Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jack Kratoville, for the following guest post:
My Perfect Radio Trifecta
by Jack Kratoville
Last Fall, I asked SWLing readers to assist me in my decision as to what portable radio I should take on a two-week trip to Germany. While I came up with an initial list of portables I already own, there were some excellent suggestions on what I might pack. (Sidenote to Thomas – yes, my wife and I packed everything we needed into two carry-on pieces, including my 3 radios. Your expertise continues to serve us well!) To all else, thank you again for your thoughts, suggestions and comments.
The Tecsun PL-310ET was a top choice of many, yet one I had previously never taken into the field. It seemed a logical choice for this trip. The second is the Sangean PL-210 and it just fits in any pocket. The third is a DAB receiver someone had given me, tossed in a drawer, and forgotten about until I realized Germany implemented DAB to replace the MW and LW bands. The only name I can find online is the DAB-8. Being quite small, it made the cut and I shoved it in between a couple of tee shirts.
At our destination, I quickly realized I could not have chosen a better trinity for myself. Here’s why.
If this had been the only radio I brought, I would have been more than satisfied. SW signals abound (the war just two countries away was certainly a factor.) A quick hit of the ETM feature at the top of the hour brought in 40-50 listenable signals, with only a scant few broadcasts religious in nature. Even during the day, I could capture 25 easily. With the bandwidth set at 3 kHz, sound was most impressive. While some were the same broadcast on different frequencies, my only real disappointment was the lack of English-speaking broadcasts – but that was to be expected. The PL-310ET scans relatively fast and holds on to strong signals quite nicely.
We stayed with relatives who lived high on a hill not far from Kiel, in the north of Germany. One push of the ETM feature on FM filled the dial with German voices playing mostly English pop music (the eighties apparently a favorite decade there too.) Simply put, the selectivity on this radio is phenomenal. Odd / even frequencies happily sharing adjacent homes on the dial. And with the pre-emphasis on European FM at 50, the sound from this portable was absolute perfection. As a matter of fact, my first complaint about this radio was a bit of harshness on our over-processed FM commercial stations. In Europe, the audio characteristics of classical, pop, rock and talk stations was simply sweet.
My first night on the AM band was a disappointment. One, maybe two signals that didn’t come in very well. Thankfully, I quickly remembered to flip it to 9kHz and – wow! The BBC, Spanish, Italian, and signals that sounded very much like eastern Europe came booming in. I did not expect all of this and can easily say this was the most fun I’ve had band scanning and DXing in a long, long time! Traveling domestically, I’m more apt to load a memory page, but in this situation, the ETM feature was incredibly useful.
For all DXing, I only used the whip and internal antennas. The battery indicator dropped one notch on the second to the last day we were there. The PL-310ET is an absolute true travel performer.
The Tecsun PL-310ET now sits proudly alongside my CCrane Skywave, Digitech AR1780, Eton Executive Satellit (Grundig edition) and the semi-retired Grundig G5. When we travel to London next year, there’s no question this gets packed again.
A radio that became my constant walking companion during Covid. Hand-sized with a really nice on-board speaker for its size. The sensitivity is impressive and considering its PLL circuitry, has excellent selectivity on FM. AM was also impressive for an antenna no more than a half-inch – if that. It went with me to Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfort and Denmark; always just a quick pull from the pocket for a quick scan. To say I like this radio, well, I own three.
My curiosity in DAB was basically zero. One reader actually PM’d me and offered their own DAB receiver, saying I should check it out. (Thank you, Mike, for that generous offer.) This radio sounds great, but has very poor FM reception. (No MW). It does have inputs for mp3 and Bluetooth, so I figured just in case there was nothing to listen to, I could stream something on it. Its small size was the biggest factor in making the trip. Once settled, a quick daytime scan grabbed nine signals easily on DAB and they sounded great. It was the only band that featured more traditional (even country!) music. It’s back in the drawer at home, but I am very glad it made the trip.
I truly had a blast listening to the various captures on these three radios, the Tecsun being the most impressive and fun. I’m sure many newer models would be excellent choices, but not once did I wish to have something bigger or better. That doesn’t happen on trips very often, so perfection indeed.
My apologies to those looking / hoping for recordings. I stopped recording from the radio back when I opted to purchase 45rpm records rather than record them, complete with DJ patter on my father’s Webcor reel-to-reel. Once I got into the biz, I recorded enough DJ patter to last a lifetime! Again, thanks to everyone for their input.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jack Kratoville, for the following guest post:
Important travel decisions…
For the first time, (in a very long time), I’ll be traveling outside the country. This will be my first visit to Germany, and while I’ve already put Thomas’ packing skills to the test domestically with moderate success and confidence, I thought I would ask for assistance on what radio to bring.
The following is what I have, along with my current personal pros and cons regarding each one for this specific trip. I’m traveling with my wife, daughter & mother-in-law and staying with her family. This probably excludes a lot of alone time dedicated specifically to radio listening and DXing.
Now, from what I’ve been reading, MW and LW have been eliminated in favor of digital signals. This changes the equation a bit. Lack of SSB is NOT a deal-breaker. The amount of time I spend listening is miniscule. Here’s the receivers:
The CC Skywave
This has been on every domestic trip I’ve taken since its purchase in 2015. Perfect size (even with the hard case) and excellent performance. Two quality AA batteries will last for 2 weeks easily. However, my favorite feature, WX, is useless there. Best MW reception in an ultralight, but does that matter in the land of DAB? Assuming there’s no LW to listen to either, the Skywave’s lack of it shouldn’t factor in. I like the Skywave’s super-fast scanning, but I think I’ll wish I had the ETM feature of other radios. I’ve used the Air Band, but I won’t be staying anywhere near an airport and I doubt I’ll be sitting in an airport with an extended antenna anytime soon. Non-digital audio control gives me exact control to go “unnoticed” if others are sleeping. The lack of ETM may keep this unit home.
