Over on YouTube Tech Minds has uploaded a new video where he reviews the MLA-30 active HF loop antenna. In the past we have posted about the MLA-30 antenna a several times on the blog as it is the cheapest active loop antenna available on the market, can be powered by the RTL-SDR Blog V3's bias tee, and generally loop antennas can give good HF performance in a small package. In the video he compares the MLA-30 against an end-fed halfwave antenna and concludes that the MLA-30 works well at the lower frequencies, but not so well in the higher bands.
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Last month we posted a collection of reviews about the MLA-30 which is a budget magnetic loop antenna designed for receiving HF signals. The overall consensus from the reviews was that it worked decently for the price, but of course could never live up to the high end loops that cost hundreds of dollars.
Recently Martin (G8JNJ) reverse engineered the active circuit used on the loop from photos taken by M0LMK and has made some observations on it's performance, noting that it's design isn't very good. First he notes that the amplifier chip is a Texas TL592B two stage video amplifier which isn't that great for this application. His measurements show an OIP3 of 20dBm, a P1 saturation of -3dBm and a noise figure of 12dB.
Of interest, he explains that the creator of this loop has designed it poorly as the impedance match of the loop to low pass filter is very wrong, resulting in a very poor amplitude/frequency response. He shows how the response can be improved with a few termination resistors, but is still not great.
If you're interested in a cheap magnetic loop antenna, Martin suggests DIYing the M0AYF design which he says works a lot better.
We note that the "YouLoop" design is also in the works as a product that will apparently sell at close to manufacturing cost. The YouLoop is a passive loop idea by the creator of the Airspy that consists only of a simple 1:1 transformer and coax cable as the loop. It works best with high sensitivity radios like the HF+ Discovery.
Recently Chinese manufacturers have begun producing a low cost wide band (100 kHz - 30 MHz) magnetic loop HF antenna known as the MLA-30. The loop can be found on eBay for under US$45 with free shipping. In the past wide band HF loop antennas have not been cheap, normally costing $300+ dollars from manufacturers like Wellbrook.
RF signals are electromagnetic waves that consist of an electric and magnetic component. A magnetic loop antenna mostly receives the magnetic portion of the wave. This is useful as most unwanted interference from modern electronic devices is generated in the electric component only. So, a magnetic loop antenna may be preferable in city and suburban environments over other antennas like wires and miniwhips. Magnetic loops are also directional, and can be rotated to avoid interference.
One of the biggest costs to a magnetic loop antenna is the shipping, because a large hula hoop sized piece of metal needs to be sent. The MLA-30 cuts costs on shipping by providing a folded up thin loop wire and no physical support for the loop. You are expected to provide your own support, or simply hang the loop wire on something. If you like you can also replace the included loop wire with a larger loop.
The MLA-30 comes with 10m of RG174 coax, is bias tee powered, and comes as a set with a bias tee injector that is powered over 5V USB. We tested our own unit with the RTL-SDR Blog V3, Airspy and SDRplay bias tee's and found that they all worked well instead of the included bias tee. So if you have one of those SDRs using the loop is as simple and neat as plugging it in and turning on the bias tee.
In terms of build quality, the unit is sturdy and the PCB is fully potted and protected against rain/weather. It is yet to be seen how the external screw terminals holding on the loop will age over a longer period of time however.
So how does the very cheap MLA-30 compare to higher end magnetic loop antennas? Below are some reviews by various hams and SWLs. The general consensus is that it works well for the price, but as you'd expect, falters on handling very strong signals and produces a higher noise floor compared to the more expensive loops, especially in the higher HF bands. But overall we'd say that it's probably still better than using a miniwhip, especially in suburban/city environments, and is probably the best compact HF antenna that you can get on a budget.
MLA-30 Magnetic Loop Antenna Review and Comparison by David Day (N1DAY)
In this review David compares the MLA-30 against a 30-ft ground loop and a Wellbrook ALA1530-LF. His results show that while the loop is capable of receiving the same signals that the two comparison loops can, the SNR is much lower. He also notes that the much thinner loop wire used on the MLA-30 seems to result in a much deeper null, and that IMD was a problem for him.
Inside the MLA-30 Active Loop Antenna by Matt (M0LMK)
This post is a complete teardown of the antenna. As the PCB is fully potted Matt had to boil down the epoxy in order to get to the actual PCB. He notes that the PCB is a simple single amplifier design with the exposed pot working as a gain control.
Cheap Chinese Magnetic Loop Antenna (MegaLoop aka MAGALoop) MLA-30 by John
In this review John compares the MLA-30 against a $345 W6LVP and Wellbrook ALA1530LN. His findings are very favorable concluding that it is an adequate performer, perfect for cash strapped SWLs.
