Tag Archives: Wellbrook ALA1530

Guest Post: A review of the Icom IC-R8600 wideband SDR receiver

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who shares the following guest post:


ICOM’s IC-R8600:   Can this mega-radio stay in the ring with big gun “legacy” receivers when it comes to shortwave band reception?

by Dan Robinson

When ICOM rolled out its new wideband receiver, the IC-R8600, I immediately took an interest in it.  I have been primarily a hardcore DX’er and SWL and avoided purchasing wideband receivers, including the predecessor IC-R8500, because they were limited in areas such as selectivity.

My experience with ICOM includes owning a IC-R71A and R72, both of which I found to be strong performers, as well as a IC-R75.  The R75 as everyone knows established a reputation as an excellent receiver that delivered bang for the buck, including for example 1hz readout and extreme stability.

In its design decisions with the 8600, ICOM clearly intended to hit it out of the park, taking a huge step from the 8500.  That can be seen in the amazing color 4.3 inch LCD display with fairly fast spectrum scope and waterfall displays, coverage from 10 kHz to 3 gHz, decoding capability in multiple protocols, (Baudot RTTY, D-STAR™, NXDN™, dPMR™, DCR (Digital Communication Radio) and APCO P25, and the combination of SDR and superheterodyne circuitry, with 2000 memories.

The new Icom IC-8600 at the 2017 Hamvention

At this point, there have been numerous reviews of the 8600, and videos are all over YouTube showing the basics of its operation and features.  It has numerous flexibilities selected from the front panel and within the menu system.  The ability to record directly to SDHC cards eliminates the need to attach an external solid state recorder (over the course of my DX career I accumulated many of these).  I can’t say enough about this capability which automatically keeps fully labeled logs.

Other features include ICOM’s wonderful Twin Passband Tuning, combined with the ability to adjust filters 1/2/3, adjustable attenuation, Digital AFC, tone controls, noise blanker digital noise reduction, speech enunciator, main tuning dial tension adjustment, synchronous L/U/Double sideband, adjustable panel brightness . . . in short, just about everything one would think should be included in a 21st century receiver of this kind, ICOM put in the 8600.  The firmware update released recently (1.30) added the capability to use the radio’s IQ output with HDSDR software, which means that the receiver is now not only a standalone but also functions easily with a PC.

Since the 8600 has been on the market for some time now, I discussed with Thomas Witherspoon of SWLing Post, the idea of obtaining an 8600 for the specific purpose of comparing it to some of the top receivers in my collection.

JRC NRD-515

At the current time, that list includes a JRC NRD-545, the Drake R-8 (original version purchased in 1993), JRC NRD-515, Watkins Johnson 8718A/MFP, Cubic R-2411, and a McKay Dymek DR-33C.  All of the radios in my shack use a Wellbrook 1530 loop, fed through a RF Systems DA-8 Distributor/Amplifier which maintains signal levels from all outputs.

Watkins Johnson 8718A/MFP

A surprising outcome of my comparisons of the 8600 to these radios is that my appreciation of the qualities of these older receivers was actually re-ignited–so much so that some that had been on my ‘to sell’ list are now back in the ‘keepers’ column.  This is not as much a criticism of the 8600, as it is a reaffirmation of the quality that was built in to some of the great receivers of yesteryear.

Because my collection actually extends across 2 or 3 rooms, moving the 8600 away from my central receiver “stack” was not possible, so testing comparisons were limited to the sets mentioned above.  I would have liked to compare the 8600 with, for example, some classic tube receivers (HQ-180A, Eddystone 830/7), but they have been mostly inactive and located away from incoming antenna inputs.

Here in Potomac, MD outside of Washington, DC, the addition of the Wellbrook a few years ago, after years suffering with long wires, fundamentally changed a difficult situation. Signals were boosted, noise reduced.  I wish things had continued this way.  Unfortunately about a year ago, my area began to be plagued by a troubling ignition-type buzz, source unknown, targeting 11,500 to 12,100 khz though noticed elsewhere in the shortwave bands. It has continued, usually worse in summer than in winter.

I begin with this to underscore what I noticed as a high point for the 8600:  its Noise Blanker and digital noise reduction are in my opinion quite effective, so much so that when properly adjusted, they can eliminate troublesome ignition-type noise.  While NR is useful, as noted in other reviews it needs to be used carefully so as not to introduce too much digital suppression.

