A review of the Xiegu X5105 QRP “shack-in-a-box” field transceiver

The following review was first published in the August 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


Recently, I found myself in an embarrassing situation: I was being interviewed on the Ham Radio YouTube channel Red Summit RF, when someone in the chatroom asked how many HF QRP radios I currently own?

How many…?  It dawned on me suddenly that I didn’t know the answer.

Throughout my life as a radio hobbyist, I’ve owned a number of transceivers, but I’ve never owned so many at once as I do currently. Since I was licensed in 1997, I’ve owned up to two or three transceivers at once.  But things really started changing for me in 2020. And I blame the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our family loves to travel––but during the pandemic, we were essentially grounded. I keenly missed the travel.  So, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I turned my attention to more regional destinations––and often took the family along––by activating local parks through the Parks On The Air (POTA) program and local summits through the Summits On The Air (SOTA) program.

As a result of this activity, I also began reviewing and evaluating more and more QRP transceivers––and, if I liked them (as I all too often do) purchased them following the review period.

Fact is, I thoroughly enjoy trying out radios, putting them through their paces and engaging all their bells and whistles; I enjoy shaking up my field activations by employing different radios with different antennas and accessories on each outing . I also enjoy writing up field reports and including activation videos on my blog, QRPer.com. Altogether, radio activation gives me a great deal of satisfaction, as does encouraging others to give it a go.

A few months ago, however, I realized I had amassed a collection of some of the most popular and desirable general coverage QRP transceivers on the market. I acknowledged this new “addiction,” deciding it was time to put a limit on the collection I was amassing, so I pledged to myself to make no new transceiver purchases in 2021 after purchasing my Discovery TX-500 in April.

Then, readers started asking me to review the Xiegu X5105.  I was reluctant to do so. Why? It wasn’t just that I would be breaking my promise to myself to acquire no new radios; I frankly thought I might be disappointed in it, especially considering I have so many other transceivers like the IC-705, TX-500, and Elecraft KX3/KX2  that I was convinced would perform circles around it.

But the review requests continued, so, after one of my YouTube subscribers kindly asked me (yet again) to please review the X5105, I finally decided to reach out to Xiegu retailer, Radioddity, and ask for a six-week loaner. The company very generously and promptly obliged.

First impressions

After taking delivery of and unboxing the X5105, my first impressions were basically a series of surprises…

Surprise #1:  Delivery.  I received the X5105 from Radioddity within just a couple of business days. Incredibly fast.

Surprise #2: Form Factor. After opening the box, I was favorably impressed with the size and weight of the X5105. It was much smaller than I anticipated; truly a handheld size. For some reason, based on photos I’d seen, I had wrongfully assumed the X5105 would be at least 30% larger.

Surprise #3:  Build quality. The X5105 feels incredibly rugged. The chassis is made of an aluminium alloy and is seriously rigid and robust. The larger panels (like the bottom of the radio) don’t flex when you press them: structurally, this feels like a radio that might withstand a proper drop…maybe even on rock! My X5105 also has a polycarbonate cover over the display––Radioddity calls this the “Outdoor Version, With Protector.” If you purchase elsewhere, I would insist on this cover; it’s a brilliant addition.

Surprise #4: Comprehensiveness. After pulling the transceiver and all included supplies out of the shipping box, I realized how incredibly complete the entire X5105 kit is: it’s truly deserves the title “shack-in-a-box.” Not only did it include a microphone, a power cord with bare pigtails, a USB cable, a printed manual (although this, you’ll soon learn, is a weak point), but the box also contains a Xiegu CE-19 data interface expansion card which is a huge bonus for those who wish to run digital modes with the X5105. When you consider the fact that the Xiegu X5105 includes an internal rechargeable battery and built-in antenna tuner (ATU), the only items you need to add is a power source for charging the X5105, an antenna of some sort, and if you’re a CW operator, a key. I was impressed; few radio manufacturers ship so many options and accessories with their unit.

Surprise #5: First Impression. Just being honest here, I’m a bit of a radio snob and live by “you pay for what you get.” At time of publishing, the X5105 costs only around $550 US––that’s a lot of “get” for what you pay. At this price level, could this possibly be a respectable radio? I wondered. I wasn’t sure yet, but the X5105 had clearly made a very good first impression on this reviewer just from the unboxing.

