Category Archives: Reviews

Stan compares the C. Crane CCRadio3 with the CCRadio2E

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Stan Horzepa (WA1LOU), who shares the following post originally published on his blog:

I bought a first-production-run C.Crane CCRadio3 AM/FM/WX/2-Meter receiver after reading K4SWL’s preview on his blog, The SWLing Post.

I already own the highly-regarded C.Crane CCRadio 2E Enhanced, which I reviewed here five years ago, so I decided to compare the two on the AM, FM and weather bands. Before comparing the two radios, I recalibrated the antennas of both radios, then with the radios sitting side-by-side, I tuned each radio through each band channel-by-channel

My findings follow.

On the AM band, the 3 captured signals faster than the 2E.

Occasionally, signals were stronger on the 3 than on the 2E and vice versa, but most of the time, the signal strength was the same on both radios. So I conclude that the sensitivity of the two radios are the same.

I tried the 3’s new Bluetooth function before reading the manual. I just pressed the Bluetooth button to access the Bluetooth mode and my iPhone and MacBook Pro found the 3 without pressing the radio’s Pair button, as instructed by the manual.

In conclusion, the differences I found between the 3 and the 2E were (1) the 3’s ability to capture AM signals was noticeably faster than the 2E and (2) the addition of the Bluetooth function in the 3.

I did not notice any other performance enhancements. I was hoping that the 3 might be more sensitive than the 2E (not that the 2E is not sensitive — it certainly is!), but I’d say that the 3 and 2E Enhanced are about equal sensitivity-wise, as well as selectivity-wise.

Believe it or not moments… During the comparison, I was very surprised that on two occasions (on 820 and 1500 kHz), each radio simultaneously received different stations while tuned to the same frequency!

Click here to check out Stan’s blog.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts after comparing the two receivers, Stan! I think this supports the idea that if one owns the CCRadio2E and doesn’t need Bluetooth functionality, there’s no real reason to upgrade to the CCRadio3. With that said, and as I think you found Stan, the Bluetooth functionality in the CCRadio3 is excellent. It must be one of the best Bluetooth receivers I’ve tested and as you point out, it’s also very easy to engage and use.

Thanks again!

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Preview: The C. Crane CCRadio3 AM/FM/WX and 2 Meter receiver

In early January 2019, C. Crane sent me a pre-production unit of their latest radio for evaluation: the C. Crane CCRadio3.

Since I received the CCradio3, I’ve had it on the air and have been evaluating it in real-life listening conditions, searching for any potential quirks that C. Crane should address before a full production run of the radio hits the market.

Yesterday, C. Crane announced the CCRadio3 in their email newsletter:

So now, finally, I can break my silence to inform you all about this latest iteration of the venerable CCRadio. And, indeed, I have a lot to tell…

CCRadio3 Preview

What follows is a preview of the CCRadio3 based on my time with the pre-production unit. I will not refer to this as a “review” of the CCRadio3, since this is a pre-production unit.  I’ll obtain a first production run unit when available and post a full review at that time.

In the meantime…here are some of my impressions based on the pre-production unit, organized by feature.

Bluetooth

What’s new with the CCRadio3? The major upgrade is the addition of Bluetooth connectivity. In fact, that’s the only obvious upgrade other than the fact you can now toggle between AM/FM band rather than scroll through all the bands on one band button.

With Bluetooth connectivity, you can pair with your smart phone, tablet, laptop, PC or any other Bluetooth device, and use the CCRadio3 as your Bluetooth speaker.

How many radios do you know that include simple operation instructions on the chassis? Very simple.

The pairing is incredibly simple and Bluetooth connectivity most impressive. I find that no matter where I go in my house, the CCRadio3 maintains a solid Bluetooth connection with my iPhone. Most of my other Bluetooth devices will lose connectivity if I put a couple walls between my iPhone and the receiver, but not the CCRadio3.

Audio

The internal speaker on the CCRadio3 provides room-filling audio with clear, rich fidelity. The separate bass and treble controls do help tailor the sound based on the audio source. It reproduces music brilliantly in FM and Bluetooth modes.

2 Meter Ham Radio Band

One unique feature of the CCRadio series is 2 meter ham band reception. This is a great way to monitor local amateur radio repeater traffic.

In truth, I’ve spent comparatively little time with the CCRadio3 on 2 meters thus far, having focused instead on the AM/FM and WX bands, but I have verified that I can receive local repeaters and the squelch functionality is quite effective.

I’ll spend more time on this band in my upcoming full review.

Weather Radio (WX) Band

The CCRadio3 can receive all seven NOAA/Environment Canada radio frequencies.

And here’s something that really surprised me: this pre-production CCRadio3 has the best weather radio reception of any radio I’ve ever tested to date. Normally, at my home, I can receive two NOAA stations with the average weather radio. The best of my weather radio receivers might hear a total of three. The CCRadio3, with antenna fully-extended, can receive five NOAA stations! I can almost WX DX with this rig!

