Habitually, I get up early, between 4 and 5 am, so I decided to give it a try. Conventional wisdom is that, if you want to do AM (medium wave) DXing, you need a hot AM radio with a big ferrite bar, like the CCrane 2E . . .
Wanna guess what radio and antenna combo acquitted itself pretty well?
This AM’s listening, from my home outside Troy, NY, produced:
1170, WWVA — Wheeling, West Virginia
1180, WHAM — Rochester, NY
1200, Talk 1200 — Boston
1210, WPHT — Philadelphia
Now, before you hard-core AM DXers get all up in my face — Hey, I could hear those stations on the fillings in my teeth! — I’ll simply say that I get a kick out of hearing a distant station . . . any distant station . . . even it’s just a few hundred miles away. Sure, it’s not the astonishing stuff that Paul Walker and Gary DeBock accomplish, but to hear that faraway signal, crackling through the airwaves does me good.
Bottom line: you don’t need the latest and greatest optimized-for-the-task gear to give something a try . . . and you just might really enjoy it!
Bottom line, ever since I read it, I have very much wanted to hear at least some of those MF marine stations that Don writes about. One of Don’s recommendations is “Hang Out on 2182 kHz.” So sometimes when I am messing around in the radio shack, I will park one of my shortwave receivers on 2182 USB in the hopes of hearing some marine communications. 2182 is the frequency that the US Coast Guard once monitored as a distress frequency, but no more.
According to Don: “Today 2182 kHz still gets some use as a calling frequency, where a ship and a shore station quickly arrange to have a conversation on another frequency. But the more common use now is for shore-based marine broadcasters to pre-announce marine information broadcasts they are about to transmit on other frequencies.”
Just the other day, I brought up 2182 on my Satellit 800, but the atmospheric noise was pretty bad. I fooled around with a couple of different indoor wire antenna configurations but wasn’t able to achieve any substantial improvement. But in the midst of that messing around, I “rediscovered” my Icom IC-706 MkIIG on a shelf. It receives from 30 kHz to 199 MHz and from 400 to 470 MHz, and I used mine for over a decade to run the Commuter Assistance Network on two meters. I still keep the 706 as a back-up in case my main rig for running the net goes down.
But I had never used the 706 extensively on HF (weird, I know, but that’s the truth). Nevertheless, a little voice in the back of my head (probably one of the brain dudes) kept saying “Why don’t you give the 706 a try as an HF receiver?”
So I did. I hooked up the 706 up to my horizontal room loop through some coax and an LDG 9:1 unun (the same antenna setup I had been using on the Satellit 800). And – shazam – the 706 is substantially quieter on 2182 with that antenna than the Satellit 800.
That’s good, I thought, but what if the 706 appears to be quieter because it is less sensitive? So I did some comparative tests with the 706 and the Satellit 800 on the 80 and 40 meter ham bands and satisfied myself that the 706 is both quieter and more sensitive than the Satellit 800. I could just plain hear the signals better (and more pleasantly) with the 706.
The only substantial weirdness with the Icom 706 MkIIG is that, as a small unit, it has relatively few buttons on its face. As a result, it has no keypad for direct frequency access. There are buttons for jumping from one ham band to another and another button for changing tuning steps, so with judicious use of those buttons and the tuning knob, it’s fairly easy to get from one frequency to another, but it is not as fast as direct entry.
And, of course, the 706 does not have all the cool seek-and-store functions and the like that are available on today’s really slick shortwave portables.
Here’s the upshot: if you’ve been on the hunt for a better HF receiver with single sideband capabilities, an old dog, like an old ham transceiver, might be just what you need. And if you are already enjoying an old ham transceiver as a shortwave receiver, I’d like to hear about it.
So, have I heard any of those cool MW maritime stations? Not yet, but I’m sure I’ll have fun trying!
The Icom IC-7200 has an excellent general coverage receiver
Like many amateur radio operators, I became interested in HF radio because of my real passion for shortwave radio listening. During my first fifteen years as an SWL, I relied on portable receivers, in my case, the Zenith Transoceanic, Realistic DX-440, and Grundig YB 400. The Zenith was my home radio; I traveled with the DX-440 and YB400. I felt like I had the world at my fingertips.
In the mid 1990s, as an undergraduate, I decided that I would pursue my ham radio license–while on my student budget, I dreamed about upgrading to a proper tabletop receiver like a Kenwood, Icom, JRC or Drake. But when I found out the real cost of buying an HF transceiver (gasp!) I realized that all of my resources would go into a transceiver, and the receiver would just have to wait.
