Tag Archives: Elecraft KX3

SDR Primer Part 3: From High-End SDR Receivers to SDR Transceivers

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


Welcome back to the world of SDRs once again

In September we began of our three-part Primer on Software-Defined Radios (SDRs). Part One (September) focused on the nomenclature and components of a functioning SDR system; Part Two (October) took a look at some affordable SDR station options that will propel you into the world of SDRs for less than $200 US. This month, in Part Three––our final installation––we’ll dive a little deeper into the SDR rabbit hole, and investigate higher-end SDRs as well as ham radio transceivers with embedded SDRs.

Investing in SDR hardware

As we mentioned in Part 2 of our primer, gaining entry into the world of SDRs can be quite affordable. With merely $200 or less, you can fully explore the radio spectrum with an SDR that has truly excellent performance characteristics.

So, why would you pay more?

Let’s consider this.  If, say, you happen to live in an RF-dense environment, such as a busy city, if you live near strong broadcaster(s), and/or if you’re a DXer who’s seeking benchmark performance, then you might wish to devote a little more of your cash to your SDR hardware.

When you pay more for an SDR, the additional cost is typically going toward the hardware rather than the software. Indeed, my favorite SDR (software) applications are absolutely free, and pair with a number of benchmark SDRs. But good hardware is vital to performance. The lineup of SDRs––that is, the receiver hardware––discussed below typically has better filtering, preselectors, shielding, and receiver architecture focused on HF performance. They also tend to offer a more robust front end, lower noise floor, and better dynamic range. All of this, of course, results in better performance overall. Some of these SDRs also offer unique specialty features, like built-in web servers.

The following SDRs are carefully hand selected, and in my view, represent a balance between price and performance. And again, this is by no means a comprehensive list; it’s simply a selection of what you’ll find currently available on the SDR market.

So, without further ado, we’ll begin our discussion with “black box” SDRs, then move on to  SDR transceivers and transceivers with embedded SDRs.

SDRplay RSPduo

The SDRplay RSPduo

In May of this year (2018), the UK-based SDR designer and manufacturer SDRplay released their latest receiver: the SDRplay RSPduo.

What sets this little black box apart from the competition is just what its name implies:  the duo is a dual tuner SDR.  In other words, it’s two independent SDRs rolled into one.

Being the price leader in the world of SDRs, SDRplay retails the RSPduo for $279.95. And, I must add, it’s a true bargain for a feature-packed 14-bit high-performance device.

The RSPduo’s tuners can operate individually, anywhere between 1kHz and 2GHz, with up to 10MHz of working bandwidth. You could also set up the RSPduo so that both tuners can operate simultaneously, again between 1kHz and 2GHz, with up to 2MHz of bandwidth per tuner. The RSPduo has a high-stability reference along with external clocking features which makes this SDR an affordable option for industrial, scientific, as well as educational applications. It’s housed in a quality steel enclosure.

SDRplay’s development team is already working on new features such as true diversity reception, which will be included as a free upgrade to their popular SDRuno proprietary application.

To be clear, there is no other sub-$300 SDR on the market that currently has true dual-tuner functionality. Thus, the RSPduo is a good value, in my opinion––and an inexpensive upgrade to a proper dual-receiver SDR––so if this is something you’d like to add to your shack, go ahead!  Bite the bullet, and acquire an RSPduo. Likely you won’t regret it.

Check out the RSPduo via:

KiwiSDR

Photo by Mark Fahey

Like the RSPduo, the KiwiSDR has a unique feature that makes it stand out among the other receivers mentioned here: it is designed to be fully controlled via a web-browser-based SDR application. Not only can you use your KiwiSDR locally, but you can share it with the world via the KiwiSDR network. You can configure the KiwiSDR to allow up to eight simultaneous guest users, assuming only that you have access to the modest amount of Internet bandwidth this requires.

The KiwiSDR ships as a simple modular kit, and requires no special tools to assemble: the SDR is a custom circuit board (known as a “cape”) that you connect to BeagleBone Green or BeagleBone Black mini computer. (Click here to learn more about the BeagleBone).

The KiwiSDR is available in two versions: the SDR cape, alone, and a more complete version which includes the SDR cape, BeagleBone computer, enclosure, and GPS antenna. Both versions include all SDR software loaded on a micro-SD card.

Although the KiwiSDR might sound like an experimenter’s receiver since it requires a degree of assembly and configuration––at least, a bit more so than the other units I review here––it’s actually fairly simple to assemble, install, and put on the air. In fact, the only challenge that you might face is that of setting up your router for global access to your KiwiSDR. It does require either a static IP address or (more commonly) an IP address forwarding service. Check out the support documentation in advance to make sure your Internet connection will work.

The KiwiSDR covers from 10 kHz to 30 MHz, thus is not a wideband receiver like the SDRduo. Like the SDRs that follow, it focuses its performance on HF and lower bands.

I find it incredible that for just $299 US, you can purchase the full KiwiSDR kit––one that includes everything you need to put your SDR on the air and online. Because of this, I believe the KiwiSDR has become the dominant web SDR platform currently on the market. Perhaps this remarkable fact overshadows the fact that the KiwiSDR is also a superb performer, touting a brilliant dynamic range as well as overall excellent sensitivity and selectivity.

As my friend and fellow radio listener Mark Fahey, an early adopter of the KiwiSDR, is quick to point out, the KIwiSDR is unique in that it doesn’t connect to a PC or other computer to operate. It’s a stand-alone:  just connect an antenna, DC supply, and network cable, then you’re ready to go. All of the “work” is delivered by the piggyback BeagleBone CPU.

What’s not to love? While the web-based SDR application is full-featured, it does lack spectrum recording and some other advanced controls. This is due to the relatively modest processing power of the onboard CPU. That said, The KiwiSDR application does contain features/functionality via extensions that are fairly impressive.

Additionally, when updates are rolled out for the KiwiSDr application, these take effect globally. Only recently, for example, audio recording and amazing TDoA (Time Distance of Arrival) functionality were added.

Oh, and one more thing before we move on: the KiwiSDR is the only SDR I know that is exclusively controlled by a web-based SDR application for both the online guest and the local user/owner. There is no separate downloadable application.  Thus, whether you’re using your own local KiwiSDR or an online SDR, the user experience is exactly the same. It’s seamless and user-friendly…just as it should be.

Want to try the KiwiSDR before purchasing? Easy! You can browse and select any one of two hundred KiwiSDRs online on SDR.hu.

Check out the KiwiSDR via:

ELAD FDM-S2/FDM-S3

Italian-based SDR manufacturer, ELAD, has built a solid reputation over the years for truly pushing the SDR performance envelope in the $500-$1000 market.

I have owned their Elad FDM-S2 for four years now (check out my full review in the November 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor). The FDM-S2 continues to impress and to hold its own among more recent competitors––a true indication of excellent engineering and hardware.

The FDM-S2’s frequency coverage is 9 kHz-52 MHz, 74-108 MHz, and 135-160 MHz. I should note here that besides being a great HF and mediumwave performer, the FDM-S2 is an FM DXer’s choice receiver; FM performance on this rig is just superb.

ELAD supports all of their SDRs with their own proprietary application which, of course, is designed to take full advantage of the SDR’s available performance. The ELAD application is feature-packed and even includes built-in DRM decoding. Interestingly, it will allow the FDM-S2 to be used as two completely independent tuners in “double DDC mode”––the working bandwidth of each tuner, in this case, is 384 kHz, and each can be placed within one of the FDM-S2’s input ranges.

