07 March 2021

When They Get It Right...

...they get it right, and Icom got it real right with the IC-705. 

A few weeks ago my piggy bank got full enough that I could afford to go out and buy an IC-705. I think what pushed me over the edge was the ARRL review of the little radio in the February issue of QST Magazine. I had been waiting for a reputable test lab to run the numbers on this rig, almost hoping a major flaw would be revealed that would cause me to hold on to my money and keep my venerable FT-818 in service a little longer.

But nooooo.... Icom had to go and knock this one out of the park. I trust the ARRL test lab; they don't do fawning endorsements. But their review of the IC-705 is as close to an "oh hell yeah!" cheer as we're likely to see from them.

My IC-705 sitting on the Nifty Accessories stand (discussed below)

I've spent almost three weeks with the IC-705 now, learning its features and testing it in a controlled environment. To say I'm impressed by the radio, particularly on digital modes, would be an understatement. The radio is less a transceiver than it is a communications instrument - a high grade tool that provides most of the features needed to effectively communicate by any mode, under any conditions, at any location.

This is just an opening post on what I'm sure will be a series of write-ups on the IC-705. I won't waste your time by covering things all the other slobbering fanboys are writing or video blogging about. Suffice to say, there are plenty of "This is the bestest radio everrr made! I wub it sooo, sooo much!" reviews out there.

If you want to follow someone who's really putting the IC-705 through it's paces, I recommend you subscribe to OH8STN's YouTube channel. Julian knows how to make radios perform under real world conditions, and he calls things like they are. (His takedown of Yaesu over the release of the FT-818 is a classic.) If there's a flaw in Julian's reviews of the IC-705, it's that he uses the word 'magnificent' too much.



So let me address a few things that have come to light about the radio since I started testing it:
  • First things first - you MUST download and install the IC-705 specific USB drivers from the Icom website. Don't make the mistake I did in thinking that because I had run a number of Icom rigs on the laptop I've got hooked up to the 705 that I was just fine in the driver department. This cost me three days of frustration and almost resulted in me shipping the rig back to HRO. Once you have the drivers installed things start to get much better. Not perfect though, because...
  • Many ham radio software developers have not yet incorporated IC-705 specific settings in their rig control interfaces. As of this writing, Winlink and JS8CALL (which uses Hamlib for it's rig control interface) and Fldigi are the three I'm aware of. Ham Radio Deluxe added IC-705 support in their newest release, and it works like a charm. If your favorite software doesn't yet have IC-705 support don't despair. Just use the IC-7300 settings, making sure to set the IC-705 CI-V address to 94h (the IC-7300's default address). From there things will work just fine. 
  • As it sits on a desk all by itself the viewing angle is... awkward. Icom really should have included a small foot, bail or stand with the radio to prop it at a usable viewing angle. A lot of IC-705 owners resort to using a table-top tripod to support their radio, and that's a great option. I've gone with a heavy duty table-top tripod made by a British company called iFootage. It incorporates an excellent fluid ball head and can easily support the IC-705's weight. This tripod isn't cheap (about $70) or lightweight, but remember you are trusting the safety of a $1,300 communications instrument to it. It doesn't pay to go cheap with a flimsy $20 Amazon special.
  • Speaking of viewing angles and desktop stands (where we?), Icom will sell you a ridiculously priced ($45) plastic cradle to set your IC-705 into. Again, this is something Icom should have included as part of the basic radio package. But capitalism to the rescue! (for all you socialists out there reading this). The good folks at Nifty Accessories have come up with their own stand that provides a great viewing angle, uses a thumb screw to securely attach the stand to the radio AND it's cheaper than the Icom offering.
  • Rig control - I've been using Ham Radio Deluxe with this little radio, and it makes controlling all the features much easier. Now, doing the radio screen 'finger poke' a-la the IC-7300 isn't really a big problem, but being able to control everything from a larger laptop screen just makes life a bit more fun. Since the IC-705 incorporates wi-fi, I may buy the Icom RS-BA1 control software, but I'm really waiting to see if a competitor comes out with an equivalent product at a cheaper price.
  • What about the Icom backpack? Dunno, didn't buy one. But my good friend Joe, KI4ASK, did buy one and he speaks very highly of it.
The iFootage tripod in action. Very sturdy, very well made


