I find it hard to know where to pitch my review of the IC-9700.
|IC-9700 at GM4FVM in single receiver mode.|
There are quite a few reviews on the Internet. Many of these seem to come from either retailers who want to sell you one, or those "opening the box" type articles. Both of these seem to have missed the point when it comes to actually using the thing, which is where I am trying to pitch this posting.
There are also some reviews which seem to originate from one individual who appears to have a very cosy relationship with Icom. I have no relationship with Icom other than as a customer. I am not an Icom fan, and the only reason I have Icom equipment is that it seems to meet my needs in certain areas. If anybody else made something suitable, then I would try that. Over the years I have had Yaesu, Kenwood, Flex, ... you name it. I am what the marketers call a "brand tart", someone who has no brand loyalty. Why should I be loyal to them?
I should say early on that I do not use amateur satellites or DStar digital voice mode. I cannot test this radio for those uses and therefore if that is your main interest maybe some other review would be better for you.
1: So what is it?
The IC-9700 is a multi mode (FM, SSB, CW, AM, DStar DV, various data), three band (2m, 70cms, 23cms), transceiver using mostly software defined radio techniques.
I am not going to try to set out a technical review. Not only do I not have enough test equipment, but also it has been done elsewhere. There was a four page review in the RSGB magazine Rad Com in September 2019. That was fairly soul-less, but it has the data in it, so look at that if you need the hard facts.
A much better review for an operator to consider would be this one which appeared in Practical Wireless magazine:-
Note that the review at the above link was written before the firmware update which allowed the 10MHz frequency standard input to automatically control the frequency and thus resolve the drift issue.
This article correctly pointed out that I might not understand the full implications of the Nyquist frequency. For a Software Defined Radio ("SDR") like the IC-9700 or the IC-7300, I understood that the Nyquist frequency was twice the highest operating frequency - so in the case of a radio covering up to 52MHz this would be at least 104MHz. that would mean that the clock in the sampling oscillator would need to run at at least 104MHz. It is possible to go slightly beyond the Nyquist limit, in other words, to operate the radio beyond half the clock sampling frequency but at reduced efficiency, a fact which the IC-7300 uses to cover up to 72MHz in European models.
So, with the difficulty of getting stable oscillators at a reasonable (amateur) price beyond a couple of hundred megahertz, difficulty which increases the higher you need to go, it seemed to me that there was no prospect of an amateur VHF SDR in the near future. But I was just ignorant of the facts (not for the first time, Jim). As G4DDK explains in his review, you only need to raise the clock frequency high enough to cover the range of frequencies the radio operates at, not the absolute frequency. So the trick used by Icom is to offer the IC-9700 without general coverage between the amateur bands. This reduces the ranges to 2MHz (for 2m), 10MHz (for 70cm) and 30MHz (for 23cms), which can all be covered by a clock oscillator speed similar to a standard HF radio.
2: The benefits of being an SDR...
The general idea behind an SDR is that most of the processes inside the radio are defined in software, which means that you can change them at will. There are of course some things that Icom will reserve to themselves, and which you cannot change - this is to meet their regulatory requirements, or for commercial reasons about not letting their secrets out. How easy it is to change these things is something which Icom seem to be getting good at. With the arrival of the IC-7300, and further developed in later rigs, the touch sensitive screen is exploited to make changing those many aspects easier.
|The main display on the IC-9700, single RX, spectrum scope showing +-100kHz|
For a simple example, take mic gain. Suppose you want to change it. You just have to press the "Multi" button and up on the screen comes a display showing RF Power as well as Mic Gain (showing the current level of Mic Gain, 38%, as I write this).
|IC-9700 display showing mic gain level ready to be altered|
The clever thing then is that you just press the Mic Gain area showing on the screen, it is highlighted, and then turning the Multi control will alter the Mic Gain. I can raise it or lower it. This is very user-friendly. You don't have to plough through menus - when Mic Gain is showing all you do it highlight it and you can change it. The same knob (Multi) selects the display - push - as changes the level - turn. Very sensible ergonomically.
