Category Archives: Reviews

A comprehensive review of the Mission RGO One general coverage 50 watt transceiver

The following review was first published in the November 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


A review of the Mission RGO One ham radio transceiver

by Thomas (K4SWL / M0CYI)

Wow…I love this!

If I am perfectly frank, that would sum up my initial impression of the Mission RGO One.

It was the 2018 Hamvention in Dayton, Ohio, and I had just met up with radio engineer Boris Sapundzhiev (LZ2JR) who was debuting the prototype of his 50-watt transceiver kit, the Mission RGO One. With its clean, functional design and simple front face, large weighted encoder, and enough tactile buttons and multi-function knobs to keep one’s most needed features within reach, the kit was certainly pushing all the right buttons for me.  Without a doubt, I was impressed from the start.

Boris (LZ2JR) the designer and engineer of the Mission RGO One.

To my mind, the RGO One smacks of classic 1990s-era transceivers:  a traditional tabletop front-facing panel, a large fold-out bail, and a unfussy backlit LCD display that’s large enough to read in the field and viewable at any angle.

Perhaps it’s only because I can’t turn off the innate radio reviewer, that I was rapidly checking mental boxes in this first encounter with the RGO One.  Indeed, when I first set eyes on any new radio, I do skim through my mental “operations checklist” to see how difficult the rig might be to use at home and/or in the field. Specifically, I’m looking for the following controls:

  • Encoder
  • AF Gain
  • RF Gain
  • Mode switch
  • Power output adjustment
  • Tune/Xmit button
  • Preamp/Attenuator
  • VFO A/B
  • Split and A=B
  • Mic gain and keyer speed
  • RIT
  • Filters
  • Band switching and direct frequency entry
  • Key and encoder lock

Of course, these days it’s fairly rare that radios actually contain all of these functions without the user having to dig into layers of menus, multi-function controls, or touch-screen options to access them.

Remarkably enough, the Mission RGO One, despite simple design, manages to include all of these features on the front panel without the need of embedded menus. In contrast with some of the radios I’ve tested and evaluated over the past several years, I could tell by the layout alone that the Mission RGO One was developed by an active ham radio operator and DXer: the controls are that intuitive.

Alas, the tantalizing prototype on Boris’ table in the 2018 Hamvention flea market was for show only.

Boris promised that he’d have fully-functional models available at the 2019 Hamvention. Because of this, following that first meeting in 2018, I kept in touch with Boris; we arranged to meet again at the 2019 Hamvention so I could take a second, much closer look at the RGO One––especially since he intended to start shipping the first very limited, early-production-run rigs shortly afterward.

So…did Boris deliver?  And more importantly: did the RGO deliver––?  Let’s find out.

On The Air

Within hours of taking delivery of the prototype radio, I had it in the field activating parks.

It was May 2019 when Boris delivered on his promise, handing me a loaner prototype RGO One. He did so with the understanding that the prototype was still a little rough around the edges. I acknowledged this, thinking in terms of a late Beta-test model since he welcomed reports of any bugs or anomalies I encountered and was fully prepared to address them.

After taking the initial RGO One to the field, I did note a few bugs, but nothing major.  All of my field notes were then sent to Boris and turned into action items.

Then, in July of 2020, Boris sent me a fully-upgraded Mission RGO One with the new internal ATU and optional adjustable filter. This radio represented the “fully-grown” production model, and in preparation to put it through its paces, I returned the prototype.

Although there are planned hardware upgrade options and, of course, firmware upgrades, the RGO One has now reached full maturity as a transceiver.

However, it was one thing to have ham-friendly ergonomic controls. The real question was, how did the RGO One stack up against the competition? It was time to find out.  After all, this is the danger of a “love at first sight” radio encounter––it often leaves the door open for disappointment, and of this I was well aware.

What follows is my full review of this 2020 Mission RGO One transceiver. Let’s take a deep dive into this rig…

Features and specifications

 

What follows are some of the RGO One features and highlights as written in the product manual (PDF):

  • QRP/QRO output 5 – 50W [can actually be lowered to 0 watts out in 1 watt increments]
  • All-mode shortwave operation – coverage of all HAM HF bands (160m/60m optional)
  • High dynamic range receiver design, including high IP3 monolithic linear amplifiers in the front end, and diode ring RX mixer or H-mode first mixer (option)
  • Low-phase noise first LO – SI570 XO/VCXO chip
  • Full/semi (delay) QSK on CW; PTT/VOX operation on SSB. Strict RX/TX sequencing scheme with no “click” sounds
  • Down conversion superhet topology with popular 9MHz IF
  • Custom-made crystal filters for SSB and CW and variable crystal 4 pole filter – Johnson type 200…2000Hz
  • Fast-acting AGC (fast and slow) with 134kHz dedicated IF
  • Compact and lightweight body, only 5 lbs
  • Custom-made multicolor backlit FSTN LCD
  • Custom-molded front panel with ergonomic controls
  • Silent operation with no clicking relays inside – solid state GaAs PHEMT SPDT switches on RX (BPF and TX to RX switching) and ultrafast rectifying diodes (LPF)
  • Modular construction – Main board serves as a “chassis” also fits all the external connectors, daughter boards, plus inter-connections, and acts as a cable harness
  • Optional modules – Noise Blanker (NB), Audio Filter (AF), ATU, XVRTER, PC control via CAT protocol; USB UART – FTDI chipset
  • Double CPU circuitry control for front panel and main board – both field programmable via USB interface
  • Memory morse code keyer (Curtis A, CMOS B); 4 Memory locations 128 bytes each

Build quality

First impressions proved accurate in terms of construction.  I’m very pleased with the build quality of the Mission RGO One. Keep in mind, however, you might note from the photos that some items––like the volume and multifunction knobs––are 3D printed, and I’m not certain if they’ll ever have custom knobs manufactured.  But I really don’t even think this is necessary, as the 3D printed ones are very nice, indeed––moreover, should a replacement ever be needed, I love the idea I could simply print one myself!

The RGO One main optical encoder/tuning knob is just brilliant. It’s weighted properly for the right amount of “heft” while tuning. I’m very pleased with the overall feeling and quality. It’s substantial, yet silky-smooth in operation, just what I look for in a tuning knob.

On the back of the unit, there is an externally-mounted heat sink with two small fans. These fans are quiet and efficient.

The chassis and bail are both top-shelf quality and should withstand years of field use. Just do keep in mind that like almost every other amateur transceiver currently on the market (save the recently reviewed lab599 Discovery TX-500), the chassis is neither water-proof nor weather-proof, so will require common-sense care to protect it from the elements.

Portability

The Mission RGO is relatively compact, lightweight (only 5 lbs without the ATU), and has a power output of up to 55 watts, even though the specs list just 50 watts. As a point of comparison, most other rigs in this class have a maximum output of 10 to 20 watts, and require an external amplifier for anything higher. The form factor is very similar to the Elecraft K2.

The light weight of the rig and the extra power makes the RGO One a capable and versatile field radio. Although the RGO One is configured like a desktop radio (with a front-facing panel), it’s still relatively compact and can easily be set up on a portable table, chair, or on the ground. Unlike field-portable rigs with top-mounted controls (think the Elecraft KX3 or KX2), obviously, it would be tough to do handheld or laptop operation.

The RGO One should also play for a long time on battery power as the receive current drain is a respectable 0.65A with the receiver preamp on. It’s not as efficient as, say, an Elecraft KX3 or the new Icom IC-705, but keep in mind the RGO One can provide 50 watts of output power and has a proper, internally-mounted, amplified speaker. The popular 100 watt Yaesu FT-891, in comparison, has a current drain closer to 1.75 to 2.0 amps [update: actually the specifications indicate 2 Amps in receive, but user reports are less than half that amount].  I pair the RGO One with my larger 15 aH Bioenno LiFePo battery. When fully-charged, I can operate actively for hours upon hours without needing to recharge.

Mission RGO One Bioenno LiFePo

The Bioenno 15aH battery powers the Mission RGO One for hours at a time in the field.

