Tag Archives: Wideband receivers

Dave reviews the Icom IC-R8600

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dave Zantow (N9EWO) who writes:

Just FYI. My Icom IC-R8600 “Wide Band” Receiver Review is now available. Mind you this is subject to more updates than usual at least for awhile. For any questions, yes please send them along.

http://webpages.charter.net/n9ewo2/icr8600.html

“The excellent ICOM IC-R8600 “Wide Band” SDR communications receiver. Direct Sampling SDR below 30 Mhz. Hybrid Superhet / SDR above 30 Mhz. It is NOT just a IC-7300 “receiver” section with VHF / UHF Coverage added on (however overall HF receiver performance is similar). In our view the best receiver Icom has produced to date (“Wide Band” or not). One MUST remember this is NOT a “scanner” type receiver, so no Trunking etc. Audio quality while very good, we detected some minor harshness and or spurious gremlins that we could not put a handle on in the AM / FM and WFM modes (with all 3 test speakers, Firmware 1.10, see text) ?? This was not an issue at all with the IC-7300 Transceiver cousin, but it has much less dynamic (flat) audio in comparison.”

Many thanks, Dave! Post readers, please bookmark Dave’s IC-R8600 page for all updates.

Icom IC-R8600 pricing and availability

The new Icom IC-8600 at the 2017 Hamvention

At the 2017 Hamvention, I spent a little time checking out Icom’s latest wideband communications receiver: the IC-R8600. Check out the photos above and below.

The IC-8600 Back Panel

I spoke with Icom North America at Hamvention–the representative told me the MSRP of the IC-R8600 would be about $2,999 US, but that retail pricing would be lower.

Universal Radio now has the IC-R8600 in stock with a retail price of $2599 US. HRO has the IC-R8600 in stock as well and selling for the same price.

No doubt, at this price point, the ‘8600 is not ideally placed to compete with other receivers and SDRs. I do, however, believe this product will do well with government sales. No doubt, it should deliver benchmark performance (at least one would expect benchmark). Icom has offered to send me an IC-R8600 on loan for a review–it is tempting to see how it might stack up against some of my SDR arsenal.

I’m very curious Post readers: assuming benchmark performance, how many of you would purchase the IC-R8600 at $2,599 US? Please comment!

An SWL’s review of the Icom IC-R6 Sport 16 wideband handheld receiver

The following review originally appeared in the SEptember 2016 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


icom-ic-r6-angle

Over the past year, I’ve received a number of inquiries from readers who are considering purchasing a handheld wideband receiver. This is a market I’ve never truly explored because, to be honest, I’m partial to the HF part of the spectrum, and wideband receivers have always seemed more akin scanners than to shortwave receivers.

But lately, readers have specifically asked about the Icom IC-R6, a compact handheld receiver that covers from 100 kHz to 1309.995 MHz. What makes the IC-R6 appealing is that––at just $175 US––it is one of the least expensive wideband handhelds/scanners on the market that not only covers the shortwave bands, but also the AM broadcast, Longwave, FM broadcast, & NOAA weather frequencies.

Over the years I’ve read numerous reviews of the IC-R6 and other wideband receivers. Reviewers of this handheld receivers typically gloss over shortwave and mediumwave reception, and for good reason––it’s generally known that you just can’t have the best of both worlds in the sub-$300 price range. This makes sense, as there are invariably performance compromises when you pack wideband reception into such a tiny package: manufacturers usually put a performance emphasis on the VHF/UHF bands rather than on HF or mediumwave.

Still, I was curious enough about the IC-R6 to want to put it through its paces on shortwave and mediumwave, so I contacted Icom, who generously sent me an IC-R6 on extended loan for the purpose of this review

Usability/Ergonomics

Here I need to throw out a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of handheld radio (Handy Talky) ergonomics.

The IC-R6, like most other tiny handhelds, has a spartan array of buttons, all of which have multiple functions. Like its compact competitors, it also lacks a direct entry keypad-––after all, there’s simply no room for a keypad, and if there was one, it would obviously be too small to use.

icom-ic-r6-frequency

That being said, however, I must say that Icom has done a surprisingly good job of making the IC-R6 usable in the field.

If, like me, you’re the type of person who typically ignores the owner’s manual when you first receive a new radio, the IC-R6 may prove frustrating. Fortunately, the Icom user manual is superb, and well worth the read. It’s very well written, and takes you through each function step by step. The 80-page manual is entirely in English (the US version, at least) and even has a cut-out pocket guide in the end. Brilliant!

