The following article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:
A review of the Xiegu X6100 portable SDR transceiver
by Thomas (K4SWL)
Do you remember when band scopes and spectrum displays started appearing on radios? It was a pretty phenomenal innovation. Being able to “see” what was in your neighborhood on a particular radio band was incredibly useful, especially to operators who like to hunt stations, and to DXers who wanted to follow the reply pattern of DX stations running split. Spectrum displays, among other things, gave operators an overall “big picture” of band activity, and it was truly insightful.
Additionally, the advent of SDR (software-defined radio) architecture made not only spectrum displays but also time-based waterfall displays accessible in radios of all price ranges.
From the perspective of both a ham radio operator and a shortwave radio listener, I can tell you that once you become accustomed to the benefits of a spectrum display, when you don’t have one, you feel like you’re cruising the band wearing blinders: it’s just that essential.
As a result, many hams and SWLs have come to rely on these features. No doubt customer demand has pushed manufacturers to include spectrum displays on almost all new SDR-based transceivers––even portable transceivers!
Enter the X6100
In November 2021, China-based radio manufacturer, Xiegu, started shipping their latest SDR transceiver: the Xiegu X6100.
Xiegu has become quite a household name among HF field operators. I’ve reviewed both the Xiegu G90 and the Xiegu X5105. The common theme is their affordability, portability, superb built-in ATUs, and impressive feature set. Admittedly, high-end performance––in terms of receiver as well as audio performance––is not their strong suit, but in the field you don’t necessarily need contest-grade performance. I’ve found that both the G90 and X5105 are quite effective and adept in the field and at home. Many a new ham operator has turned to Xiegu products to begin their foray into the world of HF.
Judging by appearance alone, you can tell that Xiegu was targeting the same operators who might consider the Icom IC-705. Cosmetically it’s strikingly similar in terms of knob, screen, and button placement on the front panel.
The X6100 also has Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, like the IC-705: a first for the sub-$1,000 portable radio market. But unlike the IC-705, this functionality was not in place with the first production run of the X6100. It’s being slowly implemented via X6100 firmware updates.
But in my view, that’s where the similarities with the IC-705 stop. Based on the announced X6100 specifications, I could tell well before the X6100’s release that it would lack many of the features that make the IC-705 such a hit; features like a touch screen, D-star mode, VHF/UHF multimode, built-in GPS, built-in D-Star, built-in repeater directories that can auto-load the repeaters closest to the operator, advanced filter shaping, and so much more.
But the X6100 and IC-705 share enough similarities that field-portable HF enthusiasts have taken notice…Nonetheless, it’s one major difference that has really caught their attention.
The Icom IC-705 retails for a little less than $1400 US at time of publishing, while the Xiegu X6100 retails for $640 US. In other words, you could buy 2.2 Xiegu X6100s for the price of one IC-705.
And, as I noted in our IC-705 review, I believe you get what you pay for with the IC-705. It’s a fabulous, high-quality portable radio.
So the question remains: do you get pricey performance in the relatively affordable X6100? To find out, let’s take a deep dive into its features and performance.
- Built-in rechargeable Li-Ion battery
- Built-in (and very capable) ATU
- Built-in microphone
- 160 – 6 meter TX coverage
- General-coverage receiver
- 5 watts output when using the built-in battery
- SWR scanning
- Uses the same microphone and power cord port
- Roughly the same size
I actually think of the X6100 as an updated and upgraded X5105. Here are a few improvements:
- A high-resolution 4″ (3.46 x 2.13in) color screen, 800×480
- 10 watts of output power when connected to an external 12V battery
- Voice message memories (voice-memory keying)
- Wireless LAN: IEEE802.11b/g/n
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Audio recording
The price difference between the X5105 and X6100, at time of publishing, is $10 US.
To my mind, those upgrades are clearly worth the extra ten dollars. Xiegu also promises additional functionality via future firmware updates, but I’ll focus this review on the radio as presented after the third post-production firmware update (Jan 2022).
