Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Hans Johnson, who shares the following guest post:
Irma-induced Radio Reviews
by Hans Johnson
The primary disaster we face here in Naples, Florida, is hurricanes. Naples had been spared for over a decade until Irma. So while I had prepared, I had not needed my supplies or equipment for quite some time. This included the radios.
I went into Irma with two Freeplay solar and windup radios, a Unity and a Lifeline. I got these radios probably over a decade ago. As part of some work I was doing with VT Communications (now Babcock), I was involved with a radio project called Sudan Radio Service.
Both of these radios were being given to listeners as part of this project. I wanted to have a better understanding of what they faced. I had some conversations with Freeplay in London, explaining who I was and why I wanted these radios. During a visit, I was able to purchase both sets with the proviso that I not sell them.
I checked them both out at that time with my focus being on shortwave as that is how Sudan Radio Service was then transmitted. They were ok at picking out the strongest stations but that’s about it. I never really needed or wanted to use the radios day to day. And then Irma struck.
We left Naples on Saturday when we received a mandatory evacuation notice. The storm struck on Sunday and we returned on Monday.
We were spared. Many lost everything. Some lost their lives. We had a lot of trees down and some roof damage, but nothing substantial. But we had no power. Water had to be boiled. Sewage was backing up in places because the lift stations had no power. The stop lights were out (this was a real danger, many did not treat them as four-way stops and just blew through them. But you never knew who it would be.) A curfew was in place. The cell phone system was in really bad shape. I could not call or text my brother across town, let alone get access to the Internet via cell.
This link will give you an idea of what we came back to. I am the guy sawing wood at 1:47. (Lesson learned, have two chainsaws in case yours blows a gas line):
I had blown up some air mattresses before the storm so we slept on them on the screened porch. I saw the Milky Way from Naples for the first time.
We wanted information and also a bit of entertainment. Television was out of the question. The HDTV stations are hard to receive with a great antenna and set in the best of times where we live. So a battery-operated TV would have been a waste. Radio was the only game in town, so it was time to put the emergency radios in service.
Both of these analogue dial sets cover AM, FM, and shortwave. The Unity covers 3-22 MHz, the Lifeline just goes up to 18. The former covers the old American AM band and the latter the new one. The Unity uses a whip antenna and has a fine tuning knob. The Lifeline has a bendable wire that fits into the carrying handle and came with an alligator clip and a length of wire.
Ideally, one would be listening a set that has been charged via the solar cell or listening with the set in the sun. The last place I wanted to be was in or near the sun. Trying to charge the set and then listen to it is difficult in practice. It seems that the ratio was about one to one. 15 minutes in the sun would get you about 15 minutes of immediate listening. It doesn’t seem that the batteries will hold a charge for long periods of time. I could not charge them during the day and expect to turn them on the next morning, which was the peak time of day for radio to be transmitting local information. The ratio for using the hand-crank was better, but I grew tired of cranking quite quickly.
I was interested in local stations, so shortwave was not a factor. We only have a few local AM stations in Naples and I could not receive them (Irma knocked off or damaged a number of stations.) I tried FM. Even with the antennas retracted, both sets were overwhelmed by the local stations with certain stations bleeding through over much of the dial. I could receive some strong, local stations. With the outlet at Marco Island off and the other apparently on reduced power, receiving NPR was out of the question.
Given how many sources of information I was cut off from, my flow was greatly reduced. My ignorance increased and learning vital information was hit or miss. A neighbor told me about the boil order. Passing on information was difficult. When we got power I wanted to tell my brother, but the only way to inform him was to drive to his house.
One result was that I put these sets away and broke out my old Sony
ICF-7600GR and used it instead. I guess I could have used it until I ran out of AA batteries. I had plenty on hand and can easily afford them. But that is hardly the case in Southern Sudan and many other places.
The Lifeline came with a few stickers on it that I could not read when I got the set. Now that Goggle translate is so good I can read them. They say in part: “Everyone has the right to receive information,” “Everyone one has the right to search for, receive, and deliver information.”
The real result of the test was a greater appreciation for how good I have it in many ways. With regards to information, I have many sources and can readily receive it and pass it on. It increased my respect for services like Sudan Radio Service and how important they are. But most especially, I have a much greater admiration for listeners using these sets and what is surely their perseverance, patience, and determination to get information.
Many thanks for your field report of the Freeplay Lifeline and Unity, Hans!
I’m happy to hear you had no serious damage post-Irma. So many in the SWLing Post community have been affected by hurricanes this season.
