Tag Archives: KX2

A Tale of Two Radios: CommRadio CTX-10 vs. Elecraft KX2

The following review first appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


A Tale of Two Radios: CommRadio CTX-10 v Elecraft KX2

As my blog readers often point out: Why focus on low-power (QRP) ham radio activities when propagation is so dismal…even for high power stations?  A logical argument, I’ll admit, and lately it’s become a common theme in QRP discussion.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: despite the current stagnation of the sunspot cycle, we’ve been seeing a very curious uptick in low-power radio innovation. Manufacturers have been churning out QRP transceivers at a rapid rate during this solar lull, and I can assure you, it’s a strategic move that the marketplace rewards.

So, why should this be? I attribute the influx of QRP radios to several factors.

First of all, leveraging innovations in SDR (software defined radio) design, it’s simply become less expensive to produce portable low-power radios with extra features. In other words, manufacturers can now offer more radio bang-for-buck. Similarly, the technology is accessible enough that even smaller manufacturers can produce competitive products.

Secondly, the new-found popularity of field activities––such as Parks On The Air (POTA) and Summits On The Air (SOTA)––fuel the need for field-portable, all-in-one transceivers. Anyone who falls in love with field portable operation, and it’s easy to do, will quickly discover how handy it is to have a dedicated radio for these activities.

However, it’s not always competition that pulls radio operators to the field. With so much QRM (human-generated interference) at home or in built-up areas, many operators and radio enthusiasts now take to the field to escape the noise. Likewise, many operators live in restricted communities that don’t allow for permanent antennas, so it’s in their best interest to make their radio shack…well, portable.

And why not? Weak-signal digital modes like FT-8 have made signal-hopping across the planet with only a few watts of power easier than ever before. I’ve spoken with a number of operators who have––using FT-8––worked DXCC for the first time with stealthy, portable antenna systems, and others who have taken the dare to work DXCC only on individual bands. Such challenges are all in the name of fun.

Finally, in general, QRP transceivers are much less expensive than their 100 watt counterparts. QRP radios gain a competitive edge by omitting pricey amplification in the design, while still offering the operator DX-class features and receiver performance.

Making a choice

With so many new field-portable QRP transceivers on the market, making a choice can be difficult. Still, there are some guidelines that will help you eliminate a number of models.

The Mountain Topper MTR5B

For example, if you only plan to operate CW and don’t need a general coverage transceiver, you can effectively eliminate all of the priciest QRP transceivers. CW-only transceivers like the popular Mountain Topper series are incredibly portable, durable, and half the price of full-featured multi-mode transceivers.

Also, if you use resonant antennas, there may be no need for an internal or external antenna tuner––this can save you upwards of $200. If you prefer using an external battery, there may be no need to purchase a model with an internal battery option.

In this article, however, we’ll be looking specifically at two general coverage QRP transceivers that are very much all-in-one. With an antenna, mic and/or key, these radios will get you on the air in a matter of seconds.

Our competitors

 

Over the past year, I’ve received numerous emails and comments asking for advice choosing between two specific radios: the recently reviewed CommRadio CTX-10 and the Elecraft KX2.

I’m not surprised, because both of these field-portable QRP transceivers sport similar basic features and options, e.g.:

  • Ham band coverage from 80 – 10 meters
  • General coverage receiver
  • Internal batteries
  • Built-in ATU
  • Small and lightweight
  • Designed and built in the USA

Although the CTX-10 and KX2 share the same goal of functioning as an all-in-one, grab-and-go field radio, I believe they have very different appeal. 

Herein lies the key to choosing the right rig for you, and the point I hope to prove in this article: it’s based on your personal operation philosophy.

The Elecraft KX2 is the “Swiss army knife” transceiver. It has an amazing array of capabilities, features, and adjustments, yet is incredibly compact and could easily fit in your jacket pocket. Moreover, the KX2 is backed by Elecraft, one of the most successful amateur radio manufacturers in business.

