Category Archives: Reviews

Nick acquires a Harris RF 505A receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Nick Booras, who writes:

I just picked up a Harris 505A and I made a couple videos your viewers might like.

This radio is extremely sensitive as you can see in the comparison videos. I am very lucky to have picked it up. I will add that in the comparison to the Kenwood TS890 I didn’t try the 15 kHz filter on video. I did try it afterwards and I was surprised to receive the weak 6.085 signal with similar results to the 505. I thought for sure that that huge width would only let in more noise but I was wrong. I learned something new! But the 505A is still a super sweet machine.

Thank you for sharing this, Nick! What a wonderful addition to your radio collection. I’ve always loved the incredibly simple design of the 505A and have assumed it would have a very low noise floor.

Thanks again!

Spread the radio love

Michael pairs the Tecsun PL-990 and the AOR LA400

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Michael Ye (BD4AAQ), for the following guest post:


In the Loop: PL-990 and LA400, a Perfect Match

by Michael Ye (BD4AAQ)

PL-990 and LA400

I have been a happy owner of Tecsun’s PL-880 world band receivers for years. In fact I have two PL-880 radios, one sitting at home and the other staying in my car. So, after Tecsun introduced the new model PL-990 in late 2020, it didn’t take me long to decide to purchase one. In this article I will discuss the Tecsun PL-990 receiver working with loop antennas, while referencing some relevant features of the PL-880.

Overall performance of the PL-990

Merely by its model number, it is easy to regard the PL-990 as an upgraded version of the already highly reputable PL-880. As expected, the PL-990 can very much be regarded as a combination of all the existing fine radio features of the PL-880 AND the music and bluetooth additions, with a number of improvements for instance in shortwave and medium wave performance. The ergonomic design of the PL-990 looks and feels different from that of the PL-880 in a number of ways. Although I may prefer the the more slim and elegant appearance of the PL-880, the PL-990 gives a more rugged and durable feeling, among other improvements over the older PL-880.

Working with loop antennas

The PL-990 and the PL-880 side by side

Living on the twelfth floor of a condominium in the crowded Shanghai, I have often been fascinated with loop antennas. As a licensed amateur operator, I have used the MFJ-1786X and have been impressed with its performance. On reception, I also find loop antennas appealing, as they are able to pull in weak signals while noticeably reducing electro-magnetic interference rampant in the urban environment. I have an unbranded shortwave loop antenna which I believe is based on and performs similarly with the AOR LA320. Despite its excellent performance, it is only good for the 5MHz – 15MHz shortwave range. So a few years ago when AOR launched the new LA400 wideband loop antenna, I bought one, which I often pair up with the PL-880 and other radios for shortwave listening, and get satisfactory results!

Antenna Switch on the PL-990

Now, back to the PL-990. When I first tried the PL-990 with the LA400, the results were generally good but not as good as as compared with using the same LA400 on my PL-880. This puzzled me for a day or so until I realised that the PL-990 actually has an antenna switch which the PL-880 does not have. The switch is used to toggle between an internal antenna (i.e. the built-in ferrite bar/telescopic antenna) and an external one (e.g. the AOR LA400). So a new PL-990 user who has often operated the PL-880 when first using the PL-990 could easily ignore the switch which should be pushed to “Ext” when plugging in an external antenna. This explains why the PL-990 may suddenly appear less sensitive than expected.

“Ext” antenna input for all bands

Contrary to the PL-880 whose external antenna socket is only good for shortwave signal input, the PL-990’s external antenna socket works with all bands, from long wave to FM. I found this to be an important and very useful change, and a pleasant surprise for my LA400, which covers a wide range of frequencies from long wave to medium wave to FM and up to 500MHz.

Once the LA400 is connected, the correct band selected, and last but not least the antenna switch turned to “Ext”, the PL-990 and the LA400 work like a charm in the indoor setting, remarkably better than the built-in telescopic antenna. With the loop connected, while there is not much to expect on the long wave band because of very few long wave stations remaining in the world, reception improves considerably on all other bands including on the medium wave and FM bands, as is also reflected on the upper right hand display of the signal strength and S/N ratio readings. Needless to say, performance on shortwave is as good as on the PL-880, if not better (again, remember to push the antenna switch to “Ext” when using it on the PL-990). Using the AOR loop on the PL-990 for FM reception is somewhat different as there does not seem to be a noticeable tuning point. Simply select the “Others” band, which appears to be broad enough for fair FM reception.

Tecsun AN-200 loop antenna

It is worth mentioning that I have a Tecsun AN-200 tunable medium wave antenna, which I have not used often. As its name suggests, it is for medium wave reception only. I tried it on the PL-990. Works great.

The AN-200 and the PL-990

It is hard to tell which one, the PL-LA400 or the AN-200, fares better, as the signal strength and S/M readings are quite close. They both perform better than the radio’s internal ferrite bar antenna to varying degrees, by improving the signal strength or the S/N ratio or both. The Tecsun loop is a passive antenna, meaning no power is required, making it easy to be used “wirelessly”, by simply placing the loop close to the radio, without having to be connected to the radio via a cable.

Chocolate, our house cat, tries to enhance reception with her tail

It should be noted that in the “wireless” mode of the AN-200 the antenna switch on the PL-990 should remain at “Int” so as for its built-in ferrite bar and the loop to couple with each other.

Spread the radio love

Guest Post: Mark’s review of the Yaesu FT-891 as shortwave broadcast receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, who shares the following guest post:


Using the Yaesu FT-891 for SWLing

by Mark Hirst

Woodland Operation in North Hampshire

Introduction

While I have a small collection of portable shortwave radios for outdoor listening, I’ve been looking to fill a gap in my amateur radio lineup for a while. Outdoor operation has become important in recent years as solar cycle conditions deteriorated along with rising levels of QRM in urban neighbourhoods. The ICOM IC–7200 with Wellbrook loop stays at home fighting a losing battle with PLA noise, while the very portable FT–817ND does occasional data modes contacts and outdoor listening. Somewhere in the middle, the FT–891 promised to provide a modern and more powerful data modes station, a radio to take on holidays, needing external batteries, but portable enough for walks into the country side. Earlier this year, I bought one new from my local ham radio store, and what follows are my findings and observations so far on shortwave listening.

