Tag Archives: Ten-Tec

Ten-Tec has a new owner with a long-term vision

TenTecLogoMany thanks to several readers who sent a link to this discussion by software engineer, John Henry (KI4JPL) on the Ten-Tec email discussion group:

I wanted to bring people up to date on what is happening right now.

I had a discussion with the new owner last night, and I wanted to relay some information.

He is now officially the new owner of TEN-TEC.

He is planning the rigs and amplifiers and other accessory products to engineer and to manufacture for the coming year to cover the purchase and expenses for the year, working on the details of the various plans for service, sales, and marketing, etc.

Don’t underestimate the amount of time and planning and effort that this business strategy planning maintaining overhead etc stuff takes.

Learning lessons from the past to help the future of the company be more viable.

What will you see? and when?

Planning on having the OMNI-VII back in production in 1st quarter 2016, hoping to ship in 2nd quarter 2016.

Dayton, He will be there, going to try to get the same TEN-TEC booth/booths as possible. Showcasing the existing products, and possibly something new based on the existing products, time will tell.

He did say that he will either bring back the Orion II or have an Orion III. Time frame is tbd. could be as early as end of 2016 or Dayton 2017????

There might be improvements/changes to certain rigs, e.g. maybe there will be an OMNI-VII+ maybe an OMNI-VIII in a year???

The Eagle will go back into production some time after the 1st OMNI-VII run.

Prices will return to the original pre liquidation sale prices when the new website is up so that each will be at a point that will make enough profit to make the company viable. Other features will get added where possible.

TEN-TEC was actually shipping a $200 bill with every one of a specific model that it sold this last year.

There were so many ways that TEN-TEC has been hemorrhaging over the last couple of years, and even back a bit further, that changes will have to be made. Some the public won’t like, but then the alternative is that TEN-TEC would close forever.

Also remember, it was made public that the two owners of RKR were looking for a new owner, and how many stood up to say “I’ll buy it/fund it/save it”. This gentleman did and will do what he has to do to keep the brands alive.

There are plans to bring back some VERY good products, items that have been big sellers for TEN-TEC just a few years ago, and were profitable and have been requested for quite some time.

Also, there are still commercial orders coming in that will be there for maybe another year or two using the same RX331/RX340 platforms that will help him maintain a cash flow that will help realize amateur market production runs. There might be a need in the future to try to raise some more capital if certain plans come to fruition with commercial and fema customers, if those work out, may need to raise some cash to buy the parts, so there might be a gofundme funding campaign set up, where amateur customers can help donate to purchase the parts, and then part of or all of or x times the amount of the donation is taken off of their next order of a TEN-TEC product > a certain dollar amount. No, don’t look for exchanging your $100 donation to cover 1/2 of a Rebel, that won’t happen, Talking a major product, e.g. an OMNI-VII, or a high powered amp….. To do this first class, we need a 200K capital infusion for a new factory building and some new equipment to replace that was liquidated if anyone cares to step
up and accelerate our success. 400K would give us the facility, equipment and capitol to put everything back in production to a stocking basis and allow us to complete the Orion III. If 400 people will give us 1K each, we will commit to the Orion III of your dreams in 18-24 months and give you 2K off the target price of 5K as well as engrave your name and call on a plaque on the new building that says you helped build it and save TEN TEC.

Where do I fit in?

No, I’m not the owner, but I am going to do whatever I can in the evenings to ensure that TEN-TEC is a success. I want to see it be a success, and maintain what can be maintained of the people, and improve it’s image/products/etc back to where they were years ago. The owner is quite insistent that I remain intimately involved with TEN-TEC even if it is on a part time basis. It is my choice of how much or little I spend on TEN-TEC
and the door is assuredly left open for me to come and go as I please. He wants me to be the VP of Engineering, but, well, time will tell how all of this plays out.

I am also working on digital modes for HRD, so, my evenings are quite interesting.

In the future, who knows?

Where do you fit in?

Be patient, this is a total reboot of a company, ripping away the excess that bleeds it dry (e.g. high rent, using an MRP system that costs $$$$ monthly when something is already in place to take care of it, changing to a cost effective internet/phone system, so many “luxuries” will be removed and put in their place the necessities to get business going profitably), and building the business and products with the key employees to make it strong again. You build the employees, the employees build the company. But it will take time.

The products are there, the technology is also there for the future (some things that were in the works that no one in the public knows about) that the new owner has a plan to finish soon.

Actually, TEN-TEC does need to take the time it will take to make it a success. Otherwise if he runs headlong into this as was done in the past, he will fail. If people buy rigs and amps and tuners and other accessories elsewhere in the meantime, well, that is their decision. The market continually has new and continued customers. existing customers periodically look for something new, enough of a continual market that should sustain itself for years.

The new products coming out that are planned include continuances of good known technology, and of course some are a step ahead of what is in the market today, and you will see those in 1-2-3 years.

I will not divulge nor answer speculation on anything further than what I have stated above as to what products, when, etc. I can also tell you is that the owner has emphatically stated to me that this the last time Ten Tec will change hands for the next 15-20 years or so as he is my age and plans for us both to operate it until we are in our 70s or physically unable to continue, so Ten Tech could not be in the hands of anyone more SERIOUSLY long term goal oriented. He has wanted Ten Tech for a long time for the excellent DSP AGC technology built in to our transceivers so I think it is safe to say that there will be future generations of the Omni, and Orion style units as finances permit. But again in order for this to happen it is critical that YOU support TEN TEC by purchasing existing TEN TEC products. Look for the Omni 7+ next year.

