Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Impressions Of The Eton Traveller III

Passing through Phoenix, Arizona last April, I stopped into one of those Radio Shacks that were closing and picked up the new Eton Traveler III DSP radio for about $45 out-the-door. Not a bad price, near 40% off suggested retail of $69.99. I've spent the summer evaluating it, and had a chance to use it while crossing the country.

The Eton Traveler III

The last couple of DSP radios I bought were disasters so I quit buying them. The Tecsun R2010D and the Kaito KA321 both had odd tuning quirks, seemingly a product of their engineering. Quality is generally down these days. Sensitivities are generally poor. I gave both radios away at a yard sale two summers ago, then decided to take a hiatus from buying Asian consumer DSP radios until something changed, or someone reported an improvement worth looking at.

In a radio, I only care about a few things. Mainly, but not limited to: does it have reasonable sensitivity and selectivity, does it tune acceptably well, and does it have a readable display? I don't care about jillions of memories, ETM, alarms, sleep timers, or temperature display. Just give me a radio that receives stations. My old 1962 Sears Silvertone seven-transistor radio, "ice blue", received stations, and well too. Elementary silicon technology, it was. If they could do it some 53 years ago, they can do it now.

And so we have the Eton Traveler III. Not perfect, but promising. I bought it for two reasons. People had reported that the annoying soft-mute (see other DSP radio reviews on this blog) had been disabled or at least minimized, and that the radio's sensitivity was pretty good. The 'Traveler III is basically the next iteration of the original Tecsun PL-300WT, and Eton's Grundig G8/Traveler II offering of several years ago. It uses the new version of the Silicon Labs' Si473x chip.

The Eton Traveler 3 (I'll use the number 3 from here on out), is small, basically pocket-sized, but has some heft to it. It fits well in your hand. It is a beautiful little thing to the eye, and it's got a nice build quality. The sound out of its ample, front-facing speaker is pleasant.

The Eton engineers have nailed three important things on this unit: smoothness in tuning for a DSP radio (though points off for poor tuning encoder), defeat of soft-mute, and sensitivity.

They have also failed in three categories: the tuning encoder, the AGC (automatic gain control) setup, and the display.

The good news first.

Ahhh, smoothness in tuning. Fond memories. As an old radio "Ham" and general DXer, I've been tuning receivers for more than 50 years. Memory drifting.... Slowly we sweep across the band. Vibrant, reverberant (somewhat microphonic) signals rise up out of the ether, then smoothly fade away under the noise as we pass by. Pure magic. Think of zeroing in on Radio Moscow on a cold winter's morning in about 1960, announcer Joe Adamov booming in on a late 1930s vacuum tube Zenith stand-up console radio.

Analog tuning, the old superheterodyne, the smoothest of the smooth, seems to only exist in some cheap consumer pocket varieties now, many of them hold-overs of best-selling consumer items of 15-20 years ago like the Sony ICF-S10MK2, the Sony SRF-59, still on sale at your local drug store. And there are others of course - newer, cheaper, Asian analogs. Digital PLL (Phase-Locked-Loop) radios are still with us, introduced on the public many years ago. They tune adequately, although exhibit a sort of lack of "presense", a hard sensation to describe.

Back to our story.

Enter the consumer digital DSP chip world, circa 2009. It was (and still is) promising. But we seem to have gotten away from smooth tuning. Consumer design teams have struggled getting it right with these new Silicon Labs DSP chips for some reason. I was starting to believe it wasn't possible.

After several years of using these radios, it started to become evident that soft-mute was the main culprit here. Combine soft-mute with oddly-set AGC characteristics, then couple that with the DSP chip's odd infatuation with peak AM signal-lock and you have a recipe for tuning weirdness.

Soft mute, which is programmable, has finally been turned off in the Eton Traveler 3. No more muting of noise next to a strong (or weak) station. No more dead air where there is no station. Only the beautiful, low-level hiss of the noise floor and the resounding crashing of the ionosphere. Wait - I hear a carrier and faint audio under that hiss. I am back in 1962 once again! Sweet!

The soft mute change - its elimination - promotes smoothness of tuning, at last. Signals don't just "pop in", ala TV remote control. They rise and fade, nearly like the old days, as you sweep across the band***. Thank you Eton.

