Tag Archives: Field Radio

Dockside DXing with the super-portable Belka-DX receiver

I’ve been on the coast of South Carolina enjoying a little R&R with my wonderful family.

We rented a vacation home on a tidal river just south of Charleston, SC and it was just what the doctor ordered. The location was gorgeous, the weather was amazing, and there was very little RF interference outside our home.

The best part? We had full access to a private dock.

I took a few portable radios on vacation (ahem…obviously!) but I so thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Belka-DX.

If you haven’t gathered already, I really appreciate simple radios for field operation and it doesn’t get much more simple than the Belka-DX or Belka-DSP.

The radio is so incredibly compact, durable, and a pleasure to operate–especially if cruising the broadcast bands.

On the dock, I didn’t have a place to easily hang a wire antenna, so I used the supplied telescoping whip antenna. It served me well on a number of listening sessions.

As 13dka pointed out in his brilliant review of the Belka-DSP, the Belka radios are so compact, yet pack so much performance, they smack of a little spy radio! On top of that, the chassis is incredibly durable. I can’t tell you how much I love this. My Belka receiver has been living in my EDC bag in a small zippered pouch.

I barely notice it in my bag–it take up almost no space and weighs so little–but in the back of my mind I know I have a portable DXing machine everywhere I go.

I have no fear of being damaged in my bag, either–the chassis protects it so well.

Since London Shortwave has sorted out how to make spectrum recordings using the Belka-DX I/Q out, you’d better believe I’ll be sampling spectrum as I travel the globe post-pandemic!

I didn’t have time to gather what I needed for making Belka-DX spectrum recordings on this trip, but you can be certain I will when I return!

I should add that one of the little joys about my dockside DXing spot this past week was watching dolphins swim by as I tuned to some of my favorite broadcasters. Bliss.

Post readers: Have you taken your radios on vacation recently? Please comment! Better yet, consider submitting a guest post with photos!

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A comprehensive review of the Mission RGO One general coverage 50 watt transceiver

The following review was first published in the November 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


A review of the Mission RGO One ham radio transceiver

by Thomas (K4SWL / M0CYI)

Wow…I love this!

If I am perfectly frank, that would sum up my initial impression of the Mission RGO One.

It was the 2018 Hamvention in Dayton, Ohio, and I had just met up with radio engineer Boris Sapundzhiev (LZ2JR) who was debuting the prototype of his 50-watt transceiver kit, the Mission RGO One. With its clean, functional design and simple front face, large weighted encoder, and enough tactile buttons and multi-function knobs to keep one’s most needed features within reach, the kit was certainly pushing all the right buttons for me.  Without a doubt, I was impressed from the start.

Boris (LZ2JR) the designer and engineer of the Mission RGO One.

To my mind, the RGO One smacks of classic 1990s-era transceivers:  a traditional tabletop front-facing panel, a large fold-out bail, and a unfussy backlit LCD display that’s large enough to read in the field and viewable at any angle.

Perhaps it’s only because I can’t turn off the innate radio reviewer, that I was rapidly checking mental boxes in this first encounter with the RGO One.  Indeed, when I first set eyes on any new radio, I do skim through my mental “operations checklist” to see how difficult the rig might be to use at home and/or in the field. Specifically, I’m looking for the following controls:

  • Encoder
  • AF Gain
  • RF Gain
  • Mode switch
  • Power output adjustment
  • Tune/Xmit button
  • Preamp/Attenuator
  • VFO A/B
  • Split and A=B
  • Mic gain and keyer speed
  • RIT
  • Filters
  • Band switching and direct frequency entry
  • Key and encoder lock

Of course, these days it’s fairly rare that radios actually contain all of these functions without the user having to dig into layers of menus, multi-function controls, or touch-screen options to access them.

Remarkably enough, the Mission RGO One, despite simple design, manages to include all of these features on the front panel without the need of embedded menus. In contrast with some of the radios I’ve tested and evaluated over the past several years, I could tell by the layout alone that the Mission RGO One was developed by an active ham radio operator and DXer: the controls are that intuitive.

Alas, the tantalizing prototype on Boris’ table in the 2018 Hamvention flea market was for show only.

Boris promised that he’d have fully-functional models available at the 2019 Hamvention. Because of this, following that first meeting in 2018, I kept in touch with Boris; we arranged to meet again at the 2019 Hamvention so I could take a second, much closer look at the RGO One––especially since he intended to start shipping the first very limited, early-production-run rigs shortly afterward.

So…did Boris deliver?  And more importantly: did the RGO deliver––?  Let’s find out.

On The Air

Within hours of taking delivery of the prototype radio, I had it in the field activating parks.

It was May 2019 when Boris delivered on his promise, handing me a loaner prototype RGO One. He did so with the understanding that the prototype was still a little rough around the edges. I acknowledged this, thinking in terms of a late Beta-test model since he welcomed reports of any bugs or anomalies I encountered and was fully prepared to address them.

After taking the initial RGO One to the field, I did note a few bugs, but nothing major.  All of my field notes were then sent to Boris and turned into action items.

