Tag Archives: Ham Radio

Radio Waves: Potential for Change at USAGM, Judge Rules Pack Unconstitutionally Interfered With VOA, Solar Cycle 25 Could be Strong, and DEF CON Ham Radio Videos

Radio Waves:  Stories Making Waves in the World of Radio

Because I keep my ear to the waves, as well as receive many tips from others who do the same, I find myself privy to radio-related stories that might interest SWLing Post readers.  To that end: Welcome to the SWLing Post’s Radio Waves, a collection of links to interesting stories making waves in the world of radio. Enjoy!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors Dan Robinson and Eric McFadden for the following tips:


The Biden Choice on USAGM: Business as usual, or major change (USC Center on Public Diplomancy)

Several years ago, I wrote about ongoing problems at Voice of America and its parent agency, which re-branded in 2018 as the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), and how Donald Trump would deal with them.

I suggested that the Voice of America could be shut down with little impact on the global media scene. This sparked outrage in some quarters, especially from those invested in perpetuating the yearly $600 million to $800 million taxpayer-funded media structure aimed at foreign audiences.

Space limitations prohibit a thorough review of events since Donald Trump’s nominee to head USAGM, Michael Pack, finally achieved Senate confirmation and took up his post after being blocked for two years by Democrats and some anti-Trump Republicans.

Pack faced a wave of hit pieces by major anti-Trump media as he moved to gain control of the bloated and entrenched USAGM bureaucracy, confront security issues at USAGM, and tackle political bias at VOA. His removal of key officials in charge of USAGM networks is still being fought out in the courts.[]

Trump Appointee Unconstitutionally Interfered With VOA, Judge Rules (NPR)

The chief executive over the Voice of America and its sister networks has acted unconstitutionally in investigating what he claimed was a deep-seated bias against President Trump by his own journalists, a federal judge has ruled.

Citing the journalists’ First Amendment protections, U.S. Judge Beryl Howell on Friday evening ordered U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack to stop interfering in the news service’s news coverage and editorial personnel matters. She struck a deep blow at Pack’s authority to continue to force the news agency to cover the president more sympathetically.

Actions by Pack and his aides have likely “violated and continue to violate [journalists’] First Amendment rights because, among other unconstitutional effects, they result in self-censorship and the chilling of First Amendment expression,” Howell wrote in her opinion. “These current and unanticipated harms are sufficient to demonstrate irreparable harm.”[]

Sunspot Cycle 25 could be among the strongest ever (Southgate ARC)

The ARRL reports a research paper has concluded that Solar Cycle 25 will stronger than the just-ended Solar Cycle 24 and likely stronger than Solar Cycle 23

The League says:

A research paper, “Overlapping Magnetic Activity Cycles and the Sunspot Number: Forecasting Sunspot Cycle 25 Amplitude,” by Scott W. McIntosh, Deputy Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, et al., has concluded that Solar Cycle 25 could be among the strongest sunspot cycles ever observed, and will almost certainly be stronger than the just-ended Solar Cycle 24 (sunspot number of 116). The scientists say it will also most likely be stronger than Solar Cycle 23 (sunspot number of 180). As the abstract explains:

“The sun exhibits a well-observed modulation in the number of spots on its disk over a period of about 11 years. From the dawn of modern observational astronomy, sunspots have presented a challenge to understanding — their quasi-periodic variation in number, first noted 175 years ago, stimulates community-wide interest to this day. A large number of techniques are able to explain the temporal landmarks, (geometric) shape, and amplitude of sunspot ‘cycles;’ however, forecasting these features accurately in advance remains elusive.

“Recent observationally motivated studies have illustrated a relationship between the sun’s 22-year magnetic cycle and the production of the sunspot cycle landmarks and patterns, but not the amplitude of the sunspot cycle. Using (discrete) Hilbert transforms on more than 270 years of (monthly) sunspot numbers, we robustly identify the so-called ‘termination’ events that mark the end of the previous 11-year sunspot cycle, the enhancement/acceleration of the present cycle, and the end of 22-year magnetic activity cycles. Using these, we extract a relationship between the temporal spacing of terminators and the magnitude of sunspot cycles.

“Given this relationship and our prediction of a terminator event in 2020, we deduce that Sunspot Cycle 25 could have a magnitude that rivals the top few since records began. This outcome would be in stark contrast to the community consensus estimate of Sunspot Cycle 25 magnitude.”

McIntosh’s recorded presentation of the paper is available at this link
Use passcode z7qCn@3G

The research paper is at
https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.15263.pdf

Source ARRL Letter November 19, 2020
http://www.arrl.org/arrlletter

DEF CON ham radio talks on YouTube (Southgate ARC)

Talks from the DEF CON event are available on YouTube, they include a number of amateur radio talks from the conference’s Ham Radio Village

Among the amateur radio talks are:
• Talking to Satellites by Eric Escobar KJ6OHH
• The K0BAK News Van by Pete Kobak K0BAK
• Single Board Computers (Raspberry Pi) In Amateur Radio by Typer Gardner KI7ODK
• Ham Radio Snail Mail NTS and the Radiogram Format by Aaron Hulett K8AMH
• Hunting tape measure yagis and offset attenuators by Mark Smith KR6ZY
• APRS Demo by Bryan Lamoreaux KG7OOW

Ham Radio Village Playlist
Click here

Other DEF CON videos are at
https://www.youtube.com/user/DEFCONConference/videosoo


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End of an Era: Universal Radio is closing shop

Universal Radio’s showroom at their previous Reynoldsburg location

While I’m very happy for my friends Fred and Barbara Osterman as they head into a well-deserved retirement, I’m very sad that Universal Radio will be closing.

I’ve been a Universal Radio customer since before I was a licensed ham radio operator. They have been–and are to this day–the one ham radio radio retailer that still specialized in shortwave radio receivers.

Fred and Barbara have generously supported numerous radio clubs, organizations, and non-profit organizations throughout the years and are simply some of the nicest people you could ever meet.

