This morning, I’m looking at the calendar and I see and end in sight for 2020. I think most of us can agree that 2020 will be one for the history books, in large part due to the Covid-19 global pandemic which has had a pretty dramatic affect on many of our lives. It certainly brough my planned travels to a halt. I think many of us are quite happy to show 2020 the door!
As each year comes to a conclusion, I often look back at my radio activities during that year and see how it played out. I especially note the radios I used most heavily throughout the year.
Since I evaluate and test radios, models that are new to the market obviously get a lot of air time. Still, I’m also known to pull radios from the closet and give them some serous air time.
I’m very curious what radios you gave the most air time in 2020?
Here’s my list based on type/application:
Portable shortwave receivers
Since they’re new to the market, both the Tecsun PL-990 (above) and Belka DX (below) got a lot of air time.
I do like both radios and even took the pair on vacation recently even though packing space was very limited. I see the Belka DX getting much more air time in the future because 1.) it’s a performer (golly–just check out 13dka’s review of the Belka DSP) and 2.) it’s incredibly compact. The Belka now lives in my EDC bag, so is with me for impromptu listening and DXing sessions.
A classic solid-state portable that also got a lot of air time this year was the Panasonic RF-B65. Not only is it a performer, but it has a “cool” factor that’s hard to describe. I love it.
In a sense, the C.Crane CCradio3 got more play time than any of my radios. It sits in a corner of our living area where we tune to FM, AM and weather radio–90% of the time, though, it’s either in AUX mode playing audio piped from my SiriusXM receiver, or in Bluetooth mode playing from one of our phones, tables, or computers. In October, the prototype CCRadio Solar took over SiriusXM duty brilliantly. I’m guessing the CCRadio3 has easily logged 1,600 hours of play time this year.
Of course, the Panasonic RF-2200 is one of my all-time favorite vintage solid-state portables, so it got a significant amount of field time.
The HF+ Discovery was my choice receiver for portable SDR DXing and the RSPdx when I wanted make wide bandwidth recordings and venture above VHF frequencies.
Without a doubt the new Mission RGO One 50 watt HF transceiver got the most air time at home and a great deal of field time as well. It’s such a pleasure to use and is a proper performer to boot!
My new-to-me Icom IC-756 Pro, however, has become my always-connected, always-ready-to-pounce home 100W HF transceiver. It now lives above my computer monitor, so within easy reach. Although it’s capable of 100+ watts out, I rarely take it above 10 watts. The 756 Pro has helped me log hundreds of POTA parks and with it, I snagged a “Clean Sweep” and both bonus stations during the annual 13 Colonies event.
The new Icom IC-705 has become one of my favorite portable transceivers. Not only is it the most full-featured transceiver I’ve ever owned, but it’s also a brillant SWLing broadcast receiver. With built-in audio recording, it’s a fabulous field radio.
Still, the Elecraft KX2 remains my choice field radio for its portability, versatility and incredibly compact size. This year, in particular, I’ve had a blast pairing the KX2 with the super-portable Elecraft AX1 antenna for quick field activations. I’ve posted a few field reports on QRPer.com and also a real-time video of an impromptu POTA activation with this combo:
How about you?
What radios did use use the most this year and why? Did you purchase a new radio this year? Have you ventured into the closet, dusted off a vintage radio and put it on the air?
Listening to Radio Prague via WRMI with the Xiegu GSOC
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Tim R, who writes:
First of all thank you so much for the all of the energy you put into the SWLing Post. When crazy things are happening in the world it’s a very welcome sanctuary! Sending you some coffee money.
I plan to become a ham radio operator next year. Bought the book last week and once I finish a large project for work, I’m on it. Of course, the Tech license will only give me limited exposure to HF, but I’m already plotting an HF radio purchase because I can’t WAIT do do some SWLing with it. Up to this point, I’ve only owned portable radios and never really have used external antennas other than some cheap wire.
I’ve been considering grabbing a Xiegu G90 because it seems to be a nice comprehensive beginner’s HF rig and is very affordable. I read your review and understand your caveat that there’s no way to completely disengage the transmit so that it can’t be accidently hit if connected to an RX only antenna. I’m not worried about that because I’m going to hang a G5RV wire antenna and use it both for TX and RX. No problem if RF is accidently sent through it.
Of course, there’s a lot of buzz in the Xiegu community about the new GSOC controller. I had not planned to exceed $600 for my radio purchase, but I love the idea of the controller. But when I add $550 for the controller and $450 for the radio, all the sudden I’m at $1,000.
