WB3T - QRP
Bob Woish - Conshohocken, PA
QRP Since 1975 (Formerly WB3BBT / WR3K)
Rooster #1224 - Straight Key Century Club #2913
QRP Amateur Radio Club International #8090
East Coast Amateur Radio Club (ECARS) #30438
Flying Pigs QRP #2422
NAQCC Member #5365
G-QRP Club #14087
NorCal QRP Club
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Operating the Wilderness Sierra During the 2011 New England QSO Party
The Wilderness Radio Sierra
The perfect all-band 5-Watt Class Dream Machine QRP Transceiver
with all the bells and whistles.
The Sierra in final form. I used laser-printed waterslide decals to label the controls, pushbuttons, and analog meter I added to the front panel.
Includes memory keyer, qrpkits.com LED SWR monitor, front panel IF bandwidth control (ABX), drive control for Milliwatting, BuzzNot noise blanker, S/RF panel meter, and all band modules for 160 - 10 meters. This is my all-time favorite QRP radio as it offers the greatest band coverage, best filtering, and all around functionality of any QRP kit in the 5 Watt and under range. The ABX Filter is something every ham should experience! A similar circuit is used on the Elecraft KX-1 (see below).
I have upgraded the output device and at 14 Volts input, this runs 2.5 Watts on 10 meters, 3.8 Watts on 12 meters, and 4-5 Watts on all other HF bands plus 160. Harmonics are down 42 dB or better on all bands. I worked 17 countries and 33 states in the first month operating my Sierra. Recently I worked France with 870 mW on 17 meters.
Let me preface this section by saying that although these are extremely popular rigs, they are not my favorites. To me, QRP means minimalist. I know some of you will disagree with me, and that's OK, QRP should be whatever floats your boat and I respect that. However, to me QRP means under 5 Watts and the Elecraft K1 and K2 do not fit this category. The K2 runs up to 15 Watts. The K1 runs 7 Watts, and the K2 power budget is high as well, measured in Amps. The KX-1 is the only entry in the Elecraft family that even belongs in the under 5-Watt QRP community.
My KX-1 includes the 30 meter band module that Elecraft no longer offers. They do have a module that add the 30m and 80m bands. Installation, however, requires cutting the PC Board.
I like the KX-1 for its portability and completeness. On the expensive side, but if you're going to indulge in QRP, this is a nice radio. Mine has the internal ATU so with that, internal batteries, and the built-in memory keyer, your trail radio weighs little and performs much. DDS VFO, which means excellent frequency stability, even in hostile environments. The variable IF filter is a gem, very similar in design to the ABX Control on the Sierra. No surprise since both rigs were designed by the same guy!
This is a nice radio in a lot of ways but with some issues. I like the size and features. I like that it has four bands, but I wish it had more. I bought the extra 2-band board kit only to find that once you install the ATU and internal battery holder, it's a project changing boards. Elecraft advertises "both boards simply plug in... change band boards at any time," but plan to spend a half hour once you have added some other options that will be in the way. Nothing "simple" about it, THEY DO NOT SIMPLY PLUG IN!!! Use of the word "simply" here takes a certain amount of willingness to engage in unsubstantiated advertising blah blah. There is quite a bit of disassembly and re-assembly involved. In fact, it is such a difficult process that I would not try it in the field. Yes, you can change boards at any time, but do it at home where you won't lose your small screws, washers and standoffs in the grass. You'll need at least some basic tools along as well. Also keep in mind that Elecraft (wisely) recommends that you use a static mat and grounded wrist strap while working inside your K1 to prevent damage to sensitive components. I don't usually take these items to portable operating sites, but I suppose it would be fun trying to find a ground circuit out in the field! Just in case there isn't one handy, be sure to also take along an eight-foot ground rod, or void your warranty...
Wanting to avoid such an adventure, I called Elecraft to buy a bare K1 kit without filter board since I already have two and do not wish to perform surgery on my radio to change bands (even in the shack it is inconvenient). Since Elecraft at the time offered the K1 with either the 2-band or 4-band filter board, I thought I'd just order one with no filter board but Elecraft wouldn't do it. So now I have a 2-band board that is homeless. Elecraft didn't seem to care about that - they wanted to sell me another board I don't need. Hey they sold me a filter board without the chassis, so why not the other way? Not cool. Eric and Wayne are rolling in it now anyway - IMHO they have lost touch with the QRPer. I do know this from first-hand experience - if you need a part or any form of support and call Rex Harepr, or Bob Dyer, you get whatever you need. The same was true of Doug Hendricks and Dave Benson before they retired. Are all of the customer service oriented QRP companies going that-a-way?
Oh well, there are still a few left. I think it's time to try the qrpkits.com PFR-3. For less than the cost of the two-band K1, you get three bands, internal manual antenna tuner, and internal batteries that support 5-Watt output compared to the K1's 1 Watt while running on internal batteries. And if that isn't enough, you get a stable, reliable DDS VFO as opposed to the...
K1's analog VFO that is quite drifty. Not a good feature in a field radio that will be subjected to changing temperatures. Once built I noticed that it takes an hour for the drift to subside to a usable amount - my stock K1 drifted 1.1 kHz in the first hour at room temperature. Many emails to Elecraft produced no result - just some seemingly random suggestions like "boil the VFO coil." Perusing the Elecraft reflector board and user groups turned up some interesting facts - like the K1 drift is a well-known issue - yet Elecraft continues to advertise a 200 Hz/hour drift after a 5-minute warmup. Elecraft's advertised "Strong customer support" could not help. It took 30-plus years of engineering experience, many weeks of long-term drift testing (an hour after each change), and a good stock of capacitors of varying temperature coefficients to win that battle.
