Tecsun PL-880 memory machine

Even though it’s fairly common for most transceivers to include general coverage receive that wasn’t always the case. Not all that long ago if you wanted general coverage receive capability it meant that you had a separate receiver for that purpose. My first HF rig was a Swan 350 and at that time I also had a Hallicrafters S-20R that was my grandpa’s for many years. When he had it,  most all of the time it was tuned to WSM and The Grand Ole Opry. It was part of my first radio station. Somewhere over the years it was sold and yes, like most radios that you sell, I wish I still had it.

First station circa 1979 with Hallicrafters S-20R

Some years ago I wanted an SW receiver and purchased a nice new Sony ICF-SW7600GR. It was still a time when there were a lot more portable SW radios available than today. The Sony was appealing due to its portability and probably a fair amount of brand reputation. It has provided good service over the years and still sees a fair amount of use each week between my XYL and I. In fact, earlier this year I had to buy my XYL her own radio so that she’d leave mine alone. Since she used it solely for AM\FM reception I purchased her a Tecsun PL398MP. Now my Sony stays in the last place that I put it.

One of the things that I’ve never liked about the Sony is that it does not have a VFO knob. It uses a a set of +/- buttons to tune the radio. It’s just not the same as tuning a radio with a VFO knob and I’ve never grown used to it. It’s clearly a first world problem that really didn’t need to be solved but the longing for a VFO knob was lurking in my subconscious wondering if there was some manner in which to resolve this “problem.”

For some time now, one of my favorite blogs has been The SWLing Post. Little did I know that the seed to a “solution” to my aforementioned “problem” would be planted by what appeared at the time to be an innocuous blog post that I read back in the summer of 2014.  Among a bunch of things, Thomas (K4SWL / M0CYI), the proprietor of The SWLing Post, does a superb job of reviewing SW radios. He goes into great detail and provides very useful insight into the radios that he reviews. Several years ago I read a post that he wrote called “Mega Review: the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, Sangean ATS-909X, and Sony ICF-SW7600GR go head-to-head.” It was (and still is) a very comprehensive review of some of the best portable shortwave receivers available at that time. The review was also published in the June 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor.

I had the Sony and I wasn’t really in the market for another SW radio. I was probably vaguely aware of the Tecsun PL-880 prior to reading this review but not being in the market for another SW radio I really hadn’t paid any attention to it. Then I read the review. That review planted the seed that’s been growing for the past several years. Unfortunately, the PL-880 compared very favorably to the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and worst of all it had not one but two VFO knobs, a main tuning knob and a fine tuning knob. They reminded me of the Main Tuning and Bandspread of my old S-20R. Every time that I used the Sony after reading that review the thought of not one but two VFO knobs was refreshed. Like I said, first world problems.

For the last several years I’ve rationalized the purchase of this tandem VFO knobbed wonder but never could tip the balance until a couple of days ago. Amazon Primed it to me late this afternoon.

Tecsun PL-880

This thing is very very nice. It is really well built and works wonderfully. The package includes a very nice case, an external antenna, an 18650 battery, a USB cable, a set of earbuds and documentation.

What’s in the box

The left side panel includes the following I\O and settings:

Left side panel

The right looks like this:

Right side panel (from left: volume, fine tuning, main tuning)

Rear view

Front controls

I’ll defer to Thomas for the details.

As I was writing this tonight I had it tuned to 650 AM, WSM. WSM is located in Nashville, Tennessee, a bit over 500 miles south of my QTH. It’s a Clear Channel station with 50, 000 watts and it was coming in clean and clear on the telescoping whip antenna of the PL-880 as it sat on the desk in my shack in the basement of our home. It brings back a lot of memories of the old S-20R at my grandparent’s home and the music that it played. Unbeknownst to me, tonight’s show is celebrating Marty Stuart’s 25th anniversary as a member of The Grand Ole Opry. He’s one of my favorites, not only as a superb musician of anything with strings, but for his love and respect for the tradition of the music. He started traveling with Ralph Stanley when he was 13 years old and has been at it ever since. It was extra special to hear The Opry with that show on the first night with this new radio. Little did I know that in addition to being a fine radio, the Tecsun PL-880 is a memory machine.

The two knobs pale in light of those memories.