After some deep soul-searching (and let’s be frank here, a blessing from my wife and CFO) I’ve decided to raise my budget to $1,000.
All of this to ask, if you had $1,000, would you buy the G90 and GSOC controller, or would you get something else keeping in mind I want to use this as much for shortwave listening as for future ham radio work?
Any advice would be appreciated.
Thanks for your question, Tim! And thanks for giving me a complete picture of your budget/radio requirements and the antenna you plan to use.
I’ll try to answer your question here, but understand this is more what I would do if I were in your shoes. This is a pretty simple question, but not simple to answer because there are so many options on the market.
Xiegu GSOC and G90 combo option
Keeping in mind, I feel like the GSOC is a work in progress at the moment and not fully developed–check out my initial review. Once the next firmware update is available it could certainly solve a number of small issues I found with the unit. It works, but it’s not a refined product yet.
It’s ironic, actually. When I received your message this morning, Tim, I was SWLing with the GSOC and G90–listening to Radio Prague on WRMI. In the end, though, the GSOC is primarily an enhanced interface for the G90. While it does add some extra functionality (and should, over time, add much more) it doesn’t really change the performance characteristics of the G90. I’d check out my G90 review for more info about performance.
Would I purchase the G90/GSOC combo if I were in your shoes? Again, it’s early days, so I don’t feel comfortable making a recommendation call yet. The G90 is, without question, a great value at $450 (often even less) investment. I like it primarily as a field radio, though, and once you add the GSOC to the mix, it’s a little less portable because it’s two units with quite a few interconnect cables. Of course, you can swap the GSOC unit for the G90 control head at any time, but that involves attaching and re-attaching the control head each time (there’s no accessible serial port on the back of the G90, for example)
If you’re a huge fan of the G90, the GSOC should eventually be a worthy addition. At present, for your use as a new ham and for SWLing, I’d perhaps consider other options too.
The Icom IC-7300
The Icom IC-7300 SDR transceiver
Since you’ve raised your budget to $1,000, I’d consider adding the Icom IC-7300 to your list. At present, via Universal Radio you can buy a new IC-7300 for a net price of $1039.95 after rebates. Sometimes, the price will go even lower although during the C-19 pandemic, I think that’s less likely to happen since supplies are lower than normal for many items.
The IC-7300 has better performance specs than the G90 and can output a full 100 watts if you like. The display is touch sensitive rather than capacitive like the GSOC. The display is also much smaller than that of the GSOC. The IC-7300 has a lower noise floor than the G90.
I would include the new Icom IC-705 as a recommendation here, too, but it’s $300 over your budget.
A PC-connected SDR and separate transceiver
This might be the option I’d take if I were in your shoes.
Get the 20 watt Xiegu G90 ($450) as planned or consider a radio like the 100 watt Yaesu FT-891 ($640), Both of these radios are general coverage and would serve you well for SWLing and ham radio activities. I’d personally invest the bit extra and get the FT-891 since it would also give you 100 watts output and even has advanced features like memory keying.
The AirSpy HF+ Discovery and a new era of portable DXing
I admit it: I used to be a bit of an old-fashioned radio curmudgeon. One of those, “I like my radios with knobs and buttons” likely followed by, “…and no other way!”
However, about fifteen years ago, many of my DXing friends started turning to the world of software defined radios (or in common parlance, “SDRs”). I staunchly opposed ever following in their footsteps. One of the reasons I for this––a good one––is that, since I spend the bulk of my day in front of a computer, why would I ever want to use a computer when I’m playing radio?
But then…gradually, I found myself playing around with a few SDRs. And I quickly learned that third-generation SDRs were capable of doing something very impressive (and fun), indeed: making spectrum recordings. Using this tool, I found I could record not only the audio of one individual signal, but the audio of entire swathes of radio spectrum. And even more impressive, I learned that you could later load or “play back” the spectrum recording and tune through the bands as if in real time. Any time you want. Before long, I was hooked: SDRs had become my portal into radio time travel!
I quickly found that I loved many of the other advantages of using an SDR, as well, including visual ones––like the ability to view spectrum. The interactive interface allows one to actually see radio signals across the band in real time. I also found incredible value in waterfall displays, which show signals changing in amplitude and frequency over time. Cool stuff.
I purchased my first dedicated SDR in 2012, a WinRadio Excalibur. It was––and still is––a benchmark receiver, performing circles around my tabletop receivers and general coverage transceivers.
And today, although I own and love a number of legacy radios and still listen to them in the good old-fashioned manner to which I became accustomed, I find I’m now spending the bulk of my time DXing with SDRs.