"Smooth tuning" is not at all smooth - it is rather gritty, in fact another known K1 problem is that the supplied tuning control squeaks, and there are fixes suggested in user groups for this by way of replacement of the tuning pot.
When I ordered the K1 ATU kit, it arrived without the relays (eight needed per kit), so I called them and sure enough they shipped promptly - ONE relay! So I had to call again... and wait again. Like before and since, their claim of "Strong customer support" led me to believe I was in good hands. Argh.
Touted by Elecraft a radio you'll never leave at home, I'd rather take along the DDS-controlled KX-1, or analog HW-Anything or Wilderness Sierra with mechanical VFO control. All are far more stable. I use the K1 as a convenient way to take ham radio with me from room to room and sometimes the yard - easy with a simple wire antenna and counterpoise since the tuner and batteries are built in... but it does stay home.
...solves the K1's frequency drift problem and the band board issue. This is an all-band DDS driven all-in-one portable station, but exceeds the QRP-Class power limit by a factor of three. At 15 Watts maximium it makes for a good Field Day rig, but at a premium price. Weak-signal receive sensitivity almost (but not quite) measures up to a basic HF transceiver (I used the FT-840 for comparison) but costs more. IF filtering is a real headache as there are complicated menus and user settings required to make the radio behave like a real HF transceiver. There is no IF Shift control like the ones found in even basic "Big Three" HF transceivers. The internal input voltage monitoring circuit is off by nearly a Volt (.8V) and there is no way to adjust it. Neither is there an adjustment for the incessantly disruptive "Low Voltage Alarm" that inaccurately warns that the battery source is running low.
This K2 was off frequency by 200 Hz, and carefully following the instructions in the manual does not correct this. In any other transceiver, there is a reference oscillator that can be easily adjusted to zero in on accurate frequency display, but the K2 requires an exhaustive, laborious set of THREE procedures that need to be executed to adjust the reference oscillator - even then it remains considerably off frequency. Additionally, all filters must then be reset, another tedious process.
There are plenty of other problems with the K2, for example the instructions for executing "CAL PLL" call for setting the VFO "anywhere in the 7000-7100 kHz range," but setting for 7.010 resulted in an error message (Info 232) that indicates "You must be set to 40 meters." It took me three hours to figure out that in reality mine needs to be set between 7050 and 7100. Meanwhile there was no response to this question from Elecraft tech support. This particular question, and the one regarding the alignment of the Reference Oscillator, went unanswered. I did a web search to find resolutions for these issues on my own.
The K2's ATU leaves something to be desired. Elecraft's claim that the K2 ATU will tune nearly any antenna on all bands was not realized in my K2. No matter what length of radiator I connected directly to the RF port, there was no single antenna that would work on all bands. Elecraft Tech Support tried and tried but to no avail. Gary even sent me his personal K2 ATU for comparison - after scrutinizing both units there was no physical difference, and no difference in performance - neither would tune all bands with a single antenna of any length. When Gary threw his hands in the air I asked for engineering support, and was told that the engineer no longer supports the K2 as he was working on new models. Due to this I will not buy a K3 or KX-3. What happens to enginnering support for them when the next new model comes out? Why did Elecraft sell me an item brand new that was no longer supported? Two years later, the ATU still doesn't work as advertised. The workaround, per Elecraft Tech Support - isolate the tuner from the antenna by using only a coax-fed antenna. This leaves the mismatch unresolved between the 50-Ohm impedance of the coax and the unknown impedance of the antenna that the internal tuner is supposed to match to in the first place! So you have an "impedance bump" (i.e. TRANSMISSION LOSS) at the interface of the coax and antenna. In addition, this is not a particularly trail-friendly antenna solution. Using the K2 in the field with my portable wire antenna does not work on all bands, no matter how I trim it or how I tune or arrange the radials or counterpoises. However with the internal ATU bypassed,my external MFJ antenna tuner has no problem tuning all bands.
Now I'm not going to tell you which radios to buy or not to buy, but personally I wish my Elecraft experience had begun and ended with the KX-1. The rest has been a very expensive disappointment. I have to say I have rarely if ever experienced such examples of consistently poor customer support and failure to meet advertised specifications and claims, especially at a price higher than I have ever paid for a radio before.
My Two Cents on Multiband QRP Radios of All Brands
I also personally believe that the "minimalist" nature of QRP means achieving the greateast challenges with the least resources. See Vintage QRP by Rich Arland, K7SZ - QST, September 2000, Page 94 - "Real QRP Rigs Are Green."
Any radio at a high price point should do great things or you just didn't get your money's worth. They say "Power is no substitute for skill," and I believe throwing kilobucks at it isn't either. It's no biggie to work DX with a $1,000 - $2,000-plus radio, at this price point such things are expected. Now earn a Thousand-Miles-Per Watt Award or DXCC with a 500-milliwatt $30 rig and you have my attention! My favorite DX contacts were made with my Tuna Tins and Rockmites, that's the "Wow Factor." I show up at the field with all the gear I need in the palm of my hand, including the antenna. (See Novelties for Tuna Tin and Rock Mite projects.)
For convenience, go ahead and spend a few bucks on a multibander, but try to remember the Spirit of QRP. Since the Sierra is no longer available and Heathkit is gone, affordable choices in multiband QRP rigs (under 5 Watts) with adequate customer support are few. Maybe take a look at the Icom and Yaesu HF multiband, multimode QRP transceivers.