Dayton Update

It was rainy. It was cold. It was great fun.DSCF1408

Dayton Hamvention is something you must experience to understand.

It’s more than just the world’s biggest Ham Radio flea market. It’s more than the world’s top experts reporting on the newest developments during the forums. It’s more than secondary conferences like Four Days In May for the QRP guys and the D-Star Friday morning conference. It’s more than new releases by some of our top manufacturer’s of equipment (think Flex 6300).

It’s more than bad food and great beer and good fellowship.DSCF1429

It’s all that and more. Every year is different (Did I mention the rain and cold?) and every year is terrific.

I’ll be posting more on my experiences over the next few days.

There’s lots to report 🙂

The Things We Do For Love

On this Valentine’s Day (You did remember didn’t you?) I’m getting read for the ARRL DX CW contest this weekend.IMG_0381

Conditions on 10 meters are great (I just worked E77DX) and I’m intending on going QRP!

But last Fall I thought I had an issue at the base of the tower with one of the connections to the beam and sure enough, after ignoring the issue, it has returned in the dead of winter and thus the path through the snow to the tower.

Think I’ve got a connection that’s failing but a turn with two pairs of lock pliers seems to have temporarily remedied the issue. Not looking forward to trooping out to the tower at midnight.

Going to go to crimping my connectors after the annual trip to Dayton.

QRP – QRO – FlexRadio

Thanks to an article in the National Contest Journal where author Mike, VE3GFN (Good For Nothing but a pretty good contester especially on CW) interviewed me on being a QRP contester I’ve been getting quite a few emails asking my opinion on QRP, contesting and, of course, the viability of the FlexRadio SDR as a contesting radio.2014 NCJ Jan Feb Cover.indd

First let me say if you’re planning on running five watts QRP as a contester you need a five-watt contesting radio.

That means most of the kits you can buy for under $200 won’t cut it in the contesting world. On the other hand you won’t want to carry let alone power a standard big box contest rig out to some field or remote location regardless of power out. So most “trail” radios are out with the exception of the amazing Elecraft KX3 which is on my wish list.

The first requirement of a contesting rig is ease of operating. You don’t want to be swapping out cables or soldering connectors on old coax at 2 am.  What you want here is absolutely no surprises.DSC_0003

The second requirement is a brick wall front end on the receiver. Yes you can contest with an IC-703 (or a 756 like my old rig) but 48 hours of SSB splatter in your ears will convince you that there has to be a better rig out there for contesting.

There is a reason why you can buy 100-watt rig for $1,000 or $10,000. Most of the difference in price is in the receiver.

Third requirement is to remember the best contesting rig you’ve got is the one in front of you. While a K3 is a really excellent contesting rigs, the base price is the price you’ll pay after you’ve added filters, panoramic displays, auto tuners, amps and more can end up over $5000.

Suddenly our used IC-703 at $400 looks pretty good as does the Flex 1500 at $600 (with all filters built in). What you want to do is pick your contests. A QRP on 10 meters when there’s a substantial opening is a killer. I worked a guy the other day contesting on 10 running five watts mobile!

So would I recommend a FlexRadio for contesting?

The answer right now is no.

As much as I love my FlexRadios they are not plug and play. Most complaints about the rigs can be laid at the feet of operator error and there is a learning curve. Contesters need simplicity and the Flex rig setup isn’t simple. (It’s not brain surgery and you do need a pretty robust PC to run the software.)

Also the ergonomics associated with which window is active on the computer screen and how a 2 am slip of the mouse can create untold problems with sudden unexpected frequency change (caused by typing in the logging program window with a mouse that’s still pointing to the SDR window) will be too much trouble for most contesters.

Having said that a $600 Flex 1500 alone or with a $1,000 five-hundred watt amp will outperform just about any rig ever made IMHO. While this might attract some rabid comments (and has in the past), I find the Flex audio to be much much more listenable over a 48-hour contest than any big box rig I’ve ever used.

My new Flex 3000 at under $2,000 is an amazing 100-watt rig and setup with two monitors makes for a killer digital rig and one of the best CW contesting rigs ever. (There’s something about tuning down the band in 200 Hz slices working one guy after another that can’t be duplicated by rigs without lots and lots of front-end and IF filtering which at 200 HZ tend to ring like a church bell.)

