Category: Reviews

Several new SDRPlay RSP1A Reviews

Like the HF+ mentioned in the previous post, the RSP1A SDR was also recently released and has now had enough time in the wild to gather up a few online reviews. If you didn't already know, the $99 US SDRplay RSP1A is a revision of the RSP1. Compared to the RSP1 it significantly improves the filtering and front end design. We have our own review of the RSP1A unit here, and we mentioned some early reviews from other bloggers in this linked post. Below we post some of the new reviews that we are aware of which have come out since our last post.

Robert Nagy

In his video Robery Nagy does a full review of the RSP1A including a 15 minute primer on SDRs. This is great if you want a brief introduction to understanding how SDRs actually work, and what performance measures are important for comparing them. In the second half of the video Robert shows how to use SDRuno and shows the RSP1A in action.

Mile Kokotov

In this video Mile Kokotov demonstrates the HF+ receiving a CW contest in his home country of Macedonia with the RSP1A and a full-size half wave resonant dipole antenna. He writes:

CQ World Wide DX Contest (CW) receiving in Macedonia with SDRplay RSP1A SDR-receiver and SDRuno software on 80m-Band with full-size half-wave (40 meters long) resonant dipole antenna.

Contest conditions are always big challenge to any receiver dynamics. Here you can see only 60 kHz wide frequency spectrum fulfilled with many competitor stations "fighting each other". In addition, there are local radio-station (only 1 km from my place) with huge signal...

The Radio Hobbyist

In The Radio Hobbyist's video on YouTube Rick (VE3CNU) unboxes his RSP1A and shows the setup and download of SDRuno. He then goes are demonstrates reception on various signals.

icholakov

In icholakov's video on YouTube he compares the older RSP1 with the newer RSP1A on medium wave and shortwave reception using a dipole in a noisy suburban RF setting. Differences are hard to detect as the signals he tests with are not likely to cause any overloading issues, but the RSP1A does seem to have a slightly less noise.

Several new Airspy HF+ Reviews

The new Airspy HF+ SDR receiver has now been shipped to multiple customers and reviewers, and new reviews are coming online fast. If you weren't already aware, the Airspy HF+ was a hotly anticipated low cost, but high performance HF speciality SDR receiver. The claims are that it can compete with the high end $500 US+ units. We have our own review of an early model here. Below are some new reviews that we are aware of.

Nils DK8OK's photo of the Airspy HF+.
Nils DK8OK's photo of the Airspy HF+.

Nils Schiffhauer - DK8OK

On his blog Nils presents us with a comprehensive set of audio recordings comparing the $525 US Elad FDM-S2 with the $199 US Airspy HF+. He compares the two receivers on various shortwave broadcast stations, time stations, and an airport VOLMET. The recordings are identical, with the two radios recording the same signals simultaneously via a splitter.

Both receivers produce excellent results so you will probably need headphones and keen ears to be able to tell the difference.

Mile Kokotov

In this review YouTube video Mile Kokotov presents a comparison of the Airspy HF+ vs. the ColibriNANO, a similarly specced SDR dongle. He writes:

In this video I am comparing two high quality SDR Receivers: Airspy HF+ and ColibriNANO. They both have 16 bit Analog-to-Digital Converter. Comparison was made with the same overall conditions.

For example, both receivers was set with equal size spectrum windows, with the same amount of decibels in their scale, and the same high of the spectrum windows.
ColibriNANO has LNA gain slider which was set to maximum SNR.

Airspy HF+, on the other hand, has no LNA gain control.
The SV2HQL/Beacon was chosen as a test signal on 3579.32 kHz (on 80m band)

Antenna is half-wave resonant Dipole (40 meters long) for 80m band.

In the second part of the video I was inserted 27 dB external Attenuator on both receivers. ColibriNANO automatically increased the LNA gain and sets itself to maximum SNR. With this amount of attenuation, The Airspy HF+ noise floor level was at about the same place in spectrum window like ColibriNANO, Unlike in the first part of the video, when no external attenuator was used.

Both SDR-receivers are very good! Which is better? I leave on you to judge...

Mile also does a second test with his HF+ and an active Mini-Whip antenna. He writes:

Airspy HF+ is superb High-Dynamic HF and VHF SDR-receiver and I am impressed with it. In order to minimize possible negative effect on signal path from antenna connector to tuner input, Airspy HF+ has no internal attenuator. Developers takes in account that this SDR-receiver has enough dynamic range that is very difficult to overload it. Actually it is true for most cases. But, if we want to use some type of active antenna (with internal amplification) like Mini-Whip Active Antenna for example, it is good idea to add an external attenuator between antenna and receiver HF-input connector, in order to have opportunity to lower the signal level from the active antenna, and to avoid possible overload issues. In this video I am presented some scenario (receiving MW AM band) when my homemade external step-attenuator is more than welcome! By the way, the external step-attenuator is very easy to made in almost no money. All you need is 9 resistors, three switches and one metal box) I have 5.5 dB switch, 10.5 dB switch and 22 dB switch. It can be set for 8 various combinations: 0, -5.5 dB, -10.5 dB, -16 dB, -22 dB, -27.5 dB, -32.5 dB and -38 dB.

You can see on this video that the AM Broadcast signal from Macedonian Radio on 810 kHz is very strong. The Antenna is about 30 km from my house. It is self standing huge 185 meters high vertical antenna, radiating enormous RF-power, so I have to use my homemade attenuator I mentioned it before.

The SWLing Post Blog

Here Thomas of the SWLing post blog has posted a brief review of his HF+ unit. He notes how the HF+ is very compact, with a durable enclosure and how easy it was to set up with it being completely plug and play. So far Thomas hasn't fully evaluated the performance, but his first impressions are good.

Adam 9A4QV

In his two videos Adam doesn't directly review the Airspy HF+, but he does show some pretty impressive reception with his Skyloop antenna.

RadioHobbyist (Update: 8 Dec 2017)

This review by RadioHobbyist just came online shortly after this post went out. It compares the HF+ against the expensive $1449 US NetSDR using sound samples from both radios. The difference between the two radios is almost undetectable.

A Review of the SDRplay RSP1A

Yesterday the SDRplay team released the $99 US RSP1A, which is a revision of the RSP1A. In this post we present a review comparing its performance against the older RSP1 and the currently selling $169.95 US RSP2. We aim to mainly show demonstrations of improvements that we've found on the RSP1A in areas where we discovered problems on the RSP1 or RSP2.

Discussion of Improvements 

First we present a discussion on the improvements made.

TCXO: The first noticeable improvement is that the RSP1A now comes with a 0.5PPM TCXO. This was one of the main criticisms of the RSP1 as the RSP1 only came with a standard oscillator which can drift as the temperature changes. But as mentioned in our previous review that included the RSP1, the drift was fairly small after warmup due to the good heat dissipation of the large PCB, and the relatively low power usage and thus less heating of the Mirics chips used on RSP units. Nevertheless, a TCXO is a good upgrade and brings it back in line with most low cost SDRs on the market now.

Enhanced RF Preselectors + Notches: Strong out of band signals can overload an SDR causing problems like imaging and reduced sensitivity. Preselectors are RF filters which help to filter out unwanted signals for the band that you are listening to. 

The RSP1 had 8 preselector bands and the RSP1A brings this number up to 12, which is even more than the 10 preselectors on the RSP2. 

