Tag Archives: General Coverage Transceivers

Final review of the CommRadio CTX-10 QRP general coverage transceiver

Earlier this year I published what I called an “initial” review of the CommRadio CTX-10 QRP transceiver, promising an eventual final review. The reason for this is that I sensed there were important CTX-10 updates on the horizon, and I wanted to re-evaluate the rig once the upgrades had been implemented through firmware.

This final review builds upon the initial review––think of it as the  second installment, or “Part 2″––so if you’re considering the purchase of a CTX-10 and haven’t read the previous post about it, please do read the initial review first.

Upgrades

As anticipated, via simple at-home firmware updates, since my initial review the CTX-10 has now been upgraded and tweaked a number of times. [Click here to view all of the documented firmware updates and notes at CommRadio.]

I’ve been very pleased with the attention CommRadio has paid to their customer feedback on some of the most important requests.

Instead of reiterating what I wrote in the initial review, I’ll jump straight into the upgrades.

Operating split

At time of posting my initial review, the CTX-10 didn’t have A/B VFOs. This was my primary gripe about the CTX-10, because without A/B VFOs, there was no way to operate split, which meant that you could not work DX stations that use split to manage large pileups. This is actually a really important feature for a QRP radio because during split operation, a pileup is pulled apart across a few kHz of bandwidth, thus giving a 10-watt signal a better chance of being heard through a collection of legal-limit signals.

On June 10, 2019, CommRadio released a firmware package that added A/B VFOs and the ability to operate split to the CTX-10.

Even though there are only a limited number of buttons on the front panel, it’s incredibly simple to enter into split mode:

  1. Chose the frequency and mode;
  2. Hold the STEP button for one second or more, then release. You’ll then see a split display indicating the TX and RX frequencies.
  3. Use the left arrow key [<] to toggle between them.

I do like the clear TX and RX lines, which leave no doubt in the user’s mind what the frequency used for transmitting and receiving is. On some radios, this can be a bit confusing.

Split operation is simple and effective, thus I consider this issue fully resolved.

ATU flexibility

In my initial review, I noted that the CTX-10 ATU needed near-resonant antennas for the ATU to make a strong 1:1 match. Indeed, a number of times I actually used a near-resonant antenna in the field––the EFT Trail-Friendly, for example––and the ATU couldn’t get below a 3:1 match. For what it’s worth, CommRadio states that the CTX-10 can easily handle 3:1.

Making a Parks On The Air activation at Tar Hollow in Ohio.

CommRadio has made modifications to the ATU function, improving the performance of the antenna-tuner algorithm, which had a significant impact on 80 and 60 meters. I’ve also had better luck with a number of field antennas I’ve tried on 40 and 20 meters. Is it as good as the Elecraft KX-series ATUs? No, but I consider those ATUs to be some of the most flexible on the market.

Having a built-in ATU on the CTX-10 is certainly a valuable feature in the field. When I need to match a challenging antenna with the CTX-10, I bring my Emtech ZM-2 manual tuner along for the ride. A perfect combo.

SSB operation?

There still is no way to adjust the microphone gain control nor microphone compression on the CTX-10. Much like a military or commercial radio, the CTX-10 is optimized for just one style of mic: in its case, the modular MFJ-290MY or Yaesu MH-31A8J handheld mic.

The CTX-10 microphone input has a limiting pre-amplifier with built-in compressor and ambient noise gate–in short, the CTX-10 handles all microphone settings automatically.

Through firmware updates, a number of positive adjustments have been made to the microphone settings:

  • the microphone-decay timer has been tweaked so that audio clipping is less of a concern
  • audio clarity and gain have been improved
  • audio power has been improved resulting in .5 to .75 watts of additional peak power
  • microphone audio leveling has been improved
  • VOX attack and decay timing has been improved

These are all welcome adjustments.

I would note here, though, that if you plan to use a mic other than the MFJ-290MY or Yaesu MH-31A8J handheld mics, you will have a limited means of adjusting the mic parameters unless you have an external mic EQ. A number of readers, for example, have asked about using their Heil boom headset with the AD-1-YM cable adapter on the CTX-10. Boom headsets are a wonderful tool for field operation because they free your hands to log contacts. As for using boom headsets on the CTX-10, since I don’t have the appropriate adapter, I can’t speak to this. But since you can’t control mic gain, it might take time to learn how to position the boom mic and adjust your voice level for optimum performance.

CW operation

As mentioned in our initial review, the CTX-10 does not support QSK/full break-in operation. Rather, the CTX-10 uses a traditional relay for switching between transmit and receive.  During CW operations, you’ll hear a faint relay click when switching from TX to RX and back again.

This isn’t a problem for me, as I rarely set my CW rigs for full break-in, but the CW hang time delay on the CTX-10 is not currently adjustable. For high-speed CW ops that prefer a faster relay recovery, I suspect this could be an annoyance.

There have been recent CTX-10 firmware upgrades that have helped solve issues found with CW keyer timing in early units. I found the timing issues were mainly present while sending high-speed CW (25 WPM+). My buddy Vlado (N3CZ) put the CTX-10 through some high speed tests, and was pleased with the results overall.

I will reiterate here that the CTX-10 lacks other controls many CW operators appreciate. Currently, the CTX-10 lacks a sidetone control; as a result, you cannot change the sidetone volume/tone, nor can you turn it off. I continue to hope that CommRadio will fix this quirk via a future firmware upgrade.

The CTX-10’s built-in CW keyer does not currently support iambic keying. Meaning, when both levers of a dual paddle are closed simultaneously (squeezed), it will not send a series of alternating dots and dashes. I imagine this could be addressed in a future firmware update.

Additionally, without re-wiring your paddle, you can’t change which side of your paddle sends ‘dits’ and which sends ‘dahs.’  A minor con, for sure–still, most modern QRP transceivers allow you this flexibility.