So, whereas he still wants to remain anonymous until his formal announcement in the first quarter, I myself am convinced that this will work, enough so to help him wherever I can, and so are the key core employees at TEN-TEC. If anything, our message at this time is please be patient with the negativity. There are other things happening behind the scenes which can not yet be publically discussed before they are finished.

If this sounds like cheerleading, well, then so be it, I care about TEN-TEC, the people, the legacy, and will do what I can to make it a success, and, if this fails, well, we will give it a valiant effort.

Please understand that I have other commitments from now until Monday next week that I may not be able to respond/answer questions until then. But do realize, that I have disclosed about as much as I can for now.
This statement came from a draft I created, and the new owner gave me inputs on, which items he felt like disclosing now, etc. So, there may be some he/I/our’s mixed up, but I hope the message from him is clear. TEN-TEC is something he is passionate about, and is committed to making it a success. Yes, there are trials and tribulations, but, he is convinced he can do it, and I will do whatever I can to assist, and so will various core TEN-TEC individuals.

73, KI4JPL

John Henry

This is a most interesting development. As many of you know, I’ve always loved Ten-Tec equipment–I consider their receivers to be some of the best on the market. It’s been a tough few years for them and I certainly hope the new owner can inject some energy and innovation behind the brand. I will post updates as they become available.

RKR Designs have acquired Alpha Amplifier and TEN-TEC brands

Ten-Tec-Alpha(Source: TEN-TEC Press Release)

(April 2, 2015) RKR Designs, LLC of Longmont Colorado has announced that they have acquired the assets of Alpha Amplifier and TEN-TEC brands from RF Concepts. RKR plans to expand the product line, while continuing to service their customers that have enjoyed their products over the years.

The principals of RKR Designs are Richard Gall, Ken Long and Rich Danielson (Gall and Danielson of QSC Systems, Longmont, Colorado have been a successful contract manufacturer, for over 20 years). Ken Long, N0QO has over 20 years in the electronics and amateur radio industry. Long will be President and CEO of the new company. QSC has been building Alpha amplifiers for over 5 years. They have also been building boards for TEN-TEC since their purchase by RF Concepts last year. Mr. Long said “QSC has always been a fantastic contract manufacturer, and has the expertise and knowledge that will allow us to bring down costs, while increasing quality and reducing manufacturing times.”

When asked for comment, Michael Seedman, AA6DY said “I can’t think of a more capable group of people to take over the 45 year Alpha Amplifier/TEN-TEC legacy. Ken Long has been involved with the industry for years, and has a great feeling for products and operations. He has the manufacturing and engineering resources available to deliver quality products that our customers demand”. Mr. Seedman went on to say “Alpha and TEN-TEC have always had a warm spot in my heart, and I am thrilled that RKR Designs will be able to continue the operations of the business. I wish them the best”.

Ken, Richard and Rich have been working very close over the past several years and feel that this new relationship will benefit the company and customers moving forward. This closer relationship to the contract manufacturer will allow a more consistent process and delivery of quality products along with significant cost benefits.

RKR Designs LLC is privately held, and terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Looking forward to the 2014 Dayton Hamvention and FDIM

Each year, I attend the Dayton Hamvention and much of the QRP conference, Four Days in May.  This year, I’ll be working our Ears To Our World table again, along with other volunteers, at booth 411 in the Ball Arena (BA411). Please stop by and introduce yourself!

What I love about the Hamvention is that it is a one-stop-shop for innovations appearing in our radio world.

Here are a few of the companies I’ll be following at the Hamvention this year:

Ten-Tec

Ten-Tec-AlphaTen-Tec announced yesterday that it will merge with Alpha Amplifiers under the flag of RF Concepts. I plan to stop by Ten-Tec’s booth Friday and learn more about the merger. Personally, I believe the merger with Alpha Amplifiers is a good move. Both of these companies are known for great customer service and quality US-based design and manufacturing.

I know Ten-Tec is introducing a new open-source product to their line, the Patriot, because I’ve been beta testing one (check QRPer.com for details later this week).

Icom

Icom-ID-5100Icom will showcase their new ID-5100 D-star, dual band, mobile with built-in GPS. While I’m more of an HF guy, this radio does intrigue me. You see, for almost one year now, I’ve been very pleased with my Icom ID-51A, dual-band, D-Star handie talkie (HT).

I find D-Star to be a very flexible digital mode and I’m amazed with how many interesting mom-and-pop companies have produced products for the D-Star mode. I’m surprised neither Yaesu nor Kenwood has adopted the D-Star standard (it’s not proprietary to Icom–indeed, read about the CS7000 below).

The new ID-5100 is a mobile version of my ID-51a. What I love about this radio is that it can store repeater frequencies and dynamically load them based on your geographic location. Perhaps my largest gripe with mobile VHF/UHF rigs is their inability to adapt to the repeater “landscape” when you travel. The ID-5100 may change this and push other manufacturers in the same direction.

Connect Systems

CS700_WEBIn less than a year, Connect Systems has become a household name among ham radio enthusiasts who love VHF/UHF and digital modes.

This Connect Systems is developing an HT–the CS7000–which will be the first non-Icom radio to have the D-Star digital mode. Whatsmore, in addition to D-Star, the CS7000 will also pack DMR.

I don’t think Connect Systems will have a working prototype at the Hamvention (I could be wrong), but there is a possibility that they will be taking early orders.

