Category: Amateur Radio

Reviews of the Low Cost MLA-30 Wide Band HF Magnetic Loop Antenna

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.

What's included in the MLA-30 set. Photo from David Day's Review.
What's included in the MLA-30 set. Photo from David Day's Review.

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.

First hour battle of the antennas W6LVP loop VS MLA 30 loop test

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 Loop vs 80M EFHW

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.

MLA-30 Magnetic Loop Modifications

 

Hermes Lite 2 HF Amateur Radio SDR Group Buy Now Active

The Hermes Lite 2 (HL2) amateur radio direct sampling HF SDR transceiver board is now active for a group buy over on Makerfabs. The price is $225.70, and there need to be 25 orders before the group buy is confirmed. If confirmed, production will begin on 23 September, with production estimated to take about one month. More information about the group buy available on the Hermes Lite 2 Wiki. The N2ADR filter board for transmitting with the HL2 is also available on Makerfabs for $52.70.

The HPSDR Hermes SDR is an open source amateur radio SDR transceiver project that was released as far back as 2011. More recently Steve Haynal has been working on a Hermes-Lite project which is intended to be an opensource open hardware low cost amateur radio HF transceiver that is based on the HPSDR Hermes SDR project software and FPGA DSP implementation.

The Hermes-Lite is able to be very low cost because at it's core is the AD9866 chip which is a mass produced RF front end (LNA + ADC & DAC) that is commonly used in cable modems. Because it is a mass produced commodity, the chip only costs approx. US$35-$25 on Mouser depending on quantity. The chip has a 12-bit 80 MHz ADC and DAC, meaning that if used without any analog mixer front end (like in the Hermes-Lite) it can receive the entire spectrum between 0.1 to 38 MHz all at once.

The Hermes-Lite is also a lot more than just the RF chip, as it contains a set of switched RF filters and a 5W power amplifier for TX. It also interfaces with a PC via Ethernet and has a built in FPGA for DSP processing.

The Hermes Lite 2 PCB
The Hermes Lite 2 PCB

Transmitting WSPR on QO-100 with a moRFeus and less than 4 mW Power

Thank you to Zoltan for submitting a short post about using a moRFeus to uplink WSPR to the Es'Hail-2 (QO-100) geostationary satellite with amateur radio repeater. moRFeus is a versatile US$99 signal generator and frequency mixer that can be controlled either by it's built in LCD screen, or via software on a Windows or Linux PC. It can generate a clean low phase noise tone anywhere between 85 to 5400 MHz, and can be used as a mixer for upconverting or downconverting signals. We have discussed moRFeus a few times before on this blog as we think it's a useful tool.

In his setup, Zoltan uses a QRP Labs U3S WSPR transmitter kit that was configured to transmit WSPR at 2m (144 MHz). It is not designed for transmitting the 2.4 GHz QO-100 uplink frequency. To get around that limitation, the moRFeus is used to upconvert the 144 MHz frequency into the QO-100 uplink band by mixing it with a 2,255,634.309 kHz signal. The resulting 2.4 GHz output signal from moRFeus is sent to an amplifier, 2.4 GHz band pass filter, and finally into a 5-turn LHCP helical feed mounted on a 1m parabolic dish.

Successful uplink was confirmed by a UK based WebSDR receiving the QO-100 downlink. Zoltan estimates that the total output power was only 4mW, and actually more like 1-2 mW due to losses in the coax feed.

WSPR uplink with moRFeus
WSPR uplink with moRFeus

Cleanly Embedding an RTL-SDR in an FT-991A With No Extra Cables

GPIO Pins Used on the RTL-SDR Blog V3
GPIO Pins Used on the RTL-SDR Blog V3

Thank you to Rodrigo Freire (PY2RAF) for submitting his project that has cleanly turned a standard Yaesu FT-991A ham radio into an RTL-SDR based software defined radio panadapter with no external wires, hubs or dongles.

Rodrigo's system consists of an IF tap amplifier+filter board that is connected to an internally mounted RTL-SDR. The RTL-SDR is internally connected to the FT-991A's USB hub which had to be upgraded from a 2-port hub to a 4-port hub as the 2-ports were already in use by the CAT and Audio features. This required the stock USB hub IC to be replaced with a hot air rework station.

Everything is mounted inside the radio chassis itself, and the end result is a neat solution with no external wires, hubs or dongles that has essentially turned the FT-991A into an SDR. Plugging in the single stock USB cable from the FT-991A results in the standard CAT and Audio interfaces showing up, as well as the RTL-SDR.

What's also interesting is that Rodrigo makes use of the GPIO pins on our RTL-SDR Blog V3 to enable the RX_EN, BPF and BYPASS switches on the IF tap board. This allows for a cleaner solution as no external switches need to be installed.

The entire project is open source with schematics and the BOM provided over on the GitHub, and excellent documentation is available on the project's Wiki.

FT991A Converted into an SDR.
FT991A Converted into an SDR.

Turning FT-991A to a REAL SDR: Embedding a SDR Panadapter INSIDE the radio, no extra wires!

SignalsEverywhere: Harold’s Mobile SDR Vehicle Load Out for Amateur Radio

This week on the SignalsEverywhere YouTube channel Harold shows us the mobile SDR and ham radio setup that he's installed on his car. On the roof of his car he's installed several antennas for various amateur radio bands including the 1.25m, 2m, 70cm, 33cm bands, a modified GPS puck antenna for Inmarsat and Iridium reception, and an antenna and GPS pick dedicated for APRS.

Inside the vehicle is a Windows tablet attached to the dashboard which is used for APRS, remotely controlling a scanner radio stored in the trunk and for running SDRSharp. There is also an Android unit installed in the center console which has an RTL-SDR connected. The Android unit runs RF Analyzer, and an ADS-B decoder. As well as SDRs, Harold also runs several standard ham radios within the vehicle.