Audio Characteristics

I’ve accumulated hundreds of recordings of VOA Radiogram and Shortwave Radiogram since 2013, so a recent woodland expedition with the FT–891 was an opportunity to compare a recording made with it against those of other radios I’ve used.

The most striking difference is the lack of frequencies in the lower part of the audio spectrum along with a distinct cut off at around 5kHz.

This is easily visualised in the following comparison between the FT–891 and the Tecsun PL–680. Note the conspicuous pillar associated with MFSK32 from these Shortwave Radiogram broadcasts, and interfering RTTY on the FT–891 recording:

Audio Frequency Analysis

While this audio profile may not be to everyone’s taste, the extra sparkle yields voice audio that is clear and distinct. I find those low frequencies make the audio muddy and tiring to listen over long periods, so I’m quite happy with this.

When listening to speech based broadcasts through the top mounted speaker, the audio is also precise and intelligible, and provides more than enough volume.

You can judge for yourself from this 2 minute video I made recently:

Headphones, External Speakers and Recording

You also have the option of connecting an external speaker or headphones to a socket on the side of the radio. Be aware that the audio level is different for headphones, and is controlled by a small switch hidden behind the front panel. I expect people may go for one option such as headphones and then stick with it, rather than continually detaching the front of the radio and moving the delicate switch back and forth.

If you turn the volume right down you will hear a hiss, although its really only noticeable if you face the speaker directly and get close. Listening outdoors with the sounds of nature around you? It’ll be fine. There’s no way to avoid it with headphones of course, with forums suggesting inline resistors or high impedance headphones as solutions.

Audio recordings can of course be taken from the headphone socket, but you will get better results from the data port on the back. I use a UD04YA cable which provides 3.5mm audio in and audio out jacks, plus a USB cable to provide PTT functionality. It’s meant for data modes operation with the FT–817, but I have used it successfully with the FT–891 for PSK contacts using fldigi, eliminating the need for CAT control through a second cable to the radio’s USB port.

Customising for SWL

The advanced manual for the FT–891 helpfully provides a section called ‘Tools for Comfortable and Effective Reception’, so I began configuring the radio using the guidance there.

First up was re-configuring the front panel RF/Squelch knob to only control RF gain (Menu 05–05). I use the same configuration on my FT–817ND to dial back RF gain, allowing the AGC to pick up the slack.

Next was enabling the awkwardly named Insertion Point Optimisation (IPO) which switches out the pre-amplifier. It’s interesting to note that this setting can be associated with a stored memory channel, which became relevant later when I used CAT control to program some favourite frequencies.

The radio has an attenuator, although I’ve not found a need for it so far.

The AGC can be configured as Auto, Fast, Mid, and Slow. Since it is not a ‘set and forget’ setting like the RF control or IPO options, it might be a good candidate for assigning to one of the three user definable buttons below the LCD screen.

Audio can be fine tuned using four menu options (06–01 to 06–04) to control high and low frequency cutoff, but after some experimentation I have turned these options off.

As an aside, I found the LCD backlight, button illumination and TX/Busy lights too bright for indoor use, so dialed them back to their minimum values.

Listening Tools

The radio provides some additional tools as part of its IF DSP. The features of particular interest are Digital Noise Reduction (DNR), Noise Blanker, IF Notch Filter, Digital Notch Filter, and Narrow IF filter. Contour, IF Bandwidth, and IF Shift are not available in AM mode, and you must resort to SSB to get them. More about SSB in a moment.

Out of this wide array of options, I’ve only explored Digital Noise Reduction and the Narrow IF filter so far, as they offer fairly immediate gains without too much configuration.

Narrow filter simply reduces the total IF bandwidth from 9kHz to 6kHz, which gives some immediate relief to higher frequency noise. In tougher conditions at home tackling QRM, the harsher sound it causes has sometimes been counter productive.

At the outset, it’s obvious that the DNR capability of the FT–891 is a powerful feature. Rather than providing a level of processing that varies from a little to a lot, the radio provides 15 different ‘algorithms’ which can be selected for best results. This means you will tweak the DNR setting to address signals on a case by case basis.

Comparing it with the IF noise reduction of my ICOM IC–7200, the ICOM has a scale of diminishing returns as the DSP level is turned up, whereas the FT–891 seems to start strong and it’s more about picking the algorithm that sounds best.

After testing the DNR on AM broadcast stations away from the noise at home, voice audio sounds distant and words can be clipped, which is fine for SSB amateur radio contacts, but makes me think it’s not a feature of first resort when trying to improve broadcast reception. In those circumstances, the narrow filter might be a better option.

The Trials of Single Side Band

On the matter of SSB and using it to combat adjacent or co-channel signals, the radio offers a single SSB option in the mode menu, picking USB or LSB for you automatically based on the current band. When tackling broadcast band interference however, you want the option to go in either direction. The radio also changes the current frequency by 700Hz when SSB is selected, which then has to be corrected with the main dial.

You would begin by switching to SSB mode by pressing and holding the band button. If you’re lucky, the default setting is the one you want.

If it isn’t, activate the settings menu with a long press of the F key, go to the menu option SSB BFO (11–07), select it and use the multi-function knob to change the mode away from Auto to LSB or USB.

As you are doing this, the VFO will change to LSB or USB too. Leave the setting on the option that suits your needs.

If you exit the menu option without saving (pressing F), the mode will remain changed, but the override is not saved. This can be a useful quirk because next time you turn the radio on, it will be back in auto mode.

If you commit the override by pushing the multi-function knob instead, the radio will stay in manual mode until you remember to return to the menu and restore automatic behaviour again.

It’s a needlessly complicated system, as I discovered recently while recording another Shortwave Radiogram broadcast. Even after testing the procedure previously for this article, the radio was determined to stay in LSB no matter what.

Memory Programming

Since the radio has no keyboard for direct frequency input, an early priority for shortwave listening was to program some of the 99 memories available. My plan was to have some favourite broadcast stations, along with WX, Volmet, GMDSS, and some data mode frequencies. To handle ad-hoc stations however, I wanted a way of moving quickly across the main shortwave bands without excessive use of the main tuning dial or multi-function knob.