In truth, I like pairing my FDM-S2 with the excellent (and free) SDR Console SDR application; I prefer its user interface and recording functionality over the ELAD application.

If you live in an RF-dense area, you might consider one of ELADs external pre-selection filter systems to keep the FDM-S2 from overloading in the presence of very strong signals.

The FDM-S2 is currently priced at $529 US.

Photo of the new ELAD FDM-S3 from the 2018 Hamvention

Note that ELAD will soon be releasing the newest addition to their product line: the FDM-S3. I know very little about the FDM-S3, but I do know ELAD is promising groundbreaking performance and dynamic range, setting a new benchmark for the $1000 price bracket. We do know the FDM-S3’s processing bandwidth is an impressive 24.576 MHz––wide enough to include the entire FM broadcast band!

I’m not sure if FM DXers will be able to take advantage of spectrum recording at a 24 MHz bandwidth, because I suspect it could push 24GB of data per minute. The FDM-S3 may well keep up, but I’m not sure the typical computer hardware can handle that kind of data transfer…it may be likened to, in radio terms, drinking from the proverbial fire hose!

However: ELAD will be sending me a loaner FDM-S3 to review in the coming months, so stay tuned for more on this DXer’s dream rig!

The current FDM-S3 price, by the way, is 949.90 EUR.

WinRadio Excalibur

The WinRadio Excalibur

My first foray into the world of benchmark SDRs was made with the Australian-made WinRadio WR-G31DDC Excalibur. And although this SDR has been on the market for the better part of a decade, it still outperforms many of its competitors.The Excalibur’s frequency range is 9 kHz to 49.995 MHz, providing absolutely stellar performance across the spectrum.

It’s a favorite SDR in my radio shack, despite the fact that it can only be fully controlled by WinRadio’s own proprietary SDR application (at least, I know of no other compatible applications). On the plus side, the WinRadio application is one of my favorites.

The application’s file size is extremely compact––only a 9MB download. The user interface is logical, ergonomic, and responsive. Other than SDR Console, it has some of the best recording functionality available today.

I’ve logged more airtime with the Excalibur than with any other SDR I own, mainly because of its superb overall performance, responsive application, and recording functionality. I use the Excalibur as a benchmark for receiver evaluations and find that very few can match its solid performance.

The WinRadio Excalibur can be purchased through a number of distributors worldwide for about $950.

Enablia TitanSDR Pro

The Enablia Titan SDR Pro is an outlier product in our SDR Primer series, in that it retails in excess of $2,000. However, it’s the highest performing SDR I’ve ever tested. Serious weak-signal DXers will likely be quite pleased with this rig.

And speaking as a radio archivist, the Titan has the most powerful set of audio and spectrum recording features I’ve used, to date. Selectable spectrum recordings can be made from within the wide working bandwidth, and it can run up to four fully-independent SDR receivers, simultaneously.

The Titan comes with 16 frequency preselectors onboard, and a 9 kHz to 32 MHz frequency coverage. Its front end is simply bullet-proof, and thus could be operated in a demanding RF environment.

The TitanSDR ships with a brilliant proprietary application. It’s designed to make managing the Titan’s multiple virtual receivers and four independent SDR receivers as straightforward (and easy!) as possible. As I said in my review, Enablia engineers quite successfully accomplished this. The only downside is that only the TitanSDR application can run only the TitanSDR; no other third-party apps work with it. In addition, when making spectrum recordings, the file format is unique and the header information is actually stored in a separate file. This means when you are transferring a set of spectrum recordings, the header file must also be accounted for.

Of course, there is the daunting price tag of the TitanSDR, which makes it clear that this was a receiver designed for government and commercial use, in particular, for signal intelligence.  Thus it’s likely no surprise that the basic version of the TitanSDR retails for 1380 EUR, the TitanSDR Pro for an even heftier 1970 EUR.

To be fair, there are not many readers who would consider the TitanSDR Pro, but I thought it worth mentioning as it demonstrates a clear case of hardware becoming an innovation’s primary focus.

Enablia’s website is quite basic, so I would recommend you contact them directly to ask for a price quote if you’re interested in one of their TitanSDRs.

Other SDRs

The SDRs above represent merely a small slice of SDR market availability. There are several other notable manufacturers and SDRs worth considering, thus worth noting.

The Bonito Radiojet 1309 Plus

Germany-based Bonito manufactures a number of SDRs, antennas and components that are highly regarded among DXers. Bonito’s “hybrid” SDRs pack a lot of performance yet require very little in terms of computer resources.  Their latest SDR, the Bonito RadioJet 1309 Plus covers 0.02 MHz to 1600 MHz with a spectrum display that can be widened to 3.2 MHz. I have not personally evaluated the RadioJet 1309 Plus, but I did review an early version of the RadioJet (the 1102S) that lacked the additional IQ-receiver of the 1309. I found it an impressively sensitive and selective receiver with excellent audio characteristics. Click here to read that review.

The RFspace Cloud-IQ

RF Space has been manufacturing SDRs longer than many other manufacturers, and the company offers a number of products, including the SDR-IQ, the NetSDR+, the Cloud-IQ, and––soon to come––the CloudSDR.

In Part 2 of our primer, we mentioned the AirSpy HF+ which packs impressive HF performance. Airspy also manufactures the Airspy R2 and Spyverter R2–this $218 US combination produces a compact SDR package with excellent dynamic range and superb frequency stability.

I’m also fond of the classic Microtelecom Perseus SDR, which I’ve seen sold used for approximately $700 US. WinRadio, too, offers higher-end SDRs with a wider frequency range and working bandwidth than the Excalibur––so if your budget allows, you might consider these.

Regardless, keep in mind that if you want to use your monetary resources efficiently, there is no need to splurge for higher-end SDRs unless your use and application demands increased performance. Before you pull the trigger to buy such a rig, I would simply take into consideration the unit’s frequency range, working bandwidth, and performance characteristics, as well as taking the time to read plenty of user reviews. This increases the odds that you’ll get just what you want.

SDR Transceivers

So far, I’ve only mentioned SDR receivers in this primer, but there is a healthy selection of “black box” type SDR transceivers on the market, as well. By “black box,” I mean the transceiver itself (all of the hardware) housed in a box––with, of course, the relevant ports for antennas, data, power, mics, CW keys, and a number of peripherals. These SDRs almost always require a computer for operation, although lately manufacturers are beginning to offer optional touch-screen front panels which can bypass the need for external computer operation.

Unlike the world of tabletop radios, where it might be less expensive to invest in a general coverage transceiver rather than a dedicated receiver, SDR transceivers almost always cost more than an equivalent SDR receiver.

Also note that SDR transceiver applications do not always include audio and spectrum recording functions.  In addition, their working bandwidth might be more narrow that other receive-only SDRs, although they may offer more virtual receivers and spectrum “slices.”

Finally, SDR transceiver applications tend to be proprietary; when you purchase the transceiver, you’re also likely receiving the only SDR application that will interface with it. Hypothetically, if you purchase an SDR transceiver and the company that produced it goes under, you might have issues when the application is no longer updated with operating system upgrades and iterations.  The lesson here is that I believe you should try to stick with the healthiest companies and those with solid, large user bases. This increases the likelihood that the application will be supported in the future.