Getting to know the X5105

The X5105 is truly handheld in size: perfect for a compact SOTA field radio kit!

When I first receive a new-to-me radio, I set aside a couple of hours at home for what I call the “Getting To Know You” session: I power up the radio, try to sort out as many functions and features as possible without the manual, to see how user-friendly it might be, then dive into the manual for specifics.

I hooked the X5105 up to my Powerwerx power supply, and it instantly started charging the internal battery. Interestingly, I heard a faint audio hiss emanating out of the X5105 top-mounted speaker. Obviously when the charging circuit is engaged, so is the audio amplification chain, and this is true even when the radio is “off”––a little odd, for sure. But a fairly minor point.  I gave the radio a full charge, then removed the power cord so that it would only operate from the internal battery during my first session.

If you’re familiar with HF transceivers, it’s not difficult to find many of the commonly-used functions and features of the X5105.

On the top panel of the X5105 (see above), there is one dedicated button for PTT, two for volume up/down, and two for band up/down. To increase volume in small increments, you press the left volume button, to decrease, you use the right button. Oddly, however, it’s the opposite for the band buttons: the left button takes you down in frequency, while the right takes you up in frequency. Some may actually find this arrangement intuitive, but I’ll admit that it took weeks for me to remember to hit the correct band button.

 

The X5105 features top-mounted controls like the Elecraft KX3, KX2, KX1 and the lab599 Discovery TX-500. I much prefer top-mounted controls as they take advantage of the largest surface on the radio to provide more space between them; this prevents button crowding and consequently results in easier operation in the field. There are dedicated buttons for pre-amp and attenuation, mode, noise blanker, RIT, VFO and memory modes, left/right arrows for adjusting tuning steps, A/B VFO toggle, ATU, lock/display brightness, and power output. The encoder is a flat, dimpled wheel on the lower right corner of the radio. There’s also a menu button and four multi-function buttons with dynamic labels in the main LCD screen.

The front panel buttons and display are also backlit and the brightness can be easily adjusted.

Speaking of which, the backlit 3.6” monochrome LCD display is…excellent. The frequency display is also large, ideal for those days when you forget to bring along reading glasses.

Interestingly, the top panel buttons are not backlit.

Overall, the ergonomics of the X5105 are quite good. All of the dedicated controls mentioned above work as they should.

It took a little while longer to understand how the multi-function menu items work, however. Pressing the “MENU” button cycles through six menu pages. Within each menu page, the four multi-function buttons below the display change function. A short press of each button tends to either enable a function, or toggle it. Pressing and holding a multi-function button tends to take you to that button’s deeper settings.

For example, one of the first things I wanted to do was change the CW filter width. I eventually discovered the procedure:

  1. Press the MENU button until the second page appears
  2. Press the first multi-function button labeled “DSP-FLT” to engage the CW filter with default filter width. This DSP-FLTT button toggles the filter on and off.
  3. To change filter settings, press and hold the DSP-FLT button until the multi-function button labels change.
  4. To change the filter low/high cutoffs, press either L-CUT or H-Cut, and rotate the main encoder.
  5. To exit the filter adjustments menu, simply press the MENU button again.

Next, I wanted to set my CW message memory keyer. In the field, I often rely on memory-keying to call CW and send standard exchanges, like my regards. CW message memory-keying frees up my hands for logging.

In short, I could not figure out how to set up CW memory-keying, so I consulted the owner’s manual. And, as I mentioned in passing above, this is where I discovered how poorly the included manual is written. Indeed, it’s one of the most confusing and poorly-written manuals I’ve ever encountered! Although there is a “Table of Contents” which lists a section dealing with setting up memory-keying, it made no sense at all. When you go to the dedicated page, the first thing it does is reference a procedure on a different page that doesn’t make any sense––nor does it work. It almost seems like a manual written for a different radio.

Here I should mention that shortly after the X5105 was released in 2017, there were a number of issues Xiegu fixed in incremental firmware updates and upgrades. My X5105 came pre-installed with the V3.0 firmware––the latest major upgrade from 2019. I understand that the user interface changed dramatically after one of the firmware upgrades. This might explain some of the confusion: I don’t think the manual was ever updated.