Taking the official definitions of the broadcast bands between 60m and 16m, and combining those with frequency schedules, I came up with a series of frequencies 150kHz apart across each of those bands, guaranteeing that no broadcast was more than 150kHz away.

The combined list of favourites and the 150kHz stepping stone frequencies resulted in 70 memory channels in total. As I wanted to apply alphanumeric tags to those channels, and didn’t relish the prospect of entering them manually, my next port of call was the CAT control manual to see how those memories could be set programmatically.

While there is commercial software available for the FT–891, I only needed to set up the memory channels, so decided to adapt some PowerShell I’d written for another radio, sending the necessary serial port commands to configure my list.

Now that is done, I can fast travel using the stepping stone memories to the closest point in a band, then use the fast mode of the main tuning dial to move quickly to my final destination.

The following table lists my current stepping stone channels in kHz:

60m 49m 41m 31m 25m 22m 19m 16m
4750 5900 7200 9400 11600 13570 15100 17480
4900 6050 7350 9550 11750 13720 15250 17630
5050 6200 7500 9700 11900 13870 15400 17780
7650 9850 12050 15550 17930
7800 15700

Memory Access

An obvious way to access the memories is to toggle memory channel mode with the V/M button, then cycle through the memories using the multi-function knob. Depending on your memory choices, you will hear relays clicking as the radio jumps back and forth between widely spaced frequencies and bands. You will also need a good memory of your memories, so you know which way to turn the multi-function knob.

An alternative and perhaps faster method is to press the M>V button. This brings up a multi-line listing of memories that can be scrolled through using the multi-function knob. Pressing the M>V button again copies the selected memory to the VFO and leaves you in VFO mode. This avoids the radio flipping across bands and the associated relay activity.

Although it is not documented, if you push the multi-function knob on a selected memory channel in the multi-line listing rather than using the M>V button, the selected memory is activated and the radio is left in memory channel mode displaying the memory tag.

Disabling Transmit

At the time of writing, I haven’t discovered a way of formally disabling transmit, and the minimum transmit power goes no lower than 5W. Since my main interests are around shortwave listening, utility stations and an occasional data mode QSO, I have not fitted the microphone to the radio. In that configuration at least, there is no danger of me manually transmitting into a receive antenna by accident.

Outdoor Power

Reports vary on the power consumption of the FT–891. It certainly isn’t as high as the 2.0A documented in the user guide.

While some sources claim values in the region of 1.0A, my power supply shows around 0.4A at 13.8V when receiving a typical HF broadcast. You will notice where some of that power goes quite quickly, as part of the radio gets warmer.

To save weight, my preferred power supply in the field is usually a lithium battery designed to jump start smaller engined cars. This versatile 12V battery also supplies 5V USB power to phones and tablets, and can even charge laptops.

In Conclusion

Control ergonomics and screen size are factors that can detract from shortwave listening on these kinds of radios, with smaller speakers and menu options for features normally at your fingertips.

Despite this, I’m happy with the audio, and I like the emphasis on mid-range frequencies in its audio spectrum. The digital noise reduction is impressive and can tackle significant QRM environments, but for outdoor listening may not be your first port of call.

Memory presets can make tuning less laborious, while assigning key listening tools to the customisable front panel buttons should reduce the need to access menus. I may consider defining some stations with known co-channel issues to memory with preset LSB and USB variations, to allow rapid responses to interference in future.

In good conditions, I suspect there is little difference between the FT–891 and FT–817ND for general listening. The FT–817ND has produced some of my best recordings of Shortwave Radiogram. The newer radio however brings many advanced tools to bear on more difficult signals, while its band scope and full sized VFO tuning dial enable desktop style shortwave exploration.

The ICOM IC–7200 is constrained by interference at home, biding its time for when the solar cycle swings back. When it’s been out on field days, it has always been a strong performer for broadcast listening. All the important controls are upfront, but is not a trivial thing to transport on foot. While the FT–891 has impressive DNR chops, I think I prefer the ability of the IC–7200 to apply noise reduction in incremental steps. Perhaps the algorithm approach will grow on me in time.

Any amateur radio operator using the FT–891 should have no trouble using it for shortwave listening. It attracts a lot of positive reviews for its ham radio capabilities, and it looks like those features carry across for listening to the world too.


An excellent review, Mark! Thank you for sharing. 

The Yaesu FT-891 must be the most popular HF transceivers Yaesu sells today. So many of its users rave about its performance and audio characteristics. Mark, thank you for sharing your experience with the FT-891 as an SWL!

Click here to check out the affordable IP67 rated case Mark uses to house his FT-891.

Spread the radio love

A review of the Icom IC-705 QRP Portable SDR Transceiver

The following review was first published in the February 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


It sometimes seems that one of the biggest enemies of a radio enthusiast these days is RFI (radio frequency interference), which is to say, human-originated noise that infiltrates––and plagues––vast chunks of our radio spectrum.

Yet I believe RFI has, in a sense, also managed to energize––and even mobilize––many radio enthusiasts. How? By drawing them out of their houses and shacks into the field––to a local park, lake, river, mountain, woodland, or beach––away from switching power supplies, light dimmers, street lights, and other RFI-spewing devices.

Shortwave and mediumwave broadcast listeners have it easy, comparatively speaking. They can simply grab a favorite portable receiver, perhaps an external antenna, then hit the field to enjoy the benefits of a low-noise environment. In that a portable receiver is something of a self-contained listening post, it’s incredibly easy to transport it anywhere you like.

Ham radio operators, on the other hand, need to pack more for field operations. At a minimum, they need a transceiver, an antenna, a power source, not to mention, a mic, key, and/or computing device for digital modes. Thankfully, technology has begun miniaturizing ham radio transceivers, making them more efficient in the use of battery power, and integrating a number of accessories within one unit.

Photo from the 2019 Tokyo Ham Fair

Case in point: in 2019 at Tokyo’s Ham Fair, Icom announced their first QRP (low-power) radio in the better part of two decades: the Icom IC-705.

Introducing the Icom IC-705

 

It was love at first sight among fans of Icom when the 2019 announcement was made. Why? The instant thrill came courtesy of the IC-705’s resemblance––in miniature––to the IC-7300, one of Icom’s most popular transceivers of all time. Not only that, but the IC-705 sported even more features and a broader frequency range than the IC-7300. What wasn’t to love?

