Wednesday, December 31, 2014

FTdx5000MP Review

Note: This review has been posted to 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.