Sunday, February 12, 2017

New Rig in the New Shack

A good antenna needs a good receiver to get the most out of it.. Not only good on dynamic range and IMD but also audio quality, ease of use, DSP, antenna options, and much more. Buying a top end rig was an item on my list for 2017. With all the money I'm spending on antennas and towers I decided to buy on the used market. I casually kept my eye on the market for just the right rig at the right price. One appeared and I jumped.

In the photo above you can see a Yaesu FTdx5000MP all set up in my new shack. It works well. The room itself is a combination shack and home office. The other furniture and office equipment populating the room is out of frame but I can assure you it is a very comfortable space. I expect to spend a lot of time in this room. Even the espresso machine is only a few steps away.

Compare this photo with that of the shack in my former Ottawa home when I first set it up after returning to air after a lengthy absence. There are some surprising commonalities. I am even using the same ancient (and slow) laptop as the contest/CAT computer. Three years ago I was still firmly committed to "low impact" amateur radio, making the desk seem empty from its original use in 1980s when I have multiple rigs and antennas, and a kilowatt amplifier.

The homemade desk is modular and for the present I have left off the upper shelf unit. I find it gets in the way of the computer screen.

About the FTdx5000MP choice

I am not one of those hams who always buys from the same manufacturer or one who must always have the best of everything. Apart from several features and performance figures I believe in flexibility. When I returned to the hobby I sprung for a brand new Elecraft KX3. I still have it, like it and I am not planning on selling it soon. Since the move it has been hibernating in its packing box.

Despite its limitations it was more than enough of a radio to work lots of DX and place at or near the top of several DX contests in the QRP category. Its receiver is top notch, though not without its irritating aspects. Since I've moved it is packed away in its box. It will see use again, I am sure.

I returned to Yaesu when I decided it was time to move beyond QRP once more. Remaining economical I chose an FT1000MP Mark V Field. It was a well regarded rig when it came out. Several generations of technology later it is now dated, with receiver performance that is relatively poor. It can still be found in the shacks of many top DXers and contesters, though usually as a second or backup rig.

Looking for a rig with DSP to achieve narrow bandwidth rather than expensive crystal filters and 6 meters I switched to the FT950. The receiver is better than the FT1000MP in several respects, and worse in others. Its DSP rings at the narrowest bandwidths and in the presence of noise becomes garbled. It places well in the Sherwood Engineering rankings. I've used it in many contests and it does just fine.

Apart from the DSP the FT950 has no receive antenna capability, has only the one receiver and can be fatiguing to listen to for hours on end. It will be kept around for awhile as a second radio, possibly for SO2R. Ultimately I expect to replace it.

When I shopped around for a primary rig that meet my new and extensive objectives there were several options I considered:
  • Used Elecraft K3/100, and upgrade the synthesizer to the K3S level of performance
  • New Yaesu K3S
  • Used Yaesu FTdx5000MP
  • Used Kenwood TS590SG
All of the above rigs have their good and bad points, and none to me stands well apart from the rest. It comes down to personal preference and the utility of certain features. It is also a matter of cost, which removed a few better rigs from the mix.

Here are a few rig options I rejected along with my reasoning. I expect some readers will be appalled by what I say, and that's fair. We all have our individual tastes and needs.
  • Flex: I do not like the user interface on these and other SDR based rigs. In the future when they integrate well with touch screens I will reconsider. But I will say that I really like what they're doing.
  • Icom: I do not like what I've seen and heard about computer interfacing. Otherwise their rigs seem quite good.
  • Kenwood TS990, Hiberling, Yaesu FTdx9000 and similar brutally expensive high-end rigs: Some of these rigs perform very well indeed. However there are severe diminishing returns with increasing price. I can do as well or better at a fraction of the price.
While I could go on bashing rigs that many others are in love with I'll stop there and merely repeat that I do not expect everyone (anyone?) to wholeheartedly agree with me. Should you feel compelled to comment do not expect a response from me.

The final faceoff

In the end it came down to the K3/K3S and the FTdx5000MP. Both have aspects that attract and irritate me. Neither is perfect. I have spoken to a number of hams I respect who will speak well of one or the other, and often they have owned both rigs in succession.

For example, there seems to be a consensus that the K3 receiver suffers in comparison to the FTdx5000 due to the synthesizer noise. There is a similar consensus that this deficiency is fully corrected in the K3S. That is why if I were to buy a K3 I would upgrade the synthesizer. Typically the K3/100 sells on the used market for CDN$2,000 in its basic form, and incrementally higher for those with a second receiver and optional roofing filters.

