Flexradio Service

So I’m working the CQ WW CW DX contest and I notice a prominent hiss in the new Bose 15 noise cancelling headphones I’m using with the Flexradio 1500. Really annoying.

In casual operation especially on SSB I didn’t notice any hissing sounds but with quiet band conditions on CW it was most evident. Thought maybe I’d blown a transistor in the Flex’s audio card.

Anyway in a moment of clarity I sent Dudley at Flexradio an email asking for his thoughts before I sent the rig into for repair.

Dudley got back to me within 15 minutes with the suggestion to try some other headphones. I went back to my Heil headset and no really noticeable noise.

Humm.

Then after lunch got a second email from Dudley at Flex who, after talking to an engineer there, told me that Bose noise-cancelling headphones come with a sensitivity switch preset to high. The switch is on the plug that goes into the headphones and sure enough it was on high.

Turning it to low eliminated the noise.

This is fabulous customer service from a fabulous company that just happens to sell three of the best contest amateur radios on the market today.

OK so why are they so great?

One of the world-class contesters who lives near me in Ontario noted in his contest report on the Ontario Contest Club’s members-only reflector that he loved the way his filters in his K2 could work so close to adjacent big signals that often he didn’t even know they were there.

He’s right about the Elecraft radios (K2 and K3) as they are world-class but the Flexradios from the lowly 1500 at $600 and the 3000 at $1500 and the 5000 at $4,000 all come with a panoramic display built in.

Running a Flex at 25Hz filtering blocks out adjacent signals and the display allows you to see whether the big signal is up or down band from you.

After you’ve used a panoramic display, (which is a $600 option on the K3)  you can’t go back to blindly tuning only with your ears!

The Magic of QRP

Worked the ARRL’s SweepStakes SSB contest this weekend and ended up with almost 200 QSOs in the log.

Thought that 20 and especially 15 and 10 would be the money-making bands for me and if conditions allowed I might even run on 10 instead of search and pounce. Imagine my surprise to find 20, 15 and 10 were subject to deep fading and muddy or soft conditions that just didn’t work for QRP.

But even more surprising were the conditions on 40 which were superb. Now normally 40 meters isn’t a great band for QRP SSB contesting. Too many guys running way too much power in way too small a band.

On 40 I usually get trounced but not this weekend. In fact, the biggest problem I had was having to wait for the station I called to stop raving about how strong my “Q” precedence signal was at their end.

Distance and time of day didn’t matter much as unsolicited reports were from anything S9 to 20db over. Reports came from up and down the eastern seacoast and the American mid-west.

California was tougher but I started the contest by working the North-West Territories. Later worked Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and all Canadian provinces and missed only a handful of states.

But all of this pales to the contact that George, N2JNZ, had with OK/OM3BH on Feb. 15, 2001. George achieved the 1000 Mile Per Watt Certificate for this contact (see photo) while running four milliwatts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Makes running five watts seem somewhat overkill 🙂

BTW the LogiTalker voicekeyer made calling and giving the complex SweepStakes report very easy and a newly acquired MD-100 Yaseu base microphone sounded great. Setup the Flex 1500 using instructions from an online article written by Rob W1AEX.

How Low Can You Go – 100mW ?

The ARRL propagation notice from K7RA features two important stories.

The first is that sunspots hit 220 which is the highest sunspot number in over eight years! Yeah and this explains the massive openings on 12 and 10 meters.

So what can you do when the sunspot numbers are up?

Sebastian, W4AS, in Miami was on the air on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 0121 UTC on 20 meter SSB listening to P40GH in Aruba coming in at 30-40 dB over S9. Sebastian was using an Elecraft K3 and Force 12 C-3SS tri-bander (which is a pretty compact antenna that’s used at many modest suburban stations).

Sebastian made a contact at 100 watts. Then a few minutes later when the Aruba station asked for any QRP stations, Sebastian cranked the power down to five watts and made another contact at S9+.

The two stations made another contact at two watts at S7 and at one watt the report was still at S7.