But of course, unlike the IC-7300, which can output 100 watts, the IC-705’s maximum output is just 10 watts with an external 12V power source, or 5 watts with the supplied Icom BP-272 Li-ion battery pack. Nevertheless, enthusiasts who love field radio––this article’s writer being among them––were very pleased to see Icom design a flagship QRP radio that could take some portable operators to the next level. Power was traded for portability, and for field operators, this was a reasonable trade.

And since, again, the IC-705 has even more features, modes, and frequency range than the venerable IC-7300, I felt it important to note them up front. Here are a few of its most notable features, many of which are not available on its bulkier predecessor:

  • VHF and UHF multimode operation
  • D-Star mode
  • Built-in GPS
  • Built-in Wifi connectivity
  • Built-in Bluetooth connectivity
  • Portable size
  • Battery power

The receiver design is similar to the IC-7300 below 25 MHz in that it provides a direct conversion. Above 25 MHz, however, it operates as a superheterodyne receiver. While the user would never know this in operation, it’s a clever way for Icom to keep costs down on such a wideband radio.

At time of publishing, there are no other portable transceivers that sport all of the features of the Icom IC-705. It has, in a sense, carved out its very own market niche…At least for now.

I’ve owned the IC-705 since late September 2020, and I still haven’t fully explored this radio’s remarkable capabilities. It’s really a marvel of ham radio technology, and I’m having fun exploring what it can do.

One conspicuous omission

Let’s go ahead and address this promptly. The IC-705 does have one glaring shortcoming.  It lacks one feature that is standard on the larger 100-watt IC-7300: an internal antenna tuner (ATU).

To be frank, I was a little surprised that the IC-705 didn’t include an internal ATU, since it otherwise sports so many, many features. Not having an internal ATU, like a number of other general coverage QRP transceivers in its class, definitely feels like a missed opportunity. With an ATU, the ‘705 would truly be in a class of its own.

I’m sure Icom either left the internal ATU out of the plan due to space limitations––perhaps wanting to keep the unit as compact as possible?––or possibly to keep the price down? I’m not sure.  At release, the price was $1300 US, which is undoubtedly on the higher side of this market segment; at that price point, it might as well have included an ATU.

With that said, not having an internal ATU is still not a disqualifier for me. Why? Because I have a number of resonant antennas I can add on when in the field, a remote ATU at home, and a couple of portable external ATUs, as well. Yes, it would be helpful to have it built in––as on my Elecraft KX1, KX2, and KX3, or on the ($425) Xiegu G90––but for me it’s not a deal-breaker.

One other minor omission? A simple tilt stand or foot. I do wish Icom had included some sort of foot on the bottom of the IC-705 so that it could be propped up for a better angle of operation. Without a tilt stand or foot, the IC-705 rests flat on a surface, making its screen a bit awkward to view. Of course, a number of third-party tilt stands are available on the market. And if you have a 3D printer or access to one, you can find a wide variety of options to simply print at home. I printed this super simple tilt foot, which works brilliantly.

But why not include one, Icom?

My 3D printed tilt foot

But while the IC-705 lacks a tilt foot, it actually sports a number of connection points on the bottom, including a standard tripod mount. Thank you, Icom, for at least including that (other radio manufactures please take note)!

Initial impressions

Funny: the IC-705 is the first new transceiver I’ve purchased with a color box.

If you’ve ever owned or operated the Icom IC-7300, you already know how to operate many of the functions on the IC-705. The user interfaces on the touch screens are identical. Features that are unique to the IC-705 are easy to find and follow the same standard Icom user-interface workflow.

Having less front faceplate real estate, the IC-705 has less buttons than the IC-7300––about 11 less than its big brother, to be exact. However, the twin passband, gain, multi-function knob and encoder are in the same positions and layout as on the IC-7300.

And if you’ve never used an IC-7300 before, no worries: this is one of the more user-friendly interfaces you’ll find on a ham radio transceiver.

The build of the IC-705 is excellent. It’s not exactly hardened for the elements––there is no waterproof rating or dust rating, for example––but it gives the impression of a solid little radio, likely to withstand a bit of less-than-delicate handling. Yet even though it’s designed to be a portable field radio, I’ll admit that the front panel and especially the color touchscreen feel a little vulnerable. I do worry about damaging that touchscreen while the radio travels in my backpack.

The Icom LC-192

On the topic of backpacks, Icom released a custom backpack (the LC-192) specifically for the IC-705, Icom AH-705 ATU, antennas, and accessories. I did not consider purchasing this backpack, although I’m sure some operators would appreciate it, as it has dedicated compartments for supplies and the radio can be attached to the floor of the backpack’s top compartment. Again, I passed because I’m a bit of a pack fanatic and tend to grab gear that’s more tactical and weatherproof.

IC-705 and Elecraft T1 ATU at Toxaway Game Land

While its in my Red Oxx or GoRuck backpack, I house the IC-705 in a $14 Ape Case Camera insert. Eventually I want to find a better solution, but this does help pad the IC-705 while in my backpack and certainly fits it like a glove––hopefully protecting that touchscreen.

A number of third-party manufacturers have designed protective “cages” and side panels for the IC-705, but I’ve been a bit reluctant to purchase one because I feel they may add too much weight and bulk to the radio.

To the field!

Sandy Mush State Game Land

The day after I received my Icom IC-705, I took it to the field to activate Sandy Mush State Game Land for the Parks On The Air (POTA) program. Typically, when I review a new radio, I spend a few hours with it in the shack before taking it to the field. In this case, however, I felt comfortable enough with the IC-705 user interface, so I decided to skip that step entirely––I was eager to see if this little radio would live up to expectations.

The previous evening, I’d connected the IC-705 to my 13.8V power supply, so the BP-272 battery pack was fully-charged and attached to the IC-705. There was no need for an external battery to be connected.

[Tip: Click here to view my YouTube playlist of field activities with the IC-705.]

