The Icom IC-7300 vs. Elecraft KX3: Which do you prefer for CW/SSB?

IMG_20160424_105444629

Many thanks to all of you who participated in our last survey comparing the new Icom IC-7300 with the WinRadio Excalibur SDR. We had over 100 responses (!!!)–the results will be posted in the forthcoming IC-7300 review.

Before completing my review, I thought I might fit in one more quick comparison–this time, comparing the Icom IC-7300 to my Elecraft KX3 and focusing on SSB and CW reception.

Recording notes and disclaimers

The Icom IC-7300 offers native digital audio recording, which means that it records both transmitted and received audio to an inserted SD card.

IC-7300The Elecraft KX3 does not have a built-in recorder (indeed, most transceivers do not) thus I made in-line recordings using my Zoom H2N digital recorder.

I did no post-processing of the audio other than converting .wav files to .mp3.

Both receivers shared my large outdoor omni-directional horizontal delta loop antenna for each test.

The Elad ASA15 Antenna Splitter Amplifier

The Elad ASA15 Antenna Splitter Amplifier

To keep the comparison on as equal footing as possible, the receivers shared the same antenna through my Elad ASA15 antenna splitter amplifier. Though the ASA15 has both 12dB amplification and –15dB attenuation, I employed neither.

The ASA15 allowed me to make the following recordings simultaneously.

In each case, I tried to set up both radios using the same filter widths, AGC settings, and (as much as possible), audio level. I didn’t engage a noise-reduction feature on either rig.

I also didn’t employ any type of audio equalization on either rig–still, you’ll note that one radio produces a more “flat” response than the other.

Please vote!

At the end of this post, I have an embedded a survey in which you can vote for the sample recordings you like best. Each recording is clearly labeled to denote that it’s either from “Radio A” or “Radio B” (chosen at random).

And now…here are the recordings:


Audio Clip 1: CW (20 meter band)

Radio A

Radio B


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

Radio A

Rado B


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

Radio A

Radio B


We want to hear from you!

Use the form below to vote for the recordings you prefer in each section.

I’ll close voting at 12:00 UTC on Wednesday April 27, 2016. Thank you in advance for your participation in this survey!

The Icom IC-7300 vs. WinRadio Excalibur: Which do you prefer?

Icom-IC-7300-Front

In the past, receiver shoot-outs in which I’ve provided sample audio for “blind” comparison––meaning, the listener does not know which audio sample is associated with which radio––have produced particularly positive feedback from Post readers.

The WinRadio Excalibur

The WinRadio Excalibur

So I’ve decided to do this for the new Icom IC-7300 transceiver. I’ve pitted the ‘7300 against a benchmark receiver: the WinRadio Excalibur.

I have a number of SDRs (software defined radios) in the shack at the moment, but I picked the Excalibur because it’s the closest in price ($900 US) to the IC-7300 ($1500) as compared to my Elad FDM-S2 ($520) or the TitanSDR Pro ($2500).

Recording notes and disclaimers

Both the WinRadio Excalibur and the Icom IC-7300 offer native digital audio recording (nice touch, Icom!). The Excalibur simply records the AF to a file on my PC’s hard drive, while the IC-7300 records the audio to an SD card which I can later transfer to my PC.

IC-7300

I’ve been using the Excalibur since 2012, so I’m very familiar with its recording feature. I was not, however, familiar with the IC-7300’s digital recorder, so prior to making recordings, I checked to make sure its recorded audio was a fair representation of its live audio. To my ear, the IC-7300 recorded audio was nearly identical to that of the live audio, so I used the 7300’s internal recorder rather than one of my external recorders.

Both receivers shared my large outdoor omni-directional horizontal delta loop antenna for each test.

The Elad ASA15 Antenna Splitter Amplifier

The Elad ASA15 Antenna Splitter Amplifier

To keep the comparison on as equal footing as possible, the receivers shared the same antenna through my Elad ASA15 antenna splitter amplifier. Though the ASA15 has both 12dB amplification and –15dB attenuation, I employed neither.

