Category Archives: Shack

Recent Updates

Wow, hard to believe I haven’t updated this blog in almost a year. Here’s a quick update…

The tower has been up for over a year now, and I’ve worked a lot of DX. Starting from scratch back in March of 2013 I’ve managed to work DXCC Mixed, Phone, and CW, and on three bands. All of this via LoTW. I haven’t filled out a single QSL card, nor do I miss the tedium. I’ll eventually have to bite the bullet and send cards to the DX I’ve worked that isn’t, and probably never will be, on LoTW, but I’m not looking forward it.

It’s the week after the Visalia DX Convention. I drove down early on Saturday morning and stayed the day before driving back up to the Bay Area in the evening. It’s about a 3-1/2 hour drive, but it beats staying in a motel. I met up with several DXers I met at last year’s convention and came home with a much lighter wallet as I ordered a Flex-6500 SDR rig from FlexRadio, who was exhibiting at the convention.

The new rig arrived this morning and I spent the evening rearranging the shack to make room for the 6500.


The rig itself arrived dual boxed and the gorillas at UPS didn’t manage to mangle it. The smaller box contains a FlexControl — a small box with a VFO knob and three buttons that Flex was offering as a show special.


Here’s what’s in the box–basically just the rig, a DC power cable, an Ethernet cable, a software CD, and a hand mic.



Here’s the rig sitting on the desk as I’m getting ready to hook it up. The DC power cable came with Anderson Power Pole connectors on one end and ring lugs on the other. I cut the ring lugs off and replaced them with 45A Power Poles to match the 30A switching supply I also picked up at the Visalia convention. After that bit of work, the rest was a simple matter of plugging cables in and installing SmartSDR-Windows on the PC.



Here’s a shot of everything setup and ready to go. The Flex is much smaller than the FTdx-5000 it displaced on the desk and weighs about 1/4 as much. You can see SmartSDR running on the monitor. I have two “slice” receivers open — one on 15M JT65 and the other on 10M SSB. I’m listening to SSB stations on 10M while simultaneously working JT-65. The Flex-6500 has the ability to open four slice receivers on any combinations of bands.

The box just in front of and to the right of the 6500 is the FlexControl. It interfaces to the PC running SmartSDR via a USB cable. The large knob is the VFO knob and the three buttons on top change the function of the large knob. With almost all aspects of the 6500 controlled via the SmartSDR application on the PC, FlexControl is a concession to those who miss knobs, especially that big, smooth VFO knob, on traditional rigs.

Working digital modes couldn’t be simpler. No cables or sound cards are required. SmartSDR includes an application called DAX which creates eight virtual sound cards on the PC and makes it easy to pipe receiver audio to digital apps such as Fldigi and WSJT-X. Total setup time to get these digital apps configured and running was about ten minutes.

It was time to head out for dinner after making a few digital contacts, but I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time this weekend trying other modes, especially CW. I’ve previously had a Flex-5000A in my shack, but it’s CW performance was less than stellar. I expect the 6500 to be much better. Stay tuned for updates…


Shack Remodel and Amplifier

It’s been a while since my last blog post because I’ve been enjoying using the new tower and antenna. Boy, what a difference a yagi on a tower makes! There’s just no comparison to my ground-mounted vertical. Signals that are barely there or inaudible on the vertical are armchair copy on the yagi. Working DX is much easier and I’ve been running up my DXCC totals and enjoying the experience.

Since getting the tower up, I’ve also concentrated on working all states and confirmed the last one I needed (West Virginia) a few weeks ago. No QSL cards traded hands for this — all confirmations were via LoTW. The postman delivered this last week:


So does that count as WAS in 30 days, or WAS in 33 years? Hmmm…

After operating for a month with the new setup, I started thinking about replacing my operating desk, which was too small to spread out the way I like to operate, with a legal pad for taking notes, paper logbook, keyboard, paddles, etc. all at arm’s reach. Since I was planning to add an amplifier to the mix, it was time to start looking for a new operating desk.

I started the search at local office supply stores, but nothing I found was deep enough at a reasonable price, so I started to consider alternatives. The local Ikea is near Ham Radio Outlet, and since I planned a trip to HRO to pick up an antenna switch, I stopped by to check out their desk offerings. Nothing seemed deep enough for my liking. Most desks seem to be a maximum of around 30″ deep unless you go to an expensive “executive” model. While strolling around, I spotted a dining room table that looked ideal. It was deep (39″) and wide enough to accommodate lots of equipment. I also picked up a small bookcase unit to use as an equipment riser and shelf on the desktop to help organize the equipment.