If it’s any indication of how much I wanted to take this rig to the field, when Boris handed me the prototype RGO One on Saturday at the 2019 Hamvention, I had it on the air that same day doing a Parks On The Air activation at an Ohio State Park.

Since then, I’ve easily taken the Mission RGO One on 30 or more park activations.

Performance

What’s most striking and obvious about the Mission RGO One’s receiver from the moment you turn it on is the low noise floor. It’s incredibly quiet. So much so that more than once, I’ve double checked to make sure RF gain hadn’t been accidentally altered as I started a field activation. I’d call CQ a few times, though, and when stations return they literally pop out of the ether. The RGO One currently has no digital noise reduction (DNR) but frankly, I don’t miss it like I might in other transceivers. Indeed, the RGO One is a radio I’ve reached for when the bands are noisy because the AGC and receiver seem to handle rough atmospheric conditions very well.

The RGO One’s built-in, top-mounted speaker provides ample audio levels for the shack, but in a noisy field environment, I wish it had a little more amplification. I’ve also used my Heil Pro headset and even inexpensive in-ear earphones connected to the front panel headphones jack in the field. The audio via headphones is excellent.

Let’s take a look at how well the RGO One performs by mode:

CW

First and foremost, CW operators will appreciate the RGO One’s silky-smooth full break-in QSK. The  RGO One employs clickless and quiet pin diode switching–a design feature I’ve become particularly fond of as traditional T/R relays can be noisy and distracting when not using headphones.

The RGO One also has a full compliment of adjustments for the CW operator including adjustable delay (default is 100ms), iambic mode, weight ratio, hand key/paddle, adjustable pitch, and sidetone volume.

The key jack is a standard three conductor 1/8” jack found on most modern transceivers. It’s located on the back of the radio.

My review unit has the optional variable width narrow filter which I highly recommend if operating in crowded conditions. I’ve used the RGO One on ARRL Field Day and found that it easily coped with crowded band conditions. Even after a few hours on the air, I had very little listener fatigue.

I also find that, as I mentioned earlier, CW signals just seem to “pop” out of the ether due to the low noise floor and excellent sensitivity/selectivity.

The RGO one also sports four CW keying memories where you can record your CQ, callsign, or even contest exchange. I’ve become incredibly reliant on memory keying to help facilitate my workflow in the field—while the radio is automatically sending my CQ or my regards and callsign to an station I’ve just worked, my hands are free to log the contact, adjust the radio, or even eat lunch!

Memory keying does require one long-press of the “6” button followed by either the “1,” “2,” “3,” or “4” button to play a message. Occasionally I won’t hold the 6 button long enough and accidentally move my frequency down one meter band since the 6 button is also the band “down” button. While it doesn’t happen often, it’s frustrating when it does but I think it could easily be fixed in the firmware as it’s really a timing issue.

SSB

Likewise, phone operators will be very pleased with the Mission RGO One. During all of my testing, I’ve only used the microphone supplied with the radio mainly because I don’t currently own another radio with an RJ-45 type microphone connector.

I do love the fact the microphone port is on the front panel of the radio—it’s very easy to connect and disconnect (in contract to the recently released Icom IC-705, for example). I’ve gotten excellent audio reports with the RGO One in SSB mode and have even monitored my own tests and QSOs via the KiwiSDR network.

Compression, gain, and VOX controls are easily accessible. One missing feature at present is a voice memory keyer. For field operators activating sites for the POTA, WWFF, or SOTA program, voice memory keying is huge as it saves your voice from calling “CQ” over the course of a few hours. I understand Boris does plan to implement voice memory keying in a future speech processor board.

AM Mode

Since the RGO One has general coverage receive and since I’m a shortwave broadcast listener, I was disappointed to find that there is presently no AM mode. Boris told me he does plan to add AM mode, “to be implemented in future versions of the IF/AF board only on RX.”

With that said, I can always zero-beat a broadcaster and use a wide SSB filter to listen to broadcasts which is more than I could do, for example, with my (ham band only) Elecraft K2.

At the end of the day, the RGO One is a high-performance, purpose-built ham radio transceiver, so the current lack of AM mode isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but I would love a wide AM filter on this rig.

ATU

The 2020 review model I received has the internal automatic antenna tuner which I feel is a worthy upgrade/addition. In the field, I’ve paired the RGO One with my Chameleon CHA Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna which requires an ATU in order to find matches across the bands. The pairing has been a very successful one because the Emcomm III can handle up to 50 watts power output in CW and covers the entire HF band when emptying the RGO One ATU.

 

Even though it’s a minor thing, I also like the fact that the RGO One ATU operates so quietly, even though with the present firmware it takes longer than some of my other ATUs to find a match.

Power

One thing I’ve found very useful in the field and, no doubt others will as well is the power output. In many ways, the RGO feels like a larger QRP radio (think Ten-Tec Argonaut V or VI) but it’s actually able to pump out 55 watts (often five watts more than specified). In single sideband mode, this is a meaningful amount of power output compared to, say, 5 or 10 watts. When I activate a rare park, or an ATNO (All Time New One), I’ve been taking the RGO One more times than not in order to get the best signal possible and maximum amount of contacts. Running full power, the rig never feels warm—heat dissipation is superb—and the fans on the back of the heat sink are super quiet.

I actually feel like the 50 watts of output power gives the RGO One a market niche since it sports top-shelf performance as you might expect in the venerable Elecraft K2, for example, but  not being a 10 watt or 100 watt radio, rather something in between which saves a little weight and also the need for heftier heat dissipation.

Other unique features

The RGO One has some interesting features not found in similar radios.

For one, there are no less than ten color options for the custom backlit LCD display, along with adjustable contrast and backlighting intensity.

The RGO One team also documents how to access hidden admin menus for granular adjustments to transceiver parameters, but of course you’d want to adjust those with caution and note values prior to changing them. When you receive your RGO One, Boris includes a sheet with all default values to make stepping back much easier.

Hands-on philosophy

At the end of the day, the Mission RGO One is a kit that can eventually be purchased in kit form, or as a fully assembled transceiver. It’s modular: you can add and upgrade features as you wish. Some field operators, for example, may wish to omit the ATU to save a little extra weight or cost. I actually love this philosophy and I think it’s one that’s made Elecraft such a successful manufacturer.

The process of upgrading firmware is slightly more involved than you might find with, say, an Elecraft, Icom, or Yaesu product. It’s a two stage process where one upgrades both the front panel and the main board separately. I completed a firmware update only a few weeks prior to publication. It took me perhaps 15 minutes with my PC as I followed Boris’ step-by-step instructions (http://lz2jr.com/blog/index.php/rgo-one-firmware-update-procedure/).

There is also an active email discussion group for the Mission RGO One (https://groups.io/g/RGO-ONE/) where participants share experiences, modifications, and even any glitches or bugs that are discovered. This group is closely monitored by the RGO One team, so items are addressed very quickly. I highly recommend joining this discussion group if you see an RGO One in your future.

Also, I’ve gotten great customer support from Boris (LZ2JR) and have heard the same from group members. He’s very much open to critical customer feedback.

Summary

Mission RGO One POTA

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget some of my initial impressions. Here is the list I formed over the time I’ve spent evaluating the 2020 production model Mission RGO One.

Pros:

  • Excellent sensitivity and selectivity
  • Very low noise floor
  • Excellent, clean audio (see con)
  • Silky-smooth QSK
  • Full compliment of CW and SSB features and adjustments
  • CW memory keyer
  • Superb ergonomics with no need to access embedded menus for common features
  • 50 watts output power with effective quiet heat dissipation
  • Lighter weight compared with comparable transceivers
  • Direct frequency entry
  • Standard Anderson Powerpole power port on rear panel

Cons:

  • No voice keyer memory (at time of posting, but is planned in upgrade)
  • No notch or auto notch filter (at time of posting, but is planned)
  • No 6 meter option
  • No AM mode (at time of posting, but is planned)
  • Firmware updates are a two stage process
  • Would like slightly more audio amplification while using internal speaker in noisy outdoor environments

Conclusion

If you can’t tell, I’m impressed with the Mission RGO One because it does exactly what it sets out to do.  The RGO One is designed for an operator who appreciates rock-solid performance with simple, intuitive ergonomics.