Amateur Radio Mobile SDR Load Out | SDR Plus 33cm 70cm 2m 1.25m and more!

PEPYSCOPE: A Simple Panadapter for HF Radios using RTL-SDR Direct Sampling

Over on GitHub user mcogoni (Marco/IS0KYB) has recently released a new program called Pepyscope. Pepyscope is a simple and fast panadapter application that is designed to be used with direct sampling capable RTL-SDR's such as our RTL-SDR Blog V3 units. Like other panadapters you simply connect the IF output from the hardware HF radio into the input of the RTL-SDR. Then Pepyscope gives you a waterfall display that helps users to easily visualize the spectrum.

Pepyscope is open source and runs on Linux PCs. So far Marco has tested Pepyscope with a KENWOOD TS-180S (single conversion with IF at 8.83 MHz) and an RTL-SDR v3. He has also uploaded a demonstration video on YouTube.

PEPYSCOPE: a simple panadapter for Linux and the RTL-SDR in direct sampling mode

Reviews of the NanoVNA: An Ultra Low Cost $50 Vector Network Analyzer

A vector network analyzer (VNA) is an instrument that can be used to measure antenna or coax parameters such as SWR, impedance and loss. It can also be used to characterize and tune filters. It is a very useful tool to have if you are building and tuning home made antennas, filters or other RF circuits. For example if you are building a QFH or ADS-B antenna to use with an RTL-SDR, a VNA can help ensure that your antenna is properly tuned to the correct frequency. Compared to a standard SWR or network analyzer a VNA supplies you with phase information as well.

Until just recently, VNA's have cost roughly US$500 for a decent USB PC based unit like the miniVNA or PocketVNA, and have set people back thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for bench top units.

However, the cost of owning a VNA has now been reduced to only US$50 thanks to the NanoVNA. The open source NanoVNA project by @edy555 and ttrftech has been around since 2016, but only recently have Chinese sellers begun mass producing the unit and selling them on sites like Aliexpress, eBay and now Amazon. We note that it seems that there are some sellers selling them without shielding, so it might be worth double checking the listing to see if they mention that. All the listings we've seen seem to come with simple calibration kits as well.

The NanoVNA: A $50 Vector Network Analyzer
The NanoVNA: A $50 Vector Network Analyzer

The NanoVNA is a small credit card sized VNA. It has a built in LCD screen that can be used to display graphs directly, or it can also be connected to a PC and the graphs viewed via the NanoVNA Windows software. When purchasing you can opt to include a small battery for portable operation for a few dollars extra. The frequency range is from 50 kHz to 900 MHz, although you should note that above 300 MHz dynamic range performance is reduced.

Over on YouTube several hams and radio enthusiasts have recently uploaded videos demonstrating and reviewing the NanoVNA. The overall consensus is that the unit is accurate and works well. For additional support there is forum available at Groups.IO.

Below YouTube user IMSAI Guy reviews the NanoVNA. Check out IMSAI Guy's other videos too as he has several where he tests the NanoVNA on difference filters and antennas, and checks the accuracy.

#350 NanoVNA Vector Network analyzer 900MHz VNA for $50

Below is YouTube user joe smith's review. He also has two other NanoVNA videos on his channel where he shows how to use the NanoVNA to measure antenna impedance, and how to use the NanoVNA to create SPICE models for simulation.

The NanoVNA, a beginners guide to the Vector Network Analyzer

Finally YouTube user Oli gives another overview. Please note that the following video is in Polish, but YouTube captions can be set to English.

NanoVNA - omówienie, kalibracja, pomiar anteny i filtra [english subtitles]

We've also seen several recent text reviews:

NanoVNA - A short review. In this review nuclearrambo shows off the calibration kit, and shows a practical measurements of a directional coupler and 137 MHz QFH antenna.

NanoVNA compared with a Keysight fieldfox N9952A. Here nuclearrambo provides a comparison between the $50 NanoVNA and the $40,000+ Keysight FieldFox N9962A.

The NanoVNA, a real VNA at less than 48 €!. A review written in French, but Google Translate can be used. In this review David Alloza compares the NanoVNA against an Agilent E5062A benchtop VNA, and results look comparable.

WebWSPR: A Browser Based WSPR Decoder and Visualization Tool

A few days ago we posted about [dj0abr / Radio Electronics'] WebSDR software for QO-100. Having looked through his GitHub we've seen that he also has an a similar browser based server tool called WebWSPR for WSPR decoding and visualization (click with WebWSPR link) which was released earlier this year.

WSPR is an amateur radio digital HF mode designed to be decodable even if the signal is transmitted with very low power and is very weak. It can be used to help determine HF radio propagation conditions as WSPR reception reports are typically automatically uploaded to wsprnet. In the past we have been able to receive WSPR and similar modes like FT8 with our RTL-SDR V3 running in direct sampling mode.

Like his QO-100 WebSDR software, WebWSPR is designed to run on a single board computer like a Raspberry Pi or any Linux machine. It serves a web page that shows the WSPR waterfall, decoded data and has various WSPR related control options. The web page can be accessed remotely from any machine on the same network as the server, or could be put on the internet with port forwarding and a hostname service like noip.

A ready to use Raspberry Pi image for WebWSPR is available here (does not seem to support the latest Pi4 or 3B+ however). Manual installation instructions can be found here. The code is all open source and available on GitHub.

The software appears to take input from the soundcard for standard hardware receivers, but it should be possible to pipe audio from an RTL-SDR into pulseaudio, which the software can then use. The instructions from our RTL-SDR V3 WSJT-X tutorial may help.

WebWSPR Browser Screenshot
WebWSPR Browser Screenshot