Fred and Barbara shared the following message with their customers:


Dear Friends Of Universal Radio,

Time waits for no one, and that includes Barbara and myself. We have decided to retire and our current location in Worthington
will close on November 30, 2020. Even though the store is closing we will fulfill all existing customer orders and have a large amount of inventory to close-out. The Universal Radio website will be maintained for the foreseeable future to sell this remaining stock, publications and some select products. Unfortunately the lack of a store front showroom will preclude us from carrying some manufacturers’ products.

I am very fortunate to have been in the radio business for over 50 years, 13 at Radio Shack and 37 at Universal Radio. We have met many wonderful people along the journey who have supported me personally as well as Universal Radio. It has been a privilege to have a continuous career in the fascinating field of radio since 1969.

Please accept our sincere “Thank You” for your support of Universal Radio
for these many years, and for the months to come.

Our new address for correspondence and mail order is below.
This is not a store front.

Universal Radio Inc.
752 N. State St. Unit 222
Westerville, OH 43082

Phone: 614 866-4267

Thank you.

73,

Fred Osterman N8EKU
Barbara Osterman KC8VWI


Thank you, Fred and Barbara, and here’s wishing you a very happy retirement!

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The best radio you have is the one in front of you

This autumn, I’ve received a number of emails from new readers who’ve dusted off the radio in their closet and decided to get back into shortwave radio listening and/or ham radio.

I can’t recall another time I’ve gotten so many similar messages and I can only attribute it to the fact so many people across the globe are still having to social distance due to the C-19 pandemic.

There’s.a common theme in the messages I’ve been receiving from readers. Here’s an excerpt from the latest message (note that I removed the model name from this question because, frankly, it’s irrelevant):

“[My radio] seems to be in great working order. It’s been stored in a climate controlled environment and besides needing a little DeOxit on some of the pots, it works like new. I couldn’t be happier! My question to you is, this model is from the 1990s when I used to be hot and heavy into radio. I know technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since then, so as I get back into radio maybe I should invest in a newer model? What do you think or suggest?”

It’s true that radio technology has gone through a massive number of innovations since the 1990s. We’ve seen the advent of Software Defined Radios and portable receivers/transceivers sporting DSP technology.  Far be it from me to dissuade anyone from acquiring new gear!

With that said, I also believe that the best radio you have is the one in front of you. Period.

Listening is a skill

You can’t buy it. Whether you’re an SWL or ham radio operator, most of the time you’re on the air, you’re listening. And the best filter you have is the one in your head. I’ll quote from an article I posted many moons ago:

My good friend Vlado (N3CZ) is a case in point: he is one of the most capable ham radio DXers I know. His extraordinary ability to pull intelligible conversations and CW (Morse code) out of the static, even in crowded radio conditions, is simply astounding. Vlado’s main transceiver is nearly two decades old, and by no means a benchmark technically. If you ask Vlad if he uses filters and digital signal processing, he will wisely tell you, in his Macedonian accent: “Your best filter is between your ears.”

The same goes for SWLing. I have spent enough time listening to shortwave and weak DX that I can now pull conversations out of the noise that my (non-radio) friends can barely detect. I’m convinced this is healthy exercise for the old grey matter.

A seasoned radio enthusiast can grab any radio and make the most of it.

Imagine what Joe Walsh could do with a toy guitar…

Do you think the guitar makes him one of the greatest guitarists of all time?

 

Many of the advances in technology over the past two or three decades has, of course, given us better tools for working weak signals. But more importantly, it’s brought down the price of performance. I can invest $200 in an SDR that will perform as well as or better than multi thousand dollar benchmark receivers from the 1990s. So yes, in terms of equipment, it’s a brilliant time to be an SWL or ham radio operator.

But at the end of the day, your skills are more important your gear.

My advice?

Make the most of the radio you have.

Challenge yourself to log a certain amount of DX with your radio–try to work states, counties, provinces, regions, territories, or countries. Make your own goals!

Take your radio to the field.

Experiment with antennas.

Get to know your radio so well you can use it blindfolded!

If you still feel you want to invest more in your gear, go for it and don’t look back!

That will be all.

-Thomas

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CQ Satellite: ARISS FM Repeater, Ham Sats, Tracking, Antennas, and Looking At The Future

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Van Hoy (VR2HF), who shares the following guest post:


ARISS FM Repeater May Be Back on Early December and a Short Ham Satellite Summary

by Dan Van Hoy (VR2HF)

I’ve recently had a lot of fun learning about the current batch of ham satellites and operating through some of them for the past several months with only a Diamond discone (and a short run of RG-213 double-shielded coax), Yaesu FT-817 (for SSB/CW) and TYT TH-9800 for FM satellites (more power, Scotty!). This simple set-up has yielded hours and hours of great fun. The last time I did satellite work was in the ’70s making contacts from my car through Oscar 6. If I had a car here in Hong Kong I might try it again!

Here’s my living room TV tray and sofa shortwave and satellite station (no XYL in house at the moment).

ARISS FM Repeater

One of the recent highlights for both newcomers to satellite operations and old-timers was working the International Space Station’s (ISS) new FM repeater which came on the air in early September. It is a specially modified Kenwood D710-GA VHF/UHF transceiver. Unfortunately, it was only operational for about a month. For the past several weeks it has been used mostly in APRS mode.

The ARISS FM repeater runs five watts and sounds just like a regular terrestrial repeater in many ways. You can work it with any dual-band VHF/UHF FM rig and the right antenna. Full-duplex is not required, but it helps. Lower power requires some kind of gain antenna, but receiving can be done with simple antennas.

The ARISS organization just updated the schedule for the ARISS operation with this announcement:

“Next mode change (cross band repeater) targeting early December.”

YEAH! What a nice Christmas present!