*** See the caveat, below.

The Eton Traveler 3's sensitivity is to be commended. Of all the ultralight DSP radios I own or have tried, it is the most sensitive one of all. In western Arizona, Los Angeles' KFI-640 (50 KW), at 217 miles distant, is armchair copy. The only other radio which offers a presentable signal, though weaker, is the Tecsun PL-380, another Si473x DSP radio. On the others, audio is strained or non-existent. No signal is even present on the Sangean DT-400W. The Sony SRF-59 struggles to even make it out.

Selectivity is good. It appears to be about 3 KHz wide, or possibly even 2 KHz, about equivalent to the Tecsun PL-380's 2 or 3 KHz setting. And of course the skirts are steep, using DSP technology. The only thing lacking is a way to set different bandwidths like the PL-380 can. That's not objectionable to me, though.

A nice and welcome software correction, the radio's display now updates signal strength (RSSI) and signal-to-noise values approximately three times per second. The Tecsun PL-380 only updated its display about once every two seconds. It's much easier to rotate the radio now and read the signal strength changes in somewhat realtime.

Now for the bad news.

Eton, you skimped on the tuning encoder. It's cheap, and mechanical, though a mechanical encoder would be what is expected in a radio of this price range. Tune upwards very slowly, like DXers do, and it skips two channels over, or tunes backwards a channel. Tune downwards slowly, same thing. Unacceptable. Mine isn't the only one, either. Reports are that many, if not most, act this way. One solution is to change the tuning step to 1 KHz which makes the channel skipping effect less noticeable. But it takes forever to get anywhere at 1 KHz without a keypad. Fast tuning, activated by spinning the tuning knob many, many times, doesn't kick in quite soon enough.

A little history. Automatic Gain Control, or AGC, was first implemented in radios many years ago for the reason of fading propagation, which required continuing manual adjustments of the receiver’s gain. The idea is that the AGC circuit will automatically maintain a constant signal level at the output, regardless of the signal’s variations at the input of the system. Besides the depth of its interaction, AGC has two other characteristics, attack rate and decay rate. The attack rate is the speed in which the AGC is applied, the decay rate is the speed in which it is relaxed. All three are important design considerations.

***I find the Eton's AGC to be a bit heavy handed. It's decay rate is extremely slow in reaction, especially for the DXer. Tune off a moderate or strong signal to a nearby weak one, and it seems seconds before the AGC relaxes and brings up the volume of the low level background signal and attended atmospheric noise. This is simply a programmatic adjustment on the DSP chip. It probably works for the intended consumer crowd, but not for the DXer. I prefer a relatively fast-reacting AGC.

Now, for the LCD display. Use this radio indoors, if possible. The orange digits on a deep black background are beautiful to behold in a dark or dimly-lit room. Take the radio outside, particularly on a sunny day and you think you have gone blind because the display disappears. You can't see the digits. The display also has an odd "best" viewing angle. It appears to be around 45 degrees, looking up at it from the bottom of the radio, not dead on. And that angle is not forgiving in the sunlight, either. A few degrees off and the display disappears again. You are constantly adjusting the viewing angle straining to read the information.

In summation, I found the Eton Traveler 3 to be a good buy at the price I paid. It has marvelous sensitivity for such a small unit. Except for the deficient tuning encoder, it tunes smoothly, nearly as good as the old analogs did. Soft mute has finally been eliminated. I could never understand why you would combine AGC with soft mute. One intends to increase the receiver gain so you can hear weak signals and the other masks the receiver output for weak signals. They are mutually-exclusive.

Maybe the Eton Traveler 4 will have tweaked AGC, a better tuning encoder, and a brighter display?

One last thing, the Eton Traveler 3 looks highly modifiable. It's ferrite loopstick is easily removed, allowing for experimentation. More to come on that!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Cross-Country DXing Story, Fall 2015

Driving from coast to coast is a great opportunity to watch the world go by, to think, and to DX the mediumwaves on your car radio. I admit I am a casual DXer. I rarely do it from inside the home (too much electrical buzz), preferring to take a portable or small ultralight out to a quiet location, or to DX right from the car using its own radio. Twice a year in recent years, I have driven between western New York and southwestern Arizona, staying for six months in each location.