Another favorite travel companion that does feature ETM, this radio is small and compact – and my unit still works like new. I can recharge the batteries with a computer cable, not that it’s ever shown high power consumption. I had thought this was a front runner, but tinny audio and that extra antenna to lose is giving me second thoughts. It’s physical build lends to more hand-held than bedside table use and that is definitely a factor worth considering. Analog audio control, but it has gotten noisy.
The Digitech AR1780
Has it all: LW/MW/Air/FM(RDS)/SSB and fantastic audio. For positives, it checks all the boxes. It is a slow scanner – and that is a persistent downside. Further considerations, I’m committed to carry-on travel only (European dimensions!) and this receiver will command more real estate in the bag. Now if I didn’t need to pack socks for a couple of weeks… I may also be shoving a radio in my pocket for those “here’s-what-we-have-planned” moments and I don’t want to look like I’m obviously addicted to my hobby. With that non-existent charging cord, four replacement double-A’s might also be an issue if I do use it for any reasonable amount of time. I had considered this a shoe-in when we first talked Germany prior to pandemic, but it seems more unsuitable every time I weigh the pros and cons.
A radio gifted to me that was immediately assigned to basic alarm clock duty bedside – now surprisingly is part of the discussion. Not enough sizzle to replace my favorites domestically, but it may have the right combo for a few weeks in Germany. Quick scanning, ETM, multiple tuning modes, a decent speaker. Unlike the PL-360, you can’t “fast-tune” with the knob, but you can direct-input frequencies. I would miss RDS on FM, but I’ve scanned most of my life without it. Now, I’ve had a few other Tecsuns (along with the Grundig G8) and they all eventually fail with tuning and volume knobs (the PL-360 is the honorable exception). Since I haven’t used this unit much, I’m confident it’s well before its failure phase, if it ever does. I am not a fan of digital volume knobs, but this one seems to be better balanced than most. Not sure how it does on 3 AA consumption, but I’m testing rigorously. I would have never guessed, but this is the front-runner at the moment.
Eton Traveler III
The Eton Traveler III
While I’ve enjoyed RCS and the adjustable lighted dial at the beach, I’m not impressed. Sounds and looks nice, but lack of user-friendly functionality has kept this unit from any serious travel. Not to mention a battery hog with 4 AAs!
What do you think?
While I might fantasize about making room for the Eton Executive Satellit or putting batteries back in my G5, I’m limiting choices to the above! I appreciate all input and any thoughts on radio listening in Germany. Please comment!
Any SW frequencies I should direct input? We’ll be staying just outside of Kiel, which could include a day trip to Denmark.
Now it’s off to Hodinkee for GMT watch suggestions.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Fahey, who shared the following comment in reply to this recent post. Mark writes:
A few years ago I traveled Beijing to Helsinki – a 3 week journey via the all stops SLOWWWWW trains via Ulan Bator & Moscow. I was only carrying a backpack so I took along a Tecsun PL-380 (I think that was the model? – It’s up in my Bali home at the moment so I can’t check for sure) and it worked amazing well using the whip next to the train window.
On the journey I passed the Voice Of Mongolia SW Transmitter site – here is a link to my video of the antennas and township (Khonhor) – was a great trip! I will be doing it again next year – this time slightly longer Shanghai to Frankfurt.
That’s just brilliant, Mark! Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to a full tour of the Voice of Mongolia next time you’re passing by! 😉
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post:
Gone fishing…for DX: Reception enhancement at the seaside
In each of my few reviews I referred to “the dike” or “my happy place”, which is a tiny stretch of the 380 miles of dike protecting Germany’s North Sea coast. This is the place where I like to go for maximum listening pleasure and of course for testing radios. Everyone knows that close proximity to an ocean is good for radio reception…but why is that? Is there a way to quantify “good”?
Of course there is, this has been documented before, there is probably lots of literature about it and old papers like this one (click here to download PDF). A complete answer to the question has at least two parts:
1. Less QRM
It may be obvious, but civilization and therefore QRM sources at such a place extend to one hemisphere only, because the other one is covered with ocean for 100s, if not 1000s of miles. There are few places on the planet that offer such a lack of civilization in such a big area, while still being accessible, habitable and in range for pizza delivery. Unless you’re in the midst of a noisy tourist trap town, QRM will be low. Still, you may have to find a good spot away from all tourist attractions and industry for absolutely minimal QRM.
My dike listening post is far enough from the next small tourist trap town (in which I live) and also sufficiently far away from the few houses of the next tiny village and it’s located in an area that doesn’t have HV power lines (important for MW and LW reception!) or industrial areas, other small villages are miles away and miles apart, the next town is 20 km/12 miles away from there. In other words, man-made noise is just not an issue there.
That alone would be making shortwave reception as good as it gets and it gives me an opportunity to check out radios on my own terms: The only way to assess a radio’s properties and qualities without or beyond test equipment is under ideal conditions, particularly for everything that has to do with sensitivity. It’s already difficult without QRM (because natural noise (QRN) can easily be higher than the receiver’s sensitivity threshold too, depending on a number of factors), and even small amounts of QRM on top make that assessment increasingly impossible. This is particularly true for portables, which often can’t be fully isolated from local noise sources for a couple of reasons.
Yes, most modern radios are all very sensitive and equal to the degree that it doesn’t make a difference in 98% of all regular reception scenarios but my experience at the dike is that there are still differences, and the difference between my least sensitive and my most sensitive portable is not at all negligible, even more because they are not only receivers but the entire receiving system including the antenna. You won’t notice that difference in the middle of a city, but you may notice it in the woods.
When the radio gets boring, I can still have fun with the swing and the slide!