I’m still working on my FlexKnob lagging when tuning on the Flex 3000 and not on the knob2Flex 1500 (seems the SDR tuning window is getting commands after the knob stops rotating). I’ve bought a new FireWire cable and card. I’ve vaporized ports and changed the aggressiveness of the devices to no effect. (Turning on spur reduction eliminates the issue which makes me suspect a software issue Flex!) It’s a work in progress.

Also maybe it’s just me but I work more guys on my FlexRadios because the transmitter note or sound stands out in a crowd. There’s no other way to explain how easily I can bust big pileups with the 3000 and even the 1500 at five watts.

Yes, yes I drank the FlexRadio Cool-Aid but honestly these are wonderful rigs and even best of all can be run sitting on the floor invisible in our home office setup.

All you need on your desk is the monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. I keep a set of CW paddles just to make a style statement and a glowing Drake 2B in perfect condition to keep my hands warm during our Canadian winters.

RTTY Contesting

One of the top RTTY contests is taking place on January 4-5 (1800 UTC Saturday and ends 2400 UTC Sunday). This is the 2014 ARRL RTTY Roundup.

RTTY is one of my favourite modes. It’s about as efficient as CW so QRP or low power (100 watt) stations can be very effective if conditions cooperate (which has been a big problem this year with some contests experiencing the best conditions in decades and others being a total washout).aa5au_0087

To get on RTTY is very easy these days. Both the top contesting software programs (Writelog and N1MM) offer RTTY engines that work within the program with very little setup.

AA5AU, is Mr. RTTY and you’ll hear him running in this contest. Don has a ton of information on his excellent website and has a terrific “Getting Started on RTTY” tutorial.

If you follow Don’s information you can set up your logging program memories to run the entire contest with the push of a button. RTTY unlike CW is a mode anyone can start running (calling CQ) which can be way more fun than search and pounce after a few hours in the chair.

BTW RTTY with a FlexRadio is amazing with the integration of SDR software, Writelog (using MMTTY) or N1MM (using 2Tone) and two monitor screens.

I intend on being on for this one.

CQ WW DX SSB Weirdness

Conditions for the CQ WW DX SSB contest were the best in years, maybe even decades, as 10 especially was open from just after sunrise into dusk with all zones active.

Really it was exhausting to keep working so much exotic DX on 10.

And then comes the local station weirdness.

I use the word weirdness to describe stuff that goes wrong which makes no sense.

For example I now have an SWR meter which will only read PEP when the meter’s light is on. This is strange!

My telnet program on Writelog failed (after a mysterious Windows upgrade at 3:30pm) and would not restart despite reinstalling software and restarting the computer…often. And this morning (Monday) it works fine. Grrr.

My voice keyer seems to have developed a bad connection to the rig and will need looking into before I use it again.

My new FlexRadio 3000 worked it’s PA off at 100 watts and overall I’m thrilled with it. It does work better than the 1500 when it comes to shaping software filtering and microphone modelling but the FlexKnob has a noticeable lag when tuning which is not present using it with the 1500. Strange.

The 1500 is still a viable QRP contest-quality rig (at $600) as it runs the same software as the 3000 and with the exception of no VOX, which I don’t use in contests as I say too many bad words, no 100-watts and no ATU, it’s much the same experience on air as its big brother especially on CW where it gives up very little to any rig.

Now the FlexRadio concept with active windows for SDR and then another for your logging program (and don’t get me started with the complexities of RTTY with its windows) can create some interesting moments when you think you’re logging in the Writelog window but actually the mouse or knob is still active on the SDR window. So as you start typing the SDR window changes frequency often going to another band or universe!

This is one of the major issues with any SDR system and can be quite disconcerting at 2 am.

But, for under $2000 with the Flex 3000 you’ve got a competition-class rig that will run circles around all but a few of the top contest rigs ever made. Plus you get a full-screen panoramic display built-in which can cost hundreds of dollars as add-ons in other systems. And, strange as it may seem the rig itself can be sitting on the floor as there are no active controls you need to reach on the box itself.

