Category Archives: Tutorials

Radio Travel: A complete SDR station for superb portable DXing

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Don Moore–author of  Following Ghosts in Northern Peru–for the following guest post:


One of my favorite DXing locations was this little cottage at the El Rancho Hotel just outside San Ramon, on the edge of the Amazon jungle in Peru. At $18/night, including breakfast, the hotel was a bargain, and there was plenty of room for my delta loop.

A Guide To Vagabond DXing

By Don Moore

Ever since I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras in the early 1980s, Latin America has been my primary focus for both DXing and traveling. So when I retired in 2017, my main goal was to begin taking long annual trips . . . and I do mean long. From October 2017 to May 2018, I traveled through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia visiting about fifty different towns and cities. This year, I’m on a five-month trip through southern South America. In Latin America you can get just about anywhere cheaply and easily by bus, so that’s how I get around. It’s also a great way to meet people and to see the countryside. But luggage can become a burden, so I limit myself to a single mid-sized wheeled suitcase and a large knapsack. And that means that my mobile DX shack has to be very carefully planned.

Your plans may not include multi-month odysseys like mine, but I think my experiences will help you prepare to DX on your next trip, wherever it might be. Of course, what makes a good mobile DX shack depends on what your DX interests are. I consider myself a station collector, in that I want to make loggings of lots of new and different stations and to build up an understanding of radio broadcasting in different regions. So on my travels I concentrate on the medium wave broadcast band and longwave beacons, with maybe little bit of shortwave utility DX. (There’s not much on shortwave broadcast that I can’t also hear at home.)

Take the DX Home With You

For years my standard DX travel gear was a Sony ICF-2010, a cassette recorder, and an old Radio West ferrite loop antenna. But listening time was always limited since it was a vacation. There were other activities on the agenda and I was generally too tired to get up early for DXing. I always went home with some interesting loggings and audio recordings, but once I left for home the DXing was done.

SDRs have changed all that and now my first rule of travel DX now is take the DX home. The best souvenir of a trip is the hundreds of hours of DXing that I take home with me. In a 2016 trip to central Colombia, I made about 300 MB of recordings of the medium wave band. While listening to them later I logged over 400 stations from twenty countries (and I still have about half the files to go through). I never would have even gotten close to that many stations listening on my Sony like an ‘old-fashioned’ DXer, hi!

Lately, I’ve been accumulating SDR files much faster than I could possibly go through them, so it’s a fair question to ask what the point is. When will I ever listen to them all? Like most DXers, I’m not fortunate enough to live in a perfect DX location. When conditions are mediocre, I’d rather spend my DXing time going through some more interesting SDR files.  And, I know I’ll have lots of good DX waiting for me years from now when I’m no longer able to travel the way that I do now. For me, SDR recordings make much better souvenirs that some cheap tourist trinkets that will gather dust on a shelf. It doesn’t matter whether your travels take you to a nearby park or to a distant continent. SDRs can preserve the DXing experience for years to come.

My Mobile DX Shack

This is my typical DXing setup with the Afedri. The rooftoop terrace at the Hotel Rosa Ermila ($10/night) in Cascas, Peru was the most elegant place I’ve ever DXed from, but reception was only average with the PA0RDT dangling from the railing.

The centerpiece of any DX shack is the receiver. On my 2017-18 trip, I had an Afredri SDR-Net with an SDRPlay RSP1 as a backup, but this year I replaced the Afedri with an Elad FDM-2. Together, my two SDRs are smaller than all but the smallest portable receivers. Of course I also need a laptop, but I’m going to take one anyway. An important consideration in selecting a travel SDR is to get something that is powered off the laptop’s USB connection so that it is easy to DX totally off battery power if line noise becomes an issue.

The other vital component of DXing is the antenna. A good on-the-road antenna for SDR DXing has to be small, easy to erect, broadband, and versatile. That sounds like a lot to ask, but the perfect DX travel antennas do exist.

For compactness and ease of use, nothing can surpass the PA0RDT mini-whip. How good is it? That’s what I used to log over 400 medium wave stations in Colombia in 2016. I just attached the unit to my coax and threw it about three meters up into a short tree. The antenna works best when mounted away from nearby structures, but sometimes I’ve gotten decent results placing the PA0RDT on balconies and windowsills of tall buildings. It’s mostly a matter of luck as to how bad the local noise levels in the building are and how much the building itself may block signals. Using a short support, such as a broom or a hiking pole, it may be possible to mount the unit a meter or so away from the building.

While it’s best to mount the PA0RDT away from obstructions, the antenna might give good results anywhere, even on the neighbor’s roof. (Just make sure it’s not likely to get stuck. Pulling the unit out of a stubborn papaya tree is no joke.)

The biggest drawback of the PA0RDT for serious MW and LW DXing is that it is non-directional. For a directional antenna, a Wellbrook loop is great if you’re traveling by car, but that one-meter diameter aluminum loop doesn’t fit in my suitcase. Fortunately, a few years ago Guy Atkins and Brett Saylor told me about an alternative: buy a Wellbrook ALA-100LN unit and attach it to a large homemade wire loop. Now my travel kit includes two nine-meter lengths and one eighteen-meter length of #18 stranded copper wire. The wires can be spliced together for loops of 9, 18, 27, or 36 meters circumference, according to what fits in a location. Erection of a wire loop is easy enough with a suitable tree branch. I just throw the wire over the branch and then form it into delta (with the bottom running just above the ground) using two tent stakes and some short cord to hold the corners. The ALA-100LN unit goes in the bottom center.

Items that go in my suitcase, left to right: tent stakes and wire for the Wellbrook loop, a small box with more adapters, another battery box, 50 foot coax, 12 foot coax, and my hiking pole. The pole doubles as a support for the PA0RDT sometimes.

The loop doesn’t have to be in a delta; that’s just often the easiest to erect. I’ve successfully used squares, rectangles, trapezoids, oblong diamonds, and right angle triangles. Any balanced shape with the ALA-100LN in the bottom center should be bi-directional in a figure-eight pattern. Non-balanced shapes will work equally well but with unpredictable directionality. Just keep the wire in a single plane and place the ALA-100LN unit someplace along the bottom.

Both the PA0RDT and the Wellbrook require a 12V power supply. The North American version of the Wellbrook comes with an excellent noise-free 110V power supply, but that’s of no use in 220V countries and also I want to be able to DX totally off battery power when necessary. Fortunately both antennas use the same size power connector, so I carry three eight-cell AA battery packs for remote power.

Contents of the DX box, clockwise from upper left: the two pieces of the Wellbrook ALA-100LN, the two pieces of the PA0RDT mini-whip, two 8xAA battery boxes and a set of batteries, USB and coax cables, a passive 4-way antenna splitter, battery tester, various adapters and cup hooks (for securing wires), 4TB hard drive, the SDRPlay RSP1, the Elad FDM-2, and more short patch cords.

My mobile DX shack is rounded out with everything that is needed to connect the parts together. I have at least four of every adapter and patchcord, since I know they won’t be easy to replace on the road. For lead-ins, I have 12-foot and 50-foot lengths of lightweight coax with BNC connectors. I also have a few F-to-BNC adapters so I could buy some standard TV coax if needed. A 4 TB hard drive provides plenty of space the SDR recordings I plan to make. (Before leaving, I fill it with videos that I can delete after I watch them or when I need space.) For DX references, I download various station lists online so that I have them available even if I don’t have an Internet connection. It’s also important to keep those lists with the SDR files from the trip so that if I’m listening to the files years from now I’ll have references which were current at the time.