I’m so pleased C. Crane places an emphasis on WX band performance. Their CC Skywave and CC Skywave SSB also have best-in-class weather radio reception.

Like the CCRadio2E, the grab handle is built into the back of the radio.

The CCRadio3 uses four D cells for battery operation which should yield about 120 hours of AM broadcast listening at moderate volume.

FM

Thus far I’m very pleased with FM performance. I’ve noted that the CCRadio3 receives all of my local and distant benchmark stations with ease. I believe it would certainly be an FM benchmark receiver. As I mentioned earlier, audio fidelity is excellent via the internal speaker.

AM/Mediumwave

I consider the CCradio3’s predecessor––the CCRadio2E––to be one of the finest AM broadcasting listening portables currently in production. I’ll admit that when I heard the CCRadio3 added Bluetooth, I feared somehow that would equate to possible noise somewhere in the audio chain…Fortunately, this fear was entirely unfounded. In fact, looking at the CCRadio3 announcement, I note that C. Crane took this concern seriously:

“The CCRadio 3 is one of the few high-performance radios with Bluetooth® that has no detectable noise and some of the best reception available.”

When I first turned on the CCRadio3 and tuned to the AM band, I did what I always do when testing mediumwave performance: In the early morning, as the sun was rising (i.e., grey line propagation), I tried to pull my benchmark station––WAIZ, a 1,000 watt station about 95 miles away as the crow flies––out of the muddle. The CCRadio3 was able to do it; in fact, I could hear the station’s morning crew doing their “Wacky Wake-Up” shenanigans. Turning the radio body, I also gathered, rather quickly, that the CCRadio3’s Twin Coil Ferrite Bar antenna does an excellent job of nulling out unwanted stations.

An impressive start of the evaluation.

Comparing the CCRadio3 with Panny RF-2200

Looking around SWLing Post HQ, I picked up my recently re-capped and refurbished Panasonic RF-2200. I wanted to see how the CCRadio3 would stack up against what I consider one the finest AM broadcast portables ever produced…

I’ve tested the CCRadio3 and ‘2200 at various locations––in the morning, midday, and at night––and can say that not only does the CCRadio3 give the RF-2200 a run for its money, but it even outperforms the RF-2200 at times, in terms of weak station intelligibility.

In fact, I think the CCRadio3 may possibly have a very slight edge on the RF-2200 in terms of sensitivity, as well.

However, note that there are two factors that make this comparison a tough call:

  • First of all, I find that the RF-2200’s AGC is smoother than that of the CCRadio3––the peaks and dips in audio are not as strong when listening through AM flutter. Most of the time, this makes it a little easier for me to discern weak signal audio. I believe the CCRadio3’s AGC and soft mute may be making the troughs in AGC a little deeper, as well. It would be amazing if C. Crane could allow users to disable soft mute like recent Sangean models have.
  • Secondly, the RF-2200 has two AM bandwidth settings: narrow and wide. I almost always use the RF-2200 with the wide bandwidth setting. I find the narrow filter is a little too narrow unless I need it to block an adjacent signal.  In general, I use wider AM filter settings than many DXers because I find that the filter between my ears does a better job of discerning signals with a little more audio information.

The CCRadio3 has only one bandwidth. I’m guessing––based purely on my listening experience––that it’s 4 to 6 kHz in width.  (I’ll try to confirm this with C. Crane).   Obviously this is narrower than the RF-2200’s wide filter. In side-by-side comparisons, the RF-2200’s AM fidelity therefore sounds much richer, especially when music is involved.

That this is so really shouldn’t be a surprise, as the Radio3 and its predecessors were designed around spoken word intelligibility––in other words, making it easy for the listener to understand what’s being said. And, frankly, it works. Most of the time, I find that the CCRadio3 does a better job of making weak signals “pop” out of the static. It’s a little easier catching weak signal station IDs with the CCRadio3, even if you have to listen through a more active AGC/soft mute tug.

So…is the CCRadio3 (at least, this pre-production unit) better than the RF-2200 at weak signal DXing? In some respects, yes. In others, not quite. Yet the fact that it can even compare with the RF-2200 speaks volumes…no pun intended. I would have never guessed that it would have a sensitivity edge on the RF-2200.

Of course, the CCRadio3 has both AM antenna and ground terminals.

I made a few early afternoon videos comparing the CCRadio3 with the RF-2200. In the first video, I’m tuned to a station approximately 20-25 miles away. You’ll note how the RF-2200’s audio fidelity, with the wide filter engaged, is hard to match:

Click here to view on YouTube.

In the second video, I’m tuned to 1290 AM (WHKY), a 50,000 watt station about 95 miles away. [Note that I erroneously give an inaccurate mileage figure in this video; not sure what I was thinking!  Sorry about that, folks.]

Click here to view on YouTube.