And then, more recently, two amazing things happened in the world of SDRs. Strong market competition, together with serious innovations, have come into play. Thus, for less than $200 US, you can now purchase an SDR that would have easily cost $1,000 US only ten years ago. And now, in many cases, the $200 SDR of today will outperform the $1,000 SDR of yesteryear. We are, indeed, living in good times.
And now––no more a radio curmudgeon––I’m comfortable with my SDR-user status and time at the computer, and glad I was just curious enough about SDRs to let them into my radio (and computer) world.
Since I initially dived into the world of SDRs, I’ve tried to think of a way to take them into the field.
But first, let’s get an obvious question out of the way:
Why would you want to drag an SDR into the field, when a traditional battery-powered radio is so much easier to manage?
After all, you may say, portable and even mobile tabletop receivers require no computer, no hard drive, and are likely more reliable because there are less components to manage or to cause problems for you.
In answer, let’s look at a few scenarios where heading to the field with an SDR system might just make sense. (Hint: Many of these reasons are rooted in the SDR’s ability to record spectrum).
Good Reason #1: Your home location is not ideal for playing radio.
Photo by Henry Be
My good friend, London Shortwave, lives in the middle of London, England. He’s an avid radio enthusiast and DXer, but his apartment is almost a perfect storm of radio interference. Listening from his home is challenging, to say the least: he can only use indoor antennas and RFI/QRM simply inundated his local airwaves.
Many years ago, he discovered that the best way to DX was to go to an area that put urban noise and radio interference at a distance. He found that by visiting large local parks, he could play radio with almost no RFI.
Being a computer guru, he started working on a portable SDR setup so that he could go to a park, set up an antenna, and record radio spectrum while he read a book. His systems evolved with time, each iteration being more compact less conspicuous that the previous. Later, he could head back home, open the recorded spectrum files, and tune through these “time-shifted” recordings in the comfort of his flat. This allowed London Shortwave to maximize the low-RFI listening experience by reliving the time in the park.
Over the years, he tweaked and adapted his setup, often writing his own code to make small tablets and portable computers purpose-built portable-spectrum-capture devices. If you’re curious, you might like to read about the evolution of his systems on his blog.
Clearly, for London Shortwave, an SDR is the right way to capture spectrum and thus likely the best solution for his DX listening.
Good Reason #2: Weak-signal workarounds.
Typically radio enthusiasts turn to field operation to work in a lower-noise environment and/or where there are no antenna restrictions, often to log new stations and DX.
SDRs afford the DXer top-shelf tools for digging weak signals out of the muck. SDR applications have advanced tools for tweaking AGC settings, synchronous detectors, filters, noise reduction, and even to tailor audio.
The WinRadio Excalibur application even includes a waterfall display which represents the entire HF band (selectable 30 MHz or 50 MHz in width)
On top of that, being able to see a swath of spectrum and waterfall gives one an easier way––a visual way––to pinpoint weak or intermittent signals. This is much harder to do with a legacy radio.
Case in point: I like listening to pirate radio stations on shortwave. With a spectrum display, I can see when a new station may be tuning up on the band so can position the receiver to listen in from the beginning of the broadcast, and never miss a beat.
Or, in another example, the visual aspect of spectrum display means I can easily locate trans-Atlantic DX on the mediumwave bands by looking for carrier peaks on the spectrum display outside the standard North American 10 kHz spacing. The signals are very easy to spot.
Good Reason #3: DXpeditions both small and large.
Mark Fahey, scanning the bands with his WinRadio Excalibur/Surface Pro 2 combo at our 2015 PARI DXpedition
Whether you’re joining an organized DXpedition or you’re simply enjoying a little vacation DXpedition, SDRs allow you to make the most of your radio time.
Indeed, most of the organized DXpedition these days heavily incorporate the use of SDRs specifically so DXers can record spectrum. Much like example #1 above, doing this allows you to enjoy the noise-free optimal conditions over and over again through spectrum recordings. Most DXpeditioners will have an SDR making recordings while they use another receiver to DX in real time. Later, they take the recording home and dig even more weak signals out of the mix: ones that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Good Reason #4: Sharing the spectrum with like-minded listeners.
Earlier this year, Mark gave me this 8TB hard drive chock-full of spectrum recordings.
