Tuesday, 6 October 2020

ELECRAFT KX3 REVIEW

ROLLS ROYCE QRP?

October 2020

I got my KX3 almost 2 years ago, so maybe it's time to talk about it.

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. 

There is also a new kid on the block from Icom, but since it's not even reached the showrooms yet, we'll have to look at that at some point in the future. I am, of course talking about the IC-705 from ICOM.

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 and opinions.

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. 

Somewhere in the middle is the YAESU FT-818 /817 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.

At the top end, there's the stunningly good ELECRAFT KX3 and that's what we'll be looking at 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.

I took this photo before removing the 2M module!
 
The KX3 covers 160-6M straight from the box and at the time of writing, that will set you back £1300 plus another £50 'build fee' and then another £80 for a microphone! 😮

On top of that, I have the following optional extras...

* KX32M        £300

* KXFL3        £190

* KXBC3        £100

* KXPD3        £160

* KXAT3        £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 use the FT-818 which has twice the power.

But anyway, if you bought the same spec KX3, it would add up to a staggering £2390 😮 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 also be your main Base Station too.

WEB PRICE @ 6th OCT 2020

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 screen.

The KX3 has an incredibly 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.

Let's not get silly about this though - 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.

The Elecraft also benefits enormously from the KXFL3 Dual PassBand Roofing Filter for SSB, CW and DATA. The G90 has some great filters built-in but they obviously don't compare to Elecraft's. This filter makes a huge difference and puts the receiver in a class above the rest.  I installed a Collins SSB filter to the FT-818, but to be honest, it didn't seem to make much of a difference - to the point where I might actually remove it and sell it!

 
The other massive advantage of the KX3 is that big, crystal clear LCD display! It is just soooo nice to use and let's not forget also, all those lovely buttons and dials which are lacking on the 818 and 90. Although I am very familiar and comfortable with the menu system of the Yaesu, there's nothing quite like the ease of use of the KX3.

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. 

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.

LowePro Tahoe BP-150


 
The Elecraft fits neatly into my small rusksack and leaves loads of space for other stuff including a LifePO battery, connectors, antennas, phone, torch, whistle, notepad and even a handheld radio for a spot of DSTAR, FUSION, VHF, UHF or whatever takes your fancy. I could actually use a much smaller rucksack instead, but I like having a few extra bits and bats with me. Inside that top section I also have a rather nifty 6M antenna which simply hangs from the top of my telescopic mast.

 Compact 6M Antenna

If you're really pushed for space and are happy to operate on 20M only, you can carry your KX3 and battery in the smallest bag you can find and just take Elecraft's AX-1 telescopic antenna with you. It's a fabulous little thing and performs really well, out in the open. I've managed amazing distances with it, even from my back garden!

Although I mentioned 20M, the AX-1 antenna is also usable on 17M and the unit can cope with up to 20W. I've tried this beaut of an antenna connected directly to the BNC socket of my FT-818 too and got from Manchester to Denmark on 2.5W. And I'm talking about a proper lengthy chinwag, not a quick report and 73. I sometimes use this antenna at the top of a portable mast so it's 20ft up in the air. I recently bought the 40M extension. Highly recommended bit of kit.

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.

Being an SDR radio, the Elecraft is, of course, able to have its firmware update 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 (but in a good way).

Highest power output puts 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 almost 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.

CONCLUSION

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. I adore mine and like I said, I'll never sell it. But the truth is, compared to the Xiegu, its design is showing its age.

But 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. It's easy to understand why people use these as their Base Station with an amp.

Speaking of which, take a look at my quick review of the wonderful Elecraft KXPA100-AT.

Have yourself a Rolls Royce parked on the drive 😂



UPDATE : FEB 2021 
The Icom IC-705 eventually hit the showrooms and I bought one. It has, without any doubt, become my favourite QRP radio of all time. Take a look at the review HERE.





