Complexity/price of gear not necessarily related to performance?


Listed in order of 3rd order intercept from highest (PT-8000A) to lowest (TS-990S) based on measurements from Sherwood Engineering.

A few days ago someone on the Elecraft list noted the vast difference in the complexity of most rigs from Yaesu-Icom-Kenwood as compared to that of the K3. They suggested having a look at schematics of rigs from the three Japanese manufacturers and comparing it to either the K3 or KX3.

I made a few comparisons and then I also compared the K2 to my old FT840. Both were in production at the same time so there is no significant generational gap between these two rigs.

In all cases, the Japanese rigs are more complex in circuitry and they weigh more than the Elecraft rigs…yet they are out-performed (according to Sherwood Engineering rankings) by Elecraft.

Based soley on intuition, it would seem that the added complexity should result in a superior transceiver.

Why is this not the case and, since it is not the case, what is the purpose/benefit of the added complexity?

In an unrelated thread on the Elecraft reflector (and to the point of this chart), others made note of the recently reviewed Kenwood TS-990S. It is well down on the Sherwood list – surprising for its price.

It makes me wonder what the appeal of these rigs is to those who buy them. They pay a premium price and get an inferior performing radio.

The obvious answer is that 3rd-order intercept is not the criteria used when deciding on a radio – nor should it be the only criteria.

Still, the chart provides (to me at least) a few surprises when comparing that performance parameter to the cost:

  • At $8000, I would have expected the new TS-990S to be higher on the list. For those interested, the TS-990S manual is available here (63MB pdf).
  • The KX3 is a surprise. Granted, its low cost compared to other transceivers on the list is due in part to being QRP and not having a panadapter or sub-receiver. But still – what an accomplishment for Elecraft’s design in producing a full featured low cost rig that gives the Big Rigs a run for their money – and comes out ahead in this important parameter.
  • My own K3 didn’t cost the $3900 listed here. To be fair to some of the other rigs, I had to include the sub-receiver and panadapter options in the K3’s price. At about $2100 for my kit-built version, it still places #4 on this list.

Elecraft receives a fair amount of criticism for being over-priced. I agree that that’s true for some of their accessories – the KX1’s plug-in paddle is $70, its auto-tuner is $130 – steep for a $300 kit. But the K3 itself – and the KX3 – do represent a good value based on what they offer.



  13 comments for “Complexity/price of gear not necessarily related to performance?

  1. June 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Interesting post…

    I know of two or three people who were in the market for a new HF rig and they actually put the Elecraft K3 on their shortlist yet in the end they bought a Japanese paperweight.

    Sometimes I hear people object the K3 has too few buttons putting too many parameters behind menus. I can only reply that after making tens of thousands of contacts, I almost never touch a button on my K3 let alone stroll through menus. Once it’s set up, you’re good to go.

    Price and numbers from the test bench are one thing, but my principal reason for being a big fan of Elecraft is that the company and its engineers/service people are easily reachable and have a natural reflex to follow up technical and customer care issues.

    I wonder what DX you work with a huge heavy rig costing twice or three times as much as a K3, that the latter wouldn’t let you work?

    – ON5ZO

    • June 9, 2013 at 2:38 pm

      Too few buttons and too few menus were the reasons I initially resisted the K3 when shopping for a new rig. I ended up visiting a local ham with a K3 who explained (and I later verified in my own experiences) that what you say is true – once the parameters are set in the menus, they are very, very seldom accessed further. Every function I need on a regular basis does have an associated button.

      As for the hams who buy more expensive JA rigs, I’d like to hear their rationale. I know they don’t make their decisions lightly, given the cost, but I am curious as to how they arrive at their decision.

  2. Luther N4UW
    June 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Hello John- Interesting post. A few comments:
    The Perseus is not a Ten-Tec, it is a SDR receiver made by Microtelecom. Current price is $1,000 from Universal Radio. You might have been thinking of the Ten-Tec Pegasus, which was their first SDR-based transceiver.

    For the older rigs listed, (and maybe most of the current ones, if purchased used)prices are quite a bit lower than your list. For example, used Orions are available for $1500-$2000, and probably are one of the best buys around for a large, full-featured, high-performance rig. Used Orion II’s are sometimes available for $2500 and up, depending on configuration, etc. And, as you point out, new & used K3 prices are all over the map depending on options, updates, & add-ons.