One major positive about purchasing Xiegu products: the package is complete.
Each Xiegu product I’ve purchased in the past went beyond the basics to include every item and accessory necessary to get on the air. This is a departure from many ham radio manufacturers who typically only include the bare essentials with the option to purchase extra accessories.
What’s in the box? The following items are all included:
- Xiegu X6100 Transceiver
- USB Type-C Data Cable
- Multi-function Speaker Mic
- Power Adapter
- Charging Cable
- Spiral-bound user manual
What stood out was the fact that Xiegu included both a DC power cable (with a pigtail end, i.e., not terminated on the power-supply end) and a power adapter that can be used independently to charge the internal Lithium Ion battery. In other words, you won’t even need to purchase an external power supply or battery if you’re satisfied with five watts of output power. Useful for new hams.
In fact, to get started you’ll only need an antenna––something like my speaker wire antenna, for example, that consists of two wires: one 28.5 foot radiator and one 28.5 foot counterpoise. This random wire antenna is simply one length of 28.5’ speaker wire I pulled apart into two 28.5 foot lengths. I attach it to the radio with a common BNC binding post adapter. Setup is simple: one wire goes into a tree, one lays on the ground. The X6100’s internal ATU will easily find an impedance match so you don’t even need an in-line transformer.
In short, when you buy a Xiegu product, there’s never a need to buy any extra accessories––it’s truly inclusive. And the expectation of getting on the air within moments of opening the box is not at all unrealistic…on the contrary, it’s no problem.
The X6100 is more compact than I was expecting. It’s almost identical in size to my Elecraft KX3 field transceiver.
It feels rugged, too. The chassis appears to be made of aluminum; it is both rigid and smooth. I don’t think it would be easy to dent this radio, even if dropped.
The volume knob, multi-function knob, and encoder knob all seem to be made of aluminum as well. The encoder has a grippy notched rubber ring around it. Of course, these knobs do stick out beyond the sides of the chassis (the X5105, by contrast, actually has a near flush-mount encoder knob), which means some care may need to be taken if you throw this radio in a backpack. But I must confess I won’t likely take any extra precautions, because I believe this rig will readily withstand normal field handling.
The X6100’s color backlit display is superb. Black colors are very black, while the contrast, resolution, and color vibrancy are excellent. As previously mentioned, the X6100 display is not a touch screen. All on-screen menus are chosen by using either the block of six buttons to the left of the screen, or via the five buttons below the display.
At first, I was a little confused as to how to navigate the menus, but even after only an hour of exploring the radio, I sorted out the menu structure and functionality with no trouble. It’s actually pretty intuitive. After a menu selection is chosen via a menu button, specific features show up as small blocks on the screen: simply choose a block with the multifunction knob, then use either the multi-function knob or buttons below the screen to change the value.
One cool feature I noticed is that you can set the multi-function knob to directly control almost any configuration setting. I typically have mine set to RIT control or to power output. I say “almost” any function, as I’ve yet to find a way to set the multi-function knob to control keyer speed (then again, keyer speed is not a deep menu setting).
Speaking of buttons, the X6100 has a lot of them. Besides what’s presented on the front face of the radio, there are also no less than 12 buttons on the top of the radio as well.
I especially appreciate the fact there are dedicated mode buttons: AM/FM, CW, and SSB. This makes switching modes incredibly easy. Also, I will add that it’s amazing how quickly you memorize the button locations on the top of the X6100: I no longer need to actually look at them, and can identify them by touch.
All of the buttons on the X6100 are backlit. Again, a very nice touch for a field radio.
On The Air
I’ve used the X6100 at the QTH for about one month and I’ve taken it on multiple park activations in the field. Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of the X6100 I’ve noticed during these tests.
The X6100 has a built-in front-facing speaker much like the X5105 and the Icom IC-705.
