Wednesday, December 31, 2014

FTdx5000MP Review

Note: This review has been posted to eham.net as well.

We built the KL2R contest shack on a foundation of Yaesu FT-950s, one of which which has been in service for over half a dozen years.  While the Elecraft vs ICOM transceiver debate raged among contesters, we quietly chipped away at building the rest of the shack infrastructure before deciding to invest again in new radios. That time has now come.

I've had a fair amount of personal experience with a variety of mid-range and high-end rigs in challenging and casual settings in the past several years.  I'm not going to knock any one of them. The $1500-3000 range has some really nice choices.  However, none really made me feel any change was going to net a significant step up from the FT-950.  It would likely take a heftier investment.  Also, since we've tried to "standardize" things in our multi-2 shack, there was more to consider beyond the basic radio features and performance. Cables, software, etc. all would require some re-work, and the contest operators would go through some learning curve.  As chief engineer and bottle washer at KL2R, I strongly believe ease of integration and maintenance on the equipment are big evaluation criteria for anything new coming into the shack.

Enter the FTdx5000MP.  A friend loaned the radio for testing while I considered his offer to sell it. Our first intensive experience with the new transceiver was in October during the W1AW/KL7 operations.  Pileups were unbelieveable.  Run, run, run, day and night, which was no sweat for the beast doing mostly CW and RTTY work during that week-long event.  The 200 watts was helpful, because one of our amps was down.  One could even argue the FTdx5000MP pushed some parts of our station to the limits and then some.  A toasted outboard 40m bandpass filter resulted when the antenna VSWR exceeded the specification (200W ICAS @ VSWR less than 1.5:1).  The W1AW portable operation was a good start with the radio.  After a few more weeks of evaluations, including CQWW and ARRL Sweepstakes, I became much more familiar with the features and custom settings.  

I like buttons and knobs.  While the radio's front panel is intimidating, it's actually well-labelled. Take time to learn the layout, which has controls more-or-less clustered by functional group.  If you do not have experience with one of its siblings, the FTdx5000MP will take a bit longer to master in terms of figuring out where things are.  Ergonomics are a mixed bag here, though.  Buttons and knobs both are good for large hands.  The smaller three knobs to the right of the main tuning knob were initially confusing, but within five minutes of reading the manual and pressing a few buttons, I had no more concern.  (One tunes VFO B, and the other two configure A and B filter settings.)  My biggest ergonomic peeve is that the volume knobs for VFO A and B seem to be reversed; i.e., why do I have to turn the left knob to adjust volume in my right ear?  I still get it mixed up at times.

As others have cited, the audio is just brilliant and doesn't wear you out with harshness, whether through headphones or the Station Monitor speakers, especially on voice.  DSP filters can often deliver unpleasant artifacts.  The default settings of the IF filters were markedly cleaner-sounding than those on the FT-950.  In fact, while you really need to engage the FT-950's peak filter for CW to clean up the audio, it is simply not needed under most circumstances with the FTdx5k.  Even super-narrow filters like 100 and 50 Hz do not suffer from terribly notorious ringing.  Also, the ability to tailor the filter rolloff characteristics on the new radio makes it exceptionally versatile for all operating conditions and personal preferences.  

I love the dual-VFO tracking on CW.  With both receivers tuned to the same frequency with left and right audio channels mixing in my head, very slight differences in VFO settings really give a 3D quality to the sound making it easy for me to whittle down the pileups.  The other operators found the new rig quite easy to move into from the FT-950s, at least when using the basic controls.  A couple of non-CW ops decided the dual receive/VFO tracking was more of a distraction.  

Several features on the FTdx5000MP suit our operating conditions exceptionally well.  The four tx/rx and single rx antenna port make antenna diversity reception a real plug-and-play possibility.  Here at our high latitude, receive paths often vary rapidly.  Separate antennas on each receiver can make tremendous differences in reliably copying transmissions.  Monitoring different bands simultaneously is dead easy as well.  During an emergency communications exercise, I could continuously keep track of activity on both 40 and 80m with one transceiver and two mono-band antennas.

