|Kendall Amateur Radio Society|
A case for the “Shack in a Box” by Don – KI5AIU
the best of times, it was the worst of times." – Charles Dickens
is probably the feeling of new hams.
You study, take you test, and get your license.
The new ham is faced with a bewildering array of equipment of
amazing capabilities, at prices that seem like a bargain from a few
years ago (best of times).
But with so many choices and features; how do you pick wisely
(the worst of times).
faced this situation when I got my Technician license.
I was fortunate, because Field Day was only a month or so away.
I resolved to check out different equipment, and ask people what
they liked about and what they’d do differently.
Setups ranged from the little Icom that gets pulled out of the
bucket once a year for field day, to Al’s impressive rigs.
ARRL Band Chart
With today’s digital VHF/UHF modes, you can have a crystal clear conversation with someone around the world with a $140 handheld (I’m going to stay with the Yaesu products, as those are the ones I know best – other brands, have similar products that perform comparably – the user interface will likely sway your decision.) In the Yaesu case, that would be the FT-70. (http://www.yaesu.com/indexVS.cfm?cmd=DisplayProducts&ProdCatID=249&encProdID=
Connect up to our local KB5TX UHF
repeater (444.90) using Wires-X and talk to people around the world.
Propagation be damned!
Of course, your Technician
license gives you access to bands beyond 2M and 70cm; but you are very
limited. You find yourself
staring at the Amateur Radio Band chart...
If you want to try digital modes
(FT8, FT4, RTTY, SSTV, etc) you have available a small segment of 10m.
If you want to try CW, you’ve got a sliver of 15m, 40m, and
For me, the answer came in one of
the new class of product, known as a “Shack in a Box”.
These radios are wide band receivers, covering 30kHz to 450Mhz,
and transmitting on all
amateur bands. They are also
capable of all modes (CW, SSB, AM, FM, Digital, etc).
They are sometimes called All Band/All Mode radios.
I ended up with a Yaesu FT-991A.
It’s a physically small unit that covers HF/VHF/UHF in
all modes including System Fusion. It’s
not much bigger than the power supply that drives it!
It even comes with a bracket for mobile mounting.
I immediately built a 2m/70cm J pole and got on the air.
It had more power than a hand held, so I could reach out further,
and the external antenna gave a wider coverage than a hand held.
I could listen to aviation traffic.
With a simple End Fed antenna I could listen to broadcast
stations around world. I
could listen to CW which started me on another journey (thanks Al!).
I could decode SSTV images (thanks Brad!).
I could decode RTTY. I
could do FT8 on 10m. Woohoo!
The shack in a box opened my horizons for not a ton of cash (a
few pounds; but not a ton!). Once
installed, my shack looked like this at left.
But the frequency chart was always staring me in the face. I had to be careful to stay in my small sliver of frequencies (when I left the safety and comfort of the VHF/UHF world). The only option was to upgrade. So, I got my General and Amateur Extra in short order. The whole amateur band was now open to me. Using FT8, the FT-991A, and a simple End Fed antenna; I earned my WAS (Worked All States), and WAC (Worked All Continents). I also made a big dent in my DX CC (100 countries worked). As capable as the FT-991A is, I felt I needed something more focused on the HF side. The small physical size of the FT-991A precludes many features that are found on the larger HF radios.
I was familiar with the Yaesu
interface, so I opted for an FTdx3000 when they went on sale (Yaesu does
It’s a very capable radio. The best feature, is its size! Being larger, both VFOs are visible at the same time. More space up front, allows for dedicated controls rather than having to access them via a menu. For example when I want to change R.F. power or Digital gain, there are controls on the front panel; compared to a menu selection and a twist of the sub knob. The ‘3000 will decode CW on the screen which helps me when I’m trying to copy CW. The larger display lets me see my RF path much more easily; from antenna selection through IPO, Attenuation, and filters. I also have graphic displays for notch, contour and bandpass filters. It’s much easier to use in HF; but it has NO VHF/UHF/System Fusion functionality.
I’ll keep the 991A for its VHF/UHF/System Fusion capabilities, as well as being able to use it for a full function Field Day radio. The ‘3000 will hold down the fort at home. The setup with the FT-3000 looked like this at left. But wait....
|Here is Yeasu's new FTDX-101D with all the bells and whistles you could imagine to include Yaesu's version of Dual Watch. Go to www.yaesu.com and the select the link to the FTDX101D|
Wait a sec you say, what’s that
between the 991a and the ‘3000? That’s
I got it because it can be used as a WiresX node and would also serve as a nice mobile unit.
And then there’s the FT-857D
It’s a shack in a box type
radio that does all bands/all modes at 100W, no System Fusion though.
It’s about the size of the FTM-100DR.
It’ll make one heck of a mobile rig!
I’ve only covered Yaesu radios
here (because that’s what I’m familiar with); but know that similar
options exist with other brands.