Then, in July of 2020, Boris sent me a fully-upgraded Mission RGO One with the new internal ATU and optional adjustable filter. This radio represented the “fully-grown” production model, and in preparation to put it through its paces, I returned the prototype.

Although there are planned hardware upgrade options and, of course, firmware upgrades, the RGO One has now reached full maturity as a transceiver.

However, it was one thing to have ham-friendly ergonomic controls. The real question was, how did the RGO One stack up against the competition? It was time to find out.  After all, this is the danger of a “love at first sight” radio encounter––it often leaves the door open for disappointment, and of this I was well aware.

What follows is my full review of this 2020 Mission RGO One transceiver. Let’s take a deep dive into this rig…

Features and specifications

 

What follows are some of the RGO One features and highlights as written in the product manual (PDF):

  • QRP/QRO output 5 – 50W [can actually be lowered to 0 watts out in 1 watt increments]
  • All-mode shortwave operation – coverage of all HAM HF bands (160m/60m optional)
  • High dynamic range receiver design, including high IP3 monolithic linear amplifiers in the front end, and diode ring RX mixer or H-mode first mixer (option)
  • Low-phase noise first LO – SI570 XO/VCXO chip
  • Full/semi (delay) QSK on CW; PTT/VOX operation on SSB. Strict RX/TX sequencing scheme with no “click” sounds
  • Down conversion superhet topology with popular 9MHz IF
  • Custom-made crystal filters for SSB and CW and variable crystal 4 pole filter – Johnson type 200…2000Hz
  • Fast-acting AGC (fast and slow) with 134kHz dedicated IF
  • Compact and lightweight body, only 5 lbs
  • Custom-made multicolor backlit FSTN LCD
  • Custom-molded front panel with ergonomic controls
  • Silent operation with no clicking relays inside – solid state GaAs PHEMT SPDT switches on RX (BPF and TX to RX switching) and ultrafast rectifying diodes (LPF)
  • Modular construction – Main board serves as a “chassis” also fits all the external connectors, daughter boards, plus inter-connections, and acts as a cable harness
  • Optional modules – Noise Blanker (NB), Audio Filter (AF), ATU, XVRTER, PC control via CAT protocol; USB UART – FTDI chipset
  • Double CPU circuitry control for front panel and main board – both field programmable via USB interface
  • Memory morse code keyer (Curtis A, CMOS B); 4 Memory locations 128 bytes each

Build quality

First impressions proved accurate in terms of construction.  I’m very pleased with the build quality of the Mission RGO One. Keep in mind, however, you might note from the photos that some items––like the volume and multifunction knobs––are 3D printed, and I’m not certain if they’ll ever have custom knobs manufactured.  But I really don’t even think this is necessary, as the 3D printed ones are very nice, indeed––moreover, should a replacement ever be needed, I love the idea I could simply print one myself!

The RGO One main optical encoder/tuning knob is just brilliant. It’s weighted properly for the right amount of “heft” while tuning. I’m very pleased with the overall feeling and quality. It’s substantial, yet silky-smooth in operation, just what I look for in a tuning knob.

On the back of the unit, there is an externally-mounted heat sink with two small fans. These fans are quiet and efficient.

The chassis and bail are both top-shelf quality and should withstand years of field use. Just do keep in mind that like almost every other amateur transceiver currently on the market (save the recently reviewed lab599 Discovery TX-500), the chassis is neither water-proof nor weather-proof, so will require common-sense care to protect it from the elements.

Portability

The Mission RGO is relatively compact, lightweight (only 5 lbs without the ATU), and has a power output of up to 55 watts, even though the specs list just 50 watts. As a point of comparison, most other rigs in this class have a maximum output of 10 to 20 watts, and require an external amplifier for anything higher. The form factor is very similar to the Elecraft K2.

The light weight of the rig and the extra power makes the RGO One a capable and versatile field radio. Although the RGO One is configured like a desktop radio (with a front-facing panel), it’s still relatively compact and can easily be set up on a portable table, chair, or on the ground. Unlike field-portable rigs with top-mounted controls (think the Elecraft KX3 or KX2), obviously, it would be tough to do handheld or laptop operation.

The RGO One should also play for a long time on battery power as the receive current drain is a respectable 0.65A with the receiver preamp on. It’s not as efficient as, say, an Elecraft KX3 or the new Icom IC-705, but keep in mind the RGO One can provide 50 watts of output power and has a proper, internally-mounted, amplified speaker. The popular 100 watt Yaesu FT-891, in comparison, has a current drain closer to 1.75 to 2.0 amps [update: actually the specifications indicate 2 Amps in receive, but user reports are less than half that amount].  I pair the RGO One with my larger 15 aH Bioenno LiFePo battery. When fully-charged, I can operate actively for hours upon hours without needing to recharge.

Mission RGO One Bioenno LiFePo

The Bioenno 15aH battery powers the Mission RGO One for hours at a time in the field.

If it’s any indication of how much I wanted to take this rig to the field, when Boris handed me the prototype RGO One on Saturday at the 2019 Hamvention, I had it on the air that same day doing a Parks On The Air activation at an Ohio State Park.

