Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Nick Hall-Patch, who writes:
Since 1964, the International Radio Club of America has been documenting medium wave DXing and DXers’ efforts to improve their understanding of radio reception and to develop better listening techniques. During that time, over 900 articles have been written, that have furthered the art of DXing. Many of these continue to be relevant to the more general radio hobbyist, including articles about antennas, radio propagation, receivers and accessories, plus general technical information.
Previously, those articles were available only to club members, but they are now available to all. Go to www.ircaonline.org, and click on the “Free IRCA Reprints” button to download your own copies.
Oh wow! What an amazing and deep treasure trove of articles! Thank you so much for the tip, Nick!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Paul, who asks:
What are good choices for ATU and 100W amplifier for the IC-705? [Also] will the Icom AH-4 antenna tuner work well with the IC-705?
Great questions, Paul!
100 Watt Amplifiers
I’ve limited experience pairing the IC-705 with external 100 watt amplifiers. I own the Elecraft KXPA100 and it pairs well with the IC-705 via RF sensing. My hope is that SWLing Post readers may be able to chime in here and offer more suggestions as there are a number of inexpensive, basic, amplifiers on the market now but I’ve never personally used or tested them. I can say that the KXPA100 is a beautifully-engineered amplifier.
First off, regarding the Icom AH-4 ATU, I’m not certain if the IC-705 has the same control commands as the AH-4 (I’m guessing it does, but perhaps someone can confirm–?).
It would not be my first choice as a portable antenna tuner for field work. For one thing, it’s a pricey at $300. That, and I’ve always viewed the AH-4 as more of a remote antenna tuner for those who need a permanent matching box outside the shack near the antenna feed point. For that application, I’m sure it’s amazing.
According to the AH-4 specifications, it requires “10 W (5–15 W)” of tuning power. I’m not quite sure what the “5-15” watts means, but the IC-705’s max output power is 10 watts using an external 12-13.8V battery, and only 5 watts using the BP-272 Li-ion Battery. Not sure if that would be adequate to trigger the AH-4 to find a match without some sort of command cable connection.
For portable ATUs, let’s take a look:
IC-705 Portable ATU Options
The Icom IC-705 actually has a port on the side of the radio that allows one to connect the rig to an ATU for some level automatic ATU control. At time of posting, there are two ATUs in the works that are able to use this port: the Mat-Tuner mAT-705 and the Icom AH-705 (there could be more, but I’m not aware of them).
Mat-Tuner mAT-705 ($220 US)
I reviewed the mAT-705 on QRPer.com (click here to read). In short, it’s absolutely brilliant at matching antennas quickly and efficiently, but it has a few design shortcomings. The main issue is that you must use a mechanical switch to turn it on and off, else you deplete the internal 9V battery within a week. Most similar ATUs either have auto-off functionality, or at least an external power option. Since the mAT-705 can connect directly to the IC-705, it automatically knows when you need to tune to a frequency and will do this anytime you send a carrier, hit PTT, or initiate tuning via the menu option. It can also remember frequencies you’ve already matches to make the process quicker. The mAT-705 is also RF-sensing, thus can work with other radios. Vibroplex is the US distributor of the mAT-705. Note, too, that there are a number of portable Mat-Tuners that will work with the IC-705–the mAT-705 is the only one that uses the IC-705 control cable (which I feel is actually unnecessary). Check out their full product line before ordering.
Icom AH-705 ($T.B.A.)
The Icom AH-705 is Icom’s own external ATU designed to work with the IC-705 and fit in the LC-192 backpack. Since the AH-705 will be able to connect directly to the IC-705, its functionality will be very similar to the mAT-705. I’m speaking in future tense here because, at time of posting (18 November 2020), the AH-705 is not yet in production and we’ve no retail price. With that said, Icom has a legacy of making fine ATUs, so I’ve no doubt it’ll function well. Like the mAT-705, it has a mechanical on/off button so you may have to be aware of turning it off when not in use to preserve the internal alkaline batteries. Unlike the mAT-705, it has an external 13.8 VDC power connection. Universal Radio will update their site with pricing and shipping information once available.