Once I spent a few minutes reading through the IC-R6 manual’s outline of its basic functions, I found most operations are simple and relatively easy to remember.

icom-ic-r6-leftside

What makes each operation handy is that the Function key––which helps toggle the four multi-function buttons––is located where the PTT (push to talk) button would be on an amateur handheld transceiver. It’s actually a great location for the button because it allows one hand to hold the radio and push the function button, permitting the other hand to push a front panel button. Though I initially felt I was keying up to “transmit” on an HT, it soon became apparent that this is a very logical key placement.

Tuning

Tuning with the IC-R6 is relatively easy and straightforward.

Simply select a band with the BAND button. Next, adjust the volume with the UP/DOWN arrow buttons, and the squelch (if needed) by holding the squelch button and turning the tuning knob. Then you may use the tuning knob to tune up and down the band.

icom-ic-r6-top

If you want to quickly skip to another part of the bands, hold down the function key while turning the tuning knob, and the R6 will tune in 1 MHz steps. I’ve found that this helps to move across the spectrum quite quickly and compensates for the lack of a direct entry keypad.

You can also easily change the tuning steps by pressing the TS button and using the tuning knob to cycle through selections (a total of fourteen possible step selections are available between 5 kHz and 100 kHz).

Over the course of a few months of using the IC-R6, I’ve learned a couple of methods to adapt to its lack of a direct-frequency entry keypad:

  • using the 1 MHz tuning steps, as mentioned above
  • loading the memory channels with band edges and your favorite frequencies (with 1300+ memory slots, there are many ways to manage your tuning)

Mediumwave/AM Broadcast Band Performance

Surprisingly, the IC-R6 has a tiny internal ferrite bar antenna for mediumwave/AM broadcast band reception. This is a welcome feature because there’s no need to remove the supplied rubber-duck antenna to connect an external antenna for broadcast listening.

icom-ic-r6-back

In terms of AM performance, I was happy with the IC-R6. I’m able to receive all of my local AM broadcasters with decent signal strength. I’m even able to reliably receive one 25-mile-distant daytime broadcaster; this truly surprised me, especially since the internal antenna must be minuscule.

Is the IC-R6 a good choice for a mediumwave DXer? Unfortunately, no. The AGC struggles with weak nighttime conditions, and frankly, with such a small ferrite bar antenna, nulling capabilities are minimal. If you’re a MW DXer, I would suggest carrying a small ultralight portable along with the IC-R6.

The IC-R6 also covers the longwave bands, but I would never use it even for casual longwave listening as the tuning steps are limited to 5 kHz increments.

Still: to have a respectable little AM receiver in a handheld scanner––? It’s great!

Shortwave Performance: Sensitivity

As I said, most reviewers gloss over shortwave reception on handhelds. I thought I’d put the IC-R6 through a more thorough test.

icom-ic-r6-in-hand

Note that, being fully aware of its limitations, I never used the stock rubber-duck antenna to test shortwave reception; instead, I used a long piece of thin co-ax attached to five- and ten-foot sections of wire. I tried longer and shorter pieces of wire, as well, but found that 5-10’ seemed to hit the sweet spot in terms of sensitivity.

To be honest, I had fairly low expectations of the IC-R6. I knew that the shortwave/HF bands are truly just an added feature on this rig, and realized that the R6 is more akin to a scanner rather than a shortwave radio. But in terms of sensitivity, I found I was rather impressed with the IC-R6.

The first morning I tested shortwave reception, propagation was, at best, mediocre. Yet I was able to copy WWV on 10 and 15 MHz without much trouble. I could receive all of the strong North American private broadcasters, like WTWW, WRMI and, of course, most frequencies occupied by Radio Havana Cuba and China Radio International––all of these are broadcasters that my shortwave portables can readily receive here in my region. Moreover, in the mornings, I’ve also been able to receive one of my staple shortwave broadcasters on the R6: Radio Australia. It’s nice to imagine that if I were camping, the little R6 could serve up my morning dose of news from Down Under.

All in all, I’m fairly pleased––and surprised!––by the IC-R6’s sensitivity.

Here’s an example of reception when tuned to WRMI, a strong station in my region. [Fun side note: I had no idea that, as I was recording, I would hear my buddies Mark Fahey and Jeff White on the air!]

Shortwave Performance: Selectivity

On the flip side, the IC-R6’s selectivity is unfortunately quite poor. I anticipated this.