Here’s a link to the full ARISS information page:

https://www.ariss.org/current-status-of-iss-stations.html

ARISS QSO with E21EJC

Here’s a Youtube video of one of my ARISS contacts with E21EJC. It was right after he came back from his DXpedition hauling microwave gear and dishes out to the Thai countryside to work the QO-100 geosynchronous satellite. I tell him “welcome home and have a good rest.” Kob really is “Mr Satellite!” He has posted hundreds of Youtube videos of satellite contacts.

In addition, here is video of their HS0AJ/P special “portable” station antennas for QO-100. 10 GHz RX dish (downlink) and 2.4 GHz TX dish (the big one). I listened to Kob and his friend make several QSOs via the QO-100 WebSDR:

Amazing the things we hams do just to spray some RF in the right direction!

Beyond the ARISS: A Ham Satellite Summary

Presently, AO-91 is probably the most popular FM satellite, along with SO-50, AO-27 and PO-101. RS-44, a linear satellite for SSB and CW, is far and away the most popular for those modes. RS-44 is in a higher orbit providing less Doppler shift and longer contact times per pass. You can easily see from the Amsat status page which satellites are in operation and which are the most popular. Many of the ham satellites do not provide two-way communication capability, but still have beacons (CW and data) that can be heard (those are in YELLOW on the Amsat status page). Everyone with a ham callsign can contribute by by uploading a reception report of the satellites you hear or work.

Full-duplex on SSB/CW satellite work is very desirable but not mandatory. I have learned you can make contacts without it coupled with a little skill and some luck. Staying near the center of the satellite’s particular passband is helpful. Sadly, there are few full-duplex rigs available these days. One of the best may be the Yaesu FT-847 which can be found on the used market. Some satellite ops are using SDRs for RX and a ham rig for TX to achieve full-duplex. I’m going to try that soon using two Diamond discones and vertical separation.

For current status of all ham satellites and ARISS operation, go here:

https://www.amsat.org/status/index.php

Tracking

For tracking the ham sats and ISS, I like the Heavens-Above app (or Webpage: https://heavens-above.com/). The Pro version of Heavens Above is worth every penny. In the app, I put only the active satellites I am interested in in the search box. That way all the remaining unusable satellites will be ignored. Heavens-Above also lists the satellite operating frequencies for a quick reference.

 

One cool side note. With Heavens-Above, you can also see when ISS visible passes are available over your area (almost always near sunrise/sunset). Look for the passes with a magnitude greater than -3.0. If you have clear skies or a thin layer of clouds it’s quite a treat to see the ISS zoom overhead at 17, 000 miles per hour. When the ARISS repeater is operating, you can see and hear the ISS! The screen shot above is a visible pass at -3.9 magnitude, as bright as Venus.

Antennas

I have found my Diamond discone to work quite well for satellite operation. It’s probably the cheapest, simplest and most effective antenna you can use for this application If you really get interested in satellite work you can always spend the big bucks for AZ/EL rotators and beams as well as the software to run it all including tuning your rig to compensate for Doppler shift. Or you can buy quite expensive omni-directional antennas designed specifically for satellite use. So far, the KISS approach has worked well for me.

The Future Is Now

Finally, we can all get a taste of the future now by listening to the only ham radio geosynchronous satellite currently in operation, QO-100. It is centered on Europe and covers about 1/3 of the earth from Brazil to parts of Asia.

It was a thrill for me to listen (via the WebSDR listed below) to one of my new satellite colleagues, Mr Kob, E21EJC, who I call “Mr Satellite,” work Brazil and many other stations in the EU, the Middle-east and elsewhere through QO-100 during a special event operation from Thailand.

Anybody can listen to activity on QO-100 at the link below. When you get there just find the CLICK TO START SOUND! button. Then, click UNDER one of the signals in the waterfall and tune with the controls below. Weekends and holidays seem to be the best time to listen.

https://eshail.batc.org.uk/nb/

Because both the uplink and downlink frequencies are way up in the microwave bands, it’s not easy to get on QO-100, but, it appears to me, worth the effort. Maybe one day we will have two more QO-100-like birds linked together to cover the whole earth for 24/7 communication anywhere in the world. One can dream.

Full details about the QO-100 geosynchronous satellite can be found here:

https://amsat-uk.org/satellites/geo/eshail-2/

CQ Satellite!

When the propagation is bad, or actually anytime, ham satellites are a wonderful alternative to HF for having fun on the air.

Sorry, gotta go, RS-44 is just about here. CQ satellite, CQ satellite, de VR2HF…


Thank you so much for the satellite overview, Dan!

You’ve inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and try a little satellite work! The perfect project to do with my two daughters. I’m such a “below 30MHz” guy, I have to remind myself that there are actually some pretty amazing things you can do further up the band! When I purchase a discone antenna, I’m going to accuse you of being an enabler. Fair warning.

SWLing Post readers: Anyone else here tune to and track satellites? Please comment!

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A little QRP radio magic this weekend

SWLing Post readers: I originally posted the following article on QRPer.com where I publish most of my ham radio field reports. It was the first full Parks On The Air activation with my recently re-acquired Elecraft KX1 transceiver and it was very memorable. I hope you enjoy:

Yesterday [Saturday, November 14, 2020] my family decided to make an impromptu trip to one of our favorite spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Richland Balsam–the highest point on the BRP.

Of course, it was a good opportunity to fit in a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation, but I had also hoped to activate Richland Balsam for Summits On The Air (SOTA) simultaneously.

It being well beyond leaf-looking season, we had hoped the BRP would be relatively quiet, but we were wrong.

Trail heads were absolutely jam-packed and overflowing with visitors and hikers. We’ve noticed a sharp hiker uptick this year in western North Carolina due in no small part to the Covid-19 pandemic. People see hiking as a safe “social-distance” activity outdoors, but ironically, hiker density on our single-track trails is just through the roof.   One spends the bulk of a hike negotiating others on the trail.

The trail head to Richland Balsam was no exception. Typically, this time of year, we’d be the only people parked at the trail head but yesterday it was nearly parked full.

Being natives of western North Carolina, we know numerous side-trails and old logging/service roads along the parkway, so we picked one of our favorites very close to Richland Balsam.