The audio, I’ve found, is a modest improvement over the X5105, which tends to splatter at higher volume levels. The audio clarity in general seems to be an upgrade over the X5105.
With that said, as with all Xiegu radios I’ve tested thus far, I find that the audio is a bit harsh and unrefined. The noise floor is higher than that of my FT-817ND, Elecraft KX2, KX3, Discovery TX-500, and Icom IC-705.
I find that the audio is perfectly fine for most field operations, and readers have told me they’ve successfully cleaned up the audio with inexpensive in-line Ground Loop Noise Isolators that are widely available for $10 on Amazon.com.
As-is, the audio can be a bit fatiguing during longer listening/operating sessions; I find this especially the case when using earphones.
The X6100’s receiver seems to be pretty sensitive and I can easily receive the weaker signals I wish to work. It also seems to be acceptably capable of blocking adjacent signals for a radio in this price class.
That being said, the X6100 receiver does overload when in the presence of a strong broadcast station. Several of the X6100’s early adopters who follow QRPer.com reported this and found that even a $5 external BCI filter completely solves this problem. While I realize that Xiegu is a low-cost leader, I do wish the manufacturer had implemented some BCI filtering internally.
I’ve only experienced overloading during one fairly remote field activation. Back home, I checked and discovered I was perhaps five miles away from a local AM broadcaster at the time. The station audio was bleeding through the entire 40 meter band and, of course, most noticeable when in SSB mode. It was a little distracting, I’ll admit, but I still managed some very heavy CW and SSB pileups during that particular session. The overloading didn’t seem to affect what I could hear in any profound way.
If you plan to purchase the X6100 and live near a broadcaster, you might need to plan on purchasing (or building) a simple BCI filter.
These days, I do more CW operation than anything else. In the past, Xiegu rigs tended, at least initially, to have issues with CW electronic keyer timing (especially with the Xiegu GSOC sidetone latency).
When I took the X6100 on my very first park activation, I did the entire activation in CW and had no issues with the keyer. In fact, my keying accuracy might have even been a tad better than normal. That said, I have gotten messages from some X6100 owners noting that it’s taken them quite some time to adjust to the keyer in the X6100.
The X6100 electronic keyer feels identical to that of the X5105, which, frankly, took me a bit of time to get used to. Perhaps my transition to the X6100 was easier because of my experience with the X5105…?
I’ve always likened the experience of electronic keying in radios to that of driving a manual transmission. I’m quite used to driving a manual five speed 1997 Dodge Ram 2500 diesel truck; therefore, if you put me in a manual transmission sports car, I’ll be able to drive it, but for a while it’s likely to feel awkward. The timing between gears, depth of the clutch pedal, throw of the gear shifter––all of these things factor into the driving experience and may not translate readily if you switch vehicles. It takes time to feel comfortable with that change.
I feel that if you’re using a Xiegu radio for the first time, you might need some quality CW hours to get used to the minute differences in keying.
In addition, I choose not to lower the T/R recovery time to the lowest setting. I believe some operators do this, believing it will give them true QSK, but in truth the X6100 can’t do proper full break-in. The X6100 uses relay switching that can be set as low as 0 milliseconds, but even with this setting you cannot hear between sent elements as you might with the IC-705, KX1, KX2, KX3, FT-817/818, or many other modern transceivers.
If you have issues with keying, try setting the recovery time to 200ms. I find that it’s a sweet spot for me, and the difference between that setting and 0 ms is, at most, still fairly negligible.
Since the X6100 uses relays, there is some slight clicking noise, but it’s very minor and will likely go unnoticed in the field (especially if your QSK time is set at 200ms and above).
At the end of the day, X6100 has all of the features and adjustments a CW op would want: straight key or paddle selection, keyer speed, sidetone frequency, Iambic A/B, sidetone level, QSK time, ratio adjustment, and a CW trainer mode that produces sidetone without transmitting.
The X6100 also has CW message memory-keying, much easier to use on this rig than on its predecessor, the X5105.