In testing we found that the new preselectors certainly do help out a lot. The new 2 MHz low pass and 2 - 12 MHz certainly help to reduce interference from the MW broadcast AM band. Changes in the VHF filters reduce problems from strong broadcast FM and DAB stations. The filters have also been sharpened considerably making the existing filters even more effective. The RSP-1 in some cases suffered quite severely from out of band signal interference, and the RSP-2 made it a bit better, but the RSP-1A solves the interference problem much more.

The new FM/AM and DAB notch filters also do a good job at notching out these often problematic very strong signals.

Preselectors on the RSP1, RSP1A and RSP2
Preselectors on the RSP1, RSP1A and RSP2

Improved LNA Architecture: In the RSP1 the front end LNA could only be turned on or off. Turning it on reduces the noise figure and improves performance, especially at UHF frequencies. The single gain step was problematic as often the LNA could overload on strong signals if turned on. The RSP1A introduces a gain control block which allows the LNA to have variable gain steps.

This new architecture helps to maximise the dynamic range of the RSP1A, thus reducing overloading.

Extended frequency coverage down to 1kHz: The lower limit of the RSP1 was 10 kHz, so really low LF reception is now available on the RSP1A.

Bias-T: Just like with the RSP2, the bias-t allows you to power external devices over the coax cable. Such as remote LNAs, switches etc. Running a good LNA next to the antenna is optimal, as this helps push signals through the coax cable losses.

RF Shielding: Like the RSP2 the plastic case is now spray painted with metallic paint on the inside. This works almost as well as a full metal case to shield from unwanted signals entering directly through the PCB, instead of through the antenna. We do still notice some leakage making its way in through the coax shield, but it is relatively minor with the shielding.

ADC Resolution Increased to 14-bits: The RSP1A uses the same ADC chip as the RSP1, but now has unlocked 14-bit ADC capability for bandwidths below 6 MHz thanks to onboard decimation and oversampling. So now 14-bit data comes directly into the PC if using a bandwidth below 6 MHz. Further decimation can still be achieved within software like SDRuno.

A higher bit ADC can improve dynamic range, meaning that strong signals are less likely to overload the SDR.

We asked SDRplay how 14-bits was achieved with the same chips used by the RSP1 and they explained that it is through oversampling and decimation onboard the chip. They also wrote the following technical reply which is a very good read (collapsed as the reply is quite long, click on "Read the Reply" to expand):

READ THE REPLY

The ADCs on the MSi2500 use a sigma-delta topology where a highly oversampled multi-bit ADC uses decimation filtering to provide the desired resolution. As the original spec for the MSi2500 called for 12 bit resolution, the fact that the converter was capable of delivering 14 bits for final sample rates of less than 6.048 MHz was ignored. Working with the Mirics team, we have been able to unlock the extra two bits of resolution that the MSi2500 was always capable of delivering. Using sample rates above 6.048 MHz, the ADC defaults back to 12 bit resolution.

They also explained:

If we take an 8 bit ADC for example, we can expect around 48 dB of instantaneous dynamic range. This will most likely be far lower than that achievable from the RF front end whose dynamic range will be influenced by factors such as noise figure, intermodualtion, cross modulation and synthesizer phase noise (reciprocal mixing). A decent tuner front end should be capable of delivering 65-70 dB of instantaneous dynamic range, which is also roughly what you can expect from a 12 bit ADC. In other words, we believe that in the RSP1, the instantaneous dynamic range of the tuner and ADCs were approximately the same. The limitation that the RSP1 had was because of the single gain step in the LNA, it was not always possible to utilise the available dynamic range in the most effective way. The RSP1A gives much greater (and finer) control over the RF gain and this allows for better alignment of the signal level into the tuner to better exploit the available dynamic range. In our tests in the broadcast FM band, we believe that the RSP1A gives around 10 dB more ‘usable’ dynamic range than the RSP1. In other words, if we combine multiple controlled modulated signals (for RF signal generators), with real weak off-air signals, the RSP1A is capable of handling interferers that are around 10 dB greater than the RSP1. Benchmarking against other products, in our tests, the RSP1A seems to give better performance now than anything else in the same price range, both in terms of sensitivity and in terms of in-band overload performance.

The RSP1 always gave very good sensitivity but in optimising it in this way, we gave up some performance in terms of in-band overload performance. Our objective with the RSP1A was to address this without sacrificing sensitivity. 

Now, going back to the issue of 14 bits vs 12 bits and instantaneous dynamic range. If we increase the ADC dynamic range from 12 to 14 bits, then the ADC dynamic range should no longer influence the performance of the receiver. Indeed, it is our view, that for any receiver that needs to use a tuner as part of the front end (and any receiver that operates across the frequency range of the RSP will have to use a tuner for the foreseeable future), there is little benefit to be gained with ADC resolutions in excess of 14 bits, as to utilise the extra dynamic range that a higher resolution ADC can give, a much higher performance tuner would be required. Tuner technology has come a very long way in the last 10-15 years and the performance of modern integrated devices is actually very good. To get 12 dB of better dynamic range from a tuner is extremely difficult and can really only be achieved by using very much greater levels of power and esoteric semiconductor technologies. One possible area where you might see better performance is where you have multiple strong interfering signals to the extent that the RF gain needs to be turned down to such a level that the ADC quantisation noise effectively limits the noise floor of the receiver. In this case, you ought to see improved performance in 14 bit mode when compared to 12 bit mode, but please note that the improvement may only be a few dBs in the weak signal reception. If the noise floor of the receiver is still limited by the external LNA, then improved ADC dynamic range will give no perceptible improvement whatsoever.

A direct sampling receiver that does not use a tuner should in principle allow greater dynamic range than one that does, but in practice any direct sampling ADC needs some form of external low noise amplification to ensure a reasonable noise figure and the dynamic range (noise, intermodulation performance etc) of this external amplification block becomes a limiting factor. This is certainly true at VHF and above. At HF, as you will be well aware, the receiver noise figure is not really very important because the atmospheric noise floor is so high. In principle, you might therefore think that our best approach would be to bypass the tuner and use the decimated 16 bit performance of our ADCs. This would still give an effective receiver bandwidth of 375 kHz with 16 bit performance. The reality though is that the real dynamic range of signals coming into the antenna is limited by propagation conditions and atmospheric noise. It is rare to find signals that are above the atmospheric noise floor that vary by more than 60 dB. In practical terms, we believe that equivalent performance can be achieved, simply by the addition of RF pre-selection and AM-band notch filters and in this way we avoid some of the other compromises of direct sampling systems.

So, in a nutshell, when transitioning from 12bit mode to 14 bit mode, don’t expect to see 12 dB more dynamic range. In the real world, it doesn’t work this way. This is why 12 bit devices can give quite favourable performance to higher end 16 bit SDRs such as the Elad FDM-S2, particularly when you consider the difference in cost. We fully expect the Elad to be better, but the difference will not be 24 dB or anything close to it.