While teaching an amateur radio course to our homeschool cooperative high school students last year, I picked the RGO One as the best field radio for HF demonstrations.

I’ll never forget setting the (prototype) RGO One for the first time on a folding table outside the classroom under a large tree. I had the students erect both an end-fed resonant antenna and a simple 20 meter vertical. I picked the RGO one because all of the adjustments we had talked about in the classroom—AGC, Filters, A/B VFOs, Direct Frequency Entry, Pre Amp, Attenuation—are on the front panel and one button press away.

We hopped on the air with one of my students calling CQ single sideband on the 20 meter band.  Her very first contact was with a station in Slovenia—and she simply beamed with excitement. All of my female students that term passed their Technician exam by the end of the term.

The RGO One is a very inviting radio.

I’ve had the luxury of testing, evaluating, and working with everything from one of the first prototypes to the latest updated version of the RGO One. It’s rare that I’m able to evaluate a radio over such a long period of time.

Even with the very early, bare-bones prototype, I was impressed with this transceiver’s performance characteristics. I’m not the only one either. It’s almost become routine new discussion group members join prior to receiving their radio, then announces how blown away they are with its performance. Check out eHam reviews, too—at time of posting, it’s a solid five stars at time of posting.

The RGO One reminds me of simple, classic radios of the 1980s and 90s, but underneath, it’s packing state-of-the-art performance.

Is it perfect? No radio is perfect, but I must say that for what it offers, it really hits the sweet spot for this radio operator.  It’s a joy to use.

There are still features in the works that will either be implemented with future firmware updates, or with future boards. In terms of performance and appearance, it reminds me of the Ten-Tec Eagle and Elecraft K2—both benchmark rigs in my world. And like the Eagle and K2, the RGO One is happy in the field, at home, or even on a DXpedition. It’s a simple radio that beckons to be on the air.

If you’re interested in the Mission RGO One, check the following web page for the pre-order form and pricing list. The RGO One is produced in batches, so you’ll need to reserve your model.

Click here to view the Mission RGO One order page.

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Review Notes: Xiegu GSOC Firmware updated to version 1.1–still a number of issues

For those of you who have been asking about the new Xiegu GSOC controller, I just updated my unit with the latest firmware (version 1.1).

Firmware notes show that it addresses the following items:

Xiegu GSOC FW V1.1
1. Solved the CW sidetone delay problem
2. Solved the problem of unstable system and occasional crash
3. Added RTTY modem
4. Added CW decoder
5. Added SWR scanner
6. Added FFT/Waterfall level adjustment
7. Added FFT line/fill color mixer

The list above was copied directly from the version notes.

I’m currently evaluating the GSOC/G90 pair which were kindly sent to me on loan by Radioddity. I upgraded the GSOC firmware to v1.1 this weekend.

What follows are some of my evaluation notes an observations after performing the upgrade.

Updating firmware

Updating the GSOC firmware is a pretty straight-forward process.

First you must download the GSOC firmware package (about 330 MB!) which includes a disk image and application to flash the image to a MicroSD card.

Yes, you’ll need a dedicated MicroSD card to upgrade the GSOC firmware–meaning, you can’t simply use a MicroSD card with data on it you’d like to keep because the process of flashing the ISO file also includes a full format with multiple partitions.

You’ll also need an SD Card reader/writer if your Windows PC doesn’t include one.

The included firmware application/tool makes it quite easy to flash a disk image on the MicroSD card.

After the MicroSD card has been prepared, simply turn off the GSOC, insert the MicroSD card on the left side of the GSOC, turn it back on and the GSOC will automatically boot from the MicroSD card and install the new OS/firmware.

Once the upgrade has completed, the GSOC will turn itself off and you must remove the MicroSD card.

If you want to restore the MicroSD card to one partition, you’ll need to perform another format and shrink the volumes.

CW sidetone latency (still issues)

After performing the upgrade, I hopped on the air and tried to make a few CW contacts since I noted in the version notes that the CW sidetone latency had been addressed. So far, my evaluation has pretty much been on hold because I’m unable to use CW mode with any sense of sending accuracy.

Unfortunately, I’m still finding that there’s still a bit of sidetone latency or keyer timing interfering with my ability to correctly send words and letters.

To my ear, it sounds like there’s much less latency in the sidetone audio now (compared with v1.0 which was a little insane) but I still struggle sending characters that end in a string of dits or dashes. For example, when I try to send a “D” the radio will often produce a “B” by adding one extra dit. Or if I try to send a “W” it might produce a “J”. I know something is a little bit off because I botched up two CW contacts with POTA stations yesterday as I tried to send my own callsign correctly.  And “73” was even problematic.

I’m guessing that there may still be a bit of audio lag between the G90 body (where the CW key is plugged in) and the GSOC (where the sidetone audio comes out). At the end of the day, the keying information must be sent to the GSOC from the G90 transceiver body and I assume the processor on the G90 is causing a bit of audio latency. Hopefully, Xiegu can sort this out. It’s a serious issue for anyone who wants to operate CW with the GSOC.

If you own the GSOC and operate CW, I’d love your comments and feedback.

Other updates

I tried using the CW decoder yesterday via the “Modem” menu and had limited success decoding a CW rag chew.

My markup in red: You can see at the very end of this conversation, it decoded the call sign, but interpreted “TU” as “TEA”

The decoder seemed to adjust the WPM rate automatically at one point, but as you can see in the image above, almost every dit was interpreted as an “E” and every dash a “T”. I must assume I don’t have it configured properly, but I don’t have an operator’s manual for reference and instruction.  I’ve also tried RTTY decoding, but haven’t been successful so far–I’m pretty sure this is also because I haven’t configured it properly.

SWR Scanner

I tested the new SWR scanner and it seems to work quite well, plotting SWR across a given frequency range. I did note, however, that it doesn’t seem to confine itself to the ham bands at all. It does inject a signal as it scans (I read 1.5 to 2 watts on my CN-801 meter).

I discovered out-of-band scanning when I took the photo above while trying to do a scan of the 30 meter band. It started around 9.6 MHz–well into the 31M broadcast band where it shouldn’t be transmitting. Xiegu needs to limit transmitted signal to the ham bands.

Memory Keying

I had hoped Voice Memory Keying would be added along with TX/RX recording. I do believe this will eventually be included in a future update. It appears via the “Modem” menu that CW Memory Keying has been added, but I can’t sort out how to make it work (again, a operation manual would be quite handy).

Audio recording

I had hoped transmit and received audio recording would be added in this firmware update; I understand this will eventually be added.

Combined current drain

As I mentioned in a previous GSOC update, the GSOC controller and G90 transceiver both need a 12V power source–indeed, each has a dedicated power port. The GSOC does not derive power from the G90.

I was originally told that the G90 and GSOC both pull about .60 amps in receive which would total 1.2 amps combined. My Hardened Power Systems QRP Ranger battery pack displays voltage and current; it’s not a lab-grade measurement device, but it’s pretty accurate. When I operate the GSOC and G90 at a moderate volume levels in receive, it appears to draw 0.95 to 0.97 amps–basically, 1 amp.

At home on a power supply, this is inconsequential, but in the field you’d need to keep this in mind when choosing a battery. It’s on par with a number of 100 watt transceivers.

Spectrum display images

I’m still finding images on the GSOC display that are not present in the received audio. I mentioned this in my initial overview and it doesn’t seem the firmware update addressed this.

I can only assume the spectrum imaging might be due to the I/Q input being too “hot” coming from the G90 via the shielded audio patchcord. Perhaps there’s a function to manually lower the I/Q gain, but I haven’t found that yet.

Spectrum images are most noticeable on the 31 meter band, but found them on the 20 meter ham band as well.

Here are two screen shots that show how images appear when a nearby signal overwhelms the GSOC:

Images are not present all of the time, only when a strong signal intrudes.