I have never, personally, reviewed either of these Freeplay units–both are now discontinued and have been replaced with other models at Lifeline, I believe. As you state in your post, these radios are only available to humanitarian organizations. Through Ears To Our World, I have considered acquiring Lineline Energy (Freeplay) radios in the past. However, their radios tend to be rather large in size–we tend to go with smaller receivers that can easily fit in suitcases. In the past we’ve been very happy with the Grundig FR200 (Tecsun GR-88).
The Lifeplayer MP3
Last year, we did purchase a Freeplay Lifeplayer to test. The hand crank charging mechanism is very robust, though quite noisy. The radio is digital, but performance is mediocre and tuning couldn’t be more cumbersome (5 kHz steps, no memories, only a couple of band steps. Tuning to your favorite station could literally take a couple of minutes, depending on where it is on the band. When you turn off the radio (or it runs out of power) you’ll have to re-tune to the station again. That’s a lot of extra mechanical wear on the encoder. The real utility of the Lifeplayer is the built-in MP3 player and recorder–a brilliant tool for rural schools. Also, it’s robust and can take abuse from kids much better than other consumer radios.
Your main point, though, is spot-on: these radios serve their purpose, but we radio enthusiasts are incredibly fortunate to have much better grade equipment to take us through information backouts.
I wanted to buy a DAB/DAB+ portable receiver just to see what Europe was doing with digital radio. I bought a recently introduced Sony XDR-S41D DAB/DAB+/FM(with RDS) receiver for 79€ (about 11€ off list price).
I can use it in North America to listen to FM and take it with me when I visit Europe for DAB/DAB+ as well as FM.
It has reasonable sound from its 8-cm speaker and pretty good stereo sound on headphones. It has an automatic search mode on both DAB/DAB+ and FM and creates a list of available stations.
In my hotel room in the 13th arrondisement, I could receive 46 DAB+ stations. One of the stations is World Radio Paris (WRP) and they provide English language programming 24 hours per day from BBC World Service, Public Radio International, Radio France International, and Radio Canada International, among others as well as their own programming.
There is no line output from the receiver but I was able to use the earphone output and crank the volume to maximum to get an acceptable recording level without noticeable distortion.
Happy with my purchase and can’t wait to go back to Europe again, say to England, to try out DAB+ there.
I also spotted three receivers with SW capability on the shelves at the Darty store:
Panasonic RF-3500 for 45€
Brandt BR200D for 45€
Brandt BR120A for 15€
You don’t see SW receivers in North American consumer electronics stores anymore and I’ve not spotted any in airport duty free stores lately either.
I’ve been listening to the XDR-S41D at home and it sounds pretty good on FM, too, and does a good job of displaying the RDS information although a character or two is sometimes cut off the end of the data but that could be the fault of the station. Need to investigate that some more.
By the way, the radio doesn’t come with a case but I found (just before I was going to toss it) that it just fits in the magnetic-clasp case of one of those Air Canada amenities kits that they give you in business class (see photo below).
That’s the second Air Canada item I have recycled. They used to use full-ear headphones with disposable foam covers. They were a perfect fit for the deteriorating covers on my old Sony noise-cancelling headphones. I’ve since upgraded to Bose. 😉
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Richard! The Sony XDR-S41D sounds like a keeper for sure and is certainly compact enough to easily accompany you on travels to Europe. I was not aware of World Radio Paris either–I see they’re available via TuneIn, so I’ll add them to my WiFi radio station favorites!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dennis Kalinichenko, who shares the following review:
The Shoroh R-326 military radio
by Dennis Kalinichenko
I believe the piece of Soviet military equipment I recently bought to my collection would be interesting to all readers and contributors.
This is the R-326 “Shoroh” (“Rustle”) general coverage military tube shortwave radio receiver. These were produced decades ago, back in 1963. These portable receivers were in active military use in the Soviet Army until the early 2000s, when the R-326 was finally discontinued . Today, this set is no more a spy secret, but a great collector’s item and also a good receiver for home use.
My set cost me about $150 US, which is rather expensive for this radio. The R-326 was plentiful in the local market in 90-s, right after the fall of the Soviet Union, very cheap and popular between radio amateurs, but nowadays this radio has become more and more rare, so the price rises up.
My R-326 arrived from Khabarovsk city, the Russian Far East, where, I believe, for many years it was on duty in some of the Soviet radio intelligence and defense forces division.
