The competition between high-ends (II)
Due to its plethora of (analog and) digital filters of all kinds, high-ends transceivers like Icom IC-7851, Kenwood TS-990S or Yaesu FT-DX5000MP push the selectivity as well the sensitivity and high-order IMD a bit farther than other RTXs. Their performances are considered among the best to date whatever say gossips.
If the excessively high price of Yaesu FT-DX9000 ($11500 or 9000€ for the 200W version) or Icom IC-7851 ($14000 or 12000€ in 2015) limits their selling to some contest teams and fortunate hams, at 25% of this price ($3000 or 3000 €) several models from Icom, Kenwood or Yaesu are much more accessible (note that to get the new model you can also sell all your surplus hardware, Hi!).
But there is also the possibility to purchase and old performing model. On Yaesu FT-1000MP Mark-V for example, the shape of Collins filters passband is very effective at removing noises on sideband, without impacting the desired signal. The profile of these Collins filters is similar to a square wave, showing very short skirts, what allow to this system to eliminate very easily a QRM located a fraction of hertz near your frequency.
Better, thanks to its DSP functions (Enhanced DSP like IDBT and contour and several others) the Mark-V is able to extract the weakest signals from the background hash where most of its competitors fail.
With its armada of filters the Mark-V cannot lost any signal in the QRM. At the time of its release, in 2000, very few other models can pretend to exceed its score using factory settings, except Ten-Tec Omni 6+ and Tec-Tec ORION. Of course, with time, these models are now discontinued and remplaced by new ones taking advantage of the last technologies (optimized roofing filters, Internet, bandscope, waterfall, etc) but these old models have the advantage to be available on the second hand market at very competitive prices (~$1000 in 2015).
Till today not many competitors knock at Yaesu door and show better scores : except their own recent models (FT-DX Series), there are Icom IC-7851, Elecraft K3, and receiver cards like FlexRadio FLEX-6700 or Winradio WR-G31DDC.
To see : Icom IC-7800 with version 3.0 firmware, ICOM
But as we explained previously, if we install hardware options like Inrad mechanical filters to improve the signal quality, then old very good models remain in competition like Yaesu FT-1000MP Mark V or ICOM IC-756PROIII that shows an improved 3d order Intercept Point (see this graph of IP3 and IMD) and globally excellent performances.
On the other side, using integrated circuits, if the digital filters enveloppe is badly programmed it can sometimes looks more like a gaussian curve than to a square wave, with such specs that the weak signals are not completely filtered at both extremes of the filter passband; they will capture the AGC and will still be heard. In these conditions you can never reach performances of a Collins mechanical filter.
For decades Collins or Inrad filters, internal of external, have proven their quality. Of course such filters are expensive, from 150 € to more than 250 € per filter, and you need as much filters as you have bands to work. An all set of such filters can cost more than 600 €.
Now take the DSP noise reduction filters for example, that we found in most RTX. They are powerful features that no ham could no more bypass. In usual conditions, the adjustable noise blanker of Ten-Tec ORION (now replaced by Omni VII), the one of Yaesu FT-1000MP Mark-V or Yaesu FT-DX1200 is one of the best that you could hear.
On high-ends RTX the N.R. is perfect for all conditions. Cranking the noise blanker all the way helps you eliminating even the most stubborn pulse noise like power lines or engine noises that other NBs (e.g. those of Kenwood TS-570 or TS-480SAT) won't touch, without compromising audio quality. SSB audio is very customizable for either fidelity, or cutting through a pile up using compression.
That said,the N.R. offered on Icom IC-775DSP cannot reach the performances offered by the Collins filters installed in Yaesu FT-1000MP Mark-V among others rigs
Power side, like IC-7851, IC-7800, IC-775DSP and FT-1000MP Mark-V transmitters develop 200 W PEP out and do not even get warm during long SSB QSO or at 100 W using PSK31. This supplemental power may add a 3 dB to the TX signal, improving a bit a CW signal lost in QRM, or can be useful in driving an amplifier.
At last, many digital transceivers have a sub receiver, a very useful feature that allows you to listen at 2 frequencies at the same time.
Why using a double VFO ? Imagine that there are two pile-ups working on the 20m band. If the first station is hard to work you can switch to second one and try to work the second DX, keeping an ear on the lower station waiting a lull in the traffic.
A double VFO is also very appreciated in CW (or even SSB) when working a DX whose QSX frequency shifts regularly of a few kHz. So such a feature is great for spots and split operations.