Elad

FDM-DUO-openingI’ve been intrigued by the Elad line of Software Defined Recievers. This year, they will attend the Dayton Hamvention. I look forward to checking out the new FDM-DUO tabletop SDR. I plan to review some of the Elad product line in the near future.

Palstar

Last year, Palstar showcased a prototype QRP transceiver with touch screen interface. To my knowledge, this would be Palstar’s first transceiver (though they’re well known for antenna tuners and their shortwave radio receiver, the R30A).

Last year, I was told that the new Palstar transceiver would be available this year and would retail between $1,600 – 2,000 US (a rather steep price for a transceiver with 20 watts output). One of the transceiver’s designers assured me that the receiver would “be worth the price.”

Bonito

antennajet_front_hamradio2013I’ll stop by Bonito’s booth to check out their new AntennaJet ASM300.  I’m curious how it works and what the Hamvention price will be.

Though pricing is a little steep, I might bring one home as I often would like to share one antenna with two receivers simultaneously.

Elecraft

PX3The only new product I know of from Elecraft is the PX3 Panadapter for their Kx3 transceiver. Reviews of the larger P3 Panadapter for the Elecraft K3 are excellent, so I imagine this will be a great product. I hope to check out the PX3 at the Elecraft booth–I believe they’ll have a prototype on display.

SDRs

For the past three years, the market for software defined radios has been growing rapidly. I’ll be on the lookout for anything new–especially improvements on current 3rd generation SDRs.

Did I miss something?

Please comment if there’s something you’d like me to check out at the Hamvention–I’ll try to include it!

Again, if you’re attending the Hamvention, please stop by and introduce yourself at our booth: 411 in the Ball Arena (BA411).

2013 Ten-Tec Hamfest and W4DXCC: Rob Sherwood guest

TenTecLogoAlong with the Dayton Hamvention, I try to attend the Ten-Tec hamfest every year. Not only is it one of the hamfests nearest my home base, but also their “radios only” free tailgating is the source of many great quality radio finds. In the past, I’ve purchased several “boat anchors” and Ten-Tec radios at this event’s tailgating.

This year I’ll be joining the ranks of tailgaters as well, as I reluctantly part ways with my trusted OMNI VI+ in order to pay for some shack upgrades. If you come to the hamfest, be sure to stop by and say hello.

Moreover, this year Ten-Tec has invited Rob Sherwood (NC0B) of Sherwood Engineering to a speak-and-greet. I know Rob; he’s a great presenter, and you’d be hard pressed to find a guy more knowledgeable about receiver design. His free presentation will take place at 11:00 am on Saturday. (He will also host a forum Friday night at the W4DXCC–see below).

Here’s the Ten-Tec Hamfest presentation schedule (see full details on their website):

Friday Afternoon Forms:

1:00 PM  John Occhipinti will speak about the Ten-Tec user nets followed up with a 40 meter SSB net beginning at 2:00 PM direct from the TEN-TEC Homecoming Hamfest.

Saturday Morning Forums:

9:00 AM  Learn about the new FG-01 Antenna Analyzer by You Kits  (Jim Wharton, NO4A)

10:00 AM  Learn what makes a quality receiver  (Rob Sherwood, NCØB)

11:00 AM  Learn about the many features offered with the TEN-TEC 506 Rebel  (Craig Behrens, NM4T)

…and QRP @ W4DXCC

W4DXCC-Logo-2013-Blue2Each year, the W4DXCC coincides with the Ten-Tec Hamfest, and I always try to attend this excellent event, too. My buddy Dave Anderson (K4SV) is the new president of the W4DXCC, and does a fantastic job putting together an informative, fun event. I’ve made many friendships there over the years.

Though the W4DXCC is a DXer/Contesting convention, that definition isn’t strict, so don’t think for a moment that QRP doesn’t have a place there–! Indeed, my good friend, Vlado (N3CZ), is opening the convention with a presentation on QRPer operation.  I do hope he will also display some of his homebrew QRP transceivers (one of which was built into a USB keychain!); no doubt his presentation will be very interesting.

If you’re planning to attend the Ten-Tec hamfest, consider spending the remainder of the day at the nearby W4DXCC. At $30 at the door, it’s a bargain, and I promise you’ll return home with new friends and an even better understanding of DXing.  Come join the fun!

TEN-TEC Introduces the Model 506 Rebel: an open-source QRP transceiver

The TEN-TEC Model 506 Rebel 20/40 meter QRP Transceiver (Photo: TEN-TEC--click to enlarge)
The TEN-TEC Model 506 Rebel 20/40 meter QRP Transceiver (Photo: TEN-TEC–click to enlarge)

Today, at the QRP ARCI convention–Four Days In May–TEN-TEC will announce a new QRP transceiver based upon a completely different platform than any others rigs they have in production: a QRP radio, built on the chipKIT™ Uno32™ (Arduino-based software) to be known as the Model 506 Rebel.

And, folks, I’ve been lucky enough to get my mitts on a prototype…!

The Model 506 Rebel

The TEN-TEC Model 506 Rebel is an open-source (meaning, anybody can program it), factory-built QRP transceiver based on a Chip Kit Uno 32 Arduino-compatible prototyping platform, which serves as the main processing unit that holds the Rebel’s program. (For those of you not familiar with the Arduino series, check out this article.)

