The new LNR Precision LD-11 transceiver is essentially general coverage

LNR-Precision-LD-11

A couple weeks ago, LNR Precision sent me their new LD-11 Digital Direct Conversion QRP transceiver on loan for review.

The LD-11 is basically a small, tabletop SDR transceiver. It’s like a miniature, simplified version of the Icom IC-7100 I’ve also been evaluating.

The LD-11 is an all-mode and all-band transceiver–meaning, it includes SSB, CW, CW-R, Digi, AM and FM modes on all amateur radio bands (160 – 10 meters).

Though the LD-11 isn’t advertised as having a general coverage receiver, it will indeed tune the entire HF band.

You do this by entering the LD-11’s administration mode. LNR describes this in the LD-11 product manual, but suggests you contact them for help the first time you do this. In the admin panel, you’ll find functions that allow you to set the band edges on each amateur radio band.

For a preliminary test of broadcast reception, I moved the lower band edge of the 30 meter ham radio band to 8.2 MHz.

LNR-Precision-LD-11-front panel

After saving the settings and re-starting the LD-11 in normal operation mode, I could then tune the entire 31 meter broadcast band on the LD-11.

Hypothetically, you could either widen each amateur radio band to include adjacent broadcast bands, or you could simply set one of the ham bands to include the entire HF spectrum. To make it easier to navigate and tune through the bands, I’m choosing the former method over the latter.

Since the LD-11 has a proper AM mode, broadcasts sound great–especially via headphones!

Proper AM filters for broadcast reception!

Better yet?  The AM filter width can be widened to an impressive 9.6 kHz! Woo hoo!

LNR-LD-11-Shortwave-AM

The LD-11 has four filter slots: F1, F2, F3 and F4.

The F1-F3 slots can be set to a fixed user-defined widths (common widths are default).

F4 can be altered to any available filter width without having to enter the admin mode of the transceiver. Simply press the “F” (blue function button) and the FILTER button simultaneously and use the encoder/tuning knob to specify the filter width in .1 kHz steps. Pressing the F and FILTER button simultaneously again, will save your filter width for the F4 position.

I’ve been using the F4 filter position for widths between about 8.2 and 9.6 kHz in AM.

It’s still early days with the LD-11, but I’m enjoying this little transceiver immensely. It reminds me of one of my favorite QRP transceivers of yesteryear: the Index Labs QRP Plus (though the LD-11 is much smaller, more versatile and has a much better front end than the QRP Plus!).

LNR Precision sold out all of their first run LD-11 units within moments of having announced availability. I’m willing to bet they’ll bring a few LD-11s to the upcoming Dayton Hamvention, though.

Check inventory status and view LD-11 details on LNR Precision’s website. 

Off-Grid Radio: Portable power recommendations?

Elecraft-KX3This year, I have a lot of portable radio play in mind as I travel across the continent. At some point, I even plan to spend several days in an off-grid cabin on the coast.

In the past, I’ve powered my 12 VDC ham radio transceivers with a system comprised of three PowerFilm solar 5 watt foldable PV panels (see below), a Micro M+ charge controller and several gel cell type sealed batteries (a couple 7 Ah and one 20 Ah).Powerfilm-Solar-Panel

The system works well, but the batteries are a little heavy and unhandy when I want to hike into a remote site or play radio on the beach, for example.

PowerFilmAACharger-1

In terms of receivers, my portables (like the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, Tecsun PL-660, etc.) simply use AA batteries which I charge with PowerFilm AA PV chargers (see above). My CommRadio CR-1a has an internal battery that will power it for hours at a time.

Power is much less of an issue with receivers because they’re quite resource efficient.

I mainly need a system to power my QRP ham radio gear, and that’s where I could use your experience!

Wish list

Charge controller

I need a new charge controller since my Micro M+ (no longer produced) is now being used to power a remote antenna tuner.

Of course, I’ll need an inexpensive charge controller that doesn’t produce RFI (radio interference).

It would be an added bonus if the charge controller could also charge my batteries when grid power is available.

12 VDC Battery packs

I’d like something relatively lightweight and safe.

Note: LiPo packs worry me, especially since I had one (an early GoalZero model) quite literally melt down and burn up on my bed only a few hours after bringing it back from an eight hour flight a few years ago. Scary!

Pure Sine Wave Inverter

PureSineWaveInverter

I’d also like a small, efficient pure sine wave inverter that I I could connect to my largest battery and power my laptop for extended SDR spectrum recording sessions while off-grid.

I’d love a recommendation from someone who uses one and can confirm a model that doesn’t create radio interference while operating.

Recommendations?

Post readers: Please comment with your recommendations and include model numbers and links if possible. Thank you in advance!

Extra, Extra! A review of Ham Test Online

IMG_20160414_173645413-001

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.

Heard VK0EK on the radio

Heard Island (Image: VK0EK)

Heard Island (Image: VK0EK)

Regular SWLing Post readers know that I’m a ham radio operator (call sign K4SWL). Being a shortwave radio enthusiast, of course, I spend most of my time on the air in the HF portion of the amateur radio spectrum. Contacting distant stations and connecting with other ham radio operators around our little planet gives me immense joy.