The ASA15 allowed me to make the following recordings simultaneously.

In each case, I tried to set up both radios using the same filter widths, gain, AGC settings, and (as much as possible), audio level. I didn’t engage a noise-reduction feature on either rig.

Note:  the only exception to the radios’ equal treatment was in the AM mode recordings, in which I used the WinRadio’s AM Sync (AMS) mode. Why? Frankly speaking, 99% of the time during which I use the Excalibur, I do employ its AMS mode as its AM mode often sounds “hot” and over-driven when band conditions are as noisy, as they were last night.

The IC-7300 does not have AM synchronous detection (AMS mode), but I felt it compared very favorably to the Excalibur in AMS mode.  The IC-7300 would have easily beat the Excalibur in this test had I only used the Excalibur’s AM mode. In the end, as a shortwave listener, the goal is to compare the total capabilities of broadcast performance between the two receivers (thus using sync mode if available, to maximize broadcast listening performance).

Please vote!

At the end of this post, I have an embedded a survey in which you can vote for the sample recordings you like best. Each recording is clearly labeled to denote that it’s either from “Radio A” or “Radio B” (I had my wife draw names from a hat to determine which radio would be labeled as A or B).

Since there are quite a few recordings, I’d suggest jotting down your notes separately before completing the survey.

Or, alternately, you can open the survey in a separate window by clicking here.

And now…here’s the recordings.

Ham Radio Band recordings

The following recordings were made on the 40 meter ham radio band yesterday evening. Both radios have the same filter width: 250 Hz in CW, 3 kHz in SSB.

Weak Signal CW (40 meter band)

Radio A

Radio B

Weak/Strong SSB QSO (40 meter band)

Radio A

Radio B


Shortwave Broadcast recordings

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

Weak Shortwave AM (Radio Bandeirantes 31 meter band)

Radio A

Radio B

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

Radio A 

Radio B


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)

Radio A

Radio B

Weak Mediumwave AM (630 kHz)

Radio A

Radio B


We want to hear from you!

Use the form below to vote for the recordings you prefer in each section.

I’ll close voting at 12:00 UTC on Thursday April 21, 2016. Thank you in advance for your participation in this survey!

Extra, Extra! A review of Ham Test Online

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Thursday night, I passed my Extra class ham radio license exam and–woo hoo!– I’m chuffed!

The Extra class is the highest class amateur radio license you can hold in the United States. I’ve put off studying for this test for more than 17 years.

Why? Well, for one thing, I’m not an electronics engineer–indeed, I’ve never taken a formal course on electronics other than the practice study I did for my first three amateur radio licenses. The Extra exam is chock-full of formulas and electronics theory and it intimidated me for ages. Studying for it was…well…arduous.

I did, however, enjoy studying for my Technician, Novice and General exams. [Note that today there are only three license classes: Technician, General and Extra and no Morse Code requirement.] Indeed, I learned a lot about circuits and radio wave propagation from those first exams. As soon as my daughters are old enough, I’ll teach them the Technician course work.

What prompted me to study for my Extra license exam this month? I gave a presentation at the Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club on April 4th–the president announced that the Extra class question pool was going through a major overhaul and I had already invested a few hours studying the current material.

The current Extra class question pool is only valid until the end of June 2016.

I made a decision that evening: it was time to buckle down and cram for this exam! Especially since my radio club (the NCDXCC) was giving exams the following week.

Studying

In the past, I used a combination of exam study guides published by the ARRL and W5YI, and free online practice exams provided by AA9PW. The combination worked very well.

With the Extra exam, however, I needed a method that was more persistent and one that focused on my weakest subjects.

Enter Ham Test Online

HamTestOnline

About this same time last year (April 2015), I decided to invest in an online course called Ham Test Online (HTO) with the idea that I could take the Extra exam at the 2015 Dayton Hamvention. That exam never happened because, in the build-up to the Dayton Hamvention, I had very little free time to study. Indeed, the same was true this month, but I fit study and practice time in every spare moment I had to get the exam in the books by the club meeting.