And I have to admit, I love the concept: TEN-TEC delivers a factory-built, uber-simple transceiver, with just enough programming to reliably get you on the air with a basic radio (see details below). Users then have full access to develop and program the Rebel via an open-source platform, themselves. No need to wait on firmware revisions; firmware, in a sense, will be crowd-sourced! That’s to say, it uses online collaboration–a great idea.

According to TEN-TEC, the programming environment is very safe. Users can tinker with code without fear that they might harm their Rebel 506. The original base program can be re-flashed to the radio at any time. So if you can’t get past an error, you can always revert to a safe default copy.

In addition, even if you don’t have any idea how to program, someone has already created a web-based email group where users can upload and share code packages, and you can select someone else’s programming to test drive. Click here to join the group.

The Rebel is a CW-only transceiver that operates on 40 or 20 meters. The user changes bands by moving jumpers inside the chassis, mounted on the PC board.

The basic Rebel comes with no frequency display. When you turn on the radio, it comes up on the QRP calling frequency of 7.030 MHz or 14.060 MHz, depending on which band is selected. There is no VFO, but a DDS chip that is highly stable and that allows the Chip Kit Uno 32 to select a frequency upon which to operate. Of course, since the Chip Kit controls the DDS chip, you can re-program how the Rebel manages frequencies.

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)

Initial impressions

Last week, TEN-TEC sent me a prototype of the Rebel to Beta test. I’ve had it on the air several times–I’ve also popped the cover and given it a thorough inspection and workout. I’ll share my initial impressions below. I’m not commenting, however, on some specs like filtering, as they have not been finalized for production and are still subject to change. The unit I tested, keep in mind, was a prototype; production units will be still more polished and incorporate changes Beta testers have provided.

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)

Front Panel Layout

The front faceplate of the Rebel 506 is reminiscent of TEN-TEC QRP Kits, gloriously clean and simple. There is a large tuning knob in the middle with a SELECT button on the left and FUNCTION button on the right. Both buttons are large enough that you could comfortably use them even if wearing winter gloves. Above each button is a vertical row of just three LEDs: green, yellow and red. These colored LEDs simply indicate the position of the function/selection buttons.

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)

Function button controls

  • Band Width
  • Step Size
  • User-programmed functions

Select button selects

  • Bandwidth: Wide, Medium and Narrow
  • Tuning steps: 100 hz, 1 kHz or 10kHz
  • User, U1, U2 or U3

There are only two knobs: one for volume (AF gain) and one for RIT (+/- 500 Hz). There is also an ON/OFF simple toggle switch, and a rather classy touch from TEN-TEC–namely, a small LED light in the TEN-TEC logo itself. And that’s all, folks–bare-bones design.

No frequency display

The Rebel 506 does not come with a frequency display. However, there are features to help you understand where you are on the band as you turn the encoder:

  1. As you tune within the selected tuning steps, the LED in the TEN-TEC logo flashes as you pass each step; for example, if you’ve selected 100 Hz steps, then when you pass each 100 Hz step, the LED in the logo will flash once. When you reach either band edge, the LED stays lit. Again, a nice touch.
  2. When you turn on the (factory default) Rebel, the frequency starts on QRP calling frequencies 7.030 MHz (40M) or 14.060 MHz (20M)–of course, you could change these with programming.
  3. There are (already) third-party frequency displays that plug into the Rebel’s board, an easy addition.

Since I had neither frequency display nor frequency counter, I simply used my SDR’s waterfall display to locate where I was on the band. It’s also fairly easy to count the steps with the logo’s red LED.

Rear view (Click to enlarge)
Rear view (Click to enlarge)

Connections

On the rear panel, you’ll find a standard BNC antenna connection, a key/paddle port (1/8″), a speaker/headphone port (1/8″) and a standard DC port (10-15V reverse polarity protected) that equates to 4-5 watts output depending on supply voltage.

Key/Paddle input from the factory is only for straight key, but you can modify the code to make it a paddle input. Also, the headphone/speaker port defaults to headphone use from the factory, but there is a small jumper on the PCB that can me moved to drive a non-amplified speaker.

On production units (not on my prototype, however, nor on those at FDIM) there will be a CW side tone volume control pot via a small hole in the side of the Rebel’s enclosure. Also, production units will have a hole on the rear panel to allow for access to the ChipKit’s USB port.

The PCB has hooks, test pins, and inputs for the following:

  • Battery read pin: reads 0.20 of the supply voltage.
  • Power-out read pin: reads 0.50 of the RF pickup
  • Code read pin: ties to low level audio line, can be used to build a CW code reader
  • CW-speed read pin: DC voltage used to determine approximate speed of CW routine

All connections of the Chip Kit Uno32 are available on the top of the PCB.
The unit accepts Arduino-compatible Shields for such things as:

  • Prototyping
  • Displays
  • Audio DSP

Evidently, the Rebel has a lot of memory space for writing CW memory-keyer functions or whatever the user desires/dreams up. Even a voice synthesizer could be installed in the Rebel; indeed, I believe there are many mods and possibilities for the Rebel. The greatest limitation might simply be…the imagination of the user.

TEN-TEC was clear with me about the goal of the Rebel 506: “To provide a platform for users to experiment and to learn to program using Arduino-Compatible Code.”

The Rebel has a small form factor (Click to enlarge)
The Rebel has a small form factor (Click to enlarge)

I like it!

I have thoroughly enjoyed putting this little radio on the air. Let’s be clear, though: this is no Argonaut VI or Eagle, nor should it be expected to be. Receiver performance is on par with other QRP kits and rigs of its class. The Rebel is fairly sensitive and the noise floor is fairly low. Selectivity is adequate for most conditions, although I imagine crowded conditions could overwhelm this modest receiver.