Since then, I’ve easily taken the Mission RGO One on 30 or more park activations.

Performance

What’s most striking and obvious about the Mission RGO One’s receiver from the moment you turn it on is the low noise floor. It’s incredibly quiet. So much so that more than once, I’ve double checked to make sure RF gain hadn’t been accidentally altered as I started a field activation. I’d call CQ a few times, though, and when stations return they literally pop out of the ether. The RGO One currently has no digital noise reduction (DNR) but frankly, I don’t miss it like I might in other transceivers. Indeed, the RGO One is a radio I’ve reached for when the bands are noisy because the AGC and receiver seem to handle rough atmospheric conditions very well.

The RGO One’s built-in, top-mounted speaker provides ample audio levels for the shack, but in a noisy field environment, I wish it had a little more amplification. I’ve also used my Heil Pro headset and even inexpensive in-ear earphones connected to the front panel headphones jack in the field. The audio via headphones is excellent.

Let’s take a look at how well the RGO One performs by mode:

CW

First and foremost, CW operators will appreciate the RGO One’s silky-smooth full break-in QSK. The  RGO One employs clickless and quiet pin diode switching–a design feature I’ve become particularly fond of as traditional T/R relays can be noisy and distracting when not using headphones.

The RGO One also has a full compliment of adjustments for the CW operator including adjustable delay (default is 100ms), iambic mode, weight ratio, hand key/paddle, adjustable pitch, and sidetone volume.

The key jack is a standard three conductor 1/8” jack found on most modern transceivers. It’s located on the back of the radio.

My review unit has the optional variable width narrow filter which I highly recommend if operating in crowded conditions. I’ve used the RGO One on ARRL Field Day and found that it easily coped with crowded band conditions. Even after a few hours on the air, I had very little listener fatigue.

I also find that, as I mentioned earlier, CW signals just seem to “pop” out of the ether due to the low noise floor and excellent sensitivity/selectivity.

The RGO one also sports four CW keying memories where you can record your CQ, callsign, or even contest exchange. I’ve become incredibly reliant on memory keying to help facilitate my workflow in the field—while the radio is automatically sending my CQ or my regards and callsign to an station I’ve just worked, my hands are free to log the contact, adjust the radio, or even eat lunch!

Memory keying does require one long-press of the “6” button followed by either the “1,” “2,” “3,” or “4” button to play a message. Occasionally I won’t hold the 6 button long enough and accidentally move my frequency down one meter band since the 6 button is also the band “down” button. While it doesn’t happen often, it’s frustrating when it does but I think it could easily be fixed in the firmware as it’s really a timing issue.

SSB

Likewise, phone operators will be very pleased with the Mission RGO One. During all of my testing, I’ve only used the microphone supplied with the radio mainly because I don’t currently own another radio with an RJ-45 type microphone connector.

I do love the fact the microphone port is on the front panel of the radio—it’s very easy to connect and disconnect (in contract to the recently released Icom IC-705, for example). I’ve gotten excellent audio reports with the RGO One in SSB mode and have even monitored my own tests and QSOs via the KiwiSDR network.

Compression, gain, and VOX controls are easily accessible. One missing feature at present is a voice memory keyer. For field operators activating sites for the POTA, WWFF, or SOTA program, voice memory keying is huge as it saves your voice from calling “CQ” over the course of a few hours. I understand Boris does plan to implement voice memory keying in a future speech processor board.

AM Mode

Since the RGO One has general coverage receive and since I’m a shortwave broadcast listener, I was disappointed to find that there is presently no AM mode. Boris told me he does plan to add AM mode, “to be implemented in future versions of the IF/AF board only on RX.”

With that said, I can always zero-beat a broadcaster and use a wide SSB filter to listen to broadcasts which is more than I could do, for example, with my (ham band only) Elecraft K2.

At the end of the day, the RGO One is a high-performance, purpose-built ham radio transceiver, so the current lack of AM mode isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but I would love a wide AM filter on this rig.

ATU

The 2020 review model I received has the internal automatic antenna tuner which I feel is a worthy upgrade/addition. In the field, I’ve paired the RGO One with my Chameleon CHA Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna which requires an ATU in order to find matches across the bands. The pairing has been a very successful one because the Emcomm III can handle up to 50 watts power output in CW and covers the entire HF band when emptying the RGO One ATU.

 

Even though it’s a minor thing, I also like the fact that the RGO One ATU operates so quietly, even though with the present firmware it takes longer than some of my other ATUs to find a match.

Power

One thing I’ve found very useful in the field and, no doubt others will as well is the power output. In many ways, the RGO feels like a larger QRP radio (think Ten-Tec Argonaut V or VI) but it’s actually able to pump out 55 watts (often five watts more than specified). In single sideband mode, this is a meaningful amount of power output compared to, say, 5 or 10 watts. When I activate a rare park, or an ATNO (All Time New One), I’ve been taking the RGO One more times than not in order to get the best signal possible and maximum amount of contacts. Running full power, the rig never feels warm—heat dissipation is superb—and the fans on the back of the heat sink are super quiet.