Elecraft T1 ($160-$190 US)
The Elecraft T1 ATU has been in production for many years now and is a fabulous portable ATU. Not only is it incredibly adept at finding matches, but it’s also efficient in terms of power usage. It will run for months on an internal 9V battery (that’s very easy to replace in the field). The T1 has no special connection for the IC-705, but it does have an optional T1-FT817 adapter for the Yaesu FT-817 series transceivers. In truth though? I find control cables unnecessary because tuning the T1 only requires pressing the tune button on the ATU, then keying the transceiver. Once it finds a match, it shuts down and locks it in. You can purchase the T1 directly from Elecraft ($160 kit/$190 assembled). The Elecraft T1 is my portable ATU of choice.
LDG Z-100A ($180 US)
I’ve owned a number of LDG tuners over the years an absolutely love them. I find that they offer great bang-for-buck, perform amazingly well, and are built well. In fact, I designed an outdoor remote antenna tuning unit around their original Z-11 Pro auto tuner. It’s housed in a sealed waterproof enclosure, but is completely exposed to outdoor humidity and temperature changes (which can be dramatic here on the mountain). I’ve been powering the Z-11 Pro for 10 years off of a discarded sealed lead acid battery that’s being charged by a Micro M+ charge controller and 5 watt BP solar panel. I’ve never needed to maintenance it. One of LDG’s latest portable ATUs is the Z-100A. I’ve never used it, but I imagine it’ll perform well and I may very well reach out to LDG and ask for a loaner to review with the IC-705. It does have a command cable port that works with Icom radios, but I’m checking with LDG to see if it works with the IC-705 (I’ll update this post when I hear back). The LDG Z-100A retails for $180 via LDG’s website.
Shortwave radio listeners, especially, should take note of the Emtech ZM-2 balanced line tuner! Unlike the ATUs above, the ZM-2 is manual–meaning, you manually adjust the tuner’s L/C controls to achieve a match with your antenna. I’ve owned the ZM-2 for many years and have used it with a number of QRP transceivers. Since it’s not automatic, it might take a minute or so to find a match, but it’s worth the wait. The ZM-2 requires no batteries to operate, which makes it an invaluable and reliable little tool in the field. In addition, since the ZM-2 doesn’t require RF energy in order to find a match, it’s a brilliant choice for SWLs who want to tweak their wire antennas. I find it functions as well as if not better than other manual tuners designed specifically for receivers. The ZM-2 is also the most affordable of the bunch: you can purchase a pre-built unit for $87.50 from Emtech or $62.50 as a kit. I would advise purchasing one even if you also have an automatic antenna tuner–makes for a great back-up!
This is by no means a comprehensive list of portable ATUs to pair with the IC-705, just a few suggestions. In fact, companies like MFJ Enterprises make a number of manual tuners that could easily be taken to the field and require no power source (much like the ZM-2 above).
Please comment if you have experience with other types of ATUs and please include links if possible!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Van Hoy (VR2HF), who shares the following guest post:
ARISS FM Repeater May Be Back on Early December and a Short Ham Satellite Summary
by Dan Van Hoy (VR2HF)
I’ve recently had a lot of fun learning about the current batch of ham satellites and operating through some of them for the past several months with only a Diamond discone (and a short run of RG-213 double-shielded coax), Yaesu FT-817 (for SSB/CW) and TYT TH-9800 for FM satellites (more power, Scotty!). This simple set-up has yielded hours and hours of great fun. The last time I did satellite work was in the ’70s making contacts from my car through Oscar 6. If I had a car here in Hong Kong I might try it again!
Here’s my living room TV tray and sofa shortwave and satellite station (no XYL in house at the moment).
ARISS FM Repeater
One of the recent highlights for both newcomers to satellite operations and old-timers was working the International Space Station’s (ISS) new FM repeater which came on the air in early September. It is a specially modified Kenwood D710-GA VHF/UHF transceiver. Unfortunately, it was only operational for about a month. For the past several weeks it has been used mostly in APRS mode.
The ARISS FM repeater runs five watts and sounds just like a regular terrestrial repeater in many ways. You can work it with any dual-band VHF/UHF FM rig and the right antenna. Full-duplex is not required, but it helps. Lower power requires some kind of gain antenna, but receiving can be done with simple antennas.
The ARISS organization just updated the schedule for the ARISS operation with this announcement:
“Next mode change (cross band repeater) targeting early December.”