Grandpa with his DOBRO (1934)

KA9EAK with the handmade banjo that I built, an archtop like Ralph Stanley’s

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A little box from Italy

Over the past few years I’ve been working toward the goal of improving the capabilities of my station. Previously I had an average station consisting of two HF radios (a TS-830S station and an IC-718) and one HF antenna (Cobra UltraLite Senior) with which I would make an average number of contacts each year, mostly SSB. I also had a few VHF\UHF radios (including a couple of old all-mode 2m transceivers, TR-9000 and TR-9130) that saw rare usage on 2m SSB and even rarer usage on 2m FM all used with my Elk Antenna.

I’ve since added a few more radios (including HF mobile and HF portable), a few more antennas, and an amplifier and with all this added equipment I have been operating a significant amount more than I had in the past. I also started to operate some digital with WSPR, PSK31, and FT8. But I’ve always operated more SSB than CW. That’s the next goal. With my station in good order, my next endeavor is to operate more CW than SSB or at least even the ratio.

There are a few reasons for this. One, I don’t have a super station with 4 over 4 over 4 on multiple bands. For some DX, the only way I’m going to make the contact is with CW. The little bit of boost that I get with my SB-200 for SSB is nice but it’s not enough in many cases. Two, given the first reason and adding in band conditions for the foreseeable future the need for CW grows and not just for DX. Three, a fair number of DX stations favor CW over SSB so if you want them you need to get them with their preferred mode. And finally, it’s the traditional mode for Amateur Radio. CW was where I started and it’s time to get back to that for these and a few other reasons.

In the world of music it is said that a good instrument will make you want to play. I’m sure that translates to a number of areas, which brings us to the little box that recently arrived from Italy.

What’s in the box

There are probably any number of interesting things that might arrive at your home in a box from Italy and I actually own some other fine Italian mechanical devices, but in the world of Amateur Radio, their is one thing in particular and that is a Begali key.

New Begali key

I’ve wanted a Begali key ever since I first learned of them a number of years ago. However, given my operations at the time they were too extravagant for my needs. Plus, I had other keys that already didn’t see enough usage. Some reasonably nice ones. Did I really need another key? Did I really need a Begali?  I don’t know whether or not I needed one, but I sure did want one. So with the combination of new operating interests, an early birthday present (55 in February). and a wee bit early Christmas present, the weight of justification tipped the balance and the order was placed.

The key arrived less than two weeks after I placed the order with the usual exceptional customer service and great communications from Bruna Begali. I elected to purchase a Simplex Mono Basic. I wanted to try a single lever key and I prefer the dark, textured base of the basic versions as opposed to the shiny finishes of the bases of most all of the other Begali keys. And yes, I paid extra for the red anodized aluminum finger pieces. Less wind resistance.

New in the boc

Begali Simplex Mono Basic

This key is wonderful! It is very nicely made. It looks and feels great. Even the bottom of the key is very nicely done with a pocket for the connections, lugs for the wires, and a nice strain relief for the cable.

Begali Simplex Mono bottom

With some time off for the coming holidays this new key will most certainly see a lot of use. It was easily worth the money and also worth the wait. It is far and away the nicest key that I own and a very nice addition to my station. Add it to the long list of things that I have to be thankful for, though that list pales in comparison to the very long list of non-material things.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ferrari vs. Shelby Cobra?

A day with a doublet

I have some vacation days this week coinciding with the Thanksgiving holiday so today was largely new doublet day. I spent a fair amount of the morning testing with my AA-55Zoom and then sorting out tuner settings on my Dentron Super Tuner Plus.

Unorthodox antenna chart

As illustrated by my somewhat unorthodox antenna chart, looking straight into the antenna through the Balun Designs 4115 balun, the SWR ranges from 1.37 to 7.5 from 10m through 80m and then jumps to 13-15 across 160m. All of the bands are well within reach of my Dentron Super Tuner Plus. With extremely few exceptions, the tuner brings the SWR down to less than 2:1 and in most cases down to 1.1-1.2 or less. On the 20m band I don’t even need to use a tuner and many of the bands are within reach of the tuner in my TS-590SG.

The first contact with the new antenna was Jeff, W9GY on 40m. I was able to do some A\B testing with my 4BTV and the new doublet. In this case the signal from the doublet was stronger. More contacts through the afternoon on 20m and 40m with some additional A\B testing further illustrates the fact that it’s nice to have options. I was able to make some of the first contacts I’ve had in quite sometime on 160m tonight with good signal reports even with 100W including  a nice QSO with Loren, W5HIO. In many instances the doublet was quieter than the vertical.