Low-cost, low power SDRs for the experimenter

We’ll start with the least expensive SDR transceivers designed with the experimenter in mind, that can, with a little adaptation, also be employed by ham radio operators as very low-power transceivers.

The HackRF One ($299) by Great Scott Gadgets is an excellent SDR. It has an incredibly wide frequency range (1 MHz to 6 GHz), and can transmit anywhere from 3 mW to 30 mW depending on the frequency. That’s flea power, true, but if your goal is to experiment in your local surroundings, it’s typically more than enough output. The HackRF is open-source and sports a large user community that have employed it in dozens of applications. The HackRF was one of the first SDRs to really give experimenters a full tool set to manipulate the world of wireless.

Check out the HackRF One via:

The LimeSDR board

The LimeSDR ($299) is another crowd-funded project that has been incredibly popular.  Like the HackRF, it is a low-cost, open-source SDR platform that can be used to support just about any type of wireless communication standard. What makes the LimeSDR unique is that it is integrated with a Snappy Ubuntu Core, which means users can simply install applications from an app store to increase functionality. As LimeSDR states, their platform “gives students, inventors, and developers an intelligent and flexible device for manipulating wireless signals, so they can learn, experiment, and develop with freedom from limited functionality and expensive proprietary devices.

Again, only consider the HackRF of LimeSDR if your main goal is to experiment with the world of wireless. If you’re looking for a full-featured SDR transceiver intended for ham radio, read on.

Ham Radio SDR Transceivers

The Flex Radio booth at the 2018 Hamvention.

Without a doubt, the dominant name in the world of US ham radio transceivers is Texas-based Flex Radio.  Flex has been around since the very earliest days of SDR transceivers and has produced a wide variety of high-performance rigs. In recent years, their product development and production has focused on higher-end transceivers with the discerning DXer and contester in mind. Their signature series SDRs pack incredible performance, yet can be operated from modest PCs since most of the processing horsepower and hardware are all within the radio chassis. Flex has also developed a fully wireless touch-screen Maestro Control Console that can be used over a local network, or even the Internet, to seamlessly control a remotely-connected Flex SDR. Flex Radio SDRs can cost anywhere from $2,000 – $7,500 US.

The Flex-6600

Gary Wise (W4EEY), my go-to guy for all things Flex Radio, also notes:

“One of Flex’s newest models, the Flex-6600, includes 7th Order Contest Band Bandpass Filters and dual Analog to Digital Converters. Which means that, using this radio, one can listen on one band while transmitting on another. Contesters call this ‘Single Operator Two Radio’ operation, and if you can do it successfully, it leads to big contest scores. Having this functionality in one box, without additional controllers and interfaces, is remarkable.”

Indeed.

Two other SDR transceiver manufacturers with large user bases are the Sweden-based SunSDR and India-based Apache Labs. Both companies produce high-performance SDRs and, like Flex, set benchmarks in terms of transceiver performance. I will not comment at length about either company because I’ve not had the opportunity of personally testing their products, but I encourage you to search online reviews about their products.

Tabletop SDR transceivers

The Elad FDM-DUO transceiver is both a stand-alone tabletop and fully-functioning SDR when paired with a PC.

There are a number of full-featured tabletop SDR transceivers on the market. One of the first SDR manufacturers to build a fully self-contained tabletop model with PC integration was ELAD, with their FDM-DUO QRP transceiver. Tabletop SDRs at the time of the FDM-DUO’s release were very limited in their functionality when connected to a PC. Some of them had stripped-down applications and lacked features like spectrum recording and multiple virtual receivers. The FDM-DUO, when connected to a PC running ELAD’s software, gives the user full control of the SDR.  Indeed, the experience is identical to that of using the FDM-S2 mentioned above, however the DUO is also a transceiver. Since the DUO’s release, other SDR manufacturers have designed models with full SDR application integration.

The Flex 6600M is a handsome standalone SDR transceiver.

Recently, Flex Radio introduced their Flex “M” Signature Series SDR Transceiver. These tabletop SDRs can be configured with most of the SDR receivers Flex currently produces. Their displays are impressive and useful; indeed, the spectrum waterfall resolution and size is one of the best I’ve seen on a tabletop transceiver.  The front panel is large and sports a number of controls, the design harkening back to large contest-grade transceivers like the Ten-Tec OMNI VII and Orion series.

The SunSDR MB1 at the 2018 Hamvention.

This year at the Hamvention in Xenia, OH, I had a chance to check out the SunSDR MB1. Like the Flex M series, the MB1 sports a comprehensive front panel and an amazing assortment of connections on the back panel. As I took a tour of this radio––and it really did require a tour, it’s so densely feature-packed––I was most impressed by the thought that went into this stand-alone SDR transceiver. I love the front panel display, graphics, and overall ergonomics. I understand it will also deliver benchmark performance; indeed with prices starting at a steep $7,000 US, I would expect nothing less!

SDR transceiver summary

As we’ve pointed out in this part of our primer, pure SDR transceivers are a product for radio operators willing to invest more financially in order to take advantage of the advanced functionality and performance a true SDR can provide. At present there are surprisingly few players in the pure SDR transceiver market; this is a product category ripe for expansion. And as more manufacturers get into the game, I believe competition will direct prices into even more affordable territory.

Transceivers based upon SDR technology

The final category we’ll discuss is transceivers based upon SDR technology.  It’s a sign of the times, indicating the direction that all enthusiast-grade transceivers and receivers are likely heading.

The Icom IC-7300 transceiver

Because the fact is, whether or not you feel inclined to embrace SDRs in your radio world, you may be surprised that you already have: for many years now, radio manufacturers have built their transceivers and receivers on SDR and I/Q quadrature down-sampling technology. All of the transceivers introduced in the past few years that sport on-board spectrum displays––like the Icom-IC7300, Icom IC-7610, and the new Yaesu FT-DX101D––are, of course, based on SDR technology.

Many others, like the Elecraft KX3 and KX2, which look much more like a traditional radio, are also based on SDR architecture. Indeed, almost all of the major manufacturers implement SDR technology in their current product lines. Manufacturers have caught on, learning how to leverage SDR technology in a way that maximizes receiver performance while keeping the overall price more affordable than comparably-performing legacy radios of former days.

Yet while these radios are SDRs at their core, they often are limited in their functionality when connected to a PC; most can be completely controlled by a PC and many can even export their I/Q data, but usually they won’t offer the working bandwidth and the advanced functionality of a true SDR transceiver.

Conclusion

If I’ve piqued your curiosity about the world of SDRs, and have yet to add one to your shack, I would encourage you to invest in an SDR receiver––at the very least, in one of the affordable rigs mentioned in Part 2 of this series.

Speaking for myself, I was once a “knobs and buttons” radio operator who thought I’d never want to control a radio through a computer and monitor. But when I hesitantly invested in my first SDR, I found it eye-opening––not to mention somewhat democratizing, in that it sets all radio listeners on the same level, as the spectrum becomes visually understandable, and thus accessible, to all who encounter it. I found that if you love to listen, also being able to look at your audio, especially when editing or archiving, but any time you’re tuning around through the spectrum,  just clarifies and enhances your overall radio experience. I soon became hooked…and have never looked back.