All in all, the CTX-10 will serve the CW operator much like a military set in field operations. True, I wish it had a few more adjustments, but it has all of the basics, and I’ve received several great reports regarding signal and tone.

Revisiting the basic feature set

Let’s be clear: as I stated at length in my initial review, the CommRadio CTX-10 was designed around simple operation, like one might expect from a military or commercial channelized radio. I know ham radio operators and preparedness enthusiasts who prefer this approach to gear design, and they will appreciate this CTX-10 design philosophy.

Still, the CTX-10 lacks many of the features and adjustments you’d typically find on a QRP transceiver in its price class. Instead, the CTX-10 was designed to handle many of these adjustments automatically.

The CTX-10 still has no separate RF gain control. The CTX-10’s RF gain is directly tied to the three AGC settings (slow, medium, and fast). While I believe it does a fine job of adjusting RF gain, I do ride an RF gain control a lot during noisy summer conditions, and miss this feature.

The CTX-10 still has no passband (PBT) control, notch filter, or noise blanker––all features I’d normally expect in a QRP radio at this price level.

There are no CW (os SSB) memory keyers. I wouldn’t expect these, as I believe only the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 sport this feature in this price class of QRP radios.

Please note: some of these features could potentially be added in future firmware upgrades. If one of these items is keeping you from purchasing the CTX-10, please contact CommRadio and inquire.

Is the CTX-10 for you?

The CTX-10 on air at the W4DXCC conference

With the most recent upgrades, CommRadio has solved the major issues that kept me from heartily recommending it in my initial review.

The addition of split operation was especially key for me, as I do operate split. The more nuanced adjustments to the CW keyer, an extra feature to prevent the radio from accidentally turning on while in transit, and the adjustments to the mic algorithm, all make this radio more pleasant to operate at home or (especially) in the field.

As I mentioned in the initial review, the CTX-10 owner is one who values a very simple, straightforward radio. Perhaps someone who began operating in a commercial, military, or aviation field, and/or who likes the “get on and get the job done” approach.  Someone more interested in making contacts than in radio operations and refinements. Those who want a sturdy, lasting, no-frills, set-it-and-forget-it rig. If that’s you, take a closer look at the CTX-10: it may just suit your needs to a T.

If, however, you’re looking for a full-featured QRP radio with many of the features and nuanced adjustments you’d expect in the shack, check out the Yaesu FT-818, Elecraft KX2, or Elecraft KX3. All of these excellent rigs are time-tested and very flexible.

The two major advantages of the CTX-10 over competitors are:

  • the ability to charge the internal batteries from almost any voltage source, and
  • a higher TX duty cycle (without needing to add external heat sinks).

I believe the CTX-10 will have strong appeal for radio enthusiasts who value these characteristics:

  • All-in-one-box portability with no extra wired accessory components
  • Best-in-class internal battery life
  • Best-in-class intelligent battery charging
  • HF packs
  • Digital modes like FT-8 and the ability to operate them in the field from internal batteries for extended periods of time
  • The equivalent of a simple portable military/commercial set
  • A well-balanced receiver with few manual adjustments
  • Broadcast listening, as the CTX-10 is also superb broadcast receiver
  • Best-in-class hardware

The CTX-10’s overall construction and components are, as I’ve said, near mil-spec. While the CTX-10 isn’t weatherized or waterproof––no more than any of its current competitors––the construction is top-shelf, for sure. It should run for decades without need of repair.

The CTX-10 is built like a tank, and has excellent receiver characteristics for field operation. It’s also designed and manufactured right here in the USA. All the better.

Click here to check out the CTX-10 at CommRadio.

Click here to check price and availability at Universal Radio.


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The lab599 Discovery TX-500 ruggedized portable QRP transceiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Vlad, who shares some images and a video of a new QRP transceiver in development: the Discovery TX-500 by a company called lab599.

Specifications have not been published yet, but we have confirmed a few details from the manufacturer:

  • 10 watts PEP
  • HF plus 6 meters
  • Weight 570 grams (1.25 pounds)
  • Voltage 9 – 14 VDC
  • 105 milliamps at 13.8 VDC and with backlit display on
  • CAT control via USB and using Kenwood codes
  • I/Q outputs
  • Weatherized
  • Expected availability autumn 2019
  • Target retail price is $700 US
  • Product website is forthcoming

All of the following images came from the Discovery TX-500 gallery on Instagram:

Here are a few videos:

View this post on Instagram

Discovery TX-500, Lab599

A post shared by Laboratory599 (@discovery_tx_500) on

Click here to view on Instagram.

Click here to view on Instagram.

Click here to view on Instagram.

For someone, like me, who loves playing radio in the field (Parks On The Air and Summits On The Air) this looks like an ideal rig. It’s one of the only ham radio transceivers I’ve seen that is weatherized to some degree (how much, we don’t know yet).

I don’t see a speaker on the TX-500, so I’m guessing it might require a mic/speaker combo or an external speaker of some sort? I also don’t see a built-in ATU, but at $700, I certainly wouldn’t expect one.

With a power consumption of 110 milliamps at 13.8 VDC, this little transceiver should run for ages on a modest battery pack.

This is certainly a fascinating prototype QRP transceiver. If the Discovery TX-500 transceiver can be produced and marketed at $700 with all of the features mentioned so far, it should certainly fly off the shelves. They can certainly take my money!

Of course, I will plan to grab one of these for review. I’m also eager to see how this little SDR transceiver might perform on the broadcast bands.

We will post post TX-500 updates and details as they become available. Bookmark the tag Discovery TX-500 and stay tuned!


