Sunday, July 31, 2011

A, B, C's of Dx Fundamentals of the Art of DXing III

 Getting the QSL!

Why QSL?

Working a DX station is only the first half of the job - now, you must get a confirmation (QSL) of the contact. Why? Well, some do it just to see what kind of interesting cards they will get, many of which are picturesque, informational, or amusing. Others do it in pursuit of awards. However, there are quite a few who say that they aren't interested in awards, so they aren't interested in QSL cards - the knowledge that they made the contact is sufficient. HOLD IT!! Before you decide that you are among the latter and reach for the mouse to skip this chapter, consider the fact that seeking one or more awards, among the hundreds offered by various sponsors, is something that almost everyone eventually decides to do at some point. As an extreme example, consider my case. From my licensure in 1954 until the late 1980s, I have chased DX at every opportunity and was rarely without a station, yet my activity was sporadic as other priorities (getting an education, raising a family, establishing a career) took precedence and I felt that I was not able to afford the money, time, or effort to pursue any awards, much less think about QSLs. Unfortunately, I didn't know then what I know now. When I was able in the late 1980s to begin devoting more time and effort (and yes ... money!) to DXing, I found that there was a local DX club and that seemed like an interesting thing for me to join. Alas, at the time, full membership required that one have achieved the DXCC award. Although by that time I had worked about 180 DXCC entities, I had very few of the contacts confirmed and did not yet have my DXCC certificate. One of the 20 or so cards that I did have was for KZ5GH, my first DX contact on 9-March, 1955:
Thus began an intense effort to confirm old contacts, something that was now not only more expensive (compared to the few pennies of postage and cost of QSL cards in the '50s & '60s) but also more difficult, since many of the contacts of 30 years ago were with stations that no longer existed and/or with operators whose whereabouts were now unknown (see the note about JZ0 below). It took me over a year of intensive research, purchasing books listing old QSL managers and writing letters (remember, this was before the world-wide web and widely available email!) to track down operators, managers, and addresses. I was finally able to collect enough of the old cards (along with some new ones) to get my DXCC certificate at a considerable effort and short-term cost (manager lists, outgoing postage, plus green stamps and IRCs for return postage). It would have been exceedingly easier to have sought the cards as I made the contacts, exchanging mail while addresses were current, and spreading the effort and costs in time. My advice, based upon my experience, is to try to keep up with QSLing as much as you possibly can. If, as with most of us at some time or other, costs are a severe limitation, then consider using the QSL bureau, especially for foreign exchanges, and/or the Logbook Of The World, both of which are discussed below. So, even though you may not yet be excited about a DX award, if you can possibly do it, make it easier on yourself in the future by keeping up with DX QSLing now!
Now the bad news - actually getting a QSL card (ie, having it "in the fist") can often be a more difficult challenge than working the station in the first place. This can be very frustrating, especially if it is a rare DX station. There are four basic reasons for difficulties: (1) some operators are just not reliable, responsible, or financially able to QSL; (2) some areas of the globe are plagued with postal pilferage, resulting in lost cards; (3) some hams just don't know how to properly request QSLs; and (4) there are, unfortunately, some hams who just will not QSL. However, if you do run into difficulties in getting a card for a contact, don't give up! Try again! Below are some tips that may help.


Preparing the card

When sending QSL cards, it is VERY important to fill them out correctly and legibly if you expect a reply. While you may have worked 3 new ones today and really want those cards, the "three new ones" probably each worked several dozen or more other stations today, most of whom will also want cards. If it was a semi-rare one with a nice pileup, there may have been hundreds of contacts. In the case of major DXpeditions to very rare places, the number of contacts can easily run into the tens-of-thousands (some have reached into the hundreds of thousands!). How would you like to receive 100 cards every week or so, let alone 50,000 within a few weeks, for which you are expected to respond as soon as possible? Aside from the costs involved, what would you do with the "error" cards? At the very least, they would be put aside for some (much) later time when you have the opportunity to look at the logs more closely to see if you can resolve the error. Always remember that the more you are in need of a particular card, the greater is the likelihood that that many others are waiting for the same card, so don't be sloppy when filling out your requests. If you have computer logging software (you should!), then you may wish to use its label option to print QSL card labels with the necessary QSO information. There is great advantage in this, as it essentially eliminates transcription errors that can occur when manually filling out the cards, while making them more likely to be legible, especially if there are multiple Q's on the card. If you must prepare them manually (which may be easier than setting up the label stock in the printer for just one or two cards), then here is the drill:
  • be sure to clearly print the callsign in the callsign box; should you make any kind of error, scrap the card and begin a new one, as a card that appears altered in any way may be rejected if submitted for an award.
  • Enter the date and time of the QSO, using UTC (remember that the date is also a function of UTC!!!)
  • Enter the frequency, or the band on which the contact was made (for the band, use either meters or MHz).
  • Enter the signal report and mode (CW, SSB, PSK, RTTY, etc) for the contact.
  • If you wish, sign the card (e.g., "73, Don"), or with whatever (short!) comments you wish to make.
  • For important cards prepared manually, double-check the info!