Now, I can assure you, I’ll never again be without an SDR. The ability to visualize our radio spectrum via SDR’s virtual window is truly illuminative.  What’s more, I’d even venture to speculate that you may share in finding the experience, if you’ll forgive the colloquialism, pretty darn cool.

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The Elecraft KX3 continues to impress

I’ve owned my Elecraft KX3 for five years, and this little rig continues to amaze me.

In 2013, I gave the KX3 one of the most favorable reviews I’ve ever published–and it continues to hold its own. That’s why last year I recommended the KX3 to my buddy and newly minted ham radio operator, Sébastien (VA2SLW), who had already been eyeing the KX3 as his first HF transceiver.

A few weeks ago, Sébastien bit the bullet and is now the proud owner of a KX3 with built-in ATU. He purchased the KX3 with plans to do a lot of field operations including SOTA (Summits On The Air) and also use the KX3 at home.

Wednesday, I popped by Sébastien’s flat to help sort through some low-profile antenna options. I had suggested that he not invest in a factory made antenna just yet, but instead explore what he’s able to do with a simple wire antenna directly connected to the KX3 with a BNC Male to Stackable Binding Posts adapter. I’ve had excellent luck using this simple arrangement this in the past with the KX3, KX2 and even the KX1.

I did a quick QRM/RFI survey of his flat and balcony with my CC Skywave SSB. While there were the typical radio noises indoors, his balcony was pleasantly RFI quiet. At 14:00 local, I was able to receive the Voice of Greece (9,420 kHz), Radio Guinée (9,650 kHz) and WWV (both 10,000 and 15,000 kHz) with little difficulty. His building has incredibly thick concrete walls–I assume this does a fine job of keeping the RFI indoors. Lucky guy!

We popped by a wonderfully-stocked electronics shop in Québec City (Électromike–which I highly recommend) picked up some banana plugs and about 100′ of jacketed wire. We took these items back to the flat and cut a 35′ length of wire for the radiator and about 28′ for the ground. We added the banana plugs to the ends of each wire.

Sébastien temporarily attached one end of the antenna wire to the top of the fire escape and we simply deployed the ground wire off the side of the balcony. Neither of these wires interfere with his neighbors and neither are close to electric lines.

I had planned to cut both the radiator and ground until we found the “sweet spot”: where the ATU could find matches on 40, 30, 20 and 17 meters (at least).

Much to my amazement, the KX3 ATU got 1:1 matches on all of those bands save 80M where it still could achieve a 2.8:1 ratio.  I couldn’t believe it!

Frankly, Elecraft ATUs are nothing short of amazing.

Even the ATU in my little KX2 once tuned a 20 meter hex beam to 40 meters and found a 1:1 match to boot. In contrast, the Icom IC-7300 sitting next to the KX2 wasn’t able to match that hex beam even though we performed a persistent ATU search. Not surprising as I wouldn’t expect a 40 meter match on a 20 meter antenna, but the Elecraft ATU did it with relative ease.

Sébastian did a quick scan of the ham radio bands where we heard a number of EU stations. I also took the opportunity to point out how well the KX3 operates as a broadcast receiver with the AM filter wide open and using headphones in the “delay” audio effects mode. The Voice of Greece sounded like a local station–absolutely gorgeous signal.

It was getting late in the day, so I couldn’t hang around to call CQ with Séb, but I left knowing that he is going to have a blast playing radio at home and, especially, in the field. Next, he plans to build a simple mag loop antenna, get a BioEnno LiFePo battery and eventually add other Elecraft accessories to his station. I’d say he’s off to a great start!

Want more info? Click here to read my review of the Elecraft KX3 and here to read my review of the Elecraft KX2.

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Elecraft KX2/KX3: An inexpensive adapter for earphone and mic operation

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mike Hansgen (K8RAT), who shares this message from Wayne (N6KR) of Elecraft. This message was originally posted on the Elecraft email reflector:

Several KX2/KX3 users have asked what I use as an adapter to go from an iPhone headset to the rig’s headphone and mic jacks.

Here it is.

This unit works beautifully with both my old and new iPhone headsets. The combination of the headset and this adapter take a tiny amount of space in my go-bag. Audio reports are great, even with speech compression set to max (MENU:TX CMP).

You’ll need to set MENU:MIC BIAS to ON, and I also recommend setting MIC BTN to OFF.

You can tap the XMIT button to start voice-mode transmit, or use VOX. See VOX menu entries in the owner’s manual.

Note: There’s a rumor that one legacy version of the iPhone headset was different from the others. I don’t have any info on this, but it means there’s a slight risk that this $6 adapter won’t work in your case. But it certainly works with the earpods I bought a couple of months ago.

73,
Wayne
N6KR

Thanks for sharing this, Mike! I’ve just placed an order for this little adapter. When doing field operations, I always use in-ear headphones, but a separate hand mic because I don’t like packing or wearing bulky headsets. I’ve a couple of earbud/mic sets (neither an Apple brand) that should work brilliantly with this adapter.

Click here to view on Amazon.com (affiliate link).

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The evolution of a radio shack…and parting ways with my Elecraft K2/100

[Update: One of our readers purchased the K2/100! Thanks!]

I freely admit it: a lot of radios enter and exit my radio shack––especially portable receivers and SDRs of all stripes.  It’s just the nature of doing gear reviews and evaluations. I also keep a fairly robust arsenal of radios here at SWLing Post HQ for future comparison reviews and evaluations as models are upgraded.

But amateur radio transceivers that I personally use at home and in the field––? These come and go much less often.

I feel lucky in that I get exposure to most of the radios currently on the market. Yet I’m also cursed in that I simply can’t turn off that internal reviewer when I use a radio! I’ve become a bit extra-critical, hopefully constructively so, of radio ergonomics, user interfaces, functions, and of course, performance.

I used to have a healthy selection of transceivers in my shack as well, but over the years I’ve found it necessary to distill them down to just a few––almost all of which, if you’re curious, are Elecraft models.

My Elecraft KX1 in the Pelican 1060 case which fit it and its accessories perfectly.

One of the first Elecraft rigs I owned was the KX1, the ultimate handheld field portable 4-band CW radio of its time. I believe I acquired it in 2008. SWLs will be interested to know that I could even tune to broadcasters on the KX1, using ECSS.

The Elecraft K1 (Source: Elecraft)

I loved the KX1 so much, in fact, shortly thereafter I purchased a K1.  The latter I ended up keeping for perhaps one year or so.

Soon thereafter, I purchased an Elecraft K2/10 (the “/10” stands for 10 watts).

I should note here, for those who are not familiar, that almost all of Elecraft’s products are available in kit form. The K1, KX1 and K2 are proper kits. You can’t buy them factory built at Elecraft. With that said, I’ve never had the pleasure of building any of these models from kit form because I purchased them second hand.

The Elecraft K2

The K2 has been in production now for twenty years (!!!) and it still has a healthy market and dedicated community. The K2 must be one of the best documented, benchmark performance through-hole kit transceivers ever made. Because of the robust user base and the fact Elecraft still produces it, it’s also one of the easiest radios on the market to diagnose and repair. The thing was designed to be a “hands-on” radio–to be pulled apart and serviced–there’s no mystery meat inside.

I used my K2/10 for many years…and assured myself I’d never sell it.