Here’s a Youtube video of one of my ARISS contacts with E21EJC. It was right after he came back from his DXpedition hauling microwave gear and dishes out to the Thai countryside to work the QO-100 geosynchronous satellite. I tell him “welcome home and have a good rest.” Kob really is “Mr Satellite!” He has posted hundreds of Youtube videos of satellite contacts.
In addition, here is video of their HS0AJ/P special “portable” station antennas for QO-100. 10 GHz RX dish (downlink) and 2.4 GHz TX dish (the big one). I listened to Kob and his friend make several QSOs via the QO-100 WebSDR:
Amazing the things we hams do just to spray some RF in the right direction!
Beyond the ARISS: A Ham Satellite Summary
Presently, AO-91 is probably the most popular FM satellite, along with SO-50, AO-27 and PO-101. RS-44, a linear satellite for SSB and CW, is far and away the most popular for those modes. RS-44 is in a higher orbit providing less Doppler shift and longer contact times per pass. You can easily see from the Amsat status page which satellites are in operation and which are the most popular. Many of the ham satellites do not provide two-way communication capability, but still have beacons (CW and data) that can be heard (those are in YELLOW on the Amsat status page). Everyone with a ham callsign can contribute by by uploading a reception report of the satellites you hear or work.
Full-duplex on SSB/CW satellite work is very desirable but not mandatory. I have learned you can make contacts without it coupled with a little skill and some luck. Staying near the center of the satellite’s particular passband is helpful. Sadly, there are few full-duplex rigs available these days. One of the best may be the Yaesu FT-847 which can be found on the used market. Some satellite ops are using SDRs for RX and a ham rig for TX to achieve full-duplex. I’m going to try that soon using two Diamond discones and vertical separation.
For current status of all ham satellites and ARISS operation, go here:
For tracking the ham sats and ISS, I like the Heavens-Above app (or Webpage: https://heavens-above.com/). The Pro version of Heavens Above is worth every penny. In the app, I put only the active satellites I am interested in in the search box. That way all the remaining unusable satellites will be ignored. Heavens-Above also lists the satellite operating frequencies for a quick reference.
One cool side note. With Heavens-Above, you can also see when ISS visible passes are available over your area (almost always near sunrise/sunset). Look for the passes with a magnitude greater than -3.0. If you have clear skies or a thin layer of clouds it’s quite a treat to see the ISS zoom overhead at 17, 000 miles per hour. When the ARISS repeater is operating, you can see and hear the ISS! The screen shot above is a visible pass at -3.9 magnitude, as bright as Venus.
I have found my Diamond discone to work quite well for satellite operation. It’s probably the cheapest, simplest and most effective antenna you can use for this application If you really get interested in satellite work you can always spend the big bucks for AZ/EL rotators and beams as well as the software to run it all including tuning your rig to compensate for Doppler shift. Or you can buy quite expensive omni-directional antennas designed specifically for satellite use. So far, the KISS approach has worked well for me.
The Future Is Now
Finally, we can all get a taste of the future now by listening to the only ham radio geosynchronous satellite currently in operation, QO-100. It is centered on Europe and covers about 1/3 of the earth from Brazil to parts of Asia.
It was a thrill for me to listen (via the WebSDR listed below) to one of my new satellite colleagues, Mr Kob, E21EJC, who I call “Mr Satellite,” work Brazil and many other stations in the EU, the Middle-east and elsewhere through QO-100 during a special event operation from Thailand.
Anybody can listen to activity on QO-100 at the link below. When you get there just find the CLICK TO START SOUND! button. Then, click UNDER one of the signals in the waterfall and tune with the controls below. Weekends and holidays seem to be the best time to listen.
Because both the uplink and downlink frequencies are way up in the microwave bands, it’s not easy to get on QO-100, but, it appears to me, worth the effort. Maybe one day we will have two more QO-100-like birds linked together to cover the whole earth for 24/7 communication anywhere in the world. One can dream.
Full details about the QO-100 geosynchronous satellite can be found here:
When the propagation is bad, or actually anytime, ham satellites are a wonderful alternative to HF for having fun on the air.
Sorry, gotta go, RS-44 is just about here. CQ satellite, CQ satellite, de VR2HF…
Thank you so much for the satellite overview, Dan!