I actually feel like the 50 watts of output power gives the RGO One a market niche since it sports top-shelf performance as you might expect in the venerable Elecraft K2, for example, but  not being a 10 watt or 100 watt radio, rather something in between which saves a little weight and also the need for heftier heat dissipation.

Other unique features

The RGO One has some interesting features not found in similar radios.

For one, there are no less than ten color options for the custom backlit LCD display, along with adjustable contrast and backlighting intensity.

The RGO One team also documents how to access hidden admin menus for granular adjustments to transceiver parameters, but of course you’d want to adjust those with caution and note values prior to changing them. When you receive your RGO One, Boris includes a sheet with all default values to make stepping back much easier.

Hands-on philosophy

At the end of the day, the Mission RGO One is a kit that can eventually be purchased in kit form, or as a fully assembled transceiver. It’s modular: you can add and upgrade features as you wish. Some field operators, for example, may wish to omit the ATU to save a little extra weight or cost. I actually love this philosophy and I think it’s one that’s made Elecraft such a successful manufacturer.

The process of upgrading firmware is slightly more involved than you might find with, say, an Elecraft, Icom, or Yaesu product. It’s a two stage process where one upgrades both the front panel and the main board separately. I completed a firmware update only a few weeks prior to publication. It took me perhaps 15 minutes with my PC as I followed Boris’ step-by-step instructions (http://lz2jr.com/blog/index.php/rgo-one-firmware-update-procedure/).

There is also an active email discussion group for the Mission RGO One (https://groups.io/g/RGO-ONE/) where participants share experiences, modifications, and even any glitches or bugs that are discovered. This group is closely monitored by the RGO One team, so items are addressed very quickly. I highly recommend joining this discussion group if you see an RGO One in your future.

Also, I’ve gotten great customer support from Boris (LZ2JR) and have heard the same from group members. He’s very much open to critical customer feedback.

Summary

Mission RGO One POTA

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 some of my initial impressions. Here is the list I formed over the time I’ve spent evaluating the 2020 production model Mission RGO One.

Pros:

  • Excellent sensitivity and selectivity
  • Very low noise floor
  • Excellent, clean audio (see con)
  • Silky-smooth QSK
  • Full compliment of CW and SSB features and adjustments
  • CW memory keyer
  • Superb ergonomics with no need to access embedded menus for common features
  • 50 watts output power with effective quiet heat dissipation
  • Lighter weight compared with comparable transceivers
  • Direct frequency entry
  • Standard Anderson Powerpole power port on rear panel

Cons:

  • No voice keyer memory (at time of posting, but is planned in upgrade)
  • No notch or auto notch filter (at time of posting, but is planned)
  • No 6 meter option
  • No AM mode (at time of posting, but is planned)
  • Firmware updates are a two stage process
  • Would like slightly more audio amplification while using internal speaker in noisy outdoor environments

Conclusion

If you can’t tell, I’m impressed with the Mission RGO One because it does exactly what it sets out to do.  The RGO One is designed for an operator who appreciates rock-solid performance with simple, intuitive ergonomics.

While teaching an amateur radio course to our homeschool cooperative high school students last year, I picked the RGO One as the best field radio for HF demonstrations.

I’ll never forget setting the (prototype) RGO One for the first time on a folding table outside the classroom under a large tree. I had the students erect both an end-fed resonant antenna and a simple 20 meter vertical. I picked the RGO one because all of the adjustments we had talked about in the classroom—AGC, Filters, A/B VFOs, Direct Frequency Entry, Pre Amp, Attenuation—are on the front panel and one button press away.

We hopped on the air with one of my students calling CQ single sideband on the 20 meter band.  Her very first contact was with a station in Slovenia—and she simply beamed with excitement. All of my female students that term passed their Technician exam by the end of the term.

The RGO One is a very inviting radio.

I’ve had the luxury of testing, evaluating, and working with everything from one of the first prototypes to the latest updated version of the RGO One. It’s rare that I’m able to evaluate a radio over such a long period of time.

Even with the very early, bare-bones prototype, I was impressed with this transceiver’s performance characteristics. I’m not the only one either. It’s almost become routine new discussion group members join prior to receiving their radio, then announces how blown away they are with its performance. Check out eHam reviews, too—at time of posting, it’s a solid five stars at time of posting.

The RGO One reminds me of simple, classic radios of the 1980s and 90s, but underneath, it’s packing state-of-the-art performance.

Is it perfect? No radio is perfect, but I must say that for what it offers, it really hits the sweet spot for this radio operator.  It’s a joy to use.

There are still features in the works that will either be implemented with future firmware updates, or with future boards. In terms of performance and appearance, it reminds me of the Ten-Tec Eagle and Elecraft K2—both benchmark rigs in my world. And like the Eagle and K2, the RGO One is happy in the field, at home, or even on a DXpedition. It’s a simple radio that beckons to be on the air.

If you’re interested in the Mission RGO One, check the following web page for the pre-order form and pricing list. The RGO One is produced in batches, so you’ll need to reserve your model.