Thus far I am well pleased with this new antenna. As I said before, Brian, WB2JIX was very helpful and he builds a quality product. I’m glad that I was able to add this antenna to my station and I believe that it will serve me very well.

 

True Ladder 240 foot doublet install complete

With some help from my friend and fellow operator Josh, KD9DZP and no help from the weather I was able to complete the installation of my new True Ladder Line 240 foot doublet. It was 28 degrees F and windy. In other words great antenna weather. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of outside work to complete. We largely had to mount the balun and then run the ladder line over to it.

I’m using a Balun Designs 4115. While the Balun Designs package is very hardy and should be fine in a Wisconsin winter, I placed it in a utility entry box that Josh had in his junk box. It might be belt and suspenders but it will be bearing the direct brunt of winter so it seemed like an easy bit of added insurance.

Feedline and balun

All buttoned up for winter

Once everything outside was closed up the last bit of work was to route the coax into the workshop for the run to the shack.

With the coax work complete I made a quick scan with my AA-55 Zoom:

Initial scan

This is the 240 foot antenna with approximately 50 feet of feedline.

I’ll have some time this week to do make some additional measurements and do some tuning. For now it’s time to continue thawing, have a bowl of chili, connect this thing to my Dentron Super Tuner Plus. and operate on 80m and 160m tonight.

 

First SDR!

SDRPlay RSP1A

After a number of years of hemming and hawing I finally purchased my first SDR! Yesterday morning I was up at my usual 4:00 AM CST thanks to the recent daylight savings time change. The clock may say that it is 4:00 AM but my body still thinks that it is 5:00 AM. In any event, as I was nibbling on some breakfast and sipping a cup of coffee I was making a pass through some blog updates and noticed a post earlier in the week on The SWLing Post blog about the recent release of the SDRPlay RSP1A. It was apparently just released on Wednesday, 11/15. In addition to the announcement regarding the release there was also a very nice first review of the device which I read with great interest.

After reading the review and watching this video interview with Jon Hudson of SDRPlay and this video that presents a nice comparison of the various SDRPlay SDR receivers I decided that it was time to wade into the world of the SDR.

As I began the order process on the SDRPlay site the first selection is the country to which the radio will be delivered. Upon choosing “United States” I was immediately informed that SDRPlay products are available from Ham Radio Outlet. Given that I live about 13 miles as the crow flies from the nearest HRO (much too close in some regards,) I checked their site to see if they even listed the new RSP1A, much less had them in stock. Given that they were just released less than 48 hours previously, my expectations were calibrated to the fact that they likely wouldn’t have them listed yet. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was the RSP1A listed but they also indicated stock in two locations, unfortunately neither of which was the Milwaukee store. Oh well, I placed the order and chose to have it shipped to the store expecting that I’d get it early next week. At 12:48 PM CST I received a call from Mark, KD9EEE at the Milwaukee HRO store informing me that my RSP1A was ready for pick up! Perhaps HRO is using drones to rapidly move product (don’t tell the FAA) or quite possibly, SDRPlay and HRO did a great job of filling the supply chain prior to announcing the release. In any event I had the RSP1A in my hands late in the afternoon, well less than 12 hours after I first learned of its existence.

After some jiggering around with the USB driver (Microsoft’s problem, not SDRPlay’s, more on that later) the device was working and SDRuno was running.

SDRPlay SDRuno

This thing is fantastic! The notion of receiving an entire band at once as opposed to peering through a keyhole at one thin slice at a time is fascinating. Yes, I know, I’m late to the SDR party. I’m usually a late adopter. And yes, I’ve seen and fiddled with SDR-in-a-box radios like the IC-7300, but owning an SDR and being able to sit and play with it for awhile is very interesting.

I’m not giving up my knobs and buttons anytime soon. In fact, I’ve only been using this thing for several hours and I’m already missing a VFO knob. Thankfully SDRPlay has a suggested solution, the Griffin Powemate USB Multimedia controller. Amazon will have it here tomorrow.

My intention for today was to finish the installation of my new antenna however as I was writing this post this began to appear outside:

First snow

The weather is supposed to improve tomorrow, with Monday even nicer. The antenna will need to wait a day (or two.)

