Radio Ga Ga

Recently, and with time on my hands, I’d been thinking about the radio’s that I’ve owned over the years and why I had the ones sitting in front of me… So, I decided to write about them – but first, here’s a pretty graph showing my radio “timeline”:

Radios owned by M0PZT

My HF exploits were few and far between until around 2009, and it wasn’t until 2012 that I started getting active on CW after *gulp* about a dozen Morse QSOs since I got my ticket in 2001. This awakening, coupled with regular jaunts to the village green for some sunshine and /P got me active again – as well as finding a radio/s that could enhance my operating.

Whether it’s operating habits, brand loyalty or budget that influences your purchase of a radio – it wouldn’t be unkind to say that some radios are good at some modes whilst others are not. Quirks, faffs and WTF? moments are best reserved for a Transceiver Shoot-Out at the local Ham emporium – If you’re able to do this, compare 2 (or more) radios in a similar environment and hopefully pick a winner. I was lucky enough to do this at 2 different places and any shop that has a display of radios with an aerial somewhere on the roof should be willing to let you try them out. More so if you’re genuinely going to spend the wrong side of £1000 regardless. They should also make you a decent brew whilst you twiddle.

Quirks, eh? What is interesting is that Elecraft and Kenwood have different opinions about the correct sideband for CW (regardless of band) – it was LSB on the KX3, USB on the TS-590 whereas the IC-7300 has a menu setting – because 50% of Hams are not unique.

What is good, is that radios now sport a USB socket allowing for easy integration of computer audio and logbook software. Gone are the days of soldering an opto-isolator and sourcing some audio transformers to isolate the equipment. There are still a few teething troubles to get through, such as baud rates, COM Ports in their teens and different USB/Serial drivers used by different vendors – but hey, if it all worked flawlessly after plugging it all in then there wouldn’t be any fun, would there?

I’ve also found the TX Monitor on both the 590SG and 7300 to be quite different from what is actually transmitted – when using the processor on both, the audio gets harsh very quickly – Yet, on another receiver, it sounds clean (but obviously processed).  My advice for audio tests is use a 2nd RX with a pair of headphones and set your audio up according to that, NOT the radio’s in-built monitor.

Here’s the operating position at PZT Towers:

M0PZT Shack - May 2020

Random thought: Do you think we’d complain so much about the price of radios if the HF bands were rid of all that electrical “crud” generated by iffy power-supplies and ADSL?  Hmmmm.

So, after numerous wallet-openings over the years, here’s where I’ve arrived in terms of “black boxes” in the PZT Shack:

Kenwood TS-590SG
This radio has spent its time almost exclusively on CW – and it does this very well: From zero-beat’ing to a station’s frequency, tight filtering and easy to navigate “split” operation – It’s a cracking operator’s radio. It also gets a fair amount of use on digimodes where, again, I find that it performs brilliantly. If I want to get picky about a PSK/RTTY signal then I can use my logging software to “snap” the waterfall to 1500Hz and narrow the radio’s filter to around 300Hz (or less for crowded PSK activity).

Kenwood TS-590SG

Observations:

  • Cooling-fan issue on some models
  • Near-silent QSK
  • Internal speaker a bit “meh”
  • CW-Tune is rapid, but occasionally gets “lost”
  • A 13pin DIN to make friends with if you want a remote PTT switch (it is supplied with the radio, so Kenwood obviously have a sense of humour)
  • Filtering is great (down to 50Hz), and has A/B presets to quickly go “narrow” or “wide”
  • Convenient access to a tuning carrier (mine’s on PF-B)
  • A/B Menu system allows for instant settings-change (eg: ragchew to DX) – best signified with a change of colour on the screen!

It works so-so on SSB although there are extensive EQ and Processor options to tweak. I find the “talk power” of the radio lacking when compared to other radios. That said, it produces good TX’d audio and you can trim the top+bottom to suit DX or Ragchew working. I am using HB1 on TX with a Heil Pro-Set 6 (dynamic) without processing. When A/B’ing with the 7300, I found the RX audio a tad “harsh”, so have made use of the multiband RX equalizer which you need the Kenwood CAT control software for (it’s not accessible via the front-panel).

Fan noise is minimal and they are slow running until the temperature creeps up.

I use OmniRig together with PZTLogLite (my own special version), CWGet/Type, BandMaster, DX Atlas and WSJT-X.  Using OmniRig, I can run several applications that require read/write transceiver status.  I’m using a USB cable for sound/CAT plus a 9pin serial opto-coupler to the “key” jack for direct keying via PZTLog+CWType.

10m signals received on an RTL SDR via the DRV output of my TS-590SGThe TS-890s could be an easy upgrade (the cost aside) so it’s on my radar – but I’m first considering an SDRplay coupled to the DRV output so that I can “mirror” the RX on HD-SDR.  Configuring the screen for RF spectrum+waterfall (like an Elecraft P3) on a spare monitor would give me a simple way of seeing how the bands are behaving.

I’ve tried the setup with a cheap RTL-SDR but have to rely on 28 or 50MHz being open as coverage only goes down to 25MHz 🙁  But, these initial tests were encouraging.