KX3 SPECIFICATIONS :

KX3 STANDARD FEATURES

•160 - 6 meter ham bands; general coverage receive from 1.5 - 32.0 MHz (also covers 0.31 - 1.5 MHz with reduced sensitivity)

•All modes: SSB, CW, Data (four sub-modes), AM, FM

•Ultra-compact size: 3.4"H x 7.4"W x 1.7"D; 18 oz. (less options)

•Rear tilt feet fold up for transport

•Custom high-contrast LCD with alphanumeric text display

•Internal 8 - AA battery holder

•Current drain as low as 150 mA in receive mode

•High-performance 32-bit floating-point DSP

•Built-in PSK/TTY decode/encode allows data mode operation without a PC; transmit in data modes using CW keyer paddle

•Low-noise synthesizer with 1-Hz tuning resolution

•Firmware updateable via provided application software

 

 RECEIVER

•Quadrature down-sampling mixer compatible with PC-based SDR (software defined radio) applications

•Receiver I/Q outputs for use with PC soundcard

•Dual roofing filter option for enhanced dynamic range.  (500/1500 Hz analog filters; effective IF b/w of 1000/3000 Hz) 

•Switchable preamp and attenuator 

•8-band receive audio equalizer

•Dual watch over +/- 15 kHz range; uses applicable roofing filter

•Easy-to-use PassBand Tuning (PBT) for shift/width/hicut/locut; roofing filters automatically track DSP filter settings

•Automatic and manual notch filtering; adjustable noise reduction and noise blanking; binaural audio effects for enhanced receive

•Center-tuning indicator for CW and data modes

•Built-in speaker; stereo jack for headphones/external speakers

 

 TRANSMITTER

•Adjustable output, 0.1 to 15 W (8 W 12, 10 & 6 M)

•(100 W with KXPA100 amp)

•Rugged, SWR and temperature-protected final amplifier stage

•Optional MH3 microphone with PTT and UP/DOWN functions

•Optional attached keyer paddle with spacing adjustment

•Switchable PA output impedance for efficient 5-W or 15-W use

•Fast, silent, PIN-diode T-R switching - no relays

•DSP RF speech processing for excellent 'punch'

•8 band equalizer tailors passband to your voice and microphone

 

OTHER FEATURES

•Built in digital voice recorder (DVR) with two message buffers

•Internal CW keyer with 8-50 WPM range

•Six CW/DATA message memories

•100 general-purpose memories store VFOs, modes, etc.

•Computer control via supplied USB cable or optional RS-232 cables

•Full remote-control command set works with most amateur radio software applications (emulates Elecraft K3)

•One-click firmware upgrades via the web (with free PC software)

•Tutorial-style manual ideal for new hams

 

OPTIONS and ACCESSORIES

KXFL3 Roofing Dual Bandwidth Filter for SSB/CW/DATA

KXAT3 Internal, Wide-Range 20-W Automatic Antenna Tuner

KXBC3 NiMH Charger

     (8 - AA NiMH batteries not supplied with KX3; non-rechargeables can also be used in KX3 internal battery holder)

KX3-2M Internal 2-Meter Module

H3 Hand Microphone with UP/DN Controls

KXPD3 Attached Precision Keyer Paddle

KXPA100 High-Performance 160-6 meter, External 100-W Amplifier

     also usable with most 5 to 10 W transceivers

KXAT100 Wide-Range 100-W ATU with Dual Antenna Jacks

 

Please leave any comments in the box below. And thanks for popping by.

3 comments:

  1. Again a nice review Tom. If you don't have to worry about money this radio is certainly worth buying. Not my piece of cake though. I saved money for over 2 years to buy my IC-7300 and already have a FT-817. I'm satisfied now. But it's nice to know there is always something that's better. 73, Bas

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  2. Thanks Bas, it sure is a lot of money, but I guess it's all relative. My brother-in-law paid £5,000 for a fancy number plate for his car!!!!! That to me was a waste of money, but to him it was worth far more than a 'daft radio' as he calls it LOL.

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  3. Good evening Tom, I have the KX3 and have had it for about 4 years now. It truly is a great radio and Elecraft is next to none in regard to their support. In the past I had a fully loaded K3, built 2 K2's and a KX1. All had been sold (not the KX3) for ham bucks to buy other things. I never ordered the 2m module as I felt the power output was going to do nothing for me.
    Great review it was a pleasure to read thanks for the time you spent on it.
    73,
    Mike
    VE9KK

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