QRP Transceiver Kits Mini-Review

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~~~~~Note: You may also be interested in this article from QST.~~~~~

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_DSC3464There are more kits available than those listed here. The rigs mentioned below are those that I’ve owned and built myself. And the following opinions are just that – opinions. They are non-technical and are written with the new QRPer in mind…the person who might decide to try his or her hand at QRP and wonders what’s out there.

All kits mentioned are single conversion superhets, have excellent QSK keying and are powered by 12 volts.
Obvious to anyone who’s built and operated any of the kits listed here, the charts don’t tell the whole story. But they do bring to light some interesting comparisons.

For example:

  • The DSW, a highly regarded rig, is $150. For $10 more, a 4-band rig (ATS3) is available. But there is a “catch”.
  • The SST weighs 7 ounces and provides 8 kHz of coverage. Three more ounces of weight enables a more modern (KX1) rig to have 3 full bands of coverage plus so many additional capabilities that James Bond would turn green with envy.
  • The multiband rigs are relatively new on the market. Although the price per kHz is about the same as yesteryear’s monoband rigs (and drastically lower in one case!), more features are packed into their innards than on any of the monobander kits.

QRP Transceiver Kits

monobanders

multibanders

Small Wonder Labs SW+ Series

This kit has to be one of the best deals in ham radio. For the price of a couple hardcover books, the QRPer gets a kit with superior online documentation (see below), excellent performance, easy to buildup & alignment, a proven design and courteous tech support, if needed. What’s the catch? I don’t think there is one – could this be the proverbial “free lunch”? You do need to provide your own enclosure, but with a bit of scrounging, most folks could come up with an old modem case or something similar to hold the 3” x 4” board. An excellent value.

http://www.qsl.net/kf4trd/faq.html

http://engphys.mcmaster.ca/~elmer101/

Wilderness Radio’s Norcal 40A

Aside from my old HW9, this was the first QRP kit I ever built and it remains my favorite to this day. Performance-wise, it compares closely to the SW40 but costs two-and-a-half times as much. What does the additional cost buy you? An attractive (and strong) case, pre-drilled and labeled with quick-access latches for easy removal of the lid, RIT and perhaps more reliability due to the fact that there is no internal wiring (unless the optional keyer/annunciator is installed). All operating controls and jacks are mounted directly to the circuit board. But given what else is available, this rig is no longer a good value. The keyer/frequency annunciator option costs an additional $45. Although I’ll never sell mine, I could never again recommend this radio to anyone with its total price of $185.

Small Wonder Labs DSW Series

The currently available DSW kits are the second generation of this series. Improvements over the older DSW are higher power and the fact that front & rear panel controls & jacks are now board-mounted, resulting in increased reliability and easier assembly. Like the older DSWs, this series has unlimited RIT, excellent frequency stability, 2-speed tuning, simple alignment that requires no test equipment, small size and attractive, rugged housing. It does have the widest selectivity of all other rigs here and during crowded band conditions often hears two or more signals at once. My 20-meter DSW currently resides in my pick-up where it is Velcro’ed to the under-side of the dashboard. It is the only QRP rig that I feel is rugged and stable enough to handle the mobile environment, due mostly to the DDS frequency control and stability/simplicity of alignment. It has proven its worth in that environment with a good amount of both Stateside and DX contacts in the log with a 7-foot Ham stick antenna.

Wilderness Radio SST

This is a no-frills radio in a no-frills case. It has a low parts count and only two front panel controls: tuning and RF Gain. There are probably more mods available for this radio than for any other kit, the most common being the implementation of the 2nd varactor for increased frequency coverage. This is a radio to build and then tinker with. It is an impressive radio to use in front of non-hams who are frequently amazed that something so small can actually communicate with someone a thousand miles away. Though small, there is room in the case for a 9-volt battery or a small antenna tuner, etc. Expensive for the freq coverage it offers, it is nevertheless a fun radio & can be built in a couple hours.

Norcal 20

This transceiver is no longer available as a kit although completed units do show up on eBay and various QRP reflectors from time to time. (Over)promoted from the beginning as having a “crunch proof” receiver, this rig failed in numerous ways to live up to its hype. With a more realistic announcement to the QRP community, the flaws, coupled with the instant communication of the internet via email reflectors, may well have been perceived as a learning opportunity – builders could post what they did to correct a deficiency & compare notes with others in the community. Over time, a lot of QRPers would likely have made changes and adjustments to their rigs that they otherwise may have been reluctant to perform. Learning and increased confidence in building (beyond the typical step-by-step rote instruction-following) would have occurred. But the lead-in to this particular kit promised a Cadillac – and delivered an Edsel. The resulting disappointment was a pre-programmed certainty. More about the actual performance of this radio can be found at:

ARS Review of Two Norcal 20s

Multi-Band Kits

The following kits have not only multi-band capabilities but additional features over their monoband counterparts as well. Typically, they have a higher RF output, variable bandwidth and several user settings such as sidetone volume, break-in delay, etc. Assembly & alignment are more involved, as would be expected.

Elecraft K1

With the exception of the all-band K2, this is the only QRP kit with 15/17 meter capabilities and is available in either 2- or 4-band configurations. Several options are available, the best being an internal battery pack and internal automatic antenna tuner. These (and other options), as well as the K1’s many standard features, make it an excellent travel radio. Notable features include a built-in speaker, S-meter, 4-pole crystal filter, digital freq readout/voltmeter and XIT. Like the SST and Norcal 40A, there is no internal wiring in the K1 with the exception of the battery pack. Assembly instructions are clear and unambiguous and are available online. Amazing for a radio with so many capabilities is the fact that alignment is performed using the rig’s built-in “Cal” functions. A DVM is the only test equipment needed for alignment. Customer support is second to none.

Elecraft KX1

The KX1 is a one-box, 3-band ham station. Its performance and ergonomics make it the ultimate trail-friendly radio with built-in batteries, automatic ATU and paddles. The only external accessory required for making contacts is an antenna. Covering 20, 30 (optional) and 40 meters, this rig is as capable as it is lightweight. Controls are mounted on top, most user-interface functions have audio-feedback capability (useful in a dark tent) and stability is rock solid even at varying outdoor temperatures. This is the easiest-to-take-portable rig on the market. Various comparisons have been made between the K1 and KX1 – rather than repeat what has already been written, I’ll point you to the most informative write-up of all, by Bruce Prior N7RR:
http://www.kkn.net/archives/html/QRP-L/2003-12/msg01177.html
Each rig has its pros & cons I suppose, but my K1 has seen little use since the KX1 has taken up residency here – it is both my backpacking rig and my business trip rig. My two wishes were that it that it had 80m or 17m capabilities and a higher power out – the rated 4 watts is with 13.8 volts; only a bit over half that is produced with the built-in 6 AA batteries. This is a great radio and I look forward to more outdoor trips with it.

KD1JV’s AT Sprint III

Every once in a great while, in ham radio and elsewhere, something comes along with characteristics so unique that they separate it from all its peers. Audrey Hepburn re-defined feminine beauty and the GTO epitomized the American muscle car. In the area of lightweight ham radio, nothing can touch the ATS3. Think about it: 4 bands, 5 watts out, built-in memory keyer, RIT, frequency annunciator – and a total weight of less than 3 ounces! What would the Hallicrafter-users of old think of that? Rather than repeat what I’ve already written about this awesome little radio, have a look at:

http://www.ae5x.com/ats3.html