About D. Brann

After nearly two decades, I'm rediscovering the world of shortwave radio. Here I'll post my observations on returning to a hobby that has changed dramatically in my absence.

Radio Silence

It’s been quiet here lately. Both on the blog and in my shack. Multiple reasons for that.

 

Some of it is the beginning of summer. I now have three kids at home I need to entertain, feed, and transport to activities each day. That sucks up the time for writing and listening.

 

The R-75 hasn’t been on in several weeks. In fact, I may be putting it back on the market soon. Don’t get me wrong, I love listening to it but am constantly frustrated by the brutal local noise that knocks out roughly half the HF bands for me. I know the pickings are much more slim on the Tropical Bands than they were the last time I was a listener, but I’d at least like to have a chance to catch them.

 

Also, there is a feeling of doom hanging over shortwave broadcast listening. Radio Canada International is in its final week of transmissions. Radio Netherlands is disappearing, too. Thus two of my favorite stations from my youth will be joining many others in the archives of once-great broadcasters.

 

DXing is almost impossible and SWLing is running out of targets.

 

The other big thing that’s been taking up time was studying for my Technician Class amateur license. I was confident I had the material down, but in the final days before my exam, I was constantly looking through practice tests.

 

Well, last Monday night I took and passed the exam. I missed two questions, which annoyed me, but that really doesn’t matter. The VECs talked me into taking the General exam just for grins and, without any studying or practice of its material, I came within three questions of passing. That annoyed me, too, because I felt like had I put a couple hours into reviewing the General material, I could have walked away with those operating privileges, which are the ones I really crave.

 

After a long week of waiting, my callsign finally appeared in the FCC ULS Monday morning: KC9WEO. I bought a cheap handheld but my neighbor lent me his Yaesu FT-7800 and a small antenna to play with. I’ve just been listening so far, trying to get the lingo and rules of repeater operation down. And I’ve kept a close eye on eBay, etc. to see if any super deals on the rigs I’m most interested in show up. While I’m sure I’ll mess around on VHF/UHF for awhile, I am more interested in getting my HF voice privileges so I can work the world. Or at least try to, given the restrictions on antennas our neighborhood has.

 

So that’s where I am at right now. The broadcast shortwave adventure is winding down, but I’m moving into a whole new radio adventure that I’ll be sharing here.

 

Hamming It Up

My listening interests have shifted in the past couple weeks. After nailing down Eritrea and Ethiopia, I’ve scaled back my time in the broadcast bands and been spending more time in the amateur bands. As I discovered on the broadcast bands, listening to hams is a very different experience than it was 20 years ago.

 

I dabbled with listening to hams in the 80s. I’d get really into it for a month or so and then the propagation would shift and it would be time to chase some different DX targets on the broadcast bands. At one point I went as far as drawing up personalized QSL cards that I would send out in an effort to at least verify all 50 states. A surprising number of hams replied, but I don’t think I got more than 20 or so states verified.

 

The big difference I see is that ham DXing is less hit-and-miss now to the casual listener. In the 80s, I would have to subscribe to 73 or CQ magazines to have an idea where the rare stations were setting up shop. Since I rarely did that, logging countries on the ham bands was all about luck.

 

Today, though, thanks to a handful of free websites, I can see exactly where operators from countries I want to log are transmitting. Last night, for example, thanks to DXwatch.com I settled on a station from the Isle of Man. He sounded like he was in Ohio, not a small island in the Irish Sea. And while I listened to the biggest DX pileup I’ve ever heard, I logged a couple new states and three new countries.

 

I’ve stuck with the ham bands for a couple reasons. First, I can dodge the local noise a bit better there than on the broadcast bands. 20 and 10 meters offer plenty of DX targets in the evening, and if I slip down to 80 meters, going to LSB cuts the noise a bit. Second, I’m considering getting my license. At this point I’m just thinking the Technician Class license, which offers limited HF priviliges for a non-CW guy like myself. But it’s the first step into the world of hamming. I can start slow, both in terms of hardware investment and time, with a 2 Meter handheld. While I figure out how the heck VHF works, I can build on my meager electronics knowledge and then try for the General Class license down the road.