Without wishing to labour the point about myths and misunderstandings, it is worth adding a bit of clarification regarding the term ‘dynamic range’. This is a much misunderstood term which can mean very different things depending upon the circumstances and type of signal being received. There is also a difference between ‘dynamic range’ and ‘instantaneous dynamic range’. If you ask 10 different radio engineers what they mean by the term dynamic range, you are sure to get more than one different answer! Another important point to note is that ADC dynamic range is NOT the same as receiver dynamic range. When referring to ADCs, the term dynamic range generally refers to the Spurious Free Dynamic Range (SFDR). This is measured using a CW tone and refers to the ratio between the maximum RMS signal that the ADC can handle and the largest spur or level or quantisation noise within the ADC bandwidth. This is a measure of both noise and linearity of an ADC. As a case in point, it is worth noting that a 16 bit ADC may not necessarily have a higher SFDR than a 12 bit ADC despite having a greater resolution. The greater resolution will generally result in a lower level of quantisation noise, but not necessarily a lower level of harmonic distortion and spurs. In a multi-channel/multi-signal SDR system a lower level of quantisation noise is generally helpful, even if the SFDR is not better, but is not guaranteed to give better performance if the weak signal of interest happens to fall on top of an ADC spur. Where a single signal occupies the entire ADC bandwidth, it is ONLY the SFDR that matters and not the resolution or quantisation noise. Sometimes you will hear people refer to the Effective Number Of Bits ENOB. ENOB is related to the SFDR in that it is a measure of the maximum SINAD that can be attained with an ADC at a give sample rate and so is also a measure of both linearity and noise performance. ENOB is actually = (SINAD – 1.76)/6.02
In the ADC subsystem used in the RSP, whilst the ADCs are 12 bit at 8 MHz sampling the ENOB is 10.4 (for both I and Q). At lower sample rates, the ENOB improves and gets closer to the idealised performance of the converter.

In a receiver system as a whole, the term dynamic range will generally be interpreted to mean the difference (in dB) between the minimum discernible signal and the maximum level of signal that can be handled. But this is different from the term instantaneous dynamic range, which generally refers to the difference between the minimum discernible signal in the presence of the largest signal that can be handled at the same time. What this ‘number’ is in each case will depend upon the type of signal. So for example, a receiver with a given noise figure and linearity performance will have a different instantaneous dynamic range when receiving a 8 MHz wide 256-QAM CATV signal than when receiving a FM signal that is a few kHz wide. This is simply because the SINR (Signal to Interference + Noise Ratio) requirement for a given BER for a 256-QAM signal is very different than that required for a FM signal and also the peak to average ratio of the two signals is very different.

PCB Photos

Compared to the RSP1 the RSP1A PCB is significantly more populated due to the additional filter banks.

RSP1A PCB Top

RSP1A PCB Top

RSP1A PCB Bottom

RSP1A PCB Bottom

RSP1A PCB Bottom

RSP1 vs RSP2 PCBs

Testing the RSP1A

Below we show some screenshots of tests that we made to compare the three RSP units. We focused on bands where the RSP1 or RSP2 had issues, and try to show how much improvement you can get from the RSP1A.

Medium Wave Broadcast AM Band

In the screenshots below we compare the three SDRs on the broadcast AM band which has some very strong signals. The RSP1 definitely shows signals of overloading and turning the gain down did not reduce the interference shown between 0 - 500 kHz. 

The RSP1A on the other hand does not overload that easily. In the third screenshot we turn the MW notch on half way through the waterfall. The notch does not cover the entire AM band and signals at around 500 - 700 kHz are attenuated less. But turning it on does seem to do enough to solve most imaging problems as will be seen in the next tests.

SDRplay RSP1

SDRplay RSP1

SDRplay RSP1A

SDRplay RSP1A

SDRplay RSP1A (MW Filter ON Halfway Through)

SDRplay RSP1A (MW Filter ON Halfway Through)

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2

Continue reading

Several new SDRPlay RSP1A Reviews

Like the HF+ mentioned in the previous post, the RSP1A SDR was also recently released and has now had enough time in the wild to gather up a few online reviews. If you didn't already know, the $99 US SDRplay RSP1A is a revision of the RSP1. Compared to the RSP1 it significantly improves the filtering and front end design. We have our own review of the RSP1A unit here, and we mentioned some early reviews from other bloggers in this linked post. Below we post some of the new reviews that we are aware of which have come out since our last post.

Robert Nagy

In his video Robery Nagy does a full review of the RSP1A including a 15 minute primer on SDRs. This is great if you want a brief introduction to understanding how SDRs actually work, and what performance measures are important for comparing them. In the second half of the video Robert shows how to use SDRuno and shows the RSP1A in action.

Mile Kokotov

In this video Mile Kokotov demonstrates the HF+ receiving a CW contest in his home country of Macedonia with the RSP1A and a full-size half wave resonant dipole antenna. He writes:

CQ World Wide DX Contest (CW) receiving in Macedonia with SDRplay RSP1A SDR-receiver and SDRuno software on 80m-Band with full-size half-wave (40 meters long) resonant dipole antenna.

Contest conditions are always big challenge to any receiver dynamics. Here you can see only 60 kHz wide frequency spectrum fulfilled with many competitor stations "fighting each other". In addition, there are local radio-station (only 1 km from my place) with huge signal...

The Radio Hobbyist

In The Radio Hobbyist's video on YouTube Rick (VE3CNU) unboxes his RSP1A and shows the setup and download of SDRuno. He then goes are demonstrates reception on various signals.

icholakov

In icholakov's video on YouTube he compares the older RSP1 with the newer RSP1A on medium wave and shortwave reception using a dipole in a noisy suburban RF setting. Differences are hard to detect as the signals he tests with are not likely to cause any overloading issues, but the RSP1A does seem to have a slightly less noise.

Several new Airspy HF+ Reviews

The new Airspy HF+ SDR receiver has now been shipped to multiple customers and reviewers, and new reviews are coming online fast. If you weren't already aware, the Airspy HF+ was a hotly anticipated low cost, but high performance HF speciality SDR receiver. The claims are that it can compete with the high end $500 US+ units. We have our own review of an early model here. Below are some new reviews that we are aware of.

Nils DK8OK's photo of the Airspy HF+.
Nils DK8OK's photo of the Airspy HF+.

Nils Schiffhauer - DK8OK

On his blog Nils presents us with a comprehensive set of audio recordings comparing the $525 US Elad FDM-S2 with the $199 US Airspy HF+. He compares the two receivers on various shortwave broadcast stations, time stations, and an airport VOLMET. The recordings are identical, with the two radios recording the same signals simultaneously via a splitter.

Both receivers produce excellent results so you will probably need headphones and keen ears to be able to tell the difference.

Mile Kokotov

In this review YouTube video Mile Kokotov presents a comparison of the Airspy HF+ vs. the ColibriNANO, a similarly specced SDR dongle. He writes:

In this video I am comparing two high quality SDR Receivers: Airspy HF+ and ColibriNANO. They both have 16 bit Analog-to-Digital Converter. Comparison was made with the same overall conditions.

For example, both receivers was set with equal size spectrum windows, with the same amount of decibels in their scale, and the same high of the spectrum windows.
ColibriNANO has LNA gain slider which was set to maximum SNR.

Airspy HF+, on the other hand, has no LNA gain control.
The SV2HQL/Beacon was chosen as a test signal on 3579.32 kHz (on 80m band)

Antenna is half-wave resonant Dipole (40 meters long) for 80m band.

In the second part of the video I was inserted 27 dB external Attenuator on both receivers. ColibriNANO automatically increased the LNA gain and sets itself to maximum SNR. With this amount of attenuation, The Airspy HF+ noise floor level was at about the same place in spectrum window like ColibriNANO, Unlike in the first part of the video, when no external attenuator was used.