Airport Security

A common concern for traveling DXers is getting through airport security. When I went to Colombia in 2016, I wrapped my DX gear in clothing for protection and then stuffed everything into my backpack. Security didn’t like what they saw and I had to empty the bag so that every single item could be examined and swabbed for explosive residue. The TSA lady was very nice about it, but I wanted to minimize the chance of that happening again.

At an office supply store I found a plastic storage box that fits inside the main pocket of my backpack. My SDRs, antenna components, and hard drive get wrapped in bubble wrap and all placed together in the box along with small cables, adapters, etc. Larger items – the wire, coax, and stakes for the loop – get packed in my checked bag.

The DX Box packed and ready to go.

At the airport, I slide the box out of my backpack, place it into a cloth shopping bag, and then send it through the X-Ray machine on its own so that the agent can get a close look at the contents. So far in about a dozen security checks in the USA, Peru, and Mexico, the box of gear hasn’t caused so much as a pause on the conveyor belt. And, if the box would get pulled for a closer look, at least I won’t have to empty the entire backpack again.

Most of my equipment fits in this plastic box which slides into my backpack.

Where to DX

A mobile DX shack isn’t worth anything without a suitable place to DX from. Hotels may work if you have a balcony where you can put a small antenna, but more likely than not there’ll be problems with RF noise. The best hotels are ones that are a collection of cottages or bungalows or that otherwise have an open yard-like space for an antenna. My favorite place to find possible DXing sites is on AirBnB. It’s often easy to find AirBnBs that are on the edge of town or even in the countryside with lots of space. Of course, since I don’t have a car, I need to make sure I can get there using public transportation.

While visiting Huanchaco, Peru with DX friends Karl Forth and John Fisher, we had a beach-front apartment with an adjoining rooftop terrace. We had excellent results with an oblong loop and the ALA-100LN on the terrace.

The key to selecting a DX location is to examine all the photos very carefully. Is there open space for the antennas? Are there trees or other potential supports? Is there a gazebo, terrace, or other space that could be used for DXing? Google satellite view and Google street view can be very helpful in scouting out a location (And it’s surprising how much of South America is now on Google Street View.)  And, I always look for possible noise sources. One place I almost rented in Colombia turned out to have high voltage power lines running next door when I found it on Street View.

I always tell the hotel staff or AirBnB host what I’m doing so that they understand why the gringo has wires running around. And I make sure not to put my antennas or coax anywhere that might interfere with the employees or other guests. Most of the time I’m able to erect the antenna near my room and run the lead-in into my room through a window. Then I can leave my laptop running all night to make scheduled SDR recordings. That’s the Holy Grail of DXing – catching the overnight DX while you sleep. But if my room turns out to have too much RF noise (as has been the case a few times), then I head out to the gazebo or terrace to DX using battery power.  That does mean I have to stay up late or get up early since I can’t leave the laptop outside on its own. But, some of the best DX that I’ve had has come from running off full battery power in gazebos.

My delta loop had plenty of space at the Posada de Sauce ($25/night with breakfast) in the jungle near Tarapoto, Peru. The lodge was totally powered by solar panels and was one of the quietest places I’ve ever DXed from.

Antenna security is another consideration. At one place I stayed I wasn’t comfortable leaving my expensive antenna components unattended outside all night. And then there was what happened on my first trip to Colombia in 2010. I knew that a place I would be staying at for two nights had an open field right behind it, so on that trip I took 500 feet of thin insulated wire for a mini beverage-on-the-ground. DXing was great the first night but terrible the second. When I went out the next morning to wind up the wire I learned why. The worker who had been weed-wacking the hotel gardens the previous day had also done the field, and in doing so he had cut my wire in three places. He had, however, very nicely tied the wires back together.

Share the DX

DXing off battery power in the gazebo in the Mauro Hilton Hostel in the mountains above Manizales, Colombia. The antenna was the PA0RDT thrown in a tree. I had great DX with the loop from my room, but I came here to enjoy the views one evening.

Finally, if you take an SDR on a trip and get some good DX, make a selection of your files available for download. Other DXers will enjoy hearing what the band sounds like somewhere else. Several dozen of my files from Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia are available for download in a shared Google Drive folder. If you see something you want, be sure to download it now. The winter DX season is just starting here in deep South America and in the coming weeks I’ll be replacing some of those older files with ones made in Argentina and maybe in Uruguay and southern Brazil. I’ve found a lot of places to stay that look to be perfect for a vagabond DXer.

Links

For fun, here are some of the better places I DXed from in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. The key thing to look for is an open place for the antennas:


Don, thank you so much for sharing your travel DXing expertise. This article is absolutely brilliant and so informative for anyone who wishes to make SDR field recordings. I love how carefully you’ve curated and distilled your portable setup and have given priority to having antennas for all occasions. I also think carrying spare parts and, especially, a spare SDR makes a lot of sense.

Post Readers:  As we mentioned in a previous post, Don is an author and has recently published “Following Ghosts in Northern Peru: In the Footsteps of 19th Century Travelers on the old Moyobamba Route” which is available in Kindle and print formats via Amazon.

Purchasing through this Amazon link supports both the author and the SWLing Post.

Click here to check out other guest posts by Don Moore.


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Video: The Secret Life of Radios

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Skip Arey (N2EI), who shared the following video on Facebook:

Any electrical spark creates radio waves and acts as a transmitter. You hear sparks on a radio as interference. That’s why lighting makes radios crackle, and even the tiny spark in a switch is enough to make a noise on the radio when turning on a light./blockquote>

Click here to watch on YouTube.

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Guest Post: How to use the Shortwave Signals Alexa skill

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst–developer of the Shortwave Signals Alexa skill--who shares the following tutorial:


How to use the Shortwave Signals Alexa skill

Introduction

Alexa skills come in all shapes and sizes, from the trivial random fact skill, to a fully fledged news reader.

Some have little or no input, while others try to carry out a conversation with you.

Recognising that Alexa might be new to some people, and that the Shortwave Signals skill tries to capture everything from you in a single phrase, I wanted to give readers a guide on how to get the best from the skill, as well a little background on how Alexa ‘understands’ or ‘misunderstands’ what you said.

The Basics

You have two ways of starting an Alexa Skill:

  • Open the skill using its name
  • Ask the skill using its name

Opening the skill is a great place to start when you’ve first installed a skill. It should provide you with an introduction, then offer to answer a question or suggest how you can get further help.

Once you are familiar with a skill, you can save time by ‘Asking’. This cuts through the opening pleasantries and gets on with the job.

A skill doesn’t get approved by Amazon unless it supports these approaches in an appropriate way.

With that out of the way, the essential thing is to make sure that your words are clear and don’t blur together. I remember eating lunch at my desk while developing the skill, and then wondering why Alexa was making such a mess of my questions.

How Do Alexa Skills Recognise What You Say?

The short version is that skill developers have to provide training phrases to Alexa with two objectives in mind; to figure out what you want to do, and to recognise the parts of those phrases that contain important information.

If you were writing a weather skill, those phrases might look like this:

  • What is the weather like in [placename]
  • Will it rain in [placename] on [date]
  • What will the weather be like on [date] in [placename]

The challenge is to figure out the different ways that people might ask a question, and then help Alexa know what parts of the question are important to the skill. This data can can include numbers, dates, times, real world locations, famous places, famous people, countries, languages, and much more.