Methods of QSLing

There are three ways to QSL:
  • send a card directly to the station or to the designated QSL manager
  • send a card via the QSL Bureau to the station (or the designated QSL manager)
  • use the LOTW.
Each has advantages and disadvantages, and on occasion, any one of the three may be useful. For the first two, a QSL card must be prepared, while the latter consists of electronic transfer of specially formatted computer log files to the LOTW website. It is expected that in time, the LOTW will become the preferred method, but the use of QSL cards remains the most popular method of confirmation and this will be addressed first. Let's explore these methods just a bit.
  1. Direct QSLs - Usually the fastest (but most expensive) way to get a card is by the direct route.
    • First, unless you were told how to QSL by the operator, check to see if there is a designated QSL Manager.
      • If a new DXpedition or operation, check recent DX newsletters for information.
      • Look up the station in a QSL Manager database (below).
    • Look up the mailing address for the operator or manager, using one of the available callsign databases (below)
    • For the mailing envelope, use one large enough to accommodate your SAE, QSL, and return postage ($$ or IRC). It should be sturdy enough as not to tear, nor should you be able to easily see the contents if you hold it up to the light. Mail theft is an international problem, and endemic to some areas; here are a few tips to avoid this:
      • Because it is well known that hams insert $$ in envelopes, DO NOT put a callsign in the address.
      • Use IRCs whenever possible as they are somewhat less attractive to thieves; the currently valid IRC is shown below (some post office staff know little of them; be certain that you get the current issue - expiration 31 August 2009; and that it is properly stamped on the left at the place/date/time of purchase:
      • .
      • Try to assure that one cannot see the contents by holding the envelope to a light; use a dark or heavy paper insert.
    • For domestic returns, insert your QSL, along with SASE .
    • For foreign returns, insert your SAE and sufficient return postage (see postage costs reference below for this):
      • either greenstamps, usually one or two is sufficient, but add more for support if you can for special DXpedtions;
      • or IRCs, as most postal services will honor them (one IRC for 1/2 ounce letter).
    • On the mailing envelope, apply sufficient postage for the destination - check with your local postal service.
    • wait ...

    A final note about IRCs: many managers sell them at a discount rather than redeem them for postage and this is a good way to save a bit of money; however, make certain that any you purchase this way are (a) current, as above; and (b) are NOT improperly (or otherwise) stamped in the right-side "redemption" box, as this indicates it has been processed at a post office for postal exchange and is no longer of any value. On the other hand, unstamped IRCs are redeemable, although it may require some explanation to postal service workers as they are not always familiar with the regulations. See the reference below for access to the US Postal Service International Mail regulations.
  2. Bureau QSLs - If you want to save on postage and don't mind a long wait (many months to several years), use the Bureau system.
    • Since many hams exchange cards via the ARRL Outgoing Bureau, whether or not you use the Outgoing bureau for sending cards, you should always keep return envelopes on file with your own Incoming QSL bureau. Should you not have envelopes on file, cards that come in for you may eventually be discarded.
    • For US hams, here is a brief summary of the procedure for using the ARRL Outgoing Bureau:
      • be certain that you have your own return envelopes on file with your respective incoming bureau service. Since many DX stations exchange cards via the bureau, whether or not you use the Outgoing bureau for sending cards, you should always keep return envelopes on file with your Incoming QSL bureau. Should you not do so, cards that come in for you may eventually be discarded.
      • if the outgoing card is to a QSL manager, even though your labels may include the manager along with the contact information, you should write the manager's callsign prominently on the blank side of the card as "c/o" the manager's callsign, then use this side of the card in the sort (below).
      • sort the cards by DXCC ITU prefix order (not alphabetic!), as in the ARRL DXCC list. Cards going to QSL managers should be sorted by the manager's callsign, with the manager's callsign facing the "front" of the "stack" of sorted cards.
      • be especially careful to note that not all entities have bureau services - check the ARRL Outgoing Bureau page for info
      • package the cards for mailing, being certain to include the appropriate handling fee (ARRL also requires proof of membership - a QST label will do). For small (1 lb or less) stacks of cards, double-wrapping them in heavy brown paper (e.g., salvaged grocery bags) to form a tightly bound package works well.
      • send them off to the outgoing bureau.
      • wait very patiently ...