Going for broke, Sebastian reduced his power down to 500 milliwatts (1/2 watt) and got an S5 report!

So just for fun Sebastian dropped the power down to 100 milliwatts (Remember this was the output power of handheld CB walkie-talkies we used to use to talk around the block.) and while the signal was nearing the noise level, the Aruba station clearly copied him.

I’m going to repeat myself here: If you’re running QRP, you are much louder than you think. Given robust sunspot numbers and quiet band conditions a couple of watts into a half-decent antenna and you can work the world.

Want more proof?

Here’s the QSL card I got from N2JNZ confirming our May 29 QSO at 2135 UTC. George was running five watts out of his Flex 1500 into a 40 meter vertical antenna. I was running a Tuna Tin at 300 mW into the shortened 40-meter dipole on the Hy-Gain Explorer at 16 meters.

QRO has it’s place. Just try running the CQ WW DX SSB contest with anything less than a KW is an exercise in frustration for most of us “little pistols” with our compromised antenna setups. Oh sure it can be done but this is one of the contests where high power is wonderful.

So what’s a good contest for QRP? Field Day is great because everyone runs 100 watts. Most of the state and provincial QSO parties are terrific as there are fewer pileups and more operators willing to work you in the noise.

See you down the log.

Ham Radio Is Alive And Well in the USA

Unlike our Canadian experience where not only do we not know how many licensed (let alone active) Amateur Radio operators there are in this country, our cousins in the USA have hit new record high numbers.

Case in point were the 114 freshmen electrical engineering students at California Polytechnic State University who passed the US Technician exam on Nov. 4.

According to the ARRL this session was one of the largest exam groups ever. It was sponsored by the Cal Poly Amateur Radio Club which was founded in 1947.

What are clubs in Canada doing to help newcomers get their tickets?

QRP Field Day

Looks like I came in fifth in Canada in the Class B (single op, portable, battery, QRP) category.

With 115 Q’s it’s not a huge achievement but it’s a start.

I was using my TenTec R4020 into an end- feed dipole in my front yard. Power came from an 8 amp gel-cell.

Next year maybe I’ll head to higher ground and put up a full-size dipole on 40 meters.

All in all a pretty good start for a few hours of operation.

Where Is The RAC Membership Drive?

There are 700,000 US Amateur Radio Operators in the USA according to the ARRL.

If we use the normal 10 per cent gauge we should have 70,000 licensed Amateurs in Canada?

How many do we have in reality? Well nobody knows!

Industry Canada isn’t keeping track nor is our national association Radio Amateurs of Canada. The situations is so grim that a regional provincial director is reported to have said at an open meeting of a large radio club that increasing membership isn’t a priority at RAC.

Maybe the priority at RAC should be a new board and executive?

Can’t say I’m optimistic about the current bunch with the exception of the Bill Unger, VE3XT (who is leading the charge in Ontario to get a permanent exception for Hams to Bill 118 the distracted driving legislation) and is working hard on our behalf.

If Bill ran for president of RAC I’d support him especially if there was a new slate that came in with him.

I can’t believe how easily I get sucked in (this is a self-induced behaviour) but damn it, it’s my favourite hobby and I hate to see it be hobbled in the manner it has been for the last few years.

Surely we can do better than this?

Did the QST get the Flex 1500 Right?

There’s a full product review of Flex Radio’s wonderful QRP rig the 1500 in this issue of the ARRL’s QST magazine. Coming in at the size of what would house a small accessory at a BKAD (Bid Knob and Display) stations, the Flex1500 is a contest-quality SDR rig of Lilliputian size.

Now your mileage may vary but for about 90 per cent of the review I think the reviewer got it right.

One of Sherwood Engineering’s top 10 rigs when it comes to contest-paramaters (especially the vital close-in ability of the rig), the 1500 is a software-defined radio that is dependent on the firepower of the computer that runs it but can run on some pretty minimal setups (like mine).