Both SDR-receivers are very good! Which is better? I leave on you to judge...

Mile also does a second test with his HF+ and an active Mini-Whip antenna. He writes:

Airspy HF+ is superb High-Dynamic HF and VHF SDR-receiver and I am impressed with it. In order to minimize possible negative effect on signal path from antenna connector to tuner input, Airspy HF+ has no internal attenuator. Developers takes in account that this SDR-receiver has enough dynamic range that is very difficult to overload it. Actually it is true for most cases. But, if we want to use some type of active antenna (with internal amplification) like Mini-Whip Active Antenna for example, it is good idea to add an external attenuator between antenna and receiver HF-input connector, in order to have opportunity to lower the signal level from the active antenna, and to avoid possible overload issues. In this video I am presented some scenario (receiving MW AM band) when my homemade external step-attenuator is more than welcome! By the way, the external step-attenuator is very easy to made in almost no money. All you need is 9 resistors, three switches and one metal box) I have 5.5 dB switch, 10.5 dB switch and 22 dB switch. It can be set for 8 various combinations: 0, -5.5 dB, -10.5 dB, -16 dB, -22 dB, -27.5 dB, -32.5 dB and -38 dB.

You can see on this video that the AM Broadcast signal from Macedonian Radio on 810 kHz is very strong. The Antenna is about 30 km from my house. It is self standing huge 185 meters high vertical antenna, radiating enormous RF-power, so I have to use my homemade attenuator I mentioned it before.

The SWLing Post Blog

Here Thomas of the SWLing post blog has posted a brief review of his HF+ unit. He notes how the HF+ is very compact, with a durable enclosure and how easy it was to set up with it being completely plug and play. So far Thomas hasn't fully evaluated the performance, but his first impressions are good.

Adam 9A4QV

In his two videos Adam doesn't directly review the Airspy HF+, but he does show some pretty impressive reception with his Skyloop antenna.

RadioHobbyist (Update: 8 Dec 2017)

This review by RadioHobbyist just came online shortly after this post went out. It compares the HF+ against the expensive $1449 US NetSDR using sound samples from both radios. The difference between the two radios is almost undetectable.

A Review of the SDRplay RSP1A

Yesterday the SDRplay team released the $99 US RSP1A, which is a revision of the RSP1A. In this post we present a review comparing its performance against the older RSP1 and the currently selling $169.95 US RSP2. We aim to mainly show demonstrations of improvements that we've found on the RSP1A in areas where we discovered problems on the RSP1 or RSP2.

Discussion of Improvements 

First we present a discussion on the improvements made.

TCXO: The first noticeable improvement is that the RSP1A now comes with a 0.5PPM TCXO. This was one of the main criticisms of the RSP1 as the RSP1 only came with a standard oscillator which can drift as the temperature changes. But as mentioned in our previous review that included the RSP1, the drift was fairly small after warmup due to the good heat dissipation of the large PCB, and the relatively low power usage and thus less heating of the Mirics chips used on RSP units. Nevertheless, a TCXO is a good upgrade and brings it back in line with most low cost SDRs on the market now.

Enhanced RF Preselectors + Notches: Strong out of band signals can overload an SDR causing problems like imaging and reduced sensitivity. Preselectors are RF filters which help to filter out unwanted signals for the band that you are listening to. 

The RSP1 had 8 preselector bands and the RSP1A brings this number up to 12, which is even more than the 10 preselectors on the RSP2. 

In testing we found that the new preselectors certainly do help out a lot. The new 2 MHz low pass and 2 - 12 MHz certainly help to reduce interference from the MW broadcast AM band. Changes in the VHF filters reduce problems from strong broadcast FM and DAB stations. The filters have also been sharpened considerably making the existing filters even more effective. The RSP-1 in some cases suffered quite severely from out of band signal interference, and the RSP-2 made it a bit better, but the RSP-1A solves the interference problem much more.

The new FM/AM and DAB notch filters also do a good job at notching out these often problematic very strong signals.

Preselectors on the RSP1, RSP1A and RSP2
Preselectors on the RSP1, RSP1A and RSP2

Improved LNA Architecture: In the RSP1 the front end LNA could only be turned on or off. Turning it on reduces the noise figure and improves performance, especially at UHF frequencies. The single gain step was problematic as often the LNA could overload on strong signals if turned on. The RSP1A introduces a gain control block which allows the LNA to have variable gain steps.

This new architecture helps to maximise the dynamic range of the RSP1A, thus reducing overloading.

Extended frequency coverage down to 1kHz: The lower limit of the RSP1 was 10 kHz, so really low LF reception is now available on the RSP1A.

Bias-T: Just like with the RSP2, the bias-t allows you to power external devices over the coax cable. Such as remote LNAs, switches etc. Running a good LNA next to the antenna is optimal, as this helps push signals through the coax cable losses.

RF Shielding: Like the RSP2 the plastic case is now spray painted with metallic paint on the inside. This works almost as well as a full metal case to shield from unwanted signals entering directly through the PCB, instead of through the antenna. We do still notice some leakage making its way in through the coax shield, but it is relatively minor with the shielding.

ADC Resolution Increased to 14-bits: The RSP1A uses the same ADC chip as the RSP1, but now has unlocked 14-bit ADC capability for bandwidths below 6 MHz thanks to onboard decimation and oversampling. So now 14-bit data comes directly into the PC if using a bandwidth below 6 MHz. Further decimation can still be achieved within software like SDRuno.

A higher bit ADC can improve dynamic range, meaning that strong signals are less likely to overload the SDR.

We asked SDRplay how 14-bits was achieved with the same chips used by the RSP1 and they explained that it is through oversampling and decimation onboard the chip. They also wrote the following technical reply which is a very good read (collapsed as the reply is quite long, click on "Read the Reply" to expand):

READ THE REPLY

The ADCs on the MSi2500 use a sigma-delta topology where a highly oversampled multi-bit ADC uses decimation filtering to provide the desired resolution. As the original spec for the MSi2500 called for 12 bit resolution, the fact that the converter was capable of delivering 14 bits for final sample rates of less than 6.048 MHz was ignored. Working with the Mirics team, we have been able to unlock the extra two bits of resolution that the MSi2500 was always capable of delivering. Using sample rates above 6.048 MHz, the ADC defaults back to 12 bit resolution.

They also explained:

If we take an 8 bit ADC for example, we can expect around 48 dB of instantaneous dynamic range. This will most likely be far lower than that achievable from the RF front end whose dynamic range will be influenced by factors such as noise figure, intermodualtion, cross modulation and synthesizer phase noise (reciprocal mixing). A decent tuner front end should be capable of delivering 65-70 dB of instantaneous dynamic range, which is also roughly what you can expect from a 12 bit ADC. In other words, we believe that in the RSP1, the instantaneous dynamic range of the tuner and ADCs were approximately the same. The limitation that the RSP1 had was because of the single gain step in the LNA, it was not always possible to utilise the available dynamic range in the most effective way. The RSP1A gives much greater (and finer) control over the RF gain and this allows for better alignment of the signal level into the tuner to better exploit the available dynamic range. In our tests in the broadcast FM band, we believe that the RSP1A gives around 10 dB more ‘usable’ dynamic range than the RSP1. In other words, if we combine multiple controlled modulated signals (for RF signal generators), with real weak off-air signals, the RSP1A is capable of handling interferers that are around 10 dB greater than the RSP1. Benchmarking against other products, in our tests, the RSP1A seems to give better performance now than anything else in the same price range, both in terms of sensitivity and in terms of in-band overload performance.