Grundig G3 shortwave portable (left), Elecraft KX3 general coverage transceiver (right)

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…! In 2011 Elecraft introduced the venerable KX3 and I fell head over heels for that radio (just read my review). All of a sudden, my trusted K2/10 wasn’t getting as much air time and started collecting dust, so I (reluctantly) sold it to free up some radio funds.

Then, within weeks of selling my K2/10, someone posted a K2/100–a 100 watt version of the K2–for sale on our local radio club’s email group. No one in the group showed interest. The sale was for a late local ham, now SK (silent key), and his friend who was selling off the equipment really wanted to unload it quickly for the benefit of his family. I expressed interest, and only two weeks after selling my K2/10, I was a K2/100 owner.

I figured this must be the universe intervening because, had I not sold the K2/10, there’s no way I would have had funds to purchase the K2/100.

After purchasing the K2/100, I sold my only other 100W rig:  my beloved Ten-Tec OMNI VI+. I had been the owner of the OMNI VI+ for more than a decade and it was a radio I dreamed about in the 1990s. Still, it took up way too much table space in my modest little shack and, yet again, I needed to consolidate.

Activating PK01 (The Appalachian Trail) with the KX2 during the amazing National Parks On The Air event.

Fast forward a few years to the day before the 2016 Hamvention:  Elecraft announced their new field portable radio, the Elecraft KX2. The Elecraft team gave me early access to the KX2 and once again, I was head over heels for this new rig. When I started my review of the KX2, I already knew I wanted one, so didn’t even bother reaching out to Elecraft for a loaner––I just bit the bullet and purchased it. Click here to read that review. Shortly after making this purchase, I sold my KX1.

If you’ve been keeping track thus far, you’ll note that I currently have: an Elecraft KX3, an Elecraft KX2 and an Elecraft K2/100.

You’d think I was an Elecraft fan, but that’s not entirely the case. Elecraft KX series transceivers simply suit my operating style and meet my performance expectations. Why?

  • excellent ergonomics
  • benchmark performance (just ask Rob Sherwood)
  • general coverage SW broadcast reception
  • accessible, friendly customer service
  • regular updates and upgrades
  • and brilliant portability!

Recently, I’ve come to realize that although I still love the K2/100 in so many respects, I reach for my KX3 and KX2 more often…even though the K2 is my only 100-watt transceiver.

For this reason, I’ve decided I must sell the K2/100 so that I can fund the purchase of the (rather pricey) Elecraft KXPA100 amplifier. With the KXPA100, both my KX3 and KX2 will have a 100-watt linear amplifier at their disposal. Integration is seamless, and the amplifier is quite portable. With the KXPA100, I’ll be able to run a “full gallon” on Field Day on two radios I know like I know the back of my hand (especially the KX2!).

It has the latest firmware and includes all modifications. It’s fully-loaded, too–here are the options:

  • KPA100 K2/100 Internal Integration Kit
  • K160RX 160M and 2nd RX port
  • KDSP2 SSB Adapter (which is now discontinued)
  • KNB2 High Performance Noise Blanker
  • KSB2  SSB option

The only option it lacks, as far as I can tell, is the K60XV (60M and transverter adapter).

I’m hoping to sell the K2/100 for about $900 shipped (unless you, gentle readers, advise otherwise).

My K2/100 will be on view at the Winston Salem, NC hamfest this weekend, where I plan to hold down a table with my buddy, Vlado (NC3Z). I doubt I’ll sell it there, so will likely post it online later.

Here’s the thing, though…I look at this awesome little radio and wonder why I’m selling it! And then I close my eyes….take some deep breaths…and remember that it’s all about consolidating the shack and maximizing the potential of the KX3 and KX2.

And, who knows? Maybe the universe will intervene once again, and I’ll own another K2 in the future.

Post Readers, weigh in:  What radios have you bought and sold?  Any regrets?  Which have been, or are still, your favorites––and why?

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Radio Deal: Elecraft’s “Black Friday” sale

If you’ve been considering an Elecraft transceiver, you might want to take a gander a the discounts Elecraft has posted for Black Friday.

Two of my favorite portable transceivers are in the sale:

  • The KX2 Transceiver + FREE MH3 Microphone ($699.95 US)
  • The KX3 Transceiver (modular kit) + FREE MH3 Microphone ($874.95 US)

 Click here to read our review of the Elecraft KX3 and the KX2.

Of course, Elecraft has discounted almost all of their product line and a few packages. The sale includes free ground shipping and an Elecraft hat with each Black Friday order.

Click here to view the sale on Elecraft’s website.

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The best transceiver for a new ham and seasoned SWL?

The Yaesu FT-890: One of many general coverage HF transceivers spotted in the 2017 Hamvention flea market.

Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Joe, who writes:

I’ve been practicing for my Technician ham radio license here in the US and am ready for the test. I’m already looking at HF transceivers even though I don’t have my General license yet.

Here’s what’s important to me:

  • I will still do a lot of SW DX
  • Something that has at least decent audio
  • Something that isn’t too too huge; though I’m a little flexible on size
  • I need something that has a receiver that handles weak DX well

I’d be comfortable spending $500 any day all day no problem. Anything higher than that and I’d really have to think it’s an investment in my radio future.

Thanks for your question, Joe, and allowing me to post it here for comment as this is one I’m frequently asked.

First of all, congratulations on studying for and taking your ham radio license exam! I’m a ham and absolutely love the radio privileges my license provides.

At the same time, I’m still more of an SWL than a ham–meaning, I spend way more time chasing SWL DX than doing on-air ham operations.

With that said, I always seek radios that will serve me well as both a ham and SWL, if possible.

My humble advice

If we stick with your $500 budget strictly, then we’re certainly looking at used transceivers. That’s okay–there are many good ones on the market!

I posted the following review of general coverage transceivers a few years ago. The info in it is still very much accurate in the used market. I would suggest you give it a good review as it goes into more detail about the ins and outs of your first transceiver and the importance of leaving budget to purchase a good power supply:

The best general coverage transceivers for shortwave listening

Click here to read the full review.

 If you’re willing to spend a bit more than $500…

I’m a big fan of the Elecraft KX3 and Elecraft KX2. I have both and use them frequently.

Comparing the size of the Elecraft KX3 (top) and KX2 (bottom) at Elecraft’s Dayton Hamvention booth.

You can find the KX3 used for $700-900 (depending on options). The bare-bones model of the KX2 can be purchased new from Elecraft for $749.

Of course, something to keep in mind about the Elecraft KX series transceiver is that output power is limited to 12-15 watts. Some of the general coverage transceivers mentioned in our review have a much higher 100 watt output power.

Additionally, the audio fidelity (via the internal speaker) is not as good as many other general coverage transceivers. Audio amplification is not as powerful, because both transceivers are designed to operate on a small battery pack (a major plus in my world because I love field-portable rigs).

Since I do 90% of my radio work with headphones, audio amplification is not a problem for me and I’m quite please with both KX line transceivers. Many KX series owners purchase external amplified speakers to improve audio.

The LnR LD-11 tuned to the Voice of Greece.

While we’re looking at QRP transceivers, I would also recommend the LnR Precision LD-11. Its broadcast afidelity is even better (via headphones) than the KX2/KX3 since the AM filter can be widened to an impressive 9.6 kHz. It’s a top-notch transceiver and can be purchased new for $780 US. Click here to check out my full review of the LD-11.

The Icom IC-7200

Of course, as I mention in the general coverage transceiver review, the Icom IC-7200 is also a gem of a transceiver.