HamTestOnline-QuestionOptions

Typical Ham Test Online study screen.

According to HTO, I spent a total of roughly 30 hours studying for the Extra exam in total–at least 28 of those hours were within a one week period of time. I wouldn’t recommend this level of cramming for anyone else.

HTO advises that setting aside only one hour of study per day will have you in good shape to take the Extra exam in about one month. That is a much more reasonable timeline.

Ham Test online shows you, at a glance, your weakest/strongest subjects and topics you have yet to cover. (Click to enlarge)

Ham Test online shows you, at a glance, your weakest/strongest subjects and topics you have yet to cover. (Click to enlarge)

In short: I am very impressed with Ham Test Online. It was worth every penny to have a dedicated tutorial system that was persistent in noting and repeating my weakest subjects.

It’s actually a very simple website and, fortunately, was usable via my Moto X smart phone’s Chrome web browser.  This meant that when I was waiting for my kids in the doctor’s office or parking lot, I could study or even take a practice test without needing a PC.

HTO keeps track of your practice exam results and notes any missed questions for review later. Keep in mind that you only need a 75% score or higher to pass the test. I felt comfortable taking the test with scores in the 85% range. (Click to enlarge)

HTO keeps track of your practice exam results and notes any missed questions for review later. Keep in mind that you only need a 75% score or higher to pass the test. I felt comfortable taking the test with scores in the 85% range. (Click to enlarge)

Indeed, at any given time, I had HTO running in a web browser session on my shack PC, my MacBook, my iPad and my smart phone–they all worked in symphony, picking up the last session/topic from the device I was last using.

Summary

Here are a few notes I took while using Ham Test Online:

Pros:

  • Adaptive study
  • Ability to skip topics temporarily
  • Informative, concise study material
  • Responsive website that is even usable via smart phone
  • Both the study and exam metrics show amount of material learned or committed to memory
  • User has control over:
    • level of persistence/repetition when a question is missed
    • difficulty of practice exams
    • ability to skip topics for an 8 hour period of time
    • reminder emails when system hasn’t been used for study
    • and more…
  • Useful metrics in both study and exam modes

Cons:

To be honest, it’s hard to list many cons for HTO. I’ve never used a similar online tutorial system for comparison.

I should note that I started studying for the Extra exam last year and perhaps learned 8-10% of the total exam. After a one year hiatus, HTO never assumed I could have forgotten the material I learned last year–bad assumption! (ha ha!) Only a day before the exam, I realized I had forgotten some of the initial study material, so I forced HTO to test me on it by selecting only the first element for study. I’m glad I caught that in time. Perhaps HTO should re-check course material after an extended hiatus?

Obviously, the HTO training method works–I was able to pass my Extra Exam with only about 30 hours of total study time.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have achieved that with books–especially on such short order–and I know of no other web-based platforms like it on the market [readers: please correct me if I’m wrong].

HTO is efficient and cost-effective–especially for those of us with an active family life. It would work well for someone who wants to learn the course material or, frankly, even for someone who is only interested in memorizing the answers.

HTO’s current price list:

  • $24.95 Technician Class study course (2-year subscription)
  • $29.95 General Class study course (2-year subscription)
  • $34.95 Extra Class study course (2-year subscription)
    (includes both the current question pool and the 2016 pool when it becomes available)
  • $24.95 Renew all previously-purchased courses (for 2 more years)

If you are considering upgrading to the Extra class license, you might do so before July 2016 when the new question pool will be used. At least, for me, the deadline was a good excuse to get my act together and knock the test out!

Readers: Please comment if you’ve found other study methods or systems that have worked well for you.

Mike’s overview and review of the $40 Soft66RTL3 SDR by Kazunori Miura (JA7TDO)

RTL3

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mike Ladd, for the following guest post and overview of setting up and using the Soft66RTL3 SDR:


Soft66RTL3 SDR: A low cost…Good performer direct from Japan

by Mike Ladd

Much has changed in the last 8 years in the world of SDR radios. Fast forward to 2016 and just about everyone in the hobby has heard the buzz word “SDR radio”. When SDRs first came out to the market they were all aimed at HF listening and you had two types to pick from. The first being soundcard based and the second being direct sampling. The price gap between the two were several hundred dollars. The more expensive being direct sampling. As the hobby progressed, so did the technology and the prices started to shift dramatically.