Most of you also probably know that I’m a fan of all things Antarctic, so it should come as no surprise that I really wanted to work VK0EK: the Heard Island DXpedition.

Thing is, my life has been so hectic lately, I’ve barely been home during the Heard Island DXpedition (March 29th – April 11th). And the days I have been home, VK0EK’s signals have been incredibly weak.

In short: timing and propagation were all working against me.  And VK0EK was soon to pack up and come back home. I was becoming desperate…and beginning to lose hope that I’d make any contact with this unique and rare entity in the isolated stretch of ocean between Madagascar and Antartica.

"Antennas with a clearing" on Heard Island (Photo by Bill, AE0EE)

“Antennas with a clearing” on Heard Island (Photo by Bill, AE0EE)

My hope was waning.  Then, Tusday evening, I gave a presentation about shortwave radio at the Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club. On the hour-long drive home, I stopped by my good friend Vlado’s (N3CZ) to confess my troubles to the radio doc.

Now it just happens that Vlado has a much better antenna set-up to work DX than I do, and what’s more, (close your ears, fellow QRPers) he has an amplifier.

Most importantly, though, Vlado is a keen DXer.  He’s got 330 countries under his belt, and ever up for a challenge, routinely pushes himself to accomplish more with less. In January, with members of the local club, he entered a QRP challenge; he had 100 countries worked by the following month, all in his spare time. And a few years ago, Vlado actually built a radio of his own design and worked 100 countries within two months (you can read about that here).

So, of course, he was game to help me make a contact…even if it was a long shot.  A very long shot.

Juan de Nova

When I arrived at Vlado’s QTH around 21:00 local, VK0EK was impossibly weak, so we focused our efforts on 30 meters and FT4JA: the Juan de Nova Island DXpedition (another all-time new one for me).

A portion of the FT4JA antenna farm. (Image: FT4JA)

A portion of the FT4JA antenna farm. (Image: FT4JA)

After more than an hour of calling, FT4JA finally heard my call and (woo hoo!) I was confirmed in their log.

But what about Heard Island?

penguin-chow-line4_6-1600px

After working FT4JA, we moved down to 40 meters where VK0EK was slightly louder than before. Well, maybe it’s not impossible, I thought hopefully. Just next to it.

Between QSB (fading) and tuner-uppers, my ears were bleeding trying to hear Heard’s minuscule CW signal–so faint, so distant were they.

After only about ten minutes of steady calling, Vlado made a sign to get my attention, and we strained to listen, very carefully.

VK0EK came back very faintly with just one letter incorrect in my call–it was enough that I didn’t catch it at first. But Vlado heard it, and after sending the call back a couple of times, then the report, VK0EK confirmed my call with a signal report, and I reciprocated.

Vlad and I leapt to our feet, yelling, “WOO HOO!” (and hopefully didn’t wake up any of Vlad’s neighbors).

Heard Island is actually running an online log that is updated live. We immediately looked there to confirm I was in their log, and was greeted with this great circle map and a line from Heard Island to my call sign in the States. Vlado made this screen capture as a momento:

k4swl VK0EK 40m cw 0231 april4 2016

Here’s to good friends and mentors

In one incredible evening, I snagged two all-time new ones–and I owe it all to my good buddy, Vlado. Most importantly, I’ve been learning so much from him as he patiently coaches me through some weak DX with serious pileups. Plus it’s just always fun hanging around Vlado, the best broken radio doctor I know, to whom “challenge” is…well, a piece of cake.

Thanks Vlado, for your enthusiasm and patience–I’m lucky to have a friend like you!

LRN Precision introduces two new QRP transceivers: the LD-11 and MTR5B

LNR-MountainTopper-LD11-Announcement

LNR Precision announced two new QRP transceivers this weekend: the MTR5B and LD-11. Below, you can find details I pulled from LNR’s press release and website for both units:

LNR-Precision-LD-11

The LD-11

The LD-11 is a new 11-band QRP transceiver based on the LNR’s LD-5 transceiver. The LD-11 covers from the 6 meter band down to the 160 meter band. A new feature on this model is a built-in panadapter. AM/FM/SSB and CW modes are all included.

Here is the description from LNR’s website:

The new LD-11 is Digital Direct Conversion, SDR type, build-in CPU (SM32a) DSP radio in which RF signals are directly converted to a digital data via differential and balanced A/D converters. This enables direct sampling with extremely low phase and floor noise.

The DSP is unique and features two independent channels. It also employs a unique differential algorithm within the software which is applied for IQ processing of the channels with phase suppression of the unwanted side-band channel.

The balanced ADC and DAC gives additional noise floor reduction and the receiver can handle interfering signals that are 100 dB stronger than the desired signal at a frequency separation of 10 kHz, and is about 130 dB stronger at 50 kHz separation. As the receiver and transmitter are using the same DSP channel, there is no gap between the receiver performance and the transmitter performance. Thus, there is a clean neighborhood on the bands. At the development stage, our intentions were motivated by the TX side-band noise of existing SDR manufacturers, so our aim was to fully equalize our transmitter to have noise performance that is compatible with the best modern receivers, or even better. After a arduous year of development , we think we achieved it!