The Ford Ranger pickup I had for eight years had a superb radio. It was extremely sensitive, and its noise floor was very low. A couple of extra feet added to the whip made it one screaming DX machine. It suffered a little from ignition noise under acceleration, but be gentle on the gas and she would quiet.

Click map for larger and more detailed image

For example, cruising east along I-40 out of Flagstaff, AZ last April, I chased Los Angeles' KFI-640 (50 KW) to within an hour of Albuquerque, NM. I started out in Flagstaff at 6 AM and drove for six hours until I lost KFI-640 in the noise just about noon. Of course at the outset their signal was full skywave strength as the sun was just rising. As the sun rose, it faded through steadily decreasing peaks and nulls till about 10 AM when it entered this sort of echo-ey nether-world, the signal just barely above the noise. Then it would fade for longer and longer periods nearing 30 minutes between peaks, in and out of the background noise. Audio would be readable for a few minutes, then enter a long fade again. And then it vanished totally. In the end, it was a daytime reception of 600+ miles. That's a taste of what you're in for.

The newish 2011 Honda CR-V I got this summer doesn't fare as well in the radio department. The noise floor is high, masking ultra-weak DX, and it desenses more readily near big signals. No ignition noise, though. None. Sensitivity is only fair. Overall the radio is a disappointment for mediumwave. I'll carry the recently-acquired RF-2200 along instead.

Now, most of what I report is directed at daytime reception, though much of DXing theory applies to nighttime skywave as well. The key to successful DX, I've found, at least in crossing the wide open western states, is to park yourself on a frequency and just listen. Listen for hundreds of miles if necessary. You will see the progression of fade in to fade out, and the interaction of co-channel stations come and go. Pick a few favorite frequencies, or try some promising new ones, and see what happens. It's kind of like fishing in a stream - don't be too anxious to pull your line out too soon.

One of the main routes I follow when crossing the country is Interstate 70. I-70 runs from near Baltimore, MD through the central US states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado to the I-15 junction in western Utah, about 50 miles past Richfield. From Rochester, NY, our starting point, access to I-70 means a trip southwest to Columbus, OH via the I-90 thruway. I-90 leads you west across the bottom of Lake Erie to Cleveland, OH, then southwest via I-271 and I-71 to Columbus to join I-70.

Notable at the outset right out of Rochester is the massive 50 KW signal of WWKB-1520 at Buffalo, NY, pushing a nicely-formed cardiod pattern slightly north of east from its three-towered array. Sitting perfectly in the cardiod's notch is tiny, adjacent-channel WMCE-1530 (1 KW) at Mercyhurst College in North East, PA, broadcasting AM-stereo, and only 65 miles southwest of the 50 KW monster. Now this is a marvel of pattern engineering, sandwiching a 1 KW adjacent-channel signal right next to a 50 KW blockbuster, both of them sitting right next to huge fresh water lakes! And it works, too. 1530 KHz is filled with horrendous WWKB-1520 splatter as you pass Buffalo. Within 20 miles, WWKB-1520's hash and desense have evaporated to nothing, revealing the oldies-radio format of WMCE on 1530. Somebody should get an award for this engineering. WMCE-1530 is a great station, by the way.

An interesting listen on the Rochester, NY to Cleveland, OH segment is Canadian CHTO-1690, Toronto, Ontario (6 KW), with a variety of international programming and music. The signal is good and propagation is enhanced as it beams across both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, about 188 miles as we near Cleveland. Here, nearly all of the propagation path is across fresh water, some 140 miles of it. The signal soon dissipates after you make the left turn south, leaving Lake Erie and Cleveland behind as you head toward Columbus.