Indeed I might have become a bit annoyed by this, had I paid a premium for the X5105, but…hey, at the $550 price point?  Still: that manual needs some work. I wouldn’t rely on it to be of much use.

I then turned to YouTube to find my answer, and quickly found a video demoing the CW memory keyer. It looked so simple, but had nothing in common with the menu structure of my X5105. The operator set up three dedicated buttons to send CW memory messages––this is exactly what I wanted.

In a nutshell? I couldn’t have that.

Turns out, Xiegu added a total of 10 CW memory messages as a firmware “upgrade” (which can also be used for native digital modes), but effectively eliminated the three one-button press messaging. Instead of going into the procedure here, I’ll instead point you to a post on QRPer.com where I asked my readership about setting up CW memory keying, and finally sorted it out.

In short, you can only effectively use one CW memory message at a time. Using multiple messages is simply too cumbersome with button presses and defeats the purpose. I have asked Xiegu to consider adding multiple one-press buttons for messages, which they had in the early version; perhaps they’ll consider this in a future firmware update.

Over the course of two days, I familiarized myself with the X5105 in the shack operating off of the internal battery as I chased a few summit and park activators.  I also listened a bit––the X5105 is a decent shortwave broadcast receiver! I found that the battery lasted about 5+ hours in the shack, primarily in receive-mode only.

But let’s face it:  the X5105 is a field radio, and I was eager to properly test it in real-life field conditions.

In this radio review, I’ve decided to go over all of the pros, cons, and nuances of the Xiegu X5105 via my field notes, having used it in CW and SSB mode. These field notes will be followed by my summary, and in the case of the X5105 (spoiler alert!) it’s all about that delicate balance of price, performance, features, and functionality. 

Field notes

Over the course of six weeks, I made park and summit activations with the X5105. Here are my observations––the things that stand out about the X5105––from the viewpoint of a field radio operator.

Operation

From day one, I enjoyed operating the X5105 much more than I thought I would. In the field, I find that the controls––especially those I reach for most––are readily accessible. Unless I’m doing a field activation in the midst of a contest, I rarely touch functions other than volume, tuning, band switching, memory keying, ATU, mode, power output, keyer speed, and possibly the noise blanker. Most of these are accessible by an immediate press of the button….Well, with three exceptions:

  1. Using the CW memory-keyer beyond one triggered by the PTT button, as mentioned above, is an operation in frustration. I’d never attempt multiple CW messages during an activation exchange.
  2. Changing the keyer speed requires going to MENU 4, pressing and holding the KEY button, then short-pressing the SPEED button and using the encoder to change the speed setting. If you’re in the DIGI/CWDEM menu page using the memory keyer (which I usually am, when in the field), it requires no less than eight button presses to finally change keyer speed––not an easy task in the field when you’re trying to quickly adjust for a slower-speed operator.
  3. Filter operation is similar, again, because when I’m in CW mode I typically have the memory keyer DIGI/CWDEM menu page open. It requires about five button presses to access the filter setting. When I’m in SSB mode, however, I typically leave the DSP-FLT button menu page active, which makes it easier.

Overall, however, I’m satisfied with the field ergonomics of the X5105. Once you get the hang of these menu pages, it becomes easier, and much of the navigation becomes a matter of muscle memory.

CW operation

A trailside activation with the X5105 at Tuttle Educational State Forest. I attached an external battery pack in case the internal battery depleted. I didn’t know then that the X5105 would carry me through two more activations on that one initial charge!

As primarily a CW operator, I’m pleased with the X5105’s electronic keying. It feels natural and I believe I even prefer it to the X5105’s 20-watt cousin, the Xiegu G90. If it’s not full break-in QSK,  when keying by hand it’s close to it––the QSK recovery time can be set to zero milliseconds. The keying is on a t/r relay, so there is mild clicking involved. When using the CW memory keyer, however, the radio stays in transmit until the message is finished, thus you won’t be able to “hear between” sent characters––i.e., not full break-in––which is a minor annoyance.

All expected CW parameters can be changed within the X5105, such as QSK on/off, QSK time, sidetone, auto left/right, Iambic A/B, speed and ratio. It even has a CW decoder. Like most, it works well when operators are sending with electronic keying and are on-frequency.