You can now purchase a TV dongle for $10.00 and turn it into a SDR. The Soft66RTL3 is basically a TV dongle but with a lot more features.

The Soft66RTL3 comes from an engineer who is no stranger to the world of SDRS. Kazunori Miura (JA7TDO) has been designing and selling many models of SDRS over the internet and shipping them direct from Japan for about 7 years. The Soft66RTL3 is his latest of model hot off his bench. This SDR is a dual input RTL-SDR with a built in 50 MHz upconverter along with 4 user selectable band pass filters that greatly increase your signal to noise ratio in the HF bands.

Soft66RTL3-board-001 Soft66RTL3-Board 2 Soft66RTL3-board

The frequency range of the RTL3 is from DC to Daylight (0.4 kHz to 1.7 GHz). Miura also addressed a heat issue with the previous version (RTL2) by adding a thermal pad and heatsink. RTL dongles are notoriously unstable due to overheating. In theory, the thermal pad should add frequency stability and keep drift to a minimal.

RTL3-TrimmerPot

The last feature of the RTL3 is the input gain trimmer pot (see image above). The trimmer pot is for the HF side of the SDR and is already set before it’s shipped from Japan. If you would like to reduce or increase it the trimmer pot is easily accessible. I would suggest leaving it as is.

The RTL3 is broken down into two sections: the HF input side and the VHF/UHF input side.

Soft66RTL3-encoder

The HF side of the SDR (above) has a red rotary encoder and trimmer pot port. The VHF/UHF side (below) has the USB Mini-B connection.

Soft66RTL3-back

Both sides of the RTL3 terminate to a SMA-Male connection and Power comes from a single USB Mini-B cable.

Soft66RTL3-BandPassFilter

Band pass filter selection

If you look at the rotary encoder (red cap cover) you will see a small notch window. The 12 o’clock position is #5 on the encoder dial. One click clockwise will take you to switch position #6 and one click counterclockwise will take you to #4. You should pull the red cap cover off to have a look and get your bearings.

The band pass filter selection is as follows:

  • #4 enables BPF 0.4 to 1.2MHz
  • #5 enables BPF 1.2MHz to 5MHz
  • #6 enables BPF 5MHz to 15MHz
  • #7 enables BPF 15MHz to 30MHz
  • #8 or #9 enables the VHF UHF side of the SDR

All other positions will bypass the filtering section on the HF side of the SDR.

Installation

If you already have a RTL-SDR on your system then all you need to do is swap it out with the RTL3 and change the offset of -50,000,000 in HDSDR or SDR# to listen to the HF side of the RTL3–but if this is your first SDR we will need to install 2 items: the front end app and the driver.

I will assume your system is Win-7 or better and we will be using SDR# as our program of choice to drive the RTL3. The RTL3 runs just fine in HDSDR and SDR-Console, but by choosing SDR# it will reduce our setup time considerably.

ScreenShot-SDR

  1. Plug in the RTL3
  2. Make a folder on your desktop and name it SDR#
  3. Download the latest version SDR# from www.airspy.com and copy the contents of the zip file to your newly created SDR# folder
  4. Inside of your SDR# folder, double click on install-rtlsdr
  5. After the batch completes, double click on the “zadig.exe” inside your SDR# folder

screengrab

When you run the “zadig.exe” make sure you select “list all devices” as shown above.

ScreenGrab-Window

The next 3 steps are:

  1. Select “Bulk-In Interface” (Interface 0)
  2. Make sure the proper USB device is selected (2838)
  3. Click “install driver”

The RTL3 is now ready to be used and no further setup is required.