I’ve easily made 100 or more contacts with the X6100 hunting parks and summits in SSB mode. Even at the factory default settings, it has worked perfectly well, and I’ve received good audio reports. SSB controls (at time of publication) are somewhat basic. In the Radio Settings 1 menu you have two mic gain adjustments, mic selection (hand mic, built-in, auto), and a PTT mode adjustment (normal/toggle). I was a little surprised Xiegu hadn’t included a TX EQ (equalization) feature, as many modern SDR-based radios have this. Perhaps this will be added later?
One thing that makes the X6100 quite unique is that it has a built-in microphone on the body of the radio. Besides the (tr)uSDX and Chinese uSDX, the only other radios I know that have this feature are the X5105 and the Elecraft KX2. From the standpoint of a summit activator, I absolutely love this feature as it means there’s no real need to pack a separate microphone.
Indeed, the very first SSB contact I made with the X6100 was using the built-in microphone. I heard my buddy Mike (K8MRD) activating a park in Texas and thought he would soon be going off the air. I didn’t have time to dig the X6100 hand mic out of the product box, so I simply hit the PTT button on the top of the radio and made contact. Mike gave me a great signal report and said the audio sounded great; he did notice that the built-in mic gave my audio a bit of a “roomy” type echo. No doubt, since the mic is within the radio chassis, the enclosure itself has some minor effect on the audio.
The X6100 (unlike the X5105) has voice-message memory keying; a major pro for field activators and operators who want to automate rapid exchanges.
The X6100 does also offer wireless connectivity and I will be watching with interest this year to see if it’s developed to the point that an operator can use digital modes in the field without a data control cable. The IC-705 can do this as long as you’re running their remote application on your computing device. I’m uncertain if this functionality will be fully-developed in the X6100, but I certainly hope so.
Note that some even hope since the X6100 software has roots in the Linux operating system, it might be hacked into a stand-along FT8 transceiver! Time will tell.
Shortwave Listening (SWLing)
The X6100 offers a maximum AM filter width of 9 kHz, brilliant for SWLs who appreciate a wider bandwidth when listening to strong stations playing music.
The first thing I tested on the X6100 after turning it on for the first time was how well it worked as a shortwave broadcast receiver. I tuned through the 31 meter band and listened to both strong and weak stations.
What is my opinion?
In short: I would not buy the Xiegu X6100 specifically for shortwave broadcast listening.
While the frequency coverage is ideal, the variable filters are useful, and the color spectrum display and waterfall (in terms of the interface) are benchmark, the radio has a few cons from an SWL’s perspective:
- I have noticed imaging on the spectrum display as I tune through the broadcast bands (shortwave and mediumwave). I seriously doubt this is something that can be addressed in firmware.
- The X6100 does not have a robust front end. As mentioned earlier, the receiver is prone to overload in the presence of local broadcast stations.
- Again, the audio is typical of Xiegu radios, meaning it’s unrefined and a bit harsh. I find it fatiguing over extended listening sessions using both the internal speaker and the headphones.
In fairness, the X6100 wasn’t designed with the SWL in mind and any internal filtering was designed around the ham radio bands. As with any transceiver, all bets are off once you leave the ham bands.
Early on, I noticed that the X6100’s internal battery, when fully charged, would only get me through perhaps two 45-60 minute field activations. The X5105, in contrast, seems to go on forever (indeed, I’ve even made five activations on one battery charge!).
Xiegu recently released a firmware update that should help with the battery management. I installed this update, but only a week before this article was submitted. Xiegu suggests four full charge/discharge cycles before the new firmware can optimize battery management. It’s still early days, but I suspect this may help with battery life to some degree. [Update: I still find that the battery life is mediocre.]
It’s not too surprising the X6100 has less battery life than the X5105: first of all, the battery is supporting a full-color backlit screen, secondly the X5105 has a larger 3800 mAh battery while the X6100 has a 3500 mAh battery.