Getting on the air that day was very straightforward; indeed, the set-up couldn’t have been more simple: radio plus antenna. I connected the IC-705 to a Vibroplex EFT-MTR end-fed 40, 30, and 20-meter resonant antenna, thus an external antenna tuner was not required.

The Vibroplex/End-Fedz EFT-MTR antenna

Next, I plugged in the included speaker/mic, spotted myself to the POTA network, and started working stations. I asked for audio reports and all were very positive using only the default audio settings. Obviously, the small hand mic works quite well. I did quickly decide to unplug one of the two connectors of the speaker mic (the speaker audio side) so that the received audio wouldn’t be pumped through the hand mic, using the much better IC-705 front-facing speaker.

In the field that day, I had a few objectives in mind:

  • See how well the supplied hand mic works for SSB contacts, thus intended to ask for audio reports
  • Check out full break-in QSK operation in CW mode
  • Measure exactly how long a fully-charged Icom BP-272 Li-ion battery pack would power the IC-705 under intense operation

SSB

SSB at Lake Norman State Park

I was very quickly able to sort out how to record and use the voice memory keying features of the IC-705. There are a total of eight memory positions that can be recorded to the internal microSD card. It’s very simple to use one of the memories in “beacon” mode––simply press and hold one of the memory buttons and the recording is transmitted repeatedly until the user presses the PTT to disengage it. This is incredibly helpful when calling CQ; I typically set mine to play “CQ POTA, CQ POTA, this is K4SWL calling CQ for Parks On The Air.” I’ve also set a five-second gap between playback, allowing for return calls. As I’ve mentioned before, voice-memory keying is incredibly useful and saves one’s voice when calling CQ in the field.

The voice and CW-memory keying features of the IC-705 are robust enough that they could be used in a contest setting to automate workflow. One important note: voice-memory keying saves recordings to the internal MicroSD card. If that card is removed, formatted/erased, or if the file structure is altered, the voice-memory keyer will not recall recordings.

CW

CW at South Mountains State Park

Next, I plugged in my paddles and started calling “CQ POTA” in CW.

As with the voice-memory keyer, CW-memory keying was incredibly easy to set up. Once again, the user once has eight memory positions. As the keyer plays a pre-recording sequence, the IC-705 will display the text being sent.

One of the questions I’m asked most by CW operators about the IC-705 is whether the radio has audible relay clicks during transmit/receive switching. Radios with loud relay clicks can be distracting. My preference these days is to operate in full break-in QSK mode, meaning, there is a transmit/receive change each time I form a character––it allows me space to hear someone break in, but results in much more clicking.

The IC-705 does have relay clicks, but these are very light––equal in volume to those of other Icom transceivers, neither louder nor softer. These clicks, fortunately, are not too distracting to me, and to be fair, I find I don’t even notice them as I operate. With that said, transceivers like my Elecraft KX2 and Mission RGO One use PIN diode switching, which is completely quiet.

Battery Life

Tapping the battery icon will open a larger battery capacity monitor.

My third objective at the first field outing was to test how long the Icom BP-272 Li-ion battery pack would power the IC-705 while calling CQ and working stations in both SSB and CW for an entire activation.

After nearly two hours of constant operation, the BP-272 still had nearly 40% of its capacity.

I didn’t expect this. I assumed it might power the IC-705 for perhaps 90 minutes, max. Fortunately, it seems at 5 watts, one BP-272 could carry you through more than one POTA or SOTA (Summits On The Air) activation. I was pleasantly surprised.

Four months later…

POTA activation at Tuttle Educational State Forest

Since that initial field test, I’ve taken the IC-705 on easily thirty or more individual POTA activations. I’ve also used it at home to chase POTA stations and rag chew with friends.

In short, I’ve found that the IC-705 is a brilliant, robust portable transceiver for SSB and/or CW and a pleasure to operate.

Herein lies the advantage of purchasing a radio from a legacy amateur radio manufacturer: it’s well-vetted right out the door, has no firmware quirks, and is built on iterations of popular radios before it.

I’ve found that IC-705 performance is solid: the receiver has a low noise floor, the audio is well-balanced, the AGC is stable at any setting, and it’s an incredibly sensitive and selective radio.

Digital modes

POTA activation at Lake Jame State Park

One huge advantage of the IC-705 is that it, like the IC-7300, has a built-in sound card for digital modes. This eliminates the need for an external sound card interface. After you’ve read the installation guide, and installed Icom’s USB drivers, simply plug the IC-705 into your computing device via USB cable and you can directly control the ‘705 with popular applications like WSJT-X.

I have not used the IC-705 for digital modes while in the field, but I have done so in the home shack. It was one of the easiest radios I’ve ever set up for FT8 and FT4.

I’m not the biggest digital mode operator, but if you are into it, I expect you’ll be very pleased with the IC-705. It must be one of the most portable, uncomplicated transceivers for digital mode operation currently on the market. I know a number of POTA activators have been using the IC-705 for FT8 and FT4.

D-Star

Being perfectly honest here, I have a chequered history with the D-Star digital voice mode. I purchased an Icom ID-51a and D-Star hotspot several years ago because a local ham pretty much convinced me it was the coolest thing since sliced bread.

And in truth? It is rather amazing.

But at the end of the day I had to admit to myself that I’m an HF guy, and found the user interface and operating procedures just a bit too other-worldly. I kept the ID-51a for perhaps a year, then sold it, along with the hotspot.

Although I knew the IC-705 had D-Star built in, I really hadn’t given it a second thought. But since I’m a reviewer, I simply had to check it out. I still had my D-Star credentials from some years ago, so I set up the IC-705 and connected the transceiver to the Diamond dual band antenna on top of my house.

Fortunately, I was able to hit our only local D-Star repeater and connect on the first go. Note that, like the ID-51a, the IC-705 can use your GPS coordinates, then automatically find the closest D-Star repeater and load the frequency and settings from the default database on the IC-705 MicroSD card.

After reviewing a YouTube video demonstration, I was on the air with D-Star and found the user interface much easier to use than that of the ID-51a. It really helps having a large touch screen.

I’ll admit it: I’m warming back up to D-Star, and I have the IC-705 to thank for that.

Some day, I plan to use D-Star on HF, as well. I acknowledge that it might take some pre-arranging, but perhaps I could even make a D-Star POTA––or better yet, SOTA––contact, if the stars align. It’s certainly worth the experiment.