You’ve inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and try a little satellite work! The perfect project to do with my two daughters. I’m such a “below 30MHz” guy, I have to remind myself that there are actually some pretty amazing things you can do further up the band! When I purchase a discone antenna, I’m going to accuse you of being an enabler. Fair warning.
SWLing Post readers: Anyone else here tune to and track satellites? Please comment!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Matt Blaze (WB2SRI), who shares the following guest post:
Matt’s Marathon MediumWave Matchup
by Matt Blaze
Here’s another simultaneous receiver comparison, this time of ten portable medium wave receivers plus the Icom IC-R9500 (as a “reference receiver”). Previously, I used the same antenna for all the comparisons, but since these are portable receivers, I wanted to compare their performance using their built-in antennas. I did two comparisons, both of moderate to weak signals, one in the evening of a DX signal and the other in the daytime of a regional station.
The receivers were the Potomac Instruments FIM-41 (a “field intensity meter”), the Panasonic RF-2200, the Nordmende GlobeTraveler Exec (a beautiful German SW portable from 1968), the Sony ICF-EX5MK2, the CCrane Radio 2E, the Sangean ATS-909X, the Sangean D4W, the new Tecsun PL-990X, the XHDATA D-808, and finally the CountyComm GP5-SSB, plus the Icom IC-R9500.
All the receivers were recorded simultaneously. The radios (except the Icom R9500) were on the roof of my building and oriented for best reception (signal/noise) and kept sufficiently away from each other and other metal objects to avoid interference, The R9500 was in the shack and used a Wellbrook loop on the roof, also oriented for best signal/noise. I took the audio from the Line Out if one was available and from the headphone jack (via a “direct box” level converter) if not. I tried to match the audio levels reasonably closely, but different ACG characteristics made it difficult to be completely consistent across all the receivers throughout the sessions.
As in previous comparisons, for each session I’ve got a narrated stereo mix with the R9500 on the left channel and each receiver, for a minute or so one after the other on the right channel. You definitely want to use headphones to listen to these so you easily tell the left from the right radio. I’ve also provided mono “solo” recordings of each receiver for the full 15 minute-ish sessions so you can hear a receiver you’re interested in in detail.
Sound Devices 688 Multitrack Recorder
The recordings were made with a Sound Devices 688 recorder/mixer (which can record 12 simultaneous channels of audio). The portable radios were hardwired to the recorder, and the 9500 (which was downstairs) was connected via a Lectrosonics digital radio link. (Everything except the R9500 was on battery power to avoid mutual interference and ground loops, etc). The narration used a Coles noise canceling ribbon mic. Everything was done in a single take per session – there was NO postproduction editing – so I apologize for a few glitches and awkward moments.
You can see a “class photo” of the setup below, although the position and orientation of the radios was different during the actual recordings.
The first recording was at night, where we tuned to 1630 KCJJ in Iowa City, IA. This is effectively a 1KW clear channel; other than a few TIS stations, there’s not much else there on the east coast, and the signal is reliably weak to moderate but readable here on the east coast.
Narrated L/R stereo comparison:
Individual solo tracks:
CCrane Radio 2E
Potomac Instruments FIM-41
Nordmende GlobeTraveler Exec
The next recording was made during the day, of WSVA, a regional station in Harrisonburg, VA running 5KW in the daytime. Their signal is also reliably weak-moderate but readable here.
Narrated L/R stereo comparison:
Individual solo tracks (receiver should be obvious from the file name):
CCrane Radio 2E
Potomac Instruments FIM-41
Nordmende GlobeTraveler Exec
Hope your readers find it useful!
An absolutely amazing job again, Matt! Thank you so much for taking the time to put this comparison together and sharing it here on the SWLing Post.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Steve Allen (KZ4TN), who shares the following guest post:
A Simple Antenna Tuner for SWL Radios
by Steve Allen, KZ4TN
After reading 13DKA’s excellent review of the Belka-DSP on SWLing.com a few weeks ago I knew I had to have one! The size, features, and performance of the Belka-DX (latest version of the Belka-DSP) is phenomenal. I won’t go into reviewing the radio as I couldn’t come close to 13DKA extensive review. If you are considering this SWL receiver his review is a must read.
I love bedtime SWLing and have been putting off setting up an outside antenna specifically to feed into the bedroom for too long. Given that the resonant frequency of the antenna would not be broad enough for the tuning range of the Belka-DX I decided to build a small antenna tuner just for SWLing.