We hiked to the summit of a nearby ridge line and I set up my POTA station with the “assistance” of Hazel who always seems to know how to get entangled in my antenna wires.

“I’m a helper dog!”

Taking a break from using the Icom IC-705, I brought my recently reacquired  KX1 field radio kit.

Gear:

I carried a minimal amount of gear on this outing knowing that there would be hiking involved. Everything easily fit in my GoRuck Bullet Ruck backpack (including the large arborist throw line) with room to spare.

I took a bit of a risk on this activation: I put faith in the wire antenna lengths supplied with my new-to-me Elecraft KX1 travel kit. I did not cut these wires myself, rather, they are the lengths a previous owner cut, wound, and labeled for the kit.

With my previous KX1, I knew the ATU was pretty darn good at finding matches for 40, 30, and 20 meters on short lengths of wire, so I threw caution to the wind and didn’t pack an additional antenna option (although I could have hiked back to the car where I had the CHA MPAS Lite–but that would have cut too much time from the activation).

I didn’t use internal batteries in the KX1, rather, I opted for my Bioenno 6 aH LiFePo battery which could have easily powered the KX1 the entire day.

I deployed the antenna wire in a nearby (rather short) tree, laid the counterpoise on the ground, then tried tuning up on the 40 meter band.

No dice.

The ATU was able to achieve a 2.7:1 match, but I don’t like pushing QRP radios above a 2:1 match if I don’t have to. I felt the radiator wire was pretty short (although I’ve yet to measure it), so clipping it would only make it less resonant on 40 meters.

Instead, I moved up to the 20 meter band where I easily obtained a 1:1 match.

I started calling CQ POTA and within a couple of minutes snagged two stations–then things went quiet.

Since I was a bit pressed for time, I moved to the 30 meter band where, once again, I got a 1:1 match.

I quickly logged one more station (trusty N3XLS!) then nothing for 10 minutes.

Those minutes felt like an eternity since I really wanted to make this a quick activation. I knew, too, that propagation was fickle; my buddy Mike told me the Bz numbers had gone below negative two only an hour before the activation. I felt like being stuck on the higher bands would not be to my advantage.

Still, I moved back up to 20 meters and try calling again.

Then some radio magic happened…

Somehow, a propagation path to the north west opened up and the first op to answer my call was VE6CCA in Alberta. That was surprising! Then I worked K3KYR in New York immediately after.

It was the next operator’s call that almost made me fall off my rock: NL7V in North Pole, Alaska.

In all of my years doing QRP field activations, I’ve never had the fortune of putting a station from Alaska in the logs. Alaska is a tough catch on the best of days here in North Carolina–it’s much easier for me to work stations further away in Europe than in AK.

Of all days, I would have never anticipated it happening during this particular activation as I was using the most simple, cheap antenna possible: two thin random lengths of (likely discarded) wire.

People ask why I love radio? “Exhibit A”, friends!

After working NL7V I had a nice bunch of POTA hunters call me. I logged them as quickly as I could.

I eventually moved back to 30 meters to see if I could collect a couple more stations and easily added five more. I made one final CQ POTA call and when there was no answer, I quickly sent QRT de K4SWL and turned off the radio.

Here’s a map of my contacts from QSOmap.org:

I still can’t believe my three watts and a wire yielded a contact approximately 3,300 miles (5311 km) away as the crow flies.

This is what I love about field radio (and radio in general): although you do what you can to maximize the performance of your radio and your antenna, sometimes propagation gives you a boost when you least expect it. It’s this sense of wireless adventure and wonder that keeps me hooked!

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RAC Canada Winter Contest 2020 now includes a “Rookie Plaque”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Brice Atchison, who shares the following announcement from the RAC:

RAC Canada Winter Contest 2020:
Contest Period: 0000 UTC to 2359 UTC December 19, 2020.
New “Rookie” Subcategory and Sponsors for the RAC Contests
https://www.rac.ca/rac-canada-winter-contest-2020/

For immediate release:

In December each year, Radio Amateurs of Canada sponsors the RAC Canada Winter Contest. Amateurs all over the world are invited to participate.

The global pandemic will most likely still be a fact of life on Saturday, December 19 when the RAC Canada Winter Contest takes place and we want to make sure that everyone participates safely. The RAC Contest Committee is therefore asking all participants to follow the guidelines provided by the government and health officials in your respective area for any of the multi-op categories enabled within the contest. If you do carry out an operation in any of the multi-op categories, please advise as part of your log submission that you have followed your locally applicable guidelines for group sizes and social (physical) distancing.

New “Rookie Plaque”

Radio Amateurs of Canada is pleased to announce the creation of a new “Rookie” subcategory for both the RAC Canada Day Contest and the RAC Canada Winter Contest.

The new “Rookie Plaque” will be sponsored by RadioSport Manitoba and the Winnipeg Amateur Radio Club and will begin with this year’s RAC Canada Winter Contest which will be held on Saturday, December 19.

“Rookie” is defined as a single operator who was first licensed as a Radio Amateur less than 36 calendar months (three years) before the date of the contest being entered in this subcategory. Any level of Amateur Radio licence available from the licensing jurisdiction qualifies for the subcategory.

The participating licensed Amateur is required to self-declare their eligibility, but the RAC Contest Management Committee reserves the right to request proof of eligibility to assist in resolving any disputes.

Eligible Categories for the Rookie Plaque:

Participants are eligible for the new Rookie Plaque in the following categories. Note: only one plaque is available across the three categories designated below.

Single Operator All Band Low Power (SOABLP)
Single Operator All Band High Power (SOABHP)
Single Operator All Band QRP Power (SOABQRP)

Qualification for the Rookie Overlay Category:

Any Single Operator All Band entrant, in the categories noted above, who meets the Rookie requirements will need to select or enter the Rookie category by adding a new “Category-Overlay: Rookie line” in the Cabrillo log file header. You may need to manually enter this line if the logging software you use does not support this category overlay.

