Thomas, I’ve watched a number of your videos and read your activation reports. I’m studying for both my Technician and General class license right now and hope to pass both in one session later this month. I’m also learning CW.
I consider myself an audiophile and appreciate good audio fidelity. I know that amateur radio modes are narrow and by their very nature have less audio fidelity than commercial broadcast modes.
I’ve already obtained a Kenwood TS-590G for the shack. It was practically given to me by a friend. I’m very pleased with its audio fidelity especially when I connect it to an external speaker.
Next year, I plan to buy a dedicated QRP field radio. Out of the radios you’ve owned, what are your favorites in terms of audio fidelity. Also, what are your least favorites?
What a great question, Charles!
Being an audiophile, I’m sure you understand that this is a very subjective area: one person’s idea of good audio might not match that of someone else’s.
I can only speak to how I evaluate a transceiver’s audio.
What makes for good audio?
To me, “good audio” means the radio
- produces clear accurate sound,
- has stable AGC (Auto Gain Control),
- has audio properties that benefit amateur radio modes like CW and SSB,
- has enough audio amplification to be heard in noisy field conditions,
- and has little to no internally-generated noises leaking into the audio amplification chain. (In other words, a low noise floor.)
In contrast, radios with poor audio
- sound noisy/harsh,
- have a high noise floor or produce audio hash making it difficult to hear weak signals,
- have speakers that become distorted at higher volume levels,
- have poor AGC characteristics which lead to pumping,
- and are simply fatiguing to listen to during extended on-air sessions (like long activations or contests).
I would add that a good receiver front end is an important part of audio because it keeps imaging and overloading at bay, thus producing a less cluttered and noisy audio experience.
My field audio favorites
I’ll keep this discussion limited to QRP field portable radios. There are numerous 100 watt desktop radios with excellent audio because those models aren’t trying to limit their current consumption like field radios typically do. They can use more amperage to benefit audio amplification and push a much larger speaker.
In addition, I’ll limit the scope to field radios with built-in speakers. There are some great CW-only radios out there that lack an internal speaker but have great audio (thinking of the Penntek TR-35 and the Elecraft KX1, for example); choice of earphones or headphones can have a dramatic effect on audio. That’s a different discussion altogether!
Best audio: My top three picks
The following are three of my favorite portable field radios in terms of audio quality. I limited myself to three simply because all of the radios I use regularly in the field have what I would consider good and acceptable audio.
The following are simply stand-outs, in my opinion:
The Icom IC-705
I believe the IC-705 produces the best overall audio of any field radio I own.
The internal speaker provides crystal clear audio and the volume can be cranked up so that it can be heard in noisy field conditions without distorting–say, on a windy beach as seen above.
The receiver is quiet, the front end is nearly bullet-proof, AGC is stable and adjustable, the filtering is amazing, and the user can even adjust the audio EQ.
Of course, this kind of performance comes at a cost. The IC-705 is one of the priciest field radios I own (currently around $1,350 US).
The Penntek TR-45L
If you checked out my latest POTA activation video with the new Penntek TR-45L, you’ll have no doubt heard me brag about this little CW-only radio’s audio.
The TR-45L has a very low noise floor and stable AGC. The speaker mounted on the side of the radio uses the enclosure as an effective acoustic chamber.
End result is, the TR-45L produces very warm audio and beautifully reproduces CW.
Note, however, that the TR-45L can only transmit in CW mode. That said, it can receive SSB and it sounds superb as well.
The TR-45L’s audio reminds me of a good 1970s era solid state radio.
That’s a high compliment in my world.
The Elecraft KX2
I use the KX2 more than any other radio I’ve ever owned.
Like other Elecraft radios, the KX2 has excellent receiver characteristics (good front end, good filtering, good dynamic range, low noise floor, etc.) that make for an overall pleasant listening experience.
It is one of the most compact radios I own, thus the internal speaker is small and can’t produce the volume of the other two radios mentioned above.
That said, it is an improvement over the KX3’s built-in speaker (in terms of volume) and I have never been in a field situation where it wasn’t loud enough. Overall, it’s a very balanced package and this is, no doubt, why I reach for it so often.
Some radios that could use improvement
A big caveat here: I feel like the following radios would benefit from better audio. None of these are what I would consider “unacceptable” for field use. In fact, I own or have owned all of these and have had a lot of fun in the field with them.
If–as in Charles’ case–audio fidelity is very important to you, you might take note here.
I wish Xiegu would spend time improving the audio fidelity of their radios. I’ve owned and/or reviewed the G90, GSOC, X5105, X6100, and am currently evaluating the G106.
Without a doubt, I believe the G90 is the best of the Xiegu bunch in terms of audio (click here to read my full review). No doubt this is why it’s so popular in the world of POTA.
But both radios produce unrefined, harsh audio. Neither of them have internal speakers that can be pushed hard without distorting. They both have a “tinny” quality to them.
To be honest? Most of the time, the audio is fine for the field. But I think it’s particularly unpleasant when earphones are needed.
I remember using the X5105 last year at the New River State Park campground in the early morning. I didn’t want to disturb my neighbors, so I used earphones. After 30 minutes on the air, I honestly wanted the little pile-up I generated to stop just so I could take the earphones off. It was a really unpleasant experience and that’s while you won’t see me using earphones with my X5105 except in a pinch.
I’m also testing the new Xiegu G106 right now and find that it’s audio is pretty lacking too.
Again, I wish Xiegu would spend a little time improving the audio in their otherwise feature-packed radios.
Another radio worth mentioning is the (tr)uSDX which I actually think is an amazing radio in so many respects.
But audio is just not its strong suit.
In truth? It’s hard to criticize the (tr)SDX because it is utilizing its hardware to the max and it’s insanely affordable.
If audio quality is important to you though, you might look elsewhere. The internal speaker (without modification) is very weak and easily distorts (squeals, even); then again, I wouldn’t even expect a speaker on a $115 transceiver. Overall audio characteristics are better than I expected, but the noise floor is pretty high. If you want to hear for yourself, check out the activation video in this field report.
What are your favorites?
I’m curious what you think? What are your favorite field radios (or shack radios) in terms of audio quality? Please comment!