So let’s see how that works in the Shortwave Signals skill.

The Simplest Possible Question

The simplest question you can ask is to identify a signal by frequency – you’ve stumbled across something of interest and you’re not sure what it is.

A question directed to your Alexa device would sound like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz

I usually leave a slight pause after each line, and make sure that words don’t run into each other. Always say the frequency as digits, as this is much more reliable than trying to express it in thousands, hundreds, tens and so forth.

It’s good practice to put kiloHertz on the end as this aids Alexa in interpreting the frequency part of your question.

A common gotcha is not leaving enough of a gap between the frequency and the word kiloHertz. If the words blur together, Alexa sees a mixture of words and numbers where the frequency ought to be and doesn’t pass it through to the skill.

Adding a Broadcast Time to your question

Depending on the frequency you pick, you might get quite a few results.

This is particularly common when the frequency belongs to one of the main international broadcasters, or a commercial shortwave station like WRMI.

At present, I’ve set a limit of 15 results so you’re not stuck listening to a long list of broadcast information, although if all else fails, you can say:

  • Alexa
  • Stop!

To make it clear you want to specify a broadcast at a particular time, add this to your question:

  • at 3PM

Note that times are always in UTC, and using AM and PM is a reliable way of qualifying your time.

Now your question sounds like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • at 3PM

Make sure you put the word ‘at’ in front of the time, as it makes it clear that this is the time ‘at’ which the broadcast is active. It also neatly separates the frequency part of the question from the time part.

Searching across a time range

If you are sitting on a frequency and wondering what might be coming up next, you can add a time range to your question.

A time range is instead of using a broadcast time.

You would add this to your question:

  • from 3PM to 4PM

Notice how the range is described FROM 3PM TO 4PM

Now your question sounds like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • from 3PM to 4PM

Using FROM and TO makes it easier for Alexa to detect the time range in your question.

Adding a Language to your question

Adding a commonly recognised language to your question is easy.

To specify a language in your question you would add:

  • in English

Putting the word ‘in’ makes it clear that the word that follows is a language, and it also makes sure that the word kilohertz is separated from the language word. If you let the words run together, Alexa might think the language is ‘kiloHertz English’.

Now your question looks like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • In English

The Most Complex Questions

The most complex questions you can ask combine a frequency with a language and broadcast times. For example:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • In English
  • From 3PM to 8PM

Or:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • In English
  • At 4PM

Some Languages are tough to search

Commonly recognised languages are easy for Alexa to detect. These include English, French, German, Russian and many more.

Things get tricky when using more obscure languages.

A good example that I’ve struggled with is Oromo. No matter how carefully and comically I try and pronounce the word Oromo, Alexa always hears something similar to but not quite the same as Oromo, the most frequent misspelling being Orono. This phonetic re-interpretation of less common languages is a tough problem, even though my training data tells Alexa that this part of the question is a language.

Perhaps this will improve over time as Amazon tweak their service.

In Summary

It’s all about clarity and how you phrase your question. I’ve mumbled my way through Alexa’s built-in skills as well as third party ones, and it’s amazing how well it copes.If you’ve tried a skill and it’s stumbled, double check the sample phrases that come with the skill and give it another try.

Amazon use those phrases to test the skill before it is approved, so you know that they are a good place to start forming your own questions.


Thank you, Mark! Almost every Alexa skill is subject to the same issues you mention above.  I find that I need to “think like Alexa” in order to ask skill questions properly.  I’ve actually found your skill to be one of the easiest I’ve used. The tutorial above really helps form questions properly.

Post readers: Keep in mind that Amazon has lowered the prices of all of their devices for the holidays. The Echo Dot 2nd generation is currently $24.99 shipped and the 3rd generation Dot is $29.99 shipped (note both links are affiliate links that support the SWLing Post).  

I created an easy-to-print PDF of Mark’s tutorial above–click here to download.

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SDR Primer Part 2: Exploring the world of SDRs for $200 or less

The $22 RTL-SDR paired with a Raspberry Pi and employed as an ADS-B receiver/feeder.

The following article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


Welcome back to the world of SDRs

Last month we covered Part One of our three-part primer on software-defined radios (SDRs). While last month’s Part One focused on the nomenclature and components of a functioning SDR system, Part Two will take a look at some affordable SDR station options that will propel you into the world of SDRs for less than $200 US. We’ll cover Part Three in November, and we’ll dive a little deeper into the rabbit hole and cover higher-end SDRs and ham radio transceivers with embedded SDRs.

SDRs are affordable

Photo by Kody Gautier

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this part of our primer, it’s that SDRs are truly affordable. For less than the price of a typical full-featured shortwave portable, you can own an SDR that covers almost all of the listening spectrum, and that does so with excellent performance characteristics.

We’re lucky to live in a time of phenomenal radio innovation. When I first jumped into the world of SDRs, the least expensive SDR that covered any of the bands below 20 MHz was about $500. That was only a few years ago, in 2010 or so.

Yet in the past three years, affordable SDRs have become the dominant radio product on the market.  And these modestly-priced products have made the barrier of entry into the SDR world crumble overnight.

Today, even a $100 SDR has more features, more frequency range, and more functionality than a $1000 SDR from just a decade ago.  Times have changed dramatically; indeed, the pace of innovation in this craft is simply amazing.

Before we begin looking at some choice sub-$200 SDRs, I’d just like to direct your attention to the first part of our SDR Primer (click here to read). Specifically, I’d like you to note one element I discussed in that article:  the vital importance identifying your goals as an SDR owner. In other words, how do you plan to use your SDR? If you’re only seeking an SDR to listen to local ham radio repeaters, track cubesat satellites, or gather ADS-B information from aircraft, a $25 SDR will more than suffice. If you wish to use the SDR as a transceiver panadapter, or you wish to chase weak signal DX on the HF bands, then I’d suggest you invest a bit more.

I’d also like to remind you, as I noted in the previous article, that this primer will be limited in the SDRs I highlight. The reason for this is simple:  there now exists a vast ocean of SDRs on the market (just search eBay for “SDR” and you’ll quickly see what I mean) so all models simply can’t be included in this introductory foray. I’ll be focusing here on several SDRs that cover the HF spectrum and above. I’ll also focus on SDRs with which I have personal experience, and which I consider to be “enthusiast” grade among a healthy community of users. Of course, this part of the primer will only include HF-capable receivers that cost a total of $200 or less.

Let’s take a look at what’s on the market in order of price, starting with the most affordable.

$10-$25: The RTL-SDR dongle

No doubt, many of you reading this primer have purchased an RTL-SDR dongle. Over the years, I’ve owned three or four of them and have even purchased them for friends. These dongles originally appeared on the market many years ago as mass-produced DVB-T TV tuner dongles based on the RTL2832U chipset. Very soon, users discovered that with just a little hacking, the dongle was capable of much, much more than its original intended purpose.

The dongle resembles a USB memory stick. On one end, you’ll find a standard USB connector.  On the other, you’ll find an antenna port, typically SMA, to which one connects an antenna. Although it goes without saying, here’s a friendly reminder: make sure you’re choosing an antenna to match the frequency range you’re exploring!

I’ve seen this older model of RTL-SDR being sold for $9 at Hamvention.

Early RTL-SDR dongles couldn’t cover the HF bands or lower, but many models can now cover a gapless 500 kHz all the way to 1.75 GHz.