Here is an example of NB and NR in use against severe ignition-type noise at my location:

Click here to view on YouTube.

In August of 2017, I had my first experience tuning a 8600 at a DXpedition in Ohio.

So, I had a basic grasp of the various controls — the A/B/C knobs, and the menu system.  When I received my review unit from ICOM last November, I was up and running quickly, but still puzzled over some aspects of the receiver’s operation.

Thanks to Dave Zantow who alerted me to a possible issue involving firmware 1.30 which appeared to introduce an increase in audio harshness (ICOM has been alerted to this).  Dave also had suggestions (see his full review of the 8600 and other receivers on his site) about audio adjustment and speakers, and tweaking of the front display to make maximum use of the Peak and Waterfall settings.  Dave emphasizes that careful adjustment is required of the 8600’s tone controls and AGC decay settings to get the most out of the receiver.

Because it is among the receivers in my shack in close proximity to the 8600, I chose to perform a number of tests comparing the ICOM to the Japan Radio Company NRD-545.  As everyone knows, the 545 was the last in JRC’s prosumer line of receivers.  It is feature-rich — JRC threw everything into this receiver.  But one issue followed JRC receivers through the 5xxxx series — noisy audio.  After finally acquiring a 545 some years ago (a high serial number unit formerly owned by the late Don Jensen) I jumped on that bandwagon of criticisms about the 545’s audio.  However, in terms of sensitivity and numerous tools to hear and process signals, the receiver remains among my favorites, and this remains the case after my comparisons with the 8600.

When I compared signals heard by the 8600 with the 545, I found that while the JRC does have that ‘DSP’ sound, it was in many situations actually clearer than the ICOM. That was the case even when following advice on adjusting the 8600’s tone controls and AGC.  The following two videos compare the 545 and 8600 on 5,905 khz and 17,655 khz.  A third shows the receivers on 6,040 khz demonstrating effectiveness of their notch filtering capabilities:

ICOM IC-R8600 v NRD-545 on 5,905 kHz

Click here to view on YouTube.

ICOM IC-R8600 v NRD-545 on 17,655 kHz

Click here to view on YouTube.

ICOM IC-R8600 v NRD-545 notch on 6,040 kHz

Click here to view on YouTube.

My next comparison was the Drake R8.   Little can be said about the Drake R8xxxx series of receivers that hasn’t been said.  That superb Drake audio, established with the R8 and continued through the R8B, puts these receivers at the top of the heap and makes stations stand out.  So, it’s little surprise then when compared to the 8600, which is an SDR in the HF range up to 30 mhz or so, the R8 still sounded superior on many, though not all, stations.  Use of the SYNC mode (not adjustable on the original R8, but was on the R8A/B) also improves recoverable detail on the Drake.

The following video shows the 8600, 545 and finally the R8 on 5,995 khz (Mali), and the three receivers compared on 9,650 khz (Guinea), and a third comparing the 8600 with the full range of receivers in my main receiver stack, tuned to 9,415 khz which at the time was China Radio International.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Despite what some critics have said, I believe that the 8600’s synchronous detection modes are actually pretty good, helping with fading and stabilizing signals. I think the ICOM’s sync is certainly superior to what I experienced with the IC-R75. I would rate the SYNC on the AOR 7030+ superior to the 8600, with the NRD-545 a bit behind the 8600.

Acquired about 2 years ago, my AOR-7030+ is a late serial number version of this fantastic receiver.  If I were to sell every radio in my shack but 5, the 7030 would not leave.  Put simply, it is among the top shortwave receivers ever made, with off-the-charts audio, and if one has the rare NB7030 card, amazing notch and other capabilities.  Comparing the 7030 to almost any other shortwave receiver ever made is like putting a Ferrari on the track with the competition.  The audio, and reception tools are just that good.

At the same time, in the 8600 ICOM has produced a receiver that has as many of the essential tools required to manipulate and clarify signals as exist.  The twin passband tuning continues to be superb.  Being able to vary bandwidth in conjunction with the PBT, and do so even in SYNC mode, further enhances reception powers.  Combine this with the ability to actually see signals on the 8600’s beautiful color LCD — we’re getting pretty close to the ultimate receiver (though I would love for someone to drop the successor to ICOM’s IC-R9500 on my front doorstep).