Keep in mind, the ‘7200 was such a popular radio that after Icom discontinued the model in January of 2016–due to overwhelming customer demand–they re-introduced it earlier this year. No kidding.

New, the IC-7200 is about $879 US, but they can be found used closer to the $650 – 750 mark. A very good value in my book. In fact, I’m very tempted to buy one as my 100 watt “shack and field” rig. It’s way more user-friendly on Field Day than my Elecraft K2/100 and, in many ways,  a better option than purchasing an Elecraft amp for my KX3/KX2.

Any other good suggestions?

The Kenwood TS-480SAT is full-featured, small, and has a detachable face plate. A very good general coverage transceiver.

There are hundreds of HF transceivers on the new/used market. I’m sure I’ve missed some excellent options in this post and my general coverage transceiver review.

Please comment with your favorite dual-purpose Ham Radio/SWLing rig. Tell us why you love it!

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A review of the Elecraft KX2 general coverage QRP transceiver

The following review first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


elecrat-kx2-review

The Elecraft KX2 tuned to Radio Australia.

It’s not every day that I get exciting news about the production of a new radio.

It was two days before the 2016 Dayton Hamvention–the day before the Four Days in May QRP conference–as I was eating lunch en route to Ohio, that I received the news: Elecraft had just announced a new transceiver, the Elecraft KX2.

Elecraft being known for their exceptional products, I thought instantly, hmmmm, this could be interesting.  I immediately dropped everything and contacted Elecraft, asking, “When can I see this new rig?”

Wayne Burdick (N6KR) of Elecraft kindly sent me a few specs, and the following day, I previewed the KX2.

What is the KX2?

In short: the KX2 is a feature-rich pocket QRP transceiver. For those who are familiar with the Elecraft product line, it’s like a KX3 (feature rich portable rig) in a KX1-sized (much smaller, handheld/pocket) package.

The Elecraft KX2 (left) and KX1 (right)

The Elecraft KX2 (left) and KX1 (right)

The day before the Dayton Hamvention, Elecraft allowed me to snap some photos, ask some questions, and generally give their new little rig a once-over.  After holding their new offering in my hand–it’s slightly narrower, if a bit thicker, than a paperback book–was already tempted to plunk down $749 for the KX2 right then and there.

Comparing the size of the Elecraft KX3 (top) and KX2 (bottom) at Elecraft's Dayton Hamvention booth.

Comparing the size of the Elecraft KX3 (top) and KX2 (bottom) at Elecraft’s Dayton Hamvention booth.

So, what what stopped me? For one, I was less than two weeks away from taking a two month trip in Canada, and already had an (embarrassingly) large number of radios to take along. I also had a few other reviews in the works and needed to finish them prior to evaluating the KX2.  And–let’s face it–that kind of cash is significant to a reviewer like me.

Yet there was another consideration–two, actually: I already own both the KX1 and KX3 transceivers, and like them very well. Come on,  I chastised myself, as I continued to admire the latest Elecraft in its tiny package. Wouldn’t a KX2 be rather…redundant?

Nonetheless, in August I took the plunge and ordered a KX2. Perhaps it was a leap of faith…or a momentary lapse of judgement that led me down temptation lane. At any rate, I had been doing enough NPOTA activations that I fell for the idea that I could potentially have the advantages and performance of the KX3 in an even smaller, even more portable, package.

Would there be buyer’s remorse? The only way to tell, obviously, was to put the KX2 on the air.

Learning my way around the KX2

I imagine a lot of new KX2 owners will be Elecraft veterans like myself. Once you’ve used Elecraft equipment for a while, you begin to understand how the company designs their menu trees and functions. In other words, once you’ve experienced the Elecraft ecosystem, moving from one radio to another becomes easier.

The KX2's on-board microphone is located on the left side of the front panel and works very effectively especially in an HT configuration.

The KX2’s on-board microphone is located on the left side of the front panel and works very effectively especially in an HT configuration.

I approached the KX2 with confidence, having owned the similar KX3 for three years and the K2, K1 and KX1 for many years.

 The left side of the KX2 is where all connections are located, save the antenna connector.

The left side of the KX2 is where all connections are located, save the antenna connector.

The BNC antenna jack is located on the right side of the KX2.

The BNC antenna jack is located on the right side of the KX2.

I plugged the KX2 into my power supply, main antenna, and powered it up by pressing the Rate and A/B buttons simultaneously (a clever keylock method). The KX2 defaulted to the 20-meter band. I started tuning around and quickly realized that the SSB mode was set to the lower instead of the upper sideband. No problem, I thought, and instinctively pressed and held the MODE button to switch from LSB to USB. This is where I found the first difference between KX2 and KX3 functions. Pressing and holding mode button on the KX3 toggles USB/LSB, but on the KX2 it enters the frequency memory store mode.

I tinkered with the KX2 MODE button to no avail, so reached for the KX2 owner’s manual, fortunately a well-written tome. Turns out, to switch between USB/LSB, you:  enter the KX2 menu system, select the ALT MD entry, then switch the “alternate” to the “normal” SSB band mode, which moves it to USB on the 20-meter band.

A number of functions accessed on the front panel of the KX3 require using the menu system on the KX2. RF Gain is another example of this, as I discovered pretty quickly.

This got me thinking.  I don’t envy the folks at Elecraft who have to sort out the ergonomics and functionality on a radio as small as the KX2. I decided I’d better check out the owner’s manual and familiarize myself with the functions I use the most in the field.

Elecraft manuals are superb; they're spiral bound, easy to read and comprehensive.

Elecraft manuals are superb; they’re spiral bound, easy to read and comprehensive.

I must say, Elecraft has done an admirable job of keeping the most essential functions on the face of the radio and tucking the less-used functions into the background of their menu system [Not to suggest access is ever complicated, considering that you just 1) enter the menu, 2) select the function, and 3) change the parameter…that’s it.]  No doubt, the reason for their success is the fact that their key designers, like co-founder, Wayne Burdick (N6KR), actually operate radio in the field–they get it.

Speaking of the field, that’s exactly where I wanted to take the KX2 to test, since that’s clearly where the rig’s designed for use. Note here that this is not a base rig: its size and features lends itself very well to a pack radio–one I wanted to keep packed and at-the-ready!

Packing up…

Prior to receiving the KX2, of course, I did some pack research (those of you who know me know that I’m a bit of a pack geek).

Elecraft was actually selling two models of a LowePro pack that fit the KX2 exactly: the ViewPoint CS 40 and ViewPoint CS 60. Though I searched far and wide, I couldn’t find a pack from some of my favorite manufacturers (such as Spec-Ops Brand, Red Oxx, and Tom Bihn) that has the right amount of padding, exact space and fit for the KX2, as did the CS 40 and CS60. So I purchased the larger CS 60–the larger of the two packs.

kx2-lowe-cs60-bag

My Elecraft KX2 kit then consisted of the following:

  • The Elecraft KX2, with internal battery and ATU options
  • An LnR Precision EFT Trail-Friendly antenna (purchased at the Dayton Hamvention)
  • An assortment of relevant connectors and adapters
  • An Elecraft hand mic, borrowed from my KX3
  • A CW paddle (the KXPD2)

All of this–save  fishing line, weight, six-foot coax cable and clipboard–were protected by the compact and perfectly portable LowePro ViewPoint CS 60 padded case, and fit it like a glove. I tucked the whole kit quite conveniently into my 20-year-old Dana Design lumbar pack.