For the coil I wound ~100 turns of 26 Ga wire on a one inch diameter wooden dowel. The wire size can be whatever you have on hand. I twisted a tap every 10 turns. I drilled a hole in each end and glued in a machine screw to mount the coil to the bottom of the enclosure. I’ve had this enclosure in my junk box for a long time and have been waiting for just the right project. The variable capacitor I used was one I found on EBay a few years ago that had two sections, 330 pF and 120 pF. I tied them together for 450 pF. For the rotary switch I had to scratch around on eBay for a while until I found a 12 position single pole.
The plans for the tuner suggested adding a fixed value capacitor with a toggle switch to increase the lower end of the tuning range. I found a 510 pF silver mica and wired it into the circuit.
The antenna I put up is a sloper about 30 feet long.The high end is up about 40 feet and the low end is at about 12 feet. I put the antenna and tuner to the test last evening and the reception on the Belka-DX was superb. With the tuner the strength of the signal would peak about 2-3 units when I found the sweet spot.
The tuner also does double duty as an attenuator for very strong signals.
One mod I made to the Belka-DX was the addition of some grip tape to the tuning knob. It makes fine tuning much easier.
I believe we will continue to see a number of innovative receivers coming to market in the near term utilizing SDR technology. The ratio of performance to size of the Belka-DX is truly amazing in my opinion.
Thank you, Steve, for sharing this brilliant weekend project! As always, brilliant craftsmanship!
Chameleon Antenna recently sent me a prototype of their latest antenna: the CHA MPAS Lite.
The MPAS Lite is a compact version of their MPAS 2.0 modular antenna system and designed to be even more portable.
Chameleon Antenna is a specialist antenna manufacturer that makes military-grade, field portable antennas that are low-profile and stealthy. Chameleon products are 100% made in the USA and their customers range from amateur radio operators to the armed forces.
Their antennas are not cheap, but they are a prime example when we talk about “you pay for what you get.” In all of my years of evaluating radio products, I’ve never seen better quality field antennas–they’re absolutely top-shelf.
I’m currently in my hometown doing a little caregiving for my parents. I’d only planned to be here for a couple of days, but when I saw that the remnants of Hurricane Zeta would pass directly over us with tropical storm force winds and rain, I stuck around to help the folks out.
Zeta struck quite a blow, in fact. No injuries reported, but over 23,000 of us have been without power for over 34+ hours in Catawba county. With saturated grounds, the winds toppled a lot of trees and damaged power lines.
Yesterday, I wanted to take advantage of the power outage and get on the air. I couldn’t really do a POTA activation because I needed to manage things here at my parents’ house. Plus, why not profit from the grid being down and bathe in a noise-free RF space–?
I decided to set it up in their front yard.
CHA MPAS Lite
I had never deployed the MPAS Lite before, so I did a quick scan through the owner’s manual. Although the MPAS Lite (like the MPAS 2.0) can be configured a number of ways, I deployed it as a simple vertical antenna.
Assembly was simple:
Insert the stainless steel spike in the ground,
Attach the counterpoise wire (I unraveled about 25′) to the spike
Screw on the CHA Micro-Hybrid
Screw the 17′ telescoping whip onto the Hybrid-Micro
Extend the whip antenna fully
Connect the supplied coax (with in-line choke) to the Hybrid-Micro
Connect the antenna to the rig
Although I had the Icom IC-705 packed, I wanted to keep things simple by using the Elecraft KX2 I’d also packed since it has a built-in ATU.
Important: the CHA MPAS Lite requires an ATU to get a good match across the bands.
I wasn’t in the mood to ragchew yesterday, but I thought it might be fun to see how easily I could tune the MPAS Lite from 80 meters up.
I checked the Parks On The Air spots page and saw NK8O activating a park in Minnesota in CW:
He was working a bit of a pile-up, but after three calls, he worked me and reported a 559 signal report. Not bad at 5 watts!
I then moved to 40, 18, and 20 meter and called CQ a couple times to see if the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) could spot me. I like using the RBN to give me a “quick and dirty” signal report. I was very pleased with the bands I tested:
Those dB numbers are quite good for an op running 5 watts into a vertical compromised antenna.