Weather forecast

I guess I’ll have to declare this SDRplay day and have fun with my new SDR!

 

USB driver: Regarding the USB driver. The driver would install but would not start due to a Windows error, “Windows cannot verify the digital signature for the drivers required for this device. A recent hardware or software change might have installed a file that is signed incorrectly or damaged, or that might be malicious software from an unknown source. (Code 52).” Argh. It was already  late on Friday so I called it a night and planned to start fresh (at my usual 4:00 AM CST) on Saturday morning. I was able to get the driver to load after disabling the driver signature enforcement on boot however this was not a good long term solution. I opened a support ticket with  SDRplay via the support page on their site and had a response in less than 40 minutes (this is Saturday morning at my QTH in Wisconsin and they are in the UK.) They said to install a Windows patch, Microsoft security advisory: Availability of SHA-2 code signing support for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2: March 10, 2015.

After the installation of the patch all was well. The driver starts and functions correctly. My OS is Windows 7 SP1.

 

Antenna season is upon us

With a shiny new BITX40 sitting in its box waiting to be assembled and a True Ladder Line open wire fed doublet sitting in its box waiting to be deployed I took one look at the weather and decided to head outside.

Antenna weather

The warmth of a soldering iron was indeed preferable but given that winter is closing in fast combined with rolling back to standard time from daylight savings time having pushed outside work in the daylight to the weekends, I’m probably not getting too many more “nice” weekend days.

My main wire antenna has been a Cobra UltraLite Senior. I put it up just over ten years ago and it has served me well. The Cobra antennas always need a tuner. Initially I used it on 10-160m with an LDG AT-100Pro and my IC-718 and later with a Kenwood AT-230 and my TS-830S. These tuners always found a match. With the addition of the 4-BTV I’ve primarily used it on 80m and 160m with a Dentron Super Tuner Plus and my TS-590SG. As expected, the Dentron always finds a match. (In some cases the internal tuner of the 590SG would find a match but most times I just used the Dentron.)

Over the years I’ve had a growing interest in operation on 160m and while the Cobra version that I have will work there it’s not terribly efficient. With the addition of an SB-200 to my station I was interested in improved efficiency on 40m and 80m at power levels around 500W and even though I’ll still only have 100W on 160m an improvement in efficiency would be welcome there as well. As always a wire antenna is nice to have in addition to a vertical and finally, a longer wire antenna will get me closer to what I’ll need when I’m ready to operate on the new 630m band.

My initial thoughts for replacement of the Cobra was to build an Off-Center Fed Dipole (OCFD) however after a lot of research and exchanging some emails with Brian, WB2JIX I elected to purchase one of his 240 foot open wire fed doublets. Brian was very responsive and informative in our exchanges. The information that he provided in our email exchanges and on his site, coupled with some additional reading tipped the balance.

The new antenna and feedline arrived within a week of placing the order.

New antenna

Packed in the box is 240 feet of antenna and 100 feet of open wire ladder line.

Antenna and ladder line

The antenna is well made out of good quality materials. One of the appealing things is that each leg of the antenna is a continuous wire from the tuner to the end of the antenna. I did the build or buy analysis and figured that by the time I purchased the wire, purchased material for the spreaders, fabricated a bunch of spreaders, and assembled the thing it would be next spring and what’s the fun of putting up an antenna when it’s sunny and warm?

In addition to replacing the antenna it was time to replace some of the rigging that supports it in the trees. While the end supports had been replaced over the years the center support was the original lines and pulley.

10 years of service

After a quick consultation with my friend Bob, The Boat Doctor, I purchased some nice new Harken 340 blocks (and I had one used 348.) Harken blocks are made here in Wisconsin, about 25 miles southwest of my QTH, in Pewaukee.

Harken Blocks

These new blocks are much lighter (at least 3 times lighter) and spin much more freely than the hardware store versions I’ve used previously. Due to their construction they will last much much longer than my prior hardware. I also laid in a supply of nice new black Dacron line.

Given that this new antenna is 100 feet longer (240 feet vs 140 feet) I had done some initial rough measurements and it appeared that I could accommodate an additional 100 feet without moving the end supports. I replaced the original halyard and center support line, and added a second center support halyard and support line so that the antenna would be pulled into the clear away from its supporting trees. Once this work was complete I laid out the antenna and feedline on the ground.