When I had the Rebel on the air, I engaged in a bit of a rag-chew and found the audio quite pleasant from my GoalZero portable amplified speaker. And other than needing to adjust the side tone volume, the Rebel was ready to go, straight out of the box.

Criticisms? Well, it’s just too early to have many. I’ve passed along all my frank observations to TEN-TEC and they’re actually addressing them now (yet again, one of the many benefits of an American-based radio producer). If this were a $900 rig, performance-wise, I would complain about selectivity. But I’m willing to bet it’s at least as good as the Index Labs QRP ++ I once owned. In fact, though it’s not a full-featured general-coverage rig, it has that same sort of bare-boned fun factor the Index Labs radio provided me, along with many other QRP kits.

Field? I would totally take the Rebel into the field or backpacking. I have a hunch it uses less than 200 milliamps on receive. It’s modestly-sized and built like a little tank.

The Rebel lives up to open-source philosophy

The Arduino chipKIT Uno32™ Prototyping Platform
The Arduino chipKIT Uno32™ Prototyping Platform

Here is the amazing part about the Rebel: TEN-TEC only shipped me the radio–no connectors, no adapters, no power cord. At first, I thought I’d have to find an appropriate plug and solder my own power cord, not to mention figure out what other adapters I would need for my key/speaker…but I didn’t. The power port is very standard; the same one my LDG ATU, Elecraft K2 and KX1 use, with standard positive tip polarity. The Rebel’s antenna connector is a BNC, speaker and key ports are standard 1/8″ and the ChipKit board has a mini USB connection. The top cover is easy to remove–even the toggle switch, LEDs and selection buttons are all standard and easy to access for servicing. Everything is standard!

But it doesn’t stop there. The Rebel is truly an experimenter’s radio, and is meant to be. The programming is completely open-source and TEN-TEC is encouraging and facilitating users to tinker with the code and make hardware modifications at will.

Open-source technology is all about alteration and collaboration, the kind of environment we hams have always embraced. In the open-source world, nothing is proprietary; rather, everything is transparent, standard, accessible; supporting changes and modifications of every stripe. And in my humble opinion, it’s about fun. On these points, the Rebel delivers.

I have done some scripting in my past, but I am no professional programmer. Though many of my Maker friends had been urging me to give it a go, I hadn’t jumped on the Arduino band wagon until, well, now. The Rebel will serve both as a great intro to Arduino Compatible Code and a truly fun QRP rig. If TEN-TEC is lucky, this little rig may actually nudge some of my Maker friends to get their ham radio tickets.

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)

Price

TEN-TEC will be announcing the price of the Rebel 506 in Dayton, literally in just a few hours. I have no idea what it will be, but I’m fairly sure it’ll be competitive with other dual band QRP transceivers and kits on the market. I’ll post an update here when the price has been published. Stay tuned…

UPDATE: Pricing for the Rebel is $199 US.

By the way, if you’re at FDIM or the Hamvention this year, drop by booth 411 in the Ball Arena: I’d be happy to talk with you about the Rebel further (and my radio-based non-profit, Ears To Our World).

Disclaimer: Just to be clear, although I own TEN-TEC (also Elecraft and Yaesu) products, and although I Beta test for TEN-TEC on occasion, I have no formal relationship with TEN-TEC. Nor am I compensated by the company in any way. The opinions in this article and others on this site are frank and my own; they are not those of TEN-TEC.

A review of Ten-Tec’s Argonaut VI QRP transceiver, Model 539

The Ten-Tec Model 539, A.K.A. Argonaut VI
The Ten-Tec Model 539, A.K.A. Argonaut VI

And now, what we’ve all been waiting for:  the Ten-Tec Argonaut VI has finally hit the market.   Manufacturer Ten-Tec has already begun shipping the new units–I hear they’ve already sold out the first production run.  For the past two months, I have had the pleasure of beta-testing this newest QRP transceiver, and I’m ready to share my findings.  [Do please note that, other than beta-testing, I have no relationship with Ten-Tec.]

I authored a post about the Model 539 when Ten-Tec first disclosed it at their 2011 Hamfest. The reactions and questions from readers came flooding in–so many, in fact, that I invited readers to send in those questions to share with the engineers at Ten-Tec.  I presented these to the company, and posted Ten-Tec’s helpful responses.

Prototype of the Ten-Tec Model 539 QRP transceiver
Prototype of the Ten-Tec Model 539 QRP transceiver from the 2011 Ten-Tec Hamfest. Note that the speaker no longer has an externally mounted grill.

In truth, I don’t think that Ten-Tec was quite prepared for all of the interest in their modest QRP transceiver. But it was no surprise to me: I’ve always been a fan of Ten-Tec, and although I’ve not been as excited by the QRP offerings since the early Argonauts, I knew I wasn’t alone in my appreciation of this US-based radio company’s quality products.

The following review is not a test-bench review–it is, rather, a consideration of the usability, ergonomics, design, basic performance and, well, fun factor of the new Argonaut VI.  It’s only fair to note that I don’t review transceivers often; rather, I focus primarily on receiver reviews at my alternate radio blog.  But I could not resist the opportunity to investigate the newest in this venerable line of transceivers.

Size-wise, the Argonaut VI is smaller than the Elecraft K2 in every dimension.
Size-wise, the Argonaut VI is smaller than the Elecraft K2 in every dimension.