So, what can you do with an RTL-SDR dongle?  In short, quite a lot! Here are a few of this simple device’s many applications and uses in our hobby.  It can:

  • become a police radio scanner
  • monitor aircraft and ATC communications
  • track aircraft with ADS-B decoding and read ACARS short messages
  • scan trunking radio conversations.
  • decode unencrypted digital voice transmissions such as P25/DMR/D-STAR.
  • track maritime boat positions like a radar with AIS decoding.
  • track and receive weather balloon data
  • connect to VHF amateur radio
  • decode APRS packets
  • receive and decode GPS signals
  • utilize its rtl-sdr as a spectrum analyzer
  • receive NOAA weather satellite images
  • and so much more––! This list is not fully comprehensive by any means.  Check out this list of projects at RTL-SDR.com.

And, of course, you can listen to any signals between 500 kHz up to 1.75 GHz––essentially, most of the radio listening landscape.

Is $25 still a little high for your budget? RTL-SDR dongles can be found for as low as $10 US, shipped, on eBay. While the cheapest of these dongles may suffice for some radio applications, I’m partial to the dongle produced by RTL-SDR.com, since they’re built in a tough metal enclosure, have thermal pad cooling, as well as extra ESD protection. Amazon has an RTL-SDR.com dongle starter package with antenna options for about $26. That’s, what, the price of three hamburgers? Two orders of fish and chips? And worth it.

Many third-party SDR applications support the RTL-SDR dongle, but my favorite is SDR# (click here to download).

So, the major pros of this little SDR are 1) obviously, the price; 2) many, many uses; and 3) the fact that it’s the most popular SDR on the market, with a massive online user base.

What about negatives? Well, to be frank––aside from the dongle’s budget-busting versatility––the fact is that “you pay for what you get.” You’re investing just $10-$27 in this receiver, so don’t expect exceptional performance especially on anything lower than 50 MHz. On HF, for example, the RTL-SDR could easily overload unless you employ external filtering.

Indeed, I’ve never used the RTL-SDR for HF DXing, but I currently have three dongles in service 24/7:  two as ADS-B receivers, and one as a receiver for the LiveATC network. And these work hard. Indeed, It’s a workhorse of a device!

I suggest you grab an RTL-SDR and use it as an accessible step into the world of SDRs, and as an affordable single-purpose tool to unlock the RF spectrum!

Click here to check out the RTL-SDR blog SDR dongle via Amazon (affiliate link).

$99: The SDRplay RSP1A

When you invest a modest $99 US (or $120 shipped), and purchase the RSP1A, you take a major step forward in the SDR world.

UK-based SDRplay is an SDR designer and manufacturer that focuses on enthusiast-grade, budget wideband SDRs. SDRplay designs and manufactures all of their SDRs in the United Kingdom, and over the past few years, they’ve developed a robust user community, extensive documentation, and, in my humble opinion, some of the best tutorial videos on the market.

SDRuno windows can be arranged a number of ways on your monitor.

Although the RSP series SDRs are supported by most third-party SDR applications, SDRplay has their own app: SDRuno. Moreover, SDRuno is a full-featured, customizable application that takes advantages of all of this SDR’s performance potential and features. I should mention that installing the RSP1A and SDRuno is a pure plug-and-play experience:  just download and install the application, plug in the RSP1A to your computer, wait for the USB driver to automatically install, then start SDRuno. Simplicity itself.

While the RSP1A is SDRplay’s entry-level wideband SDR, it nonetheless plays like a pro receiver and truly pushes the envelope of performance-for-price, and for other SDR manufacturers, sets the bar quite high. The RSP1A is a wideband receiver that covers from 1 kHz all the way to 2 GHz; equally pleasing the longwave DXer, HF hound, tropo-scatter hunter, and even radio astronomer. This affordable SDR really covers the spectrum, quite literally. Not only does the RSP1A cover a vast frequency range, but its working bandwidth can be an impressive 10 MHz wide and via SDRuno, the RSP1A will support up to 16 individual receivers in any 10 MHz slice of spectrum. All this for $99? Seriously? I assure you, yes.

Think of the RSP1A as the sporty-but-affordable compact car of the SDR world. It delivers performance well above its comparatively modest price, and is fun to operate. In terms of DX, it gets you from point A to point B very comfortably, and is a capable receiver which will help you work even weak signals––and very reasonably!

If you’re looking to explore the world of SDRs, would like a capable receiver with great LW/MW/HF reception to do it with, but also want to keep your budget in check, you simply can’t go wrong with the RSP1A.

Check out the RSP1A via:

$167 US (125 GBP): FUNcube Dongle Pro+

Many years ago when I ventured into the world of SDRs, one of the only affordable SDRs which covered the HF bands was the FUNcube Dongle Pro+.

The Funcube Dongle Pro+, which resembles the RTL-SDR “stick” type dongle, was originally designed as a ground receiver for the FUNcube Satellite (cubesat) project initially made possible by AMSAT-UK and the Radio Communications Foundation (RCF). The original Funcube dongle did not cover any frequencies below 64 MHz, but the Funcube Dongle Pro+ added coverage from 150 kHz to 1.9 GHz with a gap between 240 MHz and 420 MHz.

In full disclosure, I’ve never owned a FUNcube Dongle Pro+, but I have used them on several occasions. I believe you would find that it is prone to overloading if you use a longwire antenna that’s not isolated from the dongle. In other words, during such use it seems to be subject to internally-generated noise. In my experience, the Pro+ worked best when hooked up to an external antenna fed by a proper coaxial cable.

To be clear, with the advent of SDRplay and AirSpy SDRs, the FUNcube Dongle Pro+ is no longer the budget SDR I would most readily recommend.

Still, the Pro+ is a very compact dongle that has a great history, and around 2012 really pushed the performance-for-price envelope. It still has many dedicated fans. No doubt, this product has had a huge influence on all of the sub $200 SDRs currently on the market, thus we owe it a debt of gratitude.

Click here to check out the FUNcube Dongle Pro+.

$169 US: SDRplay RSP2 & RSP2 Pro ($199):

The SDRplay RSP2 Pro

In 2016, after the remarkable success of the original RSP, SDRplay introduced the RSP2 and RSP2 Pro SDRs. The RSP2 is housed in an RF-shielded robust plastic case and the RSP2 Pro is enclosed in a rugged black painted steel case. In terms of receivers and features, the RSP2 and RSP2 Pro are otherwise identical

The RSP2 and RSP2 Pro provide excellent performance, three software-selectable antenna inputs, and clocking features, all of which lend it to amateur radio, industrial, scientific, and educational applications; it is a sweet SDR for $169 or $199 (Pro version). I know of no other SDRs with this set of features at this price point.

The RSP2 series has the same frequency coverage as the RSP1A. Of course, to most of us, the big upgrade from the SDRplay RSP1A is the RSP2’s multiple antenna ports:  2 x 50-Ohms and one High-Z port for lower frequencies.

The SDRplay RSP2 with plastic enclosure.

As with all of SDRplay’s SDRs, their own application, SDRuno, will support up to 16 individual receivers in any 10 MHz slice of spectrum.

Bottom line? Since the RSP2 has multiple antenna ports––and two antenna options for HF frequencies and below–the RSP2 is my choice sub-$200 SDR to use as a transceiver panadapter. (Spoiler alert: you’ll also want to check out our summary of the recently released $279 RSPduo from SDRplay in this review or in Part 3 of our primer before pulling the trigger on the purchase of an RSP2 or, especially, an RSP2 Pro!)