The following videos compare the 8600 to the same full range of receivers, ending with the Watkins Johnson 8718A/MFP, all tuned to 5,935 khz, followed by a comparison of receivers tuned to 5,000 khz

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

In the following videos, I compare the 8600 to other receivers 11,810 khz (BBC) which shows
the superb audio of the Drake R8xxxx series, yet the 8600 does quite well, and another video
compares the 8600 with the 545 and R8 tuned to 6,070 khz.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

In the months that I have had the 8600, I did some comparisons with other receivers, among them my Watkins Johnson 8718A/MFP, which you saw in several videos.  WJs prior to the 8711/HF-1000s were built like boat anchors and are QUIET.  WJ, Cubic and similar sets manufactured for government and intelligence agencies, shared superb sensitivity, and most cases, excellent audio.

Comparisons of the 8600 on shortwave frequencies had the so-called Premium radios out front. The ICOM clearly shined when it comes to modern signal processing and adjustment tools such as PBT, Notch, and infinitely variable selectivity.

Summary

So, here’s a summary of my impressions after weeks of testing the ICOM IC-R8600 against some of the top gun receivers of yesteryear.

The 8600 scores a 10 on reception tools that are useful — though not crucial in these days of waning shortwave broadcasting activity — in producing and processing listenable audio:  Twin PBT, Notch and Auto-Notch, Variable Bandwidths (though limited at the high end to 10 kHz), Pre-Amp and Attenuation, and that beautiful color LCD that allows one to see signals.

Predictably, the 8600 doesn’t blow away premium receivers that were manufactured to pick up the signal equivalent of butterflies and targeted government and spy agencies, and it also does not out-perform a range of other classic receivers whose reputations are well-established.

From a sensitivity and audio perspective, there is no real competition with the Drake R8, which time and time again excels in producing superior easy-to-listen audio.  And the same holds for the AOR 7030+.

JRC’s NRD-515 more than holds its own and in many cases exceeds the 8600 in signal sensitivity, and producing listenable audio, despite its selectivity limitations.

The NRD-545 — maligned by critics for its DSP audio, often produced highly-listenable audio even in comparison with the 8600.  The ICOM and the 545 share features that provide tremendous flexibility, the tools required to slice and dice signals.  If the JRC NRDxxx receivers were the modern equivalent of such boat anchor classics as the Hammarlund HQ-180A, the 8600 is certainly at the top of the heap when it comes to having those same tools in a 21st century receiver.

Audio Samples

I performed some additional audio only tests between the 8600 and NRD-545 on several frequencies.  In each, I carouseled from wide to narrow on the 8600, and did the same on the NRD-545.   Here are the results:

9,445 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

9,420 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

11,735 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

11,810 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

11,945 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

15,580 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

6,070 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

9,650 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

11,900 kHz

IC-R8600

NRD-545

You may have noticed that while on some examples the 8600 appears to sound better, the 545, with DSP technology born in the 1990’s is more than competitive with the ICOM.

Conclusion

In conclusion, with the 8600 we have a receiver that tunes up to 3 gHz, with highly flexible color scope, usable with HDSDR, with every tool imaginable for sifting through signals from 10 kHz up to 30 MHz, which is the area I have focused on for decades.

ICOM’s superb Twin PBT knocks out interference and narrows the heck out of any signal, with highly adjustable notch capabilities, customizable bandwidth functions, and what I consider to be highly effective noise blanking and noise reduction.  Add to this 2,000 memory channels, multiple antenna inputs, adjustable attenuation and AGC and you have far more than what is needed given the current state of shortwave broadcasting.

Here’s the tough question:  Would I recommend that a shortwave listener focused on what remains of listening in the SW bands purchase a 8600?  Or to put it another way: Is the 8600 that much of a better radio in the SW spectrum?  The answer has to be no.

Numerous receivers from the classics to even the latest portables with multiple selectivity flexibility (see the XHDATA D-808 or Eton Satellit) work for that.  The used market overflows with superb HF communications receivers.  Any of the Drake R8xxx series receivers, available on the used market for $400 to $1,000, now constitute overkill when it comes to reception in the MW to 30 mHz range.

But if you can project someday to having the time and patience to apply yourself to what is available above 30 MHz, and have the appropriate antenna(s) for those ranges, then by all means, the 8600 is the radio for you.  It is the Babe Ruth’s bat of the receiver world — AND it has numerous flexible tools (though one wishes that ICOM had included DRM capability).

As I finalized this review, I continued to wrestle with the decision of purchasing the 8600 that was so generously provided by ICOM.  You won’t read here what my final decision was–but anyone who is interested can contact me in coming days and weeks to learn the answer.

