This is a question that has circled around on the fringes of my consciousness for years now, but one that I’ve never quite found time to test. And it is a simple question: When using a random wire antenna with a portable shortwave receiver, is it better to string the wire vertically or horizontally, or does it even matter? Mostly this is a question when out camping, because arranging a 19′ wire vertically is usually a good bit more involved than just stringing it out along some nearby bushes.
Before going any farther, I want to point out that this is an exercise in ordinary backyard shortwave listening with relatively inexpensive equipment. There are many, many better-engineered and more costly solutions to the technical challenge of shortwave scanning, and this does not address any of those sophisticated approaches. This is for the person who opens up the box and wonders about the best way to hang the included long-wire auxiliary antenna.
Equipment: Tecsun PL-660 SW/AM/FM/Air Band receiver, with its included 19′ random-wire antenna. Internal battery power used.
Conditions & Time: Clear local weather. hamqsl.com’s nowcast of band conditions were fair from 3.5-14.35 MHz, and poor for higher frequencies, with SFI = 72, SN = 26, A = 5, K = 1. Time was 21:00-21:30 UTC, or 4-4:30 pm local CDT.
Procedure: Out in the backyard (typical residential neighborhood, well-spaced ~150′ between houses, above-ground power lines 125′ away), suspend random wire from ground to its full length. This was achieved using a length of paracord over a tree limb, with the tree trunk ~30′ from the radio’s location. With the PL-660’s antenna gain control set to “Normal” (i.e., the mid-setting of Local-Normal-DX) and the bandwidth set to narrow, use the receiver’s automatic scan function to see how many stations were received. Make notes of the number of transmissions detected, reception characteristics and quality, and any perceived noise levels. Re-orient the antenna to a low horizontal position, over two sawhorses approximately 3′ high (see picture), and repeat.
Sawhorses spaced ~17′ apart. Radio and notepad can be seen on ground in front of the near sawhorse.
Results: For the vertical antenna orientation, 32 stations were detected between 5959 – 15730 kHz. Nearly all were intelligible, with those at the lower end more steady and those a the higher end much more variable in strength. For the horizontal antenna orientation, 21 stations were detected between 9265 – 1570 kHz. Similar overall signal quality was heard for the received stations in either antenna orientation. More noise was noticeable at the lower frequencies between the stations for the vertical antenna orientation. However, this was significantly below the received signal levels, and not an issue in the overall listening quality.
Conclusions & Discussion:Suspending the wire antenna vertically worked better, especially at the lower frequencies. Getting a wire up 21’+ vertically is usually not as convenient as stringing it horizontally, but it may be worth the extra effort, depending on the location, campsite, nearby trees, etc. The overall conditions were typical for fall camping weather, with fair-to poor radio propagation conditions, so this result should be broadly applicable for how SW portables are often used. This result may change with propagation and radio noise conditions, both for atmospheric and local noise sources. Testing will continue as propagation conditions improve with solar cycle 25 getting underway.
Addendum, 10/12/20: While writing this up yesterday evening, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tested the PL-660’s built-in whip antenna. This comparison is important, because sometimes the wire antenna is too cumbersome to deploy. So, how does the whip antenna compare?
Conditions & Time: Overall, very similar to yesterday. hamqsl.com reports fair conditions from 3.5–14.35 MHz, and poor for higher frequencies. SFI = 72, SN = 26, A = 3, K = 1. Same time of day as yesterday’s testing.
Procedure: Repeat of yesterday, with the whip antenna added to the test. The whip was oriented vertically.
Results: For the vertical 19′ wire, 31 stations were found by the auto-scan function between 2380 – 15770 kHZ. Electrical noise was low but audible in the 3 MHz region, fading to none at higher frequencies, and not a significant source of interference with any stations. For the horizontal wire, 15 stations were found between 9265 – 13630 kHz. Electrical noise was barely audible. With the whip in use only 1 station was found. Switching the antenna gain to its DX (most sensitive) setting, 6 stations were found.