Check out the RSP2 via:

$199 US: AirSpy HF+

Sometimes big surprises come in small packages. That pretty much sums up the imminently pocketable AirSpy HF+ SDR.

The HF+ has the footprint of a typical business card, and is about as thick as a smartphone. Despite this, it’s a heavy little receiver––no doubt due to its metal alloy case/enclosure.

AirSpy’s HF+ was introduced late 2017. Don’t be surprised by its footprint which is similar to a standard business card to its left, this SDR is performance-packed!

Not to dwell on its size, but other than my RTL-SDR dongle, it’s by far the smallest SDR I’ve ever tested. Yet it sports two SMA antenna inputs: one for HF, one for VHF.

The HF port is labeled as “H” and the VHF port as “V”

When I first put it on the air, my expectations were low.  But I quickly discovered that the HF+ belies its size, and is truly one of the hottest sub $500 receivers on the market! Its HF performance is nothing short of phenomenal.

The HF+ is not a wideband receiver like the FunCube Dongle Pro+ or RSP series by SDRplay. Rather, the HF+ covers between 9 kHz to 31 MHz and from 60 to 260 MHz only; while this is a relatively small portion of the spectrum when compared with its competitors, this was a strategic choice by AirSpy. As AirSpy’s president, Youssef Touil, told me,“The main purpose of the HF+ is [to have] the best possible performance on HF at an affordable price.”

Mission accomplished.  Like other SDRs, the HF+ uses high dynamic range ADCs and front-ends but enhances the receiver’s frequency agility by using high-performance passive mixers with a robust polyphase harmonic rejection structure.  The HF+ was designed for a high dynamic range, thus it is the best sub-$200 I’ve tested for strong signal handling capability on the HF bands.

You can very easily experiment and customize the HF+ as well; easy access to the R3 position on the circuit board allows you to make one of several published modifications. “During the early phases of the design,” Yousef explains, “R3 was a placeholder for a 0 ohms resistor that allows experimenters to customize the input impedance.” He goes on to provide in-depth clarification about these mods:

“For example:

  • A 300 pF capacitor will naturally filter the LW/MW bands for better performance in the HAM bands
  • A 10µH inductor would allow the use of electrically short antennas (E-Field probes) for MW and LW
  • A short (or high value capacitor) would get you the nominal 50 ohms impedance over the entire band, but then it’s the responsibility of the user to make sure his antenna has the right gain at the right band
  • A custom filter can also be inserted between the SMA and the tuner block if so desired.”

Since the introduction of the HF+, it has been my recommended sub-$200 receiver for HF enthusiasts. If you want to explore frequencies higher than 260 MHz, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Also, note that longwave reception is not the HF+’s strong suit––although modifications to R3 and future firmware upgrades might help with this! Additionally, the HF+’s working bandwidth is 660 kHz; quite narrow, when compared with the RSP series, which can be widened to 10 MHz.

AirSpy also designed the free application SDR# to take full advantage of their receivers’ features and performance.

The AirSpy application (a.k.a. SDR#)

Installing the HF+ and getting it on the air is pure plug-and-play. While SDR# is a powerful and fluid SDR application, I actually use SDR Console more often, as it supports most of my other SDRs as well, and offers advanced virtual receiver and recording functionality.

If you’re an HF guy like me, the HF+ will be a welcome addition to your receiver arsenal. It’s a steal at $200.

Click here for a full list of AirSpy distributors.

Conclusion

If you haven’t gathered this already, it’s simply a brilliant time to be a budget-minded radio enthusiast. Only a few years ago, there were few, if any, enthusiast-grade sub-$200 SDR options on the market.  Now there are quite a number, and their performance characteristics are likely to impress even the hardest-core weak-signal DXer.

Still, some hams and SW listeners reading this article will no doubt live in a tougher RF environment where built-in hardware filters are requisite to prevent your receiver from overloading. Or perhaps you desire truly uncompromising benchmark performance from your SDR. If either is the case, you may need to invest a little more of your radio funds in an SDR to get exactly what you want…and that’s exactly where I’ll take you November in the final Part Three of this SDR primer series.  Stay tuned!

Stay tuned for more in Part Three (November). I’ll add links here after publication.

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Guest Post: Supercharging the XHDATA D-808 with a 7.5″ loopstick

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Gary DeBock, for sharing the following guest post:


Supercharging the XHDATA D-808

Installation of High Performance AM and LW Loopsticks

By Gary DeBock, Puyallup, WA, USA, September 2018

Introduction

As a stock receiver the Chinese-made D-808 AM-LW-FM-SW-AIR portable is a very capable performer, with AM reception superior to that of any current Ultralight model, and impressive FM reception as well. The radio was certainly “inspired” (to use a generous term) by the C.Crane Skywave SSB model, which coincidentally was manufactured in the same part of China by C.Crane’s Redsun partner—with the first units going out the door a few months before the D-808 came into existence.

Because foreign intellectual property is routinely copied in China with no punishment from the government, XHDATA essentially had the chance to copy all the good points in the Skywave SSB design and improve upon its weak points as well. The only precaution that XHDATA took after this wholesale design appropriation was to forbid direct shipments of the D-808 from China to North America—presumably to avoid a copyright lawsuit by C.Crane. As such, the first D-808 models were sold to the rest of the world around January of 2018 at a price about half that of the Skywave SSB, while North American DXers were told that since the model couldn’t be shipped to the USA or Canada, they were out of luck.

Of course some D-808 models did make it into North America, where it was found to be a very capable portable with astonishing value for the price. Finally around March, an enterprising Chinese eBay seller came up with a plan to ship the model to North America through Israel, thereby skirting around XHDATA’s direct shipment prohibition. As of late August this eBay seller (harelan ecommerce) has already sold 62 of the D-808 models this way, even though he charges a premium for shipment to North America. Whether this single supply source will continue to serve North American customers is currently unknown, but out of the 7 models that I have purchased from him there hasn’t been a single D-808 model with any issues– despite the apparent lack of any manufacturer’s warranty offered on the radio.

Despite the D-808’s rather dubious design pedigree there is no doubt that the Chinese engineers (or reverse engineers?) did a superb job in creating an awesome radio for the money. Besides directly copying the Skywave’s SSB design and controls, XHDATA also made significant improvements, including a longer loopstick (providing clearly superior AM sensitivity), a much more powerful audio amplifier (correcting a serious shortcoming in the Skywave SSB) and a much lower price (about half that of the $169.99 Skywave SSB, for models shipped outside North America). Another great advantage for someone wishing to perform this loopstick upgrade are the perfectly located, highly accessible Litz wire connections on the RF circuit board—apparently used by the Chinese engineers to conveniently test out various loopsticks, and retained in the final product.  The radio’s high quality construction and survivability in adverse conditions were proven repeatedly over the summer here, with the model surviving accidental exposure to a 104 degree (43 degrees C) car trunk temperature, exposure to moderate rain, repeated travel bumps, and use as the main receiver during a 9-day DXpedition to a plunging ocean side cliff in Oregon state. The 3.7v lithium-ion rechargeable battery provides superior run time for extended DXing sessions, and is included in the D-808 shipping package, along with a USB cord to charge the battery, a plug-in wire antenna (for FM,SW and AIR), a vinyl carrying case, and a pretty basic English instruction manual.

