Tag Archives: Youloop

Armed with loops, fences, and an Icom IC-705, 13dka battles transatlantic MW DX

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post:


Dipping my toes into transatlantic MW DX

by 13dka

Most of my SWLing life I wanted to dig into MW DX but never managed to make that really happen for some reason. Then last November, I fetched my first transatlantic station while I wasn’t even trying, in a rather surprising setting:

I have to explain that my home and neighborhood got so infested with a multitude of QRM sources that I did not put my outdoor antennas back up after a storm blew them out of the trees in winter 2018/19. I just used an ML-200 loop indoors, which also has to put up with my own additional QRM sources in my den, consisting of 3 computers running 24/7 and a couple of switching power supplies, a TV, LED lighting… allowing for very basic reception as long as my neighbors don’t watch TV or use the internet. On top of that, medium wave is badly beaten by a mowing robot’s boundary wire here, making reception on several portions of the band completely impossible.

I never expected receiving any US stations on MW in that noise, but I couldn’t sleep that night and scanned the bands a bit with the IC-705 hooked up to my new YouLoop hanging over my bed for testing. I had seen the characteristic transatlantic carriers on MW many times before on my SDRs, but for some reason I never picked up anything intelligible on them in any winter season, now a lot of these carriers were there again but on 1130 there was actually modulation and it wasn’t the only station!

Small bedside loop: SWL’s dreamcatcher!

Bloomberg Radio 1130 came in with almost enjoyable quality at times, but Bloomberg is also kind of a surefire station for MW DX over here. I also picked up a station on 1120 and another one on 880 which was briefly so strong that it surmounted the strong interference from BBC Radio Wales on 882 kHz. 1120 was confirmed the next night to be KMOX in St. Louis, 880 kHz was *not* KCBS in NY – I checked that immediately, I have a KiwiSDR set to that frequency booknarked on my cellphone in case I have a craving for the 1-877-Kars-4-Kids commercial. Powerwise likely candidates for that would be CHQT (50kW) in Edmonton, CKLQ (10kW) in Manitoba or KRVN in Nebraska (50kW class B station) but this may be hard to verify due to the dominance of the BBC on that frequency. Anyway, KMOX wasn’t a bad catch for a small, passive indoor loop, that’s 7,150km or 4,440 miles from here!

Bloomberg Radio on the YouLoop:

Here’s KMOX:

This was A) quite encouraging for nighttime DXpeditions to the dike (brrr…cold!), B) a testimony for the YouLoop’s good performance on MW and C) a testimony for the IC-705 having pretty much all one could wish for in a capable MW DX radio – notch filter, passband tuning on AM, stable ECSS, waterfall display to detect stations and last but not least loads of sensitivity to make the most out of low-output antennas down on MW.

Going to the dike

Of course I just had to put on some long johns and drive to the dike around 3:00am local a few nights later, to try my luck with my ML-200 (lacking a better idea) with an 80cm diameter rigid loop. I was mildly surprised that reception wasn’t that much better than with the YouLoop at home. The overall yield wasn’t exactly outstanding compared to other people’s logs but a lot of stations were hidden in the frequency ranges that are submerged in QRM at home. My log has US/Canadian stations on 20+ different frequencies, unfortunately most of them UNID. Here are some recordings I made that night, hunting for unambiguous station IDs from North American broadcasters:

ML-200, Nov. 16th, 2020

1130 Bloomberg Radio on the ML-200:

Presumedly WABC 770 in NYC: In MW DX, never think you ID’d something properly just because you heard a city name and the frequency has a clear-channel station located there!

This is more unambiguously 1010 WINS in NYC (with a twist described later)

1030 WBZ Boston, MA – the first part of the clip is showing how it sounds when the signal is good, the second part demonstrates how reliably propagation is taking a rest while a station identifies itself.

The grandpa of AM broadcasting, 1020 KDKA:

Moving away from the east coast, this is WHAS 840 in Louisville, KY:

760 WJR Detroit, MI

Here’s a tough one, the religious content I heard with a great signal before doesn’t warrant a proper ID alone, and as per usual the station ID’d while fading out. I could ID this only with a set of big, closed headphones, which is a mandatory accessory for all extreme DX (CHRB 1140 in High River, Alberta):

Of course I was occasionally checking other bands too and got some serviceable signals from Brazil:

Clube do Para on 4885 kHz:

VOA Pinheiro from Belem, Brazil on 4960:

Going to another dike, this time it’s personal!