The Icom IC-735 general coverage transceiver
Then, as I was studying for my license in 1997, ham buddy Eric McFadden (WD8RIF) invited me over to his house to test drive his Icom IC-735 transceiver. Eric, along with another friend/elmer, Mike (K8RAT) encouraged me to look for a used IC-735 for an affordable first HF radio.
I recall very well tuning around the ham bands at Eric’s QTH and being most impressed with how the IC-735 seemed to pull signals out of the static. It was my first time ever tuning a tabletop rig, and I was instantly hooked. Later, I asked Eric if the ’735 could also tune in shortwave radio broadcasters? His energetic response: “Sure! The ‘735 is general coverage,” then demonstrated by tuning to the 31M band.
Needless to say, I was absolutely amazed by the number of stations one could hear on this ham radio transceiver. Of course, its sensitivity surpassed anything I had ever owned, especially considering that the rig was hooked up to a proper outdoor wire antenna. I realized then that a ham radio transceiver and receiver–in the same radio–were within my financial grasp.
So, what is “general coverage”––?
A ham transceiver with “general coverage” means that the receiver portion of the radio is not limited to the ham bands only; these receivers typically receive between 100 kHz and 30 MHz (i.e., the full medium and shortwave radio spectrum). Many transceivers, starting in the 1980s, employed a general coverage design as a feature of the radio. Some radios implemented general coverage receiving better than others. In most cases, there was a compromise to performance when the receiver was opened to general coverage reception, so many manufactures held to a ham-band-only platform to optimize performance where hams sought it most. Today, receiver architecture can better accommodate general coverage without compromising sensitivity and selectivity on the ham bands.
Still, in 1997, my Icom IC-735 met all of my ham radio and SWLing expectations. For years, in fact, it was my main SWLing rig. Was the IC-735 as good as a proper tabletop receiver? No. The truth is that its filters and performance were most favorable for the ham radio bands. But as I mentioned, this compromise is much less profound in current transceiver design, and general coverage is status quo.
Benefits of general coverage
Apps like Amateur Radio Exam Prep make exam practice easy and convenient
While the benefit of having a transceiver that can tune the full broadcast band may seem obvious, there are two reasons I always have at least one general coverage transceiver in my radio arsenal:
Since I like to travel and save space, a small general coverage transceiver (e.g., the Elecraft KX3) kills two birds with one (portable) stone;
If an emergency, such as a dire weather event were to occur, general coverage will allow me the ability to monitor international broadcasters and local AM (mediumwave) stations while still performing any emcomm (emergency communications) duties.
Another advantage to owning a proper HF transceiver is that, if you currently do not hold an amateur radio license, this may just be the push you need to get your ticket! All you’ll need to do is take two multiple choice tests (Technician and General) to unlock the full potential of your HF transceiver, and you’ll soon enjoy hamming it up with the rest of us.
Cons of general coverage
As I mentioned, general coverage transceivers can present something of a compromise in performance; after all, the rig’s main duty is to perform on the ham bands. Here are a few compromises to be aware of:
With a few exceptions, purchasing a ham transceiver is pricier than purchasing a comparable dedicated broadcast receiver
AM filters are often much narrower than broadcast receiver filters
In many radios, you may be faced with a choice of optimizing filter selections for ham radio use (SSB or CW) or broadcast use (wide AM filters, etc.)
Older general coverage transceivers (circa 1980s and 90s) may have somewhat compromised ham band receive performance
Some general coverage transceivers may actually lack AM mode. All broadcast reception will basically be tuned via SSB (or better known as ECSS)
General coverage transceivers typically lack synchronous detection
Another consideration: while anyone can purchase a general coverage ham radio transceiver, until you hold an amateur radio license with HF privileges, you cannot legally transmit using your radio. I doubt that any readers would consider doing this intentionally, but again your radio is designed to transmit, so this could be done accidently especially if you’re not familiar with transceiver functions. Transmitting unintentionally can have more than legal repercussions: 1) if you transmit with a mis-match between your transmitter and antenna, you could harm the finals in your transceiver; 2) you could damage your radio and/or antenna if using a receive-only antenna (like a mag loop); and 3) you could even receive RF burn. To avoid this, and make it foolproof, search the web for modifications to temporarily disable “transmit” on your radio if indeed you never intend to transmit.