Almost any of the strong signals I receive can be heard with equal fidelity when tuned off-frequency 5 kHz to either side of the carrier. You can pretty much forget discerning between two adjacent signals that are only spaced 5-10 kHz apart.

And yet while this would be a deal-breaker for me on a dedicated shortwave portable, this wouldn’t stop me from purchasing the IC-R6. Since we don’t have the crowded shortwave landscape we used to, selectivity is much less of an issue these days.

So, for some casual SWLing while say, backpacking? The IC-R6 does the trick!

The IC-R6 runs efficiently on a set of two standard AA cells.

The IC-R6 runs efficiently on a set of two standard AA cells.

I should note here that I never connected the IC-R6 to any of my large outdoor antennas. First of all, I didn’t want to risk damaging the front end of the receiver (especially since this is a loaner), and secondly, I knew the IC-R6’s poor selectivity would only be exacerbated if gain were significantly increased. I also want to caution readers from doing this, as I suspect the IC-R6’s front end will seriously overload on a large antenna.

Auto-Memory Write Function

The IC-R6 has a very cool scanning function similar to the ETM auto-scan on Tecsun portables, known as the “auto-memory write function.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Simply select the band you wish to scan.
  2. Set squelch level.
  3. Select the scanning range. There are several options here:
  4. Full scan, which scans the entire frequency range of the IC-R6 (you’ll want to grab a cuppa coffee, as this will take a while)
  5. Selected Band Scan, which only scans all of the frequencies with the band’s edges
  6. Programmed Scan, which scans between two user-programmed frequencies
  7. Finally, press the SCAN/MODE button to start the scan and the V/M button to engage the auto-memory write function..

The radio will then scan according to your selected scan mode, pausing for an interval of about five seconds on each signal it finds, and writing it to one of the auto-memory write channel groups (000-999) for your convenient access.

icom-ic-r6-display

 

To recall the auto-memories once scanning ends, simply press the V/M button to enter the memory mode, select the band with the BAND button, then use the tuning knob to scan through the signal catches.

Once you’ve experimented with this process a couple of times, it becomes second nature, and is very handy.

One negative: since the IC-R6’s HF selectivity is lacking, you could possibly get double or triple auto-memory writes for really strong broadcasters.

Programming software and cable

I’ll be frank here: if you plan to purchase an IC-R6 and load it with memory channels, you’ll be well-served to purchase programming software and a cable as well. Entering frequencies by hand is tedious, especially if you want alpha-numeric labels.

wcsr6-usb-2tI’m very partial to the cables and software offered by RT Systems. Besides having the most user-friendly programming software I’ve personally used, RT Systems also offers consistency in terms of set-up and application user-interface across their whole product line. For example, I own a Yaesu VX-3R which I’ve programmed with the RT Systems software; when I want to import all of my VX-3R frequencies into the IC-R6, it’s a simple process with the aid of RT Systems software.

RT Systems supports almost all programmable amateur radio transceivers and receivers on the market, which means that it makes for a great cross-manufacturer link between all of your gear.

Summary

Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here’s a list of my notes from the moment I put the Icom IC-R6 on the air:

Pros:

  • Very compact, handy size with respectable ergonomics
  • Scanning
    • Frequency/Memory scanning very fast
    • Quickly scans AM/SW/FM/VHF/UHF bands
  • Acceptable shortwave sensitivity for most regionally-strong broadcasters (see selectivity con)
  • Great Auto Squelch function that seems to be effective even on the HF bands
  • Attenuation setting which helps the front end from overloading
  • Wide array of scanning options
  • Long operating time with AA batteries

Cons:

  • User interface
    • Very difficult programming without external software/programming cable
    • No keypad for frequency direct entry
  • Audio, via built-in speaker, is tinny; headphones help, but audio output is mono
  • Almost non-existent shortwave selectivity (see sensitivity pro)
  • Tuning steps are limited to 5 kHz increments, which may be insufficient on SW/MW and LW
  • No SSB mode (though no other wideband receiver in the under-$300 price range offers SSB)

Conclusion

icom-ic-r6-full

The Icom IC-R6 is one little powerhouse receiver with many, many listening possibilities. With this one radio, you can listen to everything from local VHF/UHF repeaters, to local law enforcement and emergency services, aviation frequencies, NOAA weather radio, the FM broadcast band, AM broadcast band––and, yes, even shortwave.

If you’re looking for an all-in-one receiver to take on hikes, to put in your 72-hour emergency (BOB) bag, to carry in your briefcase, or even to simply carry in your pocket, the IC-R6 is a great choice. Remember, if you do invest in one, you should also invest in programming cable and software to help you along.