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Hamvention Highlights: The Ten-Tec Model 588+ OMNI VII+

Each year at the Dayton Hamvention I enjoy checking out the latest radio products and services. This year (2019) I found an exceptional number of innovations and will share these in Hamvention Highlights posts. If you would like to check out 2019 Hamvention Highlights as I publish them, bookmark this tag: 2019 Hamvention Highlights

The Ten-Tec OMNI VII+

The Ten-Tec OMNI VII+

The Ten-Tec booth had more activity this year than I’ve seen in many years. The company is certainly showing signs of entering proper production again and innovating.

According to the T-T representative I spoke with at Hamvention, the company’s focus is on improving/upgrading many of their legacy products like the Eagle, Argonaut, 100 Watt Amplifier,  and the OMNI VII. Iterative improvements will eventually be made to the full product line. Upgraded gear will have an added “plus” to the model name.

Ten-Tec’s featured model at Hamvention was the OMNI VII+—their flagship transceiver.

According to the Ten-Tec website, pricing starts at $2,699 US ($3,078 US configured with an internal ATU) and there are a number of units in stock, ready to ship.

The new OMNI VII+ Features (via the Ten-Tec website):

  • NEW! the 588+ has an All aluminum front face, side feet and side carry handle.
  • NEW! dedicated rear panel pan adapter output jack
  • HF 6 Transmit coverage on 6 through 160 meters, 100 watts output, even on 6. General coverage receives from 500 kHz to 30 MHz continuous plus 48 to 54 MHz. SSB, CW, AM, FM, Digital modes. Dual VFOs with SPLIT and REVERSE functions.
  • Full function Color Screen STN transmissive color LCD display with CFL backlight, 320 240 pixels.
  • Legendary QSK CW includes adjustable rise and decay times. User adjustable at the touch of a knob for hard or soft keying according to your taste. Built-in keyer can be used in Curtis A or B modes, adjustable 5 63 WPM.
  • 17 selectable transmit bandwidths from 1000 4000 Hz. DSP generated to give your SSB audio a well-rounded sound tailored to your voice characteristics. A low-frequency roll off provides further control.
  • RX EQ and TX EQ in 6 dB octave filters selectable in 1 dB steps from high pitched at minus 20 dB to essentially flat response at 0 dB to bassy at plus 20 dB.
  • DSP Noise Reduction, automatic notch, and manual notch reduces interference from undesired carriers and random noise. Manual notch range 20 4000 Hz center, 10 300 Hz width, gt 50 dB rejection.
  • Band Sweep gives you a snapshot of the entire band in seconds. Find the pileups or scout for a clear spot automatically without touching the tuning knob.
  • Broad range Auto Tuner identical tuner as used in the ORION II, matches most antennas up to 10 1 SWR HF only. 100 Tune Memories. Order your OMNI VII with or without this option.
  • Three antenna connectors Two SO 239 transceiver outputs, plus a third SO 239 connector for auxiliary receive only antenna. Antenna switching is front panel selectable.
  • Updates by Flash ROM Serial port interface for local rig control via PC and for Flash ROM updates available via the Internet. Commands are a superset of those used for the Jupiter. To obtain the very latest version of the OMNI VII, visit our firmware download the software below. Connect the radio to a serial port on your PC and you are up to date in a flash. Easy!
  • Quad band-stacking registers and 100 memories
  • Optional Model 302R remote encoder keypad works with the OMNI VII. Plug it in and control selected features sitting back in your easy chair.
  • Aluminum chassis construction and steel outer case makes the rig an easy traveler at only 5 inches H x 12 inches W x 14.75 inches D. Weighs just 14 pounds
  • 8 pin mic connector
  • 70 MHz IF up conversion
  • 455 kHz 2nd IF with Collins Mechanical filters

One of the unique features of the OMNI VII+ is that it sports Collins mechanical filters—likely the only modern transceiver that can make this claim.

I’m happy to see that Ten-Tec is innovating and manufacturing again. Certainly a highlight from the 2019 Hamvention!

If you would like to follow other Hamvention Highlights, bookmark the tag: 2019 Hamvention Highlights

Click here to check out the Ten-Tec website.


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Taking the new Mission RGO One transceiver to the field!

SWLing Post readers might recall that last year at the 2018 Hamvention, I met with radio engineer, Boris Sapundzhiev (LZ2JR), who was debuting the prototype of his 50 watt transceiver kit: the Mission RGO One (click here to read that post).

Since last year, I’ve been in touch with Boris, and we arranged to meet again at the 2019 Hamvention so I could take a closer look at the RGO One, especially since he has started shipping the first limited production run.

The RGO One delivers everything Boris promised last year and Boris is on schedule, having finished all of the hardware design and having implemented frequent firmware updates to add functionality.

Excellent first impressions

I’ll be honest: I think the RGO One was one of the most exciting little radios to come out of Hamvention this year. Why?

First of all, in contrast to some radios I’ve tested and evaluated over the past two years, I can tell immediately that the Mission RGO One was developed by an active ham radio operator and DXer.

Here are some of the RGO One features and highlights as taken from the preliminary 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. No click sounds at all!
    • 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, 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

What really sets the Mission RGO apart from its competitors is the fact that it’s compact, lightweight (only 5 lbs!), and has a power output of up to 50 watts. Most other rigs in this class have a maximum output of 10 to 15 watts and require an external amplifier for anything higher.

The RGO One should also play for a long time on battery power as the receive current drain is a modest 0.65A with receiver preamp on.

The RGO is also designed to encourage a comfortable operating position. The bail lifts the front of the radio so that the faceplate and backlit screen are easily viewed at any angle.

The keypad is intuitive and–hold your applause!–all of the important functions are within one button or knob press!