You will note that I compare the Argonaut VI to the Elecraft K2 a number of times. Why? In my opinion, the K2 is the Argonaut VI’s closest competitor. It, too, is a front-panel QRP transceiver not for general coverage. While there are a number of differences, of course, I nonetheless feel the K2 is a closer match than the new Elecraft KX3, the Yaesu FT-817, or the Icom IC-703. Plus, I have a K2 that I already know and love here in my shack, so by default it has been my point of comparison throughout the beta-testing period.

Argonaut VI: first impressions

The Argonaut VI is an attractive, simple, sturdy little radio. It reminds me a great deal of the Ten-Tec Scout outfitted with its simple front panel. The front features two knobs: one controls the AF gain, while its outer ring controls RF gain; the other controls the bandwidth, while its outer ring controls the pass band. There is also an appropriately-sized display panel, quality tuning knob (see below), four multi-function buttons, and a three-position toggle switch.

The TMB switch is a simple and effective way of giving the Argo VI's four function buttons multiple assignments.
The TMB switch is a simple and effective way of giving the Argo VI’s four function buttons multiple assignments.

A toggle switch? I can’t think of a recent front-panel radio in production that has had a proper mechanical toggle switch. On the Argo VI, this makes for a simple method to give the four function buttons a total of three one-push functions, each, for a total of twelve functions. Ten-Tec refers to this switch as the “TMB” (i.e., “Top-Middle-Bottom”) switch.

Size-wise, the Argonaut VI is smaller in every dimension than the K2 (see photos). Its physical dimensions are 2.25″H x 6.5″W x 7.6″D, less the knobs and connectors. It weighs a mere 3.6 lbs, and feels very light in my hands. The Argo VI has a sturdy Ten-Tec bail that snaps into the perfect position for tabletop operations. The display is crisp and clear, and actually contains a lot of information:

The Argonaut VI display is compact, yet crisp, clear and displays all important information.
The Argonaut VI display is compact, yet crisp, clear and displays all important information.
  • Frequency
  • 2nd VFO frequency
  • Mode
  • AGC speed
  • S Meter/SWR
  • Output power
  • Pre-amp

The display can be switched (via an internal setting) to blue (default), green, or red. One nice touch: the dot in the Ten-Tec logo is actually a red LED that lights up on transmit and ALC peaks.

Tuning knob

This is the best tuning knob I've ever used on a QRP rig
This is the best tuning knob I’ve ever used on a QRP rig

Perhaps I place more emphasis on a tuning knob that other hams. I liken it to shutting the door on a quality car: you want the door to shut solidly and feel substantial. But it may be more like a car’s steering wheel–after all, the tuning knob is how one interacts with the radio. To me, the tuning knob is often a measure of a radio’s overall quality, in my humble opinion.  As for the Argonaut VI?  Here’s the answer:  I was so impressed with the tuning knob on the Argonaut VI that I actually confirmed with Ten-Tec that the beta-unit’s tuning knob would also be used on production models. In short, the Argo VI’s tuning knob is heavy, perfectly-sized, has a light tactile grip, and is silky-smooth to operate. There is no play whatsoever in the action. I like the adaptive tuning, too–when you tune slowly, you’re changing the frequency by hundredths of a kHz; spin the knob quickly and you’ve just shot across the band. After tuning the Argo VI for a bit, other small radios’ tuning knobs begin to feel cheap.

IMG_6508Ergonomics/Usability

When I first played with the Argo VI at the Ten-Tec hamfest, I was impressed with the simplicity of the front panel. This is an important factor because I simply won’t use a radio that isn’t pleasant to use/control, and I find that too many front buttons and general visual fussiness can be a distraction. To illustrate my point, when the Yaesu FT-817 hit the market over a decade ago, I was among the first to purchase one. I liked the idea of a small transceiver that I could tuck in my carry-on and take with me as I traveled. But I ended up selling the FT-817, however, because I hated the ergonomics and multi-function buttons. Button spacing was too tight for my larger hands, important multi-functions seemed to overlap, and menus were buried too deep for convenient operation. The FT-817 had a profound impact on all other buying decisions I’ve made since, and taught me that too much can simply be…too much.

The red dot in the Ten-Tec logo is actually a red LED that lights up on ALC peaks and CW transmit. (Click to enlarge)
The red dot in the Ten-Tec logo is actually a red LED that lights up on ALC peaks and CW transmit. (Click to enlarge)

Happily, on the Argo VI the most often used transceiver functions have dedicated buttons/knobs, and the display includes everything I need. Clean, clear, straightforward–this rig provides a pleasant operating experience.

For basic operations like rag-chewing, scanning the band, switching modes, switching bands, adjusting RF/AF/BW and PBT, you’ll be pleased, too.  None of these operations require calling multi-functions or toggling the TMB switch (assuming you’re already in the “M” position).

But after spending some time on the air, I realized that there is a bit of a learning curve you’ll have to overcome before front-panel operations become entirely fluid and intuitive. To change RIT, you need to toggle the TMB switch to “B”, then press the RIT (BAN) button to toggle RIT on and off. If you hear DX working split, you’ll need to move the TMB switch to the “T” position, then set the A/B and SPL buttons; if you need to change modes or turn on the pre-amp, then you’ll have to move TMB back to “M.”