Time to try something completely different: A ~1,000m/3,000′ straight (and preliminary considered continuos) stretch of mesh fence along the dike heading ~345° (NNW), pointing roughly to mid-/western mainland North America. I had briefly tried its aptitude for being a “natural” Beverage antenna before – with mixed but encouraging results: Due to the fence not being terminated at the far end it may be kind of bidirectional, and according to my latest insights a Beverage style antenna doesn’t work well over very good (conductive) ground, probably even less so close (maybe 200′) to the ocean. Also, I forgot to pack the 9:1 balun I prepared for that purpose, so I just had some wire with alligator clip to connect the fence to the radio. Boo.

Accordingly, what I saw on the waterfall display didn’t look so much different than what I got from the ML-200 before – there were clearly more stations visible (as a carrier line on the waterfall) but nothing was really booming in. However, I managed to log a few more stations, such as WRKO in Boston and (the highlight of the night) 1650 KCNZ “The Fan” in Cedar Falls, IA which has only 1kW to boot at night to make the 6,940 km/4,312 mi to my dike. This may or may not be an indication that the “Beverage sheep fence” isn’t so bad after all!

“Fence”- reception, Nov. 18th, 2020:

VOCM 590, St. Johns, New Foundland, Canada’s easternmost blowtorch is like Bloomberg an indicator station for European MW DXers:

680 WRKO, Boston, MA:

1040 kHz, presumed to be WHO, Des Moines, IA: No ID, only a matching frequency and a commercial for “Jethro BBQ”, which has locations only in and around Des Moines:

Here’s 1650 KCNZ, Cedar Falls, IA with 1KW:

To put that into some relation, this is what 1KW sounds like on a very quiet 40m band in SSB (K1KW from Massachusetts on 7156 kHz producing a 9+20 signal that morning on the “Fence antenna”):

BTW, interesting bycatch – not the first time I caught WWV and WWVH on the same frequency but that morning was the first time I could hear both on 5 MHz:

 

So where have you been all my life, American AM stations?

A question remains – how could I miss the existence of these stations forever, then in modern SDR times see the carriers on the spectrum scope and still miss the modulation on these carriers? Or the other way around – why did I hear them now?

To begin with, when I started out with the radio hobby many decades ago, the reason for the occasional whine and whistle on some stations (particularly past midnight) wasn’t obvious to me: The last thing I suspected was that this could be interference from across the pond, with the pitch of the whine (or “het”) having a direct relation to the 9kHz vs 10kHz difference in channel spacing. Of course these stations were there all my life! Then, with just some regular radio you’d have to pick one of very few frequencies where a strong station from across the pond coincides with a nice silent gap in the local channel allocation. But until this millennium, European medium waves had no such gaps and a lot more local blowtorches.

Since that time many MW stations were turned off and demolished and whole countries abandoned MW here in Europe, so we’re in a much better spot now for transatlantic DX. Unfortunately the opposite is true for listeners on the left side of the pond, you guys still have a very crowded AM band but less potential DX targets in Europe. On the bright side, the remaining European stations are often not restricted to 50kW and you have another ocean with very distant and rewarding DX stations that are very, very hard to catch in Europe!

Wrong time, wrong place

Another bunch of factors are – of course – propagation, season and location/latitude. The MW DX season is roughly fall to spring nights (when TX and RX are in the dark) with a period of increased absorption in the middle (the “mid-winter anomaly”), signals are potentially stronger at lower latitudes and weaker at higher ones but the distance to the noisy equator and a lack of stations interfering from the N can be a huge advantage for using over-the-pole paths on higher latitudes. The big showstopper is solar activity: Good condx on shortwave can be rather bad for skywave propagation on medium wave, so a solar minimum is the long-term hotspot for (transatlantic) medium wave DX.

I’m glad that I learned how intense that relationship is right away: When I discovered that Bloomberg is pretty good on my indoor YouLoop at home, condx were pretty down with SFI in the low 70s and very little excitement of the auroral zones. 2 weeks later the SFI was only slightly higher in the 80s-100, many of the carriers were missing on the waterfall and Bloomberg could be heard only in much bigger intervals.