The front panel design is simple and clean. There are no embedded menus to navigate to change filter width, power level, RF gain, keyer speed, mic gain, pre amp, or audio monitor level. Knob spacing is excellent and I believe I would even be able to operate the RGO while wearing gloves.

Even split-operation is designed so that, with one button press, you can easily monitor a pile-up and position your transmit frequency where the DX station last worked a station. (This is similar to the Icom XFC button). The user-interface is intuitive; it’s obvious to me that Boris built this radio around working DX at home and in the field.

Speaking of the field…

Parks On The Air (POTA) with the Mission RGO One

At my request, Boris has kindly loaned me one of the first production run units to test and review over the next few months. I intend to evaluate this radio at home, in the field, and (especially) on Field Day. By July, I should have a very good idea of how well this Bulgaria-born transceiver performs under demanding radio conditions!

I had planned to begin my RGO One evaluation after returning home from Hamvention, but I couldn’t resist taking it to the field, even though the propagation forecast was dismal.

The first leg of my journey home from Hamvention took me to Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, so I scheduled a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation of Delaware State Park, K-1946.

Delaware State Park (POTA K-1946) in Delaware, Ohio.

My buddy Miles (KD8KNC) and I met our mutual friend Mike (K8RAT) at the park entrance and quickly found a great site with tall trees, a little shade, and a large picnic table.

We set up the RGO One and, for comparison, my Elecraft KX2 for the POTA activation.

I won’t lie: band conditions were horrible. Propagation was incredibly weak, QRN was high, and QSB was deep. Yuck!

Still, this activation gave me a chance to test the RGO One in proper field conditions.

I was limited to SSB since the only CW key I had with me, the paddle specifically designed to attach to the front panel of the Elecraft KX2, wouldn’t work with the RGO One. In addition, I was limited to 25 watts output because the antenna I deployed, the LnR Precision EFT Trail-Friendly end-fed antenna, can only handle power up to 25 watts.

Although I had never operated the radio before, I was able to sort out most of its functions and features quickly.

The receiver audio was excellent and the noise floor seemed quite low to my ears. The internal speaker does a fine job producing audio levels that are more than ample for a field setting.  Still, I prefer operating with a set of earphones in the field–especially important on days like this when propagation equates to a lot of weak signals.

Although I failed to make a total of ten contacts to claim a proper POTA activation, I was pleased with offering up K-1946 to seven lucky POTA hunters/chasers. I simply didn’t have enough time available to work three stations more at such a slow QSO rate.

Of course, my signal reports were averaging “5 by 5” and were never more than “5 by 7” regardless of which rig–the RGO One or the KX2–I was using. The reports on the RGO One transmit audio reports were great.

Stay tuned!

I will publish my first review of the Mission RGO One in The Spectrum Monitor Magazine, most likely in August or September.  In the meantime, I will post updates here as I put the RGO One through its paces. I’m especially excited about using it during Field Day with my buddy Vlado (N3CZ) to see how it holds up in such an RF-dense environment.

And now that the POTA bug has bitten me?  Expect to catch me on the air with the RGO One over the next few weeks!

If you’re interested in following the Mission RGO One, bookmark the tag: RGO ONE.


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Initial review of the CommRadio CTX-10 QRP general coverage transceiver

[Update: Please note that we’ve now posted a final review of the CTX-10 which builds upon the review below. Think of of the final review as the  second installment, or “Part 2? of this review. If you’re considering the purchase of a CTX-10 please read this initial review first.]

In the past two years few QRP transceivers have generated the interest of the CommRadio CTX-10. I’ve gotten no fewer than two dozen emails from readers asking about the CTX-10 after learning I had one here at SWLing Post HQ.  And, I’ll freely admit, I was among those people who couldn’t wait to give this promising little radio some on-air time––and, as a result, a proper evaluation.

The CTX-10 arrives in this simple box.

Everything included in the CTX-10 box.

There are a few reasons why the CTX-10 has stirred up so much excitement. Firstly, the CTX-10 transceiver is based on the excellent and well-regarded CommRadio CR-1/CR-1A receiver. Click here to read our review in a new window.

Fans of the US-made CR-1 and CR-1A appreciated the approach to the CommRadio design: simple operation, clever engineering, near-mil spec components and construction, superb receiver characteristics, as well as excellent audio. The classic CR-1 has all the essentials––multiple modes, filters, and the like––yet offers relatively few features when compared with other tabletop radios in its price class. It’s a simple get-on-the-air rig that feels like it’s engineered to last forever.  Indeed, its design approach reminds me of the Lowe receivers of days gone by.

Another reason for the unusual level of interest is that the CTX-10 has been in the works for a long time. It was first announced over two years ago in October, 2016, and only started shipping in July/August 2018.

Since then, there have been very few CTX-10 reviews posted…hence all of the email questions.

In early October 2018 Don Moore, President of CommRadio, sent me a loaner CTX-10 which I’ve been using regularly since, testing all aspects of this little 10-watt transceiver.

Even though I’ve had the radio for a while, I plan to post a final CTX-10 review in the SWLing Post in coming months. As you may know, I typically only keep a review unit two months before publishing an evaluation, so why the delay?  In short: I feel like the CTX-10 has some important updates/upgrades that need to come down the line, and I’m allowing time for these to be developed and tested before I issue a full and final review. So, if this is a rig that interests you, you’ll want to stay tuned for that.

In fact, due to a couple of quirks that only affected the first twenty production units, CommRadio has already replaced my initial review unit. I’ll detail these quirks below.

In the meantime, what follows is an initial review of the CommRadio CTX-10 with the most current firmware as of time of posting (1311). This review format is a departure from previous reviews as I’m only focusing on the pros and cons that might help future CTX-10 owners make a purchase decision.

Consider this initial review just a taste of the CommRadio CTX-10, not the full course.