In the third video, I’m tuned to 630 AM (WAIZ), again, a 1000 watt station about 100 miles away. As you can imagine, it’s very weak and both radios struggle to receive any intelligible audio through the ocean waves of fluttering radio jumble. [Again, please ignore the distance I give in the video; this station is actually a little over 95 miles away.]

Click here to view on YouTube.

I also did a late afternoon comparison video around sunset using one of my favorite AM radio stations ever: CFZM in Toronto–about 980 miles distant. Here’s the video:

Click here to view on YouTube. 

In these video comparisons, the radios are nearly side-by-side.  I found this had little to no effect on reception. When comparing these radios off camera, I had them spaced at least 40″ apart and always, of course, oriented the antennas identically.

Conclusion

Again, this is merely a preview of the pre-production unit of the CCRadio3. I thought I’d touch on reception and a few of the key points that might help some of the CCRadio3’s early adopters make a purchase decision. I have yet to do testing with headphones or external antennas and still wish to compare it with even more radios, to make my review as thorough as I’d like.

And I’m really looking forward to reviewing the production unit of the CCRadio3, because this pre-production receiver has certainly surpassed my expectations!

This latest iteration of the CCRadio should remain king of AM radio reception, compared with any other portable radio currently in production.

C. Crane has announced that they have a very limited number of first-production-run units available for order right now.  If you order one, use the coupon code CC3B19 at checkout, so that, as the above ad suggests, you can snag it for $179.00–$20 off the future retail price. I suspect this first run will sell out fast.

Click here to check out the CCRadio3 product/order page.

Eager for the full review of the C. Crane CCRadio3? Stay tuned!


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Book Review: “Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dave Kolesar, who shares the following review:

Just finished another excellent read: Hilmes and Loviglio’s collection “Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio.”

Very little scholarship exists about the cultural impact of radio in America, and this volume explores the history highlights (long partial list): the initial fight over the nature of broadcasting in the 1920s and 30s (educational vs. commercial), stratification of programming and channels with regards to representation of women, people of color, and gays during the Depression, WWII, and the pre-televison era, the discovery of the teenage market in the 1950s that led to the Top 40 format, the commerical Underground radio movement of the 60s, the creation of NPR and the associated decimation of student-run university stations, the rise of commercial (in everything but name) religious broadcasting and and its corrupting effects on the religious experience and political discourse, the 1980s male-dominated talk radio genre as an effort to roll back feminism, the 1996 Telecom bill and the creation of LPFM and the proliferation of pirate radio as responses to it, and finally, the digital radio future and its public service obligations.

For those who love the medium, this is a great reminder of why we work in it, how it’s succeeded and yet failed to live up to its potential, and what the future may hold as new technologies enter the audio landscape.

Thanks, Dave—sounds like this collection spans a wide variety of radio cultural histories. I did some searching and found that, of course it’s on Amazon.com, but also available used on a number of sites including Barnes and Noble.

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Radios: What are your daily drivers?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, John C., who writes:

“Hi Thomas, I love [the SWLing Post] and have been meaning to thank you for all of the amazing reviews. Truly a treasure trove. But as I contemplate my next radio purchase I would like to know what radio you use more than any other. In other words…what’s your daily driver??? Enquiring minds want to know! Thank you. – JC”

Thanks for your question and the kind compliment, John.

Your inquiry is one I get quite a bit, so I hope you don’t mind if I share my response here publicly.

First of all, I should state that I don’t have a single “daily driver.”

Since I evaluate, test, and review radios I spend a lot of time with a variety of new receivers and transceivers.

I’m currently evaluating the Radiwow R-108, so it goes with me pretty much everywhere since I like to test receivers in a variety of settings. I’m also packing the Tecsun PL-310ET and the CC Skywave so I have units to compare with the R-108.

My Daily Drivers

Still, there are a number of radios in my life that get heavy use. Here’s my current list based on activity:

For Travel

When I travel, I reach for my favorite multi-function ultra-compact shortwave portable. In the past, I would have reached for the Grundig G6, the Sony ICF-SW100, the Tecsun PL-310ET, the Digitech AR-1780, or the C. Crane CC Skywave, Currently, I reach for the C. Crane CC Skywave SSB.

When I travel, I try to pack as lightly as I can–perhaps some would even call me a borderline travel minimalist. For example, when I fly to Philadelphia later this month for the Winter SWL Fest, I will take only one piece of luggage, a “personal carry-on” item: the Tom Bihn Stowaway, a pack the size of a small laptop bag. The Stowaway will contain my iPad, cords/accessories, and all of my clothes and toiletries for about 5 days of travel. As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of spare room in there for radio gear (quite the understatement).

I’ll still have room in my bag for the CC Skywave SSB, though, because the receiver is so compact. In addition, it’s a little “Swiss Army Knife” of a radio which covers the AM/MW, Shortwave, WX, and AIR bands.  It also has SSB mode and uses common AA batteries. The Skywave SSB is a welcome travel companion.