For a more detailed installation I would visit RTL-SDR.COM for a complete setup instructions: http://www.rtl-sdr.com/rtl-sdr-quick-start-guide

I will assume you did not have any issues setting up the ZADIG driver and now move on to using the RTL3 inside of SDR#. I will show you real world conditions that are not from any scientific standpoint.

Antenna wise, for the HF side I will be using a G5RV mini and for the VHF/UHF side I will be using a Scanntenna ST-2.

You can now launch SDR# and check the following settings (see image below).

SDRSharp-Settings

For the VHF/UHF side of the RTL3 you will want the rotary encoder on position #9. You want the cutout in the encoder cap showing the 5 o’clock position.

Summary

I have been using this SDR for a little over 3 months. Out of all the low cost SDR’S on the market, this one gives you the most bang-for-your-buck and it is a great entry level SDR with some “Pro” features.

Pros:

  • Low Price
  • HF VHF/UHF in one package
  • Works with any app that supports the RTL-SDR front end
  • 4 user selectable band pass filters for HF
  • Highly sensitive user controlled input RF amp
  • Small & very compact metal case
  • Dual input SMA jacks
  • ESD protection diode

Cons

  • Some intermod in the 460-470 MHz range
  • Inputs are on opposite sides of the SDR body

The Soft66RTL3 price is $40.00 US shipped–click here to order.


Mike, thank you so much for this excellent overview of the Soft66RTL3!  I’m especially appreciative of the time you’ve taken to explain the installation process–for many, this is one of the more difficult RTL-SDR learning curves.

I’m very tempted to check this out for myself–I love the fact that this little SDR has bandpass filters.

Post Readers: I suspect Mike will monitor the comments in this post, so feel free to ask questions. Make sure to check out Mike’s website, where you’ll find more articles about software defined radios.

Jay Allen updates his AM radio shootout

Jay-Allen-PortablesMany thanks to SWLing Post contributors Ron, Vimal and Phil for noting that Jay Allen has updated his excellent AM radio shootout. Click here to read his full post.

Happy to see that the Panasonic RF-2200 remains his reference AM rig. I must agree: it’s the best portable I’ve ever used on the mediumwave band. I’m so glad I snagged a ‘2200  on eBay last year.Panasonic-RF-2200-3Tuning the RF-2200 in the field makes me feel like some sort of Cold War spy.Panasonic-RF2200-MtMitchell

A radio with fortitude and purpose.

James adds an LM386 amplifier kit to his Heathkit GR-150

Heathkit Explorer Jr. Completed w. screwdriverMany thanks to SWLing Post contributor, James Surprenant (AB1DQ), who shares this update to his review of the Heathkit Explorer Jr. TRF AM radio receiver kit:


With regard to the Heathkit TRF AM receiver kit, I did indeed build my LM386 amplifier.

I was planning on home-brewing it from scratch as the chip is pretty much all you need and there are various proven schematics for the circuit, but in the end I went with a small kit from Nightfire Electronics for $10 plus $5 shipping that I found on Amazon.com.

It was a bit cheaper to buy it in kit form, of course, and then there was the convenience of having all the parts in one place.

Here is a photo of the kit as advertised on Amazon

kit

And here is my build with the Heathkit…

Heathkit + LM 386

I modified the kit to add a 3.5mm input jack, replacing the RCA jack that came with the kit, to make it easier to plug into the Heathkit radio.

I deliberated whether to install the audio amp into the Heathkit cabinet drilling out a couple of holes for the pot shafts. It all would have fit and I could have easily mounted the 3″ 8 ohm speaker to the back panel of the Heathkit radio. In the end, I decided to keep the radio original and mounted the amplifier board on a small piece of wood I found at a hobby store and decided to leave it all exposed. It works well, all things considered.

(Click here to view video on Facebook.)

It worked well and per my original review on SWLing Post, I feel Heathkit should have included such a little amp in the kit – it makes a big difference.


Many thanks for the update, James! That little LM386 amp kit seems like an affordable addition for any receiver lacking an amplifier or adequate audio amplification.