Click here to view the Mission RGO One order page.

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Spectrum recordings with the new Belka-DX and a Zoom H1 digital recorder

I’m so pleased to see a fascinating new post from our friend London Shortwave this morning.

In his latest article, London Shortwave demonstrates how he has been making super simple spectrum recordings by pairing the new Belka-DX receiver (which has an I/Q out port) with a Zoom H1 handheld digital recorder. The recorded I/Q files are then imported into SDR# for tuning and listening.

The process is quite easy to follow and he includes a number of examples–a highly-recommended read!

Click here to read his full article.

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My Obsession with Muji A6 Mini Logging Notebooks

In many ways, I’m old school. While I love leveraging technology to make the most of my radio world, I also have a sincere appreciation for simple “analog world” solutions to my needs.

I’m a notepad guy.

When I moved to France to do undergraduate studies in the early 90s, I became reliant on small notepads to keep my brain organized and maintain some sense of sanity. I kept one in my pocket, my backpack, and had larger notepads for each one of my classes. It was in France I discovered the amazingly wide variety of notepads that could be found in a Papeterie or stationery store. While I could hardly afford notepads and pens/pencils I found in those stores, I did occasionally splurge.

To this day, I keep notepads in my EDC bag and near my radio desk. I find that the act of writing something down–pen to paper–locks thoughts/memos in my memory much better than taking notes on a digital device.

Paper Logging

If you’ve followed any of my field reports for Parks On The Air (POTA) here on the SWLing Post  or on QRPer.com, you’ve probably seen me employ a wide variety of note pads and logging sheets.

While I often do live logging with my Microsoft Surface Go tablet to speed up log submissions, I always log on paper first. Always.

For one thing, when I’m copying a callsign in Morse Code (CW), I prefer writing down the call as it’s being sent. Regardless if a contact is in CW or phone, I copy the callsign and exchange information on paper first, then immediately transfer it to my logging software on the tablet. I carry the Surface Go tablet with me on about 75% of my field activations, but leave it at home if I’m doing a substantial amount of hiking.

Not only do I find it easier to log on paper first, but by having a full set of logs in notebooks, I know I’ve got a proper archive of the activation if my tablet fails me.

Plus–if I’m being completely honest here–I love seeing my handwritten logs after an activation. It gives me more of a sense of accomplishment for some reason. Don’t ask me why.

Muji A6 Notebooks

A couple months ago, I was searching for a notepad that could easily fit in one of my compact field radio kits.

My wife (an artist) suggested I check out Muji Notepads of Japan because she’s both pleased with the quality and price as compared with other quality notebooks. She measured my field kit pack and suggested the Muji A6 lined notebook. On Amazon, they’re sold in packs of 5 books for $12.00 US. I was skeptical about the size, but placed an order anyway.

Each book has 30 pages which means if I write on the front and back of each sheet, it should last me up to 30 average park activations (assuming roughly 25-40 contacts per activation). Since my activations tend to be short, it’s rare that I exceed 40 contacts.

I purchased a pack of five notebooks and put one notebook in each of my radio field kits. I even dedicate one for my Elecraft AX1 antenna kit.

I love these Muji notepads–they’re compact and thin, but the paper quality is nice and it’s large enough I can use “normal” hand writing. While I tend to prefer spiral-bound notebooks for logging, I like the binding on these notebooks because it doesn’t catch on anything and keeps the profile super thin which is perfect for small packs and cases. The pages lay flat once open, too.

For the record, I also keep a few Rite in the Rain weatherproof notebooks handy if I’m heading to a park or summit after heavy rainfall, if there’s the possibility of rain in the forecast, or if I’m camping. They’re also indispensable. The Muji Noteboooks aren’t designed to handle water, but in truth it’s very rare that I’m playing radio in the rain. I prefer the slim profile of the Muji Notebooks for day-to-day field work.

I just ordered another pack of five this Muji A6 Notebooks this week and plan to put one in my portable SDR kit, and two of my portable receiver kits. In truth, my shortwave radio logs are less organized than my ham radio logs, but I’m constantly jotting down broadcasters, times, frequencies and receiver performance notes.

Click here to check out Muji A6 Notebooks on Amazon (affiliate link supports the SWLing Post). 

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Guest Post: Why does radio reception improve on saltwater coasts?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post:


Gone fishing…for DX: Reception enhancement at the seaside

by 13dka

In each of my few reviews I referred to “the dike” or “my happy place”, which is a tiny stretch of the 380 miles of dike protecting Germany’s North Sea coast. This is the place where I like to go for maximum listening pleasure and of course for testing radios. Everyone knows that close proximity to an ocean is good for radio reception…but why is that? Is there a way to quantify “good”?

Of course there is, this has been documented before, there is probably lots of literature about it and old papers like this one (click here to download PDF). A complete answer to the question has at least two parts:

1. Less QRM

It may be obvious, but civilization and therefore QRM sources at such a place extend to one hemisphere only, because the other one is covered with ocean for 100s, if not 1000s of miles. There are few places on the planet that offer such a lack of civilization in such a big area, while still being accessible, habitable and in range for pizza delivery. Unless you’re in the midst of a noisy tourist trap town, QRM will be low. Still, you may have to find a good spot away from all tourist attractions and industry for absolutely minimal QRM.