For Portable Shortwave DX

When I head to a park or go on a camping trip with the goal of doing a little weak signal DXing, I reach for a full-featured portable. In the past, I’ve relied heavily on the Tecsun PL-660 or PL-680, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, and the Tecsun PL-880.

After acquiring the amazing Panasonic RF-B65 last year, it has become my choice full-featured portable. Of course, the RF-65B hasn’t been in production for ages, but thanks to a number of friends/enablers (including Dan Robinson and Troy Riedel) I finally found one for an acceptable price on eBay.

I’ve been incredibly pleased with the RF-B65’s performance and feel like I got a decent deal snagging one in great shape for less than $200. Only a few months prior to my purchase, it was hard to find good units under $300. Click here to check current prices, if interested.

For Morning News and Music

Since my staple morning news source, Radio Australia, went off the air, I spend a lot more time in the mornings listening to Internet radio mainly because I like listening to news sources that no longer, or never have, broadcast on the shortwaves.

Without a doubt, my favorite WiFi radio is the Como Audio Solo. I use it to listen to the CBC in St. John’s Newfoundland, The UK 1940s Radio Station, RFI MusiqueABC Radio Sydney, and a number of other news and music outlets.

The Como Audio Solo also serves as an audio feed for my SSTran AM Transmitter which then allows me to listen to all of this excellent content on 1570 kHz with vintage tube radios such as my Scott Marine SLR-M, my BC-348-Q, and my Minerva Tropicmaster.

For Mediumwave DXing

Without a doubt, my favorite radio for mediumwave/AM broadcast band DXing is the Panasonic RF-2200.

I mentioned in a previous post that my buddy Vlado (N3CZ) recently repaired, cleaned, and calibrated one of my RF-2200s.

Let’s just say that Vlado worked his magic and my RF-2200 now operates and performs like a brand new unit. Seriously. It’s simply unbelievable.

Not only does the Panny ‘2200 provide benchmark MW performance, it’s simply a pleasure to operate. It also produces some of the richest AM audio you’ll ever hear from a portable radio.

Of course, the ‘2200 hasn’t been produced in decades, so you’ll have to search for used ones on eBay, at hamfests, or through your favorite radio classifieds.

And, yes, I still need to finish a Part 2 blog-post about the ‘2200 repair–once I get a few details and photos from Vlado, I’ll post it!

Your Daily Drivers? Please comment!

Keep in mind that my “daily drivers” change quite a bit–the ones listed above are my current favorites and have been for a year or more.

So now that I’ve shared my daily drivers, I hope you will, too!

Is there a particular radio you reach for more than any other?  Please comment and tell us why it’s your favorite!


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Initial review of the CommRadio CTX-10 QRP general coverage transceiver

In the past two years few QRP transceivers have generated the interest of the CommRadio CTX-10. I’ve gotten no fewer than two dozen emails from readers asking about the CTX-10 after learning I had one here at SWLing Post HQ.  And, I’ll freely admit, I was among those people who couldn’t wait to give this promising little radio some on-air time––and, as a result, a proper evaluation.

The CTX-10 arrives in this simple box.

Everything included in the CTX-10 box.

There are a few reasons why the CTX-10 has stirred up so much excitement. Firstly, the CTX-10 transceiver is based on the excellent and well-regarded CommRadio CR-1/CR-1A receiver. Click here to read our review in a new window.

Fans of the US-made CR-1 and CR-1A appreciated the approach to the CommRadio design: simple operation, clever engineering, near-mil spec components and construction, superb receiver characteristics, as well as excellent audio. The classic CR-1 has all the essentials––multiple modes, filters, and the like––yet offers relatively few features when compared with other tabletop radios in its price class. It’s a simple get-on-the-air rig that feels like it’s engineered to last forever.  Indeed, its design approach reminds me of the Lowe receivers of days gone by.

Another reason for the unusual level of interest is that the CTX-10 has been in the works for a long time. It was first announced over two years ago in October, 2016, and only started shipping in July/August 2018.

Since then, there have been very few CTX-10 reviews posted…hence all of the email questions.

In early October 2018 Don Moore, President of CommRadio, sent me a loaner CTX-10 which I’ve been using regularly since, testing all aspects of this little 10-watt transceiver.

Even though I’ve had the radio for a while, I plan to post a final CTX-10 review in the SWLing Post in coming months. As you may know, I typically only keep a review unit two months before publishing an evaluation, so why the delay?  In short: I feel like the CTX-10 has some important updates/upgrades that need to come down the line, and I’m allowing time for these to be developed and tested before I issue a full and final review. So, if this is a rig that interests you, you’ll want to stay tuned for that.

In fact, due to a couple of quirks that only affected the first twenty production units, CommRadio has already replaced my initial review unit. I’ll detail these quirks below.