The KX2 very effortlessly got near 1:1 matches on every band I tested.
Of course, after working a few stations in CW and SSB, I tuned to the broadcast bands and enjoyed a little RFI-free SWLing. Noting 13dka’s recent article, I’m thinking on the coast, the MPAS Lite will make for a superb amateur radio and SWLing antenna.
Although the remnants of Zeta had effectively passed through the area three hours prior, it was still very blustery outside. I was concerned gusts might even be a little too strong for the 17′ whip, but I was wrong. The whip handled the wind gusts with ease and the spike held it in place with no problem.
One of the things I have to watch with my Wolf River Coils TIA vertical is the fact it’s prone to fall in windy conditions and many ops have noted that this can permanently damage the telescoping whip (the weak point in that system).
I’m pretty certain this wouldn’t happen with the Chameleon 17′ whip–it feels very substantial and solid.
Ready to hit the field with the CHA MPAS Lite!
I’m a huge fan of wire antennas because I believe they give me the most “bang-for-buck” in the field, but they’re not always practical to deploy. I like having a good self-supporting antenna option in my tool belt when there are no trees around or when parks don’t allow me to hang antennas in their trees.
I’ve got a park in mind that will make for a good test of the CHA MPAS Lite: it’s a remote game land with no real parking option. I’ll have to activate it on the roadside–an ideal application for the MPAS Lite.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post:
Gone fishing…for DX: Reception enhancement at the seaside
In each of my few reviews I referred to “the dike” or “my happy place”, which is a tiny stretch of the 380 miles of dike protecting Germany’s North Sea coast. This is the place where I like to go for maximum listening pleasure and of course for testing radios. Everyone knows that close proximity to an ocean is good for radio reception…but why is that? Is there a way to quantify “good”?
Of course there is, this has been documented before, there is probably lots of literature about it and old papers like this one (click here to download PDF). A complete answer to the question has at least two parts:
1. Less QRM
It may be obvious, but civilization and therefore QRM sources at such a place extend to one hemisphere only, because the other one is covered with ocean for 100s, if not 1000s of miles. There are few places on the planet that offer such a lack of civilization in such a big area, while still being accessible, habitable and in range for pizza delivery. Unless you’re in the midst of a noisy tourist trap town, QRM will be low. Still, you may have to find a good spot away from all tourist attractions and industry for absolutely minimal QRM.
My dike listening post is far enough from the next small tourist trap town (in which I live) and also sufficiently far away from the few houses of the next tiny village and it’s located in an area that doesn’t have HV power lines (important for MW and LW reception!) or industrial areas, other small villages are miles away and miles apart, the next town is 20 km/12 miles away from there. In other words, man-made noise is just not an issue there.
That alone would be making shortwave reception as good as it gets and it gives me an opportunity to check out radios on my own terms: The only way to assess a radio’s properties and qualities without or beyond test equipment is under ideal conditions, particularly for everything that has to do with sensitivity. It’s already difficult without QRM (because natural noise (QRN) can easily be higher than the receiver’s sensitivity threshold too, depending on a number of factors), and even small amounts of QRM on top make that assessment increasingly impossible. This is particularly true for portables, which often can’t be fully isolated from local noise sources for a couple of reasons.
Yes, most modern radios are all very sensitive and equal to the degree that it doesn’t make a difference in 98% of all regular reception scenarios but my experience at the dike is that there are still differences, and the difference between my least sensitive and my most sensitive portable is not at all negligible, even more because they are not only receivers but the entire receiving system including the antenna. You won’t notice that difference in the middle of a city, but you may notice it in the woods.
When the radio gets boring, I can still have fun with the swing and the slide!
2. More signal
I always had a feeling that signals actually increase at the dike and that made me curious enough to actually test this by having a receiver tuned to some station in the car, then driving away from the dike and back. Until recently it didn’t come to me to document or even quantify this difference though. When I was once again googling for simple answers to the question what the reason might be, I stumbled upon this video: Callum (M0MCX) demonstrating the true reason for this in MMANA (an antenna modeling software) on his “DX Commander” channel:
To summarize this, Callum explains how a pretty dramatic difference in ground conductivity near the sea (click here to download PDF) leads to an increase in antenna gain, or more precisely a decrease in ground return losses equaling more antenna gain. Of course I assumed that the salt water has something to do with but I had no idea how much: For example, average ground has a conductivity of 0.005 Siemens per meter, salt water is averaging at 5.0 S/m, that’s a factor of 1,000 (!) and that leads to roughly 10dB of gain. That’s right, whatever antenna you use at home in the backcountry would get a free 10dB gain increase by the sea, antennas with actual dBd or dBi gain have even more gain there.