2. More signal
I always had a feeling that signals actually increase at the dike and that made me curious enough to actually test this by having a receiver tuned to some station in the car, then driving away from the dike and back. Until recently it didn’t come to me to document or even quantify this difference though. When I was once again googling for simple answers to the question what the reason might be, I stumbled upon this video: Callum (M0MCX) demonstrating the true reason for this in MMANA (an antenna modeling software) on his “DX Commander” channel:
To summarize this, Callum explains how a pretty dramatic difference in ground conductivity near the sea (click here to download PDF) leads to an increase in antenna gain, or more precisely a decrease in ground return losses equaling more antenna gain. Of course I assumed that the salt water has something to do with but I had no idea how much: For example, average ground has a conductivity of 0.005 Siemens per meter, salt water is averaging at 5.0 S/m, that’s a factor of 1,000 (!) and that leads to roughly 10dB of gain. That’s right, whatever antenna you use at home in the backcountry would get a free 10dB gain increase by the sea, antennas with actual dBd or dBi gain have even more gain there.
That this has a nice impact on your transmitting signal should be obvious if you’re a ham, if not just imagine that you’d need a 10x more powerful amplifier or an array of wires or verticals or a full-size Yagi to get that kind of gain by directionality. But this is also great for reception: You may argue that 10dB is “only” little more than 1.5 S-units but 1.5 S-units at the bottom of the meter scale spans the entire range between “can’t hear a thing” and “fully copy”!
A practical test
It’s not that I don’t believe DX Commander’s assessment there but I just had to see it myself and find a way to share that with you. A difficulty was finding a station that has A) a stable signal but is B) not really local, C) on shortwave, D) always on air and E) propagation must be across water or at least along the shoreline.
The army (or navy) to the rescue! After several days of observing STANAG stations for their variation in signal on different times of the day, I picked one on 4083 kHz (thanks to whoever pays taxes to keep that thing blasting the band day and night!). I don’t know where exactly (my KiwiSDR-assisted guess is the English channel region) that station is, but it’s always in the same narrow range of levels around S9 here at home, there’s usually the same little QSB on the signal, and the signals are the same day or night.
On top of that, I had a look at geological maps of my part of the country to find out how far I should drive into the backcountry to find conditions that are really different from the coast. Where I live, former sea ground and marsh land is forming a pretty wide strip of moist, fertile soil with above average conductivity, but approximately 20km/12mi to the east the ground changes to a composition typical for the terminal moraine inland formed in the ice age. So I picked a quiet place 25km east of my QTH to measure the level of that STANAG station and also to record the BBC on 198 kHz. Some source stated that the coastal enhancement effect can be observed within 10 lambda distance to the shoreline, that would be 730m for the 4 MHz STANAG station and 15km for the BBC, so 25km should suffice to rule out any residue enhancement from the seaside.
My car stereo has no S-meter (or a proper antenna, so reception is needlessly bad but this is good in this case) so all you get is the difference in audio. The car had the same orientation (nose pointing to the east) at both places. For the 4 MHz signal though (coincidence or not), the meter shows ~10dBm (or dBµV/EMF) more signal at the dike.
3. Effect on SNR
Remember, more signal alone does not equal better reception, what we’re looking for is a better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Now that we’ve established that the man-made noise should be as low as possible at “my” dike, the remaining question is: Does this signal enhancement have an effect on SNR as well? Even if there is virtually no local QRM at my “happy place” – there is still natural noise (QRN) and that wouldn’t that likely gain 10dB too?
Here are some hypotheses that may be subject of debate and some calculations way over my head (physics/math fans, please comment and help someone out who always got an F in math!). Sorry for all the gross oversimplifications:
Extremely lossy antennas
We know that pure reception antennas are often a bit different in that the general reciprocity rule has comparatively little meaning, many antennas designed for optimizing reception in specific situations would be terrible transmitting antennas. One quite extreme example, not meant to optimize anything but portability is the telescopic whip on shortwaves >10m. At the dike, those gain more signal too. When the QRN drops after sunset on higher frequencies, the extremely lossy whip might be an exception because the signal coming out of it is so small that it’s much closer to the receiver noise, so this friendly signal boost could lift very faint signals above the receiver noise more than the QRN, which in turn could mean a little increase in SNR, and as we know even a little increase in SNR can go a long way.
The BBC Radio 4 longwave recording is likely another example for this – the unusually weak signal is coming from a small and badly matched rubber antenna with abysmal performance on all frequency ranges including LW. The SNR is obviously increasing at the dike because the signal gets lifted more above the base noise of the receiving system, while the atmospheric noise component is likely still far below that threshold. Many deliberately lossy antenna design, such as flag/tennant, passive small aperture loops (like e.g. the YouLoop) or loop-on-ground antennas may benefit most from losses decreasing by 10dB.
Not so lossy antennas, polarization and elevation patterns
However, there is still more than a signal strength difference between “big” antennas and the whips at the dike: Not only at the sea, directionality will have an impact on QRN levels, a bidirectional antenna may already decrease QRN and hence increase SNR further, an unidirectional antenna even more, that’s one reason why proper Beverage antennas for example work wonders particularly on noisy low frequencies at night (but this is actually a bad example because Beverage antennas are said to work best on lossy ground).
Also, directional or not, the “ideal” ground will likely change the radiation pattern, namely the elevation angles, putting the “focus” of the antenna from near to far – or vice versa: As far as my research went, antennas with horizontal polarization are not ideal in this regard as they benefit much less from the “mirror effect” and a relatively low antenna height may be more disadvantageous for DX (but maybe good for NVIS/local ragchewing) than usual. Well, that explains why I never got particularly good results with horizontal dipoles at the dike!