I should note that on some bands, I can hear a distinct audio “clanking” as I key in full break-in QSK mode. This is especially prominent on the 40-meter band. It’s a little bothersome, but not too distracting for me. However, if you’re used to clean pin diode-switching and silky-smooth QSK, you might be disappointed with the X5105; It’s just not that refined.

SSB operation

Much like a mobile radio, many transceiver functions can be controlled by the included microphone.

The X5105 is an excellent SSB radio. The X5105 microphone is similar to a mobile radio mic with many functions directly accessible from the microphone button panel.

One huge selling point for the field operator is the fact that the X5105 has a built-in microphone on the chassis of the radio, and it works well. While activating Lake Norman during a recent POTA adventure, I decided to move into SSB mode, but realized that I had unfortunately  forgotten my X5105 microphone. But I remembered the built-in mic, and tried calling CQ by pressing the PTT button on the radio chassis––it worked like a charm. I made a number of contacts using the built-in mic. I can’t stress how appealing this is to the SOTA operator who has to pack in all of their gear: to be able to leave out a microphone––? That’s genius. The X5105 wasn’t the first portable to implement a built-in mic, of course––the Elecraft KX2 was one of the first––but I’m happy to see this handy feature in a radio at this price point.

Good battery Life

The X5105 really has exceptional battery life. I completed four full field activations with the X5105 on just one charge––and one of those activations was 90 minutes long!  The other three, for reference, were around 25 minutes each. Roughly 165 minutes on a single charge? This is excellent battery life, especially under activator conditions in which you do a lot of transmitting and keying, either via calling CQ or sending exchanges to those hunting your station.

In my world, this is huge and means that I can confidently carry the X5105 on a multi-summit hike, for example, knowing that I won’t need to carry a spare battery. When hiking, every bit of weight and space count.

Built-in ATU

A very successful SOTA activation of Moore’s Knob (W4C/EP-001) where I logged stations from Washington state to France with five watts and a PackTenna 9:1 UNUN random wire.

The X5105 ATU is quiet, quick, and capable. I’ve used it on a 9:1 UNUN Packtenna random wire, a 73’ Chameleon Emcomm III Portable random wire, a Chameleon CHA MPAS 2.0 vertical antenna, an EFHW antenna outside resonant bands, and even a 28.5’ speaker wire antenna I built on-site.

It’s matching range is certainly wide enough to take on any standard field antenna, but as G4USI recently discovered, it can match metal gates, a cow shed roof, the framework of a polytunnel, and even a stock trailer. It might not be an efficient antenna, but it will be well-matched if connected to the X5105.

In short? The built-in ATU exceeded my expectations. It might be right there with the Elecraft KX2/KX3 ATU (oh, wait…did I put that in print?)!

Audio

For a field radio, the audio is acceptable. The top-mounted speaker is small (status quo among portable HF transceivers) but delivers ample volume. If you increase the volume much beyond 65-70%, however, you will begin to hear splatter from the internal speaker. The splatter is significant enough that I always back off the audio level to just below the splatter threshold––it’s not pleasant.

It’s easy to use headphones or earphones with the X5105, since it accepts a standard 3.5mm stereo plug. Note, however, that you must change the audio amp setting from speaker to “phone” (menu page 6) prior to using headphones.

I took the X5105 on a family camping trip to New River State Park in June (see photo above), and used it with earphones for my early-morning and late-night sessions to keep from disturbing nearby campers with my CW––although when I was using the speaker, a number of campers stopped by to ask if that was Morse Code they were hearing.

After a few hours with earphones, I must say that I could only call the audio quality “passable.” It’s really a bit rough, and I’m not sure I’d want to use earphones with it for a full Field Day. But for park and summit activations? It’s fine by me.

Shack-in-a-(durable)-box

As I mentioned above, the small, boxy form factor of the X5105 is fantastic. It’s easy to pack and pretty darn durable: I’m not concerned about it being damaged if I drop it or slip and fall against my backpack. It’s not weather resistant like the Discovery TX-500, and it’s not as compact and lightweight as the Elecraft KX2, but its size is ideal for backpacking when you require a general-coverage 160 – 6 meter HF radio.

