Tagged: spyverter

A Review of the SpyVerter R2

The SpyVerter is a high performance upconverter that enables HF reception on SDR’s that aren’t able to tune directly to HF frequencies. Like any upconverter it works by converting those lower HF frequencies ‘up’ into a higher frequency range that is actually receivable by the SDR.

Back in December 2015 when the SpyVerter first came out we reviewed the unit and found that it was probably the best and highest value upconverter on the market. It was priced at a similar or cheaper price to competitors, came in a metal enclosure and had excellent performance. The main reason for its high performance is due to the architecture. While most upconverters on the market like the ham-it-up use an ADE-1 double balanced mixer component, the SpyVerter instead uses an H-mode mixer design. This design is harder to engineer, but it provides better dynamic range meaning that strong signals are less likely to overload the upconverter.

The SpyVerter was recently given a refresh, and the SpyVerter R2 is now available. The changes are small and are mostly centered around the clock. The oscillator is now a 24 MHz 0.5 PPM TCXO, run through a SI5351 clock generator to produce the 120 MHz upconversion frequency. A new onboard microcontroller programs the SI5351 on power up.

This change in clock design also now allows you to connect a 10 MHz reference frequency if ultra stable, or phase coherent frequency operation is required. A u.FL connector is provided next to the output SMA connector on the PCB for connecting a 10 MHz reference. Unfortunately there is no breakout hole in the metal enclosure, meaning that you’ll need to drill your own hole in the enclosure to get the u.FL clock cable out. Few people will need this feature however, as thanks to the 0.5 PPM TCXO stock frequency stability is now excellent.

The new design also uses less power, only drawing 10 mA of current compared to 47 mA in the SpyVerter R1. It also has 12 dB lower local oscillator leakage meaning that the gains might be able to be pushed slightly higher without overload. Once again, just like with the SpyVerter R1 the R2 is also powered via the bias tee on the Airspy, and so is compatible with the bias tee on our RTL-SDR V3 dongles.

There’s also an interesting mod that can be performed with the SpyVerter R2. The LO frequency can be modded to run at 58 MHz instead of 120 MHz. 58 MHz is just low enough to avoid the broadcast FM band, and the lower frequency allows the switches used in the H-mode design to run at a lower frequency. This results in an insertion loss better by about 3 dB’s and less LO leakage meaning that the RF gains can be pushed higher. The main disadvantage to this mod is that the lowest input frequency will only be 28 MHz.  The mod details don’t seem to be published yet, but we’ll update this post once they are.

The cost of the SpyVerter R2 remains the same as before at $49 USD. Compared to the Ham-It-Up v1.3 which costs $41.95 USD and does not come with an enclosure or TCXO, the SpyVerter still seems to be the best value. Currently you can buy one internationally from iTead who ship from China, at Airspy.us for US customers, and there are several European distributors linked on the Airspy website.

Disclaimer: The SpyVerter R2 was sent by the Airspy team to us for free in exchange for an honest review.

A Review of the SpyVerter R2

The SpyVerter is a high performance upconverter that enables HF reception on SDR’s that aren’t able to tune directly to HF frequencies. Like any upconverter it works by converting those lower HF frequencies ‘up’ into a higher frequency range that is actually receivable by the SDR.

Back in December 2015 when the SpyVerter first came out we reviewed the unit and found that it was probably the best and highest value upconverter on the market. It was priced at a similar or cheaper price to competitors, came in a metal enclosure and had excellent performance. The main reason for its high performance is due to the architecture. While most upconverters on the market like the ham-it-up use an ADE-1 double balanced mixer component, the SpyVerter instead uses an H-mode mixer design. This design is harder to engineer, but it provides better dynamic range meaning that strong signals are less likely to overload the upconverter.

The SpyVerter was recently given a refresh, and the SpyVerter R2 is now available. The changes are small and are mostly centered around the clock. The oscillator is now a 24 MHz 0.5 PPM TCXO, run through a SI5351 clock generator to produce the 120 MHz upconversion frequency. A new onboard microcontroller programs the SI5351 on power up.