Using a loop-on-ground antenna at a place without QRM may sound ridiculously out of place at first, but they are bidirectional and vertically polarized antennas, so the high ground conductivity theoretically flattens the take-off angle of the lobes, on top of that they are ~10dB less lossy at the dike, making even a LoG act more like something you’d string up as high as possible elsewhere. They are incredibly convenient, particularly on beaches where natural antenna supports may be non-existent and I found them working extremely well at the dike, now I think I know why. In particular the preamplified version I tried proved to be good enough to receive 4 continents on 20m and a 5th one on 40m – over the course of 4 hours on an evening when conditions were at best slightly above average. Though the really important point is that it increased the SNR further, despite the QRN still showing up on the little Belka’s meter when I connected the whip for comparison (alas not shown in the video).
The 5th continent is missing in this video because the signals from South Africa were not great anymore that late in the evening, but a recording exists.
Here’s a video I shot last year, comparing the same LoG with the whip on my Tecsun S-8800 on 25m (Radio Marti 11930 kHz):
At the same time, I recorded the station with the next decent KiwiSDR in my area:
Of course, these directionality vs noise mechanisms are basically the same on any soil. But compensating ground losses and getting flat elevation patterns may require great efforts, like extensive radial systems, buried meshes etc. and it’s pretty hard to cover enough area around the antenna (minimum 1/2 wavelength, ideally more!) to get optimum results on disadvantaged soils, while still never reaching the beach conditions. You may have to invest a lot of labor and/or money to overcome such geological hardships, while the beach gives you all that for free.
But there may be yet another contributing factor: The gain pattern is likely not symmetrical – signals (and QRN) coming from the land side will likely not benefit the same way from the enhancement, which tapers off quickly (10 wavelengths) on the land side of the dike and regular “cross-country” conditions take place in that direction, while salt water stretching far beyond the horizon is enhancing reception to the other side.
So my preliminary answer to that question would be: “Yes, under circumstances the shoreline signal increase and ground properties can improve SNR further, that improvement can be harvested easily with vertically polarized antennas”.
Would it be worthwhile driving 1000 miles to the next ocean beach… for SWLing?
Maybe not every week–? Seriously, it depends.
Sure, an ocean shoreline will generally help turning up the very best your radios and antennas can deliver, I think the only way to top this would be adding a sensible amount of elevation, a.k.a. cliff coasts.
If you’re interested in extreme DX or just in the technical performance aspect, if you want to experience what your stuff is capable of or if you don’t want to put a lot of effort into setting up antennas, you should definitely find a quiet place at the ocean, particularly if your options to get maximum performance are rather limited (space constraints, QRM, HOA restrictions, you name it) at home.
If you’re a BCL/program listener and more interested in the “content” than the way it came to you, if you’re generally happy with reception of your favorite programs or if you simply have some very well working setup at home, there’s likely not much the beach could offer you in terms of radio. But the seaside has much more to offer than fatter shortwaves of course.
From left to right: Starry sky capture with cellphone cam, nocticlucent clouds behind the dike, car with hot coffee inside and a shortwave portable suction-cupped to the side window – nights at the dike are usually cold but sometimes just beautiful. (Click to enlarge.)
However, getting away from the QRM means everything for a better SNR and best reception. In other words, if the next ocean is really a hassle to reach, it may be a better idea to just find a very quiet place nearby and maybe putting up some more substantial antenna than driving 1000 miles. But if you happen to plan on some seaside vacation, make absolutely sure you bring two radios (because it may break your heart if your only radio fails)!
Now I’m building a full field kit for the MTR-3B in a Red Oxx Booty Bosspack I recently purchased specifically for this radio.
If you’re wondering why I’d build yet another field kit for the MTR-3B instead of simply using field supplies I already have, allow me to explain…
Field radio kit Golden Rule: Never borrow from one kit to feed another
I never violate this rule. (Well, not anymore, at least.)
I don’t care if I’m building a kit around a portable shortwave receiver, an SDR, or a ham radio transceiver–my radio kits are completely self-contained and organized.
I’m actually plotting a whole series of posts about building portable radio kits and packs because I enjoy the process so much, but for now, I’ll keep my explanation short:
Because I have an active family life and can’t often prepare in advance for field radio time, my kits must be at-the-ready all the time. If we decide (as we are this morning) that we’re heading to a national park for a little hiking and a picnic, I know that when I grab my KX2 field kit, for example, I’ll have everything I need to do a Parks On The Air or Summits On The Air activation. I know my kit contains an antenna, all antenna accessories and hanging supplies, feed line, a fully-charged battery, microphone and/or CW (Morse Code) key/paddles, earphones/speaker, and a transceiver. It’ll also have the little bits we often forget like a pen, notepad, extra connectors/adapters, and even a few first aid supplies.
If you borrow from one radio kit to feed another, you’ll regret it later. I promise.
Case in point
The lab599 Discovery TX500
Here at SWLing Post HQ, I review lots of radios and have a special affinity for field radios. Many times, I either obtain a radio as a loaner from the manufacturer (like the lab599 TX-500), or I purchase a radio with the intention of selling it after the review (as I will with the Xiegu G90). In either case, I don’t want to build a specific field kit for that radio because it’s really only visiting SWLing Post HQ.
The Xiegu G90
When I first took the Xiegu G90 to the field, I felt confident I could simply throw together a quick field kit in one of my smaller backpacks. As I prepared for an impromptu POTA park activation, I discovered that I needed a coax feed line for the kit and the quick solution was to grab the one from my Elecraft KX2 field kit. Even though I knew that would be violating my Golden Rule–a rule I had adhered to for five years and counting–I did it because I was very pressed for time. That activation went off without a hitch–a total success.
Fast-forward two days later and I had another opportunity to do a park activation, but this time I wanted to use my Elecraft KX2 because I knew I would need to hike into the site and I’d also have to both log and hold the transceiver on my clipboard while sitting on my folding stool. The KX2 is ideal for this as it’s compact and has top-mounted controls.