And this approach extends to the more complex settings. Sure, as you get further away from the few settings you use all the time (Mic Level, RF Power etc) you move into some menus. However, these are easier to navigate thanks to the touch screen. Pass band tuning, for example, it shown up graphically on the touch screen by pressing the "PBT" button.
|IC-9700 PBT display ("Pass band tuning").|
You can then see the exact alignment of the pass band tuning filters. If you then press the display on the filter area and turn the Multi button, not only do you move the passband filter, but you can see the result immediately on the screen.
|Adjusting IC-9700 PBT filters|
What I am trying to get over here is how simple the process is to use and how natural it all appears to the operator. In reality, at the heart of the SDR, there is no pass band tuning in hardware sense. You are looking at a representation of two filters, and the radio behaves as if there are two filters, but the whole thing is done in software. To the operator, you get the display, and you do not need to worry about how it is done.
This approach is common in SDRs, but with the IC-9700 the ease with which you interact with the radio has been brought to a high level of simplicity. The buttons, the knobs and the display all work together seemlessly. My Flex 1500, which had similar features required a lot of fiddling with the computer to access them - with the IC-9700 a radio with knobs and displays working in an integrated way is vastly more user friendly.
To take another example, but one which I will not illustrate, we could discuss the notch filter. Press the dedicated button "Notch" once and the display shows the message "AN" (automatic notch). Press it again and you see "MN" for manual notch, and in my case also "NAR" meaning narrow. Press and hold the Notch button and a familiar bar display appears at the right hand side of the screen - rather like the one for RF Power and Mic Gain, but this time showing Notch - Position and Width. With the Position highlighted turning the Multi knob moves the notch filter and also moves the graphical representation of the notch. This means that you can see the notch in your passband and move it accordingly. Touching "Width" on the right hand side display cycles between Narrow, Mid or Wide notch. You can adjust that and then press the bottom of the screen to return to normal display.
I find this notch adjustment very useful indeed. Sometimes on VHF some very strong local signal will appear inside the data mode passband of my receiver. In narrow setting I can notch it out. Not only can I hear the effect of the notch, I can see on the display where the notch is. It might seem obvious, but somebody has spent time making the interface so naturally user-friendly that it just disappears from the operator's consciousness.
Another aspect of SDR is the ability to alter the characteristics of the filters themselves. We have been able to use radios with digital signal processing for several years. This has allowed us to have digital filters like this for some time. But now with (more or less) fully SDR radios like the IC-9700 the whole filtering processs is done in software which is integrated with the entire signal path. At the same time, the complexity of the software has developed to the stage that we are not just turning things on or off, but can change almost every aspect of them on the radio itself and not via an attached computer.
Not only can we alter the notch and the filter width, we can alter the slope of the filter edges. The IC-9700 allows you to choose between "soft" and "sharp" filtering. How simpler could it be? Just press the screen on the FIL (filter 1 in my case) and up comes a screen showing the filter in use and you can change between filters and sharp versus soft. Not only is that set for the settings you are using, but there are different settings available, for mode. In my case, FIL1 is set for 3.0kHz soft for data (USB-DATA mode) and 2.4kHz sharp for SSB (USB mode), and the filters change as necessary as I change mode.
|IC-9700 filter settings for data ("SSB-D") for filter 1 (FIL1)|
Why would I want to change between soft and sharp, or one filter and another? Well, between data and voice in my case. And the IC-9700 will remember that choice on each band and switch between. So you customise each of the three filters and select which one to use on any band and mode. Actually, I prefer soft, generally, but I do use 3.0kHz on data and 2.4kHz on SSB. Set it up and forget it because the 9700 does the remembering.