Larry’s review of the CountyComm GP5/SSB

Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Larry Thompson, who shares his review of the CountyComm GP5/SSB:


GP5SSB-Front

Been having a ton of fun with my new toy, the tiny survivalist radio, the CountyComm GP5/SSB receiver. $74.95 with free heavy duty cordura case with metal belt clip (normally $17.95). Also purchased 2 spare whip antennas @ $6.00 ea. The unit arrived promptly
in just 5 days from CA.

The radio is manufactured by Tecsun and is similar to the Tecsun PL-365, but re-engineer end to military standards for use in embassies and military installations around the world. The case is a heavy plastic that feels like anodized aluminum.

It’s about the size of a small TV remote control, taller than a cell phone, and about 1/2 the width of an iPhone.

Very, east intuitive menus. Incredibly sensitive to dx, relatively good selectivity. A great radio to throw in your travel bag or briefcase. So small that no one, especially customs, TSA, etc would even suspect it is a shortwave receiver with SSB capabilities.
I live in a very highly QRM and RFI interference zone.

I’m in the central city, in an old 1920’s hi-rise, with high power tension lines right next to the building.

Lots of QRM from the elevator motors, etc. Having a good antenna option is a challenge.
I’ve resorted to a stealth longwire antenna, strung out my 5th floor window. It’s 50′ of #16 black insulated copper stranded wire, weighted by a medium size galvanized carriage nut. It seems to work well.

I also use a Magic Wand shortwave antenna, a type of broomstick antenna with 23′ of lead-in, available from Lowbander on eBay.

My main receivers have been a Sony ICF-SW7600GR dual conversion receiver and the SRDPlay. In the past, I have listened to dx with some really outstanding receivers, including a Nordmende Globetrotter, a National NC-183D, a Japan Radio JRC-525′ and a Yaesu FT900AT transceiver. The later two were computer-controlled using TRX-Manager software.

In just 4 days, I can’t get over the sensitivity of the CountyComm GP-5/SSB and it’s ability to pull in stations. So far, it’s far superior to the Sony or SDRPlay.

Digging into the specs, it is a direct conversion receiver, using a DSP si47XX microchip from Silicon Labs to digitize the analog AM/FM broadcasting signal base on modern software technology and radio principles. The direct conversion circuitry can highly improve a radio’s sensitivity, selectivity, S/N ratio and anti-interference capabilities. Direct conversion using software is far superior to a double or triple conversion traditional IF circuitry. This must explain why the unit is so amazingly sensitive!

I can hear things on this unit that I can’t even begin to hear on the Sony or the SDRPlay. The FM reception and sound with earphones is amazing and LW and AM reception is equally sensitive. I can easily get WLW Cincinnati 700 kHz in the daytime here in St. Louis!

There are 550 preset memories: 100 for AM, 100 for FM, 100 for SSB, and 250 for SW. You can scan the memories or scan the bands in various ways. You can also use the Auto Tune Storage function to store memories.

Something I really enjoy is the Easy Tuning Mode function. The ETM function allows you to tune into stations easily and temporarily store them into the ETM storage. 100 stations for FM/MW and 250 for SW. Scanned stations will not be stored in the regular 550 memories, but will remain in the ETM temporary storage until the next time you do an ETM scan.

This is a great feature for travel. When you are in a different city, you can perform the ETS function and this will not delete any of the stations already in the memory.


Thanks for sharing your review, Larry. I use the GP5/SSB all of the time–it stays in one of my vehicles and I often use it for walks, picnics, camping and even a little parking lot DXing.

I suspect if your SDRplay RSP was hooked up to an antenna that could better mitigate your local QRM, you’d find it outperforms the GP5/SSB. The great thing about portables, though, is that you can simply take them to areas with low noise levels. It’s just a matter of finding the right location!

The CountyComm GP5/SSB is a very handy portable. Thanks again! 

The CountyComm GP5/SSB can be purchased from:

The Tecsun version, the PL-365, can be purchased on eBay (though be aware that some sellers have BuyItNow prices almost two times the price of CountyComm).