The CommRadio CTX-10, on the other hand, was designed with a basic feature set in mind, dead-simple operation, and near mil-spec quality inside. The CTX-10 is the transceiver iteration of the popular CR-1 series receiver by CommRadio.

When I’m asked which radio is best, I respond with a series of questions––because I first need to discover what type of operator the potential user is, to give him/her a good recommendation. Below, I’ll break down some of the key questions to help guide you in making a decision between these two transceivers.  Note that these questions are ones that should be asked when purchasing pretty much any transceiver.

Do you plan to engage in more ham radio operation, or broadcast listening?

True, since the CTX-10 and KX2 are both general coverage transceivers, either radio can serve. But if you’re primarily looking for a broadcast listening radio and you might only occasionally hop on the bands to make casual ham radio contacts, then you should give the CTX-10 some consideration.

The CTX-10 is essentially a transceiver version of the excellent CR-1a receiver. It is better equipped for listening to broadcasts than the KX2 because it has three AM filter settings: 5, 7.5, and 15 kHz. In contrast, the KX2 AM filter can only be widened to about 5 kHz. CTX-10 AM audio fidelity is superior to that of the Elecraft KX2.

In addition, the CTX-10’s receiver coverage dips down to 150 kHz and it’s quite capable on the mediumwave band. The KX2’s receiver covers 3 MHz – 32 MHz and  0.5 – 3 MHz with “reduced sensitivity.” In other words, the KX2s receiver architecture is designed for the ham bands, thus mediumwave sensitivity is suppressed on purpose. I’ve certainly listened to mediumwave stations on the KX2, but only to local, strong stations. You could never hop into mediumwave DXing on the KX2 like you can on the CTX-10.

With that said, if you’re primarily looking for a ham radio transceiver for operations in the field, and you might only occasionally do shortwave radio listening, then you should give the KX2 serious consideration. In my opinion, the KX2 is simply a more capable, adaptable ham radio transceiver than the CTX-10. (More details on this point to come.)

The Elecraft KX2 doing a little coastal SWLing.

Now, here’s the irony: Although I had a CTX-10 in my shack for almost a year, I still defaulted to taking the KX2 on trips when I thought SWLing might be my primary activity. Why? The KX2 has a very robust and capable HF receiver. Its only real limitations are a lack of wide AM bandwidths and sub-3 MHz frequency coverage and performance. I find that the KX2’s 5 kHz AM filter sounds pretty good, though; when using headphones, the KX2’s simulated stereo audio effect really makes the audio sound broad and pleasant. I also rarely use ham radio transceivers to do mediumwave or longwave DXing––I use dedicated portables like my Panasonic RF-2200, or an SDR––so mediumwave and longwave reception is never a serious limitation for me.

But, again, if you primarily plan to do broadcast listening, the CTX-10 is the stronger of the two choices.

Are you looking for a feature-packed radio that can be tweaked and adjusted on a granular level?

If so, you’ll definitely want to choose the KX2 over the CTX-10. The CTX-10 has an incredibly basic feature set, while the KX2, like most Elecraft radios, has an abundance of features, functions, and adjustments at your disposal.

If you want a simple, unfussy radio that automatically adjusts most user controls like microphone gain and compression, then the CTX-10 will suit you fine. If you like both automatic and manual control of your radio’s settings, the Elecraft KX2 is your rig.

How important is internal battery operation and ease of recharging?

The CTX-10 has best-in-class internal battery capacity and intelligent charging. You can literally play radio for hours on end without depleting the batteries in the CTX-10. The internal batteries can be charged via the DC power port, or even via USB cable.

The KX2 Battery

The KX2 uses an internal battery pack that must be removed each time to charge. I’ve taken the KX2 to the field more than 100 individual times and find that I can operate at full power for about one hour fifteen minutes (with a heavy amount of transmitting) before the voltage drops, and the output power, as well from about 10 watts to 5 watts. Of course, when in receive, it’ll operate for hours without recharging.

Of course, with a swappable battery pack, you can bring additional pre-charged batteries to the field to eliminate the need to recharge.

I’ve never found recharging or swapping KX2 batteries to be a problem, but internal battery operation via the CTX-10 is certainly its strong suit.

