|This is my one year ownership review of the Kenwood TS-990S. I go into the features that I find to be most useful to me personally, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. As it is, this review grew much larger than I intended!|
I operate primarily on phone and digital modes including PSK, RTTY, JT65, and OLIVIA. Without doubt the TS-990S is an absolute joy to operate. It is a very pleasing radio to which to listen, and the overall ergonomics and broad range of interface options make it a delight to work. It is by no means a perfect radio, and I will outline some of my issues with it during in this review. With that said, I would with no hesitation purchase this radio again.
I wish the eHam scoring system were more granular. Unfortunately giving the radio a 5/5 means a 100% score, and giving it a 4/5 is an 80% score. Neither of those are fair. I would lean towards giving the radio an A- or a score of 90 - 95%, so somwhere between a 4.5 & a 4.75
Earlier this year it looked as if I would sadly have to the sell my TS-990S. I went as far as posting the radio ontoQRZ.com and almost sold it a couple of times. Happily the circumstances that were forcing me to sell the radio were mitigated and I was fortunately able to keep it.
Overall the radio has a tremendous number of positives. However, nothing is perfect, and the TS-990S has it share of negatives including:
- The main display's panadapter is, in my opinion, inadequate. It is neither fine grained nor configurable enough to be of significant use except as a general guide to what is going on the band. It is quite annoying that I had to spend almost another $1,000 on an external SDR to get decent panadapter capability.
- No IF port which means that you have to split the output of the raadios RX-OUT port back into the RX-IN port and to whatever external panadapter you use resulting in a 3dB signal loss. This can be mitigated if desired with an active multicoupler, but it is a pricey option.
- The radio's rear video output port can only present a mirror display of the radio's primary display. This is basically useless, and in my opinion, and a waste of a monitor. (more on this later)
- Kenwood is slow with firmware updates. I suppose this is pretty standard for Japanese manufacturers, but when compared with way Elecraft keeps the K3 updated, it is a bit disheartening.
- Noise Blanker: This is a well known issue and one that can be quite annoying depending on the operating environment. Basically when a signal is stronger than the background noise, it will essentially render the noise blanker ineffective
- The radio has the capability of being connected to a network; however remote operation requires the use of a local PC.
- A more minor yet still irritating point: some configuration data not recalled between modes. For example when I switch from USB to USB DATA, I always have to remember to disable and renable my TX EQ when switching between modes.
My station setup as follow:
Antennas: Traffie 5 band Hexbeam at 35ft, ground mounted Steppir BigIR vertical with 42 radials - used primarily on 40m & 6m .
Amplifier: Tokyo Hypower HL-1.5KFX 1KW solid state linear amplifier
Tuner: Palstar HF-AUTO
Panadapter: QSR1 SDR connected to the TS-990's RX-OUT via a Stridberg MCA102M multicoupler and a DX Engineering Receiver Guard 5000.
You can read more about my setup at http://w9tvx.com
RADIO FRONT PANEL
When you sit in from of a TS-990S, on of the first things you will are its two displays: a large touch screen to the left hand side of the radio, and a second smaller display in the middle of the radio. You will also be confronted with a plethora of knobs and button covering the face of the radio.
At first blush this all appears to be very overwhelming; however, the more time you spend operating the radio, the more you realise just how logically and well laid out it is. In fact it is not too long before you are rather instinctively able to reach for the desired buttons and knobs.
For example, want to operate split? Simple.
Right below the center display and above the tuning knob are all of the interface elements you need. They are grouped and labeled logically with the two lit buttons on the left indicating RX and TX status for the main VFO and two lits buttons on the right side indicating the same for the sub VFO. In typical operation, the RX and TX button for the main VFO are lit indicating that it is the one actively transmitting adn receiving.
- Press the M->S button immediately to the left of the main VFO RX/TX button to copy the frequency from the main VFO to the sub VFO. (You can avoid this step by having the sub VFO track the main VFO by pressing the tracking button)
- Next press sub VFO's TX button to enable transmission on the sub VFO. Right away the light on the main VFOs TX button will extinquish. A split LED right below the center display will light indicating split operation. The freqency display for the sub VFO will brighten an the one for the main VFO will dim in the secondary display. A delta offset in Khz from the main VFO will also be displayed (depending on how the operator has the secondary display configured). So immediate feedback on the radio status, and all the data you need to operate in split mode are presented.
- Use the sub VFO tuning knob to tune any desired offset (you can also enter offsets via the keypad). As you tune, you will see the delta from the main VFO change to it is easy to dial to the desired offset.
That's it. It takes a lot more describing it than seeing it in action.
I should add that if you have dual speakers connected to the TS-990S, by toggling the sub VFO's RX button you can configure the readio to split the audio from each receiver to each speaker. This is really handy in a pileup to either figure out at which offset the station is listening, or to time your call.