In addition, entrants will need to indicate the date they were first licensed by adding a comment with that information in a “Soapbox:” field in the Cabrillo header. An example would be: “Soapbox: First licensed in January of 2019.”

Rookie participants will still qualify for the plaques in the three eligible categories should they receive the highest score in one of those categories. Previous rookie winners are ineligible for an additional Rookie Plaque in future contests.

RAC Cabrillo Guidelines:

As indicated above, as part of the contest rules update around the new Rookie subcategory we have updated the RAC Contest Cabrillo Guidelines document to reflect these changes. Specifically there is now a Category-Overlay field in the specifications with the expected input to be “Rookie”.

We hope that contest software authors will be able to update their software to include these changes. Until that time, contesters will have to manually enter the following line in their Cabrillo log: “Category-Overlay: Rookie” if they qualify as a rookie and wish to compete for this new plaque.

We have also aligned our Cabrillo document to update to all the current Cabrillo specifications to the published standards that apply to our contests based on the 2020 publication of the V3 standards.

The updated document is available for download at:

RAC Canada Winter Contest Rules 2020

Alan Griffin
RAC MarCom Director
wp.rac.ca
720 Belfast Road, #217
Ottawa, ON K1G 0Z5
613-244-4367, 1- 877-273-8304
raccomms@gmail.com

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A review of the lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver

The following review of the TX-500 was first published in the October 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.

Last year, a company out of Russia started dropping hints about a QRP transceiver they were developing called the Discovery TX-500.

The prototype photos looked like nothing else on the market: it was unusually thin––only 30mm thick––and sported a CNC-machined aluminum alloy body. The radio also featured top-mounted controls ideal for field use, and a high-contrast LCD backlit screen with a spectrum display.

Some of the initial photos of the prototype showed water droplets on the front faceplate indicating that the TX-500 would be water/weather resistant––certainly a first for the amateur radio market.

After the initial hints dropped by lab599, the TX-500 developed somewhat of a cult following among field-portable radio operators (like yours truly) as well as those into radio preparedness. However, after this tantalizing flurry of initial images, there was a lull, and very little information was available about the rig. Then in late July/early August 2020, we finally learned that the TX-500 would be sold in the US by Ham Radio Outlet. HRO’s product page posted a price of $789.95 with a projected availability date of mid-to-late September 2020.

Thus I felt quite lucky when I learned that a loaner TX-500 was being sent to me for one week to evaluate and review. Those of you who know me and read my reviews know that I typically prefer to spend several weeks with a radio before I feel comfortable enough writing a review. In this case, that simply wasn’t an option. I decided to push aside all of my other obligations and simply dive into this radio.

The following review is based on using the TX-500 in the shack and in the field over the course of seven days.  During this week, I managed to activate eight parks for the Parks on the Air (POTA) program, exclusively with the TX-500. I’ve taken the TX-500 to state parks, lakes, game lands, a National Forest, and a National Park. The TX-500 experienced full-on sunshine during a long operating session, and was even rained on once.

I’ve also made a number of QSOs with this radio from home, both via CW and phone. In total, I’ve logged an average of 31 CW and SSB contacts with the TX-500 each day I’ve had it.

Initial impressions

The TX-500 looked so impressively machined and designed based on the initial photos and few videos published, I honestly feared it couldn’t possibly measure up to the expectations built up about it. Would it be the rugged radio we’d heard about? Could it travel? Could it hold up in the field, under variable conditions and in fickle weather?

With the radio finally in hand, I noted the build quality and thought to myself, This rig might just do it. 

The body of this radio is absolutely solid.  It’s weighty without being heavy, and there are no loose parts––no wobbly encoders, no wonky buttons, and relatively few seams or openings that might be subject to dust or water penetration. It’s rugged, sturdy––and, I must add––beautifully engineered.

The layout is simple: there’s a backlit LCD screen on the left of the radio with four function buttons above and below it. These buttons control most of the functions and features you use while operating: CW adjustments, Receive and Transmit audio EQ, Noise Reduction, Noise Blanker, CW Memory keying, A/B VFO control, and more.

To the right of the display you find a set of buttons stacked vertically that include the power button, mode, band switching, and a menu button for making less common adjustments. The encoder is raised and feels silky-smooth to operate. There appears to be no brake control, but this is not a problem because this rig doesn’t need it: it’s well-balanced and feels of excellent quality. Indeed, tuning is adaptive and fluid; I’ve been very pleased with the lab599 tuning.

There are two knobs above the encoder which adjust the AF gain and RIT. Other buttons next to the encoder control things such as the tuning steps and speed, controls lock, and memory writing.

The low-profile side panels do protect the TX-500 front faceplate on flat surfaces.

You can tell the TX-500 was designed by an amateur radio operator because the radio is laid-out beautifully. All frequently used functions are easy to find and intuitive. There’s no need to do a deep-dive into embedded menus to, say, change the RF gain control.

There are a number of general coverage QRP transceivers on the market, so even just looking through the features and specs it’s clear how it might stack up.

This being said, the TX-500 does lack a few things you might find in other field portable QRP general coverage transceivers. We’ll start with those.

No (Built-In) Speaker

The TX-500 does not have a built-in speaker. With weather-resistance in mind, lab599 may have opted to leave the speaker out of the chassis, and instead include a speaker microphone combo with their basic package. The supplied speaker/mic is of good quality and the audio can be made incredibly loud. And, although I’m not a fan of speaker mics, I must admit this one has grown on me: in the field doing SSB, it’s much easier to bring the speaker closer to your ears when trying to work a particularly weak station.

But what about when operating CW––? In that case, the speaker mic becomes inconvenient as you are forced to port out the audio via the speaker/mic connector. It’s worth noting here that the TX-500 package being sold by Ham Radio Outlet includes an audio breakout cable so you can attach your favorite headphones or boom/mic set. My pre-production unit did not include this, so I had to use the speaker/mic and its mono audio port.