I’ve never owned an amplifier, and only used one at the W6BB club station while in school. I wanted something with at least a kilowatt of output, and started considering various Ameritron models, such as the AL-80B. As such things often go, I found myself thinking I should go right to the legal limit and started considering the available options. Once again, I looked at various Ameritron models, including the AL-82, AL-1200, and AL-1500. I was pretty much settled on the AL-82 when a trip to the Visalia DX Convention prompted me to look at other offerings. RF Concepts had a booth at Visalia with their 8410 and 9500 models on display. Alpha has always been considered one of the gold standards in amplifiers ever since I’ve been a ham. Who hasn’t seen their ads with the brick on the key in various ham mags? Although the 8410 was several kilo bucks more expensive than the Ameritrons, I thought, what the heck, go for the 8410, so I plunked down my plastic and three large boxes arrived on my doorstep four days later.

The 8410 is a legal-limit manual tune amp. It uses two 4CX1000A tetrodes to generate 1500 watts with plenty of headroom. It comes in two separate boxes: one containing the main power transformer and the other the main amplifier chassis. The transformer is shipped in a separate box because of its weight and potential to warp the chassis if it’s handed roughly in shipping. The third box contained two spare 4CX1000A tubes that RF Concepts was offering as a show special.

The amplifier itself was double boxed and the two boxes were firmly padded by foam between the boxes and inside the inner box. The gorillas at FedEx would have to try extra hard to damage this arrangement. The amp chassis itself is fairly light without the transformer.

AmpInBag-1200 Amplifier Main Unit

Installing the transformer required removing the top cover, which is secured with about a gazillion screws. Once the cover was off, one can easily see the build quality of this amp and why it commands the price it does.

Inside-1200 Under the Cover

The transformer is shipped in a smaller box, and, like the main unit, is double boxed and surrounded by several layers of foam.

XformBox-1200 Transformer Box

The transformer is bolted down to a piece of plywood to keep it from moving around in its box. Unlike more conventional transformers, this transformer is a toroid.

Xform-1200 Toroidal Main Transformer

The transformer mounts in the right side of the chassis and is secured via four bolts inserted from below the chassis. It’s not really possible to get to the bolt holes with the chassis laying flat on the tabletop, so the alternate approach is to tip the chassis up on its right side and slide the chassis around the transformer until the holes line up. This is easier said than done, and it’s really a two person job. Once the transformer is bolted in place, all that remains is to replace the top cover and the countless screws.

XformInstall-1200 Transformer Install

I next tackled the assembly of the new “desk”, which follows the usual Ikea pattern. This assembly went smoother than most with only one minor glitch. One of the 90 degree metal corner brackets had two holes mis-drilled. Five minutes at the drill press fixed that. The little bookshelf unit went together quickly, or it would have if I built it as intended. Since it’s designed as a bookshelf, there is no need for access to the back for cables and such. To accommodate the cables running to the various equipment on the shelves, I drilled two rows of four 2″ holes using a hole saw. Particle board is hard — my hole saw was literally smoking after each hole.

I picked up an MFJ cantenna dummy load on my trip to HRO as my previous load was only rated for 300 watts and would not handle the power generated by the new amp. This dummy load consists of a one gallon paint can filled with mineral oil and a 50 Ohm resistor immersed in the oil. It can handle legal limit long enough to tune the amp.

After putting everything back together, I was ready to go.

Shack-1200 New Operating Layout

Tuning the 8410 is a piece of cake. Mind you, the last time I used an amp was about thirty years ago, but the process is simple. I really don’t know why I hear so many guys tuning up on the air for literally minutes at a time. I can do it in about five seconds. The extra power is certainly noticeable when working big pileups. I’m getting through much faster than I did with 200 watts.

One of the nice features of the Alpha 8410, and one that ultimately sold me on this amp, is its ability to send telemetry to a computer over a USB port. Alpha uses this for factory test and to upload firmware, but full operating data is also available. The raw data is difficult to interpret, but Dan, AE9K, has written a spiffy Monitor application for Windows that retrieves the telemetry data from the amp and displays it as a series of bar graphs and numerical data. The amount of data that is displayed far exceeds what’s shown on the LEDs on the amp’s front panel. I’ll post a screenshot of this utility when I next update this blog.

That’s all for now. 73, and good DX. See you in the pileups.