What? No tuner?! Yeah, but get over it. As of this writing there are three tuner options on the market, a fourth just around the corner, and possibly a fifth in the development stage. There's more bitching about the lack of a built-in tuner than anything else, so let's review the options:
  1. The Elecraft T1 tuner. This little battery powered tuner is as minimalist as you can get - a plastic box about the size of a pack of cigarettes (remember those?) with a few BNC connections and some LEDs. The tuner has been on the market for a while now and is legendary for its ability to find a match for just about any antenna on any frequency. I've got one and have used it a bit with my FT-818 and have tested it with the IC-705. It works pretty good, but you have to put the rig into a continuous carrier mode (AM, FM) to tune - there's no automatic triggering.
  2. The mAT 705. This compact tuner is made in China but is sold (and supported) by Vibroplex here in the US. It was designed specifically for the IC-705, and was getting some enthusiastic reviews when it first hit the market after the IC-705's release. Then users started to notice issues, particularly with the battery and power management system. As a result, Vibroplex pulled the tuner from their website and had the manufacturer do a re-design. The new tuner, the mAT 705 Plus, is reported to have put all the original model's issues to bed and the tuner is once again available on the Vibroplex website.
  3. LDG Z-100Plus. This battery powered tuner has been on the market for some time now, and HRO is selling a bundle specifically for the IC-705. It's just the basic Z100Plus tuner, but with a control cable to connect the radio to the tuner, and a short BNC-to-PL-259 coax section. Since I already owned a Z-100Plus, I contacted LDG and asked what the special control cable was. They answered back in less than an hour(!) to tell me it was just a plain-Jane 3.5mm audio cable. I had one of those in my spare cable junk box, so I was up and running in a few minutes. The setup works great, and the tuner will auto-trigger a tune cycle if the radio detects high SWR. But like the Icom AH-705 (below), I think this tuner is a bit too large for portable use.
  4. Icom's own AH-705 tuner. This is the 'just around the corner' tuner. I believe Icom has released it for the domestic Japanese market, with the US market to follow soon. There are a few good Japanese language videos about it on YouTube. What strikes me is the size - it's every bit as big as the IC-705 itself! But it's Icom, and the tuner control logic is built into the 705's firmware, so I'm sure it'll be a capable and well integrated unit. One interesting note is that the AH-705 will tune both balanced antennas and random wire antennas (like the Icom AH-4). So for versatility this tuner may just take the cake.
  5. Something secret under development? Hmmm... When I contacted LDG about the control cable for the Z100Plus tuner, I also asked if they intended to come out with an IC-705-specific tuner. The tech rep stated no, they had nothing like that planned, but then went on to hint that LDG just might be working on a tuner/amplifier combo for the IC-705. So as they say, boys and girls, watch this space!
So you see, there are plenty of options available. The lack of a built-in tuner shouldn't really be an issue. 

But how does the radio perform on the air? Here's my initial observations:
  • On SSB voice, the radio is the equal of the IC-7300 in both sensitivity and selectivity. I've done some informal side-by-side testing of the two radios using headphones and the same antennas, and I simply can't detect any difference. That's a good thing - the IC-7300 has become renowned for its sideband performance
  • On digital modes, this radio operates flawlessly. It's a digital mode beast. So far I've tested it with Winlink, JS8CALL and Fldigi (PSK-31). Once I got the USB serial port driver and the IC-7300 emulation issues figured out, it's been smooth sailing. The rig stays cool, even when operating at 10 watts on long digital exchanges. I had a 23 minute Winlink session last night, downloading some email traffic from a node up in Indiana (I'm near Altanta). Propagation was poor, and VARA was struggling to get the traffic passed. The IC-705 was pushing out a lot of  full duty cycle ACKs (acknowledgments) as VARA was adjusting the baud rate to match the fluctuating band conditions. The temperature indicator on the little rig never got above 1/4 scale and did not feel the least bit warm to the touch. 
  • VHF, UHF & DSTAR. I have to admit, I have not used this radio yet on VHF or UHF! I'm so focused on figuring out sideband and digital modes that the opportunity to test the VHF and UHF side hasn't come up. But my friend Joe, KI4ASK, uses his IC-705 regularly on VHF and reports that it's as good as anything Icom has put out. I have had an opportunity to test DSTAR on HF simplex, again with Joe, and the radio worked as expected. In fact, the voice quality on this one simplex exchange was better than what I experience using my IC-5100 on the local VHF DSTAR repeater - no R2D2.
Let's close with a few random observations:
  • Build quality. the build quality on this radio is first rate. It's a marvel of small form factor engineering. The radio feels like a brick, and since it's essentially a magnesium box with a front plate, it is. Watch this guy take one apart:

