Friday, February 14, 2014

K3 vs. TS-590 - Initial Impressions

As you recall from the last post, this contest was going to be the testing grounds for a head-to-head comparison of a loaded K3 versus a stock TS-590.  These are the results of that test.

Thursday pre-contest
I picked up the 590 from Dan, WB0LJK, and ran home to really see how she worked.  First impressions on the fit and finish of the radio were positive.  The buttons and knobs feel good, a certain elegance to the look of the radio.  In comparison to Elecraft's offerings, the TS-590 has a less utilitarian feel, and I still think the K3 is a more rugged radio, when you consider the all-metal chassis and lighter overall weight.  Yes, Elecraft's knobs are cheap, but that means when you break one out on some God forsaken island, it won't break the bank to repair either.

I personally find Elecraft's displays to be very good - they're very easy to read and all the stuff you want to see is available without asking a menu item, and the VFO B display is a nice addition that shows the time, power supply voltage etc.  The 590 display is largely uncluttered, but almost too empty.  There's a lot of unused space when operating in simplex mode.  In split, the 2nd VFO shows in the empty space but there's no reason for it to not show in simplex mode.  There may be a menu setting to modify.  On this topic, the nod easily goes to the Elecraft rigs.  

Moving to the operation of the radio.  I went at this without really looking at the manual, and found the operation to be pretty straightforward.  Changing modes is by direct entry, which is definitely preferred to Elecraft's method of cycling through modes.  Dan is primarily a voice operator, so I had to set up all the CW options on my own.  Changing the break-in delay and keyer speed are pretty straightforward, although I wish there were dedicated controls for keyer speed like I have on the KX3.  When working weak stations, changing keyer speed is nice to have at hand.  Not a deal breaker though.  Finally, I was ready to put some RF out and low and behold, those T/R relays are loud!  I knew I'd have a different QSK experience than I was used to, but this was loud.  A few quick tweets and it became clear there was a setting out of order.  It turns out when you have the amp keying relay enabled, the T/R switch goes from a nice quiet one to a big loud one!  Once we got that straightened out, the QSK was actually fairly pleasant, for relay switched T/R anyway.  Certainly not objectionable, just something I'd have to get used to.

The menu system on the 590 is just as extensive as the K3 and equally challenging to navigate.  The menu options are grouped by "topic" which helps navigation somewhat.  For instance, you'll find all the CW keyer options together, and all the USB options together, and so on.  The menu items are numbered as well, which makes referencing the menu items quick too.  On Elecraft radios, the menu items are in alphabetical order.  I think I prefer the 590's method better but realistically, you don't have to access the menus for much.  Like the K3, the 590 has 2 programmable function keys which I think can do just about anything.  I know Dan has one set up to transmit a 30w carrier to tune his remote auto tuner.  Unfortunately the 590 places the settings for sidetone volume and pitch in the menus, rather than the front panel.  Varying sidetone volume is not something I do a lot, but it is still far more convenient to have it on the front panel.  It should be shared with the TX monitor option which is on the front panel of the 590.  Again, not a deal breaker.

Speaking of the auto tuner - it is very quick to tune, and seems to do a fine job so far.  On 40m, my dipole has a fairly high SWR (its a little long I guess) and the tuner snapped to a 1:1 SWR in less than a second.  Much faster than the KX3's tuner.  I don't have any high impedance loads so I don't know how well it does with high SWR.  The dual antenna ports are nice though, and the radio remembers what port each band is on so you don't have to worry about going from 12m to 40m and transmitting into your beam on 40m.  The K3 with the ATU option does this too of course, but remember this is standard on the 590!

Front panel controls are well thought out and the layout is good.  One of the nicest features is the 3 memories for each band.  Just hit the band button multiple times to quickly jump around the band.  For example, you can have the first one set at 14.060 for QRP work, hit the "14" again, and the radio will jump to 14.200, and another tap can put you at 14.300.  Makes it really nice for moving around the band quickly.  I believe these are user set values, but I'd have to look at the manual to find out how.  The 590 makes a lot of use of its "MULTI" knob for many of the front panel adjustments, including power, keyer speed, and break-in delay.  Unfortunately it cannot be used to control VFO B when operating split.  This makes split operation essentially a 2 hand operation since you have to hold a button and spin the VFO to tune VFO B.  It doesn't take much work to figure out a one-handed position to do it, but I would still prefer having a separate control.  This is just another nuisance.

Passband tuning and filter width are concentric knobs as they are on most radios.  Being used to a single knob like on my KX3, I often found myself changing the passband tuning, rather than adjusting the filter width like I wanted.  I found a S9+60dB signal on 40m and with the filter set at 500 Hz, tuned away until I could not hear him.  At 500 Hz away, he was silent, with no phase noise present at all.  Even at reduced bandwidths, when moving closer, phase noise was audible, at about an S4-5 level.  Still the DSP was working quite well.  Hundreds of S9+ signals during the contest will really test this aspect of the receiver performance.

Initial impressions of receiver performance are certainly favorable.  The weekly 80m QRP Foxhunt was going on which always offers plenty of weak signals which I could use to test the weak signal performance.  I quickly found the first fox in Wisconsin, who was 10 over 9, and quickly worked him.  I then found the second fox, who was in NH.  This is a long haul for my antenna which is only at 30 feet.  He was very weak but certainly readable with QSB.  The noise reduction settings were very effective and I found NR2 to be the best for weak CW signals.  There was little degradation of the desired signal while maintaining a noticeable reduction in band noise.  Running with the AGC off helped pull the signal from the noise.  Unfortunately I was unable to work him but I would say the 590 at least matched the weak signal performance of the KX3 in this brief test.

Next I set up the USB audio card to run some JT-65.  As I mentioned earlier, all of the USB settings are in the same part of the menu, but I still had to consult the manual to figure out exactly what each setting did.  Using the latest version of WSJT-X, you simply select the USB audio card in the preferences and adjust the computer and rig's audio levels for optimum operation.  It takes some time to get things working correctly but once you have it set up, you won't have to touch it again, which is nice.  For some reason I couldn't get the audio from my Mac to output to the radio but using the Win version of the app (running in Parallels) worked fine.  I'm sure I have something set incorrectly.  The 590 keys on VOX on digital which means you can keep the rig control set up on your logger without having to switch between the apps controlling your radio.  This isn't a big problem if you use HRD on Windows since it has its own control output, but on OS X, there's no way to duplicate COM ports.  I still have not figured out how to do the dual receive of JT-65 and JT-9, but that is a low priority thing for me anyway.  I understand it can be done with the 590 though.

I spent the rest of the evening playing around and chasing DX.  I even worked an all time new one, bringing my DXCC count to 191 worked.

Stay tuned for a post-contest update!

tl;dr Some ergonomic drawbacks, but performance admirable so far