    If you haven’t seen it, here is a link to Rob’s presentation at this year’s Contest University on Contest Radio Performance:

    It is very interesting and informative. He has some interesting comments regarding the KX3’s QSK and opposite sideband rejection, but says overall it provides very good RX performance for the price.

    I was also surpised at the 990’s rating, and Rob also comments about this in his presentation. I would have expected it to place in the top 5 or so of the list. Guess lots of buttons & eye candy don’t always add up to top-tier performance. To be fair, though, a fully tricked-out, factory-assembled “K-Line” K3 station is not that much cheaper than the 990, weighing in at around $6,500 or so. (That includes the outboard ATU, amp, P3 w/VGA, (5) 8-pole filters in both receivers, etc.) The 990 does have a 200 watt output PA, so I think it is fair to include the cost of an outboard amp when comparing it to the others.

    For the record, my current lineup is an Omni-IV+, Orion, and K2. There is no 990 in my future, HI.

    73 & CU down the log,
    Luther N4UW

    • June 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm

      Thanks for the insight, Luther. I had copy-pasted the Perseus from Sherwood’s site – they have since made the correction and I will too shortly. I was also unaware that Rob’s talk was on YouTube. Watching it, I almost feel as if I should be taking notes!

      Thanks again for passing along this info and vy 73,

      John AE5X

  3. June 9, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Hi John, fellows,

    When commenting about the Sherwood list you should read all the small notes and ask its detailed test results.
    From his own words. the table is too synthetic and the ranking only reflects one column which is DDR3 at 2 KHz on 20m, preamp off with 500 Hz filter.
    Looking at the “big picture”, the TS-990s should be on the top of the list (best phase noise at 100KHz from carrier, best DR3 at 20 KHz) and its DSP and other “features” are superior to anything tested before.
    Like the TS-590s has two receiving architecture, the TS-990s has two Local Oscillator design. Then, phase noise is varying by band and RMDR is varying by band too. One LO circuit is said “high performance” to be used on let’s say 40m, 20m, 15m, the other one is “flexible” for usage on other bands and general coverage (see note X below the table).
    The “high performance” is very good at more than 20KHz, the best seen on HAM radio products. However it fails below 5KHz and makes the DR3 phase noise limited.
    Kenwood maybe able to provide a software “patch” to improve the number just by selecting the other circuit, and perhaps an hardware correction can be done later to definitely solve the problem.

    About the KX3, the DR3 @2kHz is very good but at the expense of opposite sideband rejection. We are used to have 90dB of sideband rejection, with 70dB being the lowest acceptable. The KX3 is below this I think I remember and it is very bad because the “LO” frequency is only around 1KHz.
    That means in a contest or a pile up, the KX3 will greatly suffer and you will be trying to work S5 signals that are in fact S9+30 signals 2 KHz below.
    Not a problem because the KX3 is a SOTA radio, not a contest or DXpedition rig, but the numbers don’t tell this…

    Yan – XV4Y.

    • June 9, 2013 at 6:39 pm

      Yes, the ranking only tells a small part of the story and no complex radio can be reduced to “one parameter defines everything”.

      I did mention that 3rd order intercept should not be the only criteria used in deciding on a radio – hopefully that comment doesn’t get lost in the single dimensional indications shown by the rankings.

      A lot of eye-opening info is presented in the YouTube video mentioned in a previous comment. I wish I had seen it prior to posting some of my own comments…

    • 5B4AGN
      June 11, 2013 at 12:38 am

      Selection of radios is a horses for courses affair. The key is understanding exactly which aspects of performance are important to you before you make your investment.

      I am a long time fan of Kenwood HF radios but their prime weakness was always marginal IP3 performance. Despite much that is good in the spec of the new TS990 it is disappointing to see this area remain unaddressed.

      Yan, I partly agree with you about the KX3 but not entirely. KX3 image response is for the most part an audible image (opposite sideband rejection). I have a KX3 and have measured this at >70dB after adjustment. This is good enough for most purposes but probably not for serious contesting.