Another feature of the TS-990S that I find particularly useful is that the current passband lo/high cutoff or shift/width and filter effects are displayed on the subdisplay. Specifically, above the VFO frequency display there is a visual representation of the passband. If the notch or band elimination filter is active, you can also visually see which segment of the passband it is effecting. Any adjustments to the shift/width or hi/lo cutoff are visually represented, as are any changes to the notch/bef filter. In addition, there is a visualizion in the passband of the RF spectrum on receive and the transmitted signal spectrum on transmit in the same view. Really handy.
In fact the amount of useful information that is presented on the two displays is outstanding, and after becoming familiar with the radio, you can rapidly gather all salient operating data by just flicking your eyes across the displays.
The main display also has a bandscope and waterfall that I personally find of limited use. More on this in a moment. The primary display (the larger of the two) can be cycled through three main "panadapter modes": Bandscope, Bandscope + Waterfall, and none. In the Bandscope and none modes, the top half of the screen is filled with some really useful data such as current TX and RX equalizer settings, as well as multiple meter data including signal strength, power, swr, etc. In the Bandscope + Waterfall mode the bandscope and waterfall occupy 2/3 of the screen resulting in some of the more useful information being omitted.
Back to the bandscope: I don't think that the resolution is good enough. You can pick out the strongest signals and get a feel for the band, and certainly the touch screen is handly - although too coarse grained. However, it can't hold a candle to a dedicated SDR or the Elecraft P3. As a result, I spent a substantial amount of money to get a QSR1 and run it as panadapter along with HDSDR and SDRMAXV. I now leave the main screen in Bandscope mode as I don't lose any data by having it there and it's handly to see visually where I am on the band. The main display can also show a oscilloscope and audioscope at the push of the RF/AF softkey. Nice features though less useful if you have an SDR.
There are several other functions that the main display is used for including:
- Displaying signal information as well as decoded text in digital modes such as RTTY and PSK.
- Setting operating parameters such as filter width and depth, equalizer settings, and recorded messages.
- Navigating the menu system. Having such a large display makes it really easy to navigate and set menu items, simply because so much information can be displayed allowing for descriptive text that helps avoid having to break open the manual
The bottom line is that it is really nice to have such a big display as it makes operating and configuring the radio a cinch, and I am fond of the fact that many parameters for a given audio element can be rapidly accessed and manipulated without having to dive into the menu system. For example, pressing and holding the RX Equalizer button will open up an edit view in the main display. From this window you can switch to another equalizer preset or adjust specific equalizer frequencies for a preset. Another example is holding down the Band Elimination filter button. This opens up an edit window in the main display where you can change the width and depth of the filter. I should also note that you can even change the press/hold duration of the buttons before the edit window is opened
Turning to the TS-990S' menu system finds it very intuitive and easy to access and configure. I find the menu groupings to be logical making it quite simple to navigate to the desired menu item. I should add, that once I had setup my radio, I seldom find the need to go into the menu to change setting. In fact most of the operational parameters that you'd want to tweak on a dayily basis - such as filter cutoffs, equalizer settings, etc, are either directly accessible via buttons on the front panel or a simple button-press-hold away. Besides this, the radio allows for the user to switch between one of two configuration (although this requires the radio to reboot), as well as saving configurations to USB flash devices.
The TS-990S offers broad onboard support for digital modes such as RTTY and PSK, This includes onboard decoders as well as the ability to connect a USB keyboard for data input. To be honest, I find this of limited use as I use software packages such as DM780, fldigi, and WSJT-X for digital modes. The TS-990S does offer excellent support for these software packages with a Data mode as well as a built-in "soundcard" This means that you do not have to buy and have the clutter of an additional device, such as a signaLink. All you have to so is install the devices drivers provided by Kenwood.
This is another area where I think the TS-990S shines. I'll start by pointing out that there are two CAT I/O ports: a USB port and a "legacy" DB9 port. In this day and age of digital connectivity, this is amazingly useful. At my station, I use the USB port to connect to a Mac Mini running Windows 8 and a host of software such as Ham Radio Deluxe, N1MM, Fldigi, WSJT-X etc. The DB9 port is used by my amplfier and Steppir SDA 100 controller to follow the radio as it changes frequencies and bands
In addition, the radio has both an optical input and output port. It is not uncommon for users to connect the optical output back into the optical input as a hack that will allow them to record on air audio an play it back.
Is it also possible to connect an external keypad with up to eight function keys that can be assigned to broad set of operations. There is an excellent commercial option available from Taylor Made RF in the UK, though it is also quite simple to build one
Network connectivity is provided by a rear RJ45 jack. This serves a couple of purposes: One is to synchronize the radio's clock via a network time server (NTP server), the other is allow remote control of the radio. A word on the latter: Unfortunately, in order to remotely access the TS-990S, you have to have a PC running Kenwoods ARHP software that acts as a relay between the radio and remote operator running Kenwoods ARCP software. I would much rather not require a PC running as well as the TS-990S - something that ICOM has managed to do.