The mid-end Kenwood TS-570D has well an A/B VFO push-button that can be very useful in split operations when the operator uses a fixed QSX (e.g. "up 5"), but it makes DX spotting moving in frequency (e.g. "5 to 10 up") or working in CW difficult at best !
Now the killing question : are high-end transceivers really worth their price in terms of performances and ergonomy ? Take for example Kenwood TS-2000 (~$2200 in 2000) and Yaesu FT-DX3000 ($3500 in 2012).
Kenwood TS-2000 looks nice with its many functions accessible from the front panel and its large LCD display. But a close look confirms that most of them require to push on two keys (FUNC + key) to active them. In conditions of heavy pile-up or QRM the design of both Kenwood is much less practical than a radio offering direct access keys and lights that warn you when some features are enabled. Last but not least, this transceiver shows very low dynamic ranges in term of blocking GC and IMD (even the small TS-480 has a better selectivity !).
At last, Yaesu FT-DX3000 seems to be an excellent performer based on the Blocking GC and IMD figures. But numbers do not mean that all is perfect, far to be. Indeed, in the field this transceiver is disappointing. The nice band scope is almost useless, and the access to many functions require 4 or more operations on the menu ! Then, under heavy noise, the AGC is not efficient. At last, using an amplifier the processing is almost in ALC (not better on Yaesu FT-DX5000 or FT-950) with no point in Class A. In fact, a mid-end transceiver like Kenwood TS-590SG gives better results !
For short, a so-called high-end transceiver on paper does not mean that it is a great performer in the field. In this context, the reading of NC0B tests listed at the end of this page (PDF and PPT) are a valuable learning experience.
Your antenna system
The best transceiver is useless without a good antenna system, mainly for emitting. For an isolated ham working barefoot and using a vertical or a dipole antenna, it is sometimes hard to fight against competitors equipped with amplifiers and big guns, beams and other quads.
A QSO meaning a two-ways contact, it requests that the correspondent be able to hear you, and flood among the kW-class users your barefoot emitter has not much chance to work that DX station in the next hour !
Like some of you probably, more than once I have called a far DX station (say over 8000 km away) that I heard very well but he never answered to my call. Another time the remote station QSY before I have time to work him (and sometimes I was fortunate enough to be the first to found it back and I got my QSL too, Hi!).
When all conditions are met to work a station but that you miss it, one idea comes to mind : before buying an amplifier, use a directive antenna !
The antenna should be directional with a substantial gain in order to well listen and be also heard by your DX station without losing too energy in side lobes. Even on shortwaves this is sometimes a challenge that requests patience and some voice when propagation vanishes. But prior establishing this contact, the transceiver must be properly coupled to the feed line and itself correctly coupled to the antenna.
When using a Yagi or a quad you will quickly discover that you have no more use, or almost, of a linear amplifier because the QRM of near stations has been reduced of 20 dB or more in all directions except in a narrow beam toward your DX station; now you are able to work the world with 100W or 200W PEP even during minima of the solar cycle or when propagation conditions are poor for low power or omnidirectional stations.
In fact using a directive antenna offering a high gain (say over 5 dBd with a F/B gain over 20 dB) we can say that you have practically a private conversation with your DX contact. This is of course a caricature but used together with a DSP transceiver, your beam can do miracles, or almost.
Working with a high-end transceiver and a big gun is thus very exciting as you really don't lose your time in calling DX in vain due to your small installation. Of course such equipements have a price and not everybody can invest a "fortune" in his or her installation. This is a question to debate between you and your conscience.
Be informed before buying
Whether you like ragchew in local QSOs, work DX stations or contests, you will recognize that depending on your activities on bands, the two main categories of transceiver, the mid- and high-ends (there are probably no more low-ends or "bad" transceivers on the market, except maybe some home-maded) give not similar results in the field.
There is on the one hand what states the marketing, and on the other hand what are using hams. Do never believe at 100% advertisings or salesmen. A bad dealer will prefer to sell you a transceiver in a brand where he makes the larger profit or till easier, because you accept to purchase it like a cat in a bag.
A transceiver being an expensive piece of hardware and often a durable investment (at least 10 years), you have interest to select it with care if you do not want to regret your purchase some weeks later.
To prevent any mistake you have no other choice that testing it to a friend or to ask to rent a model to your dealer to test it in your working conditions. This latter recommendation is however the most difficult to meet as few dealers accept to rent a RTX or any aerial knowing that most users abuse of this opportunity to use them in contests with the additional risk to no more be able to sale the product once used or damaged. Hopefully, for contests manufacturers can sometimes help you.