This 11+ band radio is based on the LD-5, which has proven to be one of the most exciting QRP transceivers introduced in the last few years. Quite frankly, the performance rivals high end units offered by other manufactures at a much lower price point. Our motto is that we make QRP transceivers that you will want to take out in the field (without fear of breaking the bank).

Price is $774.99 US

LNR-Precision-LD-11-L-Side LNR-Precision-LD-11-R-Side

Note: Larry Draughn (AE4LD), President of LNR Precision, will be issuing an LD-11 transceiver to me on loan for review. I’m looking forward to putting it on the air.

What fascinates me about the LD-11 is that, although it’s designed as a ham band-only transceiver, the band edges of the 30 meter ham band can be expanded to include the full 31 meter broadcast band. There are, perhaps, other ham bands that can include nearby broadcast bands as well.  I will plan to experiment with the band edges.

MTR5B

The MTR5B

The new MTR5B 5-Band Mountain Topper is a fully-assembled 5-band CW transceiver KD1JV designs “Steve Weber” kit. The following are specifications/features from the LNR website:

40M, 30M, 20M, 17M, 15M
Size: 4.337″L x 3.153″W x 1.008″T
Weight: approx 6.4 OZ.

Features:

  • Switch selected 40/30/20/17/15 meter bands (no band modules to lose or change out)
  • Wide operating voltage range, 6 to 12 volts 15 ma Rx current at 12V supply
  • Efficient transmitter. Low current with 4W output
  • LCD display
  • Push button or Optional rotary tuning
  • 24 hour clock built in, with battery back up
  • Three 63 character programmable message memories
  • Message beacon mode with adjustable pause time

MTR5B-1

Price is $379.99 US

Steve Weber’s QRP transceivers are amazing and incredibly portable. His MTR-3B trail radio has received very favorable reviews over the past year; I expect the same from the new MTR-5B.

If you were lucky enough to grab a first production unit of either of these radios, I would love to post your overview/review! I’m looking forward to checking out the LD-11 soon. I’ll post updates with the tag: LD-11

Listening to the International Space Station (ARISS) with a Yaesu VX-3

ISS

Yesterday, my buddy Eric (WD8RIF) sent the following message:

“Take your girls outside with an HT and listen to the ARISS pass in just about 10 minutes. The downlink freq is 145.800.”

Though I was in the middle of another project, I took Eric’s advice: I grabbed my Yaesu VX-3, corralled my daughters and ran outside. Eric’s message was already eight minutes old when I read it, so I only had about two minutes to get ready.

My Everyday Carry (EDC) pack, loaded with all of the essentials.

My Everyday Carry (EDC) pack, loaded with all of the essentials.

Fortunately, I always have a Yaesu VX-3R loaded with fresh batteries in my EDC pack (above).

Official NASA portrait of British astronaut Timothy Peake. Photo Date: August 28, 2013. Location: Building 8, Room 183 - Photo Studio. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Official NASA portrait of British astronaut Timothy Peake. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

With the VX-3 tuned to 145.8 MHz, we waited as the ISS made its way above the horizon. The downlink audio of astronaut Tim Peake (KG5BVI) communicating with Walter Jackson Elementary in Decatur, Alabama, started to punch through the static after a minute or two. We listened the entire time we had line-of-sight to the ISS–about five minutes or so.  We were pretty deep in a valley at that point, so I’m pleased we were able to catch even that much of a pass.

Of course, we could only hear one side of the conversation: the downlink from the International Space Station.

It was a memorable event for my girls who have seen ISS passes at night, but had never heard live audio from an astronaut before.

Here’s a short video of two of the exchanges we heard:

(Click here to view on YouTube.)

Eric pointed me to the ARISS “Upcoming Contacts” (http://www.ariss.org/upcoming-contacts.html) page where future ARISS QSOs are listed. Evidently, this particular ARISS QSO was the third Eric had monitored in two weeks.

Pretty much any receiver that can tune to 145.80 MHz FM–or a VHF scanner–can hear the ARISS downlink as long as the ISS is passing overhead during the transmission. Of course, if you have a high-gain antenna that can track the ISS as it moves across the sky, you’ll get even better results than I did with my basic rubber duck antenna.

My advice?  If you want to impress a child (or your inner child–!) find a little time to listen to a future ARISS QSO!

Indeed, the next step for me is to see if I can propose an ARISS QSO for our school group!

Video: TX Factor Episode 10

TXfactorAs I catch up with reader correspondence and the many projects I’ve been working on, I’m happy to take a moment to watch the latest episode of the superb ham radio show, TX Factor.

If you’ve never watched TX Factor, you’re in for a treat. Each episode is brilliantly produced and edited. Here’s the description for Episode 10:

In this episode the sky’s the limit as Mike Marsh discovers when he returns to his old school! We visit Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall and return to the site of Marconi’s early test transmissions. Bob McCreadie checks out the FT-991 all-band transceiver from Yaesu.

Click here to watch TX Factor Episode 10 on YouTube, or simply view via the embedded player below:

Click here to visit TX Factor’s website.