Still: the simple fact that the X6100 has an internal battery that can be charged from a simple “wall wart” power supply or shack power supply is huge for portable operation.
Frankly, this is one of Xiegu’s strong suits. Their ATUs are some of the fastest, widest range, and quietest ATUs I’ve ever tested. I’m convinced I could attach the X6100 to a wet noodle and it would find an acceptable impedance match.
The X6100’s internal ATU sets a benchmark for portable radios. I believe it might even give Elecraft’s KX-line ATUs a run for their money.
Elephant in the room
There’s no doubt that Xiegu has become a low-cost leader in the HF transceiver market. Their products are often 30-50% less expensive than the competition. With that lower price point, we can’t expect the performance, specifications, quality, and support we get from other manufacturers.
This is especially noticeable if you’re a Xiegu early adopter.
Whereas manufacturers like Kenwood, Yaesu, Elecraft, and Icom might require some early firmware updates to fix minor bugs that made it through their alpha and beta testing communities, Xiegu’s philosophy is completely different.
Xiegu seems to take a radio from concept to production in very short order. I believe that being based in China gives them an economies-of-scale––and of speed––to production few other ham radio manufacturers can enjoy.
The flip side to this speed, however, is that we expect early adopters to also be Beta testers. In other words, Xiegu products basically hit the market half-baked. For example, many of the announced features of the X6100 (audio recording, WiFi, Bluetooth, CW message memories, etc.) were nonexistent in early production runs. Many of these features have been slowly deployed via monthly firmware updates. Some still aren’t available several months into production. As an X6100 early adopter, you must expect to do frequent firmware updates (which requires flashing their 200+ MB .iso file to a MicroSD card each time).
I suppose what I’m getting at here is that if you’re not the sort of person who enjoys a bit of hands-on discovery and experimentation with your new HF transceiver, you might wait a few months or even a year before purchasing the X6100. To wait, in other words, until the firmware is fully “mature.”
Firmware updates are a bit annoying, but I don’t really mind them personally. Like many others have told me, “for the budget-friendly price” I’m willing to take a risk and perform updates as they are published.
That said, this philosophy and rush to market makes it very difficult for early reviewers to give purchase decision guidance. Much depends on how committed Xiegu remains to updating and improving their firmware over the long-haul. Based on the success of the G90 and X5105, I would anticipate that Xiegu will continue to add features and improve the X6100 this year.
Longevity and quality
Keep in mind that I’m still relatively new to the world of Xiegu products. My first Xiegu radio was the G90 and I felt it was a quality low-cost radio. Based on feedback I’ve received from G90 early adopters, it’s a little tank and has proven to be reliable.
The X5105 was the second Xiegu radio I reviewed and, again, it has been serving me well over the past year; I have no major complaints. I have heard from a few X5105 early adopters noting that the built-in Li-Ion battery needs to be replaced within 2-3 years. A couple friends with X5105s have even had issued that required repair or replacement. One common complaint is that there’s currently no North American-based repair or service center for Xiegu products. Once the radio is outside of the warranty period, you’re on your own unless the retailer steps in to help.
The first X6100 I received was a loaner from Radioddity; I had that particular radio for about three weeks and mechanically it was very sound. When I returned the loaner unit, I purchased a new X6100 from Radioddity primarily so I could experiment with it as new firmware updates were released. The unit I received at the end of January 2022 had an issue: its encoder had a rough spot where it tended to brake after about three complete turns. It made using the finger dimple problematic. Xiegu sent me video instructions showing how to adjust the encoder brake. The process required disassembling the radio including breaking the warranty seal (though Radioddity assured me it would have no effect on the warranty). I made the adjustment and the encoder was improved but the rough braking still happened every 5 to 7 complete turns of the tuning knob. No doubt, it was a mechanical issue with the encoder. Radioddity dispatched a replacement and paid return shipping.