Ever-present noise and spurs in portions of spectrum

Perhaps this is related to the issue above, but there are some spurs on the spectrum display that seem to be present whether the G90/GSOC is hooked up to an antenna or dummy load.

Here’s a photo of the GSOC hooked up to an antenna:

And to a dummy load:

I’ve highlighted the spurs in red and as you can see, the intensity is stronger without an antenna thus I’m guessing this is internally-generated. The spurs do not move on the display as you change frequency.

Other notes

Again, I feel like the GSOC firmware isn’t mature and I can’t yet recommend purchasing it. I feel like Xiegu have rushed this unit to market.

I know that, over time, more features will be added and Xiegu certainly has a track record of following up.

When I evaluate a product, I keep a list of notes that I send to the manufacturer and to keep for my own reference. In Alpha and/or Beta testing, I’d share this info only with the manufacturer. Since the GSOC is a product that’s in production and widely available, however, I thought I’d share them here publicly:

  • GSOC volume control scale is 0 to 28. The difference between 0 (muted) to 1 seems to be the biggest increment. Volume 1 is actually a low to moderate volume level (i.e. a bit high).
  • Boot up time for the GSOC is 30 seconds
  • A keyboard and mouse or capacitive stylus are almost required for accurate operation. Many of the touch screen buttons are quite small and difficult to accurately engage with fingertip. The pointer seems to fall slightly below where fingertip makes contact on the screen.
  • Notch Filter seems to have no effect even after the v1.1 upgrade. There is no Auto Notch feature either.
  • I can’t seem to engage split operation even though there are A/B switchable VFOs and a “Split” button above the spectrum display. Using a keyboard and mouse doesn’t engage it either.
  • There are a number of announced features that I haven’t discovered including some WiFi and Bluetooth wireless functionality.
  • For field use, you must pack quite a bit of kit: the transceiver, the controller, CW key cable, microphone, serial cable, I/Q cable, G90 Power cable, and GSOC power cable. It would also be advisable to take a wireless keyboard and mouse especially if you plan to use any advanced functions like CW memory keying.
  • It doesn’t appear that you have CAT control of the GSOC which complicates digital operation. I believe many of us hoped the GSOC would make digital mode operation easier with the G90, but it hasn’t. Indeed, I assumed the GSOC would have an internal sound card for digi modes much like the Icom IC-7300 and IC-705. Use of VOX control is still  the best way to control transmit. I hope this can be upgraded else this would be a missed opportunity.
  • Since the v1.1 upgrade, the GSOC hasn’t crashed (it did frequently with the v1.0 firmware).
  • Not a pro or con, but I wish the AF Gain/Squelch was AF Gain/RF Gain like most HF transceivers. I’ve accidently engaged squelch twice which essentially muted audio. Pressing and holding the PO (Power Output) button opens the RG Gain control function).

The GSOC Universal Controller is an interesting accessory for the G90 and I’ve read comments from users that love the interface and added functionality.

If I’m being honest, I feel like I’m Beta testing the GSOC. I’ve yet to find a GSOC operation manual–this makes it very difficult to know if one has correctly configured the controller and engaged features/functions correctly. A quick start guide is included with the product, but it really only helps with connections and starting up the GSOC the first time. If you’re a GSOC early adopter, just be aware of this. Again, I’m pretty confident Xiegu will make refinements and include promised features in future firmware updates. I understand their software engineer closely monitors the GSOC discussion group as well. If you’re considering the purchase of a GSOC, I’d encourage you to join the GSOC group.

Questions? Comments?

As I said, I can’t recommend purchasing the GSOC controller yet. So much can change with firmware updates, however, I would encourage you to bookmark the tag GSOC to follow our updates here on the SWLing Post. I will update the GSOC controller each time a new firmware version is issued and until Radioddity asks for the loaner units to be returned. Again, many thanks to Radioddity for making this GSOC and G90 evaluation possible.

Feel free to comment with any questions you might have and I’ll do my best to answer them!

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Matt’s Monster Mediumwave Radio Selectivity Shootout!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Matt Blaze (WB2SRI), for sharing another brilliant audio comparison featuring benchmark portable radios:


Medium wave selectivity shootout

by Matt Blaze

I did another monster medium wave portable receiver comparison, this time with the aim of comparing receivers’ ability to deal with weak signals in the presence of strong adjacent channels.

Once again, I went up to the roof with eight MW portables with built-in antennas and recorded them simultaneously along with my “reference signal”, from an Icom R-9500 with an active loop on the roof. As before, I recorded a narrated stereo mix with the Icom on the left and the rotation of radios for a minute or two each on the right, but have “solo” tracks available for the full time for each radio. The nine receivers in the lineup this time included:

  • Icom R-9500 (with amplified Wellbrook loop antenna on roof)
  • Potomac Instruments FIM-41 Field Intensity Meter (my personal favorite)
  • Panasonic RF-2200
  • Sony IC-EX5MK2
  • C.Crane Radio 2E
  • Sangean PR-D4W
  • Sangean ATS-909X
  • Tecsun PL-990X
  • XHDATA D-808

I recorded two signals, one at night and one during the day.

Nighttime Signals

The first was at night: WWL New Orleans on 870 KHz. This signal is usually weak to medium strength here, but is a challenge for two reasons: first, it shares the frequency with Cuba’s Radio Reloj, and it is squeezed between two much higher strength signals: Toronto’s CJBC on 860, and NYC’s WCBS on 880. So you need a decent receiver and careful antenna orientation to receive it well here. That said, everything did pretty well, though you can see that some radios did better than others.

The mix

Solo tracks

Icom IC-R9500

Potomac Instruments FIM-41 Field Intensity Meter

Panasonic RF-2200

Sony IC-EX5MK2

C.Crane Radio 2E

Sangean PR-D4W

Sangean ATS-909X

Tecsun PL-990X

XHDATA D-808

Daytime Signals

The second signal was during the day and was MUCH more marginal: WRJR Claremont, VA on 670 KHz. This was real challenge for any receiver and antenna. The signal was weak, and overshadowed by WCBM Baltimore on 680, a 50KW daytimer that is very strong here. (I’m not 100% sure that we were actually listening to WRJR – I never got an ID, but the station format and signal bearing was right). We can really hear some differences between the radios here.

The mix

Solo tracks

Icom IC-R9500

Potomac Instruments FIM-41 Field Intensity Meter

Panasonic RF-2200

Sony IC-EX5MK2

C.Crane Radio 2E

Sangean PR-D4W

Sangean ATS-909X

Tecsun PL-990X

XHDATA D-808

Everything (except the Icom) was powered by batteries and used the internal MW wave antenna, oriented for best reception by ear (not just maximizing signal strength, but also nulling any interference). The loop for the Icom was similarly oriented for best intelligibility.

For audio nerds: The recording setup involved a lot of gear, but made it fairly easy to manage capturing so many inputs at once. The portable radios were all connected to a Sound Devices 788T recorder, with levels controlled by a CL-9 linear mixing board control surface. This both recorded the solo tracks for the portables as well as providing a rotating mix signal for each receiver that was sent to the next recorder in the chain, a Sound Devices 833. The 833 received the mix audio from the 788T, which went directly to the right channel. The left channel on the 833 got audio from a Lectrosonics 822 digital wireless receiver, which had the feed from the Icom R-9500 in the shack (via a Lectrosonics DBu transmitter). The center channel on the 833 for narration of the mix, which I did with a Coles 4104B noise-canceling ribbon mic. This let me record fairly clean audio in spite of a fairly noisy environment with some wind.

All the radio tracks were recorded directly off the radios’ audio line outputs, or, if no line out was available, from the speaker/headphone jack through a “direct box” interface. I tried to make the levels as close to equal as I could, but varied band conditions and different receiver AGC characteristics made it difficult to be completely consistent.

Making the recordings was pretty easy once it was set up, but it did involve a turning a lot of knobs and moving faders in real time. I must have looked like some kind of mad scientist DJ to my neighbors, some of whom looked at me oddly from their own roofs.