In the meantime, what follows is an initial review of the CommRadio CTX-10 with the most current firmware as of time of posting (1311). This review format is a departure from previous reviews as I’m only focusing on the pros and cons that might help future CTX-10 owners make a purchase decision.

Consider this initial review just a taste of the CommRadio CTX-10, not the full course.

CTX-10: The Pros

First of all, much like the CR-1 and CR-1A, the CTX-10 is an all-in-one unit that takes fewer than five seconds to get on the air if you have an antenna at the ready. Seriously. Other than a key, and/or microphone and antenna, there are no other external attachments needed. It’s field-ready from the moment you remove it from the package.

True story: it took me all of thirty seconds to remove the CTX-10 from the box, plug in a key, an antenna, and have it on the air.  This is a major pro, in my radio world.

ATU

The CTX-10 has a built-in automatic antenna tuner that seems to do a great job making 1:1 matches on near-resonant multi-band antennas. I have a large horizontal multi-band delta loop here at the QTH, and the CTX-10 does a fine job finding a match on most ham bands.

Can it match the performance of the Elecraft KX-series ATU? I haven’t done an A/B comparison yet, but I don’t expect so—not on random wire antennas, at least. I do think, however, it will easily match any proper field antenna you pack in your go-kit.

Another minor plus worth mentioning? The ATU is very quiet in operation.

Internal batteries

The CTX-10 ships with three built-in #18650 3.7V 2600 mAh rechargeable Li-ion batteries that are user-replaceable. These are high-capacity cells—in fact, the same type of cells used in the Tesla Model S.

But how do they work? In short: brilliantly. They power the CTX-10 for a much longer period of time than the battery pack in my Elecraft KX2.

After a full charge, these cells will support casual operation for up to eight hours. If you’re using the CTX-10 in a contest or on Field Day where operation is intense––that is to say, near-constant transmitting––it should last the better part of an hour. Don Moore actually produced a video early on of the CTX-10 running a full 10 watts and transmitting dits in CW for forty solid minutes before the batteries depleted to the point of shutting down. That’s certainly a new benchmark for portable rigs with internal batteries.

The CTX-10 has an intelligent charger that will recharge the internal cells when any voltage over 5 VDC is applied. This means, in a pinch, even a typical USB charger will work. If the power supply can deliver up to ten watts, it’ll charge the batteries rapidly––anything below that will take a longer.

Elecraft KX2 (left) and the CommRadio CTX-10 (right)

I also own the Elecraft KX2 and have used it in the field more than any other portable transceiver I’ve owned up to this point.

The KX2’s battery charging routine is more involved than that of the CTX-10. The KX2’s pack must be removed from the radio (by opening the bottom plate of the chassis with two thumb screws, and unplugging the coaxial connector), then it must be hooked up to an external battery charger, charged, and then re-inserted in the KX2.

In contrast, the CTX-10 only requires plugging it into a power source that can provide anything from 5 – 20 VDC––in other words, pretty much any power source. All of the intelligent charging is built into the CTX-10.

Without a doubt, the CTX-10 has the most robust and well-designed internal battery charging system I’ve ever found in a portable radio. Period.

Best-in-class duty cycle

If you’re a fan of FT-8 and other high-duty cycle digital modes, you’ll be very pleased with he CTX-10.

Like many other hams, I was bitten by the FT-8 bug. FT-8 is an amazingly efficient digital mode that somehow manages to defy propagation—even when transmitting at low power. In the past, I’ve worked all time new countries on five watts!

The CTX-10 back panel.

At home, I designated the Elecraft KX3 as my primary FT-8 rig. First time putting it on the air, I found to be fairly effortless. However, after operating perhaps 15-20 minutes, I found that power levels decreased significantly. This is because taxing the finals with FT-8 produces a lot of heat, and the KX3 protects the finals by lowering the output power. KX3 owners wishing to play FT-8 for extended periods at 10 watts or higher know how important it is to purchase an aftermarket heatsink to give the KX3 more transmitting time.

The CTX-10, in contrast, needs no aftermarket additions—if anything, it’s over-engineered. The entire chassis of the radio is essentially a heat sink, and because of this, it requires neither additions nor a fan to cool the finals, leading to comparatively effortless operation. Plus, as a result, operation is completely quiet.

In short? No overheating finals with the CTX-10: it’s an FT-8 beast!

Receiver performance

Overall receiver performance is what I expected: identical to the CommRadio CR-1/CR-1a receiver series with the added benefit of an internal ATU that helps tweak the antenna match on the ham bands. A very good thing.

In addition, the CTX-10 has custom multiple preselectors to assist in ham radio operation and broadcast listening. Though I haven’t tested the CTX-10 in RF-dense environments like Field Day, I expect it will hold its own. Trust me, it’ll get its turn this year at the 2019 Field Day event.

Both sensitivity and selectivity are excellent. The receiver also has a very low noise floor and produces excellent audio fidelity especially when paired with headphones or an external speaker.

In general, I prefer the CTX-10 audio characteristic over that of the Elecraft KX series.