  3. Logbook Of The World (LOTW)
    • A recently (September, 2003) implemented system for confirming contacts using an online electronic database, this system developed at ARRL promises to greatly facilitate awards applications. It is a repository for log records that can be submitted electronically by worldwide users, and when both participants in a contact submit matching data, the result is an approved QSL that can be used for credit towards ARRL awards. Not to be confused with earlier systems of electronic QSLs (eQSLs) that have been popular but never approved for ARRL awards credits, the LOTW is maintained at an entirely different level of security in order to minimize the risk of fraudulent submissions. While this may seem at times to be even more cumbersome than online banking, it is intended to maintain the integrity of the ARRL awards programs. Software for authenticating, validating, and encrypting submissions is freely available on the LOTW website (below), along with explanations, information, and full instructions. Briefly, the procedure for submitting log data is as follows:
      1. Log Conversion: Convert your logs to ADIF - Required software will depend upon your logbook software in use, most of which have built-in ADIF conversion options. See references for more info on ADIF.
      2. Certification:
        • To allow ARRL to authenticate and validate your submissions, you must obtain a digital certificate from the LOTW website.
        • Download the software TQSLCert.
        • Run TQSLCert to obtain a signed certificate: Need Callsign, dates of start/stop operation (or of license term). Follow wizard and record your entries for chosen "station location", "certified callsign" (if you'll have more than one) & "password" (You'll need this info below).
        • Wait for postcard in mail that provides certificate & LOTW password for the certified callsign User Account (once obtained, additional callsign certificates and accounts may be obtained via email).
      3. Submission:
        • First, "sign" your records in preparation for submission: Run TQSLCert and click File => Load Certificate => select certificate.
        • Run TQSL and click File => Sign => select “station location” log => Log file.
        • Opt for save location for the .tq8 file and click OK (Note: You need the initial certification password that was entered, NOT the one from LOTW).
        • Upon completion, email the .tq8 file as an attachment to
        • Wait for email confirmation of receipt, which includes any upload errors detected (e.g., 14m instead of 14MHz; missing mode; O instead of 0; etc). If any, correct any errors and repeat steps a-c.
      4. Applying LOTW confirmations towards ARRL award credits is then very simple and fully explained on the ARRL - LOTW website (references). Current fees for award applications are calculated using a base charge of 25 cents per credit applied, with discounts available for bulk (>25) transactions. Below is a brief summary:
      5. Log onto the LOTW user site.
      6. Click on Awards.
      7. Select your callsign account; an Account Status page will display confirmations matched.
        • For LOTW users who are already in an ARRL award program, a first award credit application will require that you click "Link Account" to establish an automatic link between the award database and the LOTW database. For new award applicants, the links will be made for you when you initially enter the award program.
      8. Click on "Application"
      • Individually select the credits and awards for which to apply (or opt for "All" if you want to apply all available credits to all available awards - this will cost you more!).
      • Fill out application form data elements
      • Review summary of application
      • Select payment options
      • Click "Submit"

Final Notes

For reasons discussed above, it is highly advisable to send for QSLs as soon after the contact as possible; however, just because you may have forgotten to send one, or perhaps only recently decided to start collecting cards for DXCC, do not assume that it may be too late to confirm an old contact. I have on several occasions confirmed contacts that were more than 10 years old, and my record is a card for a 20m CW contact with JZ0PH in August, 1961 (then Netherlands New Guinea until April, 1963; now a deleted entity) that I neglected to get then. Having reduced my ham activities for the career building and family raising years, I was able to return to active DXing in 1988, resuming the quest for QSLs. Several years of research rewarded my efforts with quite a few "oldies" confirmed, but the JZ0 eluded me. I had almost given up, but decided to write a letter to the Society for Amateur Radio in the Netherlands (VERON), inquiring about the operator. I got a very prompt response from a PA0 ham who had run the VERON QSL bureau over the years and knew the JZ0 operator, and I was given his full name and his new callsign in South Africa. Another letter with my QSL and return postage produced a nice reply in 1997 with an original JZ0PH card from 1961 ... 36 years after the QSO!
I have now confirmed ALL of my old contacts that I needed for DXCC, either "current" or "deleted" entities (the Deleted entities before 2000 may still be included in DXCC totals), except one: FQ8AP (Serge), from French Equatorial Africa, on 20m CW in 1958. Research in the late '80s, including letters to Union Francaise des Radioamateurs (REF), did lead me to the manager! Unfortunately for me, he had been traveling all over the world for some time and was not sure if he could find the logs. He did promise to look for them if he ever was able to retire and return home, so I still have hope! DXers never give up! 