Like I said, at the start; Best
of times, worst of times. Maybe
I should have said “So many radios; so little time”.
Now, what about ICOM?
Al – K5NOF
|Don wrote about Yaesu because that’s what he knows and uses. I am going to write about ICOM because that’s what I know and use. There are other choices. Flex Radio is coming on strong. Go to their website at https://www.flexradio.com/ and read about their choices. Elecraft is coming on strong and seemingly the rig of choice for many DXpeditions. Go to their website https://elecraft.com/and read about the choices. And if you want to think about Kenwood, then go to their website at https://www.kenwood.com/usa/ and read about their choices. Now for ICOM http://www.icomamerica.com/en/amateur/.|
|The Shack in a Box for ICOM is the IC-7100. You can read about it at http://www.icomamerica.com/en/products/amateur/hf/7100/default.aspx. This little rig covers 1.8 to 50 mHz plus the 144 and 430 mHz bands. The control head is separate and can be located as far away at 16 feet from the main unit. To me this means you can use this rig as primary until you decide what next and then, as you grow your station, use the 7100 in your shack for primarily VHF and UHF FM, or a mobile rig, or at a secondary location.|
if you want more capability on VHF and UHF, beyond FM, then look at the
IC-9700. You can read about it at
This little rig covers 144.000–148.000,
430.000–450.000, 1240.000–1300.000 MHz, using
CW, RTTY, AM, FM, DV, DD.
Built with the VHF/UHF weak
signal operator in mind, the IC-9700 is an RF direct sampling receiver
for 2m and 70cm. The IF receiver consists of a single, down conversion
for 23cm that is between 311 – 371MHz. This design provides a quiet
receiver due to ICOM’s DSP technology. The robust PA provides 100W on
2m, 75W on 70cm, and 10W on 23cm. There
is much, much more on the ICOM website.
The IC-9700 has been reviewed in
the January, 2020 issue of QST. Their
Bottom Line, “The IC-9700 multimode transceiver brings direct-sampling
SDR technology to VHF and UHF operation.
It incorporates many features that operators have come to expect
in HF transceivers and performs well on all modes.”
QST, Jan 2020, page 42.
what are the choices if you decide to move on to HF?
Many consider the IC-7300 good “starter rig.”
You can read about it here.
technology is changing the way receivers are being designed and the
IC-7300 is an industry first as an RF, Direct Sampling System is being
used in an entry level HF radio. The ability to digitize RF before
various receiver stages reduces the inherent noise that is generated in
the different IF stages of a radio. We feel the performance of the
‘7300 will far exceed your expectations for a radio considered entry
level. Output Power:
100W (25W AM) RX
SSB, CW, RTTY, AM, FM modes.
1.800–1.999, 3.500–3.999, 5.255–5.405, 7.000–7.300,
10.100–10.150, 14.000–14.350, 18.068–18.168, 21.000–21.450,
24.890–24.990, 28.000–29.700, 50.000–54.00.
Physically the IC-7300 is the same size as the new IC-9700, and
as you can see, the arrangement of knobs, screen and function buttons
look about the same.
if you think you will want to work DX, and it is almost inevitable you
will, you will want dual receive capability to monitor the DX’s send
frequency on one receiver and another where the DX is listening, working
others on the second “split frequency.”
You can read about it here.
signals are no longer a challenge for DXers and Contesters around the
world, with the new IC-7610. The difference between putting the QSO in
the log or trying another time is the capability of your receiver. The
high performance RMDR in the IC-7610 has the ability to pick out the
faintest of signals even in the presence of stronger, adjacent signals.
The IC-7610 introduces dual RF direct sampling receivers. Achieving
100dB RMDR, these receivers rival that of other top-of-the-line
transceivers. The IC-7610 also comes with a high-speed, high-resolution,
real-time spectrum scope on a 7-inch color display.
Rx: 0.030– 60.000 MHz
14.000–14.350,18.068–18.168, 21.000–21.450, 24.890–24.990,
28.000–29.700, 50.000–54.000 MHz.
there are radios without knobs.
Al, K5NOF gave me a great lead-in
to Flex Radio in his opening paragraph.
Yaesu, Icom and Kenwood radio all have lots of knobs, large LCD
displays and come in the color black.
All the same cannot be said from the early model FlexRadio series
6000 radios from our friends up in Austin.
The FlexRadio 6000 series are black, however.
The initial offering of FlexRadios 6000 series required an
outboard Windows computer, an ethernet connection and downloaded
The current line-up of FlexRadio
models include units with built-in LCD displays and front panel knobs or
you can buy the optional add-on "Maestro" control and display
module. Seemingly market
demands include radios in one box and FlexRadio has responded. Interestingly
all FlexRadio series 6000 radios run on versions of SmartSDR control
This article discusses the early,
blank front panel Flex versions that require an external computer.
The most intriguing feature of
the FlexRadio line to me is the large spectrum display.