One known issue with some of the CTX-10 units: when charging the internal Li-Ion cells, my initial 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. It was quite annoying because I can still hear frequencies in that range. The second evaluation unit didn’t have this problem. If your CTX-10 has this problem, contact CommRadio for help.

Are you primarily a CW operator?

If you are a CW enthusiast, chances are great that you’ll prefer the KX2 over the CTX-10.

The CTX-10 has very few settings for CW mode. In fact, it doesn’t even (presently) have a side tone control or support iambic operation. The CTX-10 uses a traditional relay for TX/RX switching, but you can’t presently change the hang/delay time. The CTX-10 cannot do full break-in QSK.

Elecraft transceivers are designed by CW operators and sport true benchmark CW performance. The KX2 allows granular control, thus can be tailored to accommodate any operator. The KX2 has silky-smooth full break-in QSK. If you’re a CW operator, you’ll much prefer the KX2.

Are you primarily a digital mode operator?

The CTX-10 body (left) is essentially a large heat sink.

If so, you’ll want to consider the CTX-10, because it can run high-duty cycle modes like FT-8 in the field without ever overheating. This is also one of the CTX-10’s strongest points.

Both the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 will decrease power output after running FT-8, for an extended period of time, to protect the finals from overheating. Operation time can be significantly extended by adding an optional third-party heat sink.  The CTX-10 does not have this issue, however, as the CTX-10 body itself is essentially a heat sink. In all of my testing, I never came anywhere close to overheating it.

Are you primarily an SSB/phone operator?

If SSB is your game, you’ll prefer the KX2.

The CTX-10 essentially has no microphone controls––in fact, it doesn’t even have an adjustable mic gain. The microphone input is completely auto-controlled by the CTX-10, via a limiting pre-amplifier, built-in compressor, and ambient noise gate. The only ways you can really affect how audio is transmitted, in fact, is by changing the distance from your mouth to the mic, and/or changing how loudly you speak into the mic.

If you have a favorite boom headset (like Inrad or Heil), note that it may not work well with the CTX-10, simply because you have no control of the mic inputs.

The KX2, on the other hand, has robust microphone controls; you can, for example, even change the EQ settings of your transmitted audio.

How important to you is the capability of your rig’s internal ATU?

The CTX-10 sports a nifty internal antenna tuner, but it doesn’t match the performance of the KX2’s internal ATU option. In my field work, I found that I needed antennas that were pretty close to resonant for the CTX-10 to match them. The ATU was certainly a handy feature on the CTX-10, but it didn’t allow me the flexibility to, for example, load up a random wire antenna.

Update (23 Mar 2020): Brian Haren informs us that with firmware update 1334 issued by CommRadio on December 18, 2019 “performance of the internal tuner was vastly improved.” This firmware was issued after my review unit was sent back to CommRadio.

The KX2’s internal ATU, on the other hand, is benchmark, and can tune via nearly any antenna––indeed, it would almost tune a metal chair, if you tried to load it. It’s as good at matching antennas as my Emtech ZM-2 balanced line tuner. In fact, I once loaded a 20-meter hex beam on 40 meters with the KX2 in order to work a rare park activation. No other radio in my arsenal could match that (well, frankly, it was asking a lot), but the KX2 not only matched the antenna, but it got an excellent match:  if memory serves, something like 2:1. (And, yes, I worked my park!)

Note that the ATU comes with the CTX-10 package, while the KX2 internal antenna tuner is a worthwhile $200 option.

Are you on a budget?

Everything included in the CTX-10 box.

When you purchase the CommRadio CTX-10 for $999.99, you’re buying an all-in-one package: a transceiver, internal batteries, and an internal ATU. There are no other options to purchase separately. The CTX-10 doesn’t ship with a microphone, but it does include a USB cable, DC power cord, and CD manual. You simply unbox your CTX-10, make sure it’s been charged, plug in your microphone (requires a modular plug type like the Yaesu MH-31A8J or MFJ-290MY) or key, add your antenna, and boom! You’re ready to hit the air.

Unlike CommRadio, Elecraft started as a kit manufacturer. Their philosophy has always been one of purchasing a basic unit, then adding features when you’re ready. In a sense, this gives the customer a lower starting price point. Here’s how the KX2 pricing breaks down:

  • Elecraft KX2 transceiver: $789.95
  • KXAT2-F internal ATU option: $199.95
  • KXBT2 Internal Lithium Battery option: $59.95
  • KXBC2 Lithium battery fast charger: $29.95
  • KXIO2 Real-Time clock: $79.95

To configure the KX2 to be equivalent to the CTX-10––meaning, with ATU, internal battery, and charger––your total price would be $1,079.80. This is the configuration of my KX2.

If you use just an external battery and resonant antennas, the base KX2 might be the only radio you’ll ever need. At $789.95, that’s $210 less than the CommRadio CTX-10. Fully configured, however, the CTX-10 is about $80 less expensive than the KX2.

Apples to oranges, in radio terms

If you haven’t gathered already, although both the CTX-10 and KX2 are general coverage QRP transceivers, they are completely different––like comparing apples to oranges––in terms of the market they wish to reach.

No doubt, CommRadio designed the CTX-10 to appeal to people who love commercial or military channelized radios. Based on my interaction with CTX-10 owners, many are into preparedness and primarily infrequent simplex SSB operations.

The KX2 will appeal to hams who are active operators and who enjoy full control of their radio’s functions and features. Elecraft has a massive and loyal community of users and fans.

Summary

If I haven’t made it clear yet, there’s much more involved in making a purchase decision than simply looking at the specifications of a radio. Often, it’s a truly personal and subjective choice.

Be honest with yourself about your needs, and base your purchasing decision on those. After all, in this case we’re talking about two capable radio transceivers, either of which should provide years of great operation and listening.

Click here to check out the Elecraft KX2 and here for international distributors.

Click here to check out the CommRadio CTX-10 and here to purchase via Universal Radio.


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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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SWLing on the coast with the Elecraft KX2 and PK Loop

Since I purchased the Elecraft KX2 last year, I find I do almost as much SWLing with it as I do ham radio activity. The KX2 is actually a brilliant shortwave broadcast receiver–check out these audio samples. It’s incredibly sensitive, selective and outperforms all of my portables. It’s also a joy to operate, once you learn your way around the controls.

I’ve been at the South Carolina coast all week on an active family vacation. What little time I’ve had to play radio, I’ve used the KX2/PK Loop combo.

The KX2 pairs well with the PK Loop (C-LOOP-HDSW6-18) antenna and both can easily fit in one small pack. The combo limits me to the shortwave bands, but that’s okay since I always carry an Ultralight DX receiver like the Tecsun PL-310ET, Sony SRF-39FP or CC Skywave should I decide to hit the mediumwaves.

I can set up the KX2 and PK Loop on a small table or foot stool with room to spare. I typically use a pair of headphones with the KX2 since its built-in speaker leaves much to be desired (but is better than the KX3’s internal speaker, in my opinion). With headphones, you can also take advantage of the “delay” audio effect which makes broadcasts sound much wider that the 5 kHz maximum bandwidth.

Another favorite travel receiver is the CommRadio CR-1a. Like the KX2, it’s compact, has a built-in battery and (unlike the KX2) can even be charged from a standard USB source.

I still manage to take the KX2 on travels more often than the CR-1a simply because I always have the option to put on my ham radio hat and do field/portable operation should I choose.

But CommRadio is cooking up a new radio: I’m watching the new CommRadio CTX-10 with interest since it might also serve both of these radio purposes!

The CommRadio CTX-10 QRP transceiver

I will review the CTX-10 when it’s on the market.

On a side note: since I own both the KX2 and KX3, I’m planning to purchase the KXPA100 100 watt amplifier for the shack next year. At $749 for the ATU-less kit version, it’s a hefty sum–indeed–enough to purchase another 100 watt transceiver like the Icom IC-7200.  But in the end, I’m so please with both radios I think it’s worth the investment.  Thankfully, the KXPA100 was not included in the Elecraft Black Friday sale. I did not need that temptation.

Post readers: Any others take a compact general coverage transceiver on travels? What model do you prefer?  Please comment!

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A review of the Elecraft KX2 general coverage QRP transceiver

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


elecrat-kx2-review

The Elecraft KX2 tuned to Radio Australia.

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

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

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

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

What is the KX2?

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

The Elecraft KX2 (left) and KX1 (right)

The Elecraft KX2 (left) and KX1 (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning my way around the KX2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packing up…

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

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

kx2-lowe-cs60-bag

My Elecraft KX2 kit then consisted of the following:

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

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

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

NPOTA: National Parks On The Air

Elecraft-KX2-Clipboard-NPOTA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internal battery option

Activating PK01 (The Appalachian Trail) with the KX2

Activating PK01 (The Appalachian Trail) with the KX2

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

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The KX2’s 10.8V 2600 mAh LiPo battery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KXAT2 Internal ATU Option

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

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

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

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

Conference attendees took turns operating the KX2.

Conference attendees took turns operating the KX2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

KXPD2 keyer paddle option

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

elecraft-kx2-kxpd2-paddles

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

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

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

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

General coverage receiver

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

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

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

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

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

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

The LNR Precision LD-11

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Click here to download the audio.

The Elecraft KX2

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

Click here to download the audio.

The Elecraft KX2 in “Delay” audio mode

Elecraft-KX2-Delay-Audio-AM-Mode

Click here to download the audio.

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

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

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

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

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

Mediumwave reception?

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

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

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

Summary

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

Pros:

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

Cons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competition and innovation are worthy friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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Holiday Deals: Elecraft’s Black Friday event

elecraft-kx3-radioaustralia

The Elecraft KX3 tuned to Radio Australia.

If you’ve been thinking about pulling the trigger on an Elecraft transceiver, now may be a good time. Elecraft is throwing in free accessories and free shipping on a few of their products.

Here’s their full Black Friday advertisement:

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Even if you aren’t a ham, you might consider an Elecraft KX3 or even the new KX2. Both are excellent HF broadcast receivers.

Click here to read my review of the Elecraft KX3. I’ll be posting a review of the Elecraft KX2 on December 1–if you can’t wait, I’d encourage you to download the latest issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine (my KX2 review aside, the issue is chock-full of brilliant radio articles!).

Click here to view the full Elecraft advertisement.

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NPOTA: Photos from weekend “two-fer” activation

npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-encampmentview

As seen from the Overmountain Victory Trail: The Revolutionary War encampment at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals.

As I mentioned in a previous post, what I love about the National Parks On The Air program is that it combines two of my favorite things: national parks and ham radio. My family visits national parks regularly, so it’s easy for me to pack a small radio, do a quick NPOTA activation all while incorporating non-radio activities that the family loves.

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On Saturday, I activated both the Blue Ridge Parkway (PK01) and Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail (TR10)–a “two-fer” activation.

Normally, I would set up my station somewhere close to the Museum of North Carolina Minerals which is situated at the junction of these two National Park entities. Saturday, however, was a special event at the museum: a Revolutionary War Encampment.

Blue Ridge Natural Heritage describes the annual event:

The Museum is located at Gillespie Gap, an important stop for Revolutionary War fighters on their way to the Battle of Kings Mountain. Each September the Museum hosts an encampment of re-enactors who assume the role of the Overmountain Men, primarily Scots-Irish settlers from Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina who came “over the mountains” and ultimately defeated the left wing of Cornwallis’ army at Kings Mountain, South Carolina. Many historians mark this victory as the turning point in the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War.

npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-encampment2 npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-encampment

My family loves living history events.

Radio time!