The reviewer found some issues with delay on CW which I had but which were cleared up with a software upgrade last year. Same for some SSB issues which I don’t notice and I’m using a pretty lame HP PC with a 2 GHz processor and a 4 gigs of RAM.

I’d love a better computer but for basic operation this one is fine as the SDR runs at around 20% CPU. At 40% or more the computer starts to crap out and the SDR radio is adversely affected. Some judicious turning off of computer programs and virus software helps.

The reviewer didn’t mention the fact that the SDR filters on both CW and SSB are exquisite and infinitely variable. They don’t ring even down to 25 Hz. Also the transmit software includes a big whack of microphone profiles so you can make your $50 mic sound like a $500 one. You can even design your own personal profile.

The new notch tracking filters are wonders to use as is the noise reduction settings.

One challenge I do find is the necessity to use virtual audio cables and a third-party program to run digital modes. I don’t have any digital modes running yet and that’s likely my fault for not trying.

Here’s another advantage. At five watts my S-7 signal is only down two S-units from the 100-watt guys who put out an S-9 signal. You are much louder than you think you are when running QRP. The big plus is you can run the rig off a gel-cell and never cause interference while working the world.

And on CW I don’t notice a difference in repeats when operating in contests at five watts as compared to 100 or even a KW which I used to run.

Two things to be aware of: First the 1500 doesn’t run VOX but you can operate it with a foot switch during contests. Second there’s no auto tuner. I use a LDG-200PRO and it’s always inline and works flawlessly. If you had resonant antennas, this wouldn’t be an issue.

BTW everything to do with my Flex1500 with the exceptions of the computer display, mic, headphones, paddles, mouse, voice and CW keyers are located on shelves underneath the desk. So rig, power supply, auto tuner and a small 100-watt amp I keep inline just in case are all under the desk. (Very XYL friendly setup.)

It feels odd to have so little on the table top but it all operates really well.

Let’s be honest here. There is a place for BKAD radios, just not at VE3HG right now. The 1500 is doing just fine thank you very much. But I’ve said it before: I wouldn’t kick an IC-7600 and Alpha amp out of the shack if such were to come along someday.

So if you’re considering SDR radio the FlexRadio 1500 at $650 at RadioWorld here in Canada is a huge BARGOON! Remember the K3 panoramic display almost costs this much and the 1500 throws one up on your computer screen for free 🙂

When all else fails

The U.S. government is going to checkout the federal national warning system and it’s going to freak out a lot of Americans.

In place since the mid-60s the system which allows the U.S. president to override radio & TV regular programming has never been tested.

The head of FEMA says the system could be used during times of high solar activity that disrupts normal cellphone communications.

Wonder if any of them are familiar with ham radio?

Oakville ARES Group Newsletter

I want to thank all those who have sent me emails about issues that I have written about here on VE3HG in the last few weeks. Somedays I wonder if anybody else cares and if there is anybody out there doing things for the benefit of Amateur Radio in Canada.

Now comes the Nov. 2011 Oakville ARES Group Newsletter and honestly folks, it’s terrific. The October newsletter PDF is still up and the November one should be uploaded soon.

Editor George Davis, VE3OGP, along with his contributing writers are producing one of the most interesting and well crafted club newsletters I’ve ever seen. Now part of this post is prompted by nice words George said about me and this blog and I sure appreciate it.

And yes to John, VAeBL’s question. If there’s a pub night we’ll be there if we can (can’t make Thursday’s John).

RSGB & RAC

If you want to know what the issues are at the heart of the problems at Radio Amateurs of Canada then all you have to do is listen to this podcast interview with RSGB President Dave Wilson, M0OBW.

I’ll warn you now: This is an hour and half long podcast.

Produced by the Southgate Amateur Radio News the podcast started off with Dave reading a statement he insisted on having included before the podcast interview.

(For background: The current RSGB controversy came to a head with the Nov. 2011 RSGB RadCom article called “A Stark Choice” which laid out the issues  facing the Society and started a firestorm of critical comments.