      However, I will use the KX3 as a DX-pedition radio as I believe 70dB will be fine for the following reasons:

      1. I have rarely heard signals stronger than S9+20 on any of my recent trips.

      2. Audible image or not, if it is in my pile it’s calling me. It makes no sense to dig between strong signals to work the week ones on a DX-pedition. Just shovel the strong signals into the log as fast as possible and the weaker ones will appear.

      3. The KX3 attenuator can be switched in/out with one key press. Similarly the pre-amp.

      My recent trips involved a K3 + KPA500. A KX3, KXPA100, KPA500 combination will provide more and better packing & handling options.

      Incidentally I used my KX3 during May when operating 5B75FOC for the club’s 75th anniversary celebrations. This generated some pretty full on piles, mostly co-channel. With the KX3 I found my ability to separate signals in a large co-channel pile as good as I have experienced with any radio and somewhat better than with the K3.

      All my comments relate to CW operation.


      Bob, 5B4AGN

  4. Charly
    June 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    My rig experience… current are K3, IC7800, and FT9000d and recent Orion I. Many hours comparing and I can not find any discernable and repeatable differences. That is to my own ears, which are what counts to me more than any ranking list based on factors that most hams can not hear.

    Given equality of performance, I then turn to ease and fun in use. K3 loses immediately with famous tiny front panel. 7800 is less convienent but at least is big. I always turn to my 9000d for its ease of use.

    BTW, my use of the K3 is a lot like my remote control on my TV; that is, I run thru many channels until settling on one but then always feel there is some other channel I will like better and thus go off searching again. The K3 always gives me the feeling that just one more try at the many noise adjustments will be “just right.” But, by the time I try some of them, and there must be at least 16 choices, the noise problem I had has changed and I either start all over or just settle for one–always thinking that “better” is still available if only…..

    So, for me, the K3 is a very long way from a set and forget radio. I see it as a computer interface because I am told its inconviences lessen when displayed and run by computer. However, I loath mouse radio, so that is out with me.

    I wish it would be possible to have all three of these radios in identical boxes so the know-it-all expurts could try to find the differences by their EARS. I feel very sure they could never tell Coke from Pepsi from Dr. Pepper in normal ham use.

    Your K3 pricing should also include filtering it up for both rcvers… that will up the price some, I guess.

    Thank givins for personal choice !

    • June 10, 2013 at 7:33 am

      Right – I should have included the K3’s filters that would put it on par for a more valid comparison to other rigs.

      I’ve noticed a common theme among adherents of most technical hobbies whether radio, photography, astronomy or whatever:
      that the gear associated with that hobby is measured with instruments, the details and differences published & debated and the argument of which is better begins. And all the while, those differences are indiscernable to the human operator., detectable only by instruments in most cases.

      I think debating indiscernable differences in things is almost a hobby in itself for some.

      • June 11, 2013 at 8:37 am


        I think this comment hit the nail on the head. How many QSO’s will you miss because you have one of these radios over another is sort of a bottom line issue for the non-technical guy. After that it boils down to whether I’m a Ford or Chevy guy. My marketing professor in college defined marketing this way. He said, “I have a four wheel drive pick-up, with a bumper gaurd, winch, roll bar, oversize tires and fog lights. The heaviest thing I carry in this truck is a six-pack of beer.” Indeed that is marketing and so it goes with most things…..Good post

  5. June 10, 2013 at 7:41 am

    A power point presentation from W4UOA explaining 3rd order intercept and other receiver parameters is available for download here:

  6. Jonathan W6GX
    June 18, 2013 at 2:39 am

    Rob NC0B also writes a very nice test report for almost every rig. he tests. Just email him and he’ll be glad to send you a copy. I get more info. out of these reports than from the published chart. The test reports that I find the LEAST useful are those from ARRL.

    Jonathan W6GX

    • June 18, 2013 at 7:23 am

      Thanks Jonathan – I look forward to receiving it.

      I agree with you about ARRL reviews and have often wondered how an organization that accepts advertisement money from manufacturers can be expected to give an honest account of one of that manufacturer’s products. This (I believe) is alluded to a couple of times in the YouTube video linked above.

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