Last minute update  Just before this review went to press, I discovered an issue of concern:  when the 8600 was left on overnight, or for any period of multiple hours, upon awakening from “sleep” (screen off) mode, nothing but distortion is heard from the speaker.  The only solution was to perform a POWER OFF/POWER ON, after which normal audio was heard.  This issue was I brought to the attention of ICOM.

I want to thank Ray Novak and Faheem Hussain of ICOM for providing the 8600 used in this comparison, and for their patience as I encountered several delays completing my review and getting to print.  And thanks to Thomas Witherspoon without whose initial encouragement, this review would not have been possible.


Dan, thank you for an amazing IC-R8600 review and comparison with your benchmark commercial grade receivers! Thanks for taking the time to make thorough comparison video and audio recordings. Your guest posts are always most welcome on the SWLing Post!

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Urban DXing: testing the Bonito Boni whip against a 30 metre longwire & the Wellbrook ALA15030

Hi there, if like me, you live in an urban environment, chances are QRM is having a negative impact on the quality of the signals you’re receiving at home. The presence of electrical noise makes antenna choice very important, particuarly if you’re planning to spend more than a few £££s on something more sophisticated than a length of wire. Recently I was considering the the purchase of a second compact antenna, for use at home in my shack and out and about on DXpeditions. I already had the excellent Wellbrook ALA1530 H field antenna, but at more than £250, it’s very costly and thus it seemed rather extravagent to buy a second one, if I could find something with similar performance for less expense. Space is at a premium at home and of course I take much of my equipment out on DXpeditions, so the Bonito Boni whip active antenna appeared to be an ideal choice. A wideband active antenna (from 20 kHz to 300 MHz) operating from 12 to 15V DC, with a very compact form-factor definitely ticked all the boxes. Furthermore, with reasonable second and third order intercept points of +55 and +32.5 dBm respectively, the Boni whip, on paper at least, looked like a pretty good buy at around £100.

 

Now, clearly, an E field antenna such as the Boni whip is not going to match the SNR provided by the H field Wellbrook ALA1530 in a noisy, urban environment. I have uploaded a few reception videos to my YouTube channel to demonstrate this, making a direct comparison of the two. However, what about the performance of the whip versus a simple longwire in an urban environment? Is there a delta in performance? The value proposition of the whip is primarliy in it’s performance, coupled with portability I suppose, but that must be considered a secondary requirement. The whip might be 10 or 15 times more expensive than a reel of cheap equipment wire, but will the reception justify the cost delta?!

Text links follow directly below, with embedded videos thereafter; you will find 3 reception videos comparing the whip and a 30 metre longwire, on shortwave and one each for LW and MW. At the end of each video there’s a section with the Wellbrook loop, just to calibrate where the longwire and whip are in terms of a much more effective H field antenna. The result? Well, there’s not much to separate the longwire and Boni whip, except on LW, where the whip prevails. A friend told me recently, if reception is rubbish at home under a blanket of QRM, don’t blame the antenna, the noise is the real problem. He was right. So, the next tests are to be undertaken out in the field, where the whip has a real chance to shine. I’m rooting for it because to have an antenna that performs as well as, or close to my loop out in the woods, yet can be packed away into a small case would be brilliant. Thanks for reading/watching/listening.



Clint Gouveia is the author of this post and a regular contributor to the SWLing Post. Clint actively publishes videos of his shortwave radio excursions on his YouTube channel: Oxford Shortwave Log. Clint is based in Oxfordshire, England.

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Transatlantic medium wave DX: 3 Canadian stations rarely heard in Oxford, UK

Hi there, I thought I’d share with you, three recent catches from Canada that I had not previously heard here in Oxford, UK, over the past 18 months of DXing. The first is VOWR, a religous station in Saint John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. At the time of reception their TX power was 2.5 kW, thus a really pleasing catch. 800 kHz is such a difficult channel to DX in Europe due to heavy adjacent channel QRM, but the brilliant selectivity of the Elad FDM DUO operating via the FDM-SW2 software performed really well, producing mostlyy intelligble audio on LSB with an audio bandwidth filter of 2.1 kHz. Below is an embedded video and text link.