I, however, tend to operate with headphones in the field unless someone is helping me log stations. Headphones help me isolate myself from noises and distractions around me (like my dog straining on her leash, whining over her inability to chase squirrels). Headphones also improve my ability to detect and work weak signals.

When I operate CW in the field, I tend to place the TX-500 on my backpack and attach the speaker mic to the top flap. It’s worked out quite well.

Audio from the speaker microphone is tinny, but actually well-tailored for voice and Morse Code. For shortwave radio listening, however, that’s another story:  you’ll certainly want to connect a proper speaker.

No ATU

The TX-500 does not include an internal automatic antenna tuner. For those used to operating an Elecraft field radio, the Xiegu G90, or the CommRadio CTX-10, for example, this might seem like a major omission.

While it would be nice to have an internal ATU, I’m quite happy to do without one, as all of my field antennas are resonant on the bands I operate. But as a point of comparison, it’s nice when, say, my end-fed antenna isn’t ideally deployed and can’t get that 1:1 match on the 40 meter band; with my KX2, I can simply push the ATU button and the rig solves the match.

I carry a simple Emtech ZM-2 balanced-line manual antenna tuner, just for when an ATU is needed. But out of the eight field activations I’ve done thus far with the TX-500, only once did I add the ZM-2 to the mix, and just to bring the match from a 2.3:1 to 1:1. If I wanted an external automatic antenna tuner, I’d grab an Elecraft T1. It’s a gem of an ATU.

No internal rechargeable battery (yet!)

The TX-500 transceiver doesn’t have an internal rechargeable battery option like the CommRadio CTX-10 or Elecraft KX2. But like the new Icom IC-705 sports, lab599 is designing an attachable rechargeable battery pack that will fit the TX-500 beautifully. You can see the recessed battery connections on the back/bottom of the TX-500.

 

As of this time, no availability date for this future option has been announced, but I can confirm it is indeed in the works.

What makes the TX-500 unique

For some, the idea of a radio which lacks an internal speaker and ATU might lead the rapid decision to dismiss it outright. I would urge those folks to continue reading, however; the TX-500, due to some very unique features, has certainly carved out a market niche, and thus is worth the consideration.

Rugged, weather-resistant body

As I mentioned above, the TX-500 has a solid aluminium-alloy body which gives it a distinctly solid feel. There are no gaps between chassis plates, and all of the buttons, knobs, as well as the encoder are sealed to prevent water penetration.

The TX-500 design smacks of military-grade construction, but in truth is a blend of military specs and amateur radio functionality. For example, the chassis is, if anything, over-engineered for most amateur radio applications. If I owned the TX-500, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on extended hiking trips, even in dubious weather. Of course, that’s not to say I’d intentionally leave the rig out in heavy rain. But I wouldn’t worry about a sudden rain shower ruining my radio. If this were a military radio, it would have fewer controls and likely be somewhat channelized. Instead, the TX-500 has the full set of controls, features, and filters you’d expect in an amateur radio transceiver with a military-build quality.

In short, it might appear to belong to rugged military kit, but it’s very much designed for the demands of amateur radio operators.

Although the TX-500 is incredibly solid, it’s also lightweight. I weighed the radio with its speaker/mic and power cable. The total weight was 1 pound, 7 ounces. One of my blog readers noted that such a lightweight radio would simply break in half if they hit it over their knee. My reply? No way. In fact, I’m willing to bet such an action could break your knee cap!  Please don’t try this, you’ll surely regret it.

Connectors

One of the most frequent questions readers ask about the TX-500 is why its makers chose to include non-standard (to radio) GX12mm multi-pin aviation connectors for the rig’s power port, CAT control, data, CW, and speaker/mic…?

The answer? In brief, it’s water resistance.

GX12mm connectors allow for a watertight connection and protect the radio very well from water intrusion. And while GX12 connectors aren’t standard in the world of amateur radio, they are certainly standard in aviation, commercial, and military applications.  These connectors are widely available online and there are even mom-and-pop ham radio retailers like W2ENY selling premade TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website.

Meanwhile, the TX-500 uses a standard BNC antenna connection for antennas, which I’m very pleased to note.

LCD screen with spectrum display

 

Most of us now expect modern SDR-based transceivers to sport a full-color backlit––and sometimes touch screen––display. In the field, however, color TFT displays can be incredibly difficult to read in full sunlight.

Like the Elecraft K and KX series radios, lab599 opted for a more simple, higher contrast monochrome backlit LCD display. This pleases me to no end, because I much prefer this type of display in a POTA or SOTA field radio just because it’s so much easier to read in bright outdoor light. Also, I feel touch screens aren’t as well suited for hiking, camping, and heavy field use–they’re more vulnerable to being damaged.

The TX-500 LCD is chock-full of information and very responsive. The spectrum display (no waterfall) is fluid and useful, as effective as any full-color display.

Benchmark current drain

When operating on battery in the field, current drain in receive mode is a major factor. The more slowly you can sip from the battery while the radio is receiving, the longer play time you’ll have. I like my general coverage field radios to consume less than 400 milliamps.

My benchmark general coverage radio, the Elecraft KX2, consumes a mere 135-140 milliamps at moderate volume levels. I can operate for hours with a compact battery. The TX-500 consumes between 110-120 milliamps at a moderate volume level; yes, even a smidge better than the KX2. The company lab599 actually specs out this radio at 100 milliamps, and I’m confident one could achieve it simply by using headphones.

While there are transceivers like my MTR-3B which have even lower current drain, they’re CW-only and lack general coverage reception, large displays, and the like. Thus, the TX-500 sets a benchmark for general-coverage full-featured portable transceivers in terms of drain.

On the air

In terms of operating the TX-500 in the field, I have very few complaints. The menu system is very easy to use and is intuitive. I never needed to reference the manual––but if you do, the manual is one of the best I’ve seen from a new transceiver manufacturer (click here to download he manual and other TX-500 files).