 Station Equipment: Things to Consider


In this chapter, we'll briefly look into some of the key elements of importance in understanding the equipment that we use for DXing. Whether you're just now planning to begin building your station, or considering some upgrades to an existing station that you have been using, this information should be of interest. In fact, no matter how long you've involved in ham radio, this brief review should be of interest to you.
Before getting into a discussion of things to consider when putting together your first station or upgrading your existing station for DXing, it is important to again emphasize an important point about DXing: if you already have antennas and equipment, then for the beginning DXer, the best station to use is the one that you have at hand! Although upgrading existing equipment is constantly on the minds of all hams, and especially DXers, the importance of equipment "quality" will never surpass the importance of the quality of the operator. This is not just a casual statement - ask any experienced DXer, contester, or Old Timer and they will tell you that operator ability (i.e., P.E.P.S.I.) is orders-of-magnitude more important than the make or model of the transceiver. If you already have a station, then don't hesitate to use whatever you have to develop your DXing experience. In particular:
  • learn the DX tuning techniques and how to best use your available filters and bandwidth settings;
  • develop proficiency in split operation;
  • become familiar with the available DX information sources;
  • learn about propagation and antennas;
  • improve your antenna system (truly the most important piece of "equipment");
  • find a DX mentor, join a DX club, and/or subscribe to one or more of the DX forums ("lists", "reflectors") on the Internet in order to gain additional guidance and information.
The more operating experience that you have, the better you will be to make informed choices of station upgrades that you decide upon.

