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Author Topic: Newbie Question: Where's the magic in the high end transceivers?  (Read 30838 times)
KK6GNP
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« on: September 19, 2013, 02:26:59 PM »

Starting to learn about ham radio had a fantastic side affect that I wasn't planning on.  As a corporate information technologist, my exposure to electronics has largely come in the form of assembling computers or servers from individual components.  I never had to get down to the nitty gritty of the circuits.  Learning about ham radio, and being exposed to electronics concepts in the process, really kicked me in the direction of learning about kits and building things.  Today, I'm getting my first Arduino kit from Fed Ex, and I'm diving in. I'll be building some transceiver kits as well. I've already started building my workbench and populating it with tools.

Let's take the KX3 as an example.  Most reports seem to indicate that this little radio is one hell of a machine.  When I look at pictures and videos of the internals, I'm blown away by the seeming simplicity of it, especially given the performance reports.  So my question is, where is the magic in a device like this?  Why does it perform so well with such a *seemingly* simple board compared to transceivers two or three times its size?  Are you paying for miniaturization of the components like you do in expensive smartphones, and/or does a company like Elecraft simply have access to amazing (custom made) components no one else can get?  What makes the KX3 cost $1000 compared to something like a $330 YouKits transceiver?  I realize "name brand" is part of the answer, but if that was the main answer, then I would ask why more people or companies aren't building kits with the same (or better) quality as the KX3, but for cheaper.  What's stopping YouKits from making a KX3 quality device for say $500?

Again, please keep in mind that this is all new to me.  I'm just beginning to learn about this stuff, and I'm going hands-on as of today, but I thought maybe some of you radio experts here could help me understand the differences in quality and price of some of these things.
« Last Edit: September 19, 2013, 02:29:20 PM by KK6GNP » Logged

73 ~ Cory (JeepEscape)
KK6GNP
WX7G
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« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2013, 05:35:24 PM »

Part of what makes a KX3 a KX3 is hours and hours of top notch engineering to meet or exceed top notch performance specifications. The aim was not to create something good but to create something above the rest. Not only does that cost money but it commands money in the marketplace. At $1000 the KX3 is a steal. And yes, I own a KX3.

The KX3 does not count as a kit in the sense you are thinking of kits. It's available as a module "kit" that I think exists only as a vestigial remnant of the original Elecraft kit concept.

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M6GOM
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« Reply #2 on: September 20, 2013, 03:26:15 AM »


Let's take the KX3 as an example.  Most reports seem to indicate that this little radio is one hell of a machine.  When I look at pictures and videos of the internals, I'm blown away by the seeming simplicity of it, especially given the performance reports.  So my question is, where is the magic in a device like this?  Why does it perform so well with such a *seemingly* simple board compared to transceivers two or three times its size?  Are you paying for miniaturization of the components like you do in expensive smartphones, and/or does a company like Elecraft simply have access to amazing (custom made) components no one else can get?  What makes the KX3 cost $1000 compared to something like a $330 YouKits transceiver?  

OK...

Traditional radios receive a chunk of bandwidth and put it through several stages involving mechanical filters eventually pumping it out as audio. Depending on the strength of signals near to the one you want to hear and how good the filtering is, the nearby signals you don't want to hear can prevent you hearing the ones you do. A filter doesn't cut out 100% of the nearby signal out of its pass band but merely attenuates it. Also a traditional radio is the same radio 20 years down the line as the day it left the factory because everything is set.

Radios like the KX3 are what is called a SDR - Software Defined Radio. A SDR effectively samples a large chunk of RF similar to audio and then does all the processing in software. Because it is all done in software it allows the radio to completely ignore the nearby signals you don't want to hear giving you a better chance of hearing what you do want. They are often described as having cliff wall filtering because they do completely block out all signals outside of the passband.

In addition, being software defined the radio can be upgraded by software with improved DSP as well as adding additional functionality with a simple firmware update - something that cannot be done with a traditional radio once it has left the factory.

Why the KX3 costs a lot more than the Youkits is that you have a transceiver, not just receiver only, and one that is far more capable than the cheap SDRs that do transmit. It does more power and has better filtering and IMD of the transmitted signal, all of which involve expensive parts and design above that of a $300 Youkits SDR. Also on receive the KX3 has additional filtering that the Youkits don't as well as far better performing custom ICs and FPGAs.
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W1JKA
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« Reply #3 on: September 20, 2013, 03:50:37 AM »

Re: KK6GNP

    Keeping in mind that the cost point definition for "hi end " transceivers is different for each of us (mine is in the 3-5K range) and each ones definition of low power portable ranging from picnic table, campground, base camp to back packing, hiking, SOTA is also different and requiring the appropriate rigs for each, your topic heading got me thinking about this particular "magic trick", Is the Vertex Standard 1210 being what it is at around $2100.00 (base) cheap compared to the KX3 at around $1000.00 (base) or is the KX3 expensive compared to the VS 1210? Aside from weight/size issues again depending on your definition of portable ops I'm mainly thinking in terms of quality construction, survivability, and ability to handle basic cw/ssb communications.