 

I’ve been reading a couple Technician Class study guides and have cruised through a couple practice tests. I don’t think I’ll have a problem passing a real test, it’s just a matter of finding a testing session that is convenient. There are two that involve a bit of a drive in June, and then one right downtown if I want to wait until July.

 

Oh, and I discovered over the weekend my new neighbor is an ARO. Our wives shuddered in fear/disgust/shame when we started talking about radio the other night.

 

None of that means I’m giving up on broadcast DXing. In fact, with summer right around the corner and our family’s vacation home opening up, I can take the R-75 down to a more rural location and see if that bitter noise that plagues our neighborhood disappears and lets me chase some domestics under 6 MHz.

 

If there was any doubt, I’m definitely back in love with radio.

 

On the QSL Card

I’m not chasing QSLs this time around. I’ve said that before and, unless some rare station pops up – say something like the old St. Helena broadcasts – I plan on sticking to that. I may shoot off an email to a station, but gone are the days when I would meticulously record every aspect of a broadcast so I could send the perfect reception report and get that coveted QSL in return.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy pulling out my QSL albums from the 1980s and reviewing my first go-round as an SWL/DXer. On his photography site, Mike Osborn shared this great image and remembrance of his listening days. The Ghana and Togo cards in his picture are two of my personal favorites. I’ll write more about the Ghana card another time.

Photographic Memory

Some Early Stats

I tuned the shortwave bands again for the first time in mid-March. After a few weeks of tentative listening, I started my new log book on April 5. So, a month (give-or-take) into my third go ’round as a SWL/DXer, it’s time to share a few observations and numbers.

In that month, I’ve purchased and tested three receivers. Two were returned, the first because it stopped working within the return period, the second because I felt like I needed a more powerful receiver. Today, I’m listening on an Icom R75.

I began listening on the whip antennas on my first two receivers. Later, I strung 40 or so feet of wire in a hidden part of our backyard. When the R75 arrived, I ordered a Par Electronics EF-SWL antenna which is now installed in our attic.

I’ve discovered some hellacious noise that comes from somewhere in our neighborhood that makes listening to anything under 7000 kHz very difficult most of the time. With the exception of the high powered US and Cuban stations, I’ve yet to hear anything in the Tropical Bands.

Putting in a couple hours, at most, each day, I’ve snagged 90 stations in 56 countries. All but one of those countries are ones I logged in my previous listening years. Some very light monitoring on the ham bands has netted 16 states and two Canadian provinces.

There are a lot of frustrations regarding shortwave radio that weren’t there when I was a teenager and spending way too much time listening to broadcasts in languages I couldn’t understand. That local RF noise. Radio Canada International is about to disappear with Radio Netherlands probably close behind. There are far fewer big broadcasters aiming towards the United States than there were 30 years ago, and assorted man-made noises make it more difficult to catch the domestic stations I would love to hear.

But this hobby is still a hell of a lot of fun. I think I’ll stick with it for awhile.

Clear Path

I’m putting the final touches on my revamped shack today, and hope to write about it later this week.

Last night, though, I experienced one of the great joys of shortwave listening: an opening to a particular geographic region. I was cruising the bands around 0100 UT and kept coming across booming signals from the Middle East and southwestern Asia. Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Kuwait, and various former Soviet republics were dominating the bands. I checked off three new stations and two new countries in an hour or so of listening.

I’m not sure if any of this qualifies as true grey-line DXing, although the sun had just set at my listening post and it was roughly sunrise near each transmitter I heard. While the stations I monitored weren’t exactly tough DX targets, it was my first time having a particular region boom in since my return to listening. It reminded me of nights and mornings in the 1980s when Africans and Indos and Papuan stations I rarely heard would pop up across the bands when conditions were just right. It’s those rare occasions that hooked me on listening 30 years ago.

Trying to Hook a Big One

It was hard enough to explain listening to shortwave radio when I was a kid and it was loaded with international broadcasters booming signals around the world. It’s even harder today when getting information is so much easier.