CTX-10: The Pros

First of all, much like the CR-1 and CR-1A, the CTX-10 is an all-in-one unit that takes fewer than five seconds to get on the air if you have an antenna at the ready. Seriously. Other than a key, and/or microphone and antenna, there are no other external attachments needed. It’s field-ready from the moment you remove it from the package.

True story: it took me all of thirty seconds to remove the CTX-10 from the box, plug in a key, an antenna, and have it on the air.  This is a major pro, in my radio world.

ATU

The CTX-10 has a built-in automatic antenna tuner that seems to do a great job making 1:1 matches on near-resonant multi-band antennas. I have a large horizontal multi-band delta loop here at the QTH, and the CTX-10 does a fine job finding a match on most ham bands.

Can it match the performance of the Elecraft KX-series ATU? I haven’t done an A/B comparison yet, but I don’t expect so—not on random wire antennas, at least. I do think, however, it will easily match any proper field antenna you pack in your go-kit.

Another minor plus worth mentioning? The ATU is very quiet in operation.

Internal batteries

The CTX-10 ships with three built-in #18650 3.7V 2600 mAh rechargeable Li-ion batteries that are user-replaceable. These are high-capacity cells—in fact, the same type of cells used in the Tesla Model S.

But how do they work? In short: brilliantly. They power the CTX-10 for a much longer period of time than the battery pack in my Elecraft KX2.

After a full charge, these cells will support casual operation for up to eight hours. If you’re using the CTX-10 in a contest or on Field Day where operation is intense––that is to say, near-constant transmitting––it should last the better part of an hour. Don Moore actually produced a video early on of the CTX-10 running a full 10 watts and transmitting dits in CW for forty solid minutes before the batteries depleted to the point of shutting down. That’s certainly a new benchmark for portable rigs with internal batteries.

The CTX-10 has an intelligent charger that will recharge the internal cells when any voltage over 5 VDC is applied. This means, in a pinch, even a typical USB charger will work. If the power supply can deliver up to ten watts, it’ll charge the batteries rapidly––anything below that will take a longer.

Elecraft KX2 (left) and the CommRadio CTX-10 (right)

I also own the Elecraft KX2 and have used it in the field more than any other portable transceiver I’ve owned up to this point.

The KX2’s battery charging routine is more involved than that of the CTX-10. The KX2’s pack must be removed from the radio (by opening the bottom plate of the chassis with two thumb screws, and unplugging the coaxial connector), then it must be hooked up to an external battery charger, charged, and then re-inserted in the KX2.

In contrast, the CTX-10 only requires plugging it into a power source that can provide anything from 5 – 20 VDC––in other words, pretty much any power source. All of the intelligent charging is built into the CTX-10.

Without a doubt, the CTX-10 has the most robust and well-designed internal battery charging system I’ve ever found in a portable radio. Period.

Best-in-class duty cycle

If you’re a fan of FT-8 and other high-duty cycle digital modes, you’ll be very pleased with he CTX-10.

Like many other hams, I was bitten by the FT-8 bug. FT-8 is an amazingly efficient digital mode that somehow manages to defy propagation—even when transmitting at low power. In the past, I’ve worked all time new countries on five watts!

The CTX-10 back panel.

At home, I designated the Elecraft KX3 as my primary FT-8 rig. First time putting it on the air, I found to be fairly effortless. However, after operating perhaps 15-20 minutes, I found that power levels decreased significantly. This is because taxing the finals with FT-8 produces a lot of heat, and the KX3 protects the finals by lowering the output power. KX3 owners wishing to play FT-8 for extended periods at 10 watts or higher know how important it is to purchase an aftermarket heatsink to give the KX3 more transmitting time.

The CTX-10, in contrast, needs no aftermarket additions—if anything, it’s over-engineered. The entire chassis of the radio is essentially a heat sink, and because of this, it requires neither additions nor a fan to cool the finals, leading to comparatively effortless operation. Plus, as a result, operation is completely quiet.

In short? No overheating finals with the CTX-10: it’s an FT-8 beast!

Receiver performance

Overall receiver performance is what I expected: identical to the CommRadio CR-1/CR-1a receiver series with the added benefit of an internal ATU that helps tweak the antenna match on the ham bands. A very good thing.

In addition, the CTX-10 has custom multiple preselectors to assist in ham radio operation and broadcast listening. Though I haven’t tested the CTX-10 in RF-dense environments like Field Day, I expect it should hold its own.

Both sensitivity and selectivity are excellent. The receiver also has a very low noise floor and produces excellent audio fidelity especially when paired with headphones or an external speaker.

In general, I prefer the CTX-10 audio characteristic over that of the Elecraft KX series.

Simple operation

You can tell that CommRadio has a legacy in designing equipment for the military, as well as for commercial and aviation industries. The CTX-10 smacks of a channelized commercial radio. There are relatively few features and adjustments as compared with, say, the Elecraft KX2 or the LnR LD-11. For those who like basic controls, the CTX-10 should please. On the other hand, if you like more granular control of your transceiver, you might prefer more refinements.

Quality engineering and construction

Like the CR-1A, the CTX-10 enclosure is aluminum with machined aluminum knobs. The boards and internal components are near (if not) mil-spec––brilliant quality that is found in few other radios.

The OLED display is easy to read at any angle and under almost any conditions you might experience at home or in the field––truly best-in-class in this regard. It is a relatively small display, but crisp and high-contrast, so quite easy on the eyes.

The circuit boards inside are of the highest quality, and so are the components. Don Moore sourced them from the same suppliers he uses for commercial-grade equipment.

My good friend, Vlado (N3CZ)––radio engineer and repair technician––took a look inside the CTX-10 chassis; he was sincerely impressed by the quality of the construction and board design. It’s worth noting that Vlado isn’t easily impressed, as he looks at the internals of commercial and military grade communications equipment every day: thus it says something that he remarked on this rig’s quality.