Happy Thanksgiving weekend!


Thank you, Matt, for another brilliant audio comparison! I appreciate the attention and care you put into setting up and performing these comparisons–not an easy task to say the least. That Potomac Instruments FIM-41 is an impressive machine!

By the way, I consider it a badge of honor when the neighbors look at me as if I’m a mad scientist. I’m willing to bet this wasn’t your first time! 🙂

Post readers: If you like this audio comparison, please check out Matt’s previous posts as well:

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“QSL: How I Traveled the World and Never Left Home” by Ronald W. Kenyon

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by author Ronald W. Kenyon who has written non-fiction books covering a variety of subjects, but primarily collections of essays and albums of photography.

He was very proud to announce that his latest book, QSL: How I Traveled the World and Never Left Home, focuses on his pursuit of DX during his youth.

Kenyon is a radio archivist at heart.  He has carefully preserved QSL cards that he received between 1956 and 1961–a time period many of us consider the zenith of international broadcasting and DXing.

From Ronald W. Kenyon’s collection

Kenyon’s book presents color reproductions of over 100 vintage QSL cards—most displaying both front and back—issued by 89 shortwave stations in 75 countries. For the uninitiated, he includes an introduction that acquaints with shortwave radio listening, submitting listener reports, and obtaining QSL cards. Radio enthusiasts will be familiar with these topics, but this addition is an important one since we often forget that we’ve a niche pursuit and for many of his readers, this will be their first introduction.

From Ronald W. Kenyon’s collection

Kenyon sent me a pre-sales sample of his book. It’s what I’d call a “coffee table” paperback. The format is 8.5 x 8.5 inches which gives each QSL image proper page space to be presented. The color reproduction and print in this publication is excellent.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed taking in Kenyon’s book at a very leisurely pace. It’s divided into three main sections:

  • Section One of his book is a gallery of 107 vintage QSL cards from radio stations in 78 countries.
  • Section Two features SWL and ham radio cards.
  • Section Three features seasonal greeting cards sent to listeners by radio broadcasters from nine countries.

There’s even an appendix featuring, “A Letter from Antarctica,” which recounts how Kenyon was linked to a British meteorologist at a base in Antarctica via a radio station in Montevideo, Uruguay of all places. A fabulous example of how radio–especially in the late 50s and early 60s–was a fabulous medium for connecting listeners across vast distances.

I’m a nostalgic fellow–especially during the Thanksgiving and Holiday season. I’ll admit: this wonderful, simple bit of radio nostalgia is just what the doctor ordered as we celebrate the season. We all can relate to and enjoy Kenyon’s gallery of radio nostalgia and history. Indeed, my hope is that his book will encourage others to document their radio journey as well.

Being a limited print, full-color, 150 page book, the price will be $35 US. However, the author has offered 10% off his book if ordered before December 31, 2020. That will lower the price to $31.50 US via Amazon.com or £23.95 via Amazon.co.uk.

If you enjoy browsing QSL cards like I do, you’ll love QSL: How I Traveled the World and Never Left Home. Certainly, a fabulous gift idea for the radio enthusiast in your world.

Amazon purchase links

(Please note that some of these are affiliate links that also support the SWLing Post)

Note that this book will appear on other regional Amazon sites over time. Simply search Amazon for “QSL: How I Traveled the World and Never Left Home” or the author, Ronald W. Kenyon.

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Comparing the Icom IC-705 and Icom IC-7300 with the Xiegu GSOC G90 combo

I was recently asked to make a table comparing the basic features and specifications of the new Xiegu GSOC/G90 combo,  and comparing it with the Icom IC-7300 and IC-705.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I plan to add to it as I test the GSOC. It doesn’t include some of the digital mode encoding/decoding features yet. I’m currently waiting for the next GSOC firmware upgrade (scheduled for November 20, 2020) before I proceed as it should add mode decoding, audio recording, fix CW mode latency, and add/fix a number of other items/issues.

Comparison table

Click to enlarge

Quick summary of comparison

At the end of the day, these radios are quite different from each other. Here’s a quick list of obvious pros and cons with this comparison in mind:

Xiegu GSOC G90 combo ($975 US)

Pros:

  • The GSOC’s 7″ capacitive touch screen is the biggest of the bunch
  • The GSOC can be paired with the G90 or X5101 transceivers (see cons)
  • The GSOC controller is connected to the transceiver body via a cable, thus giving more options to mount/display in the shack
  • The G90 transceiver (read review) is a good value and solid basic transceiver
  • Upgradability over time (pro) though incomplete at time of posting (con)
  • GSOC can be detached, left at home, and G90 control head replaced on G90 body to keep field kit more simple (see con)

Cons:

  • The GSCO is not stand-alone and must be paired with a Xiegu transceiver like the Xiegu G90 or X5105. The X5105 currently has has limited functionality with the GSOC but I understand this is being addressed. (see pro)
  • I don’t believe the GSOC can act as a sound card interface if directly connected with a computer (I will correct this if I discover otherwise). This means, for digital modes, you may still require an external sound card interface
  • No six meter coverage like the IC-7300 and IC-705
  • Quite a lot of needed cables and connections if operating multiple modes; both GSOC and G90 require separate power connections
  • At time of posting, a number of announced features missing in early units, but this should be addressed with a Nov 20, 2020 firmware upgrade
  • Replacing and removing G90 control head requires replacing four screws to hold in side panels and secure head to transceiver body (see pro)

Icom IC-7300 ($1040 US)

Pros:

  • Built-in sound card interface for for easy digital mode operation
  • Excellent receiver specifications (click here to view via Rob Sherwood’s table)
  • Possibly the most popular transceiver Icom has ever made (thus a massive user base)
  • Well thought-through ergonomics
  • Includes six meter operation and expanded RX frequencies (compared with G90/GSOC); high frequency stability

Cons: 

  • The heaviest of this group (con), but it is a 100 watt transceiver (pro)
  • Smaller display than the GSOC
  • Touch sensitive display (not capacitive like the GSOC)
  • Faceplate not detachable like the G90

Icom IC-705 ($1300 US)

Pros:

  • Built-in sound card interface for for easy digital mode operation
  • Excellent receiver specifications (click here to view via Rob Sherwood’s table)
  • Can use swappable Icom HT battery packs
  • Well thought-through ergonomics, but on that of the IC-7300
  • Includes six meters and VHF/UHF multi-mode operation with high frequency stability
  • Includes D-Star mode
  • Includes wireless LAN, Bluetooth, and built-in GPS
  • Weighs 2.4 lbs/1.1 kg (lightest and most portable of the bunch)

Cons:

  • No internal ATU option
  • Maximum of 10 watts of output power
  • The priciest of this bunch at $1300 US

In short, I’d advise those looking for a 100 watt radio, to grab the Icom IC-7300 without hesitation. It’s a solid choice.

If you’re looking for the most portable of these options, are okay with 10 watts of maximum output power, and don’t mind dropping $1300 on a transceiver, the Icom IC-705 is for you. You might also consider the Elecraft KX3, Elecraft KX2, and lab599 Discovery TX-500 as field-portable radios. None of them, however, sport the IC-705 display, nor do they have native VHF/UHF multimode operation (although there is a limited KX3 2M option). The IC-705 is the only HF QRP radio at present that also has LAN, Bluetooth, and built-in GPS. And, oh yes, even D-star.

If you’re a fan of the Xiegu G90 or already own one, give the GSOC controller some consideration. It offers a more “modular” package than any of the transceivers mentioned above in that the controller and G90 faceplace can be swapped on the G90 body. The GSOC screen is also a pleasure since there are two USB ports that can connect a mouse and keyboard (driver for mine were instantly recognized by the OS).  The GSOC/G90 combo is a bit “awkward” in that a number of cables and connections are needed when configured to operate both SSB and CW: a CW key cable, Microphone cable, I/Q cable, serial control cable, power cable for the GSOC, and a power cable for the G90.  This doesn’t include the cables that might be needed for digital operation. I dislike the fact that the CW cable can only be plugged into the transceiver body instead of the GSOC controller like the microphone. Still: this controller adds functionality to the G90 (including FM mode eventually) that may be worth the investment for some.