The RSP1 always gave very good sensitivity but in optimising it in this way, we gave up some performance in terms of in-band overload performance. Our objective with the RSP1A was to address this without sacrificing sensitivity. 

Now, going back to the issue of 14 bits vs 12 bits and instantaneous dynamic range. If we increase the ADC dynamic range from 12 to 14 bits, then the ADC dynamic range should no longer influence the performance of the receiver. Indeed, it is our view, that for any receiver that needs to use a tuner as part of the front end (and any receiver that operates across the frequency range of the RSP will have to use a tuner for the foreseeable future), there is little benefit to be gained with ADC resolutions in excess of 14 bits, as to utilise the extra dynamic range that a higher resolution ADC can give, a much higher performance tuner would be required. Tuner technology has come a very long way in the last 10-15 years and the performance of modern integrated devices is actually very good. To get 12 dB of better dynamic range from a tuner is extremely difficult and can really only be achieved by using very much greater levels of power and esoteric semiconductor technologies. One possible area where you might see better performance is where you have multiple strong interfering signals to the extent that the RF gain needs to be turned down to such a level that the ADC quantisation noise effectively limits the noise floor of the receiver. In this case, you ought to see improved performance in 14 bit mode when compared to 12 bit mode, but please note that the improvement may only be a few dBs in the weak signal reception. If the noise floor of the receiver is still limited by the external LNA, then improved ADC dynamic range will give no perceptible improvement whatsoever.

A direct sampling receiver that does not use a tuner should in principle allow greater dynamic range than one that does, but in practice any direct sampling ADC needs some form of external low noise amplification to ensure a reasonable noise figure and the dynamic range (noise, intermodulation performance etc) of this external amplification block becomes a limiting factor. This is certainly true at VHF and above. At HF, as you will be well aware, the receiver noise figure is not really very important because the atmospheric noise floor is so high. In principle, you might therefore think that our best approach would be to bypass the tuner and use the decimated 16 bit performance of our ADCs. This would still give an effective receiver bandwidth of 375 kHz with 16 bit performance. The reality though is that the real dynamic range of signals coming into the antenna is limited by propagation conditions and atmospheric noise. It is rare to find signals that are above the atmospheric noise floor that vary by more than 60 dB. In practical terms, we believe that equivalent performance can be achieved, simply by the addition of RF pre-selection and AM-band notch filters and in this way we avoid some of the other compromises of direct sampling systems.

So, in a nutshell, when transitioning from 12bit mode to 14 bit mode, don’t expect to see 12 dB more dynamic range. In the real world, it doesn’t work this way. This is why 12 bit devices can give quite favourable performance to higher end 16 bit SDRs such as the Elad FDM-S2, particularly when you consider the difference in cost. We fully expect the Elad to be better, but the difference will not be 24 dB or anything close to it.


Without wishing to labour the point about myths and misunderstandings, it is worth adding a bit of clarification regarding the term ‘dynamic range’. This is a much misunderstood term which can mean very different things depending upon the circumstances and type of signal being received. There is also a difference between ‘dynamic range’ and ‘instantaneous dynamic range’. If you ask 10 different radio engineers what they mean by the term dynamic range, you are sure to get more than one different answer! Another important point to note is that ADC dynamic range is NOT the same as receiver dynamic range. When referring to ADCs, the term dynamic range generally refers to the Spurious Free Dynamic Range (SFDR). This is measured using a CW tone and refers to the ratio between the maximum RMS signal that the ADC can handle and the largest spur or level or quantisation noise within the ADC bandwidth. This is a measure of both noise and linearity of an ADC. As a case in point, it is worth noting that a 16 bit ADC may not necessarily have a higher SFDR than a 12 bit ADC despite having a greater resolution. The greater resolution will generally result in a lower level of quantisation noise, but not necessarily a lower level of harmonic distortion and spurs. In a multi-channel/multi-signal SDR system a lower level of quantisation noise is generally helpful, even if the SFDR is not better, but is not guaranteed to give better performance if the weak signal of interest happens to fall on top of an ADC spur. Where a single signal occupies the entire ADC bandwidth, it is ONLY the SFDR that matters and not the resolution or quantisation noise. Sometimes you will hear people refer to the Effective Number Of Bits ENOB. ENOB is related to the SFDR in that it is a measure of the maximum SINAD that can be attained with an ADC at a give sample rate and so is also a measure of both linearity and noise performance. ENOB is actually = (SINAD – 1.76)/6.02
In the ADC subsystem used in the RSP, whilst the ADCs are 12 bit at 8 MHz sampling the ENOB is 10.4 (for both I and Q). At lower sample rates, the ENOB improves and gets closer to the idealised performance of the converter.

In a receiver system as a whole, the term dynamic range will generally be interpreted to mean the difference (in dB) between the minimum discernible signal and the maximum level of signal that can be handled. But this is different from the term instantaneous dynamic range, which generally refers to the difference between the minimum discernible signal in the presence of the largest signal that can be handled at the same time. What this ‘number’ is in each case will depend upon the type of signal. So for example, a receiver with a given noise figure and linearity performance will have a different instantaneous dynamic range when receiving a 8 MHz wide 256-QAM CATV signal than when receiving a FM signal that is a few kHz wide. This is simply because the SINR (Signal to Interference + Noise Ratio) requirement for a given BER for a 256-QAM signal is very different than that required for a FM signal and also the peak to average ratio of the two signals is very different.

PCB Photos

Compared to the RSP1 the RSP1A PCB is significantly more populated due to the additional filter banks.

RSP1A PCB Top

RSP1A PCB Top

RSP1A PCB Bottom

RSP1A PCB Bottom

RSP1A PCB Bottom

RSP1 vs RSP2 PCBs

Testing the RSP1A

Below we show some screenshots of tests that we made to compare the three RSP units. We focused on bands where the RSP1 or RSP2 had issues, and try to show how much improvement you can get from the RSP1A.

Medium Wave Broadcast AM Band

In the screenshots below we compare the three SDRs on the broadcast AM band which has some very strong signals. The RSP1 definitely shows signals of overloading and turning the gain down did not reduce the interference shown between 0 - 500 kHz. 

The RSP1A on the other hand does not overload that easily. In the third screenshot we turn the MW notch on half way through the waterfall. The notch does not cover the entire AM band and signals at around 500 - 700 kHz are attenuated less. But turning it on does seem to do enough to solve most imaging problems as will be seen in the next tests.

SDRplay RSP1

SDRplay RSP1

SDRplay RSP1A

SDRplay RSP1A

SDRplay RSP1A (MW Filter ON Halfway Through)

SDRplay RSP1A (MW Filter ON Halfway Through)

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2

Continue reading

Some Further Tests with the ADALM-PLUTO SDR

Last week we posted about the unboxing of the ADALM-PLUTO SDR as well as some information about a hack that can be used to increase the tuning and bandwidth range of the SDR. In this post we show some initial tests and first impressions of the the receive performance of the SDR.