Lest we forget how far we have come here, buying a radio used to involve working out which filter we would be likely to need, and then buying it as an expensive add-on. You might only have room for one more (with the FT-817 you choice was very limited). Needless to say, you got somebody else's idea of whether you needed soft or sharp filtering. I remember buying an expensive CW filter for my FT101 (+ 2m transverter), and an equally pricey "SSB" filter for my FT-817 to use with data modes. Now with this IC-9700 I have a wide range of filters which are easily configured and structured seemlessly into the digital structure of the radio. Not only can you configure lots of settings, but you can often see on the screen exactly what you are doing. SDRs are now delivering the ability to be customised we were promised, in a single box VHF/UHF rig, and in a seemless, user friendly, way.
You have even more choice on the PBT front too. There are, in fact, two Pass Band Tuners to choose from - PBT1 and PBT2. You can customise them and select between them.
The layout of buttons and knobs on the IC-9700 is similar to the IC-7300. Most of the functions are similar too. However, to cope with the fact that the IC-9700 has two separate receivers some changes have had to be made. The IC-7300 has a dedicated pass band tuning control, whereas on the IC-9700 there is a PBT button and after that you use the multi button instead. That is the only drawback I can see to the different layout - and maybe many users never alter the PBT. Also, as there is no auto tuner in the IC-9700, that button is used for CALL/DR for DStar.
So you have buttons for Power, Transmit, Call/DR, VOX/Bk-In, PreAmp/Att, Notch, Noise Blanker, Noise Reduction, Menu, Function, M. Scope (shuttles display settings), Quick (often used settings) Exit, RIT, kHz/M-Ch, Split, A/B (VFO), VFO/Memory, Scan, Tone/Rx-CS, Memory Pad, AFC/Auto Tune, Speech/Lock. I hope I have made these as self-explanatory as I can as it would take an age to define them all. The basic manual is 96 pages and the advanced manual is 173 pages, and I am not about to repeat all that here.
The knobs are for
1) Main: AF, RF/Sql (concentric), select main/sub (press),
2) Sub: AF,RF/Sql, (concentric), sub on/off (press)
3) Multi (turn) Clear (press)/
Obviously the touch screen can be used for many things, often after the appropriate button has been pressed to activate changes.
With that array of buttons and knobs you can see that you have a wide array of things to keep you busy. As I have been droning on about, during the early implementation of amateur SDRs a lot of this was only alterable using the attached computer, whereas the IC-9700 can operate as a free standing radio. You can alter just about everything you need in settings and leave the computer (if you use one) to run data software.
The wheel has gone full circle. That Flex 1500 I keep talking about had one switch - on/off - and everything else was adjusted in the computer. The Icom IC-9700 has all the switches and knobs you are likely to need. The designers of those early SDRs thought we would enjoy using our computers to access the rig, but we amateurs thought differently. Now Flex sell (expensive) computers to act as front panels for their radios. Perhaps they forgot how important human/ machine interfaces are to our construction of a meaningful operating environment. To sum up - we wanted the knobs back. So radios become more like computers, and took back the processing from the PC, and better chips and technology helped that along.
You only have to look at the IC-9700 and its great big VFO knob to see that the designers of SDRs have got the message. As Kenneth Horne often said in "Round the Horne", there is nothing quite as satisfying as a great big knob. Or he said something like that anyway.
And finally, a key advantage of an SDR is that the nice folk at Icom can make available firmware updates to fix any glitches which come to light. This means that the old way (if you bought an early rig you bought problems which were fixed for those who bought later ones) should be abandoned, and our expensive radios should be upgradeable. And so it proves (see later).
3: .. and how is it not totally an SDR after all.
For all the SDR credentials the IC-9700 has, it is not entirely an SDR. In perfect form, an SDR would convert incoming RF at the earliest stage into digital information, then process it as a digital data stream before either converting it back to analogue for output on a loudspeaker or shipping it off as a data stream to be decoded as FT8 or whatever in our computers. And the reverse would happen on transmit.
