13 December 2021

Holy Grail

Note: I started this post back in early October, and got pulled away from completing it by other interests. It sat unpublished in my Blogger stack and I lost track of it until a few days ago. Although I've published posts about the KX2 since then, what I have not yet done is compare it in depth to the Icom IC-705. So I decided to polish up the post and put it out there for those with an interest in both radios.

A few weeks ago I stumbled on one of the Holy Grails of modern COVID-induced shortage radios - a reasonably priced, good condition Elecraft KX2 kit. The seller was asking a cracking good price for a very complete kit - radio with internal tuner and clock, the after market SideKX end panels, heat sