Tag Archives: QRP

Listening to shortwave broadcasts with the lab599 Discovery TX-500

The lab599 TX-500 Discovery is a general coverage transceiver with AM mode, which means it can do double-duty as a shortwave receiver.

If you’ve been following previous TX-500 posts, you’ve seen me take this near military-grade portable transceiver to the field. I’ve activated a total of 6 parks in 6 days with it and it’s been a load of fun.

At home, I’ve also been doing a fair amount of SWLing with it in the evenings. I have a pre-production model that doesn’t include all of the accessories that will be provided with the production model. I don’t have a good way to port the audio out of the transceiver for recording at present, but I have been listening to broadcasts in the shack using a simple battery-powered amplified speaker.

I made a short video demonstrating the shortwave listening experience with the TX-500. It’s not a deep-dive by any means, but I thought it might provide a little more context. Keep in mind, I recorded this with my iPad, so the audio is far from ideal.

In general, the TX-500 is a fine radio for shortwave radio listening. It has the sensitivity and selectivity even a demanding DXer would seek. The TX-500 has a very low noise floor and an effective RF gain for mitigating summer QRN (static crashes) here in North America. I wish I had the time to tinker with the audio and see what sort of fidelity is possible. I’m not sure I’ll have time to cobble together a connection to my station monitors before I need to send it on.

Speaking of which, I’ll be sending this TX-500 to Ham Radio Outlet within the next two days. If you have any questions about it, feel free to ask now!

I will write-up a comprehensive review of the TX-500 in the October issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine (my IQ32 overview is in the September issue).


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lab599 TX-500 Discovery accessories and connectors

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Don, who notes that in anticipation of the TX-500 hitting the market, W2ENY has posted a number of accessory cables, spare connectors and even a military-style handset on his eBay store and website.

To be clear, via Ham Radio Outlet, the TX-500 ships with everything you need to get on the air via SSB or CW. Here’s the full accessory set that accompanies the TX-500:

Screen grab from HRO’s TX-500 product page.

If you wish to build your own cables, or you’d like additional break-out cable options, check out W2ENY’s selection.

A note about TX-500 connectors

I’ve received numerous inquiries from readers regarding the “non-standard” multi-pin connectors used on the TX-500 to maintain water resistance. Truth is, the TX-500 connectors are only non-standard in the amateur radio world–they are not proprietary as some have implied.

The TX-500 uses GX12 mm connectors that are widely used in aviation, commercial and military applications. They’re easy to find online, but the price per each with shipping is typically around $7.00-8.00 US.  You get a better deal if you buy in bulk, but often bulk packages of 5 or more are of the same pin count/configuration.

After browsing W2ENY’s site, I see he’s offering a full set of TX-500 connectors for $30 via eBay and his store.  Not a bad price although I wish he’d also offer a package with three in particular: the speaker/mic, CW, and power ports (perhaps if he reads this, he’ll consider!).

If I were to purchase the TX-500, I would grab an extra set of GX12mm connectors to build my own cables.

Any TX-500 questions?

While I’m at it, feel free to comment with any of your questions about the TX-500. I only have this rig in the shack and field for a few more days before I need to return it. I’ve started a frequently asked questions post about the TX-500 that I’ll publish this week.

And if you’re wondering, yes, I’m very tempted to add this rig to my own collection. More on that later–!


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lab599 Discovery TX-500: Hiking into Pisgah National Forest for a little field radio fun

Yesterday, I hit the field again with the lab599 TX-500 Discovery. This time, I wanted to give the radio a proper shake-out by hiking to my location with the entire station in my pack.

This TX-500 transceiver is on loan, so I haven’t built a custom field kit for it like I have with my other radios. To be on the safe side, I packed the rig and all of its accessories in my Red Oxx C-Ruck pack.

The C-Ruck is loaded with three antennas, two LiFePo batteries, DC distribution panels, extra adapters/connectors, and essentially everything I need to handle pretty much any field situation. I take it on every field activation when I can afford the space in my car/truck because it’s so complete and stocked, it’s like a mini shack in a bag complete with tools I might need in the field.