The set includes the radio itself, original military 100 ohm headphones, original rectifier box for 2,5 V output, 12 meter long wire antenna on a reel, the 1,5 meter famous “Kulikov” mini-whip antenna, the isolator for placing it on top of the radio and some minor accessories.
Originally, the R-326 radio came with two batteries–1,25 V each–for field use, but mine are totally drained and need to be serviced, so I haven’t used them so far.
The radio is a light-weight, only 33 lbs, which is a real minimum for Soviet military equipment–the famous R-250 radio’s weight is up to 220 lbs–so, in comparison, this unit is really portable. You can easily put it in your car using the attached leather handle and take it with you on a weekend trip. No other military radio can be so “travel-friendly”; this is one of the reasons it was so popular in the ham radio and SWL communities.
The case is made out of steel and looks so solid you may want to use it as a nutcracker. And you can! In no way could you harm the box constructed to resist nuclear attacks. It is waterproof and sealed–so I can be confident that no previous owner has ever tried to solder something in the guts.
The radio is a super heterodyne containing 19 (!) special mini tubes and covering 6 SW bands, from 1 to 20 MHz. It works in both AM and SSB (CW) modes, having an on-board adjustable bandwidth control from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.
On the front panel, there are two scales: one is rough/coarse, and above is the precise one, a so-called photoscale, which may be adjusted to match real radio-frequency using the four screws near the sun protection visor. With this scale, you don’t actually need a digital readout. It also has a BFO control with a zero setting, adjustable AGC levels for AM and CW, and adjusting screw for matching the antenna input, as marked for 12 m long wire, 1,5 m and 4 m whip.
The radio has no built-in speaker. Instead, there are two output sockets on the front panel, for 100 ohm headphones and 600 ohm line-out.
The power consumption is very low for s tube radio, the rig needs only 1,4 A at 2.5 volts DC (including the lightscale). I use the original power transformer (transistor rectifier) and therefore switch the unit into the 220 AC outlet.
The sensitivity of the radio is extremely high and equals some modern transceivers. The selectivity is also impressive. No doubt it was really great for 1960s. But there’s negative side as well: the radio easily overloads even from the outdoor long wire antennas. The best fit is the “Kulikov” mini-whip that you can see in the photos.
When you switch on the radio, you hear noise, the level of which seems high, so you lower the volume down. Yes, the radio is sensitive and a bit noisy. But thanks to the tubes it sounds really amazing in the headphones. The SSB ham operator’s voice is warm and very clear.
The tuning is very smooth, being actually 2-speed: outer wheel is for fast tuning, inner wheel for precise tune.
It’s absolutely obvious that nowadays a simple Degen or Tecsun may be more useful than this old and heavy unit with big and tough knobs and switches. But what a pleasure sitting in front of this perfect tube radio at night, with the headphones on, turning the huge tuning wheels, looking into the moving dim scale, listening into distant voices and rustles, feeling yourself a Cold War times operator near the rig.
Isn’t this experience priceless?
Indeed the experience is priceless, Dennis! Better yet, your R-326 now has an owner that will keep it in working order and enjoy it on a regular basis. I personally believe keeping these vintage rigs on the air is one way to preserve, and experience first hand, a little of our collective radio history.
Thank you so much for sharing your review and excellent photos of the R-326!
Post readers: If, like Dennis, you have a vintage radio you would like to showcase/review here on the SWLing Post,please consider submitting your story and photos. Being a huge fan of vintage radio, I truly enjoy reading through and publishing your reviews. I know many other readers feel the same!
In August 2015 at the Tokyo Hamfair, Icom debuted a new type of transceiver in their product line––one featuring a direct RF sampling receiver. Essentially, it was an SDR tabletop transceiver.
At about the same time that the IC-7300 started shipping around the world, Icom pulled their venerable IC-7200 off the market. Yet the IC-7200 was established as a well-loved product, due to its highly sensitive receiver, its relatively robust front end, and its quality audio. Moreover, it was simple to operate, which made superb as a Field Day or radio club rig.
Therefore, even though the IC-7300 promised much more versatility than the IC-7200, for its price point it had a tough act to follow.
So, of course––even more so than with any other radio Icom has introduced in the past few years––I was eager to get my hands on a IC-7300. I’m very fortunate that my good friend, Dave Anderson (K4SV) was one of the first purchasers of the IC-7300, and that he didn’t mind (after only having the rig perhaps one week!) allowing me to borrow it for a several weeks for evaluation.
Note: I should state here that since this rig was loaned to me, I evaluated it based on the firmware version it shipped with, and made no modifications to it.