I hiked into DuPont forest, found an ideal site to play radio, starting deploying the antenna and quickly realized I forgot to put the feed line back in the KX2 kit. Doh! Without even a short piece of coax, I had no way to connect my KX2 to the antenna.
Fortunately, I happened to have a spare coax line back in the car and I also keep two extra BNC adapters in the KX2 kit. Still, I kicked myself as I hiked all the way back to the car. Had I only followed the Golden Rule that had served me so well!
In the end, it could have been worse. I still got to do my activation and hadn’t wasted a 2.5 hour round trip to the park.
You’d better believe the first thing I did when I got back home was to put the coax back in my KX2 field kit and my radio world order had been restored again.
Back to the pack!
I picked the Red Oxx Booty Boss for the MTR-3B because 1.) it’s an ideal size for a super-compact field kit, 2.) it can be carried a number of ways (on back, sling, and over shoulder), 3.) with straps detached, it’s compact & easily fits in my EDC pack and 4.) I love Red Oxx gear and love supporting the company. When you buy a Red Oxx bag, you know it’ll outlast you…not the other way around.
I also ordered reflective monkey fist zipper pulls to replace the stock zipper pulls so that the pack would be easy to spot, for example, on a forest floor at twilight.
Extra connectors, mini first aid kit, flashlight, etc.
Here’s the amazing thing: without realizing it, everything in this kit save my earphones was designed and manufactured in the USA. The Booty Boss was made in Montana, the MTR-3B in North Carolina, the Vibroplex antenna in Tennessee, the ABR cable in Texas, the Bioenno battery pack in California. My 20 year old Sennheiser earphones were made in Germany.
I think that’s pretty darn cool and certainly bucks the trend!
Within a week, my battery and cable should arrive and the MTR-3B field kit will be ready for adventure.
My Red Oxx Micro Manager packed with a full radio field kit
Yesterday, my family packed a picnic lunch and took a drive through Madison County, North Carolina. It was an impromptu trip. Weather was forecast to be pretty miserable that afternoon, but we took the risk because we all wanted to get out of the house for a bit.
Although that morning I had no intention of performing a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation, my family was supportive of fitting in a little radio-activity, so I jumped on the opportunity!
A quick glance at the POTA map and I determined that the Sandy Mush State Game Land (K-6949) was on our travel route. Better yet, the timing worked out to be ideal for a lunch picnic and before most of the rain would move into the area.
Ready for radio adventure
I had no time to prepare, but that didn’t matter because I always have a radio kit packed, fully-charged, and ready for the field.
The Micro Manager pack easily accommodates the entire kit
This 20 year old blue stuff sack is dedicated to antenna-hanging. It holds a reel of fishing line and a weight that I use to hang my end-fed antenna in a tree or on my Jackite telescoping fiberglass pole. The sack also accommodates a 10′ coax cable.
The Elecraft KX2 transceiver, EFT Trail-Friendly Antenna, hand mic, CW paddles, C.Crane earphones, and wide variety of connectors and cables all fit in this padded Lowe Pro pack:
The advantage to having a simple, organized radio kit at the ready is that everything inside has its own dedicated space, so there’s no digging or hunting for items when I’m ready to set up and get on the air.
This level of organization also makes it easy to visually inspect the kit–missing items stand out.
Yesterday I parked our car at one of the Sandy Mush Game Land parking areas, deployed my field antenna, and was on the air in a matter of seven minutes at the most.
Technically, this should read “Activator” parking area! (A questionable inside joke for POTA folks!)
We planned for heavy rain showers, so I fed the antenna line through the back of my car so that I could operate from the passenger seat up front.
I also brought my Heil Proset – K2 Boom Headset which not only produces better transmitted audio than the KX2 hand mic, but it frees up my hands to log stations with ease. This is especially important when operating in the front seat of a car!
The great thing about the KX2 is that it’s so compact, it can sit on my clipboard as I operate the radio (although typically I have an elastic strap securing it better). Since all of the KX2 controls are top-mounted, it makes operation a breeze even in winter weather while wearing gloves.
Since I routinely use the KX2 for shortwave radio broadcast listening as well, I know I always have a radio “locked and loaded” and ready to hit the air. My 40/20/10 meter band end-fed antenna works well for the broadcast bands, as long as there is no strong local radio interference (RFI). When I’m faced with noisy conditions, I pack a mag loop antenna as well.
What’s in your radio go-kit?
Having a radio kit stocked and ready to go on a moment’s notice gives me a great sense of security, and not just for recreational ham and shortwave radio listening reasons.
Sometimes I travel in remote areas by car where I’m more than an hour away from the nearest town and where there is no mobile phone coverage.
If my car breaks down, I know I can always deploy my radio kit and get help from the ham radio community in a pinch. Herein lies the power of HF radio!
If you haven’t built a radio go-kit, I’d highly recommend doing so. Although I’m a bit of a pack geek, keep in mind that you don’t need to purchase special packs or bags for the job. Use what you already have first.
I’m plotting a detailed post about the anatomy of an HF radio field kit. In the meantime, I’m very curious how many of you in the SWLing Post community also have a radio kit at the ready–one based on a transceiver or receiver. Please comment!
Better yet, feel free to send me details and photos about your kit and I’ll share them here on the Post!
The AirSpy HF+ Discovery and a new era of portable DXing
I admit it: I used to be a bit of an old-fashioned radio curmudgeon. One of those, “I like my radios with knobs and buttons” likely followed by, “…and no other way!”
However, about fifteen years ago, many of my DXing friends started turning to the world of software defined radios (or in common parlance, “SDRs”). I staunchly opposed ever following in their footsteps. One of the reasons I for this––a good one––is that, since I spend the bulk of my day in front of a computer, why would I ever want to use a computer when I’m playing radio?