Station Components

There are three categories of station equipment, discussed below in order of importance: the antenna, the transceiver, and the station accessories.
(1) The Antenna - After experience and operating skill, the antenna is the most important component of a DXer's "equipment". Even the most expensive transceiver will perform only as well as the antenna allows. It is therefore very important to give plenty of thought to your DXing antenna. To put this into perspective, suppose that you had $2,000 to invest in your ham station and did not have to worry about any restrictions on antennas. Given the choice between spending $1,500 on a transceiver and $500 on a multiband vertical antenna, you may want to consider whether a better DXing investment might be to get a small tower and directional antenna ($1,200), and a used, older mid-range transceiver ($800). While this kind of pre-planning consideration is rarely an option for any of us, it does emphasize the importance of your antenna choice. You should certainly try to discuss your antenna plans with local DXers and get as many ideas as possible in order to optimize your antenna. See the chapter on "Antennas" for more on the subject. (2) The Transceiver - What is the best transceiver for DXing? If you do not yet have a transceiver, it would be difficult to make a poor choice in selecting a unit today, as there are so many good ones at all price levels, both new and used, on the market. The popular manufacturers of transceivers for the last several years have been Alinco, Elecraft, Icom, Kenwood, SGC, TenTec, and Yaesu. All have well-respected product lines with units that are worthy of consideration for a variety of applications. However, depending upon your level of operating experience, it may be hard to decide upon the features that would be advantageous to have in the radio. The purpose here is not to try to select a specific product, but to review the features that are important to good communications, especially for DXing. Having explored these key features, you should then be better-equipped with the information necessary to pursue your own best choice of a "rig".
Let's begin by listing some general features to consider in shopping for a transceiver for use in DXing. While many of these are incorporated in current transceivers, models may differ significantly in their availability as "standard" or "optional" features. Also, should you have an opportunity to purchase an older transceiver, you will certainly want to weigh these factors into the decision of whether to get a newer or an older model radio. A more detailed discussion of some of the technical aspects of these features will then follow below, or in other chapters as indicated. Here's what to look for at first glance:
  • Dual VFOs - First of all, does it have dual-VFOs in order to be able to operate easily in "split" mode? Many DX stations, especially the rare ones, must operate "split" when pileups become too rowdy, so you MUST have this capability. This means that the transceiver must have an "A/B VFO" button for selecting between the two, and a button that allows you to select "split" mode of operation in which the receiver is locked to one VFO, such as VFO-A, and upon keying the transmitter, the rig automatically relegates the transmitted signal to the second, VFO-B. That way, the two may be set to different frequencies to allow you to receive on one and transmit on the other.
  • Automatic Antenna tuning unit (ATU) - A very useful (but not necessarily essential) feature is the inclusion of a built-in ATU that will automatically match the 50-ohn impedance of the transmitter output to that of an antenna connected to it. Built in ATUs typically have very limited ranges of operation, so if the intent is to use the transceiver with high-impedance mis-matches (e.g., random or long-wire antennas or single-band antennas on multiple bands) you would be better off with an external wide-range ATU.
  • Selectable filter bandwidths - with today's crowded bands, it is especially important to have as much selectivity as possible. Selectable filters which offer different tuning bandwidths are a must. While more detail follows below in the Receiver Details section, suffice to say that on firt glance, you should only look at receivers that have selectable filters available, and if optional, how many and at what additional cost?
  • DSP capability - an increasingly effective means of improving receiver selectivity and sensitivity, it is now being employed more widely in modern receivers and offers great flexibility in filter bandwidth selection.
  • RTTY Mode - Digital Modes - If you are interested in operating RTTY, then it is advisable that you consider a transceiver that provides FSK output, as this is highly preferable to the alternative of having to use AFSK. For more on this, see the chapter on "Operating Modes".
  • Memories - selectable memories for storing oft-used frequencies/modes can offer a great advantage when the need arises to quickly switch to another frequency and mode of operation. Standard on all current models, but if not found on an older model, it isn't a show-stopper as long as some of the other more important features are available.
  • Adjustable power output up to 100 watts - generally a standard feature of most current and older transceivers.
  • Power supply - with some exceptions, most current models no longer come with internal power sources and must have an external power supply. Unless one is provided for free as a purchase incentive bonus, don't forget to factor this into the cost.