Revised Conclusions: Adding to yesterday’s conclusions, the whip antenna functioned but was vastly inferior to the wire antenna in either configuration, even with the gain set to DX. Today’s results with the wire antenna were, unsurprisingly, very similar to yesterday’s, given that the ionospheric and weather conditions were nearly identical. Noise was not a factor in receiving for any of these antennas or configurations, but did noticeably increase for the vertical wire antenna.
Thank you for sharing this, Rob! It’s experiments like this that help us determine, especially, what antenna setups work at our own particular locations since RFI characteristics can vary so much. I’m guessing had your horizontal wire been elevated to even 20′ off the ground it might have produced better results, but sometimes this can be difficult to achieve. I like how you used the auto search function to determine the number of stations you could receive with each setup and it was a great addition to include the built-in telescoping whip.
SWling Post contributor, Ron, recently noted that Jay Allen reviewed one of Paul’s inductively-coupled mediumwave magnetic loop antennas. Jay gave it good marks on performance as it compares favorably with the Grundig AN-200, Select-A-Tenna M, and Terk Advantage AM–even having a performance edge due to it’s larger loop diameter. (Note that Paul makes a number of loop sizes–click here to download PDF of catalog.)
In Canada last summer, I used the PK Loop on a number of field radio listening sessions.
But what really sets the PK Loop apart from its competitors is its durability. PK’s Loops are built to be incredibly rugged. I routinely throw my PK Loop antenna in bags/packs and–unlike most of my other radio components–never worry about how it’s padded or protected. There’s little to damage unless you’re intentionally abusive to this antenna. My Grundig AN-200 antenna, on the other extreme, has exposed coated wires around its loop that I’m constantly concerned about harming in transit.
Ron’s message reminded me that I never followed up after posting a preliminary review of the PK Loop C-LOOP-HDSW6-18 in 2016.
Shortly after publishing the review, I had a fantastic opportunity to evaluate how well the PK Loop would perform in a typical hotel room. My buddies Eric (WD8RIF), Miles (KD8KNC) and I stayed overnight in a hotel on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base during our mini National Parks On The Air DXpedition.
My Elecraft KX2 connected to an external random wire antenna.
The hotel room was indeed dense with RFI.
We hooked my Electraft KX2 to both the PK Loop and to a simple random wire antenna.
Without a doubt, the PK Loop was much better at mitigating radio noise than the wire antenna we hung on the inside of the hotel window.
Unlike most modern hotels, however, this one actually had operable windows, so we tossed the random wire out the window and made another comparison. In this case, the external wire antenna consistently outperformed the PK Loop, no doubt because it had the advantage of being outside the radio noise cloud within the hotel’s walls. It goes to show that outdoor antennas–even if simply hanging from a room window–will almost always outperform comparable indoor antennas.
A late evening listening session on the condo balcony.
Last summer, I also spent two months in a condo near Québec City. The condo was dense with RFI–the PK Loop made the experience much more bearable. The loop couldn’t completely eliminate all of the persistent wideband noise, of course, but it did reduce noise to a level that I could enjoy some of my favorites like RRI, VOG, VOT, REE, WRMI, RNZI and even weaker stations in North America like the BBC and DW.
Even the shortwave version of the PK Loop can null out QRM to some degree by rotating the loop perpendicular to noise. I became quite adept at this by the end of our stay.
Since I purchased the PK Loop, it’s been a constant travel companion and I highly recommend it. I don’t believe you’ll find a more durable or effective portable mag loop antenna on the market.
PK Loops are built by Paul Karlstrand in Australia who has a stellar reputation with his customers. For those of us living outside Australia, there will be additional shipping costs, but they’re negligible and Paul has been exporting these loops for many, many years. I believe I received my loop within a couple of weeks of ordering it.