The only way to know if the kit was complete, was to take it to the field. Nothing like trial by fire.

NPOTA: National Parks On The Air

Elecraft-KX2-Clipboard-NPOTA

My first NPOTA activation with the KX2 field kit was at the Carl Sandburg Home in East Flat Rock, NC.

After hiking about twenty minutes to my trail location and setting up the station, which I found to be a fairly simple process, I realized that the KX2 is so compact that it easily fit on the clipboard I was using to hold my log sheets. Thus, the clipboard instantly became my laptop operating table.

As soon as I sat down in my folding chair, I turned on the KX2, set the frequency to 14,286 kHz, and pressed the ATU button, which gave me a 1:1 match (since the EFT is resonant).

Next, I recorded my CQ call into the KX2’s built-in voice keyer by:

  1. pressing and holding the MSG button,
  2. assigning the voice message to “memory allocation 1” by pressing the PRE (1) button,
  3. pressing XMIT to start the recording,
  4. reading off my CQ call, thus: “CQ, CQ, CQ, this is K4SWL calling CQ for National Parks on the Air…”, and
  5. pressing XMIT again to stop the recording.

Then, I started calling CQ by simply pressing the MSG button and selecting my message stored in memory allocation 1 by pressing and holding the PRE (1) button.

By pressing and holding the PRE (1) button, I initiated a loop-playback of my CQ call where my KX2 would transmit my call from memory.  Then I waited a few seconds to listen for any replies, and played it again. (In loop-playback mode, I’d learned that the KX2 will repeat my CQ call until I interrupt it by pressing a button or keying my mic.)

It’s a brilliant and easy function which saves my voice. By automatically calling CQ, it  gives me an opportunity to answer questions from curious passersby who were naturally fascinated by a guy sitting on the side of a trail, talking into a little box connected to a tree-branch suspended wire.

In the end, I didn’t even need to use the voice keyer that much. I worked my minimum of ten stations within six minutes! Of course, I continued to call CQ until I worked everyone in the pile-up (including stations from California, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and Mexico–thanks, folks!).

Result?  Wow.  That first field experience at the Carl Sandburg home couldn’t have gone better. And the KX2 had quite a lot to do with that outcome–both in function and form-factor.

Since then, I have taken the KX2 on more than twenty NPOTA field activations, and my compact field kit is making impromptu activations a breeze. Indeed, by the time you read this review, I’m guessing I’ll have added a dozen more NPOTA activations with the KX2 field kit.

[Update: At time of posting this review, I have a total of 54 NPOTA activations–almost forty have been made with the KX2.]

Internal battery option

Activating PK01 (The Appalachian Trail) with the KX2

Activating PK01 (The Appalachian Trail) with the KX2

One of the things that make the KX2 so easy to set up is the fact it can run quite effectively on a high-capacity internal LiPo battery pack.

kx2-battery

The KX2’s 10.8V 2600 mAh LiPo battery

On one particular set of activations, while returning from the W4DXCC conference in late September, I activated several sites, including a couple of “two-fer” sites, just during my drive home. I only used the KX2’s built-in battery to power the rig. I was on the air almost three full hours of fairly intense transmitter use (repeating my CQ call through the voice keyer). The KX2 was able to pump out a full 10 watts of power for a little over one hour, then as the voltage dropped, it reduced output to 5 watts.

I feel like this is impressive performance from such a small battery pack. It’s a little pricey (at $84.90 US for both the battery and external charger), but very much worth the cost if you’re splurging for a KX2, anyway.

View of the Elecraft KX2 battery compartment. Note the speaker wires which attach the two halves of the chassis.

View of the Elecraft KX2 battery compartment. Note the speaker wires which attach the two halves of the chassis.

One complaint: I’m not crazy about the fact that the LiPo battery must be removed from the KX2 in order to be charged. To gain access to the battery, you loosen the two thumb nuts on either side of the KX2, then carefully open the back compartment. You must be careful because two speaker wires are attached to the back panel which holds the internal speaker; if you yank it open, you could disconnect the speaker.

I’ve read a report from an NPOTA activator who said that, in the process of multiple openings/closings of the back plate, the speaker wires have rubbed bare spots on the insulation. He used black electrical tape to fix the problem. So far, I haven’t noticed this, but I certainly see how it could happen with time.

Operating a NPOTA "two-fer" under the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Operating a NPOTA “two-fer” under the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In the end, I give Elecraft a little grace on this point. After all, this is the first transceiver they’ve ever produced that doesn’t have a kit form, plus they’re trying to satisfy the needs of battery and charging circuit while keeping costs down, as well as make everything fit in an almost paperback-sized enclosure.  Frankly, this works fine.  I don’t mind the extra care required because, in the end, having such a capable internal battery outweighs any inconvenience of charging at home.

Elecraft, if there’s a way to reinforce the speaker wires, that would likely help.

KXAT2 Internal ATU Option

I ordered the KXAT2 internal ATU option with my KX2. Having used the KX3 internal tuner for years, I guessed this might be an excellent ATU, as well.

And it is. In the field, I’ve used a variety of wire antennas, and the KX2’s internal ATU has matched them beautifully.

So, exactly how good is the KXAT2? The following story will give you an idea.

I brought my KX2 along to the W4DXCC conference in late September. The conference has a club station that consists of two Icom IC-7300s which are hooked up to a variety of antennas. During the conference, my buddy WD8RIF was activating a particularly rare NPOTA site. My only chance of working him was on 40 meters.

Conference attendees took turns operating the KX2.

Conference attendees took turns operating the KX2.

Unfortunately, out of all of the self-supporting antennas erected on site, none were resonant below the 20 meter band. I had no means to properly hang my 10/20/40 meter EFT Trail-Friendly antenna at the hotel, so out of desperation, I tried to load a 20 meter hex beam on 40 meters at QRP power using the IC-7300 and its internal tuner. In short, the IC-7300’s ATU couldn’t find a match and refused to transmit.

But I had my KX2 in my field pack. I set up the KX2, connected it to the 20M hex beam, tuned it to 40 meters, and hit the ATU button.  The KXAT2 promptly found a 1:1 match!

Using the Elecraft KX2 on 40 meters at the W4DXCC conference while attached to a 20 meter hex beam.

Using the Elecraft KX2 on 40 meters at the W4DXCC conference while attached to a 20 meter hex beam.

Granted, we were only operating 10 watts, but even the IC-7300’s internal ATU wouldn’t work at that same power level.

In short, if you plan to operate portable with the KX2, do yourself a favor and order the KXAT2 internal tuner, as well. Clearly, it’s ability to match is impressive.

KXPD2 keyer paddle option

Elecraft also sells a small, attachable paddle that is custom-made for the KX2–it’s called the KXPD2 keyer paddle.

elecraft-kx2-kxpd2-paddles

I had not planned on acquiring a KXPD2 as I’m not the biggest fan of paddles that are attached directly to radios. I did, however, think back to my KX1 and the many times I operated CW while holding that little rig in my hands. To be clear, though, the KX1 paddles are primitive in comparison to the KXPD2, which has adjustable contact spacing and even built-in allen wrench storage.

One night at my local radio club, I passed the KX2 around with the KXPD2 attached and received a number of positive comments about it. I find it a pleasure to use, too, and lightyears better than my KX1 paddle.