Once you've gotten through the first round of shopping and evaluation of rigs using the above general features, along with your personal preferences about "look and feel", manufacturer, and price, you've probably made your preliminary choices of the top two or three that you favor. It's time now to pay more attention to the details in the technical specifications of the top choices that are provided by the manufacturers and in published reviews.
Reading through an advertising brochure citing the specifications for a modern transceiver can often seem overwhelming. It may be difficult and confusing to try to tease out some of the factors that may be useful in making comparisons among the top choices, especially if there is no standardization of the parameters. For this reason, third-party evaluations are probably the best bet in obtaining as close to objective data as may be available. A "must read" is the thorough and understandable explanation of the procedures and measurements done by ARRL in conducting a product review of a transceiver that appeared in the August, 2004 issue of QST (Tracy, M. KC1SX. "QST Product Reviews - In Depth, In English". pp.32-36, Aug 2004). To get you started, here are a few simplified pointers to consider in evaluating a transceiver.
  • The Rx (receiver) section: this is the most important part of the transceiver. It is important to have a good combination of sensitivity (ability to hear weak signals) and selectivity (ability to tune out everything but the desired signal). Marketing variations in the way these are presented in the manufacturers' advertising and technical specifications often leads to difficulties in comparing radios, good reason to use third-party evaluations.
    • Sensitivity is a measure of the ability of the receiver to detect a minimum discernable signal (MDS) and, all else removed, is a balance between the gain of the receiver circuitry vs. the internal noise present in that circuitry. As gain increases, so does the amplification of internal noise, therefore an optimal signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) is what one expects in receiver design, beginning at the minimum detectable ("discernable") signal level. Since the MDS is essentially a measure of the internal noise level, the MDS is also known as the noise floor of the receiver. One wants as low a noise floor as possible, typically referenced to a level of 1 mW and expressed in dBm. Variation among different receivers can be great, ranging between -80 dBm to -140dBm, where the lower (larger negative) values usually indicate the availability of selectable pre-amp. Confusion can arise when, instead of MDS in dBm, sensitivity is expressed in microvolts, as "Sensitivity: 1 microvolt." For those who don't mind a bit of math, one can see that this is equivalent to a MDS of -107dBm:

    • Selectivity and sensitivity go hand-in-hand. A receiver can be very sensitive to weak signals (very low MDS), but if it has poor selectivity, it may be subject to serious degradation when strong signals or noise are also present. For this reason, many techniques are used to provide a narrow reception passband that will accommodate only the desired signal and exclude all others, including the use of filters. For this reason, receiver selectivity is often quoted in terms of the available filters. There are many filter designs: very early radios only had LC-filter circuits; technological advances led to the development and use of crystal filters and mechanical/ceramic filters; many current receivers now use DSP filter designs (see below). Any filter, independent of type, will provide improved selectivity by narrowing the bandwidth of the passband. Filters are an essential option for a DX receiver, and typical filter bandwidths for DXers are:
      500Hz, 250Hz
      2.4KHz, 1.8KHz
      Digital modes
      Vary by type; should be able to use the available filters in the Rx
      Unfortunately, while conceptually simple, receiver selectivity is not an independent variable, but depends upon the interaction of sensitivity and selectivity. As the receiver gain (sensitivity) increases, there is an increased potential for interference from strong signals that are not even in the receiver passband, thereby degrading selectivity. For this reason, determining the quality of a receiver is more difficult than just looking at the MDS and the available filter options. Other parameters are required to be able to understand the actual performance characteristics of a receiver under all operating conditions:
      1. Dynamic ranges are useful parameters that describe the interplay of sensitivity and selectivity. A dynamic range is essentially the difference, expressed in dB, between the weakest signal that can be heard and the strongest signal level at some frequency spacing (20KHz, 10kHz, 5KHz, etc.) outside of the passband that will not adversely affect the reception.
      2. There are several dynamic range measurements used and, while all are useful, they not all equivalent. The two most frequently encountered are the Intermodulation Distortion (IMD) dynamic range and the Blocking dynamic range. The first uses the strong signal level at which intermodulation distortion (IMD) products adversely affect reception, while the second uses the strong signal level at which the desired signal output is reduced due to loss of sensititivity.
      3. Unfortunately, both are often measured at different strong signal spacings (20KHz, 10kHz, 5KHz, etc.) from the center of the receiver passband, and therefore may result in difficult comparability. Nevertheless, one should expect to see dynamic range figures on the order of 80dB - 100dB, where the higher numbers indicate better performance.
      4. Final note: understanding the concept of dynamic range is useful in appreciating why, in the chapter on Tuning, there is a "weak signal reception" tip that suggests reducing the receiver RF gain.