Yesterday, an SWLing Post reader contacted me with questions regarding budget antenna choices for an urban apartment. He’s about to purchase an SDR, but knows that a decent antenna capable of coping with urban radio interference is a critical component.
I suggested that, since I’m no expert with urban interference, he pose his question to the SWLing Post community. Here’s his reply and request:
I know I’m a little behind some of my other radio friends, but I’m finally moving up to a software defined radio. Specifically the affordability of the SDRplay RSP and all good reviews for it have encouraged me to make the leap.
The SDRplay RSP software defined radio
I suppose it should go without saying that once I purchase an SDRplay I would like to use it, which might not be so easy. I live in a big city full of RF pollution, and most of my listening will be in a room where there’s a fair amount of electronic gadgetry.
So, without spending a lot of money, I’m curious if any of your readers might have suggestions about what I might purchase as a “starter kit” for a new SDR user in such a scenario. I also plan to take the SDRplay with me when I have forays out of the city, but I envision that some sort of long wire might be sufficient for listening out in the countryside.
I live on the second floor in an urban apartment, and have two windows in the room where I’ll be listening. There is zero chance that I can hang or attach anything on the outside of the house here. So, my most pressing question is about antenna ideas. I’ll need something inexpensive, as I mentioned, and something “off the shelf.” I don’t have the skills or tools to really “build” anything, unfortunately. So is there some less than pricy antenna or antennas I should look at? Or is there some hope of doing something with a long wire indoors?
Tecsun AN-100 portable loop antenna
And will my little Tecsun AN-100 AM loop antenna going to help me at all? I mostly plan to listen to MW and the HF bands, but I will inevitably check out signals far up the bands as well. So advise about listening to these bands is also of interest to me.
Other than that, I understand it’s important to attach the SDR to the laptop with a USB cable with ferrite chokes. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to buy some extra ferrite chokes to attach to other cables I might be using. I also plan to buy a NooElec mini-balun for use with a long wire antenna, and I already purchased a PowerMate USB knob because I still prefer to do my “tuning” that way.
So other than those basics my questions would be regarding connecting cables and adapters, and the best lengths of cable to use. Should I have some cable between the balun and SDR? I believe I’ve read that it’s better to have a longer USB cable and a shorter coax to the antenna, correct? And when it comes to using a wire antenna, are there preferences as far as what type or gauge of wire to use?
I am also interested in any general suggestions or tips from SDR users on getting started. In general, I’m pretty good with navigating through software, it’s usually the hardware issues that stump me. I’m looking to spend between $100 to $150 tops on everything besides the SDR, and I’d like to hear about peripherals, cables, adapters and connectors which when added all together won’t bust my bank.
I’m sure there’s plenty of people who read this wonderful blog who have plenty of useful knowledge regarding SDR listening on a budget. And I hope a few could share a little of their experience and collected wisdom on this topic here, for me and for others considering turning their computers into receivers…
Indeed. I appreciate this reader’s question, since many listeners live in environments with heavy radio interference. While we’ve published a number of posts touting the virtues of magnetic loop antennas, I don’t think we’ve ever looked for solutions at or below $150 US. While this may be a challenge, I’m also certain there are a number of readers who’ve found solutions to this problem.
So, Post readers, what might you do–or have you done–in similar circs? Please feel free to comment, and let’s explore inventive and affordable solutions for this reader!
Your goal was to assemble the best shortwave listening set-up possible for your virtual budget of $200 US. You were tasked to track down a radio kit that would keep you in touch with the world, and potentially afford you some very unique DX. [If you haven’t read the full virtual radio challenge, including all of the limitations you might face, I encourage you to check out this post before continuing.]
Your Reader Responses
And, wow, what great responses–! First, I want to thank all who participated in this challenge. No two responses were identical. Some truly surprised me…I must say, I sincerely hope you enjoyed this exercise as much as I enjoyed reading what you’ve sent to the SWLing Post!
Below you will find ten responses from readers, representing remarkable diversity in radio set-ups. Note that my comments follow; they are italicized and in bold.