But then…gradually, I found myself playing around with a few SDRs. And I quickly learned that third-generation SDRs were capable of doing something very impressive (and fun), indeed: making spectrum recordings. Using this tool, I found I could record not only the audio of one individual signal, but the audio of entire swathes of radio spectrum. And even more impressive, I learned that you could later load or “play back” the spectrum recording and tune through the bands as if in real time. Any time you want. Before long, I was hooked: SDRs had become my portal into radio time travel!
I quickly found that I loved many of the other advantages of using an SDR, as well, including visual ones––like the ability to view spectrum. The interactive interface allows one to actually see radio signals across the band in real time. I also found incredible value in waterfall displays, which show signals changing in amplitude and frequency over time. Cool stuff.
I purchased my first dedicated SDR in 2012, a WinRadio Excalibur. It was––and still is––a benchmark receiver, performing circles around my tabletop receivers and general coverage transceivers.
And today, although I own and love a number of legacy radios and still listen to them in the good old-fashioned manner to which I became accustomed, I find I’m now spending the bulk of my time DXing with SDRs.
And then, more recently, two amazing things happened in the world of SDRs. Strong market competition, together with serious innovations, have come into play. Thus, for less than $200 US, you can now purchase an SDR that would have easily cost $1,000 US only ten years ago. And now, in many cases, the $200 SDR of today will outperform the $1,000 SDR of yesteryear. We are, indeed, living in good times.
And now––no more a radio curmudgeon––I’m comfortable with my SDR-user status and time at the computer, and glad I was just curious enough about SDRs to let them into my radio (and computer) world.
Since I initially dived into the world of SDRs, I’ve tried to think of a way to take them into the field.
But first, let’s get an obvious question out of the way:
Why would you want to drag an SDR into the field, when a traditional battery-powered radio is so much easier to manage?
After all, you may say, portable and even mobile tabletop receivers require no computer, no hard drive, and are likely more reliable because there are less components to manage or to cause problems for you.
In answer, let’s look at a few scenarios where heading to the field with an SDR system might just make sense. (Hint: Many of these reasons are rooted in the SDR’s ability to record spectrum).
Good Reason #1: Your home location is not ideal for playing radio.
Photo by Henry Be
My good friend, London Shortwave, lives in the middle of London, England. He’s an avid radio enthusiast and DXer, but his apartment is almost a perfect storm of radio interference. Listening from his home is challenging, to say the least: he can only use indoor antennas and RFI/QRM simply inundated his local airwaves.
Many years ago, he discovered that the best way to DX was to go to an area that put urban noise and radio interference at a distance. He found that by visiting large local parks, he could play radio with almost no RFI.
Being a computer guru, he started working on a portable SDR setup so that he could go to a park, set up an antenna, and record radio spectrum while he read a book. His systems evolved with time, each iteration being more compact less conspicuous that the previous. Later, he could head back home, open the recorded spectrum files, and tune through these “time-shifted” recordings in the comfort of his flat. This allowed London Shortwave to maximize the low-RFI listening experience by reliving the time in the park.
Over the years, he tweaked and adapted his setup, often writing his own code to make small tablets and portable computers purpose-built portable-spectrum-capture devices. If you’re curious, you might like to read about the evolution of his systems on his blog.
Clearly, for London Shortwave, an SDR is the right way to capture spectrum and thus likely the best solution for his DX listening.
Good Reason #2: Weak-signal workarounds.
Typically radio enthusiasts turn to field operation to work in a lower-noise environment and/or where there are no antenna restrictions, often to log new stations and DX.
SDRs afford the DXer top-shelf tools for digging weak signals out of the muck. SDR applications have advanced tools for tweaking AGC settings, synchronous detectors, filters, noise reduction, and even to tailor audio.
The WinRadio Excalibur application even includes a waterfall display which represents the entire HF band (selectable 30 MHz or 50 MHz in width)
On top of that, being able to see a swath of spectrum and waterfall gives one an easier way––a visual way––to pinpoint weak or intermittent signals. This is much harder to do with a legacy radio.
Case in point: I like listening to pirate radio stations on shortwave. With a spectrum display, I can see when a new station may be tuning up on the band so can position the receiver to listen in from the beginning of the broadcast, and never miss a beat.
Or, in another example, the visual aspect of spectrum display means I can easily locate trans-Atlantic DX on the mediumwave bands by looking for carrier peaks on the spectrum display outside the standard North American 10 kHz spacing. The signals are very easy to spot.
Good Reason #3: DXpeditions both small and large.
Mark Fahey, scanning the bands with his WinRadio Excalibur/Surface Pro 2 combo at our 2015 PARI DXpedition
Whether you’re joining an organized DXpedition or you’re simply enjoying a little vacation DXpedition, SDRs allow you to make the most of your radio time.
Indeed, most of the organized DXpedition these days heavily incorporate the use of SDRs specifically so DXers can record spectrum. Much like example #1 above, doing this allows you to enjoy the noise-free optimal conditions over and over again through spectrum recordings. Most DXpeditioners will have an SDR making recordings while they use another receiver to DX in real time. Later, they take the recording home and dig even more weak signals out of the mix: ones that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Good Reason #4: Sharing the spectrum with like-minded listeners.
Earlier this year, Mark gave me this 8TB hard drive chock-full of spectrum recordings.
One of the joys I’ve discovered in making field spectrum recordings is sharing them with fellow DXers. Most of the time when I go to shortwave radio gatherings (like the Winter SWL Fest), I take a couple hard drives to exchange with other SDR enthusiasts. My friend, Mark Fahey, and I have exchanged some of our favorite spectrum recordings this way. I give him a hard drive chock-full of terabytes of recordings, and he reciprocates. Back home (or on the train or airplane) I open one of his recordings and, boom! there I am in his shack in Freeman’s Reach, Australia, tuning through Pacific stations that are not easily heard here in North America, maybe even turning up some gems Mark himself may have overlooked…just as he is doing with my recordings from the southeast US.