Bill Husted wrote about this in his column for the Ventura County Star. It’s a nice piece on how retro our little hobby is.

My secret is revealed: I’m an analog guy in a digital world. Shortwave listening, once the drug of choice for nerds, is an unlikely hobby nowadays. After all, that distant station I’m straining to hear probably is also available as a crystal clear audio stream somewhere on the Internet.

Shortwave is Like a Fishing Expedition

Via Thomas at The SWLing Post.

Sangean ATS-909X Review

Sometimes it’s hard to put aside what you already know when trying something new. That’s the best way to sum up my experience with the Sangean ATS-909X receiver. It’s good enough, in most ways. But compared to what I know, it’s not good enough for me.

I should preface this by saying my electrical/technical accumen is rather meager. Most of my impressions are based on what I heard and my experiences using the receiver rather than on carefully measured technical details.

From a looks standpoint, this is a fine receiver. With one exception, there’s nothing cheap looking or feeling about it. The buttons are all solid and respond to a normal amount of pressure. Direct frequency entry is easy and quick, as are the buttons dedicated to each meter band. For a portable, the display is excellent, packing a lot of information into an easy-to-read window. The backlight is outstanding as well.

The one physical failure of the radio is the tuning “knob”. I put it in quotes because it’s not a true knob but rather a rotating button on the front of the receiver. Instead of turning smoothly, it jumps from notch to notch. Nothing about the “knob” is pleasing to use. In addition to its poor feedback, it is easy to slip past the point you want to stop if you use too much pressure. Or, if you rock your finger a little as you remove it, you can force the radio to jump one more click. The mechanics of it are all wrong. I normally hate the up/down slewing buttons, but I often used those rather than the “knob”.

The sound quality of the ATS-909X is decent. Remember, I tried the Crane CCRadio-SW which has fantastic sound, before this. The 909X didn’t have the warm, room-filling quality of the Radio-SW. But for normal listening, it did the job. Digging for the quieter stations in noisy conditions required some kind of headphones.

Another annoyance was the radio’s memory management. I read the manual several times, but never quite understood the ‘pages’ concept. Perhaps that is just me, though, as I’ve few other complaints about it. My struggles with it prevented me from using more than a couple at a time, though.

How did it pull in the signals? It seemed to do a solid job when attached to a 40′ length of random wire strung in my yard. For comparison, I pulled out an old Grundig YB-400 and swapped the antenna between the two. Stations were consistently stronger on the 909X. I didn’t do any intense DXing, but did catch several North American pirates and grabbed a few higher frequency Africans and Middle Eastern stations I couldn’t get on the RadioSW.

I liked the DSP feature, which did seem to push signals up a bit. I’ve never listened with a DSP-enabled rig before, so can’t comment on how good the 909X is compared to a tabletop with DSP, for example.

The scan function was useless, at least for me, on the SW bands. I played around with the squelch, but could only get the receiver to stop on the strongest signals when using scan. I want a radio to stop each time it encounters a carrier. Again, this could just be user error but no squelch adjustment got the desired results.

As I said, it was tough to not compare this radio to what I know. I owned a Sony ICF-2010 for 15 years or so. Its SYNC function, easy memory management, and selectivity will always be the bar I measure portables against. Despite being designed nearly 30 years later, the ATS-909X just didn’t seem like as strong a radio as the 2010.

I also spent a year or so with a Drake R8B. It’s not fair to compare a $200 portable to a serious communications receiver, but I kept wanting the tools that the R8B offered.

The Sangean ATS-909X isn’t a bad radio. For what is available in the portable market today it’s quite good. It packs a lot of impressive elements into an extremely compact form. From my perspective, though, I don’t know that the $200+ you’ll drop on one wouldn’t be better spent finding an ICF-2010 or Eton E1 in decent condition.

As I purchased my 909X from Amazon, I’m taking advantage of their liberal return policy and sending it back. I want more out of a radio than it can provide. To replace it, I’ve made a purchase from the glorious virtual yard sale known as eBay that I’ll talk about here soon.