Category Archives: Shortwave Radio Reviews

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.

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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:


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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).

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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.

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Video: Nick compares the new Tecsun PL-368 with other portables

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

Hi Thomas

I posted a video of this radio compared to a couple other popular radios. Thought your viewers might be interested. This 368 is a significant improvement over the 360 and 365.

Thank you so much for sharing this, Nick! People who love the form factor of the PL-360 and PL-365, should appreciate the new Tecsun PL-368. Thank you again!

Click here to check out the Tecsun PL-368 on eBay (partner link supports the SWLing Post).

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Stephan notes a few issues with his first production run Sangean ATS-909X2

Update: Please read this comment from Sangean America. It seems the receiver Stephan received was actually a pre-production model that shouldn’t have been sold to him. Sangean has replaced his radio with one from the first production run. 

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Stefan, who recently shared two descriptive comments about issues his new Sangean ATS-909X2 is exhibiting. I’ve edited both comments together below:

I purchased [my Sangean ATS-909X2] from Sangean Europe and I am totally disappointed. I know that my radio is from the first production batch and I really hope that Sangean will address the following issues:

1. When I switch from FM to MW/LW/SW, I lose reception completely on these bands. However, FM works as expected, regardless from which band I switch back to it. To restore reception on the affected bands, I have to turn off the radio for a few seconds.

[Stefan then provided the following update:] Note [in this audio clip example the] first time I had to restart the radio two times to restore reception.

2. Lots of tones across all the bands, except FM. In fact, every receivable station has at least a minor tone. I can’t judge if these tones are interferences coming from internal components, such as the display, or there are oscillators related. If you are interested I can record some audio samples. Video is not possible because I’m visually impaired.

[Stefan shared the following update:] I am pretty confident to say that most tones across the bands are not generated by internal components. There are some birdies here and there, especially when I touch the screen, but these are acceptable. I suspect that it is something wrong with signal demodulation. I can get that tone even on strong local stations, while the sensitivity is set to minimum.

[…]The environment where I made these recordings is very noisy, but I tried the radio outside and, even if reception is much better, that tone on the affected bands is always present.

Below [is an audio sample] demonstrating that annoying tone on MW (LW, SW and air band are also affected):

3. The following one is not so important: The upper part of the LW is totally deaf. I can’t receive anything above 300 kHz. Tried some non-directional beacons from the nearest airport, but no luck. I also tried to induce some interference from my mobile phone, but I can’t generate any noise. Very interesting…

4. Frequency calibration is off by 2 kHz. For example a station on 540 kHz sounds centered at 542.

5. I noticed a huge sensitivity drop on MW/LW (SW not tested yet) when the batteries reach the half of their capacity. I suspected that it was bad propagation, but tested this with another radio I have and turns out I was wrong. When batteries are full, the sensitivity is ok. When the batteries are a bit discharged, sensitivity on MW/LW begins to drop. I can admit that the sensitivity is correlated with battery voltage, but on this radio the dropping curve is unusually aggressive.

That’s all for now. This is not a review. These are my first personal observations on the new ATS 909×2. I think I should return the radio for a product exchange and try another unit after a few months or maybe even for a refund, I still have not decided yet.

Thanks so much, Stefan, for taking the time to share these notes with us.

I’ll admit that this is discouraging if these issues are present in all of the ATS-909X2 units from this production run. Your points 1 and 2 are big ones. I would not enjoy hearing those het-like tones in my received audio. It sounds like it’s ever-present in AM mode regardless of frequency. The drop-off in sensitivity when toggling FM? That’s also unacceptable. These bugs should have been discovered and addressed during Alpha/Beta testing which leads me to believe it could very well be an issue with the first production run (and lack of QC check before shipping).

Issue number 5 on your list is actually a criticism of the original ATS-909X as well.

Please keep us informed, Stefan, and thanks again. I know our contributor, Dan, has an ATS-909X2 on order in North America and I’m sure we’ll hear from him once he receives his unit.

Any other ATS-909X2 owners out there? Please feel free to comment.

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A review of the lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No (Built-In) Speaker

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

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

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

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

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

No ATU

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

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

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

No internal rechargeable battery (yet!)

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

 

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

What makes the TX-500 unique

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

Rugged, weather-resistant body

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

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

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

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

Connectors

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

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

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

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

LCD screen with spectrum display

 

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

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

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

Benchmark current drain

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

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

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

On the air

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

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

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

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

CW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SSB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortwave broadcast listening

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

Pros:

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

Cons:

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to purchase a TX-500 from HRO.

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


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