The buttons are easy to press. They have a tactile feel and proper response so you know you’ve properly engaged a setting. The features and buttons are well spaced, too, and the thin-but-wide chassis actually provides generous surface area for the controls. One could easily operate the TX-500 with gloves on, should it be necessary in cold climates or winter conditions.

As mentioned earlier, the TX-500 does not have an internal ATU option like the Elecraft KX2 or the Xiegu G90. For some, this will be a huge negative against the TX-500. Good internal ATUs allow operators to use a much wider array of antennas in the field–including random wire antennas–and I’ll admit that I’ve gotten quite used to having one in my KX2 and KX3. But again, to get the most signal per watt, I use resonant antennas in the field these days, so very rarely need or employ an ATU.

So how does the TX-500 play? In the following sections I’ll address putting the TX-500 on the air as both a CW and SSB operator. Note that I did not have the opportunity to test the TX-500 on digital modes––like PSK-31 and FT8––as my pre-production model lacked the necessary cables, nor was building my own possible during the week of testing.

CW

Of the (very few) videos that were produced prior to the TX-500’s release, a couple of these were made by a CW operator in Russia. Unfortunately, I was able to glean little information from those videos. I was very eager to try the TX-500 in CW mode as this has become my preferred method of activating parks for POTA.

When I received the TX-500, it did not come with the same cables that Ham Radio Outlet will include. It did, however, include the 5 pin connector for the CW port, so I simply soldered a cable and connected it to the terminals on the back of my Vibroplex single lever paddle.

This way, I was able to avoid purchasing and attaching a three conductor ?” female plug. (This intervention did mean that, in the field, my key would weigh more than the transceiver–!)

But the question every CW operator has asked me is “Does the TX-500 support full break-in QSK?” Full break-in QSK allows instantaneous transmit/receive recovery time, so that even higher speed operators can hear between sent characters while operating. This means if another op wants to grab your attention while you’re operating––or, in the parlance, “break in”––you’ll hear them in the middle of sending a word.

Unfortunately, the TX-500 does not support full break-in QSK. Instead of being based on pin diodes (like the Elecraft KX series) the TX-500 uses a relay. This means that you’ll hear a relay click each time the radio switches between transmit and receive.

In the past, I’ve reviewed transceivers in which the relay click was honestly quite loud, even annoyingly so. Fortunately, the TX-500 has such a solid and well-sealed body that I find the relay sound to be the least distracting of any relay-based transceiver I’ve tested. You can still hear it, but it’s reasonably soft. So that you can hear what I mean, in this video, you’ll hear the relay clicking when I point the camera toward the rig.

The T/R recovery time on the TX-500 is quite rapid. While I can’t hear audio between characters sent within a word, I can hear between words when the relay is set to the quickest recovery and I’m operating around 17-20 WPM. If, however, you operate at higher speeds and prefer full break-in QSK, you may wish to give the TX-500 a pass.

The TX-500 comes with a full complement of CW operation adjustments, like Iambic type, straight key, weight ratios, sidetone volume, and the like. One oddity is that it doesn’t measure CW speed in words per minute. It uses a completely different scale that measures with a much wider number range. I set my speed to “97,” which I guessed might be an equivalent of about 17 or 18 WPM. While I first thought this feature odd, I soon came to appreciate this specificity because without the restriction to 1 WPM increments, as with most transceivers, it gives the op more flexibility to adjust speed.

I discovered that the TX-500 can handle dense RF environments while doing a park activation during a CWT contest. Even with a 400 Hz filter engaged (and it could have been much narrower), the TX-500 effectively blocked adjacent signals. To demonstrate, I made the following short video in the field:

Rob Sherwood recently tested the TX-500 and published the results on his excellent receiver test data table.  Although very respectable, I expected the TX-500 to sport more competitive numbers based on my “real-world” tests. Still: this is a field radio. Not a rig I’d reach for to win the CQ WW contest. In field operations, TX-500 is a brilliant performer and has better overall specs than a number of popular radios including the immensely popular Yaesu FT-891, for example.

CW ops should keep in mind that the TX-500 has no internal speaker, so to operate you’ll either need to connect an external speaker, the supplied speaker/mic, or headphones. Since I primarily operate with headphones, this will be no inconvenience to me. As there was no headphone connector with this pre-production model TX-500, I simply used the speaker mic for all operations.

When the TX-500 was first released and HRO made a product page on their website, the rig had no CW memories, which I truly rely on for field operations. CW memories allow me to manage my logging workflow, pre-format responses, and CQ calls without having to manually key everything. Lab599 must have noted this omission, and by the time I received my evaluation unit, a firmware release had been issued which added CW memories. I immediately performed a firmware update (a simple process, by the way). I even passed along some suggestions and critiques of the CW memory keyer; lab599 immediately made adjustments and fixes as needed for optimal performance.

If you’ve ever saved CW memories in a radio, you may have found it frustrating to achieve the right spacing for the radio to provide a proper playback. It often takes me multiple tries, for example, to save a park number into my KX2. The TX-500, fortunately, is very forgiving and I found it very simple to set CW memories in the field.

While not on the radio I used at time of evaluation, I understand lab599 is planning to add a “beacon mode” for calling CQ, as well.

All in all, I find the TX-500 a pleasure to operate in CW mode. Indeed, 75% of all of my logged stations were made in CW mode.

Speaking of which, funny story…I activated Pisgah National Forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of western North Carolina. I hammered out 13 logged stations from Maine, Vermont, Ontario, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida, and several states in the middle of that footprint.

On this map, all of the green pins below were CW contacts and made with one watt of power. The red pins are SSB contacts with 10 watts. The yellow star is roughly my location:

I switched to SSB mode to make a few phone contacts, and called CQ. No one heard me. I was puzzled…but suddenly I realized I had left my power setting at 1 watt! The previous day, I was running tests into a dummy load. Yes, all of those CW contacts were made with truly low power, indeed!

SSB

The TX-500 has a lot to offer the SSB operator. I’ve gotten great reports from my SSB contacts, and have even listened to my own signals via the KiwiSDR network.