Icom IC-7300
I’ve already a dedicated page entitled IC-7300 Notes which details most of my opinions on this radio, although a few extra pointers within the boundaries of this page wouldn’t go amiss.

Icom IC-7300My purchase of the radio was to give my /P setup a boost after using the KX3 for QRP CW QSOs. I didn’t want to go down the PX3+KXPA route (neither did my bank manager) so opted for a different approach.

It’s fair to say that the radio was a game-changer as far as entry-level SDR transceivers went: At around £1100, it was in competition with the TS-590SG and FTdx-3000 in terms of “HF, 6m and halfway decent”. Although lacking an external display socket, offering only 1 aerial socket and several functions hidden behind a long button press or menu, it gave a good account of itself on the Sherwood table and its ability to store settings (and those tiresome CQ calls) on an SD card made it quite a versatile radio.

High/low-lights:

  • Spectrum/Waterfall display – with ability to save screenshots
  • PBT / Filter – it’s a faff/gimmick and perhaps I’ve not learnt to use it correctly
  • Fan noise – they really could have done better here
  • QSK relay a tad intrusive
  • Want a tuning carrier for a manual ATU? You’ll need to to enter a menu and change the paddle setting to a “key” (or get a tuner-socket button thing) or use RTTY mode
  • TX audio monitor doesn’t take into account WIDE/MID/NAR settings on SSB
  • Record/replay of QSOs
  • 70MHz @ 50w without any silly mods (sorry, FT-847!)
  • LDG AT-200 powered by CAT cable to radio – one-touch “tune”

I’ll normally use the fist microphone whether /P or at home, but do have a cheap “electret” headset with a homebrew 8pin mic breakout (3.5mm for mic and phono for remote PTT). TX audio is clear yet punchy with Mic Gain at 35, Comp at 2. Low/High/bandwidth etc to suit band/conditions.

As with my 590, I use my own logging software, OmniRig plus some other goodies when it’s in the Shack.  Comparisons with it against the 590 show the 7300 to be a little clearer/sensitive (especially on CW).  Also worth pointing out is that, with the current layout in the picture above, the 7300 has a much nicer sound than the 590SG via their respective internal speakers – the 7300 is very light vs the 590’s metal chassis.  This, I would have expected, lead me to believe that the 7300 would have a rattly/inferior sound to it – but no!  Of course, with headphones this isn’t an issue.

The 7610 is a bit of a jump in terms of price, but if the fan and QSK are the same as the 7300, it’ll be a “no” for me.

Yaesu FT-857D
Like pretty much all Shack-in-a-box offerings, it does *everything* to a reasonable degree. Designed as a mobile radio, it obviously lacks buttons/dials to quickly change something like keying speed, power or sidetone volume. I had been using the 817 as a /P radio and local “natter” box for VHF and decided something with more ooompf was required. Opting for a deal at a not-so-local emporium, I was able to add a companion LDG auto-ATU for not much more £££.

Yaesu FT-857DBeing a “one-size-fits-all” radio, it obviously lacks the extra features desired by a CW operator. That said, it’s a terrific FM/SSB radio and has performed many faultless hours at home and in the field on both casual outings and special-event stations.

  • Easily programmed via CHIRP or G4HFQ’s FTBasicMMO
  • Want <2KHz selectivity on CW? It’ll need a >£100 treat in the shape of a 250/500Hz filter
  • Noisy fans – OK, so the radio is small which means 2 fast fans rather than a slow big one. Meh.
  • Busy LED flashes blue when CW is perfectly “on frequency”
  • DigiVox for simple audio-only connection for datamodes (will PTT upon hearing audio)
  • LDG YT-100 powered by CAT cable to radio – one-touch “tune”

Whenever I’m /P with it, I frequently get compliments on my audio before I’ve even mentioned what radio I’m using. I use the stock MH-31 mic set at 45 for SSB with the rear switch in position “B” which rolls-off some of the bottom end – this cuts through the noise quite well. On FM, for a more full-range sound, the switch goes back to A. Microphone technique is also important: Talk sideways past the mic – not into the grille! This ensures that your audio is consistent and doesn’t have any explosive breath sounds.

I’d go as far to say that it’s still a good solution if you need an all-rounder or that “first rig”.

If I had to replace it then I’d have been tempted to buy another (if they hadn’t just discontinued it) – simply for the convenience of the radio.  Although the IC-9700 looks sexy, it’d be a big spend for what would most likely be an FM “natter” and occasional VHF/UHF contest S+P box.  That’s a polite way of saying I don’t think the local riff-raff on 2m are worth £1700.


So, the current state of PZT Towers is that there is no “brand loyalty” – and probably won’t ever be!

In terms of “what should I buy?” – the 7300 wins for fancy features and easy of menu navigation and certainly does offer great “bang for buck”.  The 590SG is, as I mention above, a bit more of an operator’s radio.  I will also admit to using the 7300 first to gauge the bands – I am quite the fan of a bandscope/waterfall.