Now, with no further ado…I welcome you to radio DX on Tristan de Cunha!
from Frank Holden
First up, Frank Holden, who submitted his entry at 3:00 AM–prior to leaving on a 6:40 AM flight. Obviously, travel was on this Post reader’s mind.
Based on both my own experience and recent swling.com research I would choose a:
Duct tape (for securing joints on Squidpole and taping top of ant to top of Squidpole) $2
20 metres of wire for antenna with fitted plug. $10
Cable ties for securing Squidpole to stake. $1
Coil 3mm diam polyester line for stays $10
One dozen big tent pegs. $12
Big hammer [Available locally!]
Squidpole Antenna (Photo courtesy of http://www.perite.com/)
Total is $210 Australian, so you will get change out of $200 US.
Feed antenna up inside the Squidpole and tape at the top…. The rubber ‘bobble’ is removeable.
Maybe run a short length of coax from radio to base of Squidpole.
Make sure the Squidpole is well stayed. My experience in VP8land and Tierra del Fuego is that the constant flexing in high winds will lead to squid pole failure. Mine were secured to the taffrail on my boat… i.e. at the base and 50cm up from base…. Failed at the 50 cm point. I have also had a 5 metre high quality (marine grade) alloy whip fail in the same manner.
Utilise rest of baggage allowance with warm clothes, rum (power outages… for use during), etc.
Thanks, Frank! I love the idea of the Squidpole as it can give you a little height when trees are absent. I have used a similar telescoping pole for Ham Radio QRP operations: a Jackite pole. I’ve broken the tip section twice already due to my own clumsiness–fortunately, the tip can be purchased separately. As you suggest, I bet the winds on Tristan Da Cunha would give the Squidpole a run for its money!
The Ham It Up v1.2 – NooElec RF Upconverter converts your RTL-SDR dongle into an HF receiver.
I propose using my current setup, since a laptop is a freebie here. I use the following in my setup:
That’s $157. That leaves $43 for a 25? length of coax and two MCX adapters. Coax run is $15 (at $0.39/ft for RG-8X.) I forgot how much the adapters were, but less than the $28 left over after buying the coax run.
Downside? I have no pole to support this, and houses on the island are only one story structures. I’ll have to attach the high end of the sloper to the peak of the home where I’m staying, and I’m sure that height is less than the 25? recommended by AlphaDelta. In addition, I’ll have to plant a stake at the lower end of the sloper to keep that end the recommended 8? above ground. I also made no provision for extra power if a power outage exceeded the amount of juice in my laptop battery.
If push came to shove, I would drop the MFJ 1020B for an extra $50 to buy supports or an extra battery.
Thanks, AB3RU! I’m willing to bet that you might find something on the island to support one end of your sloping antenna. It might be a challenge to meet the 25′ recommended height, as you stated. Still, this is an innovative and quite portable option!
Here are my choices:
A 50-100m wire to be used as an antenna for SW and MW. I imagine I’ll be able to catch a few MW stations from South America or Africa. As for choosing a radio…
I’ll need a good radio which allows using an external antenna not only for SW (all of them do) but also for MW (few of them do). I think there is only one radio which fits this requirement within the budget: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, available on Amazon.com at prices around $140. My other choice would be a Sangean ATS-909X which works very well with external antennas, but it’s more expensive.
I’ll also need two packs of 4 AA rechargeable batteries and a charger.
Thanks, Tudor! I believe your choice of the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is a very good one, as the Sony is a solid performer. It would be a challenge to find a new Sangean ATS-909X within your $200 budget–you would need to track down a used one, most likely. With the PL-660 in tow, you would then have a full $60 to purchase batteries, charger, and your antenna wire. Very workable!
It is through hole soldered so replacing parts is easy. Bring a bag of spare parts and a couple batteries. Get two headphones so that you and a friend can listen at the same time.
