If you are thinking about getting involved with SDR radio or just want to add a new one to you shack, here are what we consider the three best values in SDR radio equipment available today. The operative word here is “low cost”. These SDRs are not necessarily the best you can buy, but offer a lot of value for your money and make a good entry point into the world of Software Defined Radio.
1. RTL2832u USB Dongle + Ham It Up HF Converter
The RTL2843u plus the Ham It Up HF Converter is still the best value in low cost SDR period. This combo will allow you to receive signals in the VHF, UHF, and HF bands for a variety of applications for a stingy $125 investment. The combo offers decent performance along with a pretty respectable bandwidth for waterfall displays. Does it compare to a $400 to $1000 direct sampling SDR receiver ? Of course not, but it is a lot of fun and a great introduction to SDR radio. There is plenty of software available to allow you to use it as an ADSB receiver for aircraft tracking, an inexpensive waterfall display for you HF reciever, trunk tracking, satellite monitoring and other applications. The RTL2832u plus HF converter is supported by popular SDR software such HDSDR, SDR Sharp, Studio 1, and SDR-RADIO.com V2. The big downside to the RTL2832u + Ham It Converter for some is that it is more of a DIY project than an out of the box turnkey SDR system. You will need to obtain a RTL2832u Dongle, the Ham It Up converter if you want HF plus the optional enclosure, the appropriate adapter cables to connect the RTl2832u Dongle to the Ham it Up converter, and the adapter you will need to connect to your antenna system. For this reason we would highly recommend you buy the parts from NooElec on Amazon. NooElec does provide support for their products and can help you with getting the right stuff together. Here is the suggested parts:
NooElec NESDR Mini USB RTL-SDR & ADS-B Receiver Set, (Previously TV28T v2), RTL2832U & R820T Tuner, MCX Input. Low-Cost Software Defined Radio Compatible with Many SDR Software Packages. R820T Tuner & ESD-Safe Antenna Input, Guaranteed
This will be more than likely the cable you will need to connect the RTL-2832U to the Ham It Up Converter, but you may want to double check this.
Lastly, you may want to add an SMA Male to Pl259 cable to adapt the Ham It Up converter to your external antenna
Next you will need to download the Zadig drivers for the Dongle and decide what SDR software you want to use. The rest is up to you to do a little research to find out how to get the RTL2832U dongle talking to your software.
Wide Coverage VHF / UHF / HF
Easy to put together
Good software support with SDR Sharp, HDSDR, Studio 1, and SDR-RADIO.com
Software setup can be a bit fiddly
Doesn’t come with instructions
No official vendor support
Price – Est $120
2. Afedri SDR-Net
If you are looking for a decent HF SDR at a great price, look no further than the Afedri SDR-Net. The Afedri SDR-Net receiver covers the HF band from 100 kHz to 30.00MHz. The bandwidth for the Afedri SDR-Net Ver. 3 is now 1850 kHz when using the network interface and 230 kHz using the USB interface. For those who may not be that interested in doing a lot of fiddling about with their shack computer, when used with the USB interface, the Afedri SDR-Net can be very easy to set up. Just plug it into a USB interface (no special drivers required) and download SDR-Radio.com and tell the software to automatically find the USB connected Afedri and you are ready to go. Connecting the Afedri SDR-Net to your home network will allow you to use the much larger bandwidth available in the radio. This also gives you the benefit of locating the Afedri SDR-Net closer to the antenna or further away from noise generating computer equipment. In addition, it is also possible to remotely control the Afedri SDR-Net over the Internet when away from your shack. Connecting the Afedri SDR-Net to your directly to your computers network interface or to a router in your home system will require some minimum knowledge about home networks. However, you can get help directly on the Afedri User Forum on Yahoo Groups.
Wide Coverage HF
Wide Bandwidth on USB and even wider via a network connection
Easy to setup when connected via USB
Good software support with HDSDR, Studio 1, and SDR-RADIO.com
Excellent vendor support
Network setup needs a basic knowledge of pc networking
Price - $259 plus shipping
The latest version of Ham Radio Deluxe as added CAT support for the DX-SR9 as well as the DX-SR8. This will allow HRD to control such things as tuning, transmit, power settings, mode, and other supported features of the Alinco radios. The Alinco transceivers have a much smaller command set available for computer control, but HRD appears to pretty much support all of them. If you are not familiar with Ham Radio Deluxe, the software covers a wide range of applications from logging and transceiver control to digital operations. HRD can be pretty much a complete software solution for the needs of a the amateur radio operator.
Looking for a place to put your Ham It Up Converter? NewElec is now selling a very nice aluminum extruded case to fit the Ham It Up HF converter. As was discussed in an earlier article on HRS, a RTL2832U Dongle and the Ham It Up converter make a killer combo for a VHF,UHF, and HF SDR receiver with a very respectable bandwidth for less than $100. The new enclosures from NooElec will give you a good looking home for your Ham It Up converter and are available in blue or silver. The blue case uses laser etched labeling while the silver case uses silk screen labeling. The blue case looks very nice, but the silver case’s labeling stands out a little better. However, you can’t go wrong with either color. The cases also provide additional RF shielding for your Ham It Up converter. The case kit comes with the aluminum case with a cut out for the USB port, two pre-cut aluminum end pieces with cut outs for the by-pass switch and rf jacks, and a pack of small screws with two standoffs. The enclosures looks terrific and provides additional protection for your Ham It HF Converter.
