ROLLS ROYCE QRP?
I’ve had a KX3 for a while now, so maybe it's time to talk about it. I’m going to be referencing a couple of other radios throughout.
When it comes to choosing a QRP Transceiver, there are basically 3 main dealerships you can visit - DACIA, FORD or ROLLS ROYCE. Or in other words, XIEGU, YAESU or ELECRAFT.
Now please bear in mind that these are just my opinions and I'm not saying that my choices are right and yours are wrong. We all have very different requirements, desires and priorities.
At the budget end, Xiegu offer a nice range of QRP radios and I have the Xiegu G90 which is an absolutely stonking bit of HF kit for the money! It really does amaze considering that it costs so little and yet includes so much. Xiegu have other radios worthy of consideration too including the X6100 & 5105.
Somewhere in the middle is the YAESU FT-818 which not only does HF, but also 2M & 70cm. It's compact, tough as old boots, good looking and performs really well out on the field. It's probably the most popular portable qrp-transceiver ever built and has been selling for around 20yrs. Presumably, it'll be replaced soon by a newer model - probably an SDR.
At the top end, there's the stunningly good ELECRAFT KX3 and that's what we'll be focusing on today. It's by far the best radio of this little group, but it costs a small fortune if you spec it up to include all the desirable options.
On top of that, I have the following optional extras...
* KX32M 2M Module £300
* KXFL3 Roofing Filter £190
* KXBC3 Charger £100
* KXPD3 Iambic Keyer £160
* KXAT3 Auto ATU £260
I sold the KX32M (2M module) because I just never really used it. It could only put out 3W max and I rarely go outdoors to play anything other than HF. If I do decide to spend the day engaging in VHF activities, I'd take something dedicated to the task.
But anyway, if you bought the same spec KX3, it would add up to a staggering £2600 😮 That is an insane amount of money for a little portable QRP radio! But that's where this radio differs to the others - used with an amp, this radio could easily also be your main Base Station too.The first thing I want to point out about the KX3 as an outdoor-radio is that although it's beautifully made, it is also (in my opinion) quite vulnerable to damage from knocks and scrapes. The only solution is to protect it (at even more cost) by adding side-rails and a cover. These are readily available on the internet for around £70. Without them, you'd be worrying about damaging that big beautiful screen.
The KX3 has a very sensitive receiver and it's easy to demonstrate it's superiority over the other two radios when you put them side by side and tune into weaker stations. On the G90 and the FT818, there's many occasions where you just cannot pick up the signals that the KX3 hears.
It's important to use a good battery with the KX3 (or any other portable radio) in my opinion. Manufacturers incorporate internal Nicad battery trays but they very quickly run low on power which can cause issues such as the ATU being unable to find a match, etc.
If you invest in a good, LifePO 13.2V battery, you will pat yourself on the back every day!! Rely on nicads and expect disappointment somewhere along the line. If you're not going to be climbing hillsides, you can probably afford to get a heavier battery. Perfect for things like Parks On The Air!
All three radios can obviously pick up regular strength transmissions and many operators will be perfectly happy with the cheaper radios. It's worth mentioning though, the KX3's noise floor is supremely low and that's one of those things that just makes you smile every time you switch it on. It's one of the things that makes this radio special. I'll never forget the first time I took it out in the field and switched it on - I thought there was something wrong because it was deathly quiet - and then a signal came in - boom!
When I'm using the 818 outdoors, I always seem to struggle to find a good spot for the radio to sit so that I can see the display. The KX3 on the other hand always seems to be in just the right position and everything kinda falls to hand. The G90 (with the H1 cooler/stand) is much better than the 818 in this respect, but the (lovely) 2" colour screen is not always easy to see in strong sunlight - I think I need to come up with some sort of sun-screen for it.
The G90 has one thing that I truly wish the other two radios had - a panadapter and waterfall. Boy, that is such a great feature and I think the Elecraft should also have one - even if it's a simple affair. Needless to say, you can spend even more money on a PX3, but then the total price just goes into lunatic mode.