CTX-10: The cons

I’ve covered the obvious positives, so what about the negatives?

What follows are the cons I’ve noted while operating the CTX-10.

Keep in mind, some of these cons may disappear with future CTX-10 firmware updates. Again, I plan to hold off on my full and final CTX-10 review until I feel CommRadio has essentially finished planned upgrades.

At least for now: only one VFO

[Update: A/B VFOs and split operation were added to the CTX-10 via a firmware update in 2019. Please read our final review for details.]

Herein lies my biggest gripe with the CTX-10 and what I would consider a glaring omission on a $1,000 modern SDR transceiver.  However, it’s worth noting that CommRadio has committed to address this in an update–see below.

At time of posting, the CTX-10 doesn’t have A/B VFOs like almost all modern transceivers––certainly like all of its direct QRP competitors, like the Elecraft KX2/KX3, LnR LD-11, and Yaesu FT-818/817ND.

So, how does a lack of two VFOs impact operation? First of all, there is no way to operate split on the current version of the CTX-10. Ouch.

The first time I put the CTX-10 on the air it was at the QTH of Vlado (N3CZ). We put the CTX-10 on 40 meters, and one of the first stations we heard was in Vanuatu, due to a brilliant opening into the Pacific. Vlado was positive he would work them with 10 watts on his 40M Steppir Yagi––I was, too. This being the first time either of us attempted DX on the CTX-10, we plugged in Vlado’s Bencher paddles and quickly tried to sort out where the DX station was working his pileup.

It was then we realized that the CTX-10 had no second VFO to work split, and, hence, we couldn’t work the Vanuatu station––because, like pretty much any desirable DX, he was operating split. Frankly, I was in disbelief and quickly downloaded the latest CTX-10 manual to find out how to engage split, but there was no mention of it in the manual.

The only other option was to operate split using a RIT control to shift the receive frequency. Again, we couldn’t locate a RIT control and a search of the manual proved no mention of RIT because, alas, there is no RIT control.

Again, we couldn’t work Vanuatu on the CTX-10 because, like all good DXers, the Vanuatu team were operating split.

Update: CommRadio has informed me they will be adding A/B VFOs as soon as possible, certainly before the 2019 Hamvention in mid-May, but hopefully sooner.

Update 2: Split operation added June 2019. Please read our final review for details.

Features may be too basic for some ham radio operators

It’s no secret: most of us hams like to fiddle with controls to tweak a transceiver’s performance. This is why ham radio transceivers often feature even more controls than their commercial/military counterparts.

The CTX-10 support feet are easy to flip up. The operating angle is excellent.

Still, some operators do appreciate a simpler rig, as they prefer simply to get on the air and get the job done. I appreciate this, too, especially when engaged in field operations where I’m less inclined to tinker with settings. So there’s some appeal in the CTX-10 approach.

At present, the CTX-10 feature set is very basic. Here’s a list of common controls the CTX-10 lacks––many that I’d typically expect in a radio of this price class:

No RF Gain control. The CTX-10’s RF gain is directly tied to the three AGC settings (slow, medium and fast). I know operators who never reach for the RF gain control, but I do, especially in the summer when it’s such an effective tool to lower QRN levels and help DX pop out of the background.

No microphone gain control. The CTX-10 lacks a mic gain control. The microphone input has a limiting pre-amplifier with built-in compressor and ambient noise gate. Problem is, at present, these settings are fixed and cannot be manually adjusted by the user. The CTX-10 was designed to work with handheld mics positioned closely to one’s mouth. Early feedback from users indicated that the CTX-10 was a little too aggressive, cutting off speech; a recent update did address this concern. Some users might never notice the lack of a mic gain control if they stick with the suggested modular MFJ-290MY or Yaesu MH-31A8J handheld mic. Personally, though, I like having a little more control of my microphone performance.

Keep in mind, there’s a plus side to the CommRadio ANG (Ambient Noise Gate): extended battery life. If you have the microphone keyed down, yet aren’t speaking for longer than a second or two, the output will be gated OFF, preventing background ambient noise from being transmitted. The on/off gating happens very quickly and isn’t noticeable.

The CTX-10 currently has no passband (PBT) control, notch filter or noise blanker.

Microphone compression is also pre-configured, and there’s currently no way to manually adjust it. This is a design choice typical of commercial communications gear.

No QSK/full break-in operation. The CTX-10, like the LnR LD-11, uses a traditional relay for switching between transmit and receive. Some CW ops like to hear the received audio between the dits and dahs of their sent CW. Elecraft radios, for example, use PIN diode T-R switching to eliminate relays during QSK. The CTX-10 uses a relay, so during CW operations, you’ll hear the relay click when switching from TX to RX and back again. This isn’t a problem for me, as I rarely set my CW rigs for full break-in, but the CW hang time delay on the CTX-10 is not currently adjustable. For high-speed CW ops that prefer a faster relay recovery, I suspect this could be an annoyance.

Limited CW adjustments. The CTX-10 lacks other controls many of us CW operators appreciate. Currently, the CTX-10 lacks a sidetone control––you cannot change the sidetone volume, nor can you turn it off. I believe CommRadio plans to fix this quirk in a future firmware upgrade. Additionally, you (currently) can’t change which side of your paddle sends dits and dahs without re-wiring your paddle. A minor con, for sure. Still, most modern QRP transceivers allow you to change this from the radio––I imagine CommRadio could add this feature in the future if their customers want it.