A note about power supplies
My trusty Astron Power Supply
Unlike stand-alone receivers, most general coverage transceivers require an external DC power supply. If you do not have a power supply, you will need to fit this into your budget. Power supplies can be costly, but also an investment in longevity. With a little knowledge up front, you can be selective and save on your power supply purchase. As I have been using the same power supply (an Astron RS-35A) since 1997, I turned to my friend Fred Osterman, president and owner of Universal Radio, for suggestions on power supplies currently in production.
Fred pointed out that if your only goal is to power a transceiver for the receive function, there is no need to invest in an expensive power supply. He suggests a reliable, regulated power supply, such as their popular $35 (US) Pyramid PS-4KX: at 3.5 amps; indeed, the PS-4KX will be more than enough power for any transceiver in receive mode.
Of course, if you plan to transmit at full power–and unless you have a QRP radio–you will need a power supply that can handle the load. For this purpose, Fred suggests two excellent options:
Again, I’ve had my trusty Astron RS-35A since 1997, so once you’ve invested in a good power supply, you should be all set for many years–and radios–to come.
My old 1 amp regulated laptop power supply is more than adequate for SWLing on the Elecraft KX3
Transceivers: Good bets for $1,600 US or less
There are dozens of general coverage transceivers currently on the amateur radio market. Indeed, I don’t believe there are any rigs now in production that do not have a general coverage receiver, or at least the option to add it. Prices vary greatly, but I will assume that most SWLs that are considering the leap into amateur radio will want a radio that costs less than the price of a tabletop radio/transceiver combo. Just to keep things simple, we’ll limit our list to $1,600 US or less, beginning with the least expensive option.
Alinco DX-SR8T ($510 US)
The Alinco DX-SR8 has a detachable face plate
The DX-SR8T ($510 US) is one of the most affordable general coverage transceivers on the market. To be clear, the DX-SR8T lacks many of the frills and features of pricier rigs, but it’s a surprisingly good transceiver and, of course, general coverage shortwave receiver. Indeed, Alinco actually markets a receive-only version of this radio (the DX-R8T, $450US); it is identical in every respect to the DX-SR8T, but simply has no transmit function.
While I have only used the DX-SR8T on a few occasions, I have spent a couple of years with the DX-R8T, and even reviewed it extensively in the SWLing Post. My DX-R8T began life as a review unit that I purchased––it was an early production unit, and even retained the transmit LED indicator found on its sibling, the DX-SR8T. Consider paying the extra $60 US for the DX-SR8T, and you’ll have a basic, full-featured transceiver.
You can purchase the IC-7200 from Universal Radio or other ham radio equipment retailers.
The Icom IC-7200 ($900 US)
The Icom IC-7200
The IC-7200 delivers a lot of performance for a sub-$1,000 price. Its general coverage receiver will rival that of the venerable R75, and its AM filter can be widened to 6 kHz. Ergonomics are better than average. Plus, it has Icom’s twin passband tuning: the IC-7200’s general coverage receiver actually tunes from 30 kHz all the way to 60 MHz. The IC-7200 is a fantastic value.
You can purchase the IC-7200 from Universal Radio or other ham radio equipment retailers.
The Elecraft KX3 ($900 kit; $1,000 factory pre-assembled)
The Elecraft KX3
The Elecraft KX3 is my general coverage transceiver of choice. There’s so much about this radio that I like: it’s nearly as compact as my portable shortwave radios, it’s a full-featured transceiver, it can operate on batteries, it has good ergonomics, and is made and supported by Elecraft, right here in the USA.
Its sensitivity and selectivity rival radios three times its price. The only negative I can point out about the KX3, in comparison with many other general coverage transceivers, is that its AM filter is limited to a width of 4.2 kHZ. When I first learned of this, I thought it would be a deal-killer for me. But I was wrong. The audio sounds much more robust and “wide” than I would ever have guessed. It’s excellent. Want more details? I made an extensive review of the Elecraft KX3 in the SWLing Post.
If you happen to be a ham looking to upgrade their transceiver for benchmark performance, you may be willing to dedicate more funds to your purchase. My buddy, Dave Zantow (N9EWO), a discriminating reviewer for the late great Passport To World Band Radio, is very pleased using his Icom IC-7600 for broadcast listening. He told me recently, “[The IC-7600 is] not perfect, of course, but does perform near excellent and also has a great display [with] a very useful spectrum scope.” Dave has a full review of the IC-7600 posted on his website.