I’ve also acquired DXpedition spectrum recordings this way. It’s great fun to “be there” through the recordings and to enjoy some of the benefits of being on the DXpedition in times when I couldn’t actually make it there in person. For a DXer with a consuming job, busy family life, or maybe health problems that limit their travel, an SDR recording is the way to go.
Good Reason #5: Family time
Photo by David Straight
I’m a husband and father, and no matter how much I like to play radio when we’re on vacation, my family comes first, and our family activities take priority.
Having a field-portable SDR setup means that I can arrange a “set it and forget it” spectrum capture device. Before we head out the door for a family visit, tour of the area, or a hike, I simply set my SDR to record spectrum, then listen to what I “caught” after I return, or after I’m home from vacation.
This practice has allowed me to enjoy radio as much as I like, without interrupting our family adventures. Can’t beat it!
With all of these benefits, one might wonder why many other DXers haven’t been using portable SDRs in the field for a while now? That’s a good question.
The WinRadio G31DDC, like many SDRs of the era, has separate data and power ports
In prior years, DXers and listeners might have been reluctant to lug an SDR and its requisite apparatus out with them. After all, it’s only been in the past decade or so that SDRs haven’t required a separate custom power supply; some legacy SDRs either required an odd voltage, or as with my WinRadio Excalibur, have very tight voltage tolerances.
Originally, taking an SDR to the field––especially in places without grid mains power––usually meant you also had to take a pricey pure sine wave inverter as well as a battery with enough capacity to run the SDR for hours on end.
Having spent many months in an off-grid cabin on the east coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada, I can confidently say it’s an ideal spot for DXing: I can erect large wire antennas there, it’s on salt water, and there are literally no locally-generated man-man noises to spoil my fun. Of course, anytime we go to the cottage, I record spectrum, too, as this is truly a honey of a listening spot.
The view from our off-grid cabin on PEI.
The first year I took an SDR to the cabin, I made a newbie mistake: it never dawned on me until I arrived and began to put it to use that my Goal Zero portable battery pack didn’t have a pure sine wave inverter; rather, I found it had a modified sine wave inverter built into it. The inverter could easily power my SDR, sure, but it also injected incredibly strong, unavoidable broadband noise into the mix. It rendered my whole setup absolutely useless. I gave up on the SDR on that trip.
Both the Airspy HF+ (top) and FDM-S2 (bottom) use a USB connection for both data transfer and power. Photo by Guy Atkins.
Today, most SDRs actually derive their power from a computer or laptop through a USB cable, one that doubles as a data and power cable. This effectively eliminates the need for a separate power system and inverter.
Of course, your laptop or tablet will need a means of recharging in the field because the attached SDR will drain its battery a little faster. Nowadays it’s possible to find any number of portable power packs/banks and/or DC battery sources to power laptops or tablets, as long as one is cautious that the system doesn’t inject noise. This still requires a little trial and error, but it’s much easier to remedy than having two separate power sources.
Even a Raspberry Pi 3B has enough horsepower to run SDR applications.
An SDR is nothing without a software application to run it. These applications, of course, require some type of computer.
I the past, SDR applications needed some computing horsepower, not necessarily to run the application itself, but to make spectrum recordings. In addition, they often required extra on-board storage space to make these recordings sufficiently long to be useful. This almost always meant lugging a full-sized laptop to the field, or else investing in a very pricey tablet with a hefty amount of internal storage to take along.
Today we’re fortunate to have a number of more portable computing devices to run SDR applications in the field: not just laptops or tablets, but mobile phones and even mini computers, like the eminently affordable $46 Raspberry Pi. While you still have to be conscious of your device’s computing horsepower, many small devices are amply equipped to do the job.
64-128 GB USB flash/thumb drives are affordable, portable storage options.
If you’re making spectrum and audio recordings in the field, you’ll need to store them somehow. Wideband spectrum recordings can use upwards of 2GB of data per minute or two.
Fortunately, even a 64GB USB flash drive can be purchased for as little as $7-10 US. This makes for quick off-loading of spectrum recordings from a device’s internal memory.
My portable SDR setup
It wasn’t until this year that all of the pieces finally came together for me so that I could enjoy a capable (and affordable!) field-portable SDR setup. Two components, in particular, made my setup a reality overnight; here’s what made the difference.
The AirSpy HF+ Discovery
Last year, AirSpy sent me a sample of their new HF+ Discovery SDR to test and evaluate. To be fully transparent, this was at no cost to me.
I set about putting the HF+ Discovery through its paces. Very soon, I reached a conclusion: the HF+ Discovery is simply one of the best mediumwave and HF SDRs I’ve ever tested. Certainly, it’s the new benchmark for sub-$500 SDRs.
In fact, I was blown away. The diminutive HF+ Discovery even gives some of my other benchmark SDRs a proper run for their money. Performance is DX-grade and uncompromising, sporting impressive dynamic range and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The noise floor is also incredibly low. And I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you can purchase this SDR for just $169 US.
The HF+ Discovery compared in size to a DVD
In terms of portability, it’s in a class of its own. It’s tiny and incredibly lightweight. I evaluate and review SDRs all the time, but I’ve never known one that offers this performance in such a tiny package.
Are there any downsides to the HF+ Discovery? The only one I see––and it’s intentional––is that it has a smaller working bandwidth than many other similar SDRs at 768 kHz (although only recently, Airspy announced a firmware update that will increase bandwidth). Keep in mind, however, that the HF+ series SDRs were designed to prevent overload when in the presence of strong local signals. In fairness, that’s a compromise I’ll happily make.