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K1CJS
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« Reply #4 on: September 20, 2013, 05:02:25 AM »

Part of it is simple-- "I have a (insert your rig identity here)"

Didn't you ever hear that "He who has the most toys... wins."
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W1JKA
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« Reply #5 on: September 20, 2013, 05:23:47 AM »

Re: K1CJS

  Do my MFJ Cubs (insert your rig identity  here) count as a win?  Grin
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AA4PB
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« Reply #6 on: September 20, 2013, 05:56:04 AM »

Software DSP filters have a sharper cutoff than typical crystal or mechanical filters but they aren't capable of completely eliminating all the signals but the one you want to hear. DSP is good, but it's not that good  Cheesy
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W1VT
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« Reply #7 on: September 20, 2013, 06:24:38 AM »

Part of the magic is a very expensive feedback loop in which issues pointed out by the customers are actually fixed by the engineers.  With cheap stuff you often have to accept that things aren't going to work the way you want them to--with no practical way of changing that.

If you study the designs, the better radios typically have better filtering to get rid of unwanted signals.  For instance, the KX3 has optional roofing filters to achieve those good measured numbers.

Ideally, you would filter everything out you don't absolutely need.  For instance, if  you wanted to receive a signal at 7.040, you would have a filter that just let that pass.  But, a really narrow filter to do that is prohibitively costly, so you compromise with a wider filter, such as one that lets in 7.0 to 7.3 MHz.  If you wanted to be cheap, you might not bother, and let the gullible user think he is getting a better deal by having a receiver that picks up a ton of signals--many of which are fake signals not actually on the band!  But, even a good radio might compromise with that 7.0 to 7.3 MHz filter--it might let VHF signals get through, as it is costs more  to design and implement a stop band that high.  So, you may have a radio that works great, until it gets hit by nearby pager and public service transmitters.... which generate unwanted intermodulation products.

Zack W1VT
« Last Edit: September 20, 2013, 07:24:34 AM by W1VT » Logged
KK6GNP
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« Reply #8 on: September 20, 2013, 08:10:10 AM »

Thanks for all the replies!  Your answers more or less reflected what I was expecting to hear.

I chose the KX3 as an example, not because of the price point, but because it's a new design, simple looking (I know it's anything but simple) on the inside, and is considered to be of very, very high quality for its form factor.  I was looking at the YouKits 5-band CW SSB portable for field QRP too, and it brought up some questions about how these things are built, and where the price tag comes from.  Why would I spend $1500 on a KX3, if I can get (or build) something like a YouKits with decent band coverage, basically the same level of outdoors ruggedness, etc.

I'm diving into electronics tinkering, and so I started looking at transceiver kits to go with my Arduino tinkering.  I figure I can learn a lot building some good kits.  This led me to ask questions about what makes a high end transceiver, well, high end. It is logical that something like a KX3 is much more refined in its details, has great software, and has been engineered better than a cheaper kit.  Though how much of its capability, for example, has to do with simply using superior components?

What I was getting at is that if I ever get to a point where I can build my own transceiver from scratch, will I have access to the same high quality circuit components that Elecraft does, or are they having custom components made that are of a higher quality than parts on the open market?  I don't expect to build something as nice as a KX3 on my workbench, but if I wanted to attempt the best quality single band project, for example, I would like to get the best parts I can to build it.

For me, the money in my ham radios is a consideration, but that's mostly because I have several hobbies and activities that I inject discretionary money into. Ham is only one of them.  I'm also realistic about how much transceiver I should buy, when I live in a suburban HOA neighborhood with antenna restrictions.

I appreciate the comments on this thread.  
« Last Edit: September 20, 2013, 08:13:20 AM by KK6GNP » Logged

73 ~ Cory (JeepEscape)
KK6GNP
KG6AF
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« Reply #9 on: September 20, 2013, 08:44:23 AM »

Software DSP filters have a sharper cutoff than typical crystal or mechanical filters but they aren't capable of completely eliminating all the signals but the one you want to hear. DSP is good, but it's not that good  Cheesy

But when you use both crystal filters and DSP, the results are kind of amazing.  If I'm operating CW with a K3 and use a 250 Hz roofing filter followed by a DSP filter that I can crank down to 50 or 100 Hz, nothing gets through except the signal I want (unless you're next door, maybe).

I think the best transceiver designers pick their goals first, not the implementation approach.  Rather than saying, "I'm going all analog" or "I'm going all digital," they lay out the performance goals, then choose the best techniques to achieve them.

Not that I'm a critic of, say, Flex; I think what they're doing is pretty cool.  And there are some very simple receivers and transceivers, such as SoftRock, that may not have the best specs, but have an amazing performance-to-cost ratio.
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AK7V
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« Reply #10 on: September 20, 2013, 08:59:54 AM »

I might be wrong, but I don't think Elecraft has access to special components that the rest of us don't.  I think the fact that it is SDR makes component quality less important than in a rig that relies on them exclusively.