I overnight at Mansfield, OH, off I-71 and about 60 miles south of Cleveland. In the dark just before sunrise, Denver's KOA-850 is weak, in and out, more out than in, but it does make an appearance. KOA-850 is difficult though not impossible to hear in Rochester, at 1430 miles distant. Here, near Mansfield, at 1175 miles, it makes the trip a little more easily. What's a few hundred miles you ask? Ohio's WKNR-850 in Cleveland (4.7 KW at night) beams north and we are south of them about 60 miles in somewhat of a dead skip zone. But the big difference, and something I stand by after years of DXing, is the single hop skip distance factor. Extreme single hop skip distance at mediumwave is on the order of 1300-1400 miles. We are within KOA's single hop skip distance at Mansfield. Rochester, NY is just barely outside that distance. Beyond that skip distance, signal strength takes a distinct downward turn, making reception that much harder.

Onward to Columbus, still dark, the famous Grand Ole Opry station WSM-650, Nashville, TN (50 KW) is in solid due to skywave. The sun will rise and it will be with us all day across I-70 almost to the Mississippi River, through the states of Ohio, Indiana, and most of Illinois. 650 KHz is an interesting and somewhat vacant frequency. Only a handful of stations in the lower 48 (seven to be exact) broadcast on 650 KHz, three of them broadcasting under 10 KW power output. From the Mississippi River west, more than 400 miles of dead air reigns until nearly central Kansas, where little KGAB-650 at Cheyenne, Wyoming appears out of the northwest. At Orchard Valley near Cheyenne, still some 400+ miles distant at this point, KGAB-650 commands amazing coverage for an 8.5 KW monopole. The secret here is the excellent ground conductivity of the mid-west, that is, the land west of the Mississippi River. A pipeline of mediumwave signals barrels east out of the front range of the Rocky Mountains across Kansas where ground conductivities hit 30 mS/m and the land is flat and treeless.

WJR-760, Detroit, Michigan (50 KW) hangs with me most of the day too. In fact, it was with me all day yesterday too. It's coverage is incredible. I can hear it weakly in Rochester during daytime hours. Today it hangs in there through Indianapolis nearly to the Illinois state line. Early afternoon, the corn-belt starts to appear, namely, WHO-1040, Des Moines, Iowa (50 KW) at 300 miles.

Overnighting in East St. Louis, this year I veer off I-70 and head south to Springfield via I-44, diverting into the beautiful undulating, treed-hills of central and southwestern Missouri. In this part of the country, roughly the center of the US land-mass, with a quick spin of the dial just before sunrise you can log all four sides of the continent within one minute - WSB-750, Atlanta, GA, WWL-870, New Orleans, LA, WCCO-830, Minneapolis, MN, and KFI-640, Los Angeles, CA. I tried it again. It never fails to impress me. Cuban stations are often in as well. Sunrise in Cuba.

Daylight breaks, skywave is dissipating, and out of Springfield, Missouri this morning the plan is to cross southern Kansas via US 400 to Greensburg, the town 95% destroyed by the EF5 tornado in May, 2007, then northward to Fort Hays. I park my radio on 630 KHz, 650 KHz, and 850 KHz, waiting for something to show up out of Denver or Cheyenne. I didn't have long to wait. In southeastern Kansas, 50 miles east of Wichita near the Butler County line, I hear evidence of carriers on the Honda radio. I pull over and get out the RF-2200. All three stations have readable audio - KHOW-630, Denver (5 KW at 487 miles), KOA-850, Denver (50 KW at 472 miles), and KGAB-650, Cheyenne (8.5 KW at 510 miles). It is late morning, just past 11 AM. KHOW-630 is perhaps the surprising catch. Its two-towered array pushes signal to the southwest into the Rockies and only about 3.8 KW is directed at southeastern Kansas on a beam of 106 degrees.

Nebraska's big-gun farm station KRVN-880 at Lexington (50 KW) is in there all the way across southern Kansas, broadcasting livestock reports. Greensburg is interesting, and gives off an eerie feeling as I pass through. Many new steel buildings, but also many vacant lots, some with concrete steps to nowhere. At Fort Hays, back up along I-70 again, the two Denver stations and Cheyenne are now armchair copy at only at 310+ miles. It is 3 PM in the afternoon. Onward to Denver tomorrow.