Simple operation

You can tell that CommRadio has a legacy in designing equipment for the military, as well as for commercial and aviation industries. The CTX-10 smacks of a channelized commercial radio. There are relatively few features and adjustments as compared with, say, the Elecraft KX2 or the LnR LD-11. For those who like basic controls, the CTX-10 should please. On the other hand, if you like more granular control of your transceiver, you might prefer more refinements.

Quality engineering and construction

Like the CR-1A, the CTX-10 enclosure is aluminum with machined aluminum knobs. The boards and internal components are near (if not) mil-spec––brilliant quality that is found in few other radios.

The OLED display is easy to read at any angle and under almost any conditions you might experience at home or in the field––truly best-in-class in this regard. It is a relatively small display, but crisp and high-contrast, so quite easy on the eyes.

The circuit boards inside are of the highest quality, and so are the components. Don Moore sourced them from the same suppliers he uses for commercial-grade equipment.

My good friend, Vlado (N3CZ)––radio engineer and repair technician––took a look inside the CTX-10 chassis; he was sincerely impressed by the quality of the construction and board design. It’s worth noting that Vlado isn’t easily impressed, as he looks at the internals of commercial and military grade communications equipment every day: thus it says something that he remarked on this rig’s quality.

CTX-10: The cons

I’ve covered the obvious positives, so what about the negatives?

What follows are the cons I’ve noted while operating the CTX-10.

Keep in mind, some of these cons may disappear with future CTX-10 firmware updates. Again, I plan to hold off on my full and final CTX-10 review until I feel CommRadio has essentially finished planned upgrades.

At least for now: only one VFO

Herein lies my biggest gripe with the CTX-10 and what I would consider a glaring omission on a $1,000 modern SDR transceiver.  However, it’s worth noting that CommRadio has committed to address this in an update–see below.

At time of posting, the CTX-10 doesn’t have A/B VFOs like almost all modern transceivers––certainly like all of its direct QRP competitors, like the Elecraft KX2/KX3, LnR LD-11, and Yaesu FT-818/817ND.

So, how does a lack of two VFOs impact operation? First of all, there is no way to operate split on the current version of the CTX-10. Ouch.

The first time I put the CTX-10 on the air it was at the QTH of Vlado (N3CZ). We put the CTX-10 on 40 meters, and one of the first stations we heard was in Vanuatu, due to a brilliant opening into the Pacific. Vlado was positive he would work them with 10 watts on his 40M Steppir Yagi––I was, too. This being the first time either of us attempted DX on the CTX-10, we plugged in Vlado’s Bencher paddles and quickly tried to sort out where the DX station was working his pileup.

It was then we realized that the CTX-10 had no second VFO to work split, and, hence, we couldn’t work the Vanuatu station––because, like pretty much any desirable DX, he was operating split. Frankly, I was in disbelief and quickly downloaded the latest CTX-10 manual to find out how to engage split, but there was no mention of it in the manual.

The only other option was to operate split using a RIT control to shift the receive frequency. Again, we couldn’t locate a RIT control and a search of the manual proved no mention of RIT because, alas, there is no RIT control.

Again, we couldn’t work Vanuatu on the CTX-10 because, like all good DXers, the Vanuatu team were operating split.

Update: CommRadio has informed me they will be adding A/B VFOs as soon as possible, certainly before the 2019 Hamvention in mid-May, but hopefully sooner.

Features may be too basic for some ham radio operators

It’s no secret: most of us hams like to fiddle with controls to tweak a transceiver’s performance. This is why ham radio transceivers often feature even more controls than their commercial/military counterparts.

The CTX-10 support feet are easy to flip up. The operating angle is excellent.

Still, some operators do appreciate a simpler rig, as they prefer simply to get on the air and get the job done. I appreciate this, too, especially when engaged in field operations where I’m less inclined to tinker with settings. So there’s some appeal in the CTX-10 approach.

At present, the CTX-10 feature set is very basic. Here’s a list of common controls the CTX-10 lacks––many that I’d typically expect in a radio of this price class:

No RF Gain control. The CTX-10’s RF gain is directly tied to the three AGC settings (slow, medium and fast). I know operators who never reach for the RF gain control, but I do, especially in the summer when it’s such an effective tool to lower QRN levels and help DX pop out of the background.

No microphone gain control. The CTX-10 lacks a mic gain control. The microphone input has a limiting pre-amplifier with built-in compressor and ambient noise gate. Problem is, at present, these settings are fixed and cannot be manually adjusted by the user. The CTX-10 was designed to work with handheld mics positioned closely to one’s mouth. Early feedback from users indicated that the CTX-10 was a little too aggressive, cutting off speech; a recent update did address this concern. Some users might never notice the lack of a mic gain control if they stick with the suggested modular MFJ-290MY or Yaesu MH-31A8J handheld mic. Personally, though, I like having a little more control of my microphone performance.

