Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Where is the good 2 metre rig?

Greetings all, I have been reshuffling, as I so often do.

I tend to work out what is the limiting factor in my station and try to deal with that first. So it could be co-ax, it could be height of antenna, it could be rig or it could be software or computers. Gradually I have got on top of most of the issues and I am pretty happy with the general shape of things.

We now have superb aids to communication. WSJT-X, for instance, or SolarHam, DXMAPS, or real-time magnetometer readings. If we cannot anticipate conditions, at least we can manage them to our advantage.

When it comes to transmitting hardware, there is one band which troubles me. Good old 2 metres.  2 metres was my starting point in amateur radio transmitting, over 40 years ago. My good old EMSAC TX2, with its QQV0-320 valve in the final glowing purple, got me all round London in my early days. Since then rigs in general have improved out of all recognition, but 2m now seems to be a forgotten area.

A few years ago I borrowed an Icom IC-910 to see how it felt to use a modern purpose-built VHF rig. I hated it. It was noisy and apart from having a high power output, it did not really offer much more than the transverter and HF rig I had at the time. I had it for three or four months, during which I worked my best DX from here (into Belarus), but that was all it had to offer.

After the IC-910 went out of production there were no purpose-built VHF rigs left on the market. Instead, if you want to use 2m SSB you have two alternatives:-

1) use an HF rig and a transverter, or

2) use a multi-band rig with VHF.

Option 1 is well tried and tested by me. In the 1970s I used an HF rig and an SSM transverter. It had a QQV0-640 in the final and it ran 80 watts - which was pretty impressive at the time. With my FT-101E it performed very well. I must have had 10 transverters over the years.

The idea behind a transverter is that it both converts your transmitted signal up to VHF, but it also converts the received signals back down and presents it as a tuneable intermediate frequency. This allows you to do things like install an SDR receiver into the receive line and get a panoramic display of the band. That was pretty well the set-up I had for 4 metres until recently, latterly a Flex 1500 transceiver with an ME4T-Pro transverter, and a Fun Cube Dongle for good measure. I still have the ME4T-Pro as a back up.

The joy of this set-up is that the transverter can designed for just one band, with optimised filters and lovely low noise mixers. The results can be brilliant when using a really good HF receiver. Usually the IF is 28 to 30MHz, though 14 to 16 MHz might suit me better as I use 28MHz a lot. In fact, just such a transverter exists in the shape of the ME2T-Pro.

Option 2 seems easier. Just buy one of the all-in-one rigs which cover 2 metres.Simple. Except that it isn't obvious what to do to get value for money. I already have one of these, my IC-7100. it is fine for FM and D-Star on 2m but it is not a great 2m DX rig. Let us face it, it is a mobile rig.

There are several of the IC-7100 type rigs around, (for example FT-857, FT817 and the former FT-897). It is very convenient for someone who is principally an HF operator to use one of these to chat to their friends on VHF or even UHF. For repeaters, great. For DX, well I am not thrilled by this type of package.

So what I think I want is a better receiver and transmitter boxed up with good VHF performance. The answer to this is the IC-9100. This takes the performance of several higher-grade Icom products, and merges them into the concept of the IC-910. It has been said that it is an IC-910 with an IC-7410 on the HF end. So what is the problem? £2,800 is the problem. I am sure it would give me excellent performance, but the price is eye-watering.

This challenges my whole approach to amateur radio. I do not want a big expensive rig, I want several to tinker about on several bands at once.

Then if you take one step down the ladder you find a rig less than half the price of the IC-9100, the Yaesu FT-991. This rig had a doubtful start, with many reports of poor performance and burned out finals. Once these issues were sorted out, the later models seem to get good reports. With the latest version (991A) you get a real-time spectrum scope (though the previous display looked good enough to me). Price £1,200, and now offered with a three year guarantee!

The FT-991 is not a competition grade rig like the IC-9100. Nor is it a mobile rig with bolt-on VHF. It fits in the ultra-competitive bulk market where I like to buy my rigs. Price competition and volume sales in this sector mean you get good value for money, at the cost of losing the up-market fancy stuff. The FT-991 is dogged by memories of its unreliable start onto the market and suggestions of excessive phase noise on its transmissions. Has all this really been sorted out?

What I would like is something half-way between the two, improving 2m performance but still affordable. And ideally, not something that covers aircraft bands and FM broadcasts, as including those things tends to weaken performance on 2 metres.

Other rigs in the HF + VHF segment all appear to be old designs or flawed in some other way.

So there we have it ... transverter, or really good expensive rig, or a rather doubtful general purpose rig?

I am just going to leave it for now.

All I am trying to do here is to improve on my current 6m/2m rig, the IC-7100. Good as it is, it does not do 2m justice for DX, especially with the limitations of my site. I want a rig for those bands which does a bit better than a mobile rig. Then I will probably find out that the rig is not the limiting factor for 2m after all.

How important is this for me? Just to prove that 2m DX matters, I have taken down my 2m yagi. I have moved the IC-7100 over to 2m and 70cm FM (and D-Star!!!), plus occasional forays onto HF where the FT-817 lacks power. The FT-450 can do 6m for now.
The IC-7100, at home on FM, but on a higher frequency than it is used to
So I am going to sit it out. If I pine for 2m SSB  I will do something about it. If I don't miss it, then so be it.

I am all set up. All it will take will be for me to replace the FT-450 with the right combination for 6m and 2m. Or, maybe, just leave things as they are.





  1. Sorry to hear you have taken the 2m beam down Jim. Even a poor setup is better than nothing. I was hoping that you would be leading the advance in 2m ms using MSK144. Mind you this is the doldrums of the year on 2m ms so you might not be missing much. I don't know the answer to your quandary, it all depends on how much 2m matters to you and what features you need/desire. I don't think that the rig is going to make as much difference to the capability of the station as you imagine, so it is down to personal preferences of ergonomics. I know I hate using my FT-736R on 70cm SSB/CW and can't wait to get my transverter going with a rig that has the features I am now used to on other bands with the IC-7300 and KX3. Hope that the winds have not done any damage to the new mast and antenna. See you on the bands soon.

  2. Jim, I share your frustrations. I sold an FT-847 about 7 or 8 years ago and bitterly regret it, whilst not perfect it was a nice radio.

    Now there is nothing, I too have looked at the IC9100 but for that money I want a band scope too! I am currently transverting from an IC-756pro2 but for portable work it is a right guddle with all the cables from transverter to the radio.

    Last night I was looking at the TS590SG as it has a transverter socket and you can put in an SDR module so as to have a bandscope, but only if you aren't transverting - aargh!

    So I will stick with what I have at the moment.


  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Posted twice by mistake....hence the deletion.