The X5105 deserves the coveted “shack-in-a-box” designation because it has: 160-6 meters, multi-mode, 5-watts out, internal battery, and internal ATU. It even has the functionality to make SWR sweeps of your antenna, which can be very useful when trimming an antenna or trying to find the resonant point on a coil.

And keep in mind, I’ve only touched on CW and SSB operation in order  to keep the scope of this rather lengthy  review in check––so take my word for it, there’s much more to the X5105, including native RTTY and PSK-31 decoding.

Running notes

Every radio has its pros and cons. When I begin a review of a radio, I take notes from the very beginning so that I don’t forget my initial impressions and observations. Here’s the X5105’s list, from the first moments I turned it on until the time of writing this review:

Pros:

  • Full HF Coverage from 160 – 6 meters
  • SSB/CW/AM/FM and some native digital mode functionality
  • Built-in wide-range automatic antenna tuner
  • Protected high-contrast backlit display that’s easy to read in the field and even in full sun
  • Backlit buttons, a rarity among field portable radios
  • Built-in Li-Ion battery with excellent capacity and run time despite current drain (see con)
  • Rugged chassis with built-in fold-out feet (see con)
  • Relatively lightweight
  • Comparatively modest price point at just $550 US

Cons:

  • Internal battery not designed to be user-replaceable
  • Fold-out feet spring mechanism feels fragile/weak
  • Current consumption is high for a field QRP transceiver; anywhere from 300-600 mA in receive, depending upon whether the internal high-capacity (see pro) battery is also charging
  • CW memory-keying is only practical for one of the ten message slots (as of current firmware version)
  • No voice memory keying
  • Noise floor isn’t terribly low and audio is somewhat harsh compared with higher priced radios
  • Ever-present low-level audio amplification chain hiss/noise in both speaker and headphones
  • Low-level audio hiss present during charging when radio is effectively turned off
  • Occasional “clanky” audio during CW keying (possibly tied to AGC or audio recovery)
  • Audio amplification for speaker and headphones must be changed manually
  • If using CW memory keying, no SWR display
  • Audio splatter at high volumes
  • Poorly-written and unhelpful user’s manual

Summary

On the X5105’s maiden voyage to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I quickly realized how adept this radio is in the field.

If you’ve managed to make it this far in the review, you’ve probably gathered that the X5105, by any measure, is a bit of a mixed bag. Glancing at my running notes above, I believe I’ve listed more cons than I have for any radio in recent years.

But here’s the thing…

I like the Xiegu X5105. Not only do I like it, I really like it. But as a field portable radio.

Let’s be honest: it has everything to do with exceeding expectations in this price bracket. If the X5105 were the same price as a similarly-loaded Elecraft KX2 (roughly $1200 US), I’d be much more critical, but the X5105 is half the cost of the KX2. You could buy two X5105s for the price of one Elecraft KX2.

The Elecraft KX2 has a built-in ATU, battery pack, and even attachable CW paddles! A Holy Grail field portable transceiver.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe the Elecraft KX2 is worth every penny of that $1200 price tag. Elecraft designs and builds their radios in California, in the USA, and makes a choice to ignore lower labor costs found elsewhere in the world and keep manufacturing local. And you know what? The KX2 is, in my book, truly a Holy Grail portable transceiver.

Compared to the KX2, the X5105 feels, well, “unrefined.” Yet if I quell my internal radio snob, I have to admit that the designers of Xiegu have truly made a name for themselves in the ham radio world with their own unique designs. You could argue that the X5105 was designed to be competitive with the KX2, and you’d be correct: it was introduced to market one year after the KX2. But the X5105 is not a copy: it’s Xiegu’s own design. In many ways, it’s inferior to the KX2, but it gets the job done for a more modest price, with a few advantages besides.

And here’s something I would have never predicted: instead of sending the X5105 back to Radioddity, I purchased it. 

Why? The X5105 gets the job done, and it’s good at it. I’d even to venture to say it’s a lot of fun to use. While it’s not refined, it’s ready to go wherever you go in the field. Plus it’s even appealing in a utilitarian sort of way.