This review primarily focuses on the receiver’s performance, functionality and usability.
Introducing the Icom IC-7300
In recent years, the “big three” ham radio manufacturers have been using color displays, and––Icom most especially––touch screens. While I’m no fan of backlit touch screens in mobile applications, I think touch screen displays make a lot of sense in a base radio. If carefully designed, a touch screen can save an operator from heavily-buried menus and decrease the number of multi-function buttons on the front panel.
The challenge, of course, is making a display with intuitive controls, and one that is large enough, and with sufficient resolution, to be useful to the operator. In the past, I’ve been disappointed by many displays; the most successful have been incorporated in DX/Contest-class (i.e., pricier) transceivers, meanwhile, entry-level and mid-priced transceiver displays often seem half-baked. While the graphics may be crisp, spectrum displays at this price point are often too compressed to be useful, and if not a touch display, force the user to pause operation in order to find the correct knob or button to change settings. In such cases, I find myself wondering why the manufacturer went to the expense of a color display at all––?
But what about the C-7300 display? I’m thoroughly pleased to report that Icom did a fantastic job of balancing utility and function in design of the IC-7300’s color touch display and front panel. There are number of ways you can chose to display and arrange elements on the screen–since I’m an SDR fan, I typically chose a display setting which gave the waterfall the most real estate. Of course, one can chose to give the frequency display priority or a number of other arrangements.
I can tell that Icom built upon their experience with the IC-7100––their first entry-level touch screen display transceiver.
I was able to get the IC-7300 on the air in very little time. Within five minutes of turning on the IC-7300, I was able to:
change the display to feature a spectrum waterfall;
change the span of the waterfall display;
adjust the TX power output;
change the filters selection and the transmit mode;
change bands and make direct-frequency entries;
adjust notch, passband, and filter width;
adjust AF and RF gain;
set A/B VFOs and operate split;
change AGC settings;
turn on Noise Reduction/Noise Blanker, and
Basically, I found that all the essential functions are clearly laid out, accessible, and highly functional. Impressive.
The IC-7300 ships with a manual–– aptly titled, the “Basic” manual––and a CD with the full and unabridged operations manual. The Basic Manual covers a great deal a lot more than the manual which accompanied the Icom ID-51a. If you read through the manual, you’ll readily familiarize yourself with most of the IC-7300’s higher function operations, and especially, you’ll be able to adjust the settings to your operation style. The Manual is written in simple language, and includes a lot of diagrams and graphics.
If you’re like me, you will find you’ll also need to reference that unabridged manual, so hang on to the CD, too.
Still, I imagine there’s a large percentage of future IC-7300 owners that will never need to reference the manual––especially if they don’t care about tweaking band edges or similar settings. Yes, believe it or not, it’s that easy to use.
While I spent a great deal of time listening to CW and SSB in various band conditions and at various times of day, I spent less time on the air transmitting.
With that said, all of my transmitting time was in CW since the IC-7300 mic was accidentally left out when my friend loaned me the rig.
I’m please to report that CW operation is quite pleasant. All of the adjustments––RF Power, Key Speed, and CW Pitch––can be quickly modified using the multi-function knob. While in CW mode, you can also toggle full break-in mode, which is quite smooth, via the function button and touch screen.
SSB functions are similar. While in SSB mode, the multi-function knob allows you to change the tx power, mic gain, and monitor level. The function button opens an on-screen menu with VOX, compression, TBW, and the monitor toggle.
Of course, my smartphones’s microphone can’t accurately reproduce the audio from the IC-7300, but you probably get the idea.
The only annoyance I noted––and perhaps I’m more sensitive to this, being primarily a QRPer––is that the 7300’s cooling fan starts up each time you key up. It even comes on when transmit power is at its lowest setting. I find this a little distracting in CW. Fortunately, however, the 7300’s fan is fairly quiet and operates smoothly.
This result was almost tied. The Excalibur’s audio––without any adjustments––has a fuller and “bassier” sound. The ‘7300 can be adjusted to have similar characteristics, but the default EQ settings produce very flat audio. Many of you commented that the IC-7300 more faithfully produced audio optimized for SSB.
Shortwave Broadcast recordings
The following recordings were made on the 31 meter broadcast band in the evening. Both radios had the same filter width: 9 kHz and 8.2 kHz.
Weak Shortwave AM (Radio Bandeirantes 31 meter band)
There was a noticeable preference for the WinRadio Excalibur in this particular audio set. Even though the Excalibur’s audio splattered a bit, the content was more interpretable. The IC-7300’s audio sounded flat in comparison––again, something that can be adjusted quite easily in the ‘7300’s audio settings.