In the field, I personally find the two thumb screws which attach the KXPD2 a little small to turn fluidly. This is due, primarily, to the fact I have bigger fingers. Steve (WG0AT) experienced the same problem, and came up with a creative solution: silicone rubber tape. He simply wrapped the tape around the thumb screws, giving them a larger tactile surface area. I’ll try this with my KXPD2 paddle screws, as well.

The KXPD2 is a brilliant little key, I must admit. I say this even though I feel the $109.95 price is rather high. Still: it’s a quality little product and I’ve been very pleased with its smooth action and precision. And, oh, yeah–a bonus–it will fit my KX3 as well!

General coverage receiver

In August, Elecraft pushed out a Beta firmware release on the KX2 which included AM mode. Following this release, I received a number of inquiries from SWLing Post readers asking for a comparison and audio samples.

Elecraft-KX2-Voice-Of-Greece-AM-Mode

At the time, I had the excellent LnR Precision LD-11 transceiver in the shack, so I thought I’d do a quick audio comparison with the KX2 since both price points are similar and both are transceivers with AM mode.

I set the LD-11 to a bandwidth of 9.6 kHz, and the KX2 to 5 kHz: the widest AM filter settings of each. Keep in mind, of course, that this is was not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it did showcase each radio’s potential AM audio fidelity.

To make the playing field as even as possible for these two disparate units, I tuned both rigs to the Voice of Greece on 9420 kHz around 00:30 UTC. VOG’s signal was strong into North America.

I made the following recordings with my Zoom H2N digital recorder, feeding in-line audio patched from each radio’s headphone jack. I tried to balance the audio levels between the two rigs as closely as possible to one another.

The LNR Precision LD-11

LNR-Precision-LD-11-AM-Mode-Voice-Of-Greece

Click here to download the audio.

The Elecraft KX2

Elecraft-KX2-Voice-Of-Greece-AM-Mode

Click here to download the audio.

The Elecraft KX2 in “Delay” audio mode

Elecraft-KX2-Delay-Audio-AM-Mode

Click here to download the audio.

The results from both radios are duly impressive. Since the LD-11’s bandwidth can be widened to 9.6 kHz, strong signals like this one sound pretty darn amazing. In truth, I actually prefer a filter width of about 8.2 kHz on strong signals, but VOG was wide enough to justify 9.6 kHz.  I believe the LD-11 would rival many dedicated tabletop receivers.

The Elecraft KX2, in normal audio mode, sounds flatter and narrower than the LD-11 of course, but still remarkably pleasant–a surprise, considering its limitations.

In the KX2’s “delay” DSP audio mode–available when headphones are used–the signal sounds much wider than 5 kHz, though the effect adds a little graininess to the audio. That’s okay, however; I appreciate having the “delay” audio option in my tool bag.

In the past several months, I’ve used the KX2 for shortwave broadcast listening, and each time I’ve been happy with it. It’s an exceptionally sensitive and selective receiver, with a stable AGC, thus would please the most dedicated DXer. Does it have the audio fidelity of the Drake R8B? No way. But its audio is very good, nonetheless, and it can dig weak DX out of the noise as well as any of my dedicated receivers.

After all, this is a ham radio transceiver, not a broadcast receiver, so I’m impressed that it can double as both.

Mediumwave reception?

While HF reception is very good, Elecraft is the first to tell you that KX2 mediumwave reception is strictly limited, and indeed rather poor:

“Sensitivity rolls off significantly below 3.0 MHz due to protective high-pass filtering. Preamp-on MDS is typically -105 dBm at 1.5 MHz, and -80 dBm at 1.0 MHz, sufficient for emergency AM broadcast signal copy.”

So, don’t plan on doing any mediumwave DXing with the KX2. It is sensitive enough, however, that I can receive strong local stations reasonably well.

Summary

elecraft-kx2-white-bkgrnd

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget my initial impressions and observations. Here’s the KX2’s list, from the first moments I turned it on, to the present:

Pros:

  • Excellent sensitivity and selectivity
  • All modes: SSB, AM, CW, and Data (with built-in PSK/TTY decode/encode)
  • A convenient portable package for the field with needed options:
    • Built-in ATU option
    • Optional internal LiPo battery (see con)
    • With telescopic whip, the KX2 can be used as an HT via the internal microphone
    • Very quick deployment in the field
    • Built-in voice and CW keyer
  • Excellent general coverage receiver; AM mode effective for shortwave broadcast listening
  • Backlit display is easy to read in both shack and field
  • Numeric keypad for direct frequency entry
  • Considerate use of multi-function controls
  • Free and easy firmware updates via supplied software
  • Elecraft support and customer service

Cons:

  • Battery must be removed to charge; battery removal requires careful consideration of speaker wires (see pro)
  • Downward-facing speaker not ideal in the field unless back leg is used to raise off of surface
  • Price (shipped) exceeds $1,000 when loaded with ATU, battery, and external charger
  • Poor mediumwave/AM broadcast band reception (con) by design (pro)

Let’s be frank here: the cons I’ve listed above are rather nitpicky.

I suspect Elecraft will work on a better solution for the speaker wire (for those of us using the internal battery) or else KX2 users will come up with a creative modification.

In a perfect world, I also wish the KX2 were somewhat weather-proof or water-resistant. A couple of times, I’ve been operating in the field when rain caught me off guard. I feel like the KX2 is pretty vulnerable, so I either pack up the radio and stop operating, or I seek shelter if it’s available. It wouldn’t take a lot of moisture to penetrate the KX2 and there’s no way I’m letting rain ruin my rig. But I’m guessing weatherproofing would add significant cost.

So, did I experience any buyer’s remorse after purchasing the KX2?

Not in the least.  Between us, kind reader:  the KX2 has been a difficult rig with which to find fault. Price and inherent compromises for portability aside, there are really no serious negatives about this radio in my book. It suits my purposes very well.

Activating the Blue Ridge Parkway (PK01) with the Elecraft KX2 and "Silver Tip" 20 meter vertical. An effective combo!

Activating the Blue Ridge Parkway (PK01) with the Elecraft KX2 and “Silver Tip” 20 meter vertical. An effective combo!

Yet we reviewers cringe when our reviews appear this “glowing.”

I’m not a fanboy of any brand. I love to see companies introduce successful original products. I believe companies like Elecraft, CommRadio, LnR Precision, Elad, Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, SDRplay, and the like are healthy for our hobby.

Competition and innovation are worthy friends.

Elecraft pushes our ham radio hobby forward, and it’s innovations like the KX2 that make our radio market and our hobby a dynamic and inventive space.

To be clear, I know the KX2 didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s the culmination of many iterations of Elecraft transceiver designs over the past eighteen years. Elecraft has taken feedback from customers, made notes, and improved their products with time, and it shows in this little rig.

The Elecraft KX2 is clearly a product of iterative agility.  It will, no doubt, be a market success.

I remember when Elecraft co-founder Wayne showed me the KX1 many, many years ago at the Dayton Hamvention. He told me that the KX1 was a step toward the perfect portable radio he’d dreamed of as a kid. The KX2 is simply that–and a profound upgrade of the KX1.  But more to the point, it might have been the portable of which I dreamed, too.

Check out the KX2 on Elecraft’s website: http://www.elecraft.com/KX2/kx2.htm

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