Speaking of which – even with favorable condx, a proper radio and a half-proper antenna, patience is key! In my very fresh experience the fading cycles on those over-the-pond signals are long! So far I have seen everything fading in and out over the course of a few minutes to half hours or more, with less favorable conditions or a worse antenna it may take much longer until it sticks out of the noise for a while. So you may have to park on a frequency for a long time to not miss the station coming up so much that it becomes readable at the right time to ID it. Multiple DX stations on the same channel can make identification difficult unless one station really dominates the other and that all may take hours or days until it happens. Here’s a lucky example on 1010 kHz:

Lucky because in this case one station is already known – it’s WINS but it often has another station underneath and I was curious what that station might be. On this occasion, the station ID’d itself as “Newstalk 1010” (which is CFRB in Toronto, 0:05 in the clip) just in a short talking break on WINS. Again, this can’t be heard on my laptop speakers but on headphones:

Waiting for a moment like this to happen isn’t exactly fun, that’s why spectrum recordings are incredibly valuable particularly on MW – you won’t miss a possible station ID on frequency A because you were listening to frequency B, but a part of me thinks this is taking a bit of the challenge away, like blast fishing. 🙂

Fancy equipment


The IC-705 fits snuggly-wuggly into my steering wheel for extra-comfy tuning!

Fun fact: While Bloomberg NY on 1130 was (kind of) booming in at home so I knew for sure it was there, I could hear it even on the XHDAtA D-808 with its tiny loopstick and only average sensitivity on the AM band! So for “easy”, loud and undisturbed stations some persistence and a simple portable radio may suffice to catch some transatlantic DX. But most of the stations will be hit by interference from closer stations, then the radio needs at least to be capable of stable sideband reception, with a corresponding narrow filter and proper suppression of the unwanted sideband – luckily this isn’t an unusual feature on inexpensive portables anymore. So if you already have an SSB capable radio that’s all you need to address the most common issue with transatlantic DX, US and EU stations being too close in frequency. Of course passband tuning and notch filters are most helpful assets in a radio for this, rescuing reception in even more severe interference situations and the spectrum/waterfall display on an SDR helps a lot with finding the carriers and SDRs also have all the nice tools but with some more patience you may find stations with many conventional receivers.

Of course antennas are the crucial component again: If conditions are excellent, even a loopstick may bring the first stations into the log, some small magnetic (wideband) loop could dig up some more stations, from there it’s quickly going a bit esoteric – AFAIK there are no commercial offers for multi-turn (tuned) loop antennas nor are FSL antennas easy to come by, you can’t buy EWE et al antennas either and Beverage antennas for MW are quite a project – not that hard to get a kilometer of wire and there are even kits to buy but it could be much harder to find a place to roll it out in the direction you’re interested in, in an area that doesn’t have electric fences or high voltage power lines within a radius of at least several miles. I guess once you become addicted, you’ll stop asking yourself whether or not it’s worth the effort.

So it’s pretty clear what happened: For catching TA DX stations, the ionospheric conditions must be good, to receive that with a loopstick they must be ideal and that’s what they are currently – it’s winter in what’s still a deep solar minimum and on top of that, some of my radios are very apt for MX DX and I was lucky to listen on the right time on the right frequency. When I started writing this article, my enthusiastic bottom line was supposed to be something like “MW DX isn’t rocket science”, which is certainly true but I think my history with it shows that it’s not exactly trivial either. Maybe that’s why it’s so rewarding, it sure is some hardcore DX challenge that complements the shortwave activity quite nicely and may give you something to look forward to when solar activity is down.

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Majority of YouLoops listed on eBay are not an Airspy product

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Chris Smolinski, who shared the screen shot above of a “YouLoop” being sold by a vendor on eBay.

While the Airspy YouLoop is based on a public domain noise-cancelling passive loop design that dates back decades (a.k.a. the Moebius loop antenna) buyers should note that many of the “YouLoop” antennas on eBay are not manufactured by Airspy. The product titles are misleading in this regard:

The RTL-SDR Blog does sell the original Airspy YouLoops on eBay for $34.95 shipped (and, as you can see above, they seem to pop up first in the search results).