The Ten-Tec OMNI VII
I have also been impressed with the superb broadcast reception of the Ten-Tec OMNI VII ($2,800 US), Ten-Tec Eagle ($1,800 plus wide AM filter) and Orion series transceivers. While the OMNI VII and Orion II will set you back more than $2,000, used original Orions can be found for $1,800 and even less. Ten-Tec still services all of their radios at their headquarters in Sevierville, Tennessee.
If you would like to save some money, consider searching the used market for one of the radios mentioned above. Alternatively, look for some of these select transceivers that are no longer in production, but are known to have capable general coverage receivers (do note that what follows is simply a selection, not a comprehensive list):
Keep in mind, when you purchase a quality used radio, you can get excellent value for the performance it will reward you. The flip side of this, though, is that if you purchase a radio that hasn’t been in production for over a decade, the chances of finding replacement parts become more difficult with each passing year.
With the option wide AM filter installed, the Ten-Tec Eagle makes from an amazing broadcast receiver. They are available new from Ten-Tec, but can also be found used.
If you plan on investing in a fine communications radio, it may be best to economize by investing in a good general coverage transceiver. For the prospective ham, the leap from a tabletop receiver to a fine general coverage transceiver may be less than $300. To prove my point, if an SWL planning to get a ham ticket asks about buying the venerable Icom R75, I would encourage spending $250 to get the Icom IC-7200, instead.
Indeed, with modern receiver architecture, there is little reason not to invest in a good general coverage receiver that you can also use to communicate all over the world when you get your ham ticket. And, need I add, it’s fantastic fun for the money.
“I have all three of the portables mentioned, the Sony SW7600GR, the Sangean 909X, and the Tecsun PL-660. The latter is currently my portable of choice. Having just read this post re radios afloat I took the time to suck down a fax from Charleville, Queensland.
Frank’s Tecsun PL-660 and Macbook Pro decoding a weather fax with Cocoa Modem 2.0 (Click to enlarge)
This was with the Tecsun 660 attached directly to a (near) horizontal longwire at my home QTH, inserted directly into a Macbook Pro running CocoaModem 2.0 via the headphone socket on the Tecsun.
I have had similar results with the Sony and the Sangean
To all intents the result is as good as with my other radios ( K5000 etc.).
Screenshot of the weather fax image (Click to enlarge)
However if I was starting from scratch afloat I would get an Icom IC-718. Only $689.95 from Universal Radio. You may choose to simply use it as a receiver or as a Ham TX/RX. However it can also be ‘opened up’ with a simple diode snip to transmit on all the marine bands. Not strictly legal [nor is the IC-718 designed for those bands] but there are a lot of ‘opened’ 718s out there and in an emergency you can transmit a mayday on anything…. even a couple of jam tins and string although you may need a fair old length of string….
If you wish to transmit on your IC-718 you will need a tuner. I have an LDG IT-100 on mine.
Hooking up a consumer receiver to a marine antenna….? Simply make up a pigtail with a 3.5mm jack at one end and a BNC or SO -259 at the other.
Non-marine radios afloat…. ? I had an IC-735 aboard from Cyprus (1992) until Patagonia (2007). Since 2007 I have had an IC-706Mk2G afloat…. no problem with either one.”
SWLing Post reader, Bob, recently emailed the following question:
“My wife and I live on a boat and plan to go to the Bahamas this season. We cannot afford to install a SSB radio – costs $7K to $8K. But we need to be able to hear the weather reports and forecasts
So we are thinking of just getting a SW radio receiver.
A friend has purchased a Grundig satellite 750 but it does not seem to have the range, and he has not been successful connecting an antenna.
I think I need a SW radio I can connect to an antenna. I am thinking of a CommRadio CR-1 ?
What do you think?”
Thanks for your question, Bob. I’m going to give you a few suggestions, then open this one up to your fellow SWLing Post readers, as I suspect there may be some with experience setting up and using an HF receiver on the water.
Important: As Bryan commented, just after I posted this review, readers should note that none of the receivers/transceivers I offer here are designed for maritime use, thus they lack features like GMDSS, DSC and DGPS and have no extra protection from the corrosion of salt water on their circuit boards.