This change in clock design also now allows you to connect a 10 MHz reference frequency if ultra stable, or phase coherent frequency operation is required. A u.FL connector is provided next to the output SMA connector on the PCB for connecting a 10 MHz reference. Unfortunately there is no breakout hole in the metal enclosure, meaning that you’ll need to drill your own hole in the enclosure to get the u.FL clock cable out. Few people will need this feature however, as thanks to the 0.5 PPM TCXO stock frequency stability is now excellent.

The new design also uses less power, only drawing 10 mA of current compared to 47 mA in the SpyVerter R1. It also has 12 dB lower local oscillator leakage meaning that the gains might be able to be pushed slightly higher without overload. Once again, just like with the SpyVerter R1 the R2 is also powered via the bias tee on the Airspy, and so is compatible with the bias tee on our RTL-SDR V3 dongles.

There’s also an interesting mod that can be performed with the SpyVerter R2. The LO frequency can be modded to run at 58 MHz instead of 120 MHz. 58 MHz is just low enough to avoid the broadcast FM band, and the lower frequency allows the switches used in the H-mode design to run at a lower frequency. This results in an insertion loss better by about 3 dB’s and less LO leakage meaning that the RF gains can be pushed higher. The main disadvantage to this mod is that the lowest input frequency will only be 28 MHz.  The mod details don’t seem to be published yet, but we’ll update this post once they are.

The cost of the SpyVerter R2 remains the same as before at $49 USD. Compared to the Ham-It-Up v1.3 which costs $41.95 USD and does not come with an enclosure or TCXO, the SpyVerter still seems to be the best value. Currently you can buy one internationally from iTead who ship from China, at Airspy.us for US customers, and there are several European distributors linked on the Airspy website.

Disclaimer: The SpyVerter R2 was sent by the Airspy team to us for free in exchange for an honest review.

Leif (SM5BSZ) Compares Several HF Receivers

Over on YouTube well known SDR tester Leif (SM5BSZ) has uploaded a video that compares the performance of several HF receivers with two tone tests and real antennas. He compares a Perseus, Airspy + SpyVerter, BladeRF + B200, BladeRF with direct ADC input, Soft66RTL and finally a ham-it-up + RTLSDR. The Perseus is a $900 USD high end HF receiver, whilst the other receivers are more affordable multi purpose SDRs.

If you are interested in only the discussion and results then you can skip to the following points:

24:06 – Two tone test @ 20 kHz. These test for dynamic range. The ranking from best to worst is Perseus, Airspy + SpyVerter, Ham-it-up + RTLSDR, Soft66RTL, BladeRF ADC, BladeRF + B200. The Perseus is shown to be significantly better than all the other radios in terms of dynamic range. However Leif notes that dynamic range on HF is no longer as important as it once was in the past, as 1) the average noise floor is now about 10dB higher due to many modern electronic interferers, and 2) there has been a reduction in the number of very strong transmitters due to reduced interest in HF. Thus even though the Perseus is significantly better, the other receivers are still not useless as dynamic range requirements have reduced by about 20dB overall.

33:30 – Two tone test @ 200 kHz. Now the ranking is Perseus, Airspy + SpyVerter, Soft66RTL, BladeRF+B200, Ham-it-up + RTLSDR, BladeRF ADC.

38:30 – Two tone test @ 1 MHz. The ranking is Perseus, Airspy + SpyVerter, BladeRF + B200, ham-it-up + RTLSDR, Soft66RTL, bladeRF ADC. 

50:40 – Real antenna night time SNR test @ 14 MHz. Since the Perseus is know to be the best, here Leif uses it as the reference and compares it against the other receivers. The ranking from best to worst is Airspy + SpyVerter, ham-it-up + RTLSDR, BladeRF B200, Soft66RTL, BladeRF ADC. The top three units have similar performance. Leif notes that the upconverter in the Soft66RTL seems to saturate easily in the presence of strong signals.