We tested the PlutoSDR on a number of frequencies, some in the default tuning range, and some in the frequencies enabled by the hack. In terms of sensitivity not much difference was noticed in the expanded frequencies. Sensitivity overall is decent and seems to be comparable to other SDRs. However, the PlutoSDR does suffer quite heavily from out of band imaging. Although there is a 12-bit ADC being used, filtering is still necessary for many signals. Broadcast FM, DAB, HDTV and GSM are all very problematic and images of these signals can be found all over the spectrum if they are strong. Above about 800 MHz two broadcast FM stations show up in the exact same place at all frequencies, no matter the gain setting.

Imaging is probably expected as the IIP3 spec of the AD9363 RF chip used in the PlutoSDR is not that great at only -18 dBm at max gain. Other SDRs like the Airspy Mini and RSP2 don’t have imaging anywhere as bad as the PlutoSDR as they have naturally high dynamic range in the case of the Airspy and filter banks built-in in the case of the RSP2.

Below are some example screenshots of the imaging we saw from strong signals. We used SDR# with the new PlutoSDR plugin, and set the sampling rate to 3 MSPS. On these screenshots we note that turning down the gain did not help, so these images were present in some way no matter the gain settings. There is probably still some optimization to go in the SDR# plugin, so it’s possible that imaging could be reduced with further work.

DAB Appearing at 79 MHz

DAB Appearing at 79 MHz

GSM at 133 MHz

GSM at 133 MHz

No imaging here (see next slide)

No imaging here (see next slide)

But moved 1 MHz up and there is heavy imaging

But moved 1 MHz up and there is heavy imaging

GSM @ 315 MHz

GSM @ 315 MHz

BCFM Pulsing in at 415 MHz

BCFM Pulsing in at 415 MHz

BCFM interference shows up like this at all frequencies above 800 MHz

BCFM interference shows up like this at all frequencies above 800 MHz

To test sensitivity we recorded audio on a few weak signals that did not have any images present, and we kept the gain at the highest it could go without the noise floor rising or images showing up.

Again we used SDR# with the PlutoSDR plugin, and set the sampling rate to 3 MSPS. We note that anything higher than 4 MSPS causes lost samples and thus jittery audio as this is the hardware limit of the PlutoSDR.

BCFM

This is a weak BCFM station. The PlutoSDR actually seemed to receive it better than the Airspy Mini. The RSP2 could not receive it, and the weak audio heard on the RSP2 is audio from an image.

PlutoSDR

PlutoSDR

Airspy Mini

Airspy Mini

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2

161 MHz

This is a voice weather station. Here the PlutoSDR was very comparable to the Airspy Mini and RSP2. Not much sensitivity degradation in the ‘hacked’ expanded frequency range.

PlutoSDR

PlutoSDR

Airspy Mini

Airspy Mini

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2

858 MHz

This is a digital trunking signal (there was no stable voice source this high to test with). Sensitivity is about the same as the other SDRs.

PlutoSDR

PlutoSDR

Airspy Mini

Airspy Mini

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2

BCAM (Night)

A night time BCAM test. The PlutoSDR was coupled with a SpyVerter. Performance was quite good and on par with the Airspy Mini.

PlutoSDR

PlutoSDR

Airspy Mini

Airspy Mini

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2

L-Band

Tested reception with a L-band patch antenna (no external LNA). Tested STD-C reception too. The PlutoSDR worked very well on L-band and had similar performance to the SDRplay. The Airspy is not good at L-band without an LNA and could not receive the STD-C channel by itself.

PlutoSDR

PlutoSDR

PlutoSDR STD-C

PlutoSDR STD-C

Airspy Mini

Airspy Mini

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2

SDRplay RSP2 STD-C

SDRplay RSP2 STD-C

Conclusion

It’s clear that the PlutoSDR wasn’t made to be a general purpose high performance SDR, but rather a hackers/experimenters/learning SDR.  Performance in terms of out of band imaging is not great, and for any real listening filters may be required. That said, the performance is overall still not bad and overall still a bit better than an RTL-SDR or HackRF. With filtering the performance could be comparable to something like the Airspy Mini or SDRplay RSP2. Performance on L-band is very good, assuming you can filter or use a directional antenna to attenuate strong blocking signals. It’s also possible that further tweaks to the filter settings of the SDR# PlutoSDR plugin could improve imaging problems.

It’s also a bit disappointing that the maximum sample rate available is only 4 MSPS without drops. So this is the highest rate that you can use if you want to decode a signal, or listen to audio. For wideband waterfalls or spectrum analysis or other applications tolerant to dropped samples it should be possible to go up to the full 61.44 MSPS.

All in all, if you are interested in a low cost wideband SDR that does almost everything including TX, and are not too concerned about strong signals, images and overload, then this is still a great purchase at $99 USD (Digikey out of stock now, available for $149 on the Analog.com store). This SDR should be especially interesting to you if you are an SDR hacker/experimenter/student or are a fan of cheap SDRs/RTL-SDR/HackRF etc. If you are a ham or DXer and want something that just works with your high performance antennas and strong signals then you might look elsewhere.

On Twitter others have come to similar conclusions.

ADALM-PLUTO SDR: Unboxing and Initial Testing

The PlutoSDR (aka ADALM-PLUTO) is a new RX and TX capable SDR from Analog Devices who are a large semiconductor manufacturer. The PlutoSDR covers 325 – 3800 MHz, has a 12-bit ADC with a 61.44 MSPS sampling rate and 20 MHz bandwidth. It is also priced at the bargain price of only $99 USD over on Digikey, although it seems they only produced a small batch as at the moment they seem to be already sold out. This may also be a promotional price, with the normal price $149 USD as that is the price we see on the analog.com store. But even at $149 the value for what you get is very high.

A few months ago we preordered a PlutoSDR from the analog.com store, and it was received it a few days ago.

Unboxing

plutosdr_unbox1
plutosdr_unbox2
pluto_pcb2
pluto_pcb1

The unit comes in a nice professionally designed cardboard box. Inside is the unit itself, two small 4cm long whip antennas a short 15 cm SMA cable and USB cable. The PlutoSDR unit itself comes in a blue plastic box which measures 11.7 x 7.9 x 2.4 cm and weighs 114 g in total. Two SMA ports are available, one for RX and one for TX. At the other end are two LEDs, a USB port and a power only USB port.

The PCB itself looks to be designed nicely. On the PCB you can see the main AD9363 front end chip, which is actually a 2 x 2 transceiver chip. It supports a tunable channel bandwidth of up to 20 MHz. The other chip is the ZYNQ XC7Z010 which is an ‘All Programmable SoC’. This is an FPGA, processor and ADC for the unit.

Hardware

The PlutoSDR can tune from 325 to 3800 MHz. It has an ADC which can sample at up to 61.44 MSPS with a resolution of 12-bits. There is no TCXO used, so the frequency accuracy is only 25 PPM. Although the maximum sample rate is 61.44 MSPS, the front end AD9363 only has a maximum signal bandwidth of 20 MHz, so that limits the available bandwidth.

For TXing, a claimed TX power of up to 7 dBm is available which is comparable to the TX power of the HackRF.

The unit has no shielding on it via PCB cans or a metal box, so may pick up spurious signals. However, for the intended purpose of learning and testing, no shielding is fine.

Software

Unfortunately software for the PlutoSDR is quite lacking. At the moment there is only really support for MATLAB and GNURadio.