One of the joys I’ve discovered in making field spectrum recordings is sharing them with fellow DXers. Most of the time when I go to shortwave radio gatherings (like the Winter SWL Fest), I take a couple hard drives to exchange with other SDR enthusiasts. My friend, Mark Fahey, and I have exchanged some of our favorite spectrum recordings this way. I give him a hard drive chock-full of terabytes of recordings, and he reciprocates. Back home (or on the train or airplane) I open one of his recordings and, boom! there I am in his shack in Freeman’s Reach, Australia, tuning through Pacific stations that are not easily heard here in North America, maybe even turning up some gems Mark himself may have overlooked…just as he is doing with my recordings from the southeast US.
I’ve also acquired DXpedition spectrum recordings this way. It’s great fun to “be there” through the recordings and to enjoy some of the benefits of being on the DXpedition in times when I couldn’t actually make it there in person. For a DXer with a consuming job, busy family life, or maybe health problems that limit their travel, an SDR recording is the way to go.
Good Reason #5: Family time
Photo by David Straight
I’m a husband and father, and no matter how much I like to play radio when we’re on vacation, my family comes first, and our family activities take priority.
Having a field-portable SDR setup means that I can arrange a “set it and forget it” spectrum capture device. Before we head out the door for a family visit, tour of the area, or a hike, I simply set my SDR to record spectrum, then listen to what I “caught” after I return, or after I’m home from vacation.
This practice has allowed me to enjoy radio as much as I like, without interrupting our family adventures. Can’t beat it!
With all of these benefits, one might wonder why many other DXers haven’t been using portable SDRs in the field for a while now? That’s a good question.
The WinRadio G31DDC, like many SDRs of the era, has separate data and power ports
In prior years, DXers and listeners might have been reluctant to lug an SDR and its requisite apparatus out with them. After all, it’s only been in the past decade or so that SDRs haven’t required a separate custom power supply; some legacy SDRs either required an odd voltage, or as with my WinRadio Excalibur, have very tight voltage tolerances.
Originally, taking an SDR to the field––especially in places without grid mains power––usually meant you also had to take a pricey pure sine wave inverter as well as a battery with enough capacity to run the SDR for hours on end.
Having spent many months in an off-grid cabin on the east coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada, I can confidently say it’s an ideal spot for DXing: I can erect large wire antennas there, it’s on salt water, and there are literally no locally-generated man-man noises to spoil my fun. Of course, anytime we go to the cottage, I record spectrum, too, as this is truly a honey of a listening spot.
The view from our off-grid cabin on PEI.
The first year I took an SDR to the cabin, I made a newbie mistake: it never dawned on me until I arrived and began to put it to use that my Goal Zero portable battery pack didn’t have a pure sine wave inverter; rather, I found it had a modified sine wave inverter built into it. The inverter could easily power my SDR, sure, but it also injected incredibly strong, unavoidable broadband noise into the mix. It rendered my whole setup absolutely useless. I gave up on the SDR on that trip.
Both the Airspy HF+ (top) and FDM-S2 (bottom) use a USB connection for both data transfer and power. Photo by Guy Atkins.
Today, most SDRs actually derive their power from a computer or laptop through a USB cable, one that doubles as a data and power cable. This effectively eliminates the need for a separate power system and inverter.
Of course, your laptop or tablet will need a means of recharging in the field because the attached SDR will drain its battery a little faster. Nowadays it’s possible to find any number of portable power packs/banks and/or DC battery sources to power laptops or tablets, as long as one is cautious that the system doesn’t inject noise. This still requires a little trial and error, but it’s much easier to remedy than having two separate power sources.
Even a Raspberry Pi 3B has enough horsepower to run SDR applications.
An SDR is nothing without a software application to run it. These applications, of course, require some type of computer.
I the past, SDR applications needed some computing horsepower, not necessarily to run the application itself, but to make spectrum recordings. In addition, they often required extra on-board storage space to make these recordings sufficiently long to be useful. This almost always meant lugging a full-sized laptop to the field, or else investing in a very pricey tablet with a hefty amount of internal storage to take along.
Today we’re fortunate to have a number of more portable computing devices to run SDR applications in the field: not just laptops or tablets, but mobile phones and even mini computers, like the eminently affordable $46 Raspberry Pi. While you still have to be conscious of your device’s computing horsepower, many small devices are amply equipped to do the job.
64-128 GB USB flash/thumb drives are affordable, portable storage options.
If you’re making spectrum and audio recordings in the field, you’ll need to store them somehow. Wideband spectrum recordings can use upwards of 2GB of data per minute or two.
Fortunately, even a 64GB USB flash drive can be purchased for as little as $7-10 US. This makes for quick off-loading of spectrum recordings from a device’s internal memory.
My portable SDR setup
It wasn’t until this year that all of the pieces finally came together for me so that I could enjoy a capable (and affordable!) field-portable SDR setup. Two components, in particular, made my setup a reality overnight; here’s what made the difference.