One thing you will NOT find supplied with the D-808 is a warranty card– either in the shipping box, or online. This is pretty standard practice in China, incidentally, where concepts like refunds and warranties aren’t generally part of customers’ expectations. This doesn’t necessarily mean that XHDATA won’t repair obvious problems in a new D-808, but it does mean that they aren’t assuming the obligation to do so. I have heard from one North American purchaser who received a new D-808 with a defective speaker, and he is still waiting for the model to be repaired (after paying the shipping charge to send it back to China). Each individual purchaser must decide whether or not this lack of any warranty is a deal breaker. But if you are looking for a final reason to perform this loopstick transplant, why not consider the fact that you will not be violating any manufacturer’s warranty by doing so??

Realistic Expectations

Although this 7.5” loopstick upgrade will certainly make your D-808 far more sensitive than the stock model on Medium Wave or Longwave, it is not designed to compete with large (2’ sided or larger) inductively coupled box loops, or any of the new FSL antennas. The sensitivity upgrade will boost the D-808’s MW band weak-signal performance up to the level of classic portables like the ICF-2010 and RF-2200; however, and since the D-808’s DSP-enhanced selectivity will generally exceed that offered by these classic portables, the overall DXing capability in the AM mode could be considered slightly greater. The D-808 does have SSB capability, although it lacks the SSB tuning convenience offered by the ICF-2010 and RF-2200. It also lacks the ICF-2010’s superb Synch detector, a big advantage in weak signal DXing. But in portability, versatility and DXing value for the price, the “Supercharged” D-808 is a real winner.

Project Overview

This construction article will provide the builder with step-by-step instructions to upgrade the XHDATA D-808’s loopstick to a much more sensitive, externally-mounted 7.5” Medium Wave or Longwave loopstick replacement. Both the Medium Wave and Longwave 7.5” loopstick designs have been thoroughly tested and proven effective in actual DXing by hobbyists other than the author, and as long as the instructions are followed carefully, this relatively inexpensive modification will provide a major improvement in the D-808’s weak-signal reception capability.

This modification project involves close-order soldering on the D-808’s circuit board, and should only be attempted by builders with reasonably good eyesight, good hand coordination and soldering experience. The project also calls for the use of a precut plastic loopstick frame to attach the antenna to the top of the D-808’s top back cabinet surface, and the construction of this precut plastic frame requires either the use of a 12” (or larger) power miter saw, or some rather lengthy cutting with a hacksaw. Use of a power miter saw SHOULD NOT be attempted by those without serious power tool experience! The author assumes that only qualified power tool operators will attempt to use a 12” miter saw to cut these frames quickly, and that other builders who wish to construct them will use a hacksaw. As such, only basic cutting instructions are provided for the 12” power miter saw users, while detailed instructions are provided for the hacksaw users. To assist builders who are not qualified to use power tools, the author has prepared a LIMITED number of these precut plastic loopstick frames on a power miter saw, which will be offered at cost to these builders on a first come, first served basis.

A final warning is in order concerning the step of gluing the precut plastic loopstick frame to the D-808’s top back cabinet surface. Although this step is not dangerous, it is pretty tricky. Since the superglue “grips” very rapidly, you will only get one chance to ensure that the frame is straight, and centered on the D-808’s top cabinet surface. Do yourself a favor, and make multiple “dry runs” to practice this important step before applying the glue! Failure to take this step seriously will probably result in a crooked loopstick frame—which will hold the antenna just fine for DXing purposes, but which will be an eternal reminder to the DXer (and everyone else) of the hazards of haste.

Construction Parts Required

This 7.5” loopstick D-808 construction article will guide you through the assembly of either a 7.5” Medium Wave loopstick D-808 or a 7.5” Longwave loopstick D-808, so make sure that you order the parts necessary for construction of your chosen model. The picture above shows the parts that will be necessary for construction of either model, but the Litz wire and 7.5” ferrite rod components differ according to whether you are building the Medium Wave or Longwave model.

A)  XHDATA D-808 Receiver, currently available to North American purchasers (for $112.87 + $10. Click here to search eBay.

B)   Scotch brand “Extreme” strapping tape (any size roll)

C)   15 feet (4.6 meters) of 250/46 Litz wire (Medium Wave model). Click here to view on eBay.

OR 25 feet (7.7 meters) of 100/44 Litz wire (Longwave model). Click here to view on eBay.

D)  Two 120 lb. test plastic tie wraps (any length over 6”)

E)  Johnson Level & Tool Mfg. Co., Inc. 48” orange plastic carpenter’s level, part # 7748-O (provides enough plastic for two loopstick frames)

F)  Two 3/4” lengths of 1/2” I.D. clear vinyl hose

G)  Two 1” lengths of 5/8” I.D. rubber hose

H)  Roll of 2” Johnson & Johnson waterproof (medical) tape OR roll of 1” Rite-Aid waterproof tape

I)  Amidon 7.5” x .5” ferrite rod, part no.  R61-050-750 (MW model) OR part no. R33-050-750 (LW Model), available at http://www.amidoncorp.com/rods-and-tiles/

J)  6” of 1/16” shrink tubing

Miscellaneous:  One packet of Duro Super Glue (.07 ounce size), solder, 25w (low heat) soldering iron, hacksaw (or power miter saw), screwdriver set, sandpaper, needle nose pliers, diagonal cutters

D-808 Radio Preparation

Before starting the modification give the radio a thorough test on all bands, ensuring that all the stock model functions work properly, and that there are no issues with the display, speaker, headphone jack, battery or charging system. It’s also a good idea to run a daytime DX band scan on the AM or Longwave band (for whichever band you plan to construct an upgrade loopstick) and document the results—to use as a benchmark for the upgrade loopstick’s performance.

Step-By-Step Construction

Antenna Frame and 7.5 inch Loopstick Preparation

1)   Refer to the photo below. Using the “Supercharging the Tecsun PL-380” article (posted at  http://www.mediafire.com/file/du3sr5cd9thqvau/7.5inch-LS-PL380.doc/file or available directly from the author) carefully prepare the orange loopstick antenna frame according to construction steps 1-9, EXCEPT note that the lower (glue surface) edge of the antenna frame should be cut to a length of 5 3/4” (147mm), NOT 5” (127mm) as described in the PL-380 transplant article. Pay close attention to the safety precautions concerning power tool usage, and DO NOT attempt to use a power miter saw unless you have SERIOUS power tool experience!

2)   If you are constructing an AM (Medium Wave) loopstick, follow construction steps 10-16 in the PL-380 transplant article to construct the antenna. If you are constructing a Longwave loopstick, follow construction steps 10a-16a in the PL-380 transplant article to construct the antenna. If you are constructing both loopsticks, MAKE SURE that the ferrite rod and Litz wire are only used in the antennas for which they were designed. Mixing up these items is very easy, and such a mistake will make both loopsticks perform like clunkers.

3)   After construction of either the AM or Longwave loopstick, follow the instructions in steps 29 and 30 of the PL-380 transplant article to install a piece of 3 1/8” (79mm) shrink tubing, EXCEPT note that this length is slightly longer than the 3” (76mm) length called for in the PL-380 article.

4)   Refer to the photo below for the following three steps. [NOTE: Although this photo shows the AM (Medium Wave) loopstick, the procedures in this step are the same for the Longwave loopstick, although the position of the rubber hose lengths and clear vinyl inserts will be closer to the ends of the ferrite rod]. Carefully slide the length of 3 1/8” shrink tubing into the position shown, ensuring that there are no Litz wire kinks or bends inside the shrink tubing.