The IC-9700 meets that ideal in most respects, but not on the 23cms band. In the case of 23cms there is an intermediate frequency at 311-371MHz (for the European model, varies for other markets). So in that case the radio does not convert to digital directly at 23cms, but in the IF range. Am I bovvered? No. It is a little bit of superhetrodyne- type twiddling to allow a radio to cover the three bands, and seems logical to me.
It is a bit as if we are using an SDR to tune the IF produced by a transverter. Ignoring the fact that this is also like the execrable Liner 2 (with a CB radio rather than an SDR in that case, but the same idea to extend a simpler transceiver to a higher frequency range without having to complicate the basic rig), why not? If we have to wait for SDR technology to make the whole radio general coverage from DC to 1300MHz, plus make it affordable, it will take a while. There have to be some trade-offs, and I can accept losing general coverage and full-SDR ability to give me something which works.
Not quite being a full SDR is a fact, but not a very significant one to me.
Incidentally, before I had the IC-9700 I was using an IC-7300 and a transverter on the 2m band. This was a great combination. Now I have the IC-9700. I took out the IC-7300 and slotted in the IC-9700. For a while I used the 9700 only on 2m. Frankly, I hardly noticed the difference in operating terms. Tuning a transverter with an SDR might not be technically perfect, but it was better for me than tuning a transverter with a superhet.
Issues are things which are not problems, just irritants, things to get used to, etc. Things that bug me about this radio.
As I said, changing over from the IC-7300 and transverter combination to the IC-9700 went almost un-noticed. The low-noise quality of the SDR all- the- way showed through.
The biggest issue from an operational point of view was, oddly, the second receiver. What seems like an unqualified benefit actually worked out a bit hard to get used to.
I am something of a dinosaur with radios. Rather than use expensive ones with multiple receivers, I have used two simpler radios which just had one receiver each.
Now I have an IC-9700 which has two receivers. To shoe-horn the two receiver details onto the display, the Icom designers have to let something go somewhere.
|IC-9700 display with both receiver turned on.|
When you are using both receivers you get to two frequencies displayed on the screen. You can select either VFO (in which case the other is greyed out) and change the frequency for that one using the VFO knob. You can only transmit on the main one - the top one.
So let us say that I am listening to the GB3NGI beacons on 144.482 and 1296.905. Both beacons can be heard because each receiver has its own audio gain control. You can switch the VFOs between the "main" receiver (top) and the "sub" receiver (bottom) just by pressing the top AF control (marked M/S) for 1 second.
Switching between main and sub (or rather swopping the VFO frequencies between them), is handy for, say, when you are monitoring another band and decide you want to go there and call somebody. Not beacons of course, but other stations.
There are two COM ports created when you plug the USB lead into a computer, but the second one is for GPS data to be used with DStar digital voice mode.
There is no "CAT" type output from the sub VFO. I wasn't really expecting a two receiver radio to allow separate CAT control of sub-bands, though I believe that the ELAD FDM-DUO does (with up to 9 receivers!!!). So I am not too disappointed with this. It would be VERY handy to have. After all, in these data-mode days it is hardly surprising that we might like to decode signals as well as listen to them.
So that is an issue but not really a big thing for me. Neither is the fact that you cannot run the two receivers on the same band. It might be very handy during a contest to leave one receiver on a station who is busy working others, and then listen to them in the background while you pursue other DX until you can call in. Sure, you can do that by putting the frequency into VFO A while working on VFO B, and then switch between them. However, you switch between, you cannot listen on two frequencies within the same band.
I see that issue, but it is not a deal breaker for me.
A spin off from not being able to set the same frequency band on both receivers is that when you have both receivers working you cannot, say, leave the main receiver decoding 2m FT8, go to 1296 to listen on the sub, and then nip across to check something on the 2m band on the sub receiver. As only the main receiver outputs data, you cannot swap that with the sub without losing the data stream.