Keep in mind, there’s a plus side to the CommRadio ANG (Ambient Noise Gate): extended battery life. If you have the microphone keyed down, yet aren’t speaking for longer than a second or two, the output will be gated OFF, preventing background ambient noise from being transmitted. The on/off gating happens very quickly and isn’t noticeable.

The CTX-10 currently has no passband (PBT) control, notch filter or noise blanker.

Microphone compression is also pre-configured, and there’s currently no way to manually adjust it. This is a design choice typical of commercial communications gear.

No QSK/full break-in operation. The CTX-10, like the LnR LD-11, uses a traditional relay for switching between transmit and receive. Some CW ops like to hear the received audio between the dits and dahs of their sent CW. Elecraft radios, for example, use PIN diode T-R switching to eliminate relays during QSK. The CTX-10 uses a relay, so during CW operations, you’ll hear the relay click when switching from TX to RX and back again. This isn’t a problem for me, as I rarely set my CW rigs for full break-in, but the CW hang time delay on the CTX-10 is not currently adjustable. For high-speed CW ops that prefer a faster relay recovery, I suspect this could be an annoyance.

Limited CW adjustments. The CTX-10 lacks other controls many of us CW operators appreciate. Currently, the CTX-10 lacks a sidetone control––you cannot change the sidetone volume, nor can you turn it off. I believe CommRadio plans to fix this quirk in a future firmware upgrade. Additionally, you (currently) can’t change which side of your paddle sends dits and dahs without re-wiring your paddle. A minor con, for sure. Still, most modern QRP transceivers allow you to change this from the radio––I imagine CommRadio could add this feature in the future if their customers want it.

In addition, when operating the built-in CW keyer at speeds north of 25 words per minute, both Vlado and I noticed that immediately following a TX-RX-TX relay recovery, CW keyer timing was a little flaky. We assumed there was a problem with our paddles (perhaps dirty contacts?), but that turned out not to be the problem. Difficult to characterize, but essentially: immediately after a TX-RX-TX relay recovery, it’s hard to form a word correctly. The letter “Y” might come out as a “K” or “X” and  a “Q” might come out as a “Z.” Both Vlado and I believe this might have something to do with keyer timing, which is possible. Nonetheless, I’m confident this can be fixed with a firmware update. In addition, we worked my friend Mike (K8RAT) and while he had very positive comments about the CW tone in general, he did notice truncated elements following a TX recovery. He also noticed an occasional slight tone spike on the first element which seems to coincide with an audio pop we hear in the sidetone. Note: CommRadio is investigating, and has given this high priority––I’m hopeful they will sort this out soon.

Accident-proof ATU activation. As with the CR-1A receiver, most of the CTX-10’s features and options are controlled by accessing the menu system by pressing the volume control knob. To make ATU activation easy, CommRadio place the ATU function first in the menu––with one knob press, the ATU item appears, and with one more press the ATU activates and tries to find a match. Engaging the ATU, in my opinion, is just a little too easy. With two presses of the volume knob, the ATU engages––great, but I find this happening by accident simply by normal handling of the radio. Instead of two short presses to engage ATU, I feel it might be best when making one short then one long press.

One other minor note: the CTX-10 ATU configuration cannot be adjusted manually like it can on the Elecraft KX series ATU.

No keylock to prevent powering up and engaging ATU. The CTX-10 does have a keylock to prevent the encoder from shifting during operation (a great feature for FT-8, for example), but it lacks a keylock to prevent the main power button from being pressed and turning on while in transport. Even more worrisome would be turning on the unit and engaging the ATU while in a pack––I’m guessing this could eventually damage the radio’s finals. The current solution for this? CommRadio suggests tying a shielded wire around the post of the volume control. This prevents accidental pressing while in transport and the CTX-10 ships with one of these around the volume knob (to prevent it turning on in shipment). I feel a more elegant solution would be to design it so that, in order to power up the CTX-10, you’d press two buttons simultaneously: for example, the volume control and the STEP buttons. I’ve make this suggestion to CommRadio.

Minor concern: no noise reduction control. In truth, this is a very minor con in my opinion. I’m not a big user of DSP noise reduction, but some users expect it on modern transceivers. I feel like the CTX-10’s receiver is well-balanced so I wouldn’t reach for a noise reduction control under normal operating conditions.  That said, since there is no manual RF gain control, a variable noise reduction control could come in handy when QRN is heavy.

Size comparison: My ultra-compact C. Crane CC Skywave SSB sitting on top of the CommRadio CTX-10.

Minor concern: limited power output levels. This is a very minor gripe for me, but again could be important for other ops. At present, the CTX-10 has only three power output levels: 1, 5, and 10 watts. Thus for low-power contests, there is no way to lower the CTX-10 below one watt and no adjustment to zero watts. A couple of years ago my radio club had a DXCC 500 mW challenge to see who could work 100 countries with 500 mW or less. Most other modern QRP transceivers in this class have more nuanced control of power output and can be set to 1/2 watt.  At present, the CTX-10 cannot. This is truly a minor complaint––perhaps only important to 10% of CTX-10 owners at best––but I’m willing to bet this could be added via a firmware upgrade.