Another potent feature on the FTdx5000MP is the variable RF front-end filter (VRF).  The VRF serves as a high-Q preselector prior to the normal bandpass filter in the receiver chain.  During W1AW/KL7, the WARC station splattered occasionally into the non-WARC station due to lack of bandpass filters for the WARC frequencies.  Engaging VRF significantly reduced the extra noise.  VRF is also helpful for improving sensitivity from in-band interference.  I have a neighbor literally 1000 meters away, who likes to DX and ragchew on 20m SSB.  The KL2R tri-bander for North America is fix-pointed directly at his house.  If he is transmitting, the noise level across the entire 20m band rises, which makes it difficult to work weak ones on CW.  Turning on the VRF and tuning it down in frequency to make sure the pre-selector skirts attenuate my neighbor on phone, the noise drops dramatically, thus rendering CW usable again.  

There are a couple of capabilities I really need to explore further.  One is the sloped AGC function for dealing with pileups.  When a pileup is wall-to-wall, a common technique is to turn RF gain down and AGC off.  This allows the operator to pick out the loudest signals a bit more easily.  As the pileup becomes more manageable, RF gain can be increased, etc.  With the sloped AGC function (VFO-A only), the volume of the callers will vary slightly according to signal strength, and it theoretically becomes easier to discerne individual callsigns.

As if two receivers were not enough on the FTdx5k, the 9 MHz IF output makes for some intriguing possibilities with an outboard SDR receiver.  On one of the FT-950s, I added an RF Space IF-2000 board, which brings out a 10.7 MHz IF signal and in turn feeds a FiFi SDR controlled by HDSDR.  FiFi audio goes to a CW skimmer.  I have plans to do similar with the FTdx5000MP, but no IF interface add-on is required.  Operating SO2V with a skimmer is a very powerful tool for the CW or RTTY contester.  Even for non-contesters, an outboard receiver and HDSDR software yields extraordinary high-resolution bandscope and waterfall displays.  Point-and-click tuning is possible, whereas with the Station Monitor or even DMU-2000, it is not.

Finally, a few words about the SM5000 versus DMU-2000, since we have both.  The DMU is most often used for an RF bandscope on one of the FT-950s.  The DMU plugs directly into the Station Monitor, and it's a nice addition to the new transceiver, but it's also an expensive, redundant one for using it only as a bandscope.  The SM5000 is adequate, although not the brightest or biggest display for anyone with visual impairments.  I believe you would get more versatility with an outboard SDR on the 9 MHz IF as described above and a separate computer monitor.

It's safe to say the KL2R team all have come to feel the FTdx5000MP really, truly represents a major evolution forward for our contest station.  My own enthusiasm for the rig goes well beyond contesting, though.  DXing and net operations are especially well supported, and it would take a place of honor in just about any shack.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

KL3UI Makes First QSO As General

Wes KL3UI, who is a prodigious HF contester with the KL2R team, recently upgraded to general.  It was a happy day for all, and he celebrated with a contact with W1AW/9.  His mentor Dan KL1JP made the film at the KL7FWX shack.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sweeps SSB 2014

We did a lot of work over the past two months to prepare for the 2014-15 contest season.  For one, we added a two-element, phased vertical array for 40m.  It is a well-engineered system (mostly) from DX Engineering components and proved to be a great listener.  The 20-30 dB front-to-back is impressive, and it has compared very favorably to a Force12 EF-140 dipole at 120 feet for receiving.  Casual contacts have shown it to be very effective in busting DX pileups as well as ragchewing between here and the Lower 48.

A second addition is the FTdx5000MP, which was previously owned by long-time member Gary NL7Y.  The operators had some learning curve, and we learned quite a bit more about its functions.  The receiver does not leave you fatigued.  To reduce the likelihood of operator fatigue in general, we rotated ops every hour.  "On deck" meant they were tuning The FT-950 for multipliers on the second position.