Did I miss something?

I’ll update this list with any obvious pros/cons I may have missed–please feel free to comment if you see a glaring omission! Again, these notes are made with a comparison of these three models in mind, not a comprehensive review of each. I hope this might help others make a purchase decision.

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Matt’s Marathon MediumWave Matchup

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.

KCJJ

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

Sangean D4W

XHDATA D-808

Sony ICF-EX5MK2

Potomac Instruments FIM-41

CountyComm GP5-SSB

Nordmende GlobeTraveler Exec

Tecsun PL-990X

Icom IC-R9500

Panasonic RF-2200

Sangean ATS-909X


WSVA

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

Sangean D4W

XHDATA D-808

Sony ICF-EX5MK2

Potomac Instruments FIM-41

CountyComm GP5-SSB

Nordmende GlobeTraveler Exec

Tecsun PL-990X

Icom IC-R9500

Panasonic RF-2200

Sangean ATS-909X

Hope your readers find it useful!

-matt


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.  

Click here to check out all of Matt’s receiver audio comparisons.

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A review of the lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver

The following review of the TX-500 was first published in the October 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.

Last year, a company out of Russia started dropping hints about a QRP transceiver they were developing called the Discovery TX-500.

The prototype photos looked like nothing else on the market: it was unusually thin––only 30mm thick––and sported a CNC-machined aluminum alloy body. The radio also featured top-mounted controls ideal for field use, and a high-contrast LCD backlit screen with a spectrum display.

Some of the initial photos of the prototype showed water droplets on the front faceplate indicating that the TX-500 would be water/weather resistant––certainly a first for the amateur radio market.

After the initial hints dropped by lab599, the TX-500 developed somewhat of a cult following among field-portable radio operators (like yours truly) as well as those into radio preparedness. However, after this tantalizing flurry of initial images, there was a lull, and very little information was available about the rig. Then in late July/early August 2020, we finally learned that the TX-500 would be sold in the US by Ham Radio Outlet. HRO’s product page posted a price of $789.95 with a projected availability date of mid-to-late September 2020.

Thus I felt quite lucky when I learned that a loaner TX-500 was being sent to me for one week to evaluate and review. Those of you who know me and read my reviews know that I typically prefer to spend several weeks with a radio before I feel comfortable enough writing a review. In this case, that simply wasn’t an option. I decided to push aside all of my other obligations and simply dive into this radio.

The following review is based on using the TX-500 in the shack and in the field over the course of seven days.  During this week, I managed to activate eight parks for the Parks on the Air (POTA) program, exclusively with the TX-500. I’ve taken the TX-500 to state parks, lakes, game lands, a National Forest, and a National Park. The TX-500 experienced full-on sunshine during a long operating session, and was even rained on once.

I’ve also made a number of QSOs with this radio from home, both via CW and phone. In total, I’ve logged an average of 31 CW and SSB contacts with the TX-500 each day I’ve had it.

Initial impressions

The TX-500 looked so impressively machined and designed based on the initial photos and few videos published, I honestly feared it couldn’t possibly measure up to the expectations built up about it. Would it be the rugged radio we’d heard about? Could it travel? Could it hold up in the field, under variable conditions and in fickle weather?

With the radio finally in hand, I noted the build quality and thought to myself, This rig might just do it. 

The body of this radio is absolutely solid.  It’s weighty without being heavy, and there are no loose parts––no wobbly encoders, no wonky buttons, and relatively few seams or openings that might be subject to dust or water penetration. It’s rugged, sturdy––and, I must add––beautifully engineered.

The layout is simple: there’s a backlit LCD screen on the left of the radio with four function buttons above and below it. These buttons control most of the functions and features you use while operating: CW adjustments, Receive and Transmit audio EQ, Noise Reduction, Noise Blanker, CW Memory keying, A/B VFO control, and more.

To the right of the display you find a set of buttons stacked vertically that include the power button, mode, band switching, and a menu button for making less common adjustments. The encoder is raised and feels silky-smooth to operate. There appears to be no brake control, but this is not a problem because this rig doesn’t need it: it’s well-balanced and feels of excellent quality. Indeed, tuning is adaptive and fluid; I’ve been very pleased with the lab599 tuning.

There are two knobs above the encoder which adjust the AF gain and RIT. Other buttons next to the encoder control things such as the tuning steps and speed, controls lock, and memory writing.

The low-profile side panels do protect the TX-500 front faceplate on flat surfaces.

You can tell the TX-500 was designed by an amateur radio operator because the radio is laid-out beautifully. All frequently used functions are easy to find and intuitive. There’s no need to do a deep-dive into embedded menus to, say, change the RF gain control.

There are a number of general coverage QRP transceivers on the market, so even just looking through the features and specs it’s clear how it might stack up.

This being said, the TX-500 does lack a few things you might find in other field portable QRP general coverage transceivers. We’ll start with those.

No (Built-In) Speaker

The TX-500 does not have a built-in speaker. With weather-resistance in mind, lab599 may have opted to leave the speaker out of the chassis, and instead include a speaker microphone combo with their basic package. The supplied speaker/mic is of good quality and the audio can be made incredibly loud. And, although I’m not a fan of speaker mics, I must admit this one has grown on me: in the field doing SSB, it’s much easier to bring the speaker closer to your ears when trying to work a particularly weak station.

But what about when operating CW––? In that case, the speaker mic becomes inconvenient as you are forced to port out the audio via the speaker/mic connector. It’s worth noting here that the TX-500 package being sold by Ham Radio Outlet includes an audio breakout cable so you can attach your favorite headphones or boom/mic set. My pre-production unit did not include this, so I had to use the speaker/mic and its mono audio port.

I, however, tend to operate with headphones in the field unless someone is helping me log stations. Headphones help me isolate myself from noises and distractions around me (like my dog straining on her leash, whining over her inability to chase squirrels). Headphones also improve my ability to detect and work weak signals.

When I operate CW in the field, I tend to place the TX-500 on my backpack and attach the speaker mic to the top flap. It’s worked out quite well.

Audio from the speaker microphone is tinny, but actually well-tailored for voice and Morse Code. For shortwave radio listening, however, that’s another story:  you’ll certainly want to connect a proper speaker.

No ATU

The TX-500 does not include an internal automatic antenna tuner. For those used to operating an Elecraft field radio, the Xiegu G90, or the CommRadio CTX-10, for example, this might seem like a major omission.

While it would be nice to have an internal ATU, I’m quite happy to do without one, as all of my field antennas are resonant on the bands I operate. But as a point of comparison, it’s nice when, say, my end-fed antenna isn’t ideally deployed and can’t get that 1:1 match on the 40 meter band; with my KX2, I can simply push the ATU button and the rig solves the match.

I carry a simple Emtech ZM-2 balanced-line manual antenna tuner, just for when an ATU is needed. But out of the eight field activations I’ve done thus far with the TX-500, only once did I add the ZM-2 to the mix, and just to bring the match from a 2.3:1 to 1:1. If I wanted an external automatic antenna tuner, I’d grab an Elecraft T1. It’s a gem of an ATU.

No internal rechargeable battery (yet!)

The TX-500 transceiver doesn’t have an internal rechargeable battery option like the CommRadio CTX-10 or Elecraft KX2. But like the new Icom IC-705 sports, lab599 is designing an attachable rechargeable battery pack that will fit the TX-500 beautifully. You can see the recessed battery connections on the back/bottom of the TX-500.

 

As of this time, no availability date for this future option has been announced, but I can confirm it is indeed in the works.

What makes the TX-500 unique

For some, the idea of a radio which lacks an internal speaker and ATU might lead the rapid decision to dismiss it outright. I would urge those folks to continue reading, however; the TX-500, due to some very unique features, has certainly carved out a market niche, and thus is worth the consideration.