This radio bag was total overkill for a quick day hike into Pisgah National Forest and I did remove a few heavy items like a larger battery, my Wolf River Coils TIA vertical, and other extra accessories. But at the end of the day, my four-legged hiking partner (Hazel) and I both agreed that I would kick myself if I arrived on-site and realized I was short, say, one PL-259 to BNC connector.

Turns out, the C-Ruck was just what the doctor ordered. The TX-500 is so compact, it fit in the C-Ruck’s top flap pocket that holds my logging notepad. I used that top flap to strap down my folding three legged stool for the hike.

The best part was the C-Ruck made for a perfect field table! The front pocket of the pack (which contains supplies like a first aid kit, emergency tarp/sleeping back, protein bars, etc.) propped the TX-500 in place.

After finding a nice spot off-trail, I set up my EFT Trail-Friendly end fed antenna in short order, plugged it into the TX-500, plugged in my 6 aH Bioenno LiFePo battery, the TX-500 Speaker/Mic (which conveniently clipped o the C-Ruck top flap), and finally my homebrew CW key cable.

Since I had no mobile Internet service at this site–no surprise–I started the activation in CW which gave me the best opportunity to be auto-spotted by the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) and for CW hunters to find me on the announced frequency via the POTA site.

I started calling CQ and was instantly rewarded with a string of contacts on 40 meters.

After working that small pile of hunters, I moved up to the 20 meter band, started calling CQ, and made this short video:

Shortly after making this video, I heard thunder nearby and had to pack up. I’d hoped to work a few stations on 20M in CW, then switch over to SSB and work more. I’m willing to tempt fate when it’s just rain, but I don’t play with lightening.

All in all, It was a very pleasant–although short–activation. Hazel and I really enjoyed the hike. Frankly both of us love any excuse to hit the trails or parks.

Hazel was more interested in squirrels than DX.

I’m finding that the TX-500 is a very sturdy and capable field radio with fantastic ergonomics.

This morning, I pulled out the scales and found that the radio, speaker/mic, and power cable all weigh in at 1 pound 9 ounces. That’s a lightweight kit by any standard.

Easy on batteries

Also, the TX-500 only seems to need about 110-120 milliamps of current drain in receive. That’s an impressive number for sure–right there with the benchmark Elecraft KX2. I’m pretty sure I could operate for hours with only my 6 aH LiFePo battery pack.

More to come

I still have the TX-500 for a week and hope to continue taking it to the field. I had planned to go out again today, but the weather forecast is dismal. Instead, I’ll chase some parks here in the shack!


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Andy builds a genius companion control display for the Yaesu FT-817 transceiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Andy Webster (G7UHN), who kindly shares the following guest post:


Yaesu FT-817 companion display

by Andy Webster (G7UHN)

 

Like so many I love getting out portable with my FT-817 but I do seem to spend so much of my operating time fiddling through the soft-keys because my most used functions (CW narrow filter, power and keyer settings to tune an ATU, A/B, A=B, etc.) are spread across different “pages” of the A,B,C assignments. Compared to the sublime experience of using my Elecraft K2 the FT-817 can be a little frustrating!

Last month, inspiration struck and I thought I could cobble together a small microcontroller and a little OLED display with some buttons to provide some extra soft-keys for the radio using the CAT serial port. Nothing particularly original here (I’ve seen articles of people using PICs for this purpose) but it seemed like a nice sized project for me to play with and build some experience doing PCBs (I’ve only done this once before at home). A little bit of discussion with Michael G0POT (FT-817 and SOTA guru), some Google searching and we were looking over KA7OEI’s excellent reference page (http://www.ka7oei.com/ft817_meow.html) and thinking about our favourite FT-817 commands…

 

As it happened I was lucky to have the right bits (Arduino Nano, small OLED display, buttons, prototype board and an 8-pin mini DIN cable) lying around the house to see “first light” from my FT-817’s serial port that evening. The Arduino Nano is a good place to start because it works at 5V so can work directly with the FT-817 levels on the ACC port. What followed next was some late nights of hacking on Arduino code to send and receive the data for my favourite commands and more experimentation on prototype board.