This review focuses on broadcast listening with the IC-R6. While I didn’t cover traditional scanner functionality, I should note that the IC-R6 is not a trunking scanner. If you live in one of the many cities, counties or even even entire states/provinces in the U.S. and Canada that employ “trunking” radio systems for public safety communications, you’ll need a different receiver for this purpose.

Additionally, if you’re looking for a top-notch shortwave portable, you’ll want to buy a dedicated shortwave receiver, instead: they’re built with only HF reception in mind and will cost you much less, for better overall performance and more modes (SSB).

Of course, the IC-R6 is so modestly-sized that you could always carry it plus an inexpensive compact shortwave receiver (like the Tecsun PL-310ET, or the PL-380), and then…well, you’ll suddenly have the best of both worlds!

The Icom IC-R6 is available via Universal Radio $174.95 US with rebate through 12/31/16.

A review of the AOR AR-3000A Wideband Receiver

ar3000Alrg

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mario Filippi (N2HUN) for the following review:


The AOR AR-3000A Wideband Receiver

by Mario Filippi, N2HUN

(All photos below by author)

The AOR AR-3000A is a wideband communications receiver, made in Japan, covering 100KHz – 2.036 GHz with all popular modes including AM, NFM, WFM, CW, USB and LSB. The AR-3000A was produced in the early ‘90’s at the price of $1063 and came with a telescoping back-of-set antenna, wall-wart power supply, and well written 57 page manual.

AOR is a long time reputable manufacturer of radios and electronic equipment that continues on today producing high quality equipment. While the AR-3000A can be considered a tabletop unit, it is quite small, measuring only 8” x 5” x 3.5”. The AR-3000A has a total of 400 memory channels, with four “Banks” (Banks A- D) each holding up to 100 channels. Each stored channel holds all the necessary parameters such as frequency, mode, attenuator, and step size. An optional mounting bracket for mobile operation was available along with an optional DC cord for those wanting to use it as a scanner for public safety monitoring. It does not run on internal batteries though.

What I like about this radio is it’s wide coverage and it functions as my main longwave/shortwave receiver in addition to a scanner for monitoring local VHF/UHF public safety bands.

AOR 3000

As desktops go, this one has an unusual shape. While the unit is horizontally shaped for the most part, the front panel is angled slightly upward to make the controls easier to read. However, it took a while to get used to the small print on the panel and LCD so if you wear glasses, definitely don them because you’ll need ‘em. As a matter of fact I’m contemplating purchasing a pair of those magnifying eyeglasses to see (pun intended) if they’ll help (hi hi!).

AOR-3000-side view

These units come up for auction on Ebay and on ham classifieds at a much reduced price, most in remarkably good shape for a quarter-century old receiver.

A recent survey of Ebay auctions show they run from about $183 – $350; over several hundred dollars less than the original price. I chose to purchase one from a ham classified website at a higher price but it was well worth it. When it comes to high price tag items I tend to scout out the ham ads first. The seller was a friendly, honest ham who was a great communicator so the deal went smoothly. He included the computer control cable and even replaced the backup memory CR2032 battery, something every buyer should consider when purchasing vintage units.

For advertisements of vintage AOR products check back issues of Monitoring Times at: www.americanradiohistory.com . This site is an excellent resource for old time radio, TV, broadcasting and miscellaneous electronics publications and contains a mind boggling array of books and periodicals from the past.

The front panel is laid out quite well, with soft touch pads in the center allowing easy parameter entry, a tuning knob on lower right, and my favorite, a manual squelch knob. Most of the touch pads have a secondary function which appears in white lettering while primary functions are in yellow.   If you’d rather not spin the VFO dial, which is quite small (0.75” diameter) there are up/down arrow keys to accomplish that function. The knob spins smoothly with no obvious détente.

Front panel (sorry about the camera shutter ghost!)

Front panel (sorry about the camera shutter ghost!)

The rear of the unit has several connections: BNC antenna, 12V input, DIN socket for a recorder, external speaker, RS232C for computer remote control, and On/Off switch for computer/manual control. Back in the day you could purchase ScanCat Gold software for about $95.00 that would allow computer control of the unit. I am in the process of finding any existing software that will allow that and it’s not easy to come by, but that is not a priority.

Oh and where is the speaker you might ask? On the underside of the unit.

Plenty of rear connections.

Plenty of rear connections.