In addition, when operating the built-in CW keyer at speeds north of 25 words per minute, both Vlado and I noticed that immediately following a TX-RX-TX relay recovery, CW keyer timing was a little flaky. We assumed there was a problem with our paddles (perhaps dirty contacts?), but that turned out not to be the problem. Difficult to characterize, but essentially: immediately after a TX-RX-TX relay recovery, it’s hard to form a word correctly. The letter “Y” might come out as a “K” or “X” and  a “Q” might come out as a “Z.” Both Vlado and I believe this might have something to do with keyer timing, which is possible. Nonetheless, I’m confident this can be fixed with a firmware update. In addition, we worked my friend Mike (K8RAT) and while he had very positive comments about the CW tone in general, he did notice truncated elements following a TX recovery. He also noticed an occasional slight tone spike on the first element which seems to coincide with an audio pop we hear in the sidetone. Note: CommRadio fixed this issue in a 2019 firmware update. Read our final review for details.

Accident-proof ATU activation. As with the CR-1A receiver, most of the CTX-10’s features and options are controlled by accessing the menu system by pressing the volume control knob. To make ATU activation easy, CommRadio place the ATU function first in the menu––with one knob press, the ATU item appears, and with one more press the ATU activates and tries to find a match. Engaging the ATU, in my opinion, is just a little too easy. With two presses of the volume knob, the ATU engages––great, but I find this happening by accident simply by normal handling of the radio. Instead of two short presses to engage ATU, I feel it might be best when making one short then one long press.

One other minor note: the CTX-10 ATU configuration cannot be adjusted manually like it can on the Elecraft KX series ATU.

No keylock to prevent powering up and engaging ATU. The CTX-10 does have a keylock to prevent the encoder from shifting during operation (a great feature for FT-8, for example), but it lacks a keylock to prevent the main power button from being pressed and turning on while in transport. Even more worrisome would be turning on the unit and engaging the ATU while in a pack––I’m guessing this could eventually damage the radio’s finals. The current solution for this? CommRadio suggests tying a shielded wire around the post of the volume control. This prevents accidental pressing while in transport and the CTX-10 ships with one of these around the volume knob (to prevent it turning on in shipment). I feel a more elegant solution would be to design it so that, in order to power up the CTX-10, you’d press two buttons simultaneously: for example, the volume control and the STEP buttons. I’ve make this suggestion to CommRadio. Update: Via a 2019 firmware update, CommRadio added a feature that automatically turns off the radio if accidentally turned on during transport. This is not a keylock and will not prevent the ATU from activating of the power button is accidentally pushed twice, but it will prevent the radio from being powered on in a pack until the batteries have been depleted.

Minor concern: no noise reduction control. In truth, this is a very minor con in my opinion. I’m not a big user of DSP noise reduction, but some users expect it on modern transceivers. I feel like the CTX-10’s receiver is well-balanced so I wouldn’t reach for a noise reduction control under normal operating conditions.  That said, since there is no manual RF gain control, a variable noise reduction control could come in handy when QRN is heavy.

Size comparison: My ultra-compact C. Crane CC Skywave SSB sitting on top of the CommRadio CTX-10.

Minor concern: limited power output levels. This is a very minor gripe for me, but again could be important for other ops. At present, the CTX-10 has only three power output levels: 1, 5, and 10 watts. Thus for low-power contests, there is no way to lower the CTX-10 below one watt and no adjustment to zero watts. A couple of years ago my radio club had a DXCC 500 mW challenge to see who could work 100 countries with 500 mW or less. Most other modern QRP transceivers in this class have more nuanced control of power output and can be set to 1/2 watt.  At present, the CTX-10 cannot. This is truly a minor complaint––perhaps only important to 10% of CTX-10 owners at best––but I’m willing to bet this could be added via a firmware upgrade.

Early production run quirks now resolved

Fortunately, however, the CTX-10 is listening to their market, and has resolved a number of early production run quirks. My initial evaluation loaner unit was serial number #19. Turns out, some of the first production run units (including mine) had a couple of hardware quirks. CommRadio has replaced or fixed these issues when customers report them, and units currently in inventory aren’t affected. I list them here simply to document:

  • Resolved: Intelligent charger whine. When charging the internal Li-Ion cells, my evaluation unit produced a high-pitched audible whine. I measured the audio frequency with a simple smartphone app and determined that it hovers around 10.5 kHz. The replacement unit doesn’t have this problem.
  • Resolved (or repairable): Internal speaker distortion. The internal speaker on some of the early units was prone to vibrate against the bottom plate of the radio’s chassis. This produced a buzzing distortion on loud sounds or when the volume was increased above, say, 50%. Again, this only affected some of the initial production run units. The fix for this is quite easy, and either CommRadio will do this for you or you can do it yourself and get a warranty extension, so if you find this to be a problem with your early unit, contact CommRadio.

Conclusion

To my knowledge, the CTX-10 is CommRadio’s very first ham radio transceiver.  But it’s not the company’s first foray into transceiver equipment, as they’ve a solid history in commercial, aviation, and military electronics.

My biggest criticism of the CTX-10 is that I feel it should have never been released without A/B VFOs. Fortunately, this was addressed in a 2019 firmware update. I trust this company, so I know they will follow through; I’ve even offered input on how split operation might be implemented with the A/B VFOs. Personally I wish the rig sported a little more in the way of CW controls, mic gain, and an RF gain control, too––but that’s my preference, controls I like to use. Again, the CTX-10 feature set might be a little too thin––too simplistic––for some hams.

That said, I never expected the CTX-10 to have the number of features that, say, the KX2 has––the CTX-10 isn’t intended to be a “Swiss Army Knife” radio like the KX2/KX3. In fact, CTX-10 development actually began around the same time the KX2 was introduced to the market, and its introduction didn’t deter CommRadio.

CommRadio firmly believes that the CTX-10 will still have appeal to current KX2/KX3 owners and QRPers who value their design philosophy of simplicity. And, what’s more…they have a point.