If you don't use data modes most of these issues do not pose major problems. But only having one data stream out, and only allowing the two receivers to operate on different bands, can produce the need to apply weird patterns of juggling between VFOs and receivers to sort things out.
The band stacking register is very clearly displayed, which is great. You use the band stacking register to change band, and this initially struck me as odd. It works, and if you have both receivers turned on it shows which band option you cannot chose - whatever band is in use by the other receiver is greyed out. If you want to use that band with your current receiver then you have to juggle them around.
|IC-9700 Band stacking register|
I am not expecting to use the two receiver capability much. So far I have been using the IC-9700 as a single receiver rig switched between two bands - 2m and 23cms. I usually have the second receiver turned off. That way the operating frequency always follows the instructions from WSJT-X. Also, there is just one frequency on the display, which eases the strain on the tiny processing capacity which remains operational in my brain.
I am sure that in the long run I will get the hang of the dual receiver function, but right now it just gets in the way.
Why did this radio appear with an SO-239 socket on the 144MHz RF output (in Europe at least)? I keep having to spend £10 to buy new sockets as the 2-hole ones are hard to find at a decent price. Grrr, that's my issue for sure.
Finally, an issue I am not so sure is really an issue. There is a facility to turn on a DC voltage to power a mast-head amplifier, customisable to any combination of the three RF outputs for each band. I cannot work out if, or how much, this is sequenced to the PTT operation. The manual does not seem to explain. I guess it must be as otherwise I usually get a momentary high-SWR as the RF VOX in the preamp works. Properly sequenced DC bias causes no SWR problems and I have no SWR problems. But why does the manual not clear that up? I'll need to measure it to satisfy myself..
EDIT ... More on the DC output for running pre-amps here.
For me there were two main problems with the IC-9700 when it arrived. One is the frequency stability, and the second is the single push to talk output.
Dealing first with frequency stability, this has been well covered elsewhere in the specialist magazines and the internet. It was widely reported that on receive things were fine, but if the rig was used to transmit long enough for it to warm up and the thermostatically controlled fan come on, then it drifted quite significantly. Quite significantly means too much for WSPR decoding, but then not many of us use WSPR on VHF.
I have made a separate posting about this problem here. Basically, I added a Leo Bodnar GPS disciplined frequency standard and the problem (if there was a problem) went away at a cost of £100.
There is a lot of complaint on the Internet about this problem. True, Icom should have discovered it before the radio was released, and also true they should have offered the solution much more quickly. But the solution now exists (thanks to a firmware update), so we should move on.
EDIT - this second issue has now been resolved for me by using a DX Shop PTT multiplier - see here.
Secondly, the IC-9700 has only one PTT output on the accessory plug for linear amplifier control. This is a big surprise for a three band VHF/UHF radio as there is no practical option for one linear to cover all three bands. It is a baffling error for Icom to make, as earlier Icoms covering these bands had provision for at least two PTT outputs. I wrote about this here.
|Rear view of IC-9700 - no room on ACC socket for multiple PTTs (Icom Brochure)|
So concerned was I that I decided not to buy an IC-9700 until I could find some resolution. As it turned out, an IC-9700 arrived anyway so now I will need to resolve it myself. I worked out a way of avoiding any potential damage to my mast head pre-amps by simply turning all of them off when transmitting on any of the three bands. That solves that problem but it is not practical for the linear amplifiers. Switching a linear to TX when there is no RF signal on the input opens (in my mind anyway) the door to self-oscillation in the linear. It is not good practice in my book.
I see on the internet that at least one other amateur has thought about reading the CI-V line and switching the PTT that way. I must contact them and ask how they are getting along. In the meantime, the single PTT configuration remains a problem for me.
6. Using it
Nothing adverse to report here, apart from the issues and problems reported above. The HM-219 hand microphone gets favourable reports. The large VFO knob with the freely rotating finger cup is a nice feature. The colour display looks great, but there is not much room for the waterfall when both receivers are switched on. There is no socket for plugging in a bigger display.