That this has a nice impact on your transmitting signal should be obvious if you’re a ham, if not just imagine that you’d need a 10x more powerful amplifier or an array of wires or verticals or a full-size Yagi to get that kind of gain by directionality. But this is also great for reception: You may argue that 10dB is “only” little more than 1.5 S-units but 1.5 S-units at the bottom of the meter scale spans the entire range between “can’t hear a thing” and “fully copy”!
A practical test
It’s not that I don’t believe DX Commander’s assessment there but I just had to see it myself and find a way to share that with you. A difficulty was finding a station that has A) a stable signal but is B) not really local, C) on shortwave, D) always on air and E) propagation must be across water or at least along the shoreline.
The army (or navy) to the rescue! After several days of observing STANAG stations for their variation in signal on different times of the day, I picked one on 4083 kHz (thanks to whoever pays taxes to keep that thing blasting the band day and night!). I don’t know where exactly (my KiwiSDR-assisted guess is the English channel region) that station is, but it’s always in the same narrow range of levels around S9 here at home, there’s usually the same little QSB on the signal, and the signals are the same day or night.
On top of that, I had a look at geological maps of my part of the country to find out how far I should drive into the backcountry to find conditions that are really different from the coast. Where I live, former sea ground and marsh land is forming a pretty wide strip of moist, fertile soil with above average conductivity, but approximately 20km/12mi to the east the ground changes to a composition typical for the terminal moraine inland formed in the ice age. So I picked a quiet place 25km east of my QTH to measure the level of that STANAG station and also to record the BBC on 198 kHz. Some source stated that the coastal enhancement effect can be observed within 10 lambda distance to the shoreline, that would be 730m for the 4 MHz STANAG station and 15km for the BBC, so 25km should suffice to rule out any residue enhancement from the seaside.
My car stereo has no S-meter (or a proper antenna, so reception is needlessly bad but this is good in this case) so all you get is the difference in audio. The car had the same orientation (nose pointing to the east) at both places. For the 4 MHz signal though (coincidence or not), the meter shows ~10dBm (or dBµV/EMF) more signal at the dike.
3. Effect on SNR
Remember, more signal alone does not equal better reception, what we’re looking for is a better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Now that we’ve established that the man-made noise should be as low as possible at “my” dike, the remaining question is: Does this signal enhancement have an effect on SNR as well? Even if there is virtually no local QRM at my “happy place” – there is still natural noise (QRN) and that wouldn’t that likely gain 10dB too?
Here are some hypotheses that may be subject of debate and some calculations way over my head (physics/math fans, please comment and help someone out who always got an F in math!). Sorry for all the gross oversimplifications:
Extremely lossy antennas
We know that pure reception antennas are often a bit different in that the general reciprocity rule has comparatively little meaning, many antennas designed for optimizing reception in specific situations would be terrible transmitting antennas. One quite extreme example, not meant to optimize anything but portability is the telescopic whip on shortwaves >10m. At the dike, those gain more signal too. When the QRN drops after sunset on higher frequencies, the extremely lossy whip might be an exception because the signal coming out of it is so small that it’s much closer to the receiver noise, so this friendly signal boost could lift very faint signals above the receiver noise more than the QRN, which in turn could mean a little increase in SNR, and as we know even a little increase in SNR can go a long way.
The BBC Radio 4 longwave recording is likely another example for this – the unusually weak signal is coming from a small and badly matched rubber antenna with abysmal performance on all frequency ranges including LW. The SNR is obviously increasing at the dike because the signal gets lifted more above the base noise of the receiving system, while the atmospheric noise component is likely still far below that threshold. Many deliberately lossy antenna design, such as flag/tennant, passive small aperture loops (like e.g. the YouLoop) or loop-on-ground antennas may benefit most from losses decreasing by 10dB.