One failing of the Elecraft KX3 is the audio! The speaker just sounds dreadful! And even though Elecraft try to ignore the issue by saying it's purely a backup and they expect people to use headphones, the fact is, they could easily have done much better! I have a £25 Baofeng which has a superb tiny speaker built in. I strongly recommend that you use an external powered speaker or a good quality pair of earphones.
The advantage of wearing earphones with the KX3 include the ability to use the DUALWATCH feature where one VFO's audio is played through the left earphone and the other VFO's audio is played through the right earphone. Just bear in mind that A and B can only be a maximum of 15KHz apart, which is a bit poor.
You also get the option to switch on the DELAY feature in single-VFO mode. This adds a very slight amount of echo to the audio, making it sound quite pleasant. You can also use the built-in equaliser to fine tune the audio.
So what's it like to 'lug around'? Well I'd say it's similar to the other two radios. There's not a lot between any of them, but the Xiegu is a bit more awkward due to its length. The 818 is super-slim and if you've got the Yaesu matching leather case, then you can just chuck the 818 into your rucksack without a second thought.
Anyway, back to the KX3 itself. Amongst its other useful features, it has a built-in, on-screen decoder for CW, RTTY and PSK. Personally, I don't (can't) use CW but I do sometimes like to listen and watch the decoded messages. I also like to be able to SEND CW messages like "CQ TEST M7MCQ" to see how far my signal can be heard on the RBN.
Being an SDR radio, the Elecraft is, of course, able to have its firmware updated and Elecraft are not slow to give their customers what they ask for. The same applies to the Xiegu G90 too, but the FT-818 is obviously a superhet and frozen in time.
Highest power output places the Xiegu in first place with 20W. Elecraft is second at 15W and the Yaesu a lowly third with just 6W. The good thing about the KX3 is that its power can be reduced down to a few mW which can save battery usage and is a lot of fun.
Speaking of power, the KX3 is by far the most energy efficient of the bunch, consuming less than 150mW in receive mode. That is a very important consideration when working outdoors on battery power for hour after hour. To many field-operators it is the Number One consideration when choosing a radio.
Another important option is having an internal ATU. The Xiegu has one built-in and I'd say it's as good as the Elecraft's optional ATU. They're both just superb! Sadly, the Yaesu has no ATU and you have to resort to buying (and carrying around) an external unit. I'd recommend the LDG Z-817.
So in summary, I'd say again that the Elecraft KX3 is a magnificent radio and something that anyone would surely be proud to own. It's ridiculously expensive with all the optional extras and the Xiegu G90 almost laughs in its face when measured in terms of cost alone.
There's no denying that the Panadapter & Waterfall of the G90 is handy, but operators have been playing radio without them for many decades. It's certainly not worth buying a PX3 for the KX3 unless you find one super-cheap at a rally (unlikely).
As for the Yaesu FT-818, that too is a fab little rig. It does so much and is so incredibly dependable that it feels like sacrilege to discuss it in anything but positive terms. But the truth is, its design is showing its age. Then again, the KX3 could also benefit from an update - maybe a better battery pack & charging system, a soundcard and a USB-C connector?
If you wish to add computer control to your KX3 in the shack, then there's a few options out there which will not only give you control of the rig, but also a panadapter. Here's one such solution...
Anyway, if you've worked your ass off and saved up some money, or if you just won a bet at the races and want to treat yourself to something REAL SPECIAL, then buy an Elecraft KX3 without any hesitation. They are very special and a joy to use.
If you’re looking to buy a used radio, wherever possible go for a late serial number - there’s some pretty old KX3’s out there now and sellers don’t seem to understand that their old radio isn’t worth as much as a very recent one 🤷🏻
Pictured above is the matching 100W amplifier - mini review here... Elecraft KXPA100-AT.
Have yourself a Rolls Royce parked on the drive 😂