Let’s talk about broadcast listening

Radio Exterior de España’s interval signal on the IC-705’s waterfall display

Although I’m a pretty active ham radio operator, I’m an SWL and broadcast listener at heart. One of the appealing things about the IC-705 is its excellent receiver range (0.030-470.000 MHz) and multiple operating modes, as well as its adjustable bandwidth.  Broadcast listeners will be happy to know that the AM bandwidth on the IC-705 can be widened to an impressive 10 kHz, which is certainly a stand-out among general coverage transceivers.

After turning on the IC-705 for the very first time, I tuned to the 31-meter band and cruised the dial. I felt like I was using a tabletop receiver: for such a small transceiver, the encoder is on the large side, and the controls are ergonomically designed. The spectrum display and waterfall are amazingly useful.

The front-facing speaker on the IC-705 is well-designed for audio clarity on the ham radio bands. It’s not a high-fidelity speaker, but it’s adequate and has enough “punch” to perform well in the field. Speakers on portable QRP radios are typically an afterthought and are terribly compromised due to space constraints within the chassis. The IC-705’s speaker design feels more deliberate, akin to what you might find on a mobile VHF/UHF rig. Broadcast listeners, in other words, will certainly want to hook the IC-705 up to an external speaker––or, better yet, use headphones––for weak-signal work.

While the received audio isn’t on par with a receiver like the Drake R8B, it’s pretty darn good for a portable general coverage transceiver. The audio is what I would call “flat,” but you are able to adjust the received audio in EQ settings to adjust them to your taste. Audio is well-tailored for the human voice, so I’ve found weak signal IDs are actually easy to grab on the air.

Audio samples

One of the brilliant things about the IC-705 is the fact that it has a built-in digital recorder. Both transmitted and received audio can be recorded in real time and saved to a removable MicroSD card. I made audio recordings of two broadcast stations on the 31-meter band as samples: the Voice of Greece (9420 kHz) and Radio Exterior de España (9690 kHz). The Voice of Greece was moderately strong when I made the recording and Radio Exterior was quite strong. Click on the links to download the .mp3 files for each recording:

Voice of Greece

Radio Exterior de España

I’ve also used the built-in digital recorder to record long sessions of my favorite shortwave, AM, and FM stations. Even with the recorder on, I can typically achieve hours of listening on one battery charge and need no other power supply.

Want more audio samples?
Check out our survey results from an Icom IC-705 blind audio test.

In short? The IC-705 makes for an excellent portable shortwave, mediumwave, and FM broadcast band-recording receiver.

Charging ahead…

The supplied BP-272 battery pack snaps snugly on the back of the IC-705

Power supply is always a concern when taking a transceiver on travels. Most transceivers need a 12-13.8 volt external supply, or an external battery, one that will eventually need to be charged.

This is not the case with the IC-705, because while it can be charged or powered via a 12-13.8V source, it can also be charged via a common 5V USB power supply. Simply insert any USB phone-charging cable into the MicroUSB port on the side of the IC-705, and it will charge the fully-depleted attached BP-272 battery pack in just over four hours.

Indeed, I traveled to visit family one week, and had plotted two park activations both en route and on the way back home. After my first activation, I quickly realized I forgot the supplied IC-705 power cord that I’d normally use to hook the IC-705 up to one of my LiFePo batteries. I was quite disappointed, expecting that I’d missed this opportunity.  Then I remembered USB charging: I simply plugged the IC-705 up to my father’s phone charger, and in four hours, the battery was completely recharged.

To my knowledge, there are no other transceivers that have this capability without modification. A major plus for those of us who love to travel lightly!

Summary

POTA activation at the Zebulon Vance Historic Birthplace

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 my initial impressions. Here’s the list I formed over the time I’ve spent evaluating the Icom IC-705.

Pros:

  • Frequency range
    • TX: 160 – 6 meters, 2M, 70cm
    • RX: 0.030-470.000 MHz
  • Modes include SSB, CW, AM, FM, DV, RTTY
  • 4.3 inch color touchscreen that’s (surprisingly) readable in full sunlight
  • Multiple means to power/charge:
    • Icom BP-272 battery pack (supplied) for 5 watts output
      • Can be charged via 12V power supply or
      • 5V USB phone charger with standard MicroUSB plug (admittedly, I wish they would have adopted now standard USB-C rather than MicroUSB)
    • External battery for 10 watts of output
  • Top-shelf receiver performance (see Rob Sherwood’s assessment)
  • Wireless LAN connectivity that even allows for native remote control (not tested)
  • Built-in Bluetooth
  • Built-in GPS
  • Built-in Digital Recording
  • Full D-Star functionality
  • RTTY can be sent (using macros) and received/decoded natively
  • Multiple standard connection points on base for mounting (see con)
  • Supplied speaker mic is compact and has programmable buttons
  • Frequency stability is less than ± 0.5 ppm (–10°C to +60°C; 14°F to 140°F)
  • The IC-705 ships with an abridged owner’s manual; I recommend downloading the full version via Icom

Cons:

  • No internal ATU option
  • No built-in tilt stand (see pro)
  • Some minor ergonomic issues:
    • Angled speaker/mic connectors can be challenging to insert as they are too close to the recessed area behind front face, especially for those with larger fingers and/or if in chilly conditions in the field
    • MicroSD card also difficult to access––I use needle-nose pliers to remove and insert

Conclusion

POTA activation of Second Creek Game Land

I purchased the Icom IC-705 with the idea that I would review it and then sell it shortly thereafter. Much to the dismay of my (rather limited) radio funds, I find that I now want to keep the IC-705…indefinitely.

I didn’t think the IC-705 would fit into my QRP field radio “arsenal” very well because I tend to gravitate toward more compact radios that I can easily operate on a clipboard on my lap when necessary. My Elecraft KX2 (TSM November 2016), Elecraft KX1, LnR Precision LD-11 (TSM October 2016), and Mountain Topper MTR-3B probably best represent my field radio interests.

But I’m loving the versatility and overall performance of the IC-705. It’s providing an opportunity to do much more than most of my QRP radios allow.