Not so lossy antennas, polarization and elevation patterns
However, there is still more than a signal strength difference between “big” antennas and the whips at the dike: Not only at the sea, directionality will have an impact on QRN levels, a bidirectional antenna may already decrease QRN and hence increase SNR further, an unidirectional antenna even more, that’s one reason why proper Beverage antennas for example work wonders particularly on noisy low frequencies at night (but this is actually a bad example because Beverage antennas are said to work best on lossy ground).
Also, directional or not, the “ideal” ground will likely change the radiation pattern, namely the elevation angles, putting the “focus” of the antenna from near to far – or vice versa: As far as my research went, antennas with horizontal polarization are not ideal in this regard as they benefit much less from the “mirror effect” and a relatively low antenna height may be more disadvantageous for DX (but maybe good for NVIS/local ragchewing) than usual. Well, that explains why I never got particularly good results with horizontal dipoles at the dike!
Using a loop-on-ground antenna at a place without QRM may sound ridiculously out of place at first, but they are bidirectional and vertically polarized antennas, so the high ground conductivity theoretically flattens the take-off angle of the lobes, on top of that they are ~10dB less lossy at the dike, making even a LoG act more like something you’d string up as high as possible elsewhere. They are incredibly convenient, particularly on beaches where natural antenna supports may be non-existent and I found them working extremely well at the dike, now I think I know why. In particular the preamplified version I tried proved to be good enough to receive 4 continents on 20m and a 5th one on 40m – over the course of 4 hours on an evening when conditions were at best slightly above average. Though the really important point is that it increased the SNR further, despite the QRN still showing up on the little Belka’s meter when I connected the whip for comparison (alas not shown in the video).
The 5th continent is missing in this video because the signals from South Africa were not great anymore that late in the evening, but a recording exists.
Here’s a video I shot last year, comparing the same LoG with the whip on my Tecsun S-8800 on 25m (Radio Marti 11930 kHz):
At the same time, I recorded the station with the next decent KiwiSDR in my area:
Of course, these directionality vs noise mechanisms are basically the same on any soil. But compensating ground losses and getting flat elevation patterns may require great efforts, like extensive radial systems, buried meshes etc. and it’s pretty hard to cover enough area around the antenna (minimum 1/2 wavelength, ideally more!) to get optimum results on disadvantaged soils, while still never reaching the beach conditions. You may have to invest a lot of labor and/or money to overcome such geological hardships, while the beach gives you all that for free.
But there may be yet another contributing factor: The gain pattern is likely not symmetrical – signals (and QRN) coming from the land side will likely not benefit the same way from the enhancement, which tapers off quickly (10 wavelengths) on the land side of the dike and regular “cross-country” conditions take place in that direction, while salt water stretching far beyond the horizon is enhancing reception to the other side.
So my preliminary answer to that question would be: “Yes, under circumstances the shoreline signal increase and ground properties can improve SNR further, that improvement can be harvested easily with vertically polarized antennas”.
Would it be worthwhile driving 1000 miles to the next ocean beach… for SWLing?
Maybe not every week–? Seriously, it depends.
Sure, an ocean shoreline will generally help turning up the very best your radios and antennas can deliver, I think the only way to top this would be adding a sensible amount of elevation, a.k.a. cliff coasts.
If you’re interested in extreme DX or just in the technical performance aspect, if you want to experience what your stuff is capable of or if you don’t want to put a lot of effort into setting up antennas, you should definitely find a quiet place at the ocean, particularly if your options to get maximum performance are rather limited (space constraints, QRM, HOA restrictions, you name it) at home.
If you’re a BCL/program listener and more interested in the “content” than the way it came to you, if you’re generally happy with reception of your favorite programs or if you simply have some very well working setup at home, there’s likely not much the beach could offer you in terms of radio. But the seaside has much more to offer than fatter shortwaves of course.
From left to right: Starry sky capture with cellphone cam, nocticlucent clouds behind the dike, car with hot coffee inside and a shortwave portable suction-cupped to the side window – nights at the dike are usually cold but sometimes just beautiful. (Click to enlarge.)
However, getting away from the QRM means everything for a better SNR and best reception. In other words, if the next ocean is really a hassle to reach, it may be a better idea to just find a very quiet place nearby and maybe putting up some more substantial antenna than driving 1000 miles. But if you happen to plan on some seaside vacation, make absolutely sure you bring two radios (because it may break your heart if your only radio fails)!
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