The AirSpy HF+ Discovery
Last year, AirSpy sent me a sample of their new HF+ Discovery SDR to test and evaluate. To be fully transparent, this was at no cost to me.
I set about putting the HF+ Discovery through its paces. Very soon, I reached a conclusion: the HF+ Discovery is simply one of the best mediumwave and HF SDRs I’ve ever tested. Certainly, it’s the new benchmark for sub-$500 SDRs.
In fact, I was blown away. The diminutive HF+ Discovery even gives some of my other benchmark SDRs a proper run for their money. Performance is DX-grade and uncompromising, sporting impressive dynamic range and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The noise floor is also incredibly low. And I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you can purchase this SDR for just $169 US.
The HF+ Discovery compared in size to a DVD
In terms of portability, it’s in a class of its own. It’s tiny and incredibly lightweight. I evaluate and review SDRs all the time, but I’ve never known one that offers this performance in such a tiny package.
Are there any downsides to the HF+ Discovery? The only one I see––and it’s intentional––is that it has a smaller working bandwidth than many other similar SDRs at 768 kHz (although only recently, Airspy announced a firmware update that will increase bandwidth). Keep in mind, however, that the HF+ series SDRs were designed to prevent overload when in the presence of strong local signals. In fairness, that’s a compromise I’ll happily make.
Indeed, the HF+ Discovery maximum bandwidth isn’t a negative in my estimation unless I’m trying to grab the entire mediumwave band, all at once. For shortwave work, it’s fine because it can typically cover an entire broadcast band, allowing me to make useful spectrum recordings.
The HF+ Discovery is so remarkably tiny, that this little SDR, together with a passive loop antenna, can fit in one small travel pouch. Ideal.
My homebrew NCPL antenna
Speaking of antennas, one of the primary reasons I’m evaluating the HF+ Discovery is because it has a very high dynamic range and can take advantage of simple antennas, in the form of passive wideband magnetic loop antennas, to achieve serious DX.
AirSpy president and engineer, Youssef Touil, experimented with several passive loop antenna designs and sizes until he found a few combinations ideally matched with the HF+ Discovery.
My good buddy, Vlado (N3CZ) helped me build such an antenna per Youssef’s specifications. Vlado had a length of Wireman Flexi 4XL that was ideal for this project (thanks, Vlad!). The only tricky part was penetrating the shielding and dielectric core at the bottom of the loop, then tapping into both sides of the center conductor for the balun connections. Being Vlado, he used several lengths of heat shrink tubing to make a nice, clean, snag-free design. I’ll freely admit that, had I constructed this on my own, it wouldn’t have been nearly as elegant!
Youssef also sent me a (then) prototype Youloop passive loop antenna. It’s incredibly compact, made of high quality SMA-fitted coaxial cables. It can be set up in about 30 seconds and coiled to tuck into a jacket pocket. The AirSpy-built loop has a lower loss transformer than the one in the homemade loop, which translates into a lower noise figure for the system.
Let’s face it: SDR kit simply doesn’t get more portable than this.
My Microsoft Surface Go tablet on a hotel bed.
In the past, I used an inexpensive, circa 2013 mini Windows laptop with an internal SSD drive. Everything worked beautifully, save the fact that it was challenging to power in the field and the internal capacity of the hard drive was so small (16GB less the operating system). In addition, it was a few years old, bought used, so the processor speed was quite slow.
This year, on the way back from the Huntsville Hamfest, I stopped by the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. This center has a wide variety of used portable electronics at discount prices. I felt pretty lucky when I discovered a like-new condition Microsoft Surface Go tablet and keyboard with original charger for $190. The catch? The only data port on the tablet is a USB-C. But I grabbed a small USB-C to standard USB 3.0 dongle (for $2!) and took a risk that it would work with the HF+ Discovery.
Fortunately, it did! Score!
While the Surface Go is no powerhouse, it’s fast enough to run any of my SDRs and make spectrum recordings up to 2 MHz in width without stuttering. The only noise it seems to inject into the mix is a little RFI when I touch the trackpad on the attached keyboard.
One of my LiFePo batteries
The HF+ Discovery draws power from the Surface Go tablet via the USB port. With no additional power supply, the Surface Go may only power the HF+ Discovery for perhaps an hour at most. Since I like doing fully off-grid operations and needed to avoid RFI from inverters, I needed a portable power solution.
Fortunately, the Surface Go has a dedicated power port, so I immediately ordered a DC power cable with a standard car lighter plug.