My dike listening post is far enough from the next small tourist trap town (in which I live) and also sufficiently far away from the few houses of the next tiny village and it’s located in an area that doesn’t have HV power lines (important for MW and LW reception!) or industrial areas, other small villages are miles away and miles apart, the next town is 20 km/12 miles away from there. In other words, man-made noise is just not an issue there.

That alone would be making shortwave reception as good as it gets and it gives me an opportunity to check out radios on my own terms: The only way to assess a radio’s properties and qualities without or beyond test equipment is under ideal conditions, particularly for everything that has to do with sensitivity. It’s already difficult without QRM (because natural noise (QRN) can easily be higher than the receiver’s sensitivity threshold too, depending on a number of factors), and even small amounts of QRM on top make that assessment increasingly impossible. This is particularly true for portables, which often can’t be fully isolated from local noise sources for a couple of reasons.

Yes, most modern radios are all very sensitive and equal to the degree that it doesn’t make a difference in 98% of all regular reception scenarios but my experience at the dike is that there are still differences, and the difference between my least sensitive and my most sensitive portable is not at all negligible, even more because they are not only receivers but the entire receiving system including the antenna. You won’t notice that difference in the middle of a city, but you may notice it in the woods.

When the radio gets boring, I can still have fun with the swing and the slide!

2. More signal

I always had a feeling that signals actually increase at the dike and that made me curious enough to actually test this by having a receiver tuned to some station in the car, then driving away from the dike and back. Until recently it didn’t come to me to document or even quantify this difference though. When I was once again googling for simple answers to the question what the reason might be, I stumbled upon this video: Callum (M0MCX) demonstrating the true reason for this in MMANA (an antenna modeling software) on his “DX Commander” channel:

To summarize this, Callum explains how a pretty dramatic difference in ground conductivity near the sea (click here to download PDF) leads to an increase in antenna gain, or more precisely a decrease in ground return losses equaling more antenna gain. Of course I assumed that the salt water has something to do with but I had no idea how much: For example, average ground has a conductivity of 0.005 Siemens per meter, salt water is averaging at 5.0 S/m, that’s a factor of 1,000 (!) and that leads to roughly 10dB of gain. That’s right, whatever antenna you use at home in the backcountry would get a free 10dB gain increase by the sea, antennas with actual dBd or dBi gain have even more gain there.

That this has a nice impact on your transmitting signal should be obvious if you’re a ham, if not just imagine that you’d need a 10x more powerful amplifier or an array of wires or verticals or a full-size Yagi to get that kind of gain by directionality. But this is also great for reception: You may argue that 10dB is “only” little more than 1.5 S-units but 1.5 S-units at the bottom of the meter scale spans the entire range between “can’t hear a thing” and “fully copy”!

A practical test

It’s not that I don’t believe DX Commander’s assessment there but I just had to see it myself and find a way to share that with you. A difficulty was finding a station that has A) a stable signal but is B) not really local, C) on shortwave, D) always on air and E) propagation must be across water or at least along the shoreline.

The army (or navy) to the rescue! After several days of observing STANAG stations for their variation in signal on different times of the day, I picked one on 4083 kHz (thanks to whoever pays taxes to keep that thing blasting the band day and night!). I don’t know where exactly (my KiwiSDR-assisted guess is the English channel region) that station is, but it’s always in the same narrow range of levels around S9 here at home, there’s usually the same little QSB on the signal, and the signals are the same day or night.

On top of that, I had a look at geological maps of my part of the country to find out how far I should drive into the backcountry to find conditions that are really different from the coast. Where I live, former sea ground and marsh land is forming a pretty wide strip of moist, fertile soil with above average conductivity, but approximately 20km/12mi to the east the ground changes to a composition typical for the terminal moraine inland formed in the ice age. So I picked a quiet place 25km east of my QTH to measure the level of that STANAG station and also to record the BBC on 198 kHz. Some source stated that the coastal enhancement effect can be observed within 10 lambda distance to the shoreline, that would be 730m for the 4 MHz STANAG station and 15km for the BBC, so 25km should suffice to rule out any residue enhancement from the seaside.

My car stereo has no S-meter (or a proper antenna, so reception is needlessly bad but this is good in this case) so all you get is the difference in audio. The car had the same orientation (nose pointing to the east) at both places. For the 4 MHz signal though (coincidence or not), the meter shows ~10dBm (or dBµV/EMF) more signal at the dike.

3. Effect on SNR

Remember, more signal alone does not equal better reception, what we’re looking for is a better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Now that we’ve established that the man-made noise should be as low as possible at “my” dike, the remaining question is: Does this signal enhancement have an effect on SNR as well? Even if there is virtually no local QRM at my “happy place” – there is still natural noise (QRN) and that wouldn’t that likely gain 10dB too?