I tried a couple of cheap OLED displays and they look great indoors but weren’t quite up to the job in full sunlight which is fairly typical in my portable operations.

Daytime readability issues with an OLED display

By this point I had also realised the utility of having an auxiliary display on top of the radio as a much easier thing to view than the 817’s own display on the front panel. I’d also experienced some interference from the unshielded prototype board coming through as clicking sounds on the radio’s receiver so it looked as though some isolation between radio and my circuit might be necessary. Guided by many Internet tutorials, I switched to using a Nokia 5110-style LCD for better daylight readability and lower power consumption. Adding an ADUM1201 digital isolator and a B0505S-1W isolated DC-DC converter to the prototype board (modules acquired very quickly from eBay suppliers) gave me some isolation and lowered the interference which I guessed would disappear when I made the design on PCB with good ground planes around the signal lines.

Screen capture showing the schematic (click to enlarge)

With a (mostly) working prototype it was time to hammer the Internet tutorials again, this time to learn how to use KiCad, a free open-source PCB design tool available on Linux, Windows and Mac. I’ve done one PCB for home projects before using Autodesk EAGLE and I found learning Eagle pretty hard going, it seems like it carries 20 years worth of baggage and dogma in the user interface. In fact I started using EAGLE on this project but spent 3 hours on the first evening just trying to change the labels on the ADUM1201 chip that I couldn’t find in an EAGLE library… so I gave up and thought I’d try KiCad which I’d seen some recent good reports on. I’m happy to say after finding an excellent tutorial on KiCad I had drawn the schematic and my PCB layout in about 15 hours working time spread over a few evenings.

I should add that the 15 hours of KiCad time did include several hours of agonising over the choice of slide switch so a PCB can be done much quicker than that once you’ve got your favourite parts sorted!

That’s pretty impressive for my first go with KiCad as a near-beginner to PCBs, I heartily recommend it, it was so much easier than EAGLE and quite an enjoyable tool. Right, PCB design done and uploaded to JLCPCB for manufacture. 5 PCBs with DHL shipping cost me less than £20 and arrived from China within 5 calendar days. Other PCB fabs are available… 🙂

Click to enlarge

So that brings us to today, pretty much. The PCB was assembled very quickly (!) and there is no sign of noise from the serial data lines creeping into the 817’s receiver now it’s on PCB. Some lessons have been learned through the construction (e.g. brown 6mm push buttons are less “clicky” than the black ones and that’s a good thing!) and I now have my companion FT-817 display/buttons in field trials. I’ve no plans to sell this, it’s a trivially simple design, but it does make a great home project to polish your skills in microcontrollers, PCBs and construction. I’ll post a write-up on my website in due course.

In use, the device works just as I’d hoped, I can do everything I want to on my FT-817 without having to fiddle through the awkward button presses. The frequency display is also in a much better position for me now (as most FT-817 owners will know as they jealously eye the KX2, KX3, etc…!) and I think I used it for the whole session when I took it to the field on Saturday. If only my CW had been so slick!

Next steps are to work on the Arduino code. My code is pretty rubbish (my coding style involves a lot of Stack Overflow and copy/paste!) and not safe for public consumption. There are also some health warnings to be noted in manipulating the FT-817’s EEPROM (required for some of the functions I wanted), explained on KA7OEI’s page but there have been a few volunteers on Twitter to help with the software which is great. Also I may do a “Rev 2” board with an Arduino Pro Mini to lower the drain on the FT-817 battery before sharing the PCB files. Other than that it’s now time to get back outdoors and enjoy the new improved interface to my smallest radio! 😀

73
Andy G7UHN


Andy, I absolutely love this project! A wonderful addition to the FT-817/818 and I’d hardly call it a “trivial” design–!

I purchased the original FT-817 shortly after it was introduced. At the time, I was living in the UK and travelled extensively throughout Europe. I loved the ability to simply throw this little rig into my carryon and play radio pretty much anywhere my work travels took me. In the end, I did less ham radio work with the FT-817 and more SWLing.

Still, I eventually sold my FT-817 for the very same reason that motivated you to build a companion display: the front panel is too small and my most used functions require too much menu digging. 