Some QSLs recently received
If you can't get a transceiver for rent or can't visit a close friend or a club using this rig, try to read as many reviews as you can, read the technical threads on forums to forge your own opinion. Read also lab tests and reviews from ARRL (by subscribing to their organization or via a radio club) in understanding well their results, what needs some habit. Have the critical spirit and balance all opinions to weight the pro and con of all comments.
At last, if you really need the best transceiver, equipped with the finest DSP, direct access keys and ergonomic menuing, do not listen (too much) to the OM who just bought a new rig. First he lacks of practical experience and cannot yet compare performances of his new RTX with his previous one. Then in case of problem, it is always delicate to confess to be mistaken when you are a technician (and successfully passed the examination). Check also the QSLs you received from DX-peditions or contest teams or their website to know what is their equipment. Like you they have looked for not only an excellent transmitter but the receive module had to be the nec plus ultra in terms of performances and overall ergonomy.
After this analysis you will be much better prepared and in a well better position to judge the quality of the transceiver that you covet.
Make the good choice
To conclude, can we say that the few high-end transceivers list above are worth their price ? Well, it depends. A high-end transceiver at more than $4000 plus options can be a great performer but it will allow you to buy a lot of antennas or a linear amplifier too. But if you already have a great spot and the best aerials, e.g a quad cut for each band 10m high (33 ft) installed in a high open field or at sea level, a better receiver may be the way to go. This is also the best choice if you want to replace all your old material (your small RTX, your external filters, and your AT tuner) by a high-end model including all these features from factory.
Some QSLs recently received
If you do not want operating in contests or in heavy QRM conditions, or if you are a casual operator and appreciate to ragchewing in local QSOs, the purchase or a high-end transceiver very expensive is probably not the best choice to make. I would go with mid-end model like Kenwood TS-570D series or its successor (TS-480SAT), and similar models.
Of course if you have enough money left, or have the opportunity to buy a high-end on second hand which P.A. has not suffered of bad SWR or a lightning strike, without hesitation you should consider purchasing a Yaesu FT-DX5000MP or one of its challengers, the Icom IC-7800 or even Kenwood TS-990S. These radios clearly trade off size for usability and global performances. So if you are searching for the best rigs, the transceivers described above count among the finest HF transceivers ever made !
By way of conclusion, I received most of my QSLs using the receiver preamplifier and all possible DSP filters enabled (Noise Reduction, IDBT, VRF, Notch, etc). Without these functions that helped me in extracting weak signals from the hash of the background noise or from the QRM, I had probably missed some DX-peditions and most wanted DX that I worked, sometimes in conditions for the least difficult without a good antenna or technical assistance. In other words, I can no more go without DSP functions, including for the external speaker.
Make the good choice.
For more information
One of the scarce magazine providing a platform for exchanging the latest technical ideas and information is unquestionably the ARRL QEX magazine. As wrote ARRL, "From PSK31 to the future radio design concepts, you will explore it and built it in QEX ! At 64 pages, this bimonthly journal should appeal to those seeking more technical content". QST, CQ (US) and RadCom (UK) magazines count also among the other majors, not to forget forums like eHam and newsgroups.
I listed below technical reviews (in PDF) of some transceivers that we discussed the performance above, including reviews that I wrote personally(°). Unfortunately, other reviews are now available only to ARRL members, the League membership offering valuable benefits to new and experienced amateurs alike.
- My Radio Amateur Playlist on YouTube (Reviews of some transceivers and other ham radio stuff)
- Rigpix (database listing specifications of all TX and RX manufactured so far)
- Transceiver performance overview, DJ0IP
- Transceiver Performance 10 Years of Change, 2013, NC0B
- Radios Used in a Contest Environment, 2013, NC0B
- Receiver Performance Transmitted BW Contest Fatigue, NC0B (PPT)
- DX Prowess of HF receivers, QEX, Sept-Oct 2002
- Elecraft K2 : Review
- Elecraft K3 : Review
- Icom IC-7851 : Icom USA
- Icom IC-7851 : Technical test by AB4OJ
- Icom IC-7800 : Review
- Icom OC-7300 : Technical test by AB4OJ
- Icom IC-7600 : Review
- Icom IC-756PRO III : Review
- Icom IC-756PROII : Review
- Icom IC-706MKIIG : Review
- Kenwood TS-2000 : Review
- Kenwood TS-990S : Review
- Kenwood TS-590SG : Review
- Ten-Tec ORION : Review
- Yaesu FT-DX9000 : Review on eHam.net, + QST Aug 2005 (D model), QST Mar 2006 (Contest model)
- Yaesu FT-DX1200 : Review
- George Ulm, W9EVT's transceiver collection (over 1000).