This unit was purchased to save space at my desk as it’s quite small and serves as my main source of longwave, medium wave, shortwave, and VHF/UHF reception. For HF it’s hooked to an S9 43 foot vertical antenna with many (50+) radials. S9 Antennas unfortunately is no longer in business, but when the company had just started up I purchased the 43 footer for ham use. It’s lightweight, made completely of fiberglass, and has been up several years with no problems.

S9 antennas was eventually sold and the antennas were available from LDG Electronics last time I looked. If you check out their pictures at http://www.ldgelectronics.com/c/252/products/12/62/3 you’ll see my house on the left sporting the S9v43 footer. By the way, when I bought the AR-3000A, the seller stated that ”it’s a great radio as long as you don’t connect too big of an antenna to it”(hi hi!). Yes, I found it tends to suffer from overload with my large antenna, but the 3000A has a useful built-in attenuator

As a wideband receiver the AR-3000A fits my needs perfectly. For LW it receives aeronautical beacons as far away as Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada. NAVTEX transmissions on 518 KHz are easily decoded using a SignaLinkUSB and YAND software.

As for HF, I’m mainly a utility listener and have a bank of memory channels for WWV (2.5, 5, 10, 15,20 MHz), WLO (8.471MHz), CB channels, Volmet stations, USCG facsimile frequencies, W1AW on 3.581 for code practice, a slew of RTTY station frequencies, the 10m FM band repeater frequencies, Radio Habana Cuba, 4XZ (great for code practice), WLO maritime weather broadcasts, and several channels for different ham band frequencies of interest.

Radio Shack discone offset –mounted on TV antenna mast.

Radio Shack discone offset –mounted on TV antenna mast.

For scanning, obviously the 3000A can’t compete with modern scanners. It was a different era back then. So, no trunking, no CTCSS tones, and the scanning speed slow compared to today’s standards, but it does have the usual features like channel lockout, scan delay, priority channel, step adjustment, search mode and does cover the military aeronautical band.

As a basic scanner for monitoring local state/local first responders, aeronautical (ATIS, ACARS) channels, NOAA satellites, NOAA weather channels, my local repeater, GMRS, FRS, taxis, railroads, etc., it is a very satisfactory performer. I can even hear the NY City Transit police from my location in W. New Jersey which is a pretty good distance, ATIS from LaGuardia and Philadelphia airports, and taxis in the Philly area, all while using a Radio Shack discone on the chimney.

For a more in-depth review of the AR-3000A by Bob Parnass, check the November 2000 issue of Monitoring Times magazine. Universal Radio has a great archive of discontinued radios so check them also at www.universal-radio.com. User reviews can be found on www.eham.net, that’s one of my favorite feedback sites. There’s also an AR-3000A Yahoo users group that’s a great resource. If you want to see videos of the rig in action then search on YouTube as there’s a good number available. In conclusion, I’m very satisfied with the AR-3000A, it’s exactly what I was looking for and is an integral part of radio receiver history.

If any other AR-3000A owners are out there, let’s hear from you. Thanks and 73’s!


Many thanks for this excellent review, Mario. I always thought the AOR AR-3000A was a cool little receiver. When it was being produced, the price was way beyond my means as a college student. At the time, though, it had to be the most compact, best performing, wideband receiver on the market! 

If any Post readers can help Mario find a solution for computer control of the AR-3000A, please comment!

Thanks again, Mario–we look forward to your next contribution!

Shortwave portables that are PC-programmable?

Tecsun-PL-680-MW

SWLing Post reader, Mark, recently contact me with the following question:

“What portable shortwave radios under $300 have an option to have their memories programmed using a computer?”

I replied to Mark that I can’t think of a single shortwave portable that can be programmed via computer–at least, not a “typical” portable radio like a Sony, Sangean, Tecsun, Degen, or Redsun.

Yaesu-VX-3R

The Yaesu VX-3R HT tuned to the AM broadcast band.

I may be wrong, however, so please comment if you can help Mark identify a model.

I am aware of portable wideband communications receivers/transceivers that cover the shortwave bands: handhelds like the Icom-IC-R6, Icom IC-R20, Yaesu VX-3R, AOR AR8200 Mark III B and Kenwood TH-F6A.

Wideband handhelds are more akin to a scanner, though, and typically shortwave sensitivity is simply not on par with a dedicated shortwave portable. The AOR AR8200 Mark III B  ($700+) and discontinued Icom IC-R20  may be a couple of exceptions.

Please comment if you can help Mark with his quest.