The Park Ranger kindly gave me permission to do the NPOTA activation, but not at the museum itself.  She was trying to keep the site set in the Revolutionary War period–a ham radio operator using a portable transceiver doesn’t exactly fit that description. Instead, around 15:30 UTC, I hiked up the Overmountain Victory Trail in search of an operation site near the Blue Ridge Parkway road.

npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-overmountain-trail-head

The trailhead was a little rough and overgrown. I didn’t have to trail-blaze, but I did have to wade through a lot of weeds with my gear and my canine companion, Hazel, on leash. It’s times like this I truly appreciate such a compact, lightweight, and packable station.

npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-trail-messy

Can you find the trail in this photo?

Once we entered the woods, though, the trail improved. I found a fantastic spot to operate between the museum and the parkway.

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Hazel the dog is a welcome companion does a wonderful job keeping my site free of black bears. She’s patient, too. I typically tie her leash to a small stake or tree next to me and she promptly takes a nap. Here she is admiring my new REI Camping Stool:

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npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-antenna

You can see part of the EFT Trail-Friendly antenna hanging in this photo.

Setup was quick. I managed to raise the EFT Trail-Friendly antenna in record time. I connected the antenna to the Elecraft KX2 and was on the air, calling CQ on 20 meters in a matter of minutes. npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-elecraft-kx2-clipboardIn the space of 15-20 minutes, I only managed to work a few stations on the 20 meter band even though I had been spotted several times on the DX Cluster.npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-elecraft-kx2-logs

I moved to the 40 meter band and logged contacts quickly, however.

npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-hazel-and-station

My full station and my ferocious guard dog, Hazel.

Hazel, as I mentioned, is a great companion that’s sweet to everyone she meets. She’s happy to hang with me even if I’m just sitting there operating radio for an hour. She’s quiet and doesn’t bark unless she notices a true disturbance.

Still, Hazel does get bored. After I had logged about 20 stations, I heard her gnawing on something. I turned around and discovered that she found the reel of fishing line I use to hang my antennas.

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npota-tr10-pk01-qrp-fishing-line-hazel

Note to self: next time pack Hazel a bone.

She didn’t even look apologetic or guilty! Oh well…fishing line is pretty cheap to replace and I’m sure she assumed it was a chew toy I had placed there for her.

All in all, it was a very successful activation. In less than one hour, I put 22 stations in the log. The weather was perfect and the whole family had a blast.

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A photo I took prior to watching a reenactment of the Battle of King’s Mountain.

What a wonderful day to play radio, take in our national parks and re-live some of our history!

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National Parks On The Air: Activating two sites simultaneously today

I'll hike to the point where the Overmountain Victory Trail meets the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I’ll hike to the point where the Overmountain Victory Trail meets the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Today, I plan to activate both the Blue Ridge Parkway (PK01) and Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail (TR10) two-fer for the National Parks on the Air (NPOTA).

I should go on the air sometime between 16:00-17:00 UTC (12:00-13:00 EDT), weather permitting.

I’ll plan to start on the 20 meter band (14286 kHz) then move to the 40 meter band (7286 kHz). If I can’t operate on those frequencies, I’ll move to something clear +/- 6 kHz or so.

elecraft-kx2-in-field-npota-ns07

I’ll be operating SSB, using the Elecraft KX2 transceiver and EFT Trail friendly antenna combo once again. Since I’m hiking to my operating site, this pair will offer the lightest multi-band option.

The REI Trail Stool

The REI Trail Stool

Side note: yesterday, I picked up an REI Trail Stool to replace my foldable camping chair.

The camping chair is fantastic if you don’t have to lug it very far, but on long hikes it becomes heavy and cumbersome. This stool will get me off the ground and hopefully allow me to operate with the clipboard and transceiver on my lap. The REI Trail Stool weighs next to nothing.

If you’re an SWL and hear me (K4SWL) on the air, please comment! Note that I’ll be transmitting a max of 10 watts–so pretty much “flea power.” Still, in the past, I’ve worked all corners of North America and into Europe with this same transceiver/antenna combo.

Propagation conditions are pretty favorable today as well. I just hope we have no pop-up thunderstorms–I’ll most likely be near a ridge line and can’t take any chances.

If you’re a ham radio operator, I hope to log you for this activation!

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