The big advantage of the Flex SDR is it the quality of the receive signal in your earphones. It’s melodic and unlike my old big box radio not harsh at all. By the end of the 48-hour contest I don’t have a headache anymore. Super. Plus the filtering is a whole new generation of excellent.

Let’s face it contesting is tough on both the equipment and the operator. As a contester your number one desire is to build a station that can take the punishment and keep on ticking.

As for the operator, I’m working on it as I’m still going to hot yoga four times a week.

 

Going To The Dark Side

Yes it’s true. If you look closely at the photo there’s no FlexRadio 1500 anymore. Well it’sIMG_0325 still here but it’s now in a box (for safekeeping) while I try out my new FlexRadio 3000!

That’s the 3000 in the left-hand shelf below the desk top.

On top is now the rotor control box (The rotor died two weeks ago. All the bolts between the upper and lower sections fell out!  It is being replaced by a refurbished unit thanks to Doug, VE3MV and Harry, VA3EC, who is doing the climbing) and the remote antenna switch and the voice keyer.

To the right of the screen is the memory keyer and the Drake 2B.IMG_00000107

The installation of the 3000 was flawless as the 1500 had paved the way and all the software installs and switches and other connections were perfect.

Now to the differences between the 1500 and 3000. On both rigs in software you can tailor how aggressive you want your filtering. As soon as I plugged in the 3000 I could hear a substantial difference.IMG_0328

On the 1500 with all the horsepower dialled into the filtering signals sound melodious and interference even a few Hertz away is non-existent. In the 3000 with everything dialled in signals are harsher to listen to but interference even a few cycles away is inaudible and there’s no AGC pumping that happens with older technology.

What you’re seeing on the photo above is a CW signal with a big fat SSB signal and a noise peak 2 KHz to the right. I’ve got the 100 Hz DSP filtering running and I can’t hear the SSB signal or the random noise.

Of course you can change how the filters act by backing off the settings and then the 3000 sounds like the 1500 but I can’t wait for the next contest when the adding filtering will come into play not to mention the 100-watt PA, the built-in autotuner and VOX.

So why the FlexRadio 3000?

Aside from the obvious it’s one of the cheapest ways to get on the air with a radio that Sherwood Engineering puts in it’s top 12 list of radios with contest-quality front ends.

The Flex 1500 is number 13 and the 3000 is number 11 putting it ahead of some of the big guns including the Kenwood TS-990 and everything that Icom makes (I used to have an IC-756 with dual 500Hz filters in the I.F.s and I loved it but the audio noise gave me a headache.)

So why not a K3?k3_big_v4

A couple of reasons both having to do with money. To get into a K3 you’re into $2500 right away and to finish your K3 properly you’re nudging up to $5K. Then if you want to add the amp and the 500-watt autotuner (which I would) it’s another $2K.

Now would I recommend the FlexRadio 3000 to everyone?flex-3000

Absolutely not! It’s not a turn-it-on and get-talking type of radio. It takes some time and some horsepower from your computer to run properly. My I7 no-name from Tiger Direct which cost about $900 runs at well under 5% CPU and is way more computer than is needed.

Installing the software is easy and getting the 3000 up and running isn’t rocket science but the installation of virtual audio cables can be a challenge but it’s the way of the future and is so much more R.F. immune and stable than the old audio plugs-in stuff. Plus some radios need an external interface.

RTTY on the Flex 1500 (as is CW) is a joy running Writelog with MMTTY doing the heavy lifting. SSB will be much easier at 100 watts with the 3000 than 5 watts with the 1500 but I’m not putting away the voice keyer anytime soon nor am I retiring the 1500 as there are some QRP categories in the big contests that are worth pursuing. AL-811

Now if I had just a few more bucks for a small 600-watt amp…no never mind.

How To Get Ready For Contest Season

Yes ladies and gentlemen, it’s contest season starting next month.

So how do you prepare to be a contester?

