Saturday, January 24, 2009

Elecraft KX1 - A Wonder of Modern Radio Technology

I have the distinct pleasure of running an Elecraft KX1 this weekend. I am borrowing Jason N8XE's for a presentation on Ham radio next week. I am thrilled to try it out and get to know it!

For those of you that have not heard of this little wonder box, check out Elecraft's web page on it. Note this is a link to the homepage, there is no direct link to the KX1 so you will have to surf the products.

The KX1 is THE SMALLEST multi-band, full-feature CW radio you can get commercially, although it only comes new in a kit form - you build it. I know, I know... Steve Weber KD1JV's Appalachian Trail Special ATS-3b fits in an Altoids mint tin... BUT - it lacks the full feature sack the KX1 comes with. Try one on for size, you'll see. That isn't to say the ATS-3b is a bad radio - it isn't, it was designed to be as small as possible and thus lacks conveniences/features (the same theory the Ultra Light backpackers live by).

So, how about the sack of features? Well, for one, the radio puts out close to a full gallon (or, 5 watts for the non QRP'ers out there). The radio has, on the front panel and fully adjustable: RF gain control, passband filtering, AF gain, and a dual-function VFO that tunes WELL outside the ham bands (more on this in a bit). For frequently used items there are buttons on the front panel that access: code speed, RIT (yep, this wonder-box even has RIT!), and band selection (also serves as a tap-and-display full frequency read-out), as well as a menu button that allows you to dig a little deeper in to the features list. There is even a thoughtfully added feature - a lamp so you can log QSO's while laying in your tent in the middle of the night. Oh, wait. I forgot - hitting two buttons at once lets you change the display and (with an optional tuner installed) activate tuning. Did I forget anything else?

Staying right along with the "compact" theme, the KX1 has provisions for internal batteries. To access the battery compartment you un-screw the two little thumb screws and open up the back/bottom of the rig:

Now, I won't go in to the menu features. It isn't "that" extensive - compared to my FT-857D and TS-2000, but for a radio that fits in your hand it sure has a lot going on - memory channels and a memory keyer to name a couple.

The display is only 3 digits. However, with those 3 digits Elecraft really did a great job. Only 3 numbers are displayed at any one time for the frequency readout. By tapping the VFO knob you can display 10.0kHz, tuning in a 100Hz step, or 1.00kHz, tuning in a 10Hz step. By holding the VFO knob in you can select 100kHz and tune in a 1kHz step. When you get to the frequency you are operating on the display will turn off (after a programmed time in the main menu) and you get a bar-graph S-meter display. It is only 6 bars, but it really does work well.

OK, so the KX1 isn't just a QRP CW-only transceiver. WHAT?! What else could this thing possibly do? It can receive voice also. Yep, you can actually select (via holding both the menu and RIT buttons simultaneously) USB and LSB. This allows you to tune in sideband. In addition, the VFO allows you to tune WELL outside the Ham bands. This means it covers Shortwave broadcasting as well! After reading the manual I learned that Elecraft went one further - they set the correct offset for keying in CW over top USB and LSB. This allows you, with no other work, to cross-mode QSO with a sideband station. If you are dead-on the sideband station they will hear you at about 600Hz.

So far I have just been listening to the rig. I am running it off a 12Ah SLA battery and my antenna is a random wire and counterpoise to an MFJ-971 tuner. I haven't made any QSO's yet, although I have called CQ a bunch on 20m. The antenna inside isn't the greatest... It is too cold (21degF) outside to bother stringing up a dipole today.

I am honestly thoroughly impressed with this radio. I have been thinking of getting one but I haven't really sat down to understand the rig before. Although it does have some great features it will take a little getting used to. Once you understand it you, too, will realize how great of a radio it is! It really is a wonder of modern radio technology.

UPDATE 2/4/09:

I plugged in the KX1 to my new loop this evening. I still haven't made any QSO's but I am working on it. The noise level here on 40 is horrendous. My TS-2000's S meter is around S5 without the preamp on.

Even before I talk about the two together, the first thing I really noticed after working the TS-2000 on the bands lately is just how QUIET the receiver is on the KX1. It really is a soft radio. I also noticed the transmit signal on the KX1 to be "soft" (long rise/fall time). It is more of an easy/ragchew type tone than a hard-core DX'er/contester tone HI.

In doing a side-by-side test between the KX1 and TS-2000 the only comment I have is, again, just how QUIET the receiver is!!!!!!!! I tuned in some CW signals around 7.040 that were real weak. I wanted to have a signal that was quiet on the KX1 and then switch the coax over to the TS-2000 so I could hear the same weak signal on it. The difference is dramatic! I honestly can't believe that this TINY QRP rig has such a great receiver in it. The white noise (that SHHHHHHHHHH noise) is low and much softer compared to the TS-2000, which has much more harsh noise - even with the preamp off. If I turn the DSP Noise Reduction on the signal is attenuated and makes copy even harder. On the KX1 the signal is just THERE. Even though the noise is low and the signal is low, the signal is audible. I can't really describe it other than that. You have to hear it to believe it!

On a side note, this revelation has me wondering what a nice rig (one that gets high marks for receiver selectivity, sensitivity, etc) would do in my station environment. I can't escape the noise here under the circumstances (antenna restrictions mostly) so if I put a nice rig in the shack that was superior in receiver performance to anything I have (TS-2000, IC-718, FT-857D) then I might be more successful on HF. I guess I should keep dreaming, though. Commercial off-the-shelf rigs (non-kits) that I think meet this specification start at around $2000 with the K3.


I just finished my first QSO with the rig with Fred KB5KPD in Texas! He was calling CQ and was loud so I gave him a call. He was rolling right along at about 25wpm so it was hard for me to keep up (that's about 10 over my speed limit). I copied enough to make the QSO and had a blast! I can't remember the last time I tried to bang out 25wpm with a straight key.... I'm glad the QSO was only 4 short exchanges HI. The KX1 did a wonderful job! Now back to 40m for some more...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you are having fun with it bud! -Jason N8XE

February 5, 2009 at 11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm very jealous. I think I know what I'm doing with some of my tax return!

February 12, 2009 at 12:55 AM  

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