Over on YouTube user Full spectrum technician has uploaded an interested video where he shows how he used a beam deflection tube to create an upconverter for his RTL-SDR. A beam deflection tube is a type of vacuum tube that can be used as a mixer. If you aren’t aware, a vacuum tube (a.k.a tube or valve) is an electrical component that was used in electrical equipment heavily back in the first half of the 1900’s. They could be used to implement circuits like amplifiers, mixers, switches, oscillators and more. Even today they are still used in some high end audio equipment because many people believe they produce superior audio quality. Full spectrum technician writes on his video:
A simple test using a 6ME8 beam deflection tube as a balanced mixer up converter for an RTL-SDR to enable HF reception.
The only problem I had was too much conversion gain. Even with a relatively short antenna, and literally starving the tube for voltage, the signal output levels were high enough that I had to crank back the gain of the RTL SDR and/or use padding on the input of the RTL-SDR.
The LO was feed to grid 1 for common mode input. The antenna was feed to the two deflection plates via a transformer as a differential input. The output was taken from the two anode plates via a transformer as a differential output.
That resulted in the LO balancing it’s self out on the output so that the LO would not overload the front end of the receiver.
Operating voltages at the time were.. 20V anode. 5V deflection plates. 20V accelerator grid. Cathode tied to ground.
Earlier in June YouTube user T3CHNOTURK posted a video demonstrating him receiving signals above the maximum 1.7 GHz range of the RTL-SDR by using a modified SUP-2400 downconverter. Back in April it was discovered by KD0CQ that a $5 DirecTV SUP-2400 circuit could be modified and turned into a downconverter for use with the RTL-SDR.
Now T3CHNOTURK has uploaded a new video showing more demonstrations of the RTL-SDR + SUP-2400 combo in action. This time he adds a PGA-103 based LNA to boost the signal strength, which gives him better effective range. In the video he shows reception of a wireless keyboard once again, and then goes on to show him receiving 2.4 GHz analog PAL video using the RTL-SDR program TVSharp. The picture is not particularly clear, but it is a decent demonstration.
Back in April we posted about how KD0CQ found that he could receive signals up to 4.5 GHz with an RTL-SDR by using a $5 downconverter for DirecTV called the SUP-2400. The RTL-SDR can only receive up to a maximum frequency of about 1.7 GHz, but the SUP-2400 downconverter can be modified to convert frequencies at around 2.4 GHz down into a range receivable by the RTL-SDR.
When we first posted the story the instructions for modifying the SUP-2400 to use as a downconverter weren’t uploaded yet, but they are now. The modification requires decent soldering skills as it involves desoldering a few small SMD components and bridging some points with wires.
Over on YouTube user T3CHNOTURK has uploaded a video showing the downconverter in action. With the SUP-2400 downconverter and RTL-SDR he is able to receive some WiFi at 2.447 GHz as well as signals from a wireless keyboard at 2.465 GHz
The secret to doing this cheaply is revealed by KD0CQ. He shows that a very cheap $5 Directv SUP-2400upconverter can be converted into a 2.4 GHz downconverter simply by removing some filters. He writes that he hasn’t uploaded the full set of steps to modify the SUP-2400 yet, but he intends to do so in the near future.
There is also a discussion about this mod on Reddit. Several posters have been discussing what applications a cheap downconverter could open up. Some mentioned applications include receiving various satellites in the C/S bands, DECT cordless phones @ 1.9 GHz, SiriusXM satellite radio @ 2.3 GHz, ISM @ 2.4 GHz, RADARs, RC aircraft control/telemetry/video and ham beacons.
Over on the SWLing Post blog contributor Mike Ladd has posted up a review of the Soft66RTL3 software defined radio. The Soft66RTL3 is a fully enclosed SDR unit that consists of a standard mini RTL-SDR dongle, a selectable upconverter circuit, several switchable bandpass filters for HF and a UPC1688 RF amp which is enabled in HF mode and is controllable through a trimmer pot. The selectable bandpass filters are from 0.4 MHz to 1.2 MHz, 1.2 MHz to 5 MHz, 5 MHz to 15 MHz and 15 MHz to 30 MHz. The unit also comes enclosed in an aluminum box with an SMA input connector and Micro-B USB port.
The Soft66RTL3 is custom produced by Kazunori Miura (JA7TDO) who is based in Japan. The Soft66RTL3 sells for $40 USD shipped, or $46 USD shipped with registered air mail.
In the review Mike shows us the insides of the Soft66RTL3 and discusses its features. Later he also shows an installation and user guide.
An upconverter allows you to receive HF frequencies (0-30 MHz) with an RTL-SDR which has a lower frequency limit of 24 MHz. The ham-it-up upconverter was one of the first upconverters to go on the market that targeted users of the popular RTL-SDR dongle. Over the years the ham-it-up has slowly been revised and now it is up at version 1.3. The biggest changes in the latest version are a revised design that uses the ADE-1 in reverse (better VLF operation), a presoldered oscillator and it also now includes the previously optional noise source by default.
Previously we posted a review comparing the ham-it-up v1.0, SpyVerter and Nobu’s Japanese upconverter. Although the ham-it-up v1.3 is much improved and we have not tested it, we still believe the SpyVerter is the better upconverter choice at the moment due to its better architectural design and included metal case, though Akos does point out that the ham-it-up is currently about $15 USD cheaper and has a passthrough switch.
In his second post Akos reviews the Balun 1:9 which is a $10 balun that is designed for attaching a long wire antenna to the ham-it-up. The goal of the balun 1:9 is to transform the high impedance long wire antenna down to around 50/75 Ohms for the receiver. In Akos’ results he writes that he mostly see’s identical or better performance with the balun connected.
To add to Akos’ review, we want to note that we think that there might be some confusion over baluns and ununs. We wonder if a 9:1 unun (instead of a balun) should be used for a long wire antenna, since a long wire is an unbalanced antenna. We think a balun should be used for a balanced antenna such as a dipole. In his review Akos also found that connecting two longwire antennas to the spring terminals improved reception. This may have possibly been because adding two longwires essentially created a balanced dipole antenna. To implement a longwire antenna unun with a balun, we think that the second terminal and coax shield should be connected to a good ground source like a cold water pipe. If you have knowledge on this topic please comment to confirm or expand on our theory.
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 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.