The LiFePo battery is small, lightweight, and can power the tablet /SDR combo for hours on end. Moreover, I have noticed no extra noise injected when the DC power is applied.
My HF+ Discovery-based portable SDR kit
My portable SDR kit on a hotel balcony.
Now I have this kit, I couldn’t be more pleased with it. When all of the components of my SDR system are assembled, they work harmoniously. The entire ensemble is also incredibly compact: the loop antennas, SDR, Surface Go tablet, battery, and distribution panel all fit in a very small travel pack, perfect for the grab-and-go DX adventure.
The entire kit: SDR, cables, Youloop antenna, connectors and adapters all fit in my Red Oxx Lil’ Roy pack.
In November, I took the kit to the coast of South Carolina and had a blast doing a little mediumwave DXing from our hotel balcony. We were very fortunate in that I had two excellent spots to hang the homemade loop antenna: on the main balcony, and from the mini balcony off the master bedroom. Both spots yielded excellent results.
What impressed me most was the fact that the SDR# spectrum display and waterfall were absolutely chock-full of signals, and there was very little noise, even in the popular resort area where we were staying. I found that my portable radios struggled with some of the RFI emanating from the hotel, but the HF+ Discovery and passive loop combo did a much better job mitigating noise.
Check out the AM broadcast band on the spectrum display.
But no need to take my word for it. If you would like to experience it first hand, why not download an actual spectrum recording I made using this setup?
At the top left corner of the SDR# screen, choose “IQ File (.wav)” as the source, then point it to where you downloaded the file.
Press the play button, and experience a little radio time travel!
This particular recording was made on the mediumwave band on November 17, 2019, starting at around 01:55 UTC.
My portable SDR kit capturing spectrum during a hike in Pisgah National Forest.
I’ve also taken this setup to several parks and remote outdoor locations, and truly enjoyed the freedom of taking spectrum recordings back home to dig through the signals.
I finally have a portable SDR system that allows me the flexibility to make spectrum recordings while travelling. The whole setup is compact and can easily be taken in a carry-on bag when flying.
The glory of this is, I can tune through my spectrum recordings in real time and DX when I’m back home, or even on the way back home, in the car, train, or airplane. It’s simply brilliant.
If you don’t already own an SDR, I can highly recommend the AirSpy HF+ Discovery if you’re primarily interested in HF and MW DXing. If you need a wideband SDR, I could also recommend the recently released SDRplay RSPdx, although it’s slightly heavier and larger than the AirSpy.
Thankfully, I am now an SDR enthusiast that can operate in the field, and this radio has had a lot to do with it. I’ll be logging many hours and miles with the AirSpy HF+ Discovery: its incredibly compact footprint, combined with its brilliant performance, is truly a winning combo.
I’ve gotten an number of inquiries from SWLing Post readers asking for a step-by-step guide to building the passive loop antenna I’ve mentioned in a number of previous posts. This antenna is the homebrew version of the commercially-available Airspy Youloop.
It works a treat. And, yes, folks…it’s fun to build.
There are a number of loop designs out there, and to distinguish this one, I’m going to henceforth refer to this loop as in the title above: the Noise-Cancelling Passive Loop (NCPL) antenna.
Before we start building, a little antenna theory…
I’m neither an engineer nor am I an antenna expert, so I actually turned to Airspy president and engineer, Youssef Touil, to learn how, exactly, this passive loop works. Youssef was the guy who experimented with several loop designs and ultimately inspired me to build this loop to pair with his HF+ Discovery SDR and the SDRplay RSPdx. “The main characteristic of this loop,” Youssef notes, “is its ability to cancel the electric noise much better than simpler loop designs.” Got that! [See loop diagram below]
“The second characteristic of this loop antenna is that it is a high impedance loop, which might appear counterintuitive. This means it can work directly with many receivers that have a low noise figure, in order to mitigate the impedance mismatch loss.
Note the resonance lobe near 4MHz. The resonance frequency is controlled by the diameter of the loop, the parasitic capacitance of the cable, and the loading from the transformer. It happens to be located right where we need it the most.
The transformer is basically a 1:1 BALUN that covers the entire HF band with minimal loss. Our BALUN has typically 0.28 dB loss.
[…]By connecting the center of this outer shield to the ground of the transmission line, you effectively cancel all the electric noise. The BALUN is required for balancing the electric noise, not for adapting the impedance.
[…]If you want to boost the performance in VLF, LW and MW, you can try a different impedance ratio, but this will kill the higher bands.”