Many of the other loops being marketed as “YouLoops” on eBay cost around $23.00-25.00 shipped. About $10 less, but there’s no guarantee the toroid windings, for example, will have the same specs as the original YouLoop.

It’s easy to spot the YouLoop copies because the cross over and toroid enclosures are much larger than those of the authentic AirSpy YouLoop:

Compared with the Airspy YouLoop:

Airspy doesn’t own a patent for the YouLoop (indeed, they even suggest homebrewing one) so this isn’t a clone. Rather, buyers should simply be aware that, as far as I know, the only authentic new YouLoops are being sold on eBay by the RTL-SDR blog.

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Bruce compares two homebrew NCPL antennas to the Airspy Youloop

The Airspy Youloop

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Bruce (VE3EAR), who writes:

I decided that more testing of the Noise-Cancelling Passive Loop (YouLoop) antenna was needed, but I wanted to start with a clean page.

I built two identical loops using some 3/8 inch heliax scraps I had on hand. Both are one metre in diameter and employ the same feed arrangement, with a balun wound on a half inch square binocular core of type 75 mix. There are four turns on the antenna side and eight on the feed line side, of #24 gauge plastic insulated wire. The feed line shield connects to the antenna shields. The only difference between the two antennas is at the top of the loop, opposite to the feed point. One has a simple one inch gap in the shield, with the centre conductor passing across the gap, while the second one uses the crossover connection of the YouLoop design.

I’ve been running some A-B comparison listening sessions, both mid-day and in the evenings after local sunset. The testing is done outside, with the antennas hanging on a low limb of a maple tree in front of the house. The feed line is about twenty feet of coax which connects to my Realistic DX-440 receiver on the front porch. Testing is done listening to the AM broadcast band and the 160, 80, and 40 metre ham bands, with the loop aligned both E-W and N-S and about one loop diameter off the ground.

Both loops work well, but I do have to give the nod to the YouLoop (by Airspy), which produces a stronger signal of two S-units higher than the conventional loop. It also has deeper and sharper nulls, which can sometimes produce total nulling of the station!

73, Bruce, VE3EAR

Thank you so much, Bruce, for sharing your findings with us! I, too, have found that the Youloop generally outperforms my homebrew NCPL antenna. I believe one of the reasons for this as Youssef at Airspy once told me is because the Youloop has a lower loss transformer than anything that can be wound by humans (0.28 dB)–this improves gain.

Click here to read our review of the Youloop and click here for step-by-step instructions on building your own Noise-Cancelling Passive Loop antenna.

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Jorge’s Portable YouLoop Antenna Frame

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jorge Garzón (EB7EFA · EA1036 SWL), who shares the following guest post which was originally published on his @IberiaDX blog:


BricoDX: A YouLoop portable frame

by Jorge Garzón (EB7EFA · EA1036 SWL)

Youloop ‘in the forest’

One of the aerials I wanted to test was the Youssef Loop (YouLoop). I own a good passive loop antenna made by Tecsun (AN-200) but this is a mini one to use with portable receivers. A video showing the test of this ‘mini-loop’ can be seen in my YouTube channel.

My main loop for serious DXing is the Wellbrook 1530LN, but this is an active loop that easily beats any other passive ones. It’s close to be the perfect loop for me as I live in a rural valley with low noise level in the bands so I enjoy every minute of my listening sessions. However I wanted to test this newcomer passive loop, but wasn’t satisfied just hanging it from a pine tree branch, so I decided to bring about my DIY YouLoop portable frame project.

So I had to find something to get a rigid (but light) support for the loop itself allowing an easy rotation to achieve deep nulls. So… what could I built?

Fiberglass tubes, hooks and crossed arms.

I am professionally involved in the heritage and communication sector, so was easy for me to refit some dismissed display rolls where I found a 1,5 m thin supporting tube made in fiberglass that suited my needs. I cut a piece of 120 cm and then split it into 2x60cm, tightening both in the middle with a fine bolt. I placed two plastic hooks up and down of the vertical tube to hold both Youloop modules. The horizontal arm was lengthened with two bamboo meat skewers firmly inserted into the tube, allowing to slide onto it. Two small holes in the bamboo pieces were good enough to secure the cable with a short wire. All this was well fixed with clamps and vulcanized tape to an extra piece of vertical tube.