Ladder on the ground

The center support lines were fed through the center support tube:

Center support

Upon beginning the operation of raising the antenna (with the assistance of my two sons) it quickly became apparent that I had done my trigonometry or analytic geometry or some kind of math wrong. Or maybe I should have used a tape measure instead of just pacing it off. The north end of the antenna was hoisted as far and high as it would go, the center was where it needed to be for feedline position, but the south leg was sagging to about 15 feet off the ground. Oops. I hauled the south end down and after re-positioning the support line farther south and a bit higher all was well.

Antenna in place

Thus far it is sitting much nicer than the Cobra ever did. The antenna wire itself is arguably lighter even though it’s 100 feet longer, as the Cobra was actually three parallel conductors (thus the Cobra.) Hopefully it will be less of a wind and snow load as well. The Cobra wire would always load up with snow and sag. Additionally, the open wire feedline is laying nicely and may arguably be less wind and snow load as well. Supposedly open wire feedlne is less susceptible to rain and snow build up. The 450 ohm window line of the Cobra was always effected by rain and snow. The SWR would always move around when it was wet.

By the time I had the initial placement complete it had started to drizzle and the sun was well on its way down. I called it a day, cleaned up, and went inside to thaw. I need to do a bit more work on the center and end points including the addition of tension relief with some additional blocks and weights. I also need to make some initial measurements and work on getting the feedline positioned. Unfortunately I’m not able to run the feedline all the way into my shack. It will terminate outside at a Balun Designs 4115 balun with the run to the shack in coax. This will need to wait until next weekend and the following week with some vacation days for the Thanksgiving holiday. I’m really looking forward to getting this thing on the air.

 

FT-221

A few months ago I obtained a nice old Yaesu FT-221 with the original Yaesu mic and a CommSpec TE-32 that was added in order to use it with repeaters. The FT-221 is a 2 meter all-mode radio that was produced in the mid-1970’s. I got it from a friend and fellow operator, Tom, W9IPR. It was his, then it was his mom’s, and then it was his again. Tom was selling it and I have a soft spot for radios of the 1970’s. The price was right so it followed me home.

FT-221

While I know the Kenwood 2 meter all modes of that time (700A and 700SP) the first I’d heard of the FT-221 was the day that I bought it. It reminds me of the Kenwood’s.

It was cold and rainy today and while there were things that I needed to do what I wanted to do was to check out this radio after it had been sitting on my bench for a bit.

It’s a very nice radio that is really well built. Each subsystem is on its own board which plugs into what is essentially a backplane on the bottom of the chassis.

FT-221 inside

Being an old radio I searched for and quickly found the service manual. It is highly detailed and very well written, going through each board and its interactions with the overall. The service manual mentioned extender boards for service. It seemed like a good item to have on hand but I figured that it would be unobtainium but John, WA1ESO builds them along with a number of other similar boards. The extender board essentially moves the edge connector up from the backplane so that you can plug a board in and access signals and components for troubleshooting.

FT-221 with extender board

After a bit of research I found that Yaesu produced an FT-221R sometime after the FT-221 that apparently allowed for other than 600 kHz repeater offsets. The FT-221’s were replaced by the FT-225 which among other things added a digital display. A digital display was an option for the FT-221’s, the YC-221. A bit of searching shows that this may indeed be unobtainium but maybe one will show up some day.

I don’t operate 2m SSB all that often but it is fun when I do. I have an old Kenwood TR-9000 and a TR-9130 that I use with my Elk Antennas 2M/440L5. It’s not a great VHF station but I can make contacts with it.

2 meter all-mode radios

I like the old dedicated VHF\UHF all-mode radios of the past. I don’t believe that anyone makes one today. I realize that there are a few radios (IC-9100, TS-2000, IC-7100, FT-857, FT-817) that have VHF\UHF support but they are shack-in-the-box radios with HF capabilities as well. Nothing wrong with that. I have some of these radios and like them just fine. There’s just something neat about the old dedicated radios like the TS-700A\700SP, TS-600, FT-847, IC-290, TM-255, TS-60, TR-751, TS-711, IC-211, IC-271, IC-275, etc. At one time there were quite a few of them. Now you’re shopping the used market to find one.

I’m glad to add the FT-221 to my station and pleased that it came from W9IPR. Now I’m almost going to have to add a Kenwood TS-700A\700SP to balance the FT-221.

I told you that I have a thing for radios of the 1970’s.