Here are just a few of the things I’ve done with the IC-705 thus far:

  • Activated numerous parks in SSB and CW
  • Connected to a local D-Star repeater and talked with a fellow ‘705 owner in the UK
  • Listened to ATC traffic (and recorded it)
  • Listened to NOAA weather radio
  • Listened to and recorded local FM stations
  • Enjoyed proper FM DXing
  • Recorded GPS coordinates during a POTA/WWFF activation
  • Made numerous digital mode contacts by connecting the IC-705 directly to my Windows tablet
  • Made a 2-meter SSB contact

POTA activation of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Indeed, there are more features on this transceiver than I can fully cover in one review; truly, I consider that a very good thing.

So if you’re looking for a portable transceiver that can truly take you on a deep dive into the world of QRP HF, VHF, UHF, and even satisfy the SWL in you, look no further than the Icom IC-705.

Well played, Icom.

More Icom IC-705 articles, information, and resources:


Do you enjoy the SWLing Post?

Please consider supporting us via Patreon or our Coffee Fund!

Your support makes articles like this one possible. Thank you!

Spread the radio love

Dan provides an update to his Sangean ATS-909X2 first impressions

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, DanH, who shares the following update to his first impressions of the Sangean ATS-909X2:


Update: Sangean ATS-909X2 First Impressions

by DanH

Sangean USA will offer a free software update to customers who have purchased the first USA mass production version of Sangean ATS-909X2. These radios are equipped with software VER-070. This is the same 909X2 version that I purchased last week and used for my “First Impressions” article. The software update to VER-073 will feature various bug fixes. Software VER-073 will be included with the ATS-909X2 shipment arriving at Sangean USA in March, 2021. These bug fixes are of a technical nature and beyond my ability to describe at this writing.

Sangean USA will offer 909X2 VER-070 owners a software update to VER-073 if they want it and as soon as Sangean USA receives the necessary update device from Sangean Headquarters.

So far, I have noticed no software bugs in 909X2 operation but like everyone else I am still new at using this radio. I hope to start entering saved shortwave station entries from my 909Xs into the 909X2 this week. In other notes, AIR band is working very well with my local international airport some 20 miles away. I also did a test on the 909X2 external antenna jack and confirmed that plugging an external antenna into this jack will disconnect the built-in ferrite bar antenna for MW and the telescopic whip for SW.

To display the 909X2 software version:

1. power up the radio
2. press and hold the INFO button for two seconds
3. turn the tuning dial until VER XXX appears on the display
4. to clear this information wait 10 seconds or hit the C button

Further details will follow as they develop.

May your shortwave listening be good and the geomagnetic field quiet.

DanH


Thank you for the update, Dan! 

Spread the radio love

Dan’s first impressions of the new Sangean ATS-909X2

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, DanH, who shares the following guest post:


Sangean ATS-909X2 First Impressions

by DanH

A few hours spent tuning a new radio are enough to make me feel confident that I know most of the new features and how to use them. Then several days, weeks or months later I discover overlooked features and I figure out new ways to operate the radio. Sometimes I actually read the operating instructions again. Understand that I received my new Sangean ATS-909X2 only three days ago so this early report is hardly a comprehensive review nor was it intended as such. At this point I’m looking mostly at shortwave and medium wave performance.

My first experience with the new Sangean ATS-909X2 was online at the Amazon shopping site. On December 16, 2020 I pre-ordered the radio for US $459.99 (list price). The radio didn’t ship and the prices dropped a couple of times. Each time I cancelled the order before it shipped and ordered it again at the lower price. In the end I ordered my 909X2 for $297.95 and paid for it with credit card bonus points and a little more that I had on my Amazon gift card.

The 909X2 arrived on Friday afternoon, February 19. I devoted the first 24 hours to tuning around on SW and a little MW only. I deliberately made no videos at this time and devoted my radio time to exploring the bands. The latest addition to the ATS-909 series is a well thought out evolution of the radio and much more than a 909X with a cosmetic facelift. The 909X2 retains the excellent speaker sound of its predecessor, the tuning knob is unchanged from late production 909X, the solid build quality remains the same as does the general layout, performance, size and weight. SSB audio for the 909X2 remains at a lower level than for AM, like 909X. I don’t like having to turn the radio volume up for ECSS or SSB. Like 909X, the new radio excels with external antennas and is not easily overloaded by a lot of wire antenna.

Like 909X, 909X2 occupies an interesting niche in the portable multiband world. It is a little too large and heavy for a travel radio but over the years I have packed it many times in my carry-on bag. Sometimes I am willing to sacrifice extra clothes if it means bringing the best radio. These radios excel on a desk or radio room work station. The radio is big and powerful enough to provide top notch sound for all modes. Late at night I run mine with Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones. With 909X2 you get top performance in a small package. It is an over-used metaphor but think of a 1950 – 60’s communications receiver in a small package, plus VHF air band and FM. The speaker audio sounds better for broadcasts than many Amateur rigs.

There are many new features with the 909X2. Instead of charging NiMH batteries like Eneloop in series the 909X2 monitors each cell individually and identifies failing cells for you. SSB resolution is now selectable 10 – 20 Hz, auto-bandwidth control may be used on all bands except SSB on HF. There are many more memory slots available in three separate banks. The LCD has dimmer settings, soft muting is switchable for FM and the keyboard beeper may be shut off! Instead of hidden features the 909X2 has an INFO/MENU button for customizing your operating options.

The new bandwidth choices make a real improvement in LW, MW, SW, FM and VHF airband signal quality especially when adjusted in tandem with the audio tone control. Automatic bandwidth control selects the bandwidth that offers the best signal-to-noise ratio. Now I understand why the 9090X2 shortwave bandwidths are relatively closely-spaced: auto control shifts quickly between multiple bandwidths. Too much space between bandwidths would sound jarring. The auto bandwidth control is most useful during heavy fading and has improved my ability to copy words on poor AM broadcast signals. This feature does add an odd effect to fading signals: the audio tone quality will shift as different bandwidths are selected. This feature is not something that I would leave ON as a default for shortwave listening but it is definitely a welcome tool when needed.