1:13:30 – Real antenna SNR ranking for Day and Night tests @ 14 MHz. Again with the Perseus as the reference. Ranking is the same as in 3).

In a previous video Leif also uploaded a quick video showing why he has excluded the DX patrol receiver from his comparisons. He writes that the DX patrol suffers from high levels of USB noise.

Airspy and Spyverter using a GPSDO

Recently Tim Havens (NW0W) wrote in to use to let us know about his work in connecting the Airspy and Spyverter to a very accurate GPS disciplined oscillator (GPSDO). Usually the drift on the Airspy and Spyverter is completely negligible, however Tim uses them together with his Yaesu FTDX-5000 for monitoring CW signals. He wanted to be able to click on a CW signal and have his FTDX-5000 tune to the signal perfectly every time, so even very small oscillator drift offsets could affect his tuning.

To get a high accuracy clock signal from a device such as a GPSDO can be used for both the Airspy and Spyverter. Tim was able to find a very nice GPSDO from Leo Bodnar that comes with two clock separate outputs that can be configured to output any frequency between 450 Hz and 800 MHz. 

The Airspy already contains an external clock input for 10 MHz, however the present version of the Spyverter contains no such external input. To get around this Tim carefully removed the oscillator on the Spyverter and then added a second SMA connector to connect to the GPSDO.

His final setup consists of the Leo Bodnar GPSDO outputting a 10 MHz and 120 MHz GPS disciplined clock signal that feeds the Airspy and Spyverter respectively. With this Tim found that he needed no initial offset and zero drift was noticed over two days of testing.

Finally Tim also writes that this Leo Bodnar GPSDO could just as easily be used to create a 28.8 MHz clock signal for an RTL-SDR, or any other SDR or upconverter that needs it. 

Modded Spyverter with external clock input.
Modded Spyverter with external clock input.

Review of the SpyVerter Upconverter

The SpyVerter is a new upconverter that has recently gone on sale. It is created by Youssef (he programmed SDR# and worked on the development of the Airspy SDR) and Bob W9RAN (of rantechnology.com and youtube.com/user/ranickel). In this post we’ll review the SpyVerter and compare it against some other up converters that we have used in the past.

Background

Radio transmissions between 0 – 30 MHz can travel all the way around the world. At these frequencies many interesting signals such as international shortwave radio, ham radio communications and several military transmissions exist.

The RTL-SDR’s lowest tunable frequency is 24 MHz, and so it can only receive a small portion of the interesting transmissions that occur between 0 – 30 MHz. In order to listen to frequencies below 24 MHz an upconverter is required (either that or perform the direct sampling mod). An upconverter works simply by shifting these lower frequencies up to a higher frequency that the RTL-SDR can receive. For example, a 5 MHz signal might be upconverted to 105 MHz.

To date, most decent upconverters (such as the popular ham-it-up upconverter) have been based on the double balanced mixer architecture implemented by the ADE-1 mixer chip from Minicircuits. The SpyVerter on the other hand is based on a different type of architecture which is inspired by the H-mode mixer design that was used in the unreleased HF7070 communications receiver. The expected major advantage that this design has over a ADE-1 based design is better IIP3 performance. This essentially means that strong signals will not cause overloading issues in the SpyVerter, meaning less noise and spurious images. 

Another advantage of the SpyVerter is its use of a 120 MHz low phase noise/low jitter clock, meaning less reciprocal mixing and thus greater SNR and a lower noise floor. A low phase noise clock is essential for getting good performance when receiving the very narrowband signals that are typically found between 0 – 30 MHz. The other upconverters do not specify their phase noise performance as far as we can tell.