That’s quite understandable however as the PlutoSDR is designed and promoted as a ‘learning module’ or in other words a device for students to learn with. However, if software support for SDR#, HDSDR, SDR-Console, GQRX etc was available it would also make a great unit that could not only compete with the HackRF and LimeSDR SDRs, but also perhaps the Airspy and SDRplay RSP RX only units, at least for UHF applications above 325 MHz.

In a previous post in February we’ve seen on Twitter that Alex Csete (programmer of GQRX) has had his PlutoSDR running on GQRX, but it seems the current public release does not yet support the PlutoSDR (please correct me if i’m wrong!).

The documentation is mostly all available on the PlutSDR wiki. However documentation for setting the unit up with MATLAB and GNURadio, and examples for actually using it is also still quite poor. There is a quickstart guide, but this barely helped. Presumably once more units ship out the documentation will be enhanced. 

To install the PlutoSDR drivers on Linux we used the instructions kindly provided by xavier_505 in this Reddit thread. Once GNU Radio was installed, installation of the gr-iio driver was as simple as running the two lines provided in the thread.

Testing

We’ve given the PlutoSDR a few tests in Linux with GNURadio, and very quickly with the ADI IIO Oscillioscope software for Windows.

In GNU Radio the PlutoSDR source can be found under the “Industrial IO” heading in the block menu on the right, or simply by doing CTRL+F “Pluto”.

One important note is that when using the source you need to set the “Device URI” to ip:pluto.local. This feature presumably allows you to control multiple devices via the network, but for now we’re just using it locally. Also, this may have been a problem related to running Linux in VMWare, but PlutoSDR creates new “Wired Connection” in Linux and we had to always remember to set the network connection to the PlutoSDR using the the network selector in the Linux taskbar for the network to be able to see it.

First we tested a simple FFT and Waterfall sink using the PlutoSDR source. We set the sample rate to the maximum of 61.44 MSPS, and the RF bandwidth to 60M (although the max is 20 MHz). The demo ran well and we were able to see the 900 MHz GSM band. It seems the max sample rate is not used as the output is only 30 MHz, or perhaps it’s only one ADC.

Next we adapted a simple FM receiver from csetes GNU Radio examples by replacing the USRP source file with the PlutoSDR. After adjusting the decimation we were able to receive NBFM clearly.

Next we tried adapting a simple transmit test by creating a flowgraph that would transmit a .wav file in NBFM mode using the PlutoSDR Sink. Again this ran easily and we were able to verify the output in SDR# with an RTL-SDR. No harmonics were found (the one seen in the screenshot is a harmonic from the RTL-SDR).

Finally we tested using the PlutoSDR ADI IIO Oscilloscope software and were able to generate a FFT spectrum of the GSM band.

pluto_waterfall
pluto_rx_test
pluto_TX_test
pluto_ADI_IIO_Oscilloscope

Conclusion

This is a very nice SDR with good specs and a very very attractive price. However, it is mostly aimed at experimenters and students and you’ll need to be comfortable with exploring GNU Radio and/or MATLAB to actually use it. If you’re okay with that, then adapting various GNU Radio programs to use the PlutoSDR is quite easy.

In the future hopefully some programmers of general purpose receiving programs like SDR#/GQRX etc will release modules to support this unit too.

This is a good alternative to more expensive experimenter TX/RX SDR units like the HackRF and LimeSDR, although you do lose out on frequencies below 325 MHz.

Our Review of the Airspy HF+: Compared against ColibriNANO, Airspy Mini, RSP2

Over the last few months we've been posting and getting excited about the Airspy HF+, an upcoming high dynamic range HF/VHF receiver designed for DXing. The Airspy team were kind enough to supply us with an early pre-production unit for review.

Long story short, the Airspy HF+ is probably one of the best low cost SDRs we've seen for DXing or weak signal reception out there. So far few details on the availability of the HF+ have been released, but we're aware that preorders are due to start soon, and the target price is expected to be $149 USD from iTead Studio in China. 

What follows is the full review and comparisons against other similarly priced SDRs. The Airspy team want us and readers to understand that our review unit is a pre-production model, and apparently already the matching and thus SNR has already been improved by about 2-4 dBs, so the sound samples we provide in the review below should sound even better with the newer revision.

Disclaimer: We received the HF+ for free in exchange for an honest review, but are not affiliated with Airspy. We've been in contact with the Airspy team who have helped clarify some points about the architecture and technology used in the design.

Introduction

The Airspy HF+ is designed to be a HF/VHF specialist receiver with a frequency range of DC to 31 MHz, and then 60 to 260 MHz. It has a maximum bandwidth of 768 kHz. So the question is then, why would you consider buying this over something like the regular Airspy R2/Mini or an SDRplay RSP2 which both have larger frequency ranges and bandwidths? You would buy the Airspy HF+ because has been designed with DXing and weak signal reception in mind. Basically the main idea behind the HF+ is to design it so that it will never overload when in the presence of really strong signals. Combined with it's high sensitivity, weak or DX signals should come in much clearer than on the other radios especially if you have strong blocking signals like broadcast AM/FM around.

Aside: What is overloading, intermodulation and dynamic range?

Basically strong signals can cause weak signals to be drowned out, making them not receivable, even though they're there at your antenna. This is called overloading or saturation. Intermodulation occurs when the SDR overloads and results in images of unwanted signals showing up all over the spectrum.

A simple analogy is to think about what happens when you are trying to drive, but there is sunstrike. The road is very hard to see because the sun is so bright and right in your eyes. The human eye does not have enough "dynamic range" to handle the situation of sunstrike. Dynamic range is a measure of how well a radio (eye) can handle strong (bright) and weak (dark) signals at the same time. The same analogy applies to radios which can struggle to 'see' weak signals if there is a very strong signal nearby on the frequency spectrum. There are a few ways to solve this:

  • Filtering: Block the strong signals that you don't want using LC filters.
    • Eye analogy: using your sun visor to block the sun.
  • Attenuation: Reduce the strength of all signals.
    • Eye analogy: using sunglasses or squint.
  • Increase dynamic range: Get a better SDR with better design/technology and more bits in the ADC.
    • Eye analogy: upgrade your eyes.

Technology and Architecture

The HF+ uses a typical Filter->Tuner ->ADC architecture. So it is not a direct sampling receiver like most of the more expensive SDRs. Direct sampling receivers directly sample the analogue spectrum, without the need for a tuner so they avoid losses and the intermodulation problems that usually come from the mixing stages. But there are some major cutting edge technology differences in the HF+ architecture that should make its performance even better than direct sampling receivers.

Tuner: The tuner on the HF+ is one of the first to use a "Polyphase Harmonic Rejection" architecture. Essentially this means that harmonics produced in the mixing stages are naturally rejected, making the front end filtering requirements much more relaxed. So unlike the tuners used in other SDRs, this one is extremely unlikely overload in the mixing stage.

An additional benefit to this architecture is that the mixer is very low loss, so the LNA in the tuner only needs to use low gain, giving it a very high IIP3 value. So the first LNA which is typically another point of saturation and imermodulation, is very unlikely to saturate in the HF+ design. Most of the amplification only occurs after the mixing stage with the filtered narrowband output of the tuner.

Analogue to Digital Converter (ADC): The ADC is 16-bits and uses a "Sigma Delta" (ΣΔ) design. Basically a Sigma Delta ADC has a natural filtering ability due to its narrowband nature. Instead of seeing say a 30 MHz signal, it only sees 1 - 2 MHz, thus increasing dynamic range and reducing the likelihood of out of band overload.