The TX-500 includes all of the features a phone operator would expect, such as compression and gain control.  Of course, you can enable VOX operation if you’re using your favorite boom headset. The TX-500 allows you to not only to change the receiver EQ settings, but also transmit EQ settings. This means you can tailor your TX-500 to get the most audio punch per watt while operating phone. Very nice!

The TX-500 ships with a rugged, simple speaker microphone. I’ve been using this exclusively during the evaluation period, and have been very pleased with it. The mic even has a protected mono audio out port on the side, should you wish to attach a different external speaker.

Perhaps the only negative from my point of view as a phone operator is that the TX-500 lacks a voice memory keyer. While it has this feature for CW, it lacks it for SSB.

To put this in context: all recent Elecraft rigs have voice memory keying; the new IC-705 includes this as well. Even the Yaesu FT-891, which is one of the most affordable compact transceivers in the Yaesu line, has voice memory keying. For POTA and SOTA activators, voice memory keying is huge, as it frees you to do other things like log, eat a sandwich, or talk to others while calling CQ. It also saves your voice. For example, on the KX2, I record a CQ message like “CQ POTA, CQ POTA, this is K4SWL calling CQ for Parks On The Air;” I save the message to memory location #1, then play it back in “beacon mode.”  The KX2 will continuously transmit my voice CQ message with a few seconds between each call. When someone answers my call, I can easily pause the beacon by hitting the PTT switch or one of the transceiver keys.

I do wish the TX-500 had this handy feature, but because of a lack of internal storage, I don’t expect it will be added. This isn’t a deal-killer for me, as I could add an external voice memory keyer, but it certainly would make for ideal SSB field-radio operating.

Shortwave broadcast listening

Of course, since I’m a hardcore shortwave radio listener and the TX-500 has a general coverage receiver, I did quite a bit of casual shortwave radio listening during the week I had the radio in the shack.

What’s great about the TX-500 is that it has a very capable receiver with a low noise floor and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The preset filter bandwidths can be adjusted in all modes including AM. I have the widest setting at 10 kHz, which gives one proper fidelity with strong shortwave broadcasters.

Here’s a link to a quick video I made showing how the TX-500 sounds while tuning around the 31 meter band.  Note that the amplified speaker I use for this demo is limited in fidelity and I recorded this using an iPad. Still, I think you’ll get a decent idea how well the TX-500 plays as a shortwave receiver:

The TX-500 will tune to the bottom of the AM broadcast band as well, and I’ve spent time listening there. I did not have the time to do a deep dive, but I find that the TX-500 performs rather well in those low bands…a rarity for a ham radio transceiver.

Summary

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 those initial impressions. Here’s the list I created over the time I’ve spent evaluating the TX-500.

Pros:

  • Solid, rugged chassis with weather/water resistance and built-in low-profile side protection panels
  • High-contrast LCD display that’s responsive and easy to read in the field
  • Excellent receiver sensitivity, selectivity, and low noise floor
  • Full complement of features and adjustments expected in a modern transceiver
  • Multiple adjustable filter settings
  • Very low current drain for a full-featured general coverage transceiver (100-120 milliamps)
  • GX12mm connections provide further water protection (see con)
  • CW memory keying
  • Easy firmware upgrades with supplied USB cable and lab599 firmware application
  • For US customers: a Nevada-based service center for repairs (no word yet on similar centers elsewhere)
  • Per lab599 announcement, hopefully available next year: an attachable TX-500 battery pack

Cons:

  • No built-in speaker
  • No internal ATU option
  • No full break-in QSK CW operation (although relay is quiet and audio recovery fast)
  • GX12mm connections are non-standard on amateur radio transceivers for water resistance, thus one might need to purchase or build cables for non-standard accessories (see pro)
  • No voice keyer for phone operation
  • No notch or auto-notch filters at time of publication (these may be implemented in future firmware upgrades) It does indeed have a notch filter now!
  • Fold-out feet could scratch soft surfaces, such as wood

Conclusion

Would I buy the TX-500 myself? Well, since I’m a heavy field operator, yes, without hesitation. Moreover I believe the $800 price tag is reasonable for a radio with its feature set and rugged military-spec type design.

I confess, I have been looking forward to getting the TX-500 in hand for a year now. So when HRO put up a product page and started accepting orders, without much thought, I placed mine. Yet within an hour, I was rethinking my decision, and soon I called to cancel it. Why? A bit of buyer’s remorse. For although instinct told me I’d like the rig, common sense said I was getting ahead of myself. The truth was, at that time the TX-500 didn’t have CW memory keying, and without that, I knew this field radio would not get a lot of use during my park and future summit activations. Moreover, I’ve no less than six eight QRP transceivers––not to mention an Icom IC-705 on order for review––so it wasn’t as though the need was great. Instinct or no, I felt I’d made the decision in haste, and my head said my heart should take a few beats before committing.

Yet, after receiving the TX-500 loaner, and taking it to the field––and, of course, lab599’s addition of that all-essential memory keying––all of a sudden the TX-500 became much more appealing. And I’ll admit, this radio really grew on me over that evaluation week (ah, the dangers of reviewing radios…you do often become attached). There’s also been comfort in knowing the TX-500 wouldn’t be harmed should I be caught in a pop-up shower and anxious for the safety of my equipment. But there’s something more: it turns out my initial instincts were correct. I just happen to really like this radio.  The way it feels and functions suits me as an operator and its performance exceeds expectations. And that’s a thing I couldn’t have known until I gave it a spin.

While no radio is perfect, I nonetheless suspect the TX-500 will gather a loyal customer base soon; indeed, it had a following well before anyone laid hands on it. Including me.

So now I am seriously considering purchasing the TX-500 for keeps.

Click here to check out the lab599 Discovery TX-500 at lab599.

Click here to purchase a TX-500 from HRO.

Check out W2ENY’s TX-500 cables and adapters on his eBay store and website


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