Bamboo meat skewer and tied cable.

Finally all this was inserted into a thicker aluminium tube and then into a wider one in order to fit everything into the tripod hole and then get a smooth and efficient rotation of the antenna. As a base I re-fitted an old heavy metallic tripod manufactured by Manfrotto (Italy) that I used it often for birdwatching day trips. I gave back an unexpected new life for this piece of metal, always in the field close to Nature!

The whole assembly can be easily transported in the car. Aluminium tubes slide one into the other, being rapidly detachable from the loop itself. This is a cheap and DIY project to get the maximum of this surprising and low noise passive loop.

This aerial gives its best performance when used in the field. There, QRM levels are low or non existent at all. It is a must to rotate it easily and then get sharp nulls. SMA connector nuts must be well tightened as they tend to loosen easily, but beware to force them as an extra twisting could damage inner connections.

This is the first post of a series called «BricoDX» where I will show how to refit or build accessories to get inexpensive and practical DIY projects for our listening sessions.


Many thanks for sharing your article with us, Jorge! That’s a brilliant loop support.

Readers: check out more of Jorge’s articles on his blog, @IberiaDX. Also check out his YouTube channel where he posts videos.

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Videos: RTL-SDR/YouLoop combo and exploring SDRs

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Rob, who writes:

I recently made another video on the AirSpy YouLoop – this time paired in a configuration that shouldn’t really work. I used it with an RTL-SDR v3 dongle in direct sampling mode, and signals still came in. This was somewhat of a surprise given the RTL-SDR v3 isn’t primarily designed for HF.

It may be interesting to readers of the SWLing blog.

I have also started a 2020 SDR Guide that may also have some relevance. Episode 1 looked at some of the things that are possible using Software Defined Radios, and Episode 2 which was released yesterday was an introduction to accessing over 500 online SDRs through 4 different platforms. I focused mainly on HF, and although I didn’t specifically mention the broadcast bands, gace a demo of each platform (KiwiSDR, WebSDR, SpyServer & SDR Console).

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Rob reviews the AirSpy YouLoop antenna

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Rob, who writes:

Thank you for your informative blog. As a longtime SWLer I enjoy reading up on your posts.

A few months ago I was considering the purchase of a magnetic loop antenna. Based on your “YouLoop is a freaking brilliant passive loop antenna” article, and the fact that I live in a fairly noisy RF environment, I made the purchase.

Since doing so I’ve been having plenty of fun with the YouLoop hanging in my loft. I have it connected to an Airspy HF+ Discovery.

I’ve made a couple of videos which I popped up on YouTube which show the YouLoop in action.

The first video shows a mix of utility and broadcast reception on HF.

The most recent explores LF & VLF.

Perhaps these would be of interest to readers, like me, who had seen your initial reviews and had been considering purchasing.

Thank you for turning me onto this little antenna, and keep up the great work in your blog!

Kind regards,
Rob (Frugal Radio)

Excellent videos, Rob, thank you for sharing! The YouLoop is an incredibly effective antenna when combined with a receiver that has a high dynamic range.

Readers, if you’d like to check out more of Rob’s videos and and subscribe to his YouTube channel, click here!

If you’d like to purchase an AirSpy YouLoop for a whopping $35, click here to view a list of distributors.

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The AirSpy HF+ Discovery and a new era of portable SDR DXing

The following article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


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.

Portable SDRs

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!

Past challenges

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.

Power

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.

Portable computers

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.

Storage

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.

The antennas

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!

Click here for a step-by-step guide to building your own NCPL (Noise-Cancelling Passive Loop Antenna.

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.

Click here to read my review of the Youloop.

Let’s face it: SDR kit simply doesn’t get more portable than this.

The computer

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.

Power

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.

At the Huntsville Hamfest I also purchased a small 12V 4.5 Ah Bioenno LiFePo battery and paired it with a compact Powerpole distribution panel kit I purchased in May at the 2019 Dayton Hamvention.

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?

All you’ll need to do is:

  1. Download the 1.7 GB (.wav formatted) spectrum file at this address
  2. Download a copy of SDR# if you don’t already have an SDR application that can read AirSpy spectrum files.
  3. Install SDR#, and run it.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Click here to check out the Airspy HF+ Discovery

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