What makes this loop so appealing (to me) is that it can be built with very few and common parts–indeed, many of us have all of the items in our junk boxes already. As the name implies, it is a passive design, so it requires no power source which is incredibly handy when you’re operating portable.
When paired with a high-dynamic range SDR like the Airspy HF+ Discovery or SDRplay RSPdx, you’ll be pleased with the wide bandwidth of this antenna and noise-cancelling properties.
Enough coated magnet wire for a total of eight turns on the BN-73-302
Heat-shrink tubing or some other means to enclose and secure the cable cross-over point and balun. (You may be able to enclose these connection points with PVC or small electrical box enclosures, for example)
A cable stripper, knife, and/or box-cutter
Soldering iron and solder
A heat gun (if using heat shrink)
*A note about loop cable length: Vlado and I made a loop with 1.5 meters of cable. The Airspy Youloop ships with two 1 meter legs that combine to give you an overall loop diameter of about 63.6 cm.
When I first decided to build this loop, it was only a day prior to a trip to the South Carolina coast where I planned to do a little DXing. I didn’t have all of the components, so I popped by to see my buddy Valdo (N3CZ). Vlado, fortunately, had all of the components and was eager to help build this loop. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Vlado is an amazing engineer and repair technician, so when I say “we” built it, what I really mean is, Vlado did! But I could’ve done it myself.
This is actually a very simple build––something even a beginner can do, as long as they’re okay with using a soldering iron. It does take patience preparing the loop cable properly. Take your time as you start, and you’ll be on the air in an hour or two.
1. Strip the ends of the loop cable.
Although your cable type and diameter may vary, strip back the cable ends roughly like this. To make finding the middle of the cable easier, we taped off the ends.
2. Make an opening in the middle of the cable to attach Balun leads to center conductor.
This is the trickiest part of the whole operation. The goal is to create an opening to tap into the center conductor of the cable.
You need to open a hole in the middle of the cable by
1 cutting away a portion of the outer jacket;
2 carefully separating and opening the shielding;
3 digging through the dielectric core, and finally
4 exposing the center conductor of the cable
Try to make an opening just large enough to gain access to the cable’s center conductor, but no bigger. Don’t allow any piece of the shielding to touch the center conductor.
When you reach the center conductor, expose enough of it so that you can clip it in the middle and create an opening to solder your balun leads to both conductor ends.
Once you’ve finished with this step, your cable should look something like this…
In the photo above, note that the shielding is completely pulled away, the dielectric core has been cut through, and we’ve clipped the center conductor, leaving a gap large enough to solder.
3. Make a 1:1 Balun
Grab your BN-73-302, and with the coated magnet wire, make four windings on one side, and four on the other. It should look like this:
Don’t have a binocular ferrite core like the one above? If you have a broken cable with ferrite cores, you can hack one! Click here to learn more.
4. Connect the Balun to a feed line.
Vlado just happened to have a BNC pigtail in his shack (he’s that kind of guy), so we cut and stripped one end, then connected the center conductor and shield to one side of the balun. We then enclosed the balun in heat shrink tubing to make it a little easier to attach to the loop later:
Of course, you could also create this junction in a small enclosure box or short cross-section of PVC. There are a number of ways you could secure this.
Youssef also added the following note about the feedline:
To use the NCPL antenna without a preamp, it is recommended to keep the length of the cable below 10 meters. The supplied Youloop 2 meter cable [for example] is sufficient to keep the antenna away from the magnetic interference of a computer or a tablet, and has very low loss and parasitic capacitance.
5. Connect Balun to the coaxial loop.
To make a solid connection, tin both sides of the center conductor. Next, attach the other end of the balun leads to each portion of the center conductor, as seen below:
Update: Note in the loop diagram near the top of the page that the ground wire on the output connector connects to the loop coax shielding on the primary side of the balun. I don’t recall that we did this in the build, but I would encourage you to do so. This should result in even lower noise, although admittedly, I’m very impressed with the performance of ours without this connection. Thanks to those of you who pointed out this discrepancy!
6. Secure the Balun/Coax junction.
Since this loop is intended to be handled quite a lot in the field, make sure the junction point of the balun and coax loop is secure. Again, we used several layers of heat shrink tubing since we had some in the shack.
7. Solder and secure the cross-over point.
Next, create the cross-over point of the loop by simply attaching the center conductor of one end of the cable to the shielding on the other end…and vice versa.
Before you grab the soldering iron, however…if, like we did, you’re using heat shrink tubing to secure the cross-over point of the loop in the next step, you’ll first need to slide a length of tubing onto the coax before you solder the ends together. Vlado, of course, thought of this in advance…I’m not so certain I would have!