Here are some hypotheses that may be subject of debate and some calculations way over my head (physics/math fans, please comment and help someone out who always got an F in math!). Sorry for all the gross oversimplifications:

Extremely lossy antennas

We know that pure reception antennas are often a bit different in that the general reciprocity rule has comparatively little meaning, many antennas designed for optimizing reception in specific situations would be terrible transmitting antennas. One quite extreme example, not meant to optimize anything but portability is the telescopic whip on shortwaves >10m. At the dike, those gain more signal too. When the QRN drops after sunset on higher frequencies, the extremely lossy whip might be an exception because the signal coming out of it is so small that it’s much closer to the receiver noise, so this friendly signal boost could lift very faint signals above the receiver noise more than the QRN, which in turn could mean a little increase in SNR, and as we know even a little increase in SNR can go a long way.

The BBC Radio 4 longwave recording is likely another example for this – the unusually weak signal is coming from a small and badly matched rubber antenna with abysmal performance on all frequency ranges including LW. The SNR is obviously increasing at the dike because the signal gets lifted more above the base noise of the receiving system, while the atmospheric noise component is likely still far below that threshold. Many deliberately lossy antenna design, such as flag/tennant, passive small aperture loops (like e.g. the YouLoop) or loop-on-ground antennas may benefit most from losses decreasing by 10dB.

Not so lossy antennas, polarization and elevation patterns

However, there is still more than a signal strength difference between “big” antennas and the whips at the dike: Not only at the sea, directionality will have an impact on QRN levels, a bidirectional antenna may already decrease QRN and hence increase SNR further, an unidirectional antenna even more, that’s one reason why proper Beverage antennas for example work wonders particularly on noisy low frequencies at night (but this is actually a bad example because Beverage antennas are said to work best on lossy ground).

Also, directional or not, the “ideal” ground will likely change the radiation pattern, namely the elevation angles, putting the “focus” of the antenna from near to far – or vice versa: As far as my research went, antennas with horizontal polarization are not ideal in this regard as they benefit much less from the “mirror effect” and a relatively low antenna height may be more disadvantageous for DX (but maybe good for NVIS/local ragchewing) than usual. Well, that explains why I never got particularly good results with horizontal dipoles at the dike!

Using a loop-on-ground antenna at a place without QRM may sound ridiculously out of place at first, but they are bidirectional and vertically polarized antennas, so the high ground conductivity theoretically flattens the take-off angle of the lobes, on top of that they are ~10dB less lossy at the dike, making even a LoG act more like something you’d string up as high as possible elsewhere. They are incredibly convenient, particularly on beaches where natural antenna supports may be non-existent and I found them working extremely well at the dike, now I think I know why. In particular the preamplified version I tried proved to be good enough to receive 4 continents on 20m and a 5th one on 40m – over the course of 4 hours on an evening when conditions were at best slightly above average. Though the really important point is that it increased the SNR further, despite the QRN still showing up on the little Belka’s meter when I connected the whip for comparison (alas not shown in the video).

The 5th continent is missing in this video because the signals from South Africa were not great anymore that late in the evening, but a recording exists.

Here’s a video I shot last year, comparing the same LoG with the whip on my Tecsun S-8800 on 25m (Radio Marti 11930 kHz):

At the same time, I recorded the station with the next decent KiwiSDR in my area:

Of course, these directionality vs noise mechanisms are basically the same on any soil. But compensating ground losses and getting flat elevation patterns may require great efforts, like extensive radial systems, buried meshes etc. and it’s pretty hard to cover enough area around the antenna (minimum 1/2 wavelength, ideally more!) to get optimum results on disadvantaged soils, while still never reaching the beach conditions. You may have to invest a lot of labor and/or money to overcome such geological hardships, while the beach gives you all that for free.

But there may be yet another contributing factor: The gain pattern is likely not symmetrical – signals (and QRN) coming from the land side will likely not benefit the same way from the enhancement, which tapers off quickly (10 wavelengths) on the land side of the dike and regular “cross-country” conditions take place in that direction, while salt water stretching far beyond the horizon is enhancing reception to the other side.

So my preliminary answer to that question would be: “Yes, under circumstances the shoreline signal increase and ground properties can improve SNR further, that improvement can be harvested easily with vertically polarized antennas”.

Would it be worthwhile driving 1000 miles to the next ocean beach… for SWLing?

Maybe not every week–? Seriously, it depends.

Sure, an ocean shoreline will generally help turning up the very best your radios and antennas can deliver, I think the only way to top this would be adding a sensible amount of elevation, a.k.a. cliff coasts.

If you’re interested in extreme DX or just in the technical performance aspect, if you want to experience what your stuff is capable of or if you don’t want to put a lot of effort into setting up antennas, you should definitely find a quiet place at the ocean, particularly if your options to get maximum performance are rather limited (space constraints, QRM, HOA restrictions, you name it) at home.

If you’re a BCL/program listener and more interested in the “content” than the way it came to you, if you’re generally happy with reception of your favorite programs or if you simply have some very well working setup at home, there’s likely not much the beach could offer you in terms of radio. But the seaside has much more to offer than fatter shortwaves of course.