So, who is the CTX-10 for?

When I check out a new-to-the-market radio like the CTX-10, I always try to sort out who the customer is––what type of ham radio operator would reach for the CTX-10 over other transceivers.

After having spent the past few months with the CTX-10, I can tell you that the CTX-10 owner is one who values a very simple, straightforward radio––one that appears and functions more like a commercial or military channelized set. Perhaps someone who began operating in a commercial, military, or aviation field, and/or who likes the “get on and get the job done” approach.  Someone more interested in making contacts than in radio operations and refinements. Those who want a sturdy, lasting, no-frills, set-it-and-forget-it rig. If that’s you, take a closer look at the CTX-10–it may just suit your needs to a T.

The CTX-10’s overall construction and components are, as I’ve said, near mil-spec. The CTX-10 isn’t weatherized or waterproof––no more than any of its competitors––but the construction is top-shelf, for sure. It should run for decades without need of repair.

The whole body of the CTX-10 is essentially a heat sink.

I believe the CTX-10 will have strong appeal for radio enthusiasts who value:

  • All-in-one-box portability with no extra wired accessory components
  • Best-in-class internal battery life
  • Best-in-class intelligent battery charging
  • HF packs
  • A high duty cycle and no cooling fan noise or third-party heat-sink add-ons
  • Digital modes like FT-8 and the ability to operate them in the field from internal batteries
  • The equivalent of a simple portable military/commercial set
  • Robust audio from a radio’s internal speaker or headphones
  • A well-balanced receiver with few manual adjustments
  • Broadcast listening (the CTX-10 is also superb broadcast receiver)
  • Best-in-class hardware

The CTX-10 is built like a tank, and has brilliant receiver characteristics. It’s also designed and manufactured here in the USA, and I find it’s easy to get good support from CommRadio.

I will add that CommRadio has been very receptive to my constructive and frank criticism. A good thing, in my book, as lesser companies might take offense or simply be dismissive.

If you’ve been waiting to purchase the CTX-10, I hope I’ve given you enough information that you can make a decision.

If you have any specific questions, please contact CommRadio or comment, and I’ll do my best to answer. I hope to post a few videos of the CTX-10 in action within the next few weeks when my rather busy schedule permits.

Please click here to read our final review of the CommRadio CTX-10.

Click here to view the CommRadio CTX-10 at CommRadio and at Universal Radio.

For a full list of CTX-10 features and specs, I would encourage potential owners to download and read the CTX-10 Operator’s Manual, available on the CommRadio website.


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The HobbyPCB IQ-32: A general coverage portable QRP transceiver with color touch screen now shipping

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Pete (WB9FLW), who shares the following information regarding HobbyPCB’s much-anticipated portable transceiver which is now shipping.  The price is a competitive $529.00.

The following information comes from the HobbyPCB website:

The IQ32 is 5W output, 80-10M Amateur Radio transceiver with powerful 32 bit processing providing high-end features at an entry level price. The IQ32’s 3.2″ color LCD touch-screen display and dual control knobs provide an enjoyable operating experience in a robust package.

Available for immediate delivery!

Introducing the HobbyPCB IQ32 HF transceiver, based on the high performance RS-HFIQ RF system, the receiver in the IQ32 consists of 5 band-pass filters to reject out-of-band signals, an LNA with frequency dependent gain and a conventional quadrature down-converter. The transmitter features a Class A, 5W power amplifier with individual low-pass filters for each band to exceed FCC requirements for spectral purity.

The IQ32 features a large, color, touch-screen display providing an enhanced user interface and informative spectrum and waterfall displays found on radios costing much more. With a powerful STM-32 DSP processor, the IQ32 transceiver has variable filtering, multi-mode AGC, memory functions, built-in PSK encode/decode with keyboard support.

5W not enough power? Add a HARDROCK-50 to your station to boost up to 50W. The IQ32 and HARDROCK-50 seamlessly integrate together for a powerful mobile/base station!

Simple upgradeable firmware, no connection to a computer required, no drivers, no cables. Simply insert a thumb-drive with the appropriate file and the IQ32 updates its own firmware.

Specifications

  • Frequency Range: 3-30MHz (performance guaranteed on 80/60/40/30/20/17/15/12/10M ham bands)
  • Sensitivity: MDS < -128 dBm on 80M dropping to < -135 on 10M
  • Noise Figure: < 8 dB
  • TX Power: 5W typical, 4W minimum
  • LO Feed-thru: < -50 dBc @ 5W output
  • Spurious and Harmonics: < -50 dBc typical
  • DC Power: 13.8VDC, 2 amp max
  • Size: 172mm x 105mm X 75mm
  • Weight: < 700 grams
  • Display: 3.2″ Color LCD Touchscreen
  • Modes: USB, LSB, CW, PSK 31
  • DSP Processor: STM-32, 32 Bit

Click here to download the manual.

Pete also notes:

If one already has the RS-HFIQ board fear not an upgrade kit is available:

https://hobbypcb.com/products/hf-radio/iq32-upgrade

Thank you for sharing this, Pete!

I may see about grabbing an IQ-32 to evaluate. I’m very curious how its receiver might stack up to the Elecraft KX2, the CommRadio CTX-10 and the LnR Precision LD-11. (Please note that these links lead to my other radio site, the SWLing Post.)

It doesn’t appear that the IQ-32 has an AM mode, but I would still like to see how it might handle broadcast listening on the shortwave meter bands using ECSS.

I love the portable form factor and the fact that it ships with stand-off handles to protect the front face of the radio.

Video:

Check out WA2EUJ’s IQ-32 presentation from the 2018 Hamvention on YouTube:

Click here to check out the IQ-32 product page at HobbyPCB.

Have any Post readers purchased the IQ-32?  Please comment!

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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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