Thursday, May 3, 2007

Elecraft K3 Transceiver

The Mighty K3 - My next rig.

I've had many a jones for many a radio since my last acquisition, the JST-245, over 10 years ago. First it was the FT-1000MP Mk.V, then the IC-756PROIII. But I waited. When the FT-2000 was released and I was certain that would be the one when I rebuilt my shack at the Closter QTH. Then Ten Tec announced the Omni VII, and I was sure that was the rig for me.

I've always admired Ten Tec, especially their Argonaut series which I lusted for as a young future-ham, but I never owned any of their gear - I always went for the extra bells and whistles of similarly priced Japanese rigs in the 80's and 90's. I had spent some quality time with their RX-325 receiver when I worked at Gilfer and found it a curious but uninspiring radio, a bit goofy to operate but a solid radio for it's price. Their Omni VI and Paragon transceivers in the 90's always looked a bit too 'homebrew' for me, plus the Omni VI was ham-band only. But I started to take notice when Ten Tec turned out a series of superb DSP-based receivers and transceivers - the RX-340, Jupiter, Orion, and Orion II - all of these really seemed to suggest that Ten Tec was no longer a niche-market player. Thus when the Omni VII was announced I felt compelled to put my FT-2000 purchase on hold.

The first Omni VII transceivers started shipping in February 2007. The reviews I've seen on eHam are all overwhelming positive. Rob Sherwood's lab tests show key performance results which exceed Ten Tec's claimed specs. The Omni VII brochure shows a radio which clearly resembles the 756PROIII - large color LCD screen in the center, tuning dial to the right with keypad above it, but lacking the PROIII's analog S-meter. There is a band scope that appears to be displayed at all times, and unlike the real-time scope of the PROIII, it does periodic sweeps. Compared to the PROIII it finishes a close second in the KB2YAN test ("Always buy the one with more buttons!"). Lets face it, the PROIII is just about the coolest looking radio on the market (well, except for it's big brother, the 7800). But the big difference is in the bits - by all accounts Ten Tec 's DSP software is far superior to anything coming out of Japan, and since receiver performance is of primary importance to me this tends to tip the scale in favor of the Omni VII.

The Omni VII's base price (with auto-tuner) is $2850.00. There are a few Collins CW filter options (500 Hz and 300 Hz) at $99.00 each, a cooling fan for $39.95, and the remote encoder/keypad for $139.00. Total = $3226.95.

I was finally settled on the Omni VII and ready to order it, when out of the blue Elecraft announces a new horse in the race - the K3. Under development for three years, the K3 is a DSP-based radio with a base price of $1749.00 (for the 100W version, unassembled; a 10W model starts at $1399), and a load of different options that allows one to configure it specifically to one's own taste. A summary of the K3 features and performance from the Elecraft web site:
K3/100 and K3/10 models (the K3/10 can be upgraded very easily, internally, to a K3/100)

Basic K3 price ranges from $1399 to $1989 depending on whether you start with the 10-watt or 100-watt model, and whether you choose factory assembled or modular, no-soldering, kit (this is the subject of the next email).

Desktop/portable size: 4"H x 10"W x 10"D (10 x 25 x 25 cm) -- optimized for both home and travel use

All modes (SSB, CW, DATA, AM, FM, plus AM-sync receive, and built-in PSK31/TTY decoder)

High-dynamic range, down-conversion architecture, plus 32-bit I.F. DSP for software-defined capabilities (and lots of room for future expansion)

Optional subreceiver with *identical* performance to the main receiver, including a fully independent front end, its own set of roofing filters, its own DSP, and low-noise synthesizer; binaural or combined receiver audio

Up to five crystal roofing filters *per receiver*, with bandwidths as narrow as 200 Hz

Narrow ham-band filtering, plus optional general-coverage receive filters (can be added to either or both receivers)

Internal 100-W ATU option with two antenna jacks

100 W PA module includes two large fans, circuit breaker, full parameter monitoring

All signal sources phase-locked to common 49.380 MHz reference oscillator; 1 PPM TCXO option, firmware-corrected to better than 0.5 PPM

Built-in PSK31, RTTY, and CW decoding and display allows use of digital modes with or *without* a computer; use CW keyer paddle or attached computer for casual, two-way data QSOs

Advanced noise reduction; auto- and manual notch. Noise blanker included (both I.F. hardware pulse blanker and DSP noise blanking)

Easy-to-use DSP shift/width and locut/hicut controls with automatic crystal filter selection based on selected passband width (in real-time -- no filter calculation delays)

Dedicated CW/voice message buttons; optional digital voice recorder

100 general frequency memories with alphanumeric text labeling, plus 4 scratchpad memories per band

Full-custom, optimized, segmented LCD with two VFO displays, alphanumeric text, and dedicated filter passband graphic

Rich I/O set: stereo speaker outputs, fully isolated soundcard interface, dedicated RS-232 I/O (and optional USB adapter), receive antenna in/out jacks (for patching in RX filters, etc.), and both front- and rear-panel mic and headphone jacks

One-click PC firmware download program checks for updates automatically and quickly updates microcontroller and DSP firmware
As I was prepared to spend $4000+ for a loaded FT-2000, I decided to price out a fairly loaded K3 just for giggles. Here's how it looks:
  • K3/100 Transceiver: $1749.00
    Basic 100W radio with single receiver.