Knobs and switches are generally well laid out and easy to use. As with the IC-7300, the buttons under the upper dual AF/RF controls (P.AMP.ATT and NOTCH) are difficult for me to see. Perhaps my shack illumination needs to be mounted lower down.
Speaking of those dual AF/RF level controls, it is a pity that adding the Sub AF/RF controls on the 9700 rules out the inclusion of separate PBT controls as on the IC-7300. I guess there is no room, and you cannot have everything. As I usually keep the second RX turned off, those controls are out of use most of the time. Ah well.
I have used the IC-9700 on SSB and data modes on all three bands. I have gone onto RSGB UKAC contests with SSB on all three bands. The radio performed just as I would have expected - well. The receiver is quiet and the ease with which you can adjust the filters is a joy. Well, the ease with which you can adjust anything is a joy. The flow of the process from finding the function to altering it while seeing what you are doing is an exemplary model in ergonomics.
Having a radio which is very easy to handle is all well and good. Is it top in its class for performance? As this is not a technical review I cannot say for sure. The test for me will be moonbounce performance. Of all the modes and bands I use, only EME really tests my equipment to exacting standards. On 144MHz I have heard stations via EME using the IC-9700 and I have been heard via EME. Clearly it is stable enough and sensitive, but I have not yet had an EME QSO with it.
This is a pretty sterile debate as EME conditions are so variable and open to many interpretions. My set-up has marginal performance as a moonbounce station. I am always relying on good stations at the other end, due to my (self-imposed) limits on antennas and power output. Ask me for a subjective opinion based on too short an operating period and I would say that the IC-7300/ME2T-Pro transverter combination is slightly better than the IC-9700 when it comes to sensitivity. With the GPS frequency standard connected, the IC-9700 is better for frequency stability - and everything else.
There might be 1dB in it, if anything at all. The benefit of having the whole thing in one box, and rock steady in frequency terms, leads me to prefer to IC-9700 over the transverter set-up. We should not forget that my transverter drifts a bit too.
We shall see in the long term, and for now I still have the transverter, because I think it is, very very slightly, better at the very edge of weak signal performance.
On the other hand, if I got a good offer for the transverter I would probably give it up and go 100% for the IC-9700.
I like it.
If I had been spending £1800 of my own money I doubt if I would have one yet. I had decided to wait for a resolution of the single PTT problem. Somebody will crack that someday. In the meantime the problem still isn't resolved, I am using the IC-9700, and I like it. Make of that what you will.
The radio closest in specification to the IC-9700 I have used was the Icom IC-910. That was ten years ago in superhet days. It had the 23cm unit installed but not the optional digital audio processing unit. I think from memory that the digital audio processor worked at audio frequencies and was not operational at RF. Anyway, it sounded very noisy on receive. From an operational perspective the IC-910 seems like a generation ago rather than ten years. It was hard work to adjust anything, you just had to take what you were given. The IC-9700 is a huge leap forward compared to that radio.
I have a (sort of) feeling that the IC-9700 is not the end of the line for Icom VHF/UHF offerings. I might be wrong here! Sure they will be busy launching the IC-705. But I sense another rig on the horizon. This is an SDR featuring the broad outline of the HF abilities of IC-7610 married to the high band ability of the IC-9700. Something like an Kenwood TS-2000 but this time with a sensitive receiver and also being an SDR - or a Yaesu FT847 that worked and was an SDR too. This would be expensive, but the problems of building the 9700 down to the £1800 price tag would be lifted. It would have two or three PTT outputs customisable by band, it would have a built in GPS standard, it will have the ability to have both receivers on the same band, both receivers will have CAT control and USB data output for each, there would be a separate PBT control ... and I for one won't pay the extra money.
In the meantime we have to IC-9700, which seems pretty good to me.