  • Icom's commitment. It's clear Icom is putting a lot of development resources behind this radio. They have a winner and they know it, and they are (as we used to say in the Army) 'reinforcing success'. In the short time since I bought my radio, Icom has released two firmware updates. These updates didn't fix anything broken, they added new features or enhancements. I'm confident that Icom will continue to improve this radio and its Icom accessories (like the AH-705 tuner) for years to come. This won't become a piece of orphanware any time soon.
  • Competition. Many are saying that the IC-705 is a Yaesu FT-818 killer. Sorry, I don't see that. The significant price difference between the radios (the FT-818 sells for about half of what the IC-705 goes for) is enough that the FT-818 should continue to see strong sales. No, I see the IC-705's main competition as the Elecraft KX-3. The KX-3 was a groundbreaking radio, and remains one of the best receivers ever tested by Sherwood Engineering. When it came out it was considered an engineering marvel - a paradigm shift in form factor, and performance. Feature-for-feature, both radios come in around the same price point (if you add in the anticipated additional cost of the Icom tuner), but the Icom clearly offers more - an excellent panadapter display, UHF & VHF capability, built-in sound card modem for digital modes, GPS, Bluetooth and wi-fi capability and a better power management system. While I don't think the Icom will dig too deeply into KX-3 sales, I think it does show Elecraft where the QRP market is headed.
OK, that's it for this post. Obviously, I'll have more to say after I get more mic time with the radio. But I can say this - if you are hesitant about buying the IC-705, don't be. This little radio really is as good as it gets for QRP rig performance, and it's worth every cent of its $1,300 asking price. So empty your piggy banks and go get one.

W8BYH out


5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the callsign shout out in this fine review. I really like your "communications instrument" term and agree the 705 seems more than "just a transceiver" because of Bluetooth, WifFi, etc. As much as I love this radio, a few other negatives (and I'm digging deep to name them): I really do not like the side mount BNC connector for the antenna. It doesn't feel sturdy and it's really hard to deploy an L-adapter (that doesn't put strain on the connector) which will keep even a small VHF/UHF antenna vertical. The adapter works fine with pigtails and wire antennas, but is basically a no-go for a direct connect whip. The 817/818 seemed sturdier. Speaking of my original QRP favorite, I really miss having two antenna connectors like the 817/818 has. I totally agree with you about some of it's shortcomings in putting it on a table, without the aid of a stand or tripod. At least there's some great third party add-ons coming out and that's what will make this radio even more popular - the ecosystem of accessories. Because it's such a strong VHF/UHF radio, I really do miss having two VFO's. I know that only top end HF rigs have that, but this is not a cheap radio and it is all-mode. It's kinda sad that my $25 Baofeng can handle two VFO's, yet my $1,300 IC-705 can only do one at a time. What that means is that in the field, I still have an HT nearby. Less so for POTA, but in SOTA a good portion of the contacts are VHF simplex. If I want to activate, then I really do need an HT and the 705 so I'm not spending all my time fussing with antennas. Having said all of that, the IC-705 is my favorite radio of all-time in my 20 years of hamming. (Sorry 818, I still love you and don't intend to sell you - you can retire with dignity and I'll still deploy you from time-to-time). It's almost spring time and it's gonna be fun to go portable. 73 de KI4ASK

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    1. Joe, I agree - the lack of a dedicated VHF antenna connection is a serious oversight on Icom's part. It's also one of the brilliant design elements of the FT-817/818 - not just that there's two, but they are on opposite sides of the radio chassis and are completely different connection types, so there's no chance of mixing them up.

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  2. Great write-up Brian! I just got the 705 too and love it.

    https://tommcquiggan.blogspot.com/2021/01/icom-ic-705.html

    73, Tom, M7MCQ.

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    1. Tom, thanks. And hey, I really like your blog site. Good job!

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  3. Outstanding review. You reeled me in when you were talking about how robust this little rig is at full power on full duty cycle digital modes. I operate almost exclusively on digital modes. One thing that has made me steer clear of smaller QRP-ish rigs thus far is their heat issues when it comes to these modes. Soooo.... are you saying I could spend the afternoon playing FT8 at 10w and likely be ok??

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