Strong Shortwave AM (Radio Romania International, French 31 Meter Band)
Once again, the Excalibur won favor, but I imagine results would have been closer had I adjusted the ‘7300’s audio EQ.
Mediumwave Broadcast recordings
Note that the following mediumwave recordings were made during the morning hours (grayline). The strong station is the closest AM broadcaster to my home; it’s not a blow-torch “Class A” type station, merely the closest local broadcaster.
In the “weak” sample, I tuned to 630 kHz where multiple broadcasters could be heard on frequency, but one was dominant.
In this particular example, the IC-7300 could not pull the strongest broadcaster out of the pile as well as the WinRadio Excalibur. In fairness, the Excalibur was using AM sync detection, something the IC-7300 lacks.
Icom IC-7300 vs. Elecraft KX3
I also decided to pit the IC-7300 against my well-loved Elecraft KX3.
These results were spilt in the middle. Again, I believe this comes down to personal preference in the audio. And again––in both radios––the audio EQ can be adjusted to suit the operator.
Receiver performance summary
I enjoy producing audio clips for readers to compare and comment upon. Each time I’ve done so in the past, I’ve had listeners argue the virtues of a particular audio clip while others have the complete opposite reaction to that same clip. Not all of us prefer our audio served up in the same way. No doubt, there’s a great deal of subjectivity in this sort of test.
I’ve had the IC-7300 on the air every day since I took possession of it. I’ve listened to SSB, CW, and lots of AM/SW broadcasters.
And here’s my summary: the IC-7300 is an excellent receiver. It has a low noise floor, superb sensitivity and excellent selectivity. I even slightly prefer its audio to that of my Elecraft KX3, and I’m a huge fan of the little KX3.
I’ve written before about how difficult it is to compare SDRs; the problem is that there are so many ways to tweak your audio, filters, AGC, noise reduction, etc. that it’s hard to compare apples with apples.
In the audio samples above, the IC-7300 and WinRadio Excalibur were both set to their default audio settings. In SSB and CW, the IC-7300 excels, in my opinion. CW seems to pop out of the noise better and SSB is more pleasant and interpretable. The Excalibur has a better audio profile for AM broadcasters, though. Its default audio simply sounds fuller–more robust.
The audio from the IC-7300 on AM sounded absolutely flat. However, if I tweak the audio of the ‘7300, adding more bass, it instantly sounds more like a dedicated tabletop receiver.
I should also mention that while the IC-7300’s built-in digital recording is a fantastic and effective feature, it doesn’t produce audio true to what’s heard through headphones live. This is especially the case when you add more bass and treble response as in the RRI example above. When the audio EQ is set to a default flat, it’s quite accurate.
Cooling fan immediately starts up on CW/SSB transmit at any power setting (see pro regarding fan noise)
Occasionally you may get lost in deeper customized functions
Supplied printed basic owner’s manual, while well-written, doesn’t fully cover the IC-7300s functions and options; you must explore the digital owner’s manual in supplied CD.
In a nutshell: Icom has hit a home run with the IC-7300.If I didn’t already have an Elecraft KX3 and K2, I would buy the IC-7300 without hesitation.
Though the price point is a little high for an “entry level transceiver,” it’s worth every penny, in my opinion. For $1500 US, you get a fantastic general-coverage transceiver with an intuitive interface, nearly every function you can imagine, and performance that would please even a seasoned DXer.
Though I haven’t done and A/B comparison with the IC-7200, I imagine the IC-7300 would prevail in a test. The IC-7300 would certainly wipe the floor with it’s more economical brother, the IC-718.
Radio clubs, take note:
In my view, the IC-7300 has the makings of an excellent radio club rig in which performance, functionality, as well as ease of use are important. I expect that the IC-7300 will not only cope very well with crowded and crazy Field Day conditions, but it will also give any newcomers to the hobby a little experience with a proper modern transceiver. The fact that you can view signals so easily on the spectrum display means that it will be easier to chase contacts and monitor bands as they open and close. Indeed, what better way to mentor a newly-minted ham in modes, contacts, carriers, QRN, QRM, and so forth, than to simply point these out on the IC-7300’s bright, clear display––?
If your club is considering a transceiver upgrade or purchase, do seriously consider the IC-7300. I think you’ll find this rig is up to the task.
And for home? The Icom IC-7300 may be all of the rig you’ll ever need.