Early production run quirks now resolved

Fortunately, however, the CTX-10 is listening to their market, and has resolved a number of early production run quirks. My initial evaluation loaner unit was serial number #19. Turns out, some of the first production run units (including mine) had a couple of hardware quirks. CommRadio has replaced or fixed these issues when customers report them, and units currently in inventory aren’t affected. I list them here simply to document:

  • Resolved: Intelligent charger whine. When charging the internal Li-Ion cells, my evaluation unit produced a high-pitched audible whine. I measured the audio frequency with a simple smartphone app and determined that it hovers around 10.5 kHz. The replacement unit doesn’t have this problem.
  • Resolved (or repairable): Internal speaker distortion. The internal speaker on some of the early units was prone to vibrate against the bottom plate of the radio’s chassis. This produced a buzzing distortion on loud sounds or when the volume was increased above, say, 50%. Again, this only affected some of the initial production run units. The fix for this is quite easy, and either CommRadio will do this for you or you can do it yourself and get a warranty extension, so if you find this to be a problem with your early unit, contact CommRadio.

Conclusion

To my knowledge, the CTX-10 is CommRadio’s very first ham radio transceiver.  But it’s not the company’s first foray into transceiver equipment, as they’ve a solid history in commercial, aviation, and military electronics.

My biggest criticism of the CTX-10 is that I feel it should have never been released without A/B VFOs. Fortunately, this should soon be remedied. I trust this company, so I know they will follow through; I’ve even offered input on how split operation might be implemented with the A/B VFOs. Personally I wish the rig sported a little more in the way of CW controls, mic gain, and an RF gain control, too––but that’s my preference, controls I like to use. Again, the CTX-10 feature set might be a little too thin––too simplistic––for some hams.

That said, I never expected the CTX-10 to have the number of features that, say, the KX2 has––the CTX-10 isn’t intended to be a “Swiss Army Knife” radio like the KX2/KX3. In fact, CTX-10 development actually began around the same time the KX2 was introduced to the market, and its introduction didn’t deter CommRadio.

CommRadio firmly believes that the CTX-10 will still have appeal to current KX2/KX3 owners and QRPers who value their design philosophy of simplicity. And, what’s more…they have a point.

So, who is the CTX-10 for?

When I check out a new-to-the-market radio like the CTX-10, I always try to sort out who the customer is––what type of ham radio operator would reach for the CTX-10 over other transceivers.

After having spent the past few months with the CTX-10, I can tell you that the CTX-10 owner is one who values a very simple, straightforward radio––one that appears and functions more like a commercial or military channelized set. Perhaps someone who began operating in a commercial, military, or aviation field, and/or who likes the “get on and get the job done” approach.  Someone more interested in making contacts than in radio operations and refinements. Those who want a sturdy, lasting, no-frills, set-it-and-forget-it rig. If that’s you, take a closer look at the CTX-10–it may just suit your needs to a T.

The CTX-10’s overall construction and components are, as I’ve said, near mil-spec. The CTX-10 isn’t weatherized or waterproof––no more than any of its competitors––but the construction is top-shelf, for sure. It should run for decades without need of repair.

The whole body of the CTX-10 is essentially a heat sink.

I believe the CTX-10 will have strong appeal for radio enthusiasts who value:

  • All-in-one-box portability with no extra wired accessory components
  • Best-in-class internal battery life
  • Best-in-class intelligent battery charging
  • HF packs
  • A high duty cycle and no cooling fan noise or third-party heat-sink add-ons
  • Digital modes like FT-8 and the ability to operate them in the field from internal batteries
  • The equivalent of a simple portable military/commercial set
  • Robust audio from a radio’s internal speaker or headphones
  • A well-balanced receiver with few manual adjustments
  • Broadcast listening (the CTX-10 is also superb broadcast receiver)
  • Best-in-class hardware

The CTX-10 is built like a tank, and has brilliant receiver characteristics. It’s also designed and manufactured here in the USA, and I find it’s easy to get good support from CommRadio.

I will add that CommRadio has been very receptive to my constructive and frank criticism. A good thing, in my book, as lesser companies might take offense or simply be dismissive.

If you’ve been waiting to purchase the CTX-10, I hope I’ve given you enough information that you can make a decision.

If you have any specific questions, please contact CommRadio or comment, and I’ll do my best to answer. I hope to post a few videos of the CTX-10 in action within the next few weeks when my rather busy schedule permits.

Click here to view the CommRadio CTX-10 at CommRadio and at Universal Radio.

For a full list of CTX-10 features and specs, I would encourage potential owners to download and read the CTX-10 Operator’s Manual, available on the CommRadio website.


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