Your companion board is an elegant homebrew solution. I love the Nokia LCD screen–superb readability in the field. 

Thank you again and once you do a write-up on for your website, we’ll be sure to link to it on the SWLing Post!


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Any advice on compact Lipo batteries, in-ear earphones with volume control, and portable amplified speakers?

The MTR-3B 3 band transceiver is about the size of a pack of playing cards.

SWLing Post readers: I originally published the following post on QRPer.com. I thought I might share it here on the SWLing Post as well since we’ve so many readers who regularly use compact battery packs, earphones, and portable speakers. I’m looking for some advice as I build a super-compact SOTA/POTA field kit around the Mountain Topper MTR-3B. If interested in helping me sort this out, read on:


I received my Mountain Topper MTR-3B last week, and I’ve already taken it on a POTA activation.

POTA Park Hampton Creek Cove

Last weekend, I decided to break it in on a POTA “two-fer” site: Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area (K-6246) and The Overmountain Victory Trail (K-4577) in Tennessee. Hampton Creek Cove was actually an ATNO (all time new one) so it was a trial by fire!

POTA Park Overmountain Victory Trail

In short, the MTR-3B was marvelous. I’m so impressed.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m building a full SOTA/POTA activation kit for the MTR-3B. I already have a kit built around my KX2 and I don’t want to “borrow” any items from it (so I’m not surprised later in the field when an item is missing).

The TalentCell Rechargeable 12V 3000mAh Lithium Ion Battery Pack is the little black box.

For this activation, I powered the MTR-3B with this inexpensive 12V battery pack a friend recommended on Amazon.com (affiliate link). The battery pack is almost identical in size to the MTR-3B and works perfectly. The battery, charger and cable all set me back a whopping $25.

I also used my Whiterook paddle (which needs new paddle arms at this point) but that will soon be replaced with a set of N0SA portable paddles I recently ordered.

Since the MTR-3B has no volume control, I used a pair of 20 year old Sennheiser earphones I bought when I lived in Munich. These have been in a drawer for ages because I now prefer using in-ear earphones with silicon earpieces for better comfort and sound isolation. But the Sennheisers have one thing none of my other earphones sport: in-line volume control.

While the earphones worked well for this activation, I’d still prefer a set of in-ear earphones with in-line volume control. Any suggestions from MTR-3B owners? Also, I’d like a compact amplified speaker with volume control to carry as an option when needed. If you can recommend one, please comment!

I’m writing an article for The Spectrum Monitor magazine about portable power later this year. I noticed that a number of MTR-3B owners swear by 11V rechargeable Lipo cells that are used in the RC and drone markets. Many have a similar compact form-factor as the common 9V battery. I understand, however, some of these cells need special chargers and equipment to balance them.

I would appreciate any and all information about these batteries.

In the meantime, Rich (N8TGQ), recently shared a pic of his Mountain Topper portable pack. Check it out:

MTR Kit

I think it’s brilliant how he’s mounted everything on a compact plastic cutting board inside the case. Rich says that what he loves about this set-up is that everything is there, ready to go–simply plug in the antenna!

Please comment or contact me if you have any suggestions as I build out a compact MTR-3B kit!

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Photos of the lab599 Discovery TX-500 in the field

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Don (W7SSB), who shares the following photos of the new lab599 Discovery TX-500. Don notes that all of these photos were taken in Russia–where the TX-500 is manufactured–and include a number of Chameleon resonant field antennas.

Thanks for sharing these, Don.  The thin form-factor of the TX-500, paired with a resonant antenna, certainly makes for a lightweight portable field setup!

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Video: Josh takes us on a tour of the lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Josh (KI6NAZ), who shares a link to his YouTube channel where he takes us on a tour of the lab599 TX-500 Discovery:

Click here to check out Josh’s channel, Ham Radio Crash Course on YouTube.

Thanks for sharing this, Josh! The TX-500 is certainly a unicorn in the world of field-portable QRP radios since it’s designed to be weather-proof.

lab599 has confirmed that they will dispatch a TX-500 loaner unit for my upcoming review.  I’m looking forward to see how it plays in the field and might compare with other QRP rigs in my arsenal!

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