Since the FTdx5000MP has the SM-5000 Station Monitor, we moved the FT950 + DMU-2000 combination to position #2.  Both radios with band monitors is extremely helpful.
Fun and fellowship.  At one point we had six people in the shack, 100% over capacity.  New-new guy Wes KL3WY stopped by and introduced himself Saturday afternoon.  Elaine KL6C got us out of the gate on 10 and 15.  KL1JP had a very good run, and KL3WY jumped in and lent a hand as well.  KL3UI got plenty of air time, and Carl WL7BDO rounded out the heavy lifting.  Each one of the 419 QSOs was hard-won.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Final Week of W1AW/KL7

Rich KL7RA pulled off a miracle and herded Alaska cats again for the second and final week of W1AW/KL7 operations for the ARRL Centennial.  KL2R contributed about 9% of the 37k QSOs thanks to KL1JP, KL3UI, KL6C, WL7BDO, and N1TX.  Overall it was a greater count than June operations, but KL2R's log was lighter this time around.  Fewer operating hours were possible from this location.  

Gary NL7Y generously loaned the use of his FTDX5000MP, which proved a very solid performer in receive.  It did duty a lot on CW and RTTY without flinching.  The audio is easy on your ears, and the dual-receive is extremely useful for a variety of conditions.

A Miss at CQWW RTTY

Preparations for W1AW/KL7 (starting Oct 1) meant we had to give a pass on the WPX RTTY contest in 2014.  It was a bit painful to miss out.  KL2R holds Alaska records for M/S HP, M/2, and SOAB LP Assisted in CQWW RTTY.  We -- KL1JP, KL3UI, and N1TX -- wondered briefly if any of those records would fall as we took advantage of fleeting decent weather to do antenna work. C'est la guerre.  In these parts, antenna season is decidedly compressed even in the best of times.  The summer of 2014 broke many rainfall records, so any semblance of an outdoor project schedule soon washed away.  

There we were, in the final days of reliably above-freezing temperatures, and there was no time to waste for antenna work.  A new 5-element 6m yagi is up, at least in its temporary location for testing. The DSEJX5-50 arrived about a month ago.  Terry W8ZN and his crew at Directive Systems are breathing new life into a company originally founded by Dave K1WHS.  The entire experience of ordering/paying to final assembly was smooth as silk.  And the new antenna, built according to the instructions, tuned right up without issue and performs as advertised, with a sweet VSWR for 50-52 MHz.

A little cleanup was in order, too.  The Hexx beam, which never really saw much action due to location, was partially disassembled and sent to its new home with Dan KL1JP.  It's a very good performer, but we never could find the right location for it at a decent height.  It definitely could not go on the tower.

Now the BIG project on our minds was a new phased vertical system for 40m.  Last summer we got the ground mount holes dug and cemented into place.  Dan made a command decision to make a herculean effort to get this project off the ground before another winter fell, and the rest of us followed.  DX Engineering and amazon.com delivered the parts in short order.  So we got busy measuring 2000 feet of wire into suitable segments, trimming, crimping, and heat-gunning.  I can highly recommend Ancor marine-grade ring terminals with heat shrink on the ends for superior mechanical integrity and reducing wire corrosion.

We hit a few snags.  Last year I had my fence guy put in three mounts with standard chain link fence corner posts  buried in cement about 3' into the ground.  It turns out these posts are 2-3/8" OD and too big to fit the DX Engineering clamps.  Rather than drill, grind, or otherwise make-to-fit, I ordered two sets of CommScope heavy duty pipe-to-pipe clamps (model BC-30-10) from Tessco while KL1JP picked up 2" steel pipe in town to clamp on to the fence posts.  

A second snag was initially more troubling but resolved quickly.  We bought the Comtek 40VA vertical antennas, and upon first inspection, it appeared parts were missing.  The included instructions didn't quite reflect reality. When we opened the second box and found the same thing, it was a real puzzle.  After checking on line at the DXE web site, there is a Rev. A instruction manual, which was more aligned with reality, and assembly could proceed as normal.

