The following article was originally posted on my other radio blog, the SWLing Post.
Earlier this year I published what I called an “initial” review of the CommRadio CTX-10 QRP transceiver, promising an eventual final review. The reason for this is that I sensed there were important CTX-10 updates on the horizon, and I wanted to re-evaluate the rig once the upgrades had been implemented through firmware.
This final review builds upon the initial review––think of it as the second installment, or “Part 2″––so if you’re considering the purchase of a CTX-10 and haven’t read the previous post about it, please do read the initial review first.
As anticipated, via simple at-home firmware updates, since my initial review the CTX-10 has now been upgraded and tweaked a number of times. [Click here to view all of the documented firmware updates and notes at CommRadio.]
I’ve been very pleased with the attention CommRadio has paid to their customer feedback on some of the most important requests.
Instead of reiterating what I wrote in the initial review, I’ll jump straight into the upgrades.
At time of posting my initial review, the CTX-10 didn’t have A/B VFOs. This was my primary gripe about the CTX-10, because without A/B VFOs, there was no way to operate split, which meant that you could not work DX stations that use split to manage large pileups. This is actually a really important feature for a QRP radio because during split operation, a pileup is pulled apart across a few kHz of bandwidth, thus giving a 10-watt signal a better chance of being heard through a collection of legal-limit signals.
On June 10, 2019, CommRadio released a firmware package that added A/B VFOs and the ability to operate split to the CTX-10.
Even though there are only a limited number of buttons on the front panel, it’s incredibly simple to enter into split mode:
- Chose the frequency and mode;
- Hold the STEP button for one second or more, then release. You’ll then see a split display indicating the TX and RX frequencies.
- Use the left arrow key [<] to toggle between them.
I do like the clear TX and RX lines, which leave no doubt in the user’s mind what the frequency used for transmitting and receiving is. On some radios, this can be a bit confusing.
Split operation is simple and effective, thus I consider this issue fully resolved.
In my initial review, I noted that the CTX-10 ATU needed near-resonant antennas for the ATU to make a strong 1:1 match. Indeed, a number of times I actually used a near-resonant antenna in the field––the EFT Trail-Friendly, for example––and the ATU couldn’t get below a 3:1 match. For what it’s worth, CommRadio states that the CTX-10 can easily handle 3:1.
CommRadio has made modifications to the ATU function, improving the performance of the antenna-tuner algorithm, which had a significant impact on 80 and 60 meters. I’ve also had better luck with a number of field antennas I’ve tried on 40 and 20 meters. Is it as good as the Elecraft KX-series ATUs? No, but I consider those ATUs to be some of the most flexible on the market.
Having a built-in ATU on the CTX-10 is certainly a valuable feature in the field. When I need to match a challenging antenna with the CTX-10, I bring my Emtech ZM-2 manual tuner along for the ride. A perfect combo.
There still is no way to adjust the microphone gain control nor microphone compression on the CTX-10. Much like a military or commercial radio, the CTX-10 is optimized for just one style of mic: in its case, the modular MFJ-290MY or Yaesu MH-31A8J handheld mic.
The CTX-10 microphone input has a limiting pre-amplifier with built-in compressor and ambient noise gate–in short, the CTX-10 handles all microphone settings automatically.
Through firmware updates, a number of positive adjustments have been made to the microphone settings:
- the microphone-decay timer has been tweaked so that audio clipping is less of a concern
- audio clarity and gain have been improved
- audio power has been improved resulting in .5 to .75 watts of additional peak power
- microphone audio leveling has been improved
- VOX attack and decay timing has been improved
These are all welcome adjustments.
I would note here, though, that if you plan to use a mic other than the MFJ-290MY or Yaesu MH-31A8J handheld mics, you will have a limited means of adjusting the mic parameters unless you have an external mic EQ. A number of readers, for example, have asked about using their Heil boom headset with the AD-1-YM cable adapter on the CTX-10. Boom headsets are a wonderful tool for field operation because they free your hands to log contacts. As for using boom headsets on the CTX-10, since I don’t have the appropriate adapter, I can’t speak to this. But since you can’t control mic gain, it might take time to learn how to position the boom mic and adjust your voice level for optimum performance.
As mentioned in our initial review, the CTX-10 does not support QSK/full break-in operation. Rather, the CTX-10 uses a traditional relay for switching between transmit and receive. During CW operations, you’ll hear a faint relay click when switching from TX to RX and back again.
This isn’t a problem for me, as I rarely set my CW rigs for full break-in, but the CW hang time delay on the CTX-10 is not currently adjustable. For high-speed CW ops that prefer a faster relay recovery, I suspect this could be an annoyance.