In the first few hours of  testing the Argo VI, I found it easy to forget that I had the TMB switch set to a certain position when pressing a multi-function button, thus I was sometimes not receiving the response I expected. Several times I intended to change the band, but had the TMB set to “T” and resultingly opened the output power setting, or pressed the MOD button only to find that TMB was set to “T” as I toggled A/B VFOs.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

While this was distracting at first, I soon became accustomed to changing the setting, then moving the TMB back to the “M” setting afterward. Now I find I very rarely make a mistake.

On the Argo VI, all of the buttons and knobs are adequately spaced. You could operate this rig outside with lightweight insulated gloves on, should the need arise.

All in all, the ergonomics are excellent on the Argonaut VI.

Performance

Before I begin talking about this little transceiver’s performance, I want to point out its two most obvious shortcomings:

  • The Argonaut VI lacks 12 and 60 meters (ouch!)
  • There is no internal ATU (auto antenna tuner), nor is there an option for one

If those two negatives are deal-breakers for you, I could certainly understand. You might want to consider a basic KX3 with ATU ($1070 unassembled, $1170 assembled) or a K2/10 with ATU ($1280 unassembled), instead.

IMG_6453
The Argo VI has a relatively small footprint on my radio shelf.

But if, like me, you use neither 12 nor 60 meters very often, you may not miss them.  Admittedly, the lack of 12 meters is unfortunate because it’s such an ideal band–when conditions are right–for easy QRP field operation. However, I am very pleased the Argo VI has 160 meters.

An internal ATU–or the option to have one installed later–is certainly a negative for those of us who like a simple Field Day radio set-up. From my point of view, other than my Elecraft KX1, I’ve never had a radio with an internal ATU; I have two portable tuners (the LDG Z11 Pro and Elecraft T1) that work wonders. The way my shack is designed, I have a remote auto-tuner outside at the feed point of my antennas and thus have no tuner in my shack–so if I had an internal ATU, I’d have to turn it off 95% of the time. If your shack is set up similarly, you might not mind not having an ATU.

If you’re concerned about the performance of the Argonaut VI, let me assure you now: you will not be disappointed. Indeed, the receiver in the Argonaut VI must be one of the best I’ve ever heard in any radioespecially in this price class ($1000).  It is truly remarkable.  I’m eager to learn how Rob Sherwood rates the Argonaut VI, but I suspect it will rank among the top few.

IMG_6479
Click to enlarge

What is most impressive in the Argo VI is its incredibly effective variable DSP filtering. I experimented with the variable bandwidth and pass band during crowded CW conditions, and found that each and every time I could zero in on one QSO and block everything else. It’s also highly effective when used with SSB. Based on the reviews I’ve read of the Eagle, this is obviously derived from its DSP architecture and has similar performance characteristics. [Future Argo VI owners, I eagerly welcome A/B comparisons of the Eagle and Argo VI–please comment!]

IMG_6494You’ll be happy with both the Argo’s sensitivity and its ability to reject adjacent signals. Compared with my Elecraft K2/10, the Argo VI’s sensitivity had an edge in every band I tested, and to my ear, the noise floor is lower on the Argo VI as well.  Most noticeably, however, is the Argonaut’s audio fidelity, which is far superior to that of the K2. Whether using headphones or using the built-in top mounted speaker, you will be pleased. The speaker delivers an impressive sound for its size. I tend to hook up external speakers to my smaller transceivers, but in this case I never felt I needed to. With headphones, the audio is even more impressive. I do wish the headphone jack was on the front panel instead of the back, though.

Though I haven’t spent enough time with the KX3 to compare audio fidelity, I imagine the KX3 and Argonaut VI would be a fair contest.

I can say that audio fidelity is the primary reason I continue to turn to Ten-Tec for transceivers and receivers. In my opinion, like Kenwood, Ten-Tec invests more resources into insuring superb audio fidelity–even at the cost (in this case) of uber-low current drain numbers (although the 550 mA drain on receive must be the lowest Ten-Tec has ever produced in a digital transceiver). The Argo VI’s audio is rich, inviting enjoyable listening for hours on end. It would certainly be a great pick for long-haul events like Field Day or 24/48-hour contests.

The back panel of the Ten-Tec Argonaut VI (Click to enlarge)
The back panel of the Ten-Tec Argonaut VI (Click to enlarge)

SSB/CW

But how does she sound on the other end? Immediately after unpacking the Argonaut VI, I caught band openings on 10, 15, 17 and 20 meters. Though I was only running 7 watts at the time (production units run a full 10W) I received great audio reports on SSB and was even  heard through a pile-up on 17M. Though I believe the default settings would have worked well, setting up the mic gain on this rig is also very easy and straightforward.

As for CW, reports have also been very positive. CW ops will be happy to note that the Argonaut VI has Ten-Tec’s silky-smooth QSK. Frankly, I expected nothing less.

Since I don’t operate digital modes often, I did not test the Argo VI in this capacity. I imagine reviews will emerge soon, but I expect them to be positive as several beta testers were impressed.