Number one issue is getting the time off to contest. At the VE3HQ/VE3HEN QTH it’s a negotiation. We fire up our computer calendars and using WA7BNM’s Contest Calendar we mark down the A-level contests (such as the ARRL DX and CQ WW on CW, SSB and RTTY along with the California and Florida QSO Parties) and the nice to get on B-level contests (like the WAE’s and the Scandinavia Activity Contest and usually the Russian DX contest) and then the C-level contests which is just about anything else if we don’t have something better planned.

The A-level contests are non-negiotable. If we agree on these dates then they don’t get changed. Don’t get buried or married on these dates. If it’s a B-level or less, I’ll be there (at least part time). C-level and you can count me in for bowling or whatever.

Okay so now we’ve got the time nailed down.DSCF1197

Next step to do now is check your antenna and coax systems. I did and it lead me to running a new 100′ run above ground (and through a tree – see photo) of LMR-400 to the tower to connect just the Hy-Gain Explorer leaving an existing run of buried LMR-400 connected to the five-position remote switch.

I also readjusted the Butternut vertical so it loads on the low end of 80 in the CW portion and put up a G5RV-JR as a WARC band and general dipole to add to the antenna farm. BTW check all your connections with vice-grips and give every PL-259 a tightening twist. You might be surprised how some manage to loosen up over time.DSCF1190

Next thing I did was make certain all my software was up to date and working perfectly. I also checked the rig and tuner and external watt meter to make certain all the cables were tight.

The big rig in the photo is a Drake R-8 receiver. The actual rig is the little box, a FlexRadio 1500, that is sitting on the LDG Pro II autotuner and the QRP watt meter. The little gray box to behind the March Paddles is an Idiom Press memory keyer.

Then I did an on-air test last weekend using the 10-hour NAQP CW contest as a final check on all my work. Pleased to say I did 200 QSOs at QRP power (5 watts) and worked everyone I could hear including some stations on 80 meters which is a tough band for me with dipoles that are too low to radiate properly and verticals that on 80 just don’t radiate enough 🙂

Last rule to get ready for any contest is change NOTHING 24 hours before the contest. Friday night is not the right time to upgrade software or make any hardware changes. Trust me on this rule as I’ve broken it too many times and wasted the early hours of too many contests fixing stuff I should never have touched in the first place.

BTW all this outside maintenance can be done in mid-January as well but it’s a bigger challenge to do and do right.

Don’t Sit With Smart Guys

For those of you who have no interest in the ongoing issues to do with Radio Amateurs of Canada (see post below), here’s something on why you shouldn’t sit with smart guys.

You see the Oakville Amateur Radio Club has an informal gathering of members at a local restaurant every Saturday at 6:30 a.m.DSCF2059

It’s a breakfast meeting that often sees 10 to 15 participants and includes myself and Marion, VE3HEN.

Now Marion and I think we’re both fairly capable when it comes to smarts but we’re like a couple of the stupidest people at this table. We’ve got engineers and physicists even a lawyer or two. There are lots of retired guys and a few newbees but here’s where the smart guys come into the picture.

We talk about everything at breakfast with a predominance of the topics being about whatever is of interest in Ham Radio that day. Sometimes we talk about contesting and strategy or how to get into D-Star or station and antenna design.

So we’re sitting around last Saturday and one guy who is in electronic sales says he’s got his hands on a very expensive testing device and he’s going to checkout his antennas and coaxial runs.aa54-1-sm

It gets me thinking that my RigExpert AA-220 antenna anaylizer might not be telling me if my coax has degraded so I took my QRP wattmeter and dummy load out to the tower and put it on the remote antenna switch.

A test running five watts out showed under three watts at the tower. Yikes. This is not good. So I tried another 100-foot run and it showed almost five watts at the meter. Fearing a problem where either in the cable (which is buried and has been for 10 years and likely has soaked up moisture) was failing or the antenna switch was dirty, I took the switch out of the line.

Power through the cable came up to four watts and the switch got a cleaning.DSCF6238

But to be safe I left the old coax (LMR-400) connected to the five-position remote switch where the verticals and dipoles are connected and laid a new line of LMR-400 to the Explorer beam (40/20/15/10) which is my bread and butter antenna.