First hour battle of the antennas W6LVP loop VS MLA 30 loop test by OfficialSWLchannel
This is a YouTube video where OfficialSWLchannel compares his MLA-30 against a W6LVP loop. He notes that his initial testing shows that the MLA-30 performs as well as the W6LVP loop.
MLA-30 Loop vs 80M EFHW by Matthew Payne
In this YouTube video Matthew compares his MLA-30 against a 80M end fed halfwave antenna with an SDRplay RSP1a.
MLA-30 Magnetic Loop Modifications by Scanner and Sdr Radio
In this video the Scanner and Sdr Radio YouTube channel uses an RSPduo to compare the MLA-30 against a Wellbrook loop. His results show that the MLA-30 definitely has a higher noise floor compared to the Wellbrook, but still receives signals decently although chasing weak signals it's not good enough. He also shows how to improve the MLA-30 by replacing the cheap coax that it comes with, noting that the modification reduced his noise.
niliBOX is a multiplatform software package in beta release that can be used to manage radio devices such as Icom radio scanners and RTL-SDRs remotely or locally. It is the evolution of the older 'PCR Anywhere' software which was specifically designed for controlling Icom Radio scanners.
Over on YouTube user Danny Shortwave And Radio DX has uploaded a video demonstrating the RTL-SDR module being used in niliBOX with his RTL-SDR Blog V3 SDR. He writes:
niliBOX developed a software for various models of computer controlled radios and also for the RTL-SDR software defined radio. I will demonstrate this by running the software while tuning the mediumwave stations. The antenna I'm using is the MLA-30 active loop antenna. This is their first initial release of this software. I will make a series of videos showing this program working. Stay Tuned. This is Version 1.0.0
They currently have Windows 64 Bit. Tested on Windows 7, 10 and 11. They also have Linux version, tested on Ubuntu and Centos 64 Bit. And also a Apple Mac version, tested with MacOS 10.14, 10.15, 11 and 12. They are also coming soon with Android and IOS versions.
Over on YouTube, Tom the Dilettante has uploaded a video demonstrating how to receive HF signals with an RTL-SDR Blog V3 running in direct sampling mode. This is something already known to most RTL-SDR fans, but on the RTL-SDR V3 we have built in a direct sampling circuit that enables reception below 24 MHz with a simple settings change in software.
In the past and with other dongle brands, enabling direct sampling required hardware mods involving directly soldering a wire antenna to very small pins or pads. Direct sampling is not a high performance mode for HF, but in many situations it can be good enough for casual listening.
In his video Tom demonstrates HF reception with the RTL-SDR Blog V3 and an MLA-30 active loop antenna. This is a cheap loop antenna available on Aliexpress that works very well for the price.
We've recently seen a few submissions about a new low cost active magnetic loop antenna called the K-180WLA which sells for around US$50 - US$60 over on eBay and Aliexpress. While it appears to be very similar to the well known MLA-30 loop, it's main defining feature is that it's power feeder is battery powered via a built in Lithium ion cell which would make it useful for portable operation. It also advertises a wide usable frequency range of 0.1 - 180 MHz with an amplified gain of 20 dB. They note it can also be pushed up to 450 MHz with reduced gain of 8.9 dB. The battery run time or power draw is not advertised. They write:
- The P.BOX feed box has a built-in 3.7V 18650 flat-head lithium battery with integrated power supply module. It is the only active antenna that does not require an external power supply and integrates a charge management chip. The MICRO USB charging port is compatible with the 5V charging head of Android phones. And charging cable, very easy to use.
- UHF low-noise preamplifier is used. The gain flatness is very good within the ultra-wide operating frequency of 0.1-180MHZ. It provides a gain of about 20DB, even when working to 450MHZ gain, there is still about 8.9DB.
- The receiving frequency covers long wave, medium wave, short wave, FM broadcasting band and VHF aviation band. The small ring diameter 55CM is simple to set up. It can be set up outside the window, balcony, terrace and roof. Lovers erected.
- All the screws of the antenna are made of 304 stainless steel, and the preamplifier box is fully waterproof, which can be used for long-term outdoor wind and rain.
- Suitable models include Desheng S-2000 PL-660 PL-880 ICOM R71E YAESU FRG-8800 and all short-wave receivers, especially for SDR receivers.
The antenna is equipped with a dual SMA male adapter cable, an SMA to 3.5 plug adapter cable, and an S2000 BNC adapter, which means that your radio can be used with SMA female, BNC, and 3.5 jacks. Requires additional accessories. Receivers and radios with other interfaces need their own adapters.