There have been recent CTX-10 firmware upgrades that have helped solve issues found with CW keyer timing in early units. I found the timing issues were mainly present while sending high-speed CW (25 WPM+). My buddy Vlado (N3CZ) put the CTX-10 through some high speed tests, and was pleased with the results overall.
I will reiterate here that the CTX-10 lacks other controls many CW operators appreciate. Currently, the CTX-10 lacks a sidetone control; as a result, you cannot change the sidetone volume/tone, nor can you turn it off. I continue to hope that CommRadio will fix this quirk via a future firmware upgrade.
The CTX-10’s built-in CW keyer does not currently support iambic keying. Meaning, when both levers of a dual paddle are closed simultaneously (squeezed), it will not send a series of alternating dots and dashes. I imagine this could be addressed in a future firmware update.
Additionally, without re-wiring your paddle, you can’t change which side of your paddle sends ‘dits’ and which sends ‘dahs.’ A minor con, for sure–still, most modern QRP transceivers allow you this flexibility.
All in all, the CTX-10 will serve the CW operator much like a military set in field operations. True, I wish it had a few more adjustments, but it has all of the basics, and I’ve received several great reports regarding signal and tone.
Revisiting the basic feature set
Let’s be clear: as I stated at length in my initial review, the CommRadio CTX-10 was designed around simple operation, like one might expect from a military or commercial channelized radio. I know ham radio operators and preparedness enthusiasts who prefer this approach to gear design, and they will appreciate this CTX-10 design philosophy.
Still, the CTX-10 lacks many of the features and adjustments you’d typically find on a QRP transceiver in its price class. Instead, the CTX-10 was designed to handle many of these adjustments automatically.
The CTX-10 still has no separate RF gain control. The CTX-10’s RF gain is directly tied to the three AGC settings (slow, medium, and fast). While I believe it does a fine job of adjusting RF gain, I do ride an RF gain control a lot during noisy summer conditions, and miss this feature.
The CTX-10 still has no passband (PBT) control, notch filter, or noise blanker––all features I’d normally expect in a QRP radio at this price level.
There are no CW (os SSB) memory keyers. I wouldn’t expect these, as I believe only the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 sport this feature in this price class of QRP radios.
Please note: some of these features could potentially be added in future firmware upgrades. If one of these items is keeping you from purchasing the CTX-10, please contact CommRadio and inquire.
Is the CTX-10 for you?
With the most recent upgrades, CommRadio has solved the major issues that kept me from heartily recommending it in my initial review.
The addition of split operation was especially key for me, as I do operate split. The more nuanced adjustments to the CW keyer, an extra feature to prevent the radio from accidentally turning on while in transit, and the adjustments to the mic algorithm, all make this radio more pleasant to operate at home or (especially) in the field.
As I mentioned in the initial review, the CTX-10 owner is one who values a very simple, straightforward radio. Perhaps someone who began operating in a commercial, military, or aviation field, and/or who likes the “get on and get the job done” approach. Someone more interested in making contacts than in radio operations and refinements. Those who want a sturdy, lasting, no-frills, set-it-and-forget-it rig. If that’s you, take a closer look at the CTX-10: it may just suit your needs to a T.
If, however, you’re looking for a full-featured QRP radio with many of the features and nuanced adjustments you’d expect in the shack, check out the Yaesu FT-818, Elecraft KX2, or Elecraft KX3. All of these excellent rigs are time-tested and very flexible.
The two major advantages of the CTX-10 over competitors are:
- the ability to charge the internal batteries from almost any voltage source, and
- a higher TX duty cycle (without needing to add external heat sinks).
I believe the CTX-10 will have strong appeal for radio enthusiasts who value these characteristics:
- All-in-one-box portability with no extra wired accessory components
- Best-in-class internal battery life
- Best-in-class intelligent battery charging
- HF packs
- Digital modes like FT-8 and the ability to operate them in the field from internal batteries for extended periods of time
- The equivalent of a simple portable military/commercial set
- A well-balanced receiver with few manual adjustments
- Broadcast listening, as the CTX-10 is also superb broadcast receiver
- Best-in-class hardware
The CTX-10’s overall construction and components are, as I’ve said, near mil-spec. While the CTX-10 isn’t weatherized or waterproof––no more than any of its current competitors––the construction is top-shelf, for sure. It should run for decades without need of repair.
The CTX-10 is built like a tank, and has excellent receiver characteristics for field operation. It’s also designed and manufactured right here in the USA. All the better.
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