Thanks, KK6AYC! At $110 US, you would certainly have enough budget for spare parts, batteries, and antenna wire. While a regen receiver may not be for everyone, these do provide excellent sensitivity once you pass this rig’s learning curve for tuning. If the winds blow your external antenna around, you might have to ride that regen control! Great alternative to the typical portable–!
from John Treager
Next, John Treager, who writes:
Neat thought experiment! I’ve recently got back into SW listening after years away. I’ve been hitting your sites for two or three months and your weak station comparison really grabbed my attention but this one has lit the fire again.
[…]I’m a contract engineer who lives away from my primary residence most of the time so this challenge kind of strikes a chord. And, as I’m getting back into SWL, you’ve given me a reason to research (something engineers love to do!).
If I’m renting a room with a family on the island, headphones are a must. I’m cheap and traveling light so let’s go with Sony MDRZX100 headphones. I’ve used them for quite a while and like them. I find them comfortable for at least a couple of hours. Currently $15.09 on Amazon.
I enjoy the challenge of simplicity so, as far as an antenna goes, I would choose a simple long wire. Either a reel or one I build, $10-15. I get as much enjoyment from fussing with antennas as I do from turning knobs and dials. If my simple wire antenna doesn’t work when I get on location, then investigating and tinkering with antenna design and construction will fill the hours!
By the rules of the challenge, power is available but somewhat unreliable it sounds like. To meet that, I’m going with rechargeable batteries and enough to last for a while. AmazonBasics AA NiMH Rechargeable batteries (16 pack, 2000 mAh). Not the newest version, but should suffice for one year and 16 batteries should be enough for extended periods of no power. And, this may be a bit of a cheat, but I use AA batteries for everything, so I already have a charger!
Next, some sort of reference. I usually use either my laptop or a phone/tablet for frequencies/times from various sources, but given that there is no internet access in the residence and power may be occasionally spotty, let’s go with the World Radio/TV Handbook as a backup (I do miss Passport to World Band Radio!). I found WRTH on eBay (new, 2014 edition) for $27.24.
I assume I will have notebooks and pens for other reasons, so not included in the total.
Thanks, John! That should be enough AA batteries to keep you going well over a week with no power. Packing a WRTH makes a lot of sense. Via the island’s library Internet–however variable–you could download WRTH updates, as well.
from London Shortwave
The Global AT-2000 (Photo: RadioPics.com)
London Shortwave sent his suggestion in by tweet–a simple, proven combo:
If a laptop was coming along, I would have to use an SDR.
I would get the Afedri SDR USB-only model [see AFEDRI SDR-USB-HS above] for $159 (board only, I’d have to mount it in a sardine can). I would then use the remaining $41 for a cheap used antenna tuner and a random wire for an antenna. I think this kit would make for an excellent listening post.
Backup power would be a concern with the outages, so I am contemplating a 6-volt battery backup power system to power my Phillips 4-port USB hub (6 volt DC in requirement). From there the USB-hub will power/charge a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet (the laptop), the Afedri SDR and maybe a USB-powered speaker? Would have to test out this backup power scheme before boarding the boat!
I think I could do all of the above for $250 including the backup power system. Although it would likely push $300 when wires, cables etc are all in (does not include the tablet/laptop).
Thanks, Princehifi! So you’re a little over the $200 budget with all of the accessories, but if you already have a laptop and tablet, I think you could tweak your set-up to meet the budget goal. I did not realize that there was a USB only version of the Afedri SDR–I might have to get one of those myself!
Here’s my list. Where can’t get it locally and I don’t have a firm shipping cost, I’ve estimated it as an additional 20%. Stuff I can get locally (Radio Shack, etc.) I haven’t added any shipping or sales tax.
(That’s right, a spare radio. Because middle of nowhere.)
Grand total: $192
Now if I’m allowed to scrounge in the parts bin for stuff like 22 gauge antenna wire, RG58, and earbuds, there might be enough left over for a SECOND spare radio and 4 more Eneloops!