Just minutes west of Denver's mile high location lies the continental divide and the massive Rocky Mountains. Relatively poor ground conductivity along the 245 mile path to Utah (2 and 8 mS/m) and towering 14,000 ft. mountains take their toll on westward-propagating signals from the Denver area and east. By Grand Juction, a mere 215 miles, KOA-850 has disappeared, leaving only a weak KLTT-670 (50 KW) and weaker KKZN-760 (50 KW), both Denver area multi-towered arrays that push the brunt of their signal west. 40 miles further along I-70 at the little ghost town of Cisco, Utah, only KLTT-670 remains, extremely weak but readable.

Camp near Cisco, Utah. Quiet!

I leave I-70 and camp in the barren desert hills just beyond Cisco at mid-afternoon. The RF-2200 reveals Albuquerque's KKOB-770 (50 KW at 310 miles) with readable signal. One time here several years ago at mid-afternoon I clipped 60 feet of wire to the truck's whip and strained for Los Angeles' KFI-640. It was weak, yet readable, at 600 miles. But talk about quiet, even my cell service has disappeared. Moab is 40 miles to the south. Now camped, both at nightfall and daybreak I listen for WWL-870, New Orleans (50 KW). Nothing. WWL-870 is a medium-tough catch in western Arizona, but absent at this time.

Recent talk has been of defunct Spanish language KXOL-1660 (10 KW daytime, 1 KW nighttime), out of Brigham City, Utah, up by Salt Lake City. The FCC has canceled its license due to expiration of its silent status filing. It has reportedly been heard on the air. I listened on 1660. Nothing on daytime groundwave (a little too far for Brigham City), but skywave at night is strong, particularly right after sunset. They identify as "La Raza", which is what KXOL identified as. I can only conclude that this is indeed KXOL as reported. Further south, near Blanding, UT and beyond, this station and another Spanish station mix. My guess is the other is KTIQ-1660 out of Merced, CA. Not a positive ID, but they mentioned area locations.

Near Moab, Utah

One of the most beautiful drives in the country is the 30 mile drive through the Colorado River canyon on Utah 128. Much of the canyon is narrow, between towering, sheer rock walls, with the road clinging to one edge and the river many feet below. Few signals penetrate. Grand Junction's KNZZ-1100 signal (50 KW and only 65 miles distant) is in and out during the drive. Out of the canyon and into Moab proper, it is strong. One station is in the Moab area, KCPX-1490, a 1 KW graveyarder at Spanish Valley, just south of Moab. Two Grand Junction stations are the next closest, KNZZ-1100 being one of them. We are getting into lonely mediumwave territory here..

While in Moab, the side-trip south along the muddy-brown Colorado River to Intrepid's Potash Mine is always a great experience. At the mine complex the road ends in a dead-ended, washboard mess of rocky jeep trails. I sit down for lunch and listen for Los Angeles' KFI-640 again. Nothing. Two years ago KFI-640 on the truck radio was very readable at the noontime lunch hour. Distance, 570 miles. It was later in the year, though, further into fall. That may have made the difference. A funny place for any mediumwave station to show up, really.  We are still deep within canyon walls. Isn't propagation interesting?

Headed south the next day at the noon hour, we enter Indian territory. Navajo to be exact, the largest Indian reservation in the US. At about 130 miles distant, KNDN-960 (K-Indian), out of Farmington, NM (5 KW) pops up. They broadcast almost entirely in the Navajo language. If you've never heard the Navajo language, listen for it sometime, it is a treat. English words are interspersed where no Navajo word exists to describe the modern noun or action. With us all the way from Cisco is the other Navajo station, blockbuster KTNN-660, Window Rock, AZ (50 KW). Much of their broadcast is in the Navajo language as well. Both stations intersperse Indian pow-wow dance music between their usual country-western format, another listening treat.

I overnight at Flagstaff, AZ. Headed out early the next morning, KFI-640, Los Angeles is prominent on skywave. It is with me the remainder of the six hour, 300 mile drive to southwestern Arizona where Los Angeles is a mere 217 miles distant and Mexico is but 85 miles south. Familiar KBLU-560 out of Yuma, AZ (1 KW) reappears as an old friend south of Kingman, AZ, nearly 275 miles distant.

Settled in my western home, fall and winter DX is at hand! I'll try out the new Panasonic RF-2200 and see what she can do.