The ability to view up to 14 mHz of bandwidth on a single screen
brings operational advantages for viewing propagation, band openings, DX
and contesting. The
integration of a computer into radio operations brings lots of features
as well as frustrations. The
combination FlexRadios, SmartSDR software and the computer operating
systems raises the learning curve to new heights.
FlexRadio features include things
like setup and viewing your own microphone equalization, viewing
incoming signals and signal history over a wide bandwidth and operating
digital modes without a sound card or ever having to convert signals to
Connection of a Flex to a
computer is accomplished via ethernet cable or local area network.
The number of COM ports for the Flex is not limited to one as in
other radio designs. Multiple
logging programs and applications can run and connected simultaneously
to a FlexRadio for logging
multiple contests and and running digital modes.
Although CW keying requires
direct hardline connections to the Flex, SSB and FM QSOs can be made
from a remote laptop connected wirelessly to your Local Area Network
(LAN) of even through the Internet.
It is a pleasant learning
experience exploring the features you would expect of a HF radio when
using a FlexRadio. But it is
also a bit frustrating to try to figure out why some features don't work
the way you'd expect or worse not to know recognize some of the
"hidden" features. It
is almost a necessity to read the community blogs about the FlexRadio,
problems and solutions that other owners have discovered.
There are also numerous FlexRadio online documents to uncover
little known peculiarities of the radio.
It goes without saying that Software Defined Radios need periodic
software updates AND debugging.
Although the sensitivity of my
FlexRadio 6300 is on a par with my 22 year old Icom IC-746, the
flexibility of the FlexRadio (get it? Flexibility?) is unique.
CW bandwidths down to 50 Hz are available on the Flex to copy
those weak QRP signals right down near the noise. However,
I've found that visual detection of a signal can be 5 to 6 dB more
sensitive than detection by ear. Using
the visual frequency display in CW is also handy for zero beating the
other guy dead center. It is
surprising how far off frequency other CW stations are when returning a
CW call. Zerobeat is clearly
visible on a Flex. (Does
anybody use the term "zerobeat" anymore?)
The FlexRadio has a built-in
frequency calibration method whereby you designate which WWV standard
frequency station you want to calibrate to and push a button.
The radio then automatically calculates and applies a software
correction to the Flex master oscillator.
For enhanced oscillator stability, the Flex oscillators run as
long as +12 VDC is applied to the power connector.
While looking at the WWV double sideband spectral display, you
can see the 100 Hz second ticks, 400 and 600 Hz standard tone sidebands
and hear the voice announcements all simultaneously.
When tuned to the Canadian
standard frequency broadcasts (CHU) you can clearly see that our
northern neighbors use upper sideband transmission for the one second
tone ticks and the one minute ASCII data time transmission.
This is quite a contrast to most other standard frequency
transmissions in the world that still use "Ancient
rather obscure observation just points out how visualization of RF
signals can be applied to signal analysis.
The versatile filtering capability of the Flex allows separation
and detection of standard frequency station sidebands such that you can
isolate the standard audio frequency tones or precise one second ticks
for use as standards for your own station or as precision sources for
the ARRL Frequency Measurement Test.
Operation of a FlexRadio does not
have to be knobless. In fact
it took only a few hours operating using a computer mouse to opt for the
optional FlexControl USB control knob.
Also, a real convenience in a FlexRadio setup is dual monitors.
One display can be used for the SmartSDR program while the other
can be used for logging programs, digital communications dashboards or
just for looking up call signs on QRZ.com.
So, why would a ham want to
depart from the classical radio hardware format?
My initial interest in FlexRadios was the potential for a large
screen spectrum display and the ability to view several megahertz of
bandwidth at one time. What
I have learned is that there are considerable other valuable operating
features for those who are interested in what goes on in the ether.
But, fair warning, if you should
purchase a FlexRadio be prepared to spend some time learning a new way
of doing things on the air. That
is not unusual when getting familiar with a new radio but it seems like
an extra burden with a radio that is more a computer than a radio.
FlexRadio frequency ranges:
0.030 - 54.000 MHz
1.800 - 2.000, 3.500 - 4.000 MHz,
60 meters: five 3.000 KHz bands
7.000 - 7.300, 10.100 - 10.150, 14.000 -
14.350, 18.068 - 18.168, 21.000 - 21.450 MHz
24.890 - 24.990, 28.000 - 29.700 and 50.000
- 54.000 MHz
might call this a computer stack...)
here are some of the choices KI5AIU and K5NOF, and W5QLF know and use; there are
Our objective here is to provide web addresses and brief
descriptions to help you with research into how to get started with your
station and some choices for you to consider.
Go to the web site for the radio of interest and download the
specifications and the user manual. Read about how the particular
choice works and then think about how it fits with what you want to do. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, develop a long-term vision
of where you want to go in Amateur Radio and then try as best you can to
follow that vision by buying the capabilities which fit now and into the