Summary

When I begin a radio review, I keep a checklist of pros and cons as I discover them to remind myself of my initial discoveries.  Here’s my list from the Argonaut VI:

Pros

  • Excellent top-of-the-line audio fidelity
  • Extremely effective DSP variable bandwidth
  • Silky smooth QSK
  • All mode with optional AM
  • Easily accessible primary controls
  • Uncompromised ham band performance (see con)
  • Quality tuning knob and adaptive tuning rate make for easy band scanning
  •  Simple front face and comfortably spaced buttons/knobs (see con)
  • Undoubtedly the best receiver of any QRP rig produced by Ten-Tec
  • Comprehensive and detailed owner’s manual
  • Made in USA
  • Ten-Tec’s US-based customer support, a major plus over many foreign manufacturers

Cons

  • No 12 nor 60 meters
  • No internal ATU, nor option for one
  • No internal battery nor option
  • Headphone jack on rear panel
  • Not general coverage (see pro)
  • Learning curve when using multi-functions (see pro)
  • Price of $995 is a little steep
  • RX current drain is high when compared with Elecraft K1/KX1/K2/K3 or KX3, or the Yaesu FT-817

To buy, or not to buy…

The Ten-Tec Model 539 Argonaut VI (Click to enlarge)
The Ten-Tec Model 539 Argonaut VI (Click to enlarge)

I really think the Argonaut VI is a streamlined Ten-Tec Eagle, and a very good rig. Its DSP architecture is based on the Eagle’s (in beta, we even used the Eagle software for the frequent firmware updates).

When I ask myself, “Who will buy the Argonaut VI?” I believe the answer is anyone who wants a QRP radio with the performance and interface we’ve come to expect from Ten-Tec.  If you can live without 12 and 60 meters, then you will be buying a rig that does not compromise on performance. The Argonaut VI is not a QRP radio designed for backpacking like the KX1 or KX3, but it would hang with the best in a QRP contest or on Field Day; operators would experience little to no listening fatigue with this smooth rig.

The Argo VI comes factory-assembled, warrantied, and ready to go, right out of the box.  There’s nothing to put together nor configure.

On a side note, I should mention that this is the first time I’ve beta-tested with Ten-Tec; this provided insight into the process of rolling out a new product and just how responsive and open the company is to both frank criticism and design requests. I believe all of the beta-testers would agree. Every concern I reported to Ten-Tec was eventually addressed by version 1.0 of the firmware.  That’s responsiveness I can really appreciate. Ten-Tec’s Software Engineer, John Henry, is nothing short of amazing. I’m not sure when he finds the time to sleep.

I’m happy to have had this little radio in my shack for the past two months. I’ll have to bid it farewell, though:  Ten-Tec has already sold out of their first production run, so my unit will be returned, upgraded with a new board, tested, inspected, and sold as a demo.  Alas, it’s hard to say good-bye.

I guess the proof is in the Christmas pudding:  I have to admit that I now prefer the Argonaut VI even over my trusty Elecraft K2. So, kind readers, if one of you is in the market for a K2/10 with SSB, and 160M, I may be in the market for an Argonaut VI.

It would bring tidings of great joy, indeed.  Happy holidays!

Ten-Tec Hamfest, Argonaut VI update

Two Ten-Tec Model 539, Argonaut VI’s, will be on the air at the Ten-Tec Hamfest this weekend.

This weekend, I’m heading to the Ten-Tec Hamfest at the Ten-Tec factory in Sevierville, Tennessee.  This is, hands down, my favorite hamfest of the year. Not only is it completely free, but the ham radio flea market section has a higher percentage of real radio gear than any other hamfest with which I’m familiar. The event is being held today and tomorrow (the flea market is Saturday only). You can read details about the hamfest on Ten-Tec’s website.

Agonaut VI update…

I just got the following word directly from Ten-Tec Engineer, John Henry, regarding the Model 539 (Argonaut VI) transceiver; in a nutshell, they will not be taking orders at the hamfest as they had hoped, price is not fixed but ballparked, and rigs will be available at the hamfest for testing:

TenTec is not going to take early orders for the 539 at the TenTec Hamfest on 9-28/29-2012. Essentially the rig is performing to our specification level, but we have a few things to finish before we can ship them to customers, [such as] the user’s manual, FCC testing, etc.

We do have a pilot run of 25 units that will be visible to those taking the tour, and a couple will be set up for hams to use at the Hamfest this weekend. In about 1-2 weeks from now, some of the pilot run units will be distributed to hams for another round of beta testing.

Regarding the price of the 539, until we finish this last round of beta testing we aren’t sure if we have each and every cost factor taken into consideration. Never know what a broader field of testers will find that may increase costs. So, there is no final customer price yet. But as we have stated at all of the hamfests so far, we can still say it will be well below $1000, and we will still meet our goal of having the price of the 539 [plus] the price of the 418 to be less than the cost of the 599, at near the specification level.

The Ten-Tec Argonaut VI on the work bench at Ten-Tec

I plan to post photos from the Ten-Tec hamfest and report any other updates. Stay tuned!

Ten-Tec Argonaut VI: On schedule for ordering, shipping later this fall

I just received word from John Henry at Ten-Tec that their time frame for production runs of the Model 539 (Argonaut VI) is  on-track with estimates provided at the 2012 Dayton Hamvention.

John said:

We are running a small production run right now, working out the kinks of getting it into production. Most places call these “Pilot runs”. Pilot Runs basically get the factory up to speed with the units before we go to full scale production quantities.

He doesn’t see any reason, at this point, why they wouldn’t hit the late fall 2012 ship dates. He also said that they’re working hard to possibly take orders for the Argonaut VI at the 2012 Ten-Tec Hamfest being held at their factory in Sevierville, Tennessee, September 28-29th.

According to John, several Ten-Tec customers have said that they are going to buy a Model 539 and the Model 418 (companion 100 watt linear amplifier) when the 539 starts shipping.

I will attend the 2012 Ten-Tec Hamfest and plan to post updates on QRPer.com from there.