The used price of the FTdx5000MP has dropped to where it is competitive with a K3/100 with two receivers, ATU and roofing filters. This equivalence makes the choice more interesting. My ultimate decision comes down to the following:
  • Availability: Buying used means waiting for the right rig at the right price and in verifiable condition. I prefer to buy locally if at all possible to avoid shipping damage and to see it in person.
  • FTdx5000MP negatives: Weight, OLEDs, software and manufacturer support. This is a very heavy rig! It isn't one you travel with, the very opposite of the K3. The OLEDs are a known problem that Yaesu has never properly fixed and is almost certain to show up at some point. You can read the reviews to learn more. Yaesu is slow to push firmware updates and they are not very easy to load.
  • K3 negatives: Monochrome display, narrow front panel with overloaded controls. Even aficionados of the K3 will readily admit the display is small and difficult to read due to the lack of colour. The rig's smallness which makes it superior for travelling makes it cumbersome to operate. It is not as bad as the KX3 though still irksome in my experience. With practice I am sure it gets easier, and I have been assured that it does. Yet I remain unconvinced.
Then an FTdx5000MP from a local ham appeared on the market. It was local, at a fair price and lightly used by the original owner. I warmed up to the deal quickly.

Living with it

I have only had several days use of the rig. It sat unused for a while until the shack was complete and the cables routed. One warms to a piece of equipment only gradually even if it's a great rig. Similarly one will became increasingly annoyed when it falls short of expectations.

I would not hesitate to replace this rig if it disappoints. Whether a car, a rig or even a kitchen appliance, I never fall in love with a machine. It meets my needs and expectations or it is cast aside for something better.

The rig will soon be put to the test in contests and pursuing DXpeditions. By the spring I'll know whether this is the rig for me. From only a short period of use I have no hesitation saying that the FTdx5000MP has a far superior receiver compared to the FT950. That is no surprise. I cannot say how it compares to the K3S since I'd have to be able to use them side by side. However apart from the points I mention above I'd expect them to be similar.

I don't have a good reason to use the FT950. That's fortunate since I have the FTdx5000MP doing the antenna switching. I'd have to use manual switching to be able to use both rigs. So no SO2R for now, although the FT950 is sitting on the desk in perfect position for that style of contest operation. Another relative advantage is that the ATU in the FTdx5000MP has a wider range than the FT950. It easily tunes my 80 meter inverted vee on 30 and 160 meters, something the FT950 could not do. That's convenient for now when I have not raised antennas for those bands.

Shack evolution is ongoing

I moved more slowly than strictly necessary in constructing and moving into the new shack. There were important decisions to make beforehand if it was to fit well into my long term plans. This shack is for everyday use. For serious use, especially for contesting, a larger shack is planned for the basement level. I had to ensure that the locations, cable routing, switching systems and more were compatible between both shacks. It's worth the time to get it right.

Once I had the renovations done to the office space I had to decide on the location and detailed planning for the basement shack before choosing cable routes and, importantly, punching holes in walls and floors. It wasn't as easy as it might sound. There are the ordinary matters of furniture arrangement and placement of computers and rigs, and the technical matters of cable routing, switching system and location, basement shack outline, framing and wiring, and so forth.

Once I had all of that reasonably clear I punched a hole in the office floor. It is only 1" x 2", enough for several RG213 size coax cables and control cables.

I wanted the hole to be hidden while also not too ugly and accessible for maintenance. The rectangular hole is near an exterior wall in the corner adjacent to desks for the rigs and office use. It is lined by 2-sided tape and plastic floor edging. I cut through the laminate floor and plywood sub-floor with a drill and jigsaw. The internet Cat5e cable has its own pre-existing hole.

The exterior hole was a greater challenge. Its placement determines burial potential, grounding, accessibility, exterior cable termination and switching, and convenient cable routing within the house and shacks. It also has to look presentable and not be a safety hazard.

I chose a round conduit centred on a batten board that pierces the header sitting on the lower level frame. The house has a preserved wood basement, so there is no concrete to contend with. The ABS pipe serving as a conduit (Schedule 40, 1-½") is wide enough for multiple RG213 size coax cables and control cables. If necessary it can be later replaced by a larger conduit, though not much larger or the cut through the header will be too large. As you can see I've temporarily added protection for the cables from abuse by contractors until I can bury or elevate the permanent runs in the spring.

My intent is that eventually there will be either a flush mount box over the conduit to terminate all exterior cables and contain the switching systems, or a nearby ground mounted box to do the same. That way the number of cable coming into the house is kept to a minimum and the clutter of switching and cables is outside. Doing maintenance in the winter while not pleasant will be, in my opinion, better than larger conduits and interior clutter.

Switching between the office shack and basement shack can be placed in the basement. In most cases I expect that the switching can be manual since it is likely that equipment will need to be carried downstairs for major contests. As the technology evolves it is very possible that the rigs will be located downstairs and I'll operate as a remote from the main floor shack.

Time to relax and operate

In the few short days I've operated out of the new shack I can say with enthusiasm that it is very comfortable and convenient. I pushed aside some renovation and antenna farm tasks to do some operating. It's nice to sit in the shack and watch the snow falling outside while I tune the bands and work DX. I will return to the hard work of building my station soon enough.

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