

Amazingly, the Sony SRF-39FP kept running well beyond 116 hours. Well beyond…

By Wednesday morning–one full week from the time I began the endurance contest–the Sony SRF-39FP finally began showing signs of low-voltage: the audio had a small amount of splatter and sensitivity began to be compromised.

Unlike the Sangean DT-160CL, which clearly has a cut-off voltage, the SRF-39FP kept milking the battery for its last vestiges of power.

I decided that I would call a “time of death” for this AA battery when the Sony struggled to receive local AM stations, as well as transmission from my in-house SStran AM transmitter.

This happened approximately 163 hours and 54 minutes into its marathon run.

IMG_9142 (1)

This stopwatch app tracked the full endurance test. I pressed “stop” when the Sony SRF-39FP finally gave up.

Wow, wow, wow.  I simply had no idea any portable could operate almost one full week on one AA cell–! 

IMG_9145 (1)

In truth, I’m sort of relieved the ’39FP finally gave up the ghost. I was beginning to think the thing was powered by some supernatural force…

When I started this test, I thought the Sony SRF-39FP was rated for about 40-80 hours of run time on a single battery.  I couldn’t remember where I got that number until I recently re-read this article from The New Yorker, which highlighted the 39FP’s role in correctional facilities:

“The SRF-39FP is the gold standard among prison radios in part because it runs on a single AA battery, and offers forty hours of listening time…”

Wait, just forty hours? Perhaps from the cheapest AA battery made…

With an advanced chemistry cell like the Duracell Quantum or Energizer Advanced Lithium series, you’ll clearly get three to four times that performance.

DX mode

And here’s the thing: I’m convinced I could’ve gotten much more time out of the SRF-39FP.

Like similar Sony portables, the SRF-39FP has a “DX/Local” switch. When set to DX, the receiver is made to deliver maximum performance.

If you’re listening to a local station, however, “Local” mode is a better choice. You’ll still be able to receive your target station, yet draw much less from the battery.

I left the Sony SRF-39FP in “DX” mode for the entire battery endurance test. Had it been in “Local” mode, I believe I’d be reporting an even longer run time. How much longer, I don’t know, but you can bet that my curiosity will soon get the best of me…I plan to do a separate endurance test to find out.

Clear choices for battery longevity

Sangean-DT160CL and Sony SRF-39FPNo doubt, our little test has proven that radios marketed to the prison system do offer excellent battery performance.

Now I’m very curious whether the standard Sangean DT-160 will offer the same battery performance as its clear-cased counterpart, the DT-160CL. The only difference in the two appears to be that one offers a clock, while the other doesn’t. I wonder if that would have any significant difference on battery life.

Additionally, the Sony SRF-39FP has shown us that analog receivers can be much more efficient than their digital counterparts. We’ve known this a long time at Ears To Our World, and which is why almost all of the radios we supply to schools in remote, rural locations are analog.

Sadly, analog radios are getting much more difficult to find these days as DSP-based receivers have become more affordable to produce.

The Sangean DT-160 is available at Amazon.com and Universal Radio. The Sangean DT-160CL (the version tested) is available through Amazon.

Click here to search eBay for the Sony SRF-39FP.

Readers: Know of any other battery-miser radios? Please comment!

Bruce believes the CC Skywave is an ideal travel radio

The C.Crane CC Skywave

The C.Crane CC Skywave

Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Bruce Atchison, who recently shared his positive comments about the CC Skywave. Bruce writes::

This is a lot of radio for such a small size. The CC Skywave is a great travel companion because of its portability and price.

Moreover, it’s rich with features. The receiver tunes in AM and FM as well as all the shortwave bands, NOAA weather channels, and the aircraft band. The latter comes in handy while you’re waiting for flights so you can find out immediately and directly what is delaying them.

It also has a built-in alarm clock so you needn’t miss the next morning’s activities.

The Skywave runs on 2 AA cells and can be set to charge NiMH rechargeable batteries. Its mini-USB port lets you use the AC adaptor or 12 volt cigarette lighter adapter. You can even use one of those cell phone solar panels to power the set.

This radio’s reception is excellent and its filters allow for eliminating adjacent channel interference. Apart from its rather high noise floor on AM, the receiver pulls in stations at night very well.

The Skywave can also add local stations to its memory pages automatically. This comes in handy in foreign cities when you don’t have time to manually scan the AM and FM dial.

This is truly a globe trotter’s accessory. You can set it to European AM channel spacing and the Japanese FM band. The radio even has a fine tuning setting for oddly-spaced stations.

The three amber LEDs light up the dial nicely and they turn off automatically after about ten seconds to conserve battery life. In fact, the Skywave is amazingly energy efficient.

Whenever I travel, this radio is one thing I’ll be sure to pack. It’s all I need when I travel away from home.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bruce.  Yes, I believe the Skywave is a great little travel radio, too. One of the Skywave features I used extensively while off-grid in Canada this summer, was the weather radio function (Environment Canada and NOAA frequencies are the same). Without Internet, it was an excellent, handy source of weather information.