The third X6100 I received doesn’t have this issue with the encoder, however, the encoder brake in general is tight. It’s tight enough that, again, the finger dimple really isn’t useful. I don’t personally mind a little extra brake in a field radio’s encoder, but I prefer a smooth, free-flowing encoder at the QTH. I now know how to adjust the brake, but I’d rather not break the warranty seal because if I decide to sell this radio within a year, it’ll be less desirable with the seal broken. I’ll just live with the tight brake. I have also noticed in startup, when the screen is black, I see a little light bleed through from the backlit button LEDs on the left side of the radio. It’s not noticeable while the screen is active–only in startup–so it’s not really a problem. I did not notice this in the first two models I received.
All this to say that I do have some questions about Xiegu product quality and longevity, but frankly only time will tell. If you purchase a Xiegu product, I do believe it’s important to check out all radio functions when you receive it and report back to the retailer immediately if you notice any obvious mechanical issues.
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 some of my initial impressions. Here is the list I’ve formed over the time I’ve spent evaluating the X6100.
- Complete “shack-in-a-box” design includes:
- internal rechargeable battery,
- internal ATU, and
- built-in microphone
- Excellent size and weight for portable operation
- Durable chassis and screen
- Superb screen resolution and color
- Exceptional ATU performance
- Ergonomics are an improvement over the X5105
- Dedicated buttons for mode, band, PTT, pre-amp/attenuator, split, memory/VFO, AGC, fast tuning
- Capable front-facing speaker (see cons)
- Competitive pricing
- Receiver can overload if near a broadcast station
- Fold-out legs seem weak and often fold when radio is placed on table
- Audio is somewhat harsh and noisy (see pro)
- Not all features and functions have been included and/or refined; firmware updates are expected (and in some cases, needed)
- Some early adopters (your author included) have reported issues with battery life, encoder braking, and units that simply failed to power up
- At time of publishing, much of the wireless connectivity, recording capabilities, and other promised features still aren’t fully implemented
- Encoder brake cannot be adjusted without voiding the warranty and opening the entire unit
- At time of publishing, no North American Xiegu repair/service center
- Built-in rechargeable battery life not as good as the X5105
For me, the main negative of the X6100 is the fact that it might overload depending on where you operate it. Fortunately this can be remedied with an inexpensive homebrew or off-the-shelf BCI filter. It’s quite possible some of the overloading issues may be addressed via firmware updates, though that remains to be seen. I’ve found that adjusting RF gain and using attenuation can help minimize the bleed-through of a loud broadcaster to some degree, but it also affects all signals, including those you’re targeting. In the meanwhile, I plan to build a small BCI filter in a little recycled tin box that once held mints; I’ll carry this in my X6100 pack.
With that said, I worked a very intense CW and SSB pileup situation while the X6100 was overloading; I couldn’t tell that this had any meaningful effect on my ability to successfully copy the stations that were calling me.
So the question you might be pondering is, “Should I buy a Xiegu X6100?”
Since, to some degree, the X6100 is a work in progress, with firmware updates due to fix minor issues and add promised features, it’s difficult to offer a solid recommendation. In truth, it depends on you.
The X6100 might not be for you if you:
- prefer a polished, high-performance portable radio,
- dislike frequent firmware updates,
- are primarily a CW operator who doesn’t require a color spectrum display,
- plan to do a lot of broadcast listening outside of the ham bands, or if you
- already own the X5105.
On the other hand, you might love the X6100 if you:
- like an inexpensive, dedicated all-in-one radio,
- seek a feature-rich, truly portable transceiver,
- don’t expect higher-level ($1400) performance in a $640 radio,
- want a spectrum and waterfall display on your portable radio,
- like experimenting and testing new features in the form of firmware updates,
- are willing to use an in-line BCI filter if overloading is detected, or
- simply love the concept, future wireless connectivity, Linux hacking potential, and related possibilities of the X6100.
If you’re looking for an affordable, full-featured multi-mode radio to have at the ready for impromptu field radio fun, I believe you might enjoy the X6100.