Each 40m base is substantial. The antenna shows a very favorable VSWR across the band so far. It gets above 1.5:1 at the high end of the phone segment, and we often work split anyway.  Anything below 7100 is great.  The real proof of the design is with two antennas.  It's worth noting the paint on the steel pipe is slightly resistive (25 ohms or less), and some changes in VSWR could be expected by binding all the metals to the buried support.  


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Respectable Showing in ARRL DX

2014 ARRL International DX Contest (Phone)
Displaying entries for Class=MM and Division=Non-US
Entries 1 to 9 of 9 listed
#
Call
Score
QSOs
Mult
Class
DXCC Entity
Continent
Club
1
II9P
7,466,391
7,688
327
MM
I
EU

2
LP1H
6,049,953
7,605
267
MM
LU
SA

3
HG1S
5,431,968
6,354
288
MM
HA
EU

4
JA3YBK
3,454,908
4,568
254
MM
JA
AS

5
C6ANM
3,015,699
3,651
277
MM
C6
NA
Yankee Clipper Contest Club
6
KL2R
1,439,955
2,924
165
MM
KL7
NA

7
JE1ZWT
1,091,196
1,815
204
MM
JA
AS

8
LI5O
581,544
1,195
164
MM
LA1
EU

9
9A5BWW
339,465
1,882
61
MM
9A
EU


Guest op AC0W led the charge with the usual cast of characters at KL2R pushing hard into a respectable #6 place worldwide in the DX listings.  We used a multi-2 configuration.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

JARL Awards At Last

Thanks to HV0A

Yesterday I worked The Vatican HV0A on 17m CW.  A career first from Alaska.  As it happens, I have been agonizingly close to Worked All Europe Class I with one point to go for many weeks.  I received the LoTW confirmation today, imported it into my DARC contest logbook, and voila!  WAE-I is in the bag.

Friday, August 29, 2014

WL7BDO in the News

Club member Carl Horn WL7BDO has been in the news lately.  First of all, he was an operator at KL7RA to set a new North American record in CQ WPX SSB in 2014.  Quite impressive.  His appearances at KL2R have led the way for top-notch placing.  The W1AW/KL7 operation from Two Rivers pushed new boundaries, and Carl was a key participant.  

Beyond ham radio, Carl's work with the Nenana School District is featured in a newsletter from the Alaska Association of School Business Officials: 




Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hmmm...

There for a while it seemed we were going gangbusters in the contests.  Last year was horribly slow for no good reason, winter storms excepted.  I think I (N1TX) was highly motivated in 2012 with scoring high in the regional WRTC selection.  I can say 2014 numbers do not include the 4000 or so contacts we made as W1AW/KL7 in late June.  If we are able to complete Sweepstakes in both modes as well as CQWW, it will have been a great year in sheer volume.  LoTW confirmations allow us to claim DXCC 150 on 20m alone since the club's inception, but this year DXCC counts seem low to date.

YearNumber of DXCCsNumber of QSOsQSOs as Percent
2014776020CW: 31.88%
Phone: 51.76%
Data: 16.36%


20131226042CW: 58.74%
Phone: 1.26%
Data: 40.00%


201215312738CW: 49.50%
Phone: 21.40%
Data: 29.10%


Monday, April 7, 2014

A Little Action for ARRL Centennial

The ARRL Centennial QSO Party brings with it some motivation to activate my personal call N1TX. Working me is worth 12 points, because I am a Technical Specialist.  This year-long QSO Party has been incredibly popular, and of course any Alaska signal chumming the waters generates a lot of action anyway. The European pileups have been bodacious.  Listen for N1TX/KL7 evenings after 0100Z and on non-contest weekends. CW is my preferred mode, but I'll be ramping up the digital modes, especially RTTY, in the coming weeks.  I'll toss in regular phone contacts for good measure. Since extended daylight hours are upon us, listen primarily on 10-20 meters.

The Centennial QSO Party Leaderboard shows some respectable standings for several Alaska stations. KL7RA is currently ranked #6 overall.  WL7E is #19, AL9A is #24.  KL2R is ranked #57 without even trying.