The CommRadio CR-1
For my part, as an inlander, I think you’re on the right track with the CommRadio CR-1 or CR-1a. Not only will it cover the entire HF spectrum (for HF weather fax, RTTY and many ship-to-shore communications), but it also covers VHF (64 – 260 MHz) and UHF (437 – 512 MHz) frequencies. The CR-1 is also a very stable receiver and covers all of the modes you’ll need (upper side-band, lower side-band, AM and FM).
If you’re space conscious, fortunately the CR-1 has a very small footprint; you could mount it nearly anywhere. The CR-1 also has a built-in battery pack and can run/charge on an array of DC voltages (6-18 VDC).
You may also wish to consider the Alinco DX-R8T (see our review) or the Icom R-75. The Alinco has a detachable face plate, thus may also be easily accommodated. The Icom R-75 is a great receiver for your application, as well, but is larger than the CR-1 and does not have a detachable face plate option.
Again, I think you’re on the right track with the CommRadio CR-1.
Another option to consider…general coverage ham transceiver
The Kenwood TS-480SAT is full-featured, small, and has a detachable face plate.
It’s a simple process–even elementary kids do it–and the license no longer requires a knowledge of Morse code (CW), (although I am a devotee of code and would suggest pursuing a knowledge of this at a future date).
Moreover, the testing material will make for an excellent primer on radio communications, so if something goes wrong in the middle of the ocean, you’ll be better prepared to diagnose and fix it.
The Yaesu FT-857D
Additionally, in case of an emergency, a ham radio transceiver would provide yet another means of calling SOS to a community that is well-versed in handling emergency communications.
Ham radio transceivers also offer excellent stability and the modes you’ll need to decode any voice or digital mode.
Keeping in mind that you’ll need a transceiver 1) in the same price range as the CR-1, 2) that is compact or has a detachable face plate, 3) has a general coverage receiver, and 4) is rated for 100 watts of output power, I would suggest the following:
The Alinco DX-SR8T
The Alinco DX-SR8T. While not a small radio, this rig has a detachable face plate (with optional extension cord), a sensitive receiver and is a great value at $520 new. I favorably reviewed the receiver-only version of this radio two years ago. I’ve heard that the receiver in the DX-R8T is identical to the one in the DX-SR8T. I would purchase this from Universal Radio or Ham Radio Outlet.
The Elecraft KX2
The Elecraft KX3 or Elecraft KX2 are two of my favorite general coverage transceivers–I own both. They can both be powered from a modest 12 VDC source and/or internal batteries. Both are limited to QRP (12 or 15W) transmit power, but an external portable 100W amp can be added. Both are exceptional radios in terms of performance.
The Kenwood TS-480SAT. Also worth considering, this transceiver has an excellent receiver with better filters and a smaller footprint than the Alinco DX-SR8T. Though it costs nearly twice as much as the Alinco, it’s on sale until 11/30/13 for $974 from Universal Radio.
The Yaesu FT-857D. This is probably the most compact among the transceiver options listed above. The FT-857D has been on the market for many years and has proven itself a capable mobile transceiver. The detachable face plate could easily be mounted anywhere you wish. The Yaesu FT-857D can be purchased at Universal radio or Ham Radio Outlet.
The Icom IC-7000 is an excellent choice for maritime operation. It’s possible to find a used one at a good value.
Of course, you will need a good HF antenna for any of these options to work, even the CommRadio CR-1; a radio, after all, is only as good as its antenna. The type of antenna you can use will be limited by your ability to mount it on on your boat: some are limited-space wire antennas, others are whip antennas. Make sure the antenna will resonate on the frequencies important for your maritime travels.
Fortunately, most of the retailers listed above have experience in this capacity.
If I were on a boat, I would also carry a portable shortwave radio as a backup. Some to consider are the Tecsun PL-660, Tecsun PL-880, Sony ICF-SW7600GR or the Sangean 909X. All of these have SSB mode and good sensitivity, selectivity and stability, although the Sangean ATS-909X requires an external antenna for optimal sensitivity.
There are also a few compact travel radios worth considering as well, although sensitivity generally isn’t as good as the larger, full-featured portables mentioned above. I would consider the CountyComm GP-SSB, Digitech AR-1780, or the C. Crane CC Skywave SSB as a nice spare radio to tuck away on board.
Hope this helps, Bob! Happy sailing!
SWLing Post readers: if you have experience in maritime HF operation, we welcome your comments and suggestions…