Rugged, weather-resistant body

As I mentioned above, the TX-500 has a solid aluminium-alloy body which gives it a distinctly solid feel. There are no gaps between chassis plates, and all of the buttons, knobs, as well as the encoder are sealed to prevent water penetration.

The TX-500 design smacks of military-grade construction, but in truth is a blend of military specs and amateur radio functionality. For example, the chassis is, if anything, over-engineered for most amateur radio applications. If I owned the TX-500, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on extended hiking trips, even in dubious weather. Of course, that’s not to say I’d intentionally leave the rig out in heavy rain. But I wouldn’t worry about a sudden rain shower ruining my radio. If this were a military radio, it would have fewer controls and likely be somewhat channelized. Instead, the TX-500 has the full set of controls, features, and filters you’d expect in an amateur radio transceiver with a military-build quality.

In short, it might appear to belong to rugged military kit, but it’s very much designed for the demands of amateur radio operators.

Although the TX-500 is incredibly solid, it’s also lightweight. I weighed the radio with its speaker/mic and power cable. The total weight was 1 pound, 7 ounces. One of my blog readers noted that such a lightweight radio would simply break in half if they hit it over their knee. My reply? No way. In fact, I’m willing to bet such an action could break your knee cap!  Please don’t try this, you’ll surely regret it.

Connectors

One of the most frequent questions readers ask about the TX-500 is why its makers chose to include non-standard (to radio) GX12mm multi-pin aviation connectors for the rig’s power port, CAT control, data, CW, and speaker/mic…?

The answer? In brief, it’s water resistance.

GX12mm connectors allow for a watertight connection and protect the radio very well from water intrusion. And while GX12 connectors aren’t standard in the world of amateur radio, they are certainly standard in aviation, commercial, and military applications.  These connectors are widely available online and there are even mom-and-pop ham radio retailers like W2ENY selling premade TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website.

Meanwhile, the TX-500 uses a standard BNC antenna connection for antennas, which I’m very pleased to note.

LCD screen with spectrum display

 

Most of us now expect modern SDR-based transceivers to sport a full-color backlit––and sometimes touch screen––display. In the field, however, color TFT displays can be incredibly difficult to read in full sunlight.

Like the Elecraft K and KX series radios, lab599 opted for a more simple, higher contrast monochrome backlit LCD display. This pleases me to no end, because I much prefer this type of display in a POTA or SOTA field radio just because it’s so much easier to read in bright outdoor light. Also, I feel touch screens aren’t as well suited for hiking, camping, and heavy field use–they’re more vulnerable to being damaged.

The TX-500 LCD is chock-full of information and very responsive. The spectrum display (no waterfall) is fluid and useful, as effective as any full-color display.

Benchmark current drain

When operating on battery in the field, current drain in receive mode is a major factor. The more slowly you can sip from the battery while the radio is receiving, the longer play time you’ll have. I like my general coverage field radios to consume less than 400 milliamps.

My benchmark general coverage radio, the Elecraft KX2, consumes a mere 135-140 milliamps at moderate volume levels. I can operate for hours with a compact battery. The TX-500 consumes between 110-120 milliamps at a moderate volume level; yes, even a smidge better than the KX2. The company lab599 actually specs out this radio at 100 milliamps, and I’m confident one could achieve it simply by using headphones.

While there are transceivers like my MTR-3B which have even lower current drain, they’re CW-only and lack general coverage reception, large displays, and the like. Thus, the TX-500 sets a benchmark for general-coverage full-featured portable transceivers in terms of drain.

On the air

In terms of operating the TX-500 in the field, I have very few complaints. The menu system is very easy to use and is intuitive. I never needed to reference the manual––but if you do, the manual is one of the best I’ve seen from a new transceiver manufacturer (click here to download he manual and other TX-500 files).

The buttons are easy to press. They have a tactile feel and proper response so you know you’ve properly engaged a setting. The features and buttons are well spaced, too, and the thin-but-wide chassis actually provides generous surface area for the controls. One could easily operate the TX-500 with gloves on, should it be necessary in cold climates or winter conditions.

As mentioned earlier, the TX-500 does not have an internal ATU option like the Elecraft KX2 or the Xiegu G90. For some, this will be a huge negative against the TX-500. Good internal ATUs allow operators to use a much wider array of antennas in the field–including random wire antennas–and I’ll admit that I’ve gotten quite used to having one in my KX2 and KX3. But again, to get the most signal per watt, I use resonant antennas in the field these days, so very rarely need or employ an ATU.

So how does the TX-500 play? In the following sections I’ll address putting the TX-500 on the air as both a CW and SSB operator. Note that I did not have the opportunity to test the TX-500 on digital modes––like PSK-31 and FT8––as my pre-production model lacked the necessary cables, nor was building my own possible during the week of testing.

CW

Of the (very few) videos that were produced prior to the TX-500’s release, a couple of these were made by a CW operator in Russia. Unfortunately, I was able to glean little information from those videos. I was very eager to try the TX-500 in CW mode as this has become my preferred method of activating parks for POTA.

When I received the TX-500, it did not come with the same cables that Ham Radio Outlet will include. It did, however, include the 5 pin connector for the CW port, so I simply soldered a cable and connected it to the terminals on the back of my Vibroplex single lever paddle.

This way, I was able to avoid purchasing and attaching a three conductor ?” female plug. (This intervention did mean that, in the field, my key would weigh more than the transceiver–!)

But the question every CW operator has asked me is “Does the TX-500 support full break-in QSK?” Full break-in QSK allows instantaneous transmit/receive recovery time, so that even higher speed operators can hear between sent characters while operating. This means if another op wants to grab your attention while you’re operating––or, in the parlance, “break in”––you’ll hear them in the middle of sending a word.

Unfortunately, the TX-500 does not support full break-in QSK. Instead of being based on pin diodes (like the Elecraft KX series) the TX-500 uses a relay. This means that you’ll hear a relay click each time the radio switches between transmit and receive.

In the past, I’ve reviewed transceivers in which the relay click was honestly quite loud, even annoyingly so. Fortunately, the TX-500 has such a solid and well-sealed body that I find the relay sound to be the least distracting of any relay-based transceiver I’ve tested. You can still hear it, but it’s reasonably soft. So that you can hear what I mean, in this video, you’ll hear the relay clicking when I point the camera toward the rig.

The T/R recovery time on the TX-500 is quite rapid. While I can’t hear audio between characters sent within a word, I can hear between words when the relay is set to the quickest recovery and I’m operating around 17-20 WPM. If, however, you operate at higher speeds and prefer full break-in QSK, you may wish to give the TX-500 a pass.

The TX-500 comes with a full complement of CW operation adjustments, like Iambic type, straight key, weight ratios, sidetone volume, and the like. One oddity is that it doesn’t measure CW speed in words per minute. It uses a completely different scale that measures with a much wider number range. I set my speed to “97,” which I guessed might be an equivalent of about 17 or 18 WPM. While I first thought this feature odd, I soon came to appreciate this specificity because without the restriction to 1 WPM increments, as with most transceivers, it gives the op more flexibility to adjust speed.

I discovered that the TX-500 can handle dense RF environments while doing a park activation during a CWT contest. Even with a 400 Hz filter engaged (and it could have been much narrower), the TX-500 effectively blocked adjacent signals. To demonstrate, I made the following short video in the field:

Rob Sherwood recently tested the TX-500 and published the results on his excellent receiver test data table.  Although very respectable, I expected the TX-500 to sport more competitive numbers based on my “real-world” tests. Still: this is a field radio. Not a rig I’d reach for to win the CQ WW contest. In field operations, TX-500 is a brilliant performer and has better overall specs than a number of popular radios including the immensely popular Yaesu FT-891, for example.

CW ops should keep in mind that the TX-500 has no internal speaker, so to operate you’ll either need to connect an external speaker, the supplied speaker/mic, or headphones. Since I primarily operate with headphones, this will be no inconvenience to me. As there was no headphone connector with this pre-production model TX-500, I simply used the speaker mic for all operations.