Some of the non-SDR receiver (or transceiver) kits are fantastic, too, like Elecraft's K2 or even many of the other, cheap single-band QRP radios.  Some of these are great because they're limited -- if they only need to RX 40 meter CW, they can choose components and bandwidths that support that goal, and "filter out" everything else.  It used to be that buying a rig with "general coverage receive" meant poorer overall RX performance.  Also, a lot of the kits are designed by very good designers who are doing it because they love it.  No deadlines, no burnt-out engineers in cubes, no committees or bean counters, etc. 

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W1VT
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« Reply #11 on: September 20, 2013, 09:03:39 AM »

I found that I could get better parts for RF filtering than the manufacturers would use.   Grin 

Seriously, a serious amateur can scour the marketplace for one of a kind deals that for parts that no manufacturer could consider using, and design them into his radio.   You can even use obsolete parts.  For example, the Mitsubishi MGF 1801 is capable of a ridiculously low noise figure at 2M and 222MHz.  

Quality feedthroughs with EMI filtering can be quite expensive, yet I've found great surplus deals that a manufacturer wouldn't be able to use.

Zack W1VT
« Last Edit: September 20, 2013, 09:07:36 AM by W1VT » Logged
AD4U
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« Reply #12 on: September 20, 2013, 09:09:12 AM »

If you already have a decent rig, most of the magic in owning one of the high end $10,000 rigs lies mainly between the operator's ears.

Dick  AD4U
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KM6XZ
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« Reply #13 on: September 20, 2013, 10:28:00 AM »

High volume mass produced items deliver incredible value for a modest investment, whether a cell phone or digital camera. As features and raw performance is considered as they apply to less than usual conditions, the incremental step differences become more and more expensive, harder to achieve and requires novel engineering solutions. Ham rigs are no different than say, digital cameras in which increasingly diminishing returns. A very good point and shoot camera is $100 and handles typical casual shooting very well. As one seeks little better speed, autofocus, light gathering capability, each incremental improvement is harder to achieve and apply mostly to non-typical or extreme conditions of low light, high speed moving subjects, high color and tone fidelity, soon you are needing to spend $1500 for 20% better. Spending $20,000 increases the capabilities by another 5%.
Applying the same characteristics of diminishing returns for incremental improvements, a $400 SDR will work just fine for local rag chewing and an occasional DX contact with the conditions are very good. The Kx3 is a bargain if performance alone is considered because it is a relatively small step in price but a significant step in being suitable for more extreme conditions that many hams will never really need. The people who do value the small incremental differences between a general purpose goof value rig and a refined contesting rig think the big step up in price, in the $4-10k is reasonable.  Is it 10 times the performance over the $400 rig? In general terms no, but a 5-10% increase makes the difference in extreme conditions.
My own camera plus lenses totals about $12,000 and my ham rig is a K2 and a TS-50. At one time, the ratio of ham gear(most home brew) expenses dwarfed my camera expenses. The towers, big arrays, fluid cooled amps, and the precision test instruments needed to eek out the last bit of performance was worth the pursuit of that last 5%. Priorities change so now it would seem silly and unaffordable.
So what is good for you? I suggest not going for the best, but the most appropriate. Something you can repair yourself and learn all about it, and master it.  You will discover that some performance characteristics are lacking for some specialty later on, that might motivate you to seek higher performance in that specialty. But before getting lots of practical hands on experience, you will not know what of the million different aspects of ham radio that draws you in the most. You will not know what you would really benefit most from until you find a specialty that peaks your interest.  Get anything to get on the air, experiment with antennas( antenna restricted locations is a whole hobby in itself), type of operating and bands all make a very wide range of distinct parameters for improved operating in that specialty.
I moved to another country a number of years ago and could not operate but a couple years ago CLEP agreement was signed and now I can operate from St Petersburg Russia. So for me, with a difficult antenna situation, and living in a 250 yo apartment in the historic city center, my K2, a battery pack and some backpackable antennas mean more to me than the full bore station I had back in California for years.  Going out to the woods on weekends and charged gel cell and very low noise location without any people or power lines is a good  way of getting on the air. It all fits in my large camera bag. The Kx3 would probably be worth every penny[kopek] for my application.
What application do you seek to satisfy?
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W1VT
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« Reply #14 on: September 20, 2013, 04:12:51 PM »

It depends on what parts we are talking about.  With semiconductors, no, the volume just isn't there to justify custom parts.

It is different for specialty parts, like crystal filters, in which volumes are normally quite low.  But, as I pointed out before, we can often do even better than they do by getting surplus lots of crystals and homebrewing our own custom filters. I've done things like homebrew my own approximate Gaussian crystal CW filter with minimal ringing. 

Zack W1VT
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