  • KAT3 Automatic Antenna Tuner: $259.00
    According to Elecraft it will handle 2:1 SWR at full power, but as much as a 20:1 mismatch at QRP levels. Expensive, but probably useful.

  • KRX3 2nd RX Module: $539.00
    Gotta have this. Not just a scaled-down "dual-watch" receiver like that found in the 756PRROIII which shares circuitry with the main RX, but a true second receiver with its own DSP circuitry and filters, a la IC-7800 and Orion, making the K3 a serious contest/DX machine.

  • KBPF3 Gen. Cov. RX Module: $99.00/ea (x 2 = $198.00)
    As explained by N6KR:
    "The basic radio, as well as the subreceiver, have a full array of ham-band-only filters at the front end. This is to ensure excellent performance in the ham bands. These filters are switched in by means of relays. The KBPF3 option is a small plug-in module that sits above the ham-band filters. It, too, has a number of filters switched in by relays. The difference is that these are wider filters, covering all of the area between the ham bands. But they share the same input/output path as the ham-band filters. When not selected, the GC filters have absolutely no effect on performance, thanks to a very careful layout that minimizes trace lengths. When you tune the radio well outside the ham bands, an appropriate GC filter is automatically selected by firmware."
    Need two of these, one for each receiver. Did I mention this thing has Synchronous AM Detection?

  • KFL3A-2.8K 2.8 kHz, 8 pole filter: $120.00 (x 2 = $240.00)
    Pair of wide SSB filters, which work with the variable bandwidth control and act a roofing filters.

  • KFL3A-400 400 Hz, 8 pole filter: $120.00 (x 2 = $240.00)
    Same deal as above. I chose 8-pole 400 Hz over 5-pole 500 Hz.

  • KFL3A-6K 6 kHz, 8 pole filter: $120.00 (x 2 = $240.00)
    Need to have good roofing filters for SWBC use.

  • KTCXO3-1 TCXO: $99.00
    High-stability crystal oscillator (1ppm f/w corr. to 0.5 ppm.). I'm sure I won't really need this, but what the hell - I'm already broke.
Total for this configuration is $3564.00, just a bit more than the Omni VII, and a whole lot less than a tricked-out FT-2000. For a radio that, on paper at least, looks to give the IC-7800 and FTDX-9000 a run for the money, it's a no-brainer. While it doesn't have the LCD and bandscope of the YaeCom rigs, Elecraft has stated that a panoramic display unit will be produced later this year.

Took me about 10 minutes to decide to take the plunge and order the K3 as equipped above.

People on the various forums are already complaining about the price, about the fact that it's "modular" assembly and not a full-blown soldering job to build it, about the fact that Elecraft has lost it's charm, and a plethora of other gripes. Give me a break! If you want to build a kit, buy a K2 (or K1 or KX1)! If you don't want to buy a $3500 radio, just buy the basic model - it will probably run circles around anything else in it's price class, though there will be a trade-off between features and performance. I simply love the fact that Elecraft lets you buy as much radio as you need or can afford. Shit, I'd even make the transmitter section optional; this thing would make a killer receiver for SWL's and fill a niche in a market that is void since the disappearance of JRC and Drake.

There's also been much talk on the Elecraft reflector regarding filters - whether the optional filters are needed or not. I decided to order the filters (400 Hz, 2.8 kHz and 6.0 kHz, one of each for main and sub receivers) to cover my basic needs (CW, SSB and AM). And there's room for two more on each receiver if I want, say, the 1.o kHz for RTTY and maybe another narrow SSB filter later on. One thing I've learned over the years is get your filter while they're available - if I didn't load up the JST-245 early on, I'd be out of luck if I wanted to do so now. WA6HHQ has a nice summation of the K3 filter philosophy on the Elecraft site which supports my choice of filters:
My personal real-world operating -basic- filter recommendations? In a nutshell:

SSB: 2.7 kHz or 2.8 kHz

CW/DATA: 400Hz or 500Hz (Narrower for Data if you prefer)

AM: 6 kHz (and for wider SSB TX, we can select which filter you TX through and limit SSB b/w in the K3's DSP)

So the trigger is pulled, the order placed, a 50% deposit check is in the mail ensuring me a first-run unit, and the wait is on - the K3 is scheduled to ship in July, by which time I will be comfortably (!) settled at the Closter QTH and back on the air.

It admittedly takes a leap of faith to commit kilobucks to what is essentially vaporware, but I am impressed and comforted by Elecraft's track record, and the attention paid to customer by the design team (Wayne N6KR, Eric WA6HHQ, and Lyle KK7P) on the Elecraft reflector. It would be remarkable if this radio does not live up to expectations. I don't necessarily feel like I'm rolling the dice here.

As for the Omni VII, I'm not sure that there won't be one in my shack in the future. I really like that radio, and were it not for the timing of the announcement of the K3 I might have ordered it already.