    • Digital Signal Processing (DSP): As mentioned previously, this is an increasingly popular and useful feature of current receivers. A product of the computer age, DSP is a complex technique and what follows is a highly over-simplified description of the process. A computer-on-a-chip electronically "samples" snippets of the analog signal (either at the IF stage or the AF stage) over the range of the signal and converts each of the snippets (samples) into a number (digit) that represents the amplitude of the sample. A built-in computer program then processes the digitized samples, looking for patterns of amplitude rise and fall (signal), vs. occurrences that seem random (noise), eliminating the latter and passing the patterns through. The result is (hopefully!) a signal that is "cleaned" of noise. This technique can provide some significantly improved signal-to-noise enhancement benefits. While "outboard" Audio DSP filters have been available for some years, and some radios began offering them "built in", the real breakthrough in DSP technology arrived when computer chip processors became fast enough to process the signals at the intermediate frequency (IF) stages, rather than at the final audio stage. In summary, DSP not only offers a new filter design that can allow adjustable bandwidth down to 50 Hz, but it also can provide noise reduction to improve signal intelligibility and is a "must have" when purchasing a new receiver.

    • Dual receive - Some of the high-end transceivers also have dual-receive capability in which there are not only two VFOs, but also two IF chains that provide the capability of simultaneously receiving on two different frequencies within the same band. Monitoring is done by using a balance control to adjust the mix of audio level of each as they are fed to the speaker. While some find it difficult to learn to use this technique, it can be extremely useful for DXers to monitor split operations, allowing one to listen to the DX operator on one frequency while simultaneously tuning up the band to find the station being worked.
  • The Tx (transmitter) section - fortunately, this part is simple when compared to the selection of a receiver. The role of the features are easily understood and easy to evaluate. Here are the basics:  
    • Dual VFOs (A/B) in order to be able to perform split operation, as mentioned in the generally desirable features above.
    • Availability of all amateur bands is the next criterion of interest. In considering the purchase of older equipment, be aware that some may not provide for operation on the WARC bands (12m,17m, 30m) and even some that are relatively new will not have the 60m band.
    • CW and SSB operating modes - universally available (see the chapter on Operating Modes).
    • Most of the newer digital modes (SSTV, PSK31, MFSK, etc) all use SSB, and it can be used as well for the old favorite, RTTY. When using SSB to transmit and receive audio tones (AFSK) for digital modes, the narrow filters that would normally be available with FSK operation are not usually available so, as a rule, RTTY operation is really best when done with FSK. For that reason, the availability of FSK output is a consideration for anyone with an interest in that mode.
    • Speech compression capability for SSB modes is very useful in tailoring output modulation for optimal performance in pileups. The output power of an SSB signal depends on the level of modulation - speaking louder increases output. Under the extreme operating conditions that usually befall DXers (pileups, weak signals, noise), SSB signal "punch" can be enhanced even more through the use of speech compression. Natural speech has many peaks and valleys, producing high and low amplitude components that result in an output signal power that fluctuates widely, averaging only 25% of the rated transmitter output. By using electronic circuitry to increase the average amplitude of the modulation by clipping peaks and raising valleys, the average transmitted output signal can be increased proportionally.
    • An internal Antenna Tuning Unit (ATU) - discussed briefly under General Features; if antenna matching problems are an issue, an external wide-range matching unit is a better investment.
    • Full break-in (QSK) - Many CW operators feel that is essential to breaking DX pileups, so this should be a consideration for CW mode. Most transceivers of the last 10 years offer semi break-in and full break-in.
    • Finally, transmitter output power is also a consideration. Other than those designed for low-power enthusiasts, most transmitters today provide 100 watts output, with some high-end models having 200w output. With a reasonable antenna (dipole, vertical, long-wire), working 150-200 DXCC entities is definitely an achievable goal with 100w (the author reached 305 confirmed entities before investing in an amplifier). If the need arises for more power, an amplifier can then be driven by the 100w transmitter to provide additional output.
This very brief overview was intended to give you an idea of what to learn about - and look into - when shopping for a new rig. See the QST article cited and the references below for more information. Remember, an important source of data for doing your own "apples-to-apples" comparisons is in the equipment reviews done regularly by the ARRL Laboratory and published in QST. When shopping for older models, do a bit of research to find the old reviews - almost all brands and models have been reviewed and published in QST.
Here are some final points to consider when shopping:
  • Read about high-scoring DX and contest operators in QST, CQ, DX Magazine, WorldRadio Magazine and other ham publications to see what equipment they currently use. Also, don't be afraid to send them an email asking about their equipment. If considering used equipment, look through publications of 5 -10 years ago to see what these operators were using then.
  • In fact, subscribe to some of the emailing lists or reflectors on the internet (see below) and post your own queries - you'll be pleasantly surprised at how helpful most hams really are!
  • Be certain to cost-out all of the necessary optional features, including power supply, filters, tuner, etc.
  • In shopping for older transceivers, make a list of those that fall into your price range. You may find that the cost-per-feature of the older radios is far less than that of new ones, since upper-end transceivers as old as 10 years can be much better price/performance bargains than new lower-end radios.
  • Your local library is probably a good source of bound volumes of CQ and QST from yester-year. Take an afternoon to ply the pages of these magazines of 5-10 years ago and look through the ads for a review of the features, or try an Internet search for the models of interest.
(3) Station Accessories: In addition to the basic station equipment discussed above, a DXer needs a few more items in order to complete the station. A prerequisite for selective tuning is reliable information about the world's DX activities. While much of this is still available in print via DX newsletters and ham magazines (see the chapter on "DX Information Sources"), it is now much more readily accessible via the Internet. Therefore, after acquiring an operational station, the next most important piece of equipment is the Internet-enabled computer and the skill to use it! In addition to Internet information access, the computer also provides an excellent logging platform for maintaining not only the log but also keeping track of achievements towards the various DX award programs (see "Awards" chapter). Also, there are myriad other software applications that are increasingly becoming an essential part of the station: reception and transmission of digital modes, propagation prediction, real-time "spots" of DX stations, and more! In addition to the computer, a few other pieces of accessory equipment are very useful. So, after the transceiver and the antenna essentials are secured, here are a few of the myriad station options to consider:
  • Computer - a computer capable of currently running available ham-function software has become an important piece of station equipment, and many now even feel that it is an essential accessory. Not only is it useful for running helpful software (some of which is discussed below), but it also now serves as a gateway to the most abundant information resource ever available to mankind - the Internet. The choice of platform and operating system - Windows, Mac, or open source (e.g., Linux) - is wholly a decision to be made by the user. While the Windows-based platforms presently have the most plentiful and diverse selection of readily available software, the Apple Macintosh systems and software are certainly plentiful and enjoy wide user satisfaction. Recently, systems running some version of the Open Source Linux operating system are increasing available, although they are still rare compared to the other two leaders in the personal computer market, and require a greater level of computer expertise. The choice you make will depend upon your level of expertise and familiarity. For beginners, it is best to choose a system that is similar to one used by someone you know who will be able to give you some guidance and assistance as needed.
    • Internet connection - as with computers, this has become a highly important item in the radio shack. With a connection to the Internet, you have access to a vast wealth of useful information and tools for DXing in particular, and ham radio in general.
    • Software:
      • select a good logging program (see references; talk to other DXers) and use it to help maintain good records of your contacts.
      • DX packet cluster software that allows one to connect to a website or cluster node via telnet. Several software packages are available (see references).
      • Get a program that provides global daylight vs. dark information in order to keep track of what areas are in daylight, in darkness, or on the grayline (e.g., visit the NIST website or get Geoclock (
      • Some also like to experiment with propagation prediction, and software can be found on the Internet (below) at modest cost or free.