5)   Take the two 3/4” (19mm) clear vinyl inserts and slide them onto the ferrite rod ends, twisting them up against the border of the Scotch “Extreme” tape ends to lock the tape in place under the vinyl inserts. Ensure that the clear vinyl inserts do not touch any Litz wire leads or coil turns.

6)    Slide the 1” (25mm) lengths of rubber heater hose over the clear vinyl inserts until the appearance of the loopstick resembles the above photo. Ensure that the rubber hose sections also do not touch either the Litz wire leads or any coil turns. Finally, place the completed loopstick in a safe place until it is called for in Step  .

Radio Disassembly

7) Refer to the photo above for this step. Remove the battery from the radio, and using a Jeweler’s Phillips screwdriver of the correct size, remove the six identical screws in the positions shown (NOTE: These screws have a tendency to stick inside their slots, even when the slots are turned upside down. If you cannot remove all six screws it’s not a major problem, but at least ensure that the screws are completely loose in their slots, and that you don’t lose any of them during the remaining steps). Grasp the tuning knob, and pull it out horizontally in a completely straight manner to remove it from the radio. Ensure that the battery, tuning knob and all removed screws are placed in a safe place until the radio is reassembled.

8)   Carefully separate the front and back cabinet sections and place them down in the position shown in the photo below. Note that the front and back sections of the radio are connected by a ribbon wire plug-in system– ensure that this plug remains securely inside its slot at all times, and that no great stress is placed on the speaker wires.

9)   Refer to the close up photo below, and note the position of the two Litz wire soldering points on the circuit board (in the lower right corner of the photo). Using diagonal cutters, cut the two Litz wire leads at the position shown, UNLESS you wish to salvage this stock loopstick for other projects—in which case you should desolder the entire lengths of the Litz wire leads from the circuit board at the positions shown in the lower right corner (NOTE: The stock loopstick is of a fairly good design, and has an inductance that would be compatible with any DSP-chip Ultralight radio, providing an AM sensitivity boost in the process).

10)   Refer to the photo below. Using a flat Jeweler’s screwdriver with a 1/16” blade, carefully probe around all four sides of the stock loopstick to break all of the glue bonds. Work slowly and carefully around the perimeter of the ferrite rod, including the plastic covers on each end. Once most of the glue bonds have been broken the ferrite rod will begin to shift around as you break up the few remaining bonds, but until this point work slowly and patiently to break up the glue.

11)   Refer to the photo below. Using the flat Jeweler’s screwdriver, once all of the glue bonds have been broken and the ferrite rod is loose in its slot, lift the ferrite rod out of its slot on one side by prying up under the plastic cover on the end of the ferrite rod. Ensure that the Litz wire leads have either been cut or desoldered from the circuit board, then grasp the ferrite rod with your fingers and pull it completely out of the slot with a slight twisting motion.

 

12)   Remove the wrist strap, and refer to the photo below. Carefully pick up the two sides of the radio and place the back section in a vertical position as shown, with a heavy flat weight (barbell, or other heavy flat item) pressing up against the back cabinet section to keep it in a vertical position. Ensure that there is adequate, even lighting on the top cabinet section for the gluing process in the next step, and that the back cabinet surface will not shift around as you make the gluing “dry runs,” and perform the actual gluing of the loopstick frame to the top of the cabinet.

 

13) Take the previously prepared orange plastic loopstick frame, and ensure that its bottom glue surface is completely smooth and flat, with no uneven ridges on the edges of the glue surface (remove these with fine sandpaper, but ONLY on the ridges, and not on the rest of the flat glue surface). Using a damp paper towel, wipe the top cabinet glue surface and the loopstick frame glue surface to remove any dust or debris, then wipe them again with a dry, clean paper towel to ensure that they are both completely dry.

Take the loopstick frame and gently slide the frame over the top cabinet surface to ensure that both surfaces are smooth and flat. Refer to the photo at the top of the next page. Ensure that there is even, bright lighting on the top cabinet surface, and make several “dry runs” to place the loopstick frame in the exact center of the top cabinet surface (with 1/16”, or 1.5mm of space between the frame ends to the cabinet ends), and also 1/16” (1.5mm) of overhang above the front edge of the cabinet’s glue surface (NOTE: if you wish to simplify the process by lining up the front edge of the loopstick frame with the front edge of the cabinet’s glue surface it will still provide an acceptable result, but you will need to do some minor sanding of the whip antenna’s plastic slot post, as shown in the photo below. In either case, make repeated “dry runs” with the loopstick frame to practice placing it in the exact center of the top cabinet’s glue surface, since you will only get one chance to place it in the proper center position once the superglue is applied.

NOTE: The back of the loopstick frame has a beveled surface to permit full operation of the radio’s whip antenna after the frame is glued on the top of the cabinet surface. If the loopstick frame is glued with a 1/16” (1.5mm) overhang in front of the front edge of the cabinet surface then the whip antenna should have enough space for free operation. The alternative is to glue the two front edges lined up with each other to simplify the gluing process, in which case minor sanding may be required on the whip antenna slot post, as shown in the photo below.

14)   After making multiple “dry runs” and becoming familiar with accurate placement of the loopstick frame on top of the cabinet, refer to the photo at the top of the next page. After once again ensuring that the back cabinet section will not shift around during the gluing process, take the Duro superglue packet and apply a thin (1/8”, or 3mm) bead of glue along the center of the cabinet’s glue surface, extending it 5 1/4” (133mm)long, with equal spaces on both ends (as shown). While sighting the two sides place the loopstick frame carefully down in the correct center position as practiced previously, with the 1/16” overhang if desired. If satisfied with the position, press down on the frame to lock the two surfaces together securely. Usually the frame may be shifted around slightly within 1 or 2 seconds of placing it on the superglue, so use this brief time to promptly shift the frame to a straight position, if necessary. After a couple of seconds, though, you will need to be satisfied with whatever position the frame has ended up with (regardless, it will still hold the loopstick just fine, for DXing purposes).

15)   After the loopstick frame is securely placed and locked on top of the D-808’s cabinet surface, place downward pressure on the loopstick frame along its length in order to ensure a tight glue bond throughout the entire top cabinet surface. Continue this process for about one minute, and sight both ends of the loopstick frame to ensure that they are both completely flat against the D-808 cabinet.

16)   Inspect the front and back edges of the loopstick frame’s border with the D-808 cabinet for any glue seepage, and if any is found,  remove it promptly with the 1/16” flat Jeweler’s screwdriver blade. Glue should not be allowed to run past the frame edges. This completes the process of gluing the frame to the D-808 cabinet.

7.5” Loopstick Installation

17)   [NOTE:  The installation procedures of the Medium Wave (AM) and Longwave loopsticks are identical, except that the plastic tie wraps and rubber hose sections are closer to the ends of the ferrite rod in the Longwave version. The following photos are for the Medium Wave (AM) version,  but Longwave loopstick builders should follow the same steps, while referring to the Longwave model photo in the “Operation” section as a guide]

Refer to the photo below. Carefully take the previously prepared 7.5” loopstick and hold it in the position shown—in its slot, centered in the middle of the orange antenna frame, with the shrink tubing and Litz wire leads running down to the left. Take the two plastic tie wraps and install them in the position shown, centered over the rubber hose sections on the loopstick, while ensuring that no Litz wires or shrink tubing is bound under the plastic tie wraps.