MW performance is as good as the 909X but with improvements made possible with more bandwidth and memory slot availability. I found that 909X2 LW is generally better than 909X with fewer MW images. I am hearing substantially more LW beacons on 909X2. LW activity is very limited here on the US West Coast.

10 Hz SSB resolution means that ECSS is excellent on the 909X. I can tune a shortwave music broadcast on the 909X2 without warble. This was impossible with the 909X 40 Hz resolution.

The 909X sold near US $220 for most of the last five years with a few rare Amazon holiday sales at the $190 level. Then the prices jumped another $30 post-Covid 19, as did prices for other radios in this range.

Is 909X2 worth the additional money right now? I say yes! Mine is a keeper.

I do not believe that there will be significant improvements coming along any time soon. Sangean is a private Taiwanese company with its own factory located in PRC. 20 pre-production units delivered to Europe in January are not the same batch as the retail production units released by Sangean USA this month. Sangean USA has two of the pre-production units. They did not offer these for sale. The first retail production units arrived at Sangean USA in mid-February before the Lunar New Year. If there are significant changes for 909X2 we won’t see those radios for at least another 6 – 8 weeks. I can’t see much need for significant changes anyway.

Believe it or not I have been very busy with the Sangean ATS-909X2 and haven’t tried FM or VHF air band on it yet!

This video is a companion to my first impressions written here. Hearing and seeing video is hard to beat. SW and MW features are shown in real-life reception conditions. I test for the dreaded LCD/hand capacitance internal noise and have a look, listen and comparison for telescopic whip performance. And you will hear DX too, not just Brother Stair. You need to see and watch auto bandwidth control to believe it.

Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this, Dan. Very encouraging. We look forward to publishing your updates as you get to know the 909X2 even better! 

Sangean ATS-909X2 Retailers:

All prices are current at time of posting (22 Feb 2021).

Spread the radio love

Michael’s impressions of the Tecsun PL-330

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Michael Sharpe, who writes:

Hi Thomas,

Here are some personal observations after playing with the Tecsun PL-330 for a couple weeks, maybe an hour or two a day. I made a point of picking up the 310ET , the CCrane Skywave SSB and the G6 Aviator at the same time for some comparisons.

These comments are in no particular order.

The PL330 is very lightweight compared to the other three. This could be perceived in two ways.

A. The case seems less sturdy than it could be, it creaks and ‘gives’ a little when operating some of the controls that require ‘squeezing’ to activate a button. I would prefer a more solid feel.

B. The radio is very light which is a plus for travelling with hand luggage. You’ll like that 🙂

The backlight can be set to permanently ‘on’, I really like this. None of the other radios do this when on battery power only. I don’t consider any radio ‘portable’ if it is tethered to a power supply. It would be nice if the buttons lit up but let’s stay real here !

Tuning: I am not crazy about the detented operation of the tuning knob, but I recognise that this is a requirement on the lower cost portables that use digital tuning. However…the PL-330 scores highly because the detent clicking is soft and silent. When compared to the Skywave SSB, there is a world of difference. For me, a clicking knob eliminates the option to tune around the ham bands when my wife is trying to sleep. I did email CCrane to ask if a solution may be suggested, but the response was negative. The G6 Aviator wins hands down in this area, but apples to pears !

Memory Tuning: I really like the options here, easy to use and the time selective ETM+ is genius. I also like the easy ‘delete all memories’ option which enables a fresh start at any time.

Audio: It’s not a PL-880 but its Ok for a small portable and the bandwidth option is a big plus. I’m no expert here because I do a fair proportion of my listening with a mono single side earpiece at night.

AM: Seems to work fine. Pulls in everything I normally listen to and seems sensitive and stable enough.

FM: Seems to work fine. Pulls in everything I normally listen to (not much!) and seems sensitive enough. Brilliant that it will suppress stereo unless the headphone socket is used.

SW: I spend a lot of time here and it seems good enough. I did compare reception with the Belka DX and had nothing to complain about. I have learned that keyboard tuning to a frequency near the frequency of interest and then final tuning with the annoying detent knob is the way to go. Also, memory tuning is easy and makes the detent truly functional.

SSB: This my main area of interest as I love to tune around the ham bands, especially when travelling with no access to real ham gear. The fine tuning at 10 Hz with suppressed soft muting is a real winner. It would be nice if soft mute could be disabled completely but I understand this is limitation of the DSP hardware.

Calibration seems easy too with just a long press on the USB button when the audio is zero beat (note the calibration option is for the AM band but utilizes the USB or LSB to zero beat and set). I don’t do this any more, after all, what’s the point when tuning around to listen 🙂 Just twiddle the knob until it sounds good and Bob’s your uncle. I think the ‘Step’ button should replace the ‘Sync’ button and not be shared with the sunken ‘lock’ button. Too squeezy.

SYNC: Don’t bother. I tried it several times, not so much any more. Waste of a perfectly good button. (See SSB above.)

Battery: I actually like the battery choice. I get that AA’s or AAA’s are a good choice for emergency use because of availability but in an emergency you would probably have your phone with you, and some means of charging it. Just have an appropriate cable or adapter in the bag and you are good to go. My current phone uses the usb micro, as does the PL330 so I may be a little biased at this time.

Antenna: For portable use, the existing antennas work fine. The SW input jack works and the ability to switch the AM signal source between the internal ferrite and the external jack is a nice touch if you want to experiment.

I cut the wrist strap off, not sure what benefit this offers but they all have them. I must be missing something ?

A rear stand would be nice but it stands on its base reasonably well.

So….for around $60, it’s a no-brainer in my book.

Hope this helps. I’m no expert when it comes to deviation ratios, 3rd order intercepts, microvolt sensitivity etc. etc. but these are my impressions from a guy who just likes to play with radios.

Best wishes

Michael (N9YZM)

Thank you for sharing your impressions of the Tecsun PL-330, Michael! I’ve also been testing the PL-330 and find that it is a great value for $60–certainly a low-cost alternative to the C.Crane CC Skywave SSB (although I much prefer the build quality of the Skywave). My family life has been so busy this past month, I’ve had little dedicated time to do comparisons, but it appears to me that the PL-330 is a solid performer.

Thanks again for sharing your assessment, Michael!

Click here to check out the Tecsun PL-330 (export version) at Anon-Co.

Spread the radio love