  • VHF/UHF transceiver - if you have friends in the area that are interested in DXing, then 2m or 70cm is a good way to alert them to DX that you hear (or vice versa!). If there is a DX club in your community, they may already have an established repeater for fellow DXers to use.
  • Out-board DSP unit - For many older receivers, an out-board DSP unit can often be of additional help in improving signal-to-noise ratio under certain conditions.
  • RF Amplifier - There are as many opinions on the subject of the necessity of amplifiers as there are on transceivers. If you don't already have an amp, by the time you're ready to get one you'll have heard all of the arguments more than once, so I will be brief! Many DXers do not have amplifiers and rely solely on the typical 100w output of their "barefoot" transceiver and it is absolutely true that one can work DX with low power. In fact, there are quite a few dedicated QRP DXers who believe that the true challenge is to work DX with 5 watts or less, and many have proven their P.E.P.S.I. by working DXCC and beyond. However, it is also true that as one approaches the 300 mark (having contacted 300 DXCC entities), it becomes increasingly difficult to get those last few as they are generally rare and may have activity only for the brief duration of a DXpedition at 5-10 year intervals. In those instances, competition is fierce! For this reason, one may well want to consider the use of an amplifier at some point. As a long-time (over 50 years) believer in low power, I must confess that after reaching the 305 mark running a barefoot transceiver, I did relent 15 years ago and purchase a 600w amplifier to help work the last few for the DXCC Honor Roll . Today, I have several amplifiers, but use them only as needed and then rarely at more than 800w output. It is strictly a personal preference as to the level of challenge desired, and many argue that there is a much greater level of satisfaction in working a rare one with low power. On the other hand, many retort with the old quip "Life is too short for QRP!". Here are a few considerations:
    • TVI - An amp will aggravate any existing TVI problems and may very likely initiate new ones, so if this is an issue, beware. You may want to consider a small one (400w - 600w). On the other hand, you can always reduce output power of any amp by reducing the "drive" (power output of the transceiver being amplified), so get a big one and use it only at the power level needed. Also, if you know you're going to generate TVI no matter what, then the larger the output may be your best bet, as it will be more likely that you will work a station in less time than before, thereby causing less of a bother to neighbors (and perhaps that "significant other"!).
    • AC power - Large amps (and some small ones) generally require a 220VAC service, so be prepared.
    • Solid state amps - new, solid-state amps are available that are compact, instant-on, and excellent for QSK, but may be intolerant of SWR above 1.5:1.
    • Ceramic tube amps - metal/ceramic tubes (e.g. 4CX800A/GU74B) offer high efficiency and therefore greater output per unit input, allowing full legal-limit output power with only 50 - 80w of drive from the transceiver. The major drawback of these tubes is that they generally require up to 4-5 minutes of warmup, which can seem like a lifetime when you hear one that you need and the amp is off!
    • Glass tube amps - the venerable glass vacuum tubes (811A, 572B, 3-500Z) used in the old amps are still used in amps of new design. While requiring more drive per unit output power than the solid-state and ceramic tube types, they do offer instant-on and higher SWR tolerance.

Final Thoughts

Ham radio in general, and DXing in particular, can sometimes seem very complex when your experience with recent developments, equipment, and procedures is not current. Even though I maintained my license and was able to enjoy occasional activity during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, when I finally was able to return to DXing in the late 1980's, I found that I was practically a neophyte. Indeed, I knew too little to even know how much I didn't know! Things had changed .... big time! For newcomers, or old-timers returning to the game, someone with current operating experience can be of great help in understanding what is going on and what one needs to participate effectively. So, unless you already have an experienced mentor, your best bet is to look around for someone who has been operating for a few years and ask for their help and advice. Join a ham club, or better yet, join a DX club and begin asking questions. Some of the more experienced members would no doubt be happy to have you come over and see their equipment - almost universally, hams like to show off their stations! In fact, you're welcome to visit my station any time that you're in the area. Here is a snapshot of it tucked away in a corner:
When you do visit someone's station for the purpose of evaluting equipment or getting up-to-speed, take a note pad along with some of your questions ready to ask, then make notes as you look around. Don't hesitate to ask if you can try to tune around the band, or even make a contact or two. Do this for more than one rig so that you can get a feel for differences between makes/models. Even if the station that you are visiting seems well out of your cost range, the experience will be useful. Also, remember that excellent buys are often available on the used equipment market, often surpassing the quality of a new low- or mid-range radio. Time spent on evaluating equipment with this type of serious inquiry will be of invaluable help in making a good choice.
Finally, it should not need saying, but I know from experience that it does - once you get your equipment, READ THE MANUALS! It's essential that you try to learn as much as possible about the basic operating functions and capabilities of your equipment. This does not mean that you need be an electronics engineer; but at the very least, you should certainly try to understand how an antenna works and how a receiver works. Spend some time reading the ARRL Handbook and other publications that offer basic tutorial presentations of how things work. The Internet now provides a wealth of resources - check the manufacturer's websites for operational and technical information about their products. Use "key words" to search the Web for useful websites that may offer additional info, explanations, or advice. The more you know, the better choices you will be able to make, and also the better will you be able to use you station!

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