If Alinco’s DX-R8 receiver and the DX-SR8 had a child, it would be the DX-SR9. The DX-SR9 inherits the brains of the DX-R8 and the brawn of the DX-SR8 to create the DX-SR9 hybrid amateur radio transceiver. Hybrid SDRs are generally a standard radio receiver with buttons and knobs that feature an IQ output to allow its use with SDR software programs. This gives you the best of best worlds. You get a radio with standard buttons and knobs that you can quickly use when you don’t feel like firing up the shack computer for SDR. The Hybrid SDR also allows you to use it in situations where you would like to not have to fool with the computer like in the field or mobile. Unlike the black box SDR radios, you are not always tied to a computer for operation. The Hybrids also offer a more friendly introduction to SDR for new users. They can plug the rig in and use it immediately and come to grips with the SDR part later. When SDR software is added, then the radio gains some of the features of far more expensive radios such as panoramic displays and additional filtering. What’s the downside? IQ based SDR radios don’t offer some of the perks of direct sampling SDR radios such as larger bandwidth and better signal processing. IQ based SDR radios can sometimes take a little more fiddling to get setup and running well. Hopefully more amateur radio manufacturers will consider offering more Hybrids in the future. The Alinco DX-SR9 retails for $799 with a street price of around $699 to $775. The nearest competitors to the 100 Watt Alinco DX-SR9 as of this writing is the 10 Watt Elecraft KX3 SDR hybrid at $899 (kit) and $995 (assembled). If you want to add the 100 watt power amp, that will be another $699 (kit) or $749 (assembled). For the price of the KX3 and amp, you could buy the DX-SR9 and have money left over for a very nice shack computer. However, with that said, Elecraft does make excellent radio gear. The only other sort of close competitor is the 5 watt Flex 1500 black box IQ based SDR transceiver for $699. Having used and tested the Flex 1550, this is an excellent little QRP SDR transceiver. So, basically at this point it is fair to say that Alinco as no real competition in the 100 Watt SDR radio category in the $799 price range or frankly the $1500 and up range. The next step up would probably be the older 100 Watt Flex 3000 black box SDR at $1749. Now to be fair, once you cross the $1500 range in SDR radios, it gets to be more of an “apples” to “oranges” comparison. The point is that the DX-SR9 presents a very attractive value for amateur radio users looking for an entry level radio and would like to experiment with SDR. The DX-SR9 was released earlier this year, so it is a relatively new product. The observations in this review are based on the current shipping firmware.
Note* The DX-SR9 does not cover 6 meters as most of the above mentioned radios do, however it does include FM modulation.
- Coverage of All short-wave and HF amateur bands
Covers the 160m to 10m amateur bands including 5.3MHz in SSB, CW, AM ,FM and IQ output modes. Output power is 100W SSB/CW and FM, 40W in AM with low and super-low power settings for QRP operation. In addition, the general coverage receiver covers 135KHz to 30MHz in all modes. (The RX sensitivity and selectivity are not guaranteed out side of the ham bands.)
- Internal VOX
Eliminates optional interface box for PC connection to operate data modes like PSK31.
- Detachable front control panel
Completely detachable front control panel with large LCD display lets you install the radio with greater flexibility whether in your car, boat or your shack. (Optional EDS-17 cable required)
- Direct DATA entry via the key pads
While the main dial tunes at the default 10Hz/resolution (adjustable in set mode), the numerical key pads can be used for fast direct frequency input, band selection and more.
- Fight QRM with these STANDARD features
Reject unwanted signals with the IF shift. Choose a narrow filter(AM 2.4KHz/SSB 1KHz, CW 0.5KHz audio-filtering), a noise-blanker or use RIT/TXIT to stay out of QRM.
- Emphasis on CW Operation
An electronic keyer unit is standard. You can receive CW using either upper or lower side of the carrier frequency. Choice of side tone pitch, FULL (QSK), Semi or Auto break-in, split, narrow filter, AGC and RF gain.
- World-class transmit audio quality
A dynamic microphone (T/E models) and a speech compressor come standard for sharp, clear and powerful transmitting audio.
- Enhanced scan modes
A variety of scan modes are available including Priority, Search, Busy, Timed, Memory and Programmed search. Timed scan setting does not require squelch-mute so you are able to monitor data-modes and broadcasts simultaneously with memory search scan.
- Additional convenient features include
RF Attenuator and Pre-amplifier selectable in 4 steps, / 3 TX power output levels with a Super-Low setting (QRP 0.1W~2W variable) / Dual VFO / 600ch memories in 3 banks / Connections for Auto-antenna tuner and Liner amplifier ALC output / Fully independent AF level, squelch, RIT and IF shift knobs / Dial lock and key lock / TX-RX lamp / Alphanumeric display / Auto-power-off / CTCSS encode for 10m FM repeater accesses / Microphone, Headphone and External speaker jacks on the front panel / Large, temperature-controlled internal cooling fan with anti-overheat output power limiter/ High-SWR protection and more!