The SpyVerter comes in a metal box, with three SMA adapters. A metal box is great because it helps keep strong interfering signals from entering the signal path, as well as stabilizing the internal temperature, keeping frequency drift to a minimum. Most upconverters only come with a metal box as a paid add on, but the SpyVerter comes in one by default.

Although the SpyVerter is designed to be used with the Airspy, it is fully compatible with the RTL-SDR as well. The SpyVerter can be powered via a USB cable, or via 5V bias tee (and this is compatible with the bias tee used on the RTL-SDR Blog units sold by us).

The SpyVerter in enclosure with bundled adapters.
The SpyVerter in enclosure with bundled adapters.

Continue reading

SpyVerter Upconverter now for sale

The team behind the Airspy software defined radio (as well has the popular SDR# software package) have just released the SpyVerter upconverter for sale. Upconverters shift HF frequencies (0 – 30 MHz) “up” by a fixed amount, giving receivers that can’t tune that low like the RTL-SDR and the Airspy the ability to receive HF signals.

The SpyVerter extends reception all the way down to DC and has a 60 MHz low pass filter. Its main selling point is its H-Mode architecture which provides excellent IIP3 performance. This basically means that strong HF signals are unlikely to cause overloading in the up-conversion stage. The good IIP3 performance should improve HF reception when compared to other upconverters even with lower end SDR’s like the RTL-SDR. The reason is that when hit by strong HF signals many other upconverters will overload in the upconversion mixing stage, before even reaching the SDR, thus requiring the need for attenuators or antennas with less gain.

Another selling point is its good performance down to DC, making it ideal for VLF reception.

SpyVerter is designed for optimal performance with the Airspy and can be powered directly by the Airspy’s bias tee. However, RTL-SDR users can also use the SpyVerter by powering it through the micro USB connector, or by using it with one of our RTL-SDR Blog units with the activatable bias tee. 

The SpyVerter sells for $59 USD and comes in a metal enclosure with three bonus SMA adapters. There is a $9 USD discount for Airspy owners.

At these prices combined with its claimed performance and metal enclosure we now generally recommend the SpyVerter over any other upconverter. The designers of the SpyVerter have sent us a sample unit and we will review it after testing it out over the next few weeks, but our initial tests already show good performance.

The SpyVerter upconverter.
The SpyVerter upconverter.

New Demo of the Upcoming Spyverter Upconverter

The Spyverter is a new high performance upconverter that is being developed by the team behind the Airspy software defined radio and the SDR# software. It is designed to be used together with the Airspy, but it should also be compatible with other SDRs as well. The main claimed advantages over other upconverters will be it’s low loss and high IIP3 performance, which means that the Spyverter will not saturate in the presence of strong signals as easily as other upconverters.

Recently W9RAN, who is involved in the design and testing of the Spyverter uploaded some demo videos of the Spyverter + Airspy combo in action. The first video shows how the Spyverter when used together with the Airspy and SDR# allows for seamless tuning between VLF, HF through to VHF/UHF (no need to set any offsets).

The next video shows the Spyverter + Airspy combo working during a RTTY contest on 40M with very densely packed signals, some of which were very strong.

W9RAN (ranickel on YouTube) also has additional Spyverter + Airspy videos on YouTube for viewing if you are interested.

Spyverter Sneak Preview

The Spyverter is being developed by the creators of the Airspy software defined radio to be a high performance upconverter. It is designed for use with the Airspy, but may also be compatible with other SDR devices too.

Compared to most other upconverters which use a diode ring mixer architecture, the Spyverter uses a different, as of yet undisclosed architecture. The main claimed advantages over other upconverters will be it’s low loss and high IIP3 performance, which means that the Spyverter will not saturate in the presence of strong signals as easily as other upconverters.

Recently a photo of a Spyverter alpha board was released, indicating that the Spyverter is getting close to release.

The Spyverter Alpha
The Spyverter Alpha

Also, a few months ago W9RAN posted a YouTube video about a prototype HF upconverter for the Airspy and we believe he was using an early version of the Spyverter.