18)   Refer to the photo below. Lay the two cabinet sections down flat as shown, ensuring that the Litz wire shrink tubing is in the exact position shown (if it isn’t, carefully slide it along both Litz wires until it is in this exact position). Carefully thread one Litz wire end through the empty wrist strap hole, then thread the other Litz wire end through the hole, as shown. Finally pull on the two Litz wires together from the right while guiding the end of the shrink tubing into the empty wrist strap hole, and pull a short section of the shrink tubing through the hole (as shown) to protect the Litz wire insulation from friction damage.

19) Refer to the photo below. Using the previous procedure to install shrink tubing (which is described in the PL-380 transplant article) install a 2.5” (63mm) length of shrink tubing over the two Litz wire ends, and shift the shrink tubing into the position shown in the photo. After this is done cut the two Litz wire leads to the lengths shown in the photo (NOTE: make sure that the ends of both Litz wires are cleanly cut, not frayed and at the minimum diameter before attempting to insert them into the shrink tubing. The process is much easier when the Litz wires pass smoothly through the shrink tubing).

20) Refer to the close up photo below. Using a low heat (25w) pencil-type soldering iron, remove the two stock Litz wire leads at the positions shown, taking care not to use excessive heat, or touch the adjacent components. Ensure that the new Litz wire leads are at the length shown when the leads are in a horizontal position throughout the cabinet, and cut them to this length if they are not.

21) NOTE: When tinning the 250/46 Litz wire it is essential that all of the individual Litz wire strands be completely soldered together for a length of at least 1/4” (6mm), with bright, shiny solder around the circumference of the Litz wire ends for this minimum (1/4”) length. The Litz wire must be heated with a clean, hot soldering iron around its circumference in order to melt the solder properly for this step]

Refer to the photo above. Pull the Litz wires up out of the previous position, and place a clean rag underneath them (on top of the circuit board) to completely protect the circuit board from any solder which might accidentally drop down during the tinning process. Using your hot 25w soldering iron melt a generous amount of solder on its tip, and work the soldering iron tip slowly and patiently around the circumference of each Litz wire end until there is a bright, shiny solder length of at least 1/4” (6mm) in a cylindrical pattern at the end of each Litz wire. When doing this, take great care not to allow any solder to drip down onto the circuit board below (i.e., make sure that your rag completely covers the circuit board). The final appearance of your Litz wire lead ends should resemble those in the photo.

22) When your Litz wire lead ends resemble the photo above, cut the soldered portion down to a length of 3/16” (5mm) and observe the appearance of the end of the Litz wire. It should have a bright, solid circular shape, with no gaps or individual Litz wires showing. If not, reheat the end of the Litz wire while adding some solder, and repeat this step.

23) NOTE: The Litz wire connection points on the circuit board are surrounded by other important components. It is important to avoid solder drips on these components, or solder bridges to their leads. Solder the Litz wire leads down at an angle to avoid these surrounding components, and use the minimum amount of heat and solder to ensure good electrical connections)

Refer to the close up photo above. Following the precautions described, solder the two Litz wire leads down onto the circuit board at an angle, as shown in the photo. After soldering, make a close visual inspection to ensure that there are no solder bridges across the Litz wire connections, or nearby components. The remaining length of the Litz wire leads should be routed in a horizontal manner to the wrist strap hole.

24) Carefully pick up the front and back cabinet sections, and hold the back cabinet section fairly close to the front section (as the radio would normally be oriented, when assembled). Refer to the photo below, and carefully insert the “Fine Tuning” control thumbwheel from the front cabinet section into its slot on the back cabinet section in a sideway movement. This will allow you to fully close the front and back cabinet sections in the next step.

25) Refer to the photo below. Pick up the two cabinet halves and carefully snap them together (this action should not require any great force). Place the radio face down in the position shown (with a soft surface underneath, for protection), and using the Jewelers Phillips screwdriver of the correct size, carefully screw in the six screws that were loosened previously, starting with the screw near the whip antenna post (you should pick up the radio temporarily and hold the two cabinet sections together tightly at this corner, as you do this).

After all six screws have been retightened take the Tuning control knob and press it back onto its shaft in a straight horizontal motion. Finally, reinstall the battery and battery compartment cover to finish up the reassembly.

TESTING AND OPERATION– MEDIUM WAVE MODEL

This 7.5” transplant loopstick is designed to provide a major boost in sensitivity from 530-1700 kHz, and if the antenna is working properly both the weak signal reception and the radio’s nulling capability should be greatly enhanced. It is normal for the antenna to receive more background noise on the low band frequencies, although the sensitivity boost should be substantial across the band.

The construction design of the orange antenna frame allows full usage of the whip antenna for checking SW parallels of MW-DX stations, although if you chose to glue the antenna frame flush with the front of the back cabinet surface to simplify the gluing process, you may need to sand the whip antenna slot post slightly to allow free movement of the whip antenna (see step #13).

In the photo above, some of the important controls for Medium DXing are highlighted. The AM Bandwidth control allows you to choose multiple DSP filtering selections to enhance selectivity as desired, with the narrowest filtering (1 kHz) providing both the sharpest selectivity and the best weak-signal sensitivity. However this 1 kHz setting also has the poorest audio fidelity, with the higher audio frequencies typically cut off by the DSP filtering. As such, for regular DXing far away from strong local pests, the other AM Bandwidth settings may be more suitable. The Direct Frequency Entry key allows you to manual enter in any MW frequency, to which the radio will shift once the numbers are pressed on the keypad. The Tuning knob has three different modes, which can be toggled by pressing the knob horizontally. The first mode is tuning in either 9 kHz or 10 kHz steps (depending on which of these step you have selected), while the second mode is tuning in 1 kHz steps. The third mode is to lock the frequency in place. Pressing the knob again will return the tuning to 9 or 10 kHz steps.

The XHDATA D-808 has multiple display functions, which can be toggled by the indicated key. The first option is the temperature in either Centigrade or Fahrenheit (depending on your pre-set preference), while the second option is the alarm time. The third option is the current time (which you need to set according whether you prefer UTC or local time), while the fourth option is the received signal strength in both dBu and dB.

The supplied 3.7v lithium ion battery has superior run time, and may be easily charged using the supplied USB cable to either a computer or AC outlet (with the appropriate adapter). As reported in various posts throughout this year, the D-808 model has rugged construction with an excellent record of survival under tough conditions, including hot summer days, moderate rain exposure and extended usage as the main receiver during a 9-day ocean cliff DXpedition in Oregon—performing flawlessly at all times.

Conclusion

It is the author’s sincere hope that this “Supercharged” D-808 model will bring you a lot of DXing fun during travel, as well as at other times. When conditions are good you should never underestimate this enhanced model’s potential of receiving awesome DX beyond your expectations—as an example, here is the stand-alone performance of a 7.5” loopstick D-808 in receiving 1017-A3Z in Nuku’alofa, Tonga (10 kW at 5,632 miles/ 9,063 km) on the ocean cliff near Manzanita, Oregon at 1301 UTC on August 8th of this year:

Not only Tonga is received, but even the Australian horse racing station 1017-2KY in Sydney (5 kW at 7,630 miles/ 12,280 km) is received as a weak co-channel in the middle of the recording. My hope is that you all will be so lucky with your new Supercharged D-808!

73 and Good DX,

Gary DeBock (in Puyallup, WA, USA)


Absolutely amazing!  Thank you for taking the time to put this procedure together and describing the process in such fine detail, Gary! Hats off to you! 

Click here to read all of Gary DeBock’s posts on the SWLing Post.

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