Indeed, the HF+ Discovery maximum bandwidth isn’t a negative in my estimation unless I’m trying to grab the entire mediumwave band, all at once. For shortwave work, it’s fine because it can typically cover an entire broadcast band, allowing me to make useful spectrum recordings.
The HF+ Discovery is so remarkably tiny, that this little SDR, together with a passive loop antenna, can fit in one small travel pouch. Ideal.
My homebrew NCPL antenna
Speaking of antennas, one of the primary reasons I’m evaluating the HF+ Discovery is because it has a very high dynamic range and can take advantage of simple antennas, in the form of passive wideband magnetic loop antennas, to achieve serious DX.
AirSpy president and engineer, Youssef Touil, experimented with several passive loop antenna designs and sizes until he found a few combinations ideally matched with the HF+ Discovery.
My good buddy, Vlado (N3CZ) helped me build such an antenna per Youssef’s specifications. Vlado had a length of Wireman Flexi 4XL that was ideal for this project (thanks, Vlad!). The only tricky part was penetrating the shielding and dielectric core at the bottom of the loop, then tapping into both sides of the center conductor for the balun connections. Being Vlado, he used several lengths of heat shrink tubing to make a nice, clean, snag-free design. I’ll freely admit that, had I constructed this on my own, it wouldn’t have been nearly as elegant!
Youssef also sent me a (then) prototype Youloop passive loop antenna. It’s incredibly compact, made of high quality SMA-fitted coaxial cables. It can be set up in about 30 seconds and coiled to tuck into a jacket pocket. The AirSpy-built loop has a lower loss transformer than the one in the homemade loop, which translates into a lower noise figure for the system.
Let’s face it: SDR kit simply doesn’t get more portable than this.
My Microsoft Surface Go tablet on a hotel bed.
In the past, I used an inexpensive, circa 2013 mini Windows laptop with an internal SSD drive. Everything worked beautifully, save the fact that it was challenging to power in the field and the internal capacity of the hard drive was so small (16GB less the operating system). In addition, it was a few years old, bought used, so the processor speed was quite slow.
This year, on the way back from the Huntsville Hamfest, I stopped by the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. This center has a wide variety of used portable electronics at discount prices. I felt pretty lucky when I discovered a like-new condition Microsoft Surface Go tablet and keyboard with original charger for $190. The catch? The only data port on the tablet is a USB-C. But I grabbed a small USB-C to standard USB 3.0 dongle (for $2!) and took a risk that it would work with the HF+ Discovery.
Fortunately, it did! Score!
While the Surface Go is no powerhouse, it’s fast enough to run any of my SDRs and make spectrum recordings up to 2 MHz in width without stuttering. The only noise it seems to inject into the mix is a little RFI when I touch the trackpad on the attached keyboard.
One of my LiFePo batteries
The HF+ Discovery draws power from the Surface Go tablet via the USB port. With no additional power supply, the Surface Go may only power the HF+ Discovery for perhaps an hour at most. Since I like doing fully off-grid operations and needed to avoid RFI from inverters, I needed a portable power solution.
Fortunately, the Surface Go has a dedicated power port, so I immediately ordered a DC power cable with a standard car lighter plug.
The LiFePo battery is small, lightweight, and can power the tablet /SDR combo for hours on end. Moreover, I have noticed no extra noise injected when the DC power is applied.
My HF+ Discovery-based portable SDR kit
My portable SDR kit on a hotel balcony.
Now I have this kit, I couldn’t be more pleased with it. When all of the components of my SDR system are assembled, they work harmoniously. The entire ensemble is also incredibly compact: the loop antennas, SDR, Surface Go tablet, battery, and distribution panel all fit in a very small travel pack, perfect for the grab-and-go DX adventure.
The entire kit: SDR, cables, Youloop antenna, connectors and adapters all fit in my Red Oxx Lil’ Roy pack.
In November, I took the kit to the coast of South Carolina and had a blast doing a little mediumwave DXing from our hotel balcony. We were very fortunate in that I had two excellent spots to hang the homemade loop antenna: on the main balcony, and from the mini balcony off the master bedroom. Both spots yielded excellent results.
What impressed me most was the fact that the SDR# spectrum display and waterfall were absolutely chock-full of signals, and there was very little noise, even in the popular resort area where we were staying. I found that my portable radios struggled with some of the RFI emanating from the hotel, but the HF+ Discovery and passive loop combo did a much better job mitigating noise.
Check out the AM broadcast band on the spectrum display.
But no need to take my word for it. If you would like to experience it first hand, why not download an actual spectrum recording I made using this setup?
At the top left corner of the SDR# screen, choose “IQ File (.wav)” as the source, then point it to where you downloaded the file.
Press the play button, and experience a little radio time travel!
This particular recording was made on the mediumwave band on November 17, 2019, starting at around 01:55 UTC.
My portable SDR kit capturing spectrum during a hike in Pisgah National Forest.
I’ve also taken this setup to several parks and remote outdoor locations, and truly enjoyed the freedom of taking spectrum recordings back home to dig through the signals.
I finally have a portable SDR system that allows me the flexibility to make spectrum recordings while travelling. The whole setup is compact and can easily be taken in a carry-on bag when flying.
The glory of this is, I can tune through my spectrum recordings in real time and DX when I’m back home, or even on the way back home, in the car, train, or airplane. It’s simply brilliant.
If you don’t already own an SDR, I can highly recommend the AirSpy HF+ Discovery if you’re primarily interested in HF and MW DXing. If you need a wideband SDR, I could also recommend the recently released SDRplay RSPdx, although it’s slightly heavier and larger than the AirSpy.
Thankfully, I am now an SDR enthusiast that can operate in the field, and this radio has had a lot to do with it. I’ll be logging many hours and miles with the AirSpy HF+ Discovery: its incredibly compact footprint, combined with its brilliant performance, is truly a winning combo.