Also featured on the back are both an RX-In and and RX-Out port. I have previously used a Pixel Technologies RF PRO-1B as an RX antenna. More recently I have connected a QSR1 SDR to the radio by splitting the RX-Out signal the SDR and back into the radio via the RX-In Port.
This highlights a notable shortcoming of the TS-990S: there is no IF Port included in the radio. Perhaps Kenwood engineers thought that this was an unecessary feature since the radio has a built-in panadapter. Fair enough I suppose; however, as I mentioned earlier I don't feel that the built-in panadapter is fine grained enough nor configurable enough to be wholly useful- certainly it is no match for my QSR1.
It sadly gets a little worse: There is also a DVI output on the rear panel, and one would think that this is an excellent opportunity to provide a rich panadapter experience on a nice large external monitor - much like the Elecraft P3 with the SVGA option. Unfortunately, all you get when you connect an external display is a mirror of the TS-990S' internal display at a paltry 800x600 resolution . In my opinion this is next to useless.
The radio also support four antennas. The antennas can be setup to automatically switch based on band. I personally only use one of the outputs as I use the antenna switcher on my Palstar antenna tuner
I have found the TS-990S receiver to be more than up to the job. It is extremely pleasant to listen to - especially for long periods of time. In addition the plethora of DSP and filtering options make it a power to with which to pull out weak signals. The radio also includes a secondary receiver that is essentailly the same receiver from the 590S. This is a fine receiver; however, I wish that Kenwood had made the second receiver the duplicate of the first receiver much like the Elecraft K3. This would make diversity receiving much more viable, and it is disappointing that the flagship radio wouldn't have this capability.
In my opinion much has been made about the Sherwood receiver tables and the TS-990S. As has been previously pointed out the tables are sorted by third order dynamic range narrow spaced. This is but one parameter of many that must be considered when purchasing a radio. Bob Sherwood himself will tell you that as long as your receiver's value is above 85dB it is good enough, and other numerous other aspects of the radio should be taken into account with regard the purchase.
The TS-990S has two noise reduction filters. NR1 and NR2. I find NR1 to be absolutely outstand for helping manage band noise. Conversely I find NR2 to be next to useless as it overprocess the signal. Unfortunately the TS-990S' Noise Blanking function leaves something to be desired. It works quite well when there is no signal present above the noise floor; however, one a signal stronger than the noise floor is present, the noise blanker quits working.
For further noise and spurious signal elimination, the radio offers a number of filters including:
- narrow and wide notch filter and an auto-notch filter
- 5 Roofing filters at 15kHz, 6kHz, 2.7kHz, 500Hz, and 250Hz. There is a slot for an additional roofing filter, though to date no one has yet produced one. The roofing filter can be manually or automatically selected by long-pressing the Fil/Sel button. This provides access to three RX filters profiles for which the Roofing, IF filter shape and AF filter width can be set. You can also set the Hi and low cutoffs for the passband for each of the three filter profiles.
- Band Elimination Filter that can change bandwidth and attenuation at the IF stage. The user can set the width and depth of the filter by long-pressing the BEF/SEL button. The width can be set from 300-1200Hz in 100Hz steps and the depth can be set from 20-80dB in 20dB steps. I find this to be a really powerful tool and have turned to it quite frequently.
- Two beat cancellers. One desgined to supress weak continous signals, and the other to supress intemittent signals.
Another highly valuable feature is the TS-990S' RX Equalizer. The equalizer function provides ae 6 built-in settings and three user settings. Operators have access to 18 bands to help customize the receive sound to their hearts content. This is really handy when using different speakers e.g. headphone vs external, as well as for different band conditions and operating modes.
Overall the radio makes it a breeze to pull out weak stations and to deal with strong adjacent signals, as well as noise on the band
Besides the excellent audio for which Kenwood is known, the TS-990S also provides some features to help the operator optimize his transmitted signal.
Out of the gate, the radio is capable of outputting 200W that is adjustable via a front plate pot. The main display also presents the current setting so you always know how much power the radio can be outputting at a glance.
Beyond that, in SSB mode, the are up to 3 TX filters available for each of which the high and low cutoff can be specified. So it is possible to have a narrower setup for contesting, a wider setup for rag chewing, and so on.
Additionally, there is a very capable TX Equalizer that mirrors the RX equalizer. The TX Equalizer provides the operator with 6 built-in setting and three user settings. As with the RX Equalizer, operators have access to 18 bands to help customize the receive sound to their hearts content. This makes it possible to customize audio output for different microphones and operating conditions.
The radio also includes a speech processor that compresses audio based on input and output parameters that are adjusted by means of two pots aptly named PROC-IN and PROC-OUT. In addition it is possible to adjust the effect of the processor by selecting either a "hard" or "soft" option. It is also possible to visualize amount of compression in dB on the radio's meters.
I should add that the sub-display will display a spectral graph of TX audio in transmit mode, as well, by pressing the RF/AF button the main display will present an audioscope and oscilloscope displaying the transmitted signal