Here’s the thing: field radio operators aren’t usually concerned with the best receiver specs in the field nor how well DSP works. We tend to operate where there’s little radio noise or interference. We’re more concerned with the functions and features that are important to us, and the X5105 has almost all of those features. It’ll take any antenna you attach to it and get you on the air with a minimal amount of separate accessories.

I’ve already put together a full radio kit for the X5105 and it will basically live in my car and at-the-ready for impromptu field activations. And if my car breaks down in the middle of nowhere? I’ve got a transceiver that has already snagged signals for me from six different countries on just five watts, and I know the battery will power it for ages.

If you’re looking for a basic-but-competent, compact shack-in-the-box field radio, I can recommend the X5105.

Oh…and in case you’re curious, the answer to the question I was asked? It’s fifteen. With the addition of the X5105, I own fifteen transceivers. Don’t tell my wife.

Yes, I’m quite aware that I have a problem. Oh, well…at least I’m also having fun.

Xiegu X5105 Resources:

6 thoughts on “A review of the Xiegu X5105 QRP “shack-in-a-box” field transceiver”

  1. Great review, Thomas! I really enjoy my 5105, and you’ve hit on the cons and strong pros, including terrific battery life and effective internal tuner. I just need more time to get out to local parks with it.

    1. I hear ya! I’ve actually found that the X5105 (along with my KX2) is the radio I’ll often reach for when I need to fit in a short activation. Not a terribly fussy radio to set up for sure. Just plug in an antenna and possibly a key.

  2. A well-balanced review, Sir.

    Having owned and used the radio for well over two years now, I agree absolutely. Early firmware iterations were plagued with bugs and the radio was awful in CW mode. The V3 firmware solved pretty much all the CW woes, apart from the dodgy stored messages. I think I’ve used that function less than a handful of times as it’s so awkward.

    You didn’t mention the SWR scan function which is great for tweaking antennas on the go. The displayed graph is a bit vague as far as actual SWR values and could benefit from the vertical scale being zoom-able but it’s a great indication of bandwidth etc.

    My radio is on its second internal battery, as of earlier this year. While replacing it did involve some minor screwdriver action, it really is a simple task. I replaced the memory battery while I was in there and that’s a different story altogether. It’s located on the most difficult to reach board in the radio and requires a FULL disassembly to get to. Very strange design choice. Speaking of disassembly, the screw threads are VERY easy to strip…. apparently…. cough cough….

    I agree about the audio. It’s pretty minging, as we say here, but gets the job done. The headphone jack is also susceptible to RF feedback and can produce some pretty nasty squawks with unshielded headphone cables…..

    Overall, a very fun and capable radio, if a little rough round the edges.

    1. Thank you, Ronan,

      I had a hunch the main battery wasn’t too difficult to replace. Very good to know about the clock battery, though! And thanks for a tip about the screw threads!

      And, yes, “rough around the edges” is a perfect description! 🙂

  3. Hellow Mr Witherspoon i enjoyed your review of the x5105 spot on i might add.I am happy and relieved to know that some one was able to source a replacement battery for our growing x5105 users whose battery needs replacing .if you can please find out where Mr Ronan sourced his i would be eternal grateful. Ty 7 3.

  4. A great review Thomas, I am a happy owner of an X5105 (bought from Aliexpress), despite the bad propagation conditions in the southern hemisphere I have had some good QSOs of + 1500kms S7-S8 (+ 930 miles) on SSB, I do not work CW. Besides, some detail that you did not mention: the very slow battery charge; during charging I do not have the noise you mention, the manual did not bother me, it came to me in Chinese, I downloaded it on Radioddity but it was not updated, I found another one for V3.00 on Xiegu.eu.
    The team is perfect for what I want; I had an RS-928 before, I liked it more in audio, more power, but very complicated, on the other hand the X … is to take out and use. (I did not know how to upload a photo of my backpack)

    There is a new version of FW for the X5105, V3.00 build008, it has the following modifications:

    1.bug fix: DSP FILTER state could not be saved in band stack
    2.bug fix: The rig sometimes lock up in TX status when using internal battery
    3.Press built-in PTT botton to send message when working with DIGI Mode;
    Press it again to force stopping message sending

    It is not yet available on Radioddity.
    It can be downloaded at https://xiegu.eu/?smd_process_download=1&download_id=1026

    Cesar CD7CKU
    73

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