When the TX-500 was first released and HRO made a product page on their website, the rig had no CW memories, which I truly rely on for field operations. CW memories allow me to manage my logging workflow, pre-format responses, and CQ calls without having to manually key everything. Lab599 must have noted this omission, and by the time I received my evaluation unit, a firmware release had been issued which added CW memories. I immediately performed a firmware update (a simple process, by the way). I even passed along some suggestions and critiques of the CW memory keyer; lab599 immediately made adjustments and fixes as needed for optimal performance.

If you’ve ever saved CW memories in a radio, you may have found it frustrating to achieve the right spacing for the radio to provide a proper playback. It often takes me multiple tries, for example, to save a park number into my KX2. The TX-500, fortunately, is very forgiving and I found it very simple to set CW memories in the field.

While not on the radio I used at time of evaluation, I understand lab599 is planning to add a “beacon mode” for calling CQ, as well.

All in all, I find the TX-500 a pleasure to operate in CW mode. Indeed, 75% of all of my logged stations were made in CW mode.

Speaking of which, funny story…I activated Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of western North Carolina. I hammered out 13 logged stations from Maine, Vermont, Ontario, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida, and several states in the middle of that footprint.

On this map, all of the green pins below were CW contacts and made with one watt of power. The red pins are SSB contacts with 10 watts. The yellow star is roughly my location:

I switched to SSB mode to make a few phone contacts, and called CQ. No one heard me. I was puzzled…but suddenly I realized I had left my power setting at 1 watt! The previous day, I was running tests into a dummy load. Yes, all of those CW contacts were made with truly low power, indeed!

SSB

The TX-500 has a lot to offer the SSB operator. I’ve gotten great reports from my SSB contacts, and have even listened to my own signals via the KiwiSDR network.

The TX-500 includes all of the features a phone operator would expect, such as compression and gain control.  Of course, you can enable VOX operation if you’re using your favorite boom headset. The TX-500 allows you to not only to change the receiver EQ settings, but also transmit EQ settings. This means you can tailor your TX-500 to get the most audio punch per watt while operating phone. Very nice!

The TX-500 ships with a rugged, simple speaker microphone. I’ve been using this exclusively during the evaluation period, and have been very pleased with it. The mic even has a protected mono audio out port on the side, should you wish to attach a different external speaker.

Perhaps the only negative from my point of view as a phone operator is that the TX-500 lacks a voice memory keyer. While it has this feature for CW, it lacks it for SSB.

UPDATE – February 4, 2021: lab599 has just added voice memory keying in their latest firmware update! The TX-500 now has two voice memory memory slots of 20 seconds each: VXM1 & VXM2. After performing the firmware update, it’s easy to record voice memories:

  1. Navigate to CW memory menu.
  2. Press and hold VXM1 or VXM2 to record. REC icon on.
  3. Press the associated VXM key again to stop.
  4. Press VXM key to Play. PLY icon on.
  5. Press VXM key to stop.

To put this in context: all recent Elecraft rigs have voice memory keying; the new IC-705 includes this as well. Even the Yaesu FT-891, which is one of the most affordable compact transceivers in the Yaesu line, has voice memory keying. For POTA and SOTA activators, voice memory keying is huge, as it frees you to do other things like log, eat a sandwich, or talk to others while calling CQ. It also saves your voice. For example, on the KX2, I record a CQ message like “CQ POTA, CQ POTA, this is K4SWL calling CQ for Parks On The Air;” I save the message to memory location #1, then play it back in “beacon mode.”  The KX2 will continuously transmit my voice CQ message with a few seconds between each call. When someone answers my call, I can easily pause the beacon by hitting the PTT switch or one of the transceiver keys.

I do wish the TX-500 had this handy feature, but because of a lack of internal storage, I don’t expect it will be added. This isn’t a deal-killer for me, as I could add an external voice memory keyer, but it certainly would make for ideal SSB field-radio operating.

Shortwave broadcast listening

Of course, since I’m a hardcore shortwave radio listener and the TX-500 has a general coverage receiver, I did quite a bit of casual shortwave radio listening during the week I had the radio in the shack.

What’s great about the TX-500 is that it has a very capable receiver with a low noise floor and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The preset filter bandwidths can be adjusted in all modes including AM. I have the widest setting at 10 kHz, which gives one proper fidelity with strong shortwave broadcasters.

Here’s a link to a quick video I made showing how the TX-500 sounds while tuning around the 31 meter band.  Note that the amplified speaker I use for this demo is limited in fidelity and I recorded this using an iPad. Still, I think you’ll get a decent idea how well the TX-500 plays as a shortwave receiver:

The TX-500 will tune to the bottom of the AM broadcast band as well, and I’ve spent time listening there. I did not have the time to do a deep dive, but I find that the TX-500 performs rather well in those low bands…a rarity for a ham radio transceiver.

Summary

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget those initial impressions. Here’s the list I created over the time I’ve spent evaluating the TX-500.

Pros:

  • Solid, rugged chassis with weather/water resistance and built-in low-profile side protection panels
  • High-contrast LCD display that’s responsive and easy to read in the field
  • Excellent receiver sensitivity, selectivity, and low noise floor
  • Full complement of features and adjustments expected in a modern transceiver
  • Multiple adjustable filter settings
  • Very low current drain for a full-featured general coverage transceiver (100-120 milliamps)
  • GX12mm connections provide further water protection (see con)
  • CW memory keying
  • Easy firmware upgrades with supplied USB cable and lab599 firmware application
  • For US customers: a Nevada-based service center for repairs (no word yet on similar centers elsewhere)
  • Per lab599 announcement, hopefully available next year: an attachable TX-500 battery pack

Cons:

  • No built-in speaker
  • No internal ATU option
  • No full break-in QSK CW operation (although relay is quiet and audio recovery fast)
  • GX12mm connections are non-standard on amateur radio transceivers for water resistance, thus one might need to purchase or build cables for non-standard accessories (see pro)
  • No voice keyer for phone operation Update: this feature was added in the February 4, 2021 update!
  • No notch or auto-notch filters at time of publication (these may be implemented in future firmware upgrades) It does indeed have a notch filter now!
  • Fold-out feet could scratch soft surfaces, such as wood

Conclusion

Would I buy the TX-500 myself? Well, since I’m a heavy field operator, yes, without hesitation. Moreover I believe the $800 price tag is reasonable for a radio with its feature set and rugged military-spec type design.

I confess, I have been looking forward to getting the TX-500 in hand for a year now. So when HRO put up a product page and started accepting orders, without much thought, I placed mine. Yet within an hour, I was rethinking my decision, and soon I called to cancel it. Why? A bit of buyer’s remorse. For although instinct told me I’d like the rig, common sense said I was getting ahead of myself. The truth was, at that time the TX-500 didn’t have CW memory keying, and without that, I knew this field radio would not get a lot of use during my park and future summit activations. Moreover, I’ve no less than six eight QRP transceivers––not to mention an Icom IC-705 on order for review––so it wasn’t as though the need was great. Instinct or no, I felt I’d made the decision in haste, and my head said my heart should take a few beats before committing.

Yet, after receiving the TX-500 loaner, and taking it to the field––and, of course, lab599’s addition of that all-essential memory keying––all of a sudden the TX-500 became much more appealing. And I’ll admit, this radio really grew on me over that evaluation week (ah, the dangers of reviewing radios…you do often become attached). There’s also been comfort in knowing the TX-500 wouldn’t be harmed should I be caught in a pop-up shower and anxious for the safety of my equipment. But there’s something more: it turns out my initial instincts were correct. I just happen to really like this radio.  The way it feels and functions suits me as an operator and its performance exceeds expectations. And that’s a thing I couldn’t have known until I gave it a spin.

While no radio is perfect, I nonetheless suspect the TX-500 will gather a loyal customer base soon; indeed, it had a following well before anyone laid hands on it. Including me.

So now I am seriously considering purchasing the TX-500 for keeps.

Click here to check out the lab599 Discovery TX-500 at lab599.

Click here to purchase a TX-500 from HRO.

Check out W2ENY’s TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website


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