MW DX with 200 m Beverage: VOWR 800 kHz, St. John’s, N&L, first reception, with ID

The next reception video is CHHA ‘Voces Latinas’ from Toronto on 1600 kHz. This was the biggest surprise because this channel at the start of the X-band is dominated by The Caribbean Beacon, Anguilla. In fact, I would go so far as to say I’ve never heard anything else but Anguilla on 1600 kHz. The only difference in this reception is that it occurred relatively late in the morning for me – around 7:45 am. To catch CHHA for the first time, with a very clear ID was great, I hope to hear them again soon.  Below is an embedded video and text link.

Finally, a reception video of CBC Radio 1, transmitting on 1140 kHz. CBC are very often herad at my shack in Oxford, in fact, I see at least one carrier, usually with audio most evenings/mornings and often multiple signals are present across 600, 750 and 1400 KHz. However, their transmission from Sydney, Nova Scotia had never been copied previously and so this was a pleasing catch. Below is an embedded video and text link.


Thanks for reading/watching/listening and I wish you all great DX!

Clint Gouveia is the author of this post and a regular contributor to the SWLing Post. Clint actively publishes videos of his shortwave radio excursions on his YouTube channel: Oxford Shortwave Log. Clint is based in Oxfordshire, England.

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Which is the best? Sony ICF-2001D/2010 or ICF-SW77? Part two

sony-test

Hi there, after the first set of recordings were analysed, the score was 4-3 to the ICF-2001D, demonstrating how similar these two great receivers are in overall performance. There were a copule of notable differences however. The synchronous detection circuit on the ICF-2001D allows the user to effectively tune through a signal in 01. kHz steps, whilst the receiver automatically locks onto either the upper or lower sideband, depending on the frequency offset. The ICF-SW77 synchronous detection system differs in that the user must tune the signal and select the sideband. The results of this test confirmed that whilst the ICF-2001D almost always retained SYNC lock, the ICF-SW77 was very prone to losing lock, which of course affected the audio quality in many cases. The other issue was with the ICF-SW77 in that the narrow audio bandwidth filter often seemed to deliver ‘muddy’ audio. Whilst this feature proved to be excellent in terms of mitigating adjacent channel QRM, it also reduced signal clarity/ audio discernibility a little too much in my opinion. However, overall, sensitivity and selectivity was very similar between both radios – in fact, one recording had to be judged a draw (Radio Bandeirantes, Sao Paolo on 9645.4 kHz) – I simply couldn’t split them. Part two of the reception testing follows, using signals from Canda, DR Congo, Brazil, Cuba and Peru.

I hope you enjoy the recordings – text links and embedded videos follow below:


 

 

 

 

 

 

Clint Gouveia is the author of this post and a regular contributor to the SWLing Post. Clint actively publishes videos of his shortwave radio excursions on his YouTube channel: Oxford Shortwave Log. Clint is based in Oxfordshire, England.

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Medium wave DX: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela heard in Oxford, UK

part-south-america

Hi there, I thought I would share a few recent medium wave DX catches from South America. In the past month or so, I’ve managed to record signals from Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and one that I’m particularly happy about – Ecuador, which is rarely reported in Europe. All catches were obtained with my usual indoor home set-up – the brilliant little Elad FDM DUO coupled to the equally brilliant Wellbrook ALA1530 active loop antenna. I have started to take the Elad on DXpeditions now, having constructed a battery pack for it, but the results I’m yielding outdoors are so far mainly with shortwave reception, where the improvement in SNR is quite obvious in the size of the carriers I’m observing and much improved modulation/ audio clarity on the Tropical Band. Hopefully in time, similar results will yield on medium wave. In the meantime, Im very happy with the indoor performance and these catches demonstrate that. There are many more reception videos on my YouTube channel Oxford Shortwave Log, including a large number of signals recorded from North America on medium wave. Direct links follow below and further down, embedded reception videos. Thanks very much for watching, listening and I will you all excellent DX.


Medium wave DX: Radio Huellas 1470 kHz, Cali, Colombia, first reception

 

Medium wave DX: Bethel Radio 1570 kHz, Lima Peru, first reception

 

Medium wave DX: Radio Santa Maria 1490 kHz, Azogues, Ecuador

 

Medium wave DX: YVKS RCR 750 Radio Caracas 750 kHz, Venezuela

 

Clint Gouveia is the author of this post and a regular contributor to the SWLing Post. Clint actively publishes videos of his shortwave radio excursions on his YouTube channel: Oxford Shortwave Log. Clint is based in Oxfordshire, England.

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