Digital Down-Converter (DDC): Then after the ADC is a DDC which decimates the output from the ADC, increasing the effective number of bits. The more bits the larger the resolution of the digitized RF signal, so weak signals are less likely to be lost when converted from analogue to digital.

The HF+ Block Diagram
The HF+ Block Diagram

So the block diagram flow goes like this:

A weakly filtered signal enters the tuner, is weakly amplified by the tuner LNA, mixed down to baseband and filtered to 1-2 MHz. It is then amplified and sampled with the sigma delta ADC into 16-bits. The DDC decimates the output into 18-bits which is then sent to the microcontroller and PC via USB.

The Airspy team also compiled this comparison chart for us to understand the differences in architecture between the current SDRs on the market (click to enlarge). This shows that the HF+ is a different type of design compared to other SDRs. Generally the best SDRs out the market right now are direct sampling receivers with many filter banks. The HF+ approaches the problem in a different way, and according to the specs seems to match or better the performance of heavily filtered direct sampling receivers.

Performance from the Airspy HF+ product page is stated as:

  • -141.0 dBm (0.02 µV / 50 ohms) MDS Typ. at 500Hz bandwidth in HF
  • -141.5 dBm MDS Typ. at 500Hz bandwidth in FM Broadcast Band (60 – 108 MHz)
  • -139.5 dBm MDS Typ. at 500Hz bandwidth in VHF Aviation Band (118 – 136 MHz)
  • -139 dBm MDS Typ. at 500Hz bandwidth in VHF Commercial Band (136 – 174 MHz)
  • -138 dBm MDS Typ. at 500Hz bandwidth in the upper VHF Band (> 174 MHz)
  • +26 dBm IIP3 on HF at maximum gain
  • +13 dBm IIP3 on VHF at maximum gain
  • 110 dB blocking dynamic range in HF
  • 95 dB blocking dynamic range in VHF

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A Review of the KiwiSDR: 10 kHz – 30 MHz Wideband Network SDR

The KiwiSDR is a 14-bit wideband RX only HF software defined radio created by John Seamons (ZL/KF6VO) which has up to 32 MHz of bandwidth, so it can receive the entire 10 kHz – 30 MHz VLF/LF/MW/HF spectrum all at once. However, it is not a typical SDR as you do not connect the KiwiSDR directly to your PC. Instead the KiwiSDR is a cape (add on board) for the Beaglebone single board computing platform. If you’re unfamiliar with the Beaglebone, it is a small computing board that is similar to a Raspberry Pi. The KiwiSDR is designed to be a low cost standalone unit that runs 24/7, connects to your HF antenna and internet network, and shares your 10 kHz – 30 MHz reception over the internet with up to 4 simultaneous users.

The KiwiSDR
The KiwiSDR

The KiwiSDR kit retails for $299 USD (Amazon) (Direct from Seeed Studio), and with that price you get the KiwiSDR cape, a Beaglebone Green board, an enclosure, microSD card and a GPS antenna. If you already have a Beaglebone lying around, then you can purchase the KiwiSDR board only for $199 USD. 

Because the KiwiSDR is a network SDR, instead of connecting it to your PC it connects to your home internet network, allowing you to access it from any computing device via a web browser. Direct access to the SDR is not possible (actually it seems that it is, but it’s not easy to do), and all the computing is performed on the KiwiSDR’s on board FPGA and Beaglebone’s CPU before being sent to the network. Thus raw ADC or IQ data is never touched by your PC, your PC only sees the compressed audio and waterfall stream. So a powerful computer is not required to run the SDR. In fact, a mobile phone or tablet will do just fine.

In comparison, a $299 USD wideband non-networked SDR such as the LimeSDR uses a 12-bit ADC and can do up to 80 MHz of bandwidth over USB 3.0. But even on our relatively powerful PC (i7-6700 CPU, Geforce GTX 970 and 32 GB RAM) the LimeSDR can only get up to about 65 MHz on SDR-Console V3 before performance becomes too choppy.

But the real reason to purchase a KiwiSDR is that it is designed to be shared and accessed over the internet from anywhere in the world. You can connect to over 137 shared KiwiSDRs right now over at sdr.hu which is a site that indexes public KiwiSDRs. To achieve internet sharing, the KiwiSDR runs a modified version of András Retzler’s OpenWebRX software. OpenWebRX is similar to WebSDR, but is open source and freely available to download online. The standard OpenWebRX is also designed to support the RTL-SDR. Of course if you don’t want to share your receiver over the internet you don’t have to, and you could use it on your own local network only.

Some applications of the KiwiSDR might include things like: setting up a remote receiver in a good noise free location, helping hams give themselves propagation reports by accessing a remote KiwiSDR while they are TXing, listening to shortwave stations, monitoring WSPR or WEFAX channels, education, crowd sourced science experiments and more.

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Testing the Outernet Dreamcatcher: Linux Based ARM PC with Built in RTL-SDR

Last week we posted about Outernet's new Dreamcatcher unit which is an RTL-SDR + L-band LNA + computing board all on the same PCB. The Dreamcatcher comes with a new active ceramic L-band patch antenna, costs $99 USD (plus shipping) and can be bought directly from their store. Outernet were kind enough to send us a review unit, and we've been testing it for the past few weeks. This post is a review of the unit.

Background

Outernet is a free data service that uses L-band satellites to beam down information like news, weather updates, Wikipedia articles, books and more.

In the past Outernet have used the $9 USD C.H.I.P computing board, an RTL-SDR dongle and an external LNA as the receiving hardware for their data service. However, popularity of the Outernet service has been severely hindered by the huge supply shortages of the C.H.I.P. Over the past year or so it has been almost impossible to get a hold of a C.H.I.P unit if you did not back the Kickstarter or buy one from Outernet's first initial stock. By manufacturing their own PCB including the computing hardware, Outernet must be hoping to be able to control their stock situation, and not rely on third parties who may not be able to deliver.

At the moment the Dreamcatcher can only be run on their new Armbian image. The older Skylark image has been removed from their servers presumably because the Outernet signal is going to change in the near future and the old demodulator on Skylark may no longer work. The Armbian image is basically just standard Armbian and at the moment does not actually run any Outernet software, and cannot decode their signal, but this is being worked on. Eventually they hope to replace Skylark with a standard decoding app that runs on Armbian.

In this post we'll review the Dreamcatcher with Armbian and consider it as a general purpose receiver (not just for Outernet), and we'll also review the new active ceramic patch antenna as well.

Dreamcatcher Overview

The Dreamcatcher is a single PCB that combines an RTL-SDR, Linux (Armbian) based computing hardware, and an L-band LNA and filter. 

On first impressions we noticed that the PCB is relatively large square at about 12 cm by 12 cm. The most prominent chip is the Allwinner A13 SoC. The RTL-SDR circuitry is positioned in the upper right with the RF sections (R820T and LNA) both covered with RF shielding cans. There is no onboard WiFi circuitry, but a small 'EDUP' branded WiFi dongle is included and plugs into one of the USB ports on the PCB.

We measured the Dreamcatcher to be using about 400 mA - 600 mA while idle and 800 mA while utilizing the RTL-SDR and 100% CPU. Heat is not an issue as the Dreamcatcher stays relatively cool during its operation even at 100% CPU with the CPU only getting up to about 45 degrees C.

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DC_2

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