From left to right: Starry sky capture with cellphone cam, nocticlucent clouds behind the dike, car with hot coffee inside and a shortwave portable suction-cupped to the side window – nights at the dike are usually cold but sometimes just beautiful. (Click to enlarge.)

However, getting away from the QRM means everything for a better SNR and best reception. In other words, if the next ocean is really a hassle to reach, it may be a better idea to just find a very quiet place nearby and maybe putting up some more substantial antenna than driving 1000 miles. But if you happen to plan on some seaside vacation, make absolutely sure you bring two radios (because it may break your heart if your only radio fails)!

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Shortwave listening in the field with the Icom IC-705 transceiver

Yesterday, I took the new Icom IC-705 to the field for another Parks On the Air (POTA) activation. My goal at this particular activation was to make a couple of posts for QRPer.com: first, to test the new mAT-705 ATU on loan from Vibroplex, and secondly, make a short video about full break-in CW operation.

I also wanted to do a little shortwave listening after completing the activation. I had no idea what propagation would be like, but thought I’d tune around below the 20 meter band where the antenna was currently resonant.

I deployed the CHA Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna which, I must say, is a superb shortwave listening antenna for the field.

Since you can’t see the antenna in the first photo below, I marked up the second one. The blue line represents the 73′ radiator, and the green line the counterpoise:
Here’s the short video I made around the 22 meter band:

I had planned to make a few audio recordings via the built-in digital recorder but I left my MicroSD card at home. No worries, though, as I plan to make some recordings for readers to compare in the coming days if time allows.

If you have any questions about the IC-705, feel free to ask in comments.

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Can’t receive anything on your new shortwave radio–? Read this.

This morning, I received a question from Andrew, an SWLing Post reader in the UK.  Andrew writes:

May I ask a question please? I am very much a newbie to this. I am not really interested in FM, but I would like to listen to international stations on SW, utilities stations, amateur broadcasts and if possible, local airports, aircraft on air band.

I have just purchased a Tecsun PL-680 and have tried it inside my home with the telescopic and wire aerial that came with it, plugged into the antenna port and clipped to a point near the ceiling. All inside the house and the wire aerial did improve the reception, but I get hardly and channels either during the day or night.

Grateful for your detailed advice on what I need to do exactly to improve the number of stations I can receive.

Kind regards
Andrew

Thank you for your question, Andrew, and I hope you don’t mind that I share it here on the SWLing Post as I receive this question so frequently from new shortwave radio enthusiasts.

Of course, a number of things could be affecting your shortwave radio reception and there is, of course, the possibility the receiver is faulty–however, this is very unlikely. Let’s talk about what is most likely the culprit:

Radio Frequency Interference (RFI)

RFI is quite often the elephant in the listening room. It’s not always immediately obvious–especially if you’re new to shortwave listening.

RFI (also known as QRM) is radio noise that is created locally and often concentrated in our homes and neighborhoods. RFI deafens our shortwave radios by overwhelming the receiver with strong spurious signals. Even if you can’t hear the noise, it could still be overwhelming your receiver from a different portion of the band.

RFI can emanate from most any modern electronic or digital device in your home: televisions, power supplies, dimmer switches, smart appliances, and even computer hard drives. Honestly, most any device could be the culprit.

These “Wall Wart” type adapters can create a lot of RFI

RFI can also be caused by power line noises outdoors which have a much larger noise footprint and typically require intervention from your local utilities company/municipality.

In all likelihood, though, it’s a noise inside your home.

There’s a quick way to determine if RFI is the culprit:

Take your radio outdoors, away from the noise

Depending on where you live, this might only require walking with your radio to the far end of your garden/yard, or it might require hopping in your car and visiting a local park. The idea is to find a spot far removed from houses and buildings, outdoor lighting, and even power lines if possible.

Once you find a listening spot, turn on your portable and tune through some of the popular shortwave radio bands.

If in the late afternoon or evening, I like tuning through either the 31 meter band (9,400–9,900 kHz), 41 meter band (7,200–7,450 kHz) and, if late evening, the 49 meter band (5,900–6,200 kHz). Jot down the frequencies where you hear stations and perhaps even make notes about the signal strength. Then go back home and see if you can receive as many stations. Shortwave stations change frequencies often, but if you listen from home at the same time the following evening, the radio landscape should be similar.

My guess is that you’ll hear many more stations in the field than you can from within your home.

Living with RFI

Sadly, RFI is just a fact of life in this century. It’s very hard to escape, especially for those of us living in dense urban areas. This is one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of taking radios to the field.

There are things you can do to improve reception and I would encourage you to read through this post from our archives (the first two points in the article directly address RFI). Do your best to track down sources of noise and eliminate them.

If you find that, even in the field, your shortwave receiver can’t receive stations with the antenna fully extended, then it may indeed be an issue with the radio itself and you might need to send it back to the manufacturer or retailer if it’s within the return window.

Post readers: If you have other suggestions, feel free to comment!


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