Take your time soldering this connection and making it as solid as you can. If you solder it correctly, and you’re using a high-quality cable as we did, the cross-over point will be surprisingly durable. If you’re using a thinner cable, simply make sure the connection is solid, then use something to make the junction less prone to breaking––for example, consider sealing a length of semi-rigid tubing around this point.
Vlado cleverly added heat shrink tubing around the cross-over point to protect and secure it.
That’s all, folks! Now you’re ready to put your loop on the air.
Depending on what type of cable you used for this loop, you might require or prefer some sort of dielectric structure to support the loop so that it maintains the ideal round shape. My loop maintains its integrity pretty well without supports. I’ve supported it a number of times with fishing line/filament from two sides (tying on at 10 and 2 o’clock on the loop). That seems to work rather well.
In this setup, I simply used the back of a rocking chair to hold the antenna. As you can see, the loop maintained its shape rather well.
If you’d like to see and hear how this antenna performed on its first outing, check out this post.
Show the Post your loop!
If you build a NCPL antenna, please consider sharing your design here on the SWLing Post! Considering that there are a number of ways this loop can be built, and likely even more optimizations to improve it or make its construction even easier, we’d love to see your designs and/or construction methods. Please comment or, if you prefer, contact me.
And many thanks to my good friend Vlado (N3CZ) for helping me with this project and allowing me to document the process to share it here on the Post. Got a radio in need? Vlado’s the doctor!
Before I start talking Youloop, I have a little confession to make up front:
At the Winter SWL Fest when I gave a presentation about Portable SDR DXing, not only did I give attendees the wrong name of the Airspy Youloop antenna, but I also configured it incorrectly, hence the poor performance via my Miscrosoft Surface Go tablet PC.
I had assumed the the crossover component of the antenna was the transformer component. I realized the mistake I made when I saw some of the first promotional photos of the Youloop antenna a few weeks ago.
The crossover connects both sides of the loop while the tee junction contains the transformer.
Doh! I’m trying to forgive myself for making such an obvious mistake, but in my defence–and in the spirit of full disclosure–my antenna was a very early sample prototype without instructions, diagrams, etc. so I set it up imagining it being similar to the homebrew loop Vlado and I built. (FYI: When I say “Vlado and I built” it, I really mean, “Vlado built it.”)
So obviously I made a poor assumption.
Once I assembled the antenna correctly? Wow. Just. Wow!
Youloop: The ideal travel antenna for high dynamic range SDRs
The Youloop, Airspy HF+ Discovery, SDRplay RSPdx, and all cables easily fit in my Red Oxx Lil Roy pack.
The Youloop is truly the travel antenna I’ve always wanted for portable SDR DXing. Here’s why:
I’ve also used it numerous times with the new SDRplay RSPdx while using SDRuno in High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode. With the RSPdx, I can make spectrum recordings of the entire AM broadcast band. Note that HDR mode is only available on the RSPdx at 2 MHz and below, using the SDRuno app.
I have not tested the Youloop with other SDRs yet. I will soon test it with my WinRadio Excalibur.
So how well does the Youloop perform?
Listen for yourself!
I’m doing a little cargiving family members today. Their home is swimming in RFI (radio interference/noise). In the past, I’ve struggled to make good mediumwave recordings at their home–certainly an ideal situation for a mag loop antenna.
This morning, I wanted to record one of my favorite local AM stations (WAIZ at 630 kHz), so I set up the Youloop in the middle of a bedroom, hanging off a large bookshelf set against an interior wall. In other words: not an ideal situation.
When I plugged in the Airspy HF+ Discovery and loaded the Airspy SDR application, I fully expected to see a spectrum display full of broadband noise.
Instead, I saw signals. Lots of signals:
Sure, there’s some noise in there, but it’s low enough I could even do proper mediumwave DXing on most of the band if I wished.
In fact, if you’d like to experience the HF+ Discovery/Youloop pairing in this compromised, less-than-ideal DXing setup, why not tune through one of the spectrum recordings I made?
The recording was made on March 30, 2020 starting around 10:50 UTC. You’ll need to open this file inAirSpy’s free application SDR#or a third party SDR app that can read AirSpy .wav files.
I can’t wait to try the Youloop in other locations. Since we’re in lock-down due to Covid-19, I won’t be able to try the Youloop in a hotel any time soon. Almost all of my 2020 travel plans have been canceled.
If you have one of the SDRs mentioned above, go grab a Youloop. At $35 USD, it’s a fantastic deal.