We've ordered a unit and plan to compare it against the MLA-30, Wellbrook and YouLoop (with optional HF amplifier that is to be released soon) in a future post. This loop is also being discussed over on the SWLing Post Blog.
We have recently been able to obtain a small number of YouLoop HF/VHF portable receive only passive antennas that were produced by the owner of Airspy. The YouLoop is available in our store priced at US$34.95 including free worldwide shipping. It comes with the balun "tee" connector, coax inverter, 2x 1m semi-rigid coax cables for a ~60cm loop, and 1x 2m semi-rigid coax for the feedline. Note that US customers may wish to purchase from airspy.us as they have local US stock. We are focusing on non-US orders for this product and we only have very limited stock at the moment - UPDATE: Now out of stock. We have reordered more and should be back in stock by end of March.
If you don't know what a "YouLoop" is, it is a simple passive magnetic loop antenna design which consists of a ring of coax cable and a low loss 1:1 or 4:1 balun. The design was recently popularized by Youssef (prog) the owner of Airspy, and he has put up a page explaining how the design works here. Many users on Twitter have been reporting good results with HF reception with the design. It appears to be especially useful in urban environments where there is lots of local noise.
Left Discovery with YouLoop Antenna, Rigth Discovery with HF Hoxin Vertical Antenna.— EA3IBC Oscar (@ea3ibc) October 24, 2019
Same configuration in sdr#, both in roof with 25m RG213 cable.
A lot of noise in the vertical antenna, Barcelona noisy city. pic.twitter.com/NNYdpsmNTo
Being passive, it has no amplification and so it works best with a low noise SDR like an Airspy HF+. However we have also found decent results with SDRplay SDRs, and a standard RTL-SDR Blog V3 running in direct sampling mode, although RTL AGC mode needs to be turned on for an extra boost. Improved results can be obtained by using a low cost HF amplifier on the front end, and even our wideband LNA which is advertised as working down to 50 MHz still does actually give a decent boost from 5 MHz and up.
Also the design has some advantages in that it has very low electrical interference pickup, and has no electronics that can overload from signals that are too strong. Overloading from strong signals is something that can easily affect cheap magnetic loop antennas like the MLA-30, and even higher end loop antennas too. Being a magnetic loop, it also naturally filters out electric field interference which is extremely common in urban environments, and is the reason why e-field antennas like miniwhips often perform poorly.
The antenna is designed to be extremely portable, being lightweight and easy to assemble/disassemble. As such it is not designed to be weatherproof, so if you do decide to mount it permanently please make use of weatherproofing tape.
Unlike fixed magnetic loops, the YouLoop design is also easy to experiment with. By using longer coax cables you can easily create a larger loop which can result in stronger signals. We found that replacing the 1m loop cables with 2m lengths gave quite nice results for us. If you have the space you could try even larger loops too.
The design also doubles as a great VHF antenna with reception up to 300 MHz possible when used in a folded dipole configuration. To do that, simply flatten the loop into a dipole shape.
Finally, if you prefer the YouLoop can also be constructed by yourself. The Twitter post below shows the basic design. Search Twitter for "YouLoop antenna" for more discussion on the design too.
Testing HF YouLoop: antenna 40cm at roof VS antenna 60cm in shack. pic.twitter.com/123ZO7mpUi— EA3IBC Oscar (@ea3ibc) August 24, 2019
In the future we hope to offer a comparison between other loop antennas like the MLA-30 and Wellbrook.
Over on YouTube the Scanner and Sdr Radio channel has uploaded a video comparing four different brands of HF wideband loop antennas using an SDRplay RSPduo. The loops he tested include the cheap Chinese MLA-30 (~$40), the Cross Country Wireless (CCW) loop ($70), Bonito ML200 (~$442) and the Wellbrook 1530LN (~$305).
The MLA-30 was slightly modified with the cheap coax removed and a BNC connector added. Each of the antennas used a wire loop with diameter of approximately 1.6m, except for the Wellbrook which has a fixed size solid loop of 1m.
The tests compare each loop against the Wellbrook which is used as the reference antenna. In each test he checks each HF band with real signals on the RSPduo and compares SNR between the two antennas.
The results show that the two expensive antennas, the Bonito and Wellbrook, do generally perform the best with the lowest noise floors, but surprisingly the MLA-30 actually performs very well for it's price point, even outperforming the Wellbrook reference on SNR in some bands. We note that some of the improvement may be due to the larger 1.6m loop size used on the MLA-30, compared to the 1m loop on the Wellbrook.
Also we note that it can be hard to compare antennas in single tests, because the differences in antenna radiation patterns could be favorable for some signals, and less so for others, depending on the location.