An extraordinary general meeting of the RSGB is scheduled to take place on Nov. 15 where a series of recommendations created by a special interim board will be discussed and voted upon by the general membership. There are an estimated 21,000 members of RSGB and they are losing two per cent per year and have been for some time.)

In the statement that Dave read he criticized the podcaster and whined about how he was treated. He nitpicked on phrases and is annoying in his defensiveness. He complained about the way the interview was setup.

Great start Dave. Certainly set a tone!

Then Dave squandered the opportunity to motivate and fire up the membership by launching into more defensiveness comments and says “we’re never going to get it right regardless”.

More damning is Dave’s assessment of the RSGB’s new vision statement (Gee we’re we supposed to have one of these too?) where he concluded and I paraphrase here: it’s all very well and good but there are no resources in people, time or money to realize any of the goals.

As to questions (even I raised them here) about the age of the interim board Dave goes defensive again arguing that the members shouldn’t be concerned.

That’s a nice thought but the reality appears to be that the members are concerned and the issues won’t go away by wishing them away with magic thinking.

RSGB faces insolvency as soon as next year and this has to be scaring the heck out of the membership. Dave sounds like he understands the issue but appears to have no idea how to solve this overarching issue. (For example, the organization’s HQs costs 60,000 pounds annually to maintain.)

He appeals for support by using the threat that if members don’t support the interim board then it’s likely that the RSGB will be a far less effective organization in the future. Hardly a stirring argument and not one designed to win friends and influence people.)

Unfortunately, after the 20-minute statement, it didn’t get any better in the open interview session.

Here’s a short list of issues. See if any of this sounds familiar to our Canadian experience:

  • Reports viewed by the board and rejected were withheld from the membership despite calls for all the information discussed be released to the membership. This decision creates a mystery where none actually existed.
  • The major issue according to Dave surrounds the governance of the RSGB which he says has to change. (Now this sounds like home.)
  • Transparency in communications appears to be a big issue with members but Dave admits he hasn’t a clue about new technologies like Twitter and can’t see what the point is all about. Same for Facebook which he concludes that RSGB should consider. (How do you think young people will hear this admission?)
  • Dave said the society must become more visible but says the board members may need to be dragged into it. (Bet that’s not going to happen.)
  • More damning was the complaint by members that no annual report for 2009 or 2010 were published on the RSGB website. Dave admits they “taken their eye off the ball” and offers the reassurance that there is nothing to be concerned about and it was just an oversight. (Oh dear.)
  •  “There’s got to be more openness,” said Dave who then went on to say that anyone who wanted to participate in the extraordinary annual meeting had to be registered so as to avoid off-topic comments.
  • Dave then points out some members just take and don’t give back. (This isn’t going to help.) And then he whines about being “kicked in the teeth”. (Oh!)
This is just a sample and I can appreciate that many may not have read this far but it’s insightful to realize that the RSGB issues are almost identical to the issues facing RAC.
Real-world issues  facing both organizations likely could be fixed a small working group taking some action (like RAC’s stirling efforts around Bill 118). Both organizations need to attract or recruit new members and both have ignored implementing action plans.
Both organizations seem to have the same problems:
  • Both have failed to engage their membership in meaningful and personal ways
  • Both have solvency issues (and I dare say as a result of the point above)
  • Both have governance models that are based on command-and-control styles
  • Both have tendencies to be secreative
  • Both have failed to implement membership drives
  • Both are baffled about how to recruit young people (Talking about Betamax and VHS video tapes isn’t going to help Dave! And thanks for listing all the reasons why young people can’t find the time to get their tickets.)
  • Neither has created a positive vision for their futures

I noticed that like RAC, the RSGB has closed of communications with its members thus driving comments into the hands of the critics who are blogging, Twittering and offering withering critical comments on Facebook.

This is something the technical thinkers at RAC simply couldn’t grasp and thus they gutted their own blog site rendering it impotent and useless and throwing the burden of commentary into the hands of their critics.

Here’s a link to comments that resulted from the podcast.