Thanks, Rob–you have a plan, indeed! Well thought through! I, too, would be very curious what sort of medium wave DX I could hear in the South Atlantic, especially since you know there would be no local blow-torch stations around. I have the Grundig version of the Tecsun AN200 and find it an essential antenna for portable MW DXing.
Grand total: $156.89 (all qualify for free shipping)
I’d guess I would save the rest for repair costs in case the radio acts up. Of course, I’d take the one I already have as a spare. When in remote locations, backups are essential so I probably bought more than most people think I need. And as far as the battery charger, rapid chargers are bad for most NiMH batteries so I went with a slower charger. And don’t forget that the Tecsun can charge the batteries in the radio when not in use.
Thanks, Michael! You are erring on the side of having extra batteries and more than enough wire for antennas; there’s no way you’ll run out in your one-year stay. On Tristan, I know that locals often trade supplies: those extra batteries may turn into an antenna support!
from Kenny B
Kenny B writes:
I love your site, I’m there everyday and almost forgot to enter so here it is:
1. Kaito 1102, I have had good luck with it and it has ssb, second choice would be a Tecsun PL-380, I really love this radio and it’s a great little dxing machine but no ssb. The Kaito is 64.95 on Amazon, free shipping.
8. Radio Shack 1/8th inch miniplug for end of coax, $4.00
Wow! Thanks, Kenny B! Other than the KA1102, your complete kit is DIY–I like it! You could build the battery charger and antenna prior to leaving.
1. Receiver: Wandel & Goltermann FE-8 Spy Radio Receiver (US$ 120 at a Hamfest)
Wandel & Goltermann FE-8 Spy Radio Receiver from the cold war (mine was manufactured in 1963. I bought it at a Hamfest in Sweden a month ago for the equivalent of US$ 120.[…]
For ruggedness there is nothing else like it. It is completely sealed and constructed from a single piece of die-cast machined aluminium and stainless steel. Just the thing for wet and rainy Atlantic islands! Covers 2.5 – 24 MHz and only needs 6 Volts at 8mA. A pack of twelve AAs will fit in my pocket and last at least a year with about three hours of listening every day. No adapter, no charger. The razor sharp 3.1 kHz Collins Mechanical Filter is not ideal for music but hard to beat for general news and SSB utility listening. Like the famous Collins R390 it uses a mechanical “digital” dial accurate to 1 kHz which also glows in the dark. […]It is smaller that a Tecsun 660 though it weighs a lot more. More about this radio here http://www.cryptomuseum.com/spy/sp15/fe8.htm
2. Antenna & Earth (US$ 15 in any electrical store)
Random length PVC insulated wires with a banana plugs- total 50 meters. The radio has a hi-impedance input and is sensitive enough to do a great job with just 20 m of wire. The rest is spare.
I’m all set for the trip now with $10 to spend on a supply of chewing gum. I know that this radio setup can easily deal with whatever is thrown at it… the question is if I can!
Thanks, Anil! Wow…I never saw that spy radio coming! It does look like an ideal radio for prolonged use and for pretty much any environmental conditions. I hope you realize that I will be bugging you (okay, pun intended!) to provide us with a few broadcast recordings from the FE-8. It’s certainly got my interest piqued!
Now, that was fun! Thank you all…
I know this sort of challenge may not appeal to everyone, but I really enjoy it. This sort of exercise forces you (though safely) outside the comfort-zone of a home radio set-up. Your responses are truly innovative. I only wish the Post could actually send our participants to Tristan de Cunha to try their set-ups out first-hand! I, for one, would love to come along…
Thanks, again, for your participation! If your response wasn’t included above, or I didn’t respond to you directly, please let me know: it’s possible I skipped over yours by mistake as there were quite a few responses to collate, and my email is managed by a rather discriminating SPAM filter.
Meanwhile, if you think of an alternative set-up–or would like to add your own to this post–please comment below!
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