The new LMR-400 run is above ground and runs along the bottom of the fence coming up an eight-foot mast lashed to the fence at the back of the yard and then across a tramline to the tower.

Now when I run the wattmeter at the tower I see over four watts of startling power and signals seems stronger in the wonderful receiver in the FlexRadio 1500. (BTW heard a guy on 20 meters on the weekend complaining about the noisy audio on his new $8000  Kenwood 990s. Poor guy should have gone FlexRadio which was melodious easy-to-listen-to audio even on the $600 QRP Flex 1500.)

The big advantage to all this work (let alone expense) is now I’ve got an open connection on the remote switch just in time to add a Butternut HF-2 80/40 vertical at the back of yard before the fall contesting season gets underway.

QRP: When you care to send the very least 🙂

SDR OR BBR?

SDR = Software Defined Radio

BBR = Big Box Radio

The debate is raging on the SDR email reflectors. Which type of radio is better?

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on what kind of radio you want and how capable you are of understanding what you’ve bought.3990sys

Big box radios like the new Kenwood TS-990S at $8,000 are state of the art but not to everyone’s tastes.

While it is possible to update firmware this radio still relies on hardware to work and you can’t change hardware. They come with a lot of knobs and buttons. This is an attraction for some.

SDR rigs like the new FlexRadio 6700 at $7,500 are state of the art but not to everyone’s Homepage_FLEX6000 Banner6-24-13tastes. The biggest feature of SDR rigs is the ability to completely change the operating parameters based on uploading new software. (I’ve had two or three complete changes of software for my Flex 1500 as well as several minor upgrades.)

SDR equipment comes with no knobs. The rig doesn’t even need to be visible on the operating table. Some of us have bought external knobs to tune and control some of the features visible on screen and it all works out.FlexControl

Both big rigs will knock your socks off but for different reasons.

The TS-990 or the ICOM IC-7600 at $3500 (or the 7700 at $7,000) or the Yaseu FTDX9000D at $10,000 will provide a state of the art experience for most Amateur Radio activities including rag chewing, contesting, SSB, CW or digital operating.

These radios are similar to other radios that have been around for a couple of decades. Most Hams with little or no experience will find it fairly easy to get a big box radio up and running. (In some cases it’s as simple as plugging in 110 volts and an antenna and no need to read the manual.)

Software Defined Radios aren’t quite that simple but 99% of the issues faced by new owners will be operator error and get solved in time and with help.F1500_new_RAV

SDR requires more direct interface with the station computer and the computer needs to be a relatively new computer with some horsepower under the hood.

(Lots of guys run SDR with laptops costing around $500. I bought a I7 basic box from Tiger Direct for $900. An older HP computer ran the SDR Flex 1500 at 20 per cent CPU or more while the I7 runs around 2 per cent and I have no computer issues with latency.)

Speaking of latency, this is the delay that some SDR systems introduce in the path from the antenna to the headphones. My Flex 1500 will sometimes switch from transmit to receive and I’ll hear the other station in mid reply having missed a character or so. This is mainly an issue during high-speed CW contesting and would be unnoticeable in most other more casual contacts.

Big box radios won’t have that latency issue but come with issues of their own. Most of the big box radios have audio out to the headphones which varies from noisy to unlistenable. I always wondered why contesting gave me such a headache after 48 hours (okay 48 hours on and off and a good night’s sleep) of operating.

And, then I switched to the Flex 1500 (with its huge on screen panoramic display). The audio is so lovely to listen to I immediately sold my ageing big box radio and aside from missing he 100-watt PA on occasion I have no regrets.TS-590S

One big box radio I like a lot is the Kenwood TS-590s which sells for around $1700 has pretty nice audio and is dead drop easy to use. It’s getting lots of good reviews.

The Elecraft KX3 at roughly $1200 is a very interesting and capable 10-watt radio. Another $1200 gets you a state of the art 100-watt amp.kx3

Their K3 starts at $1800 for the 10-watt version and $2400 for the 100-watt rig. There’s a 500-watt amp too for $2000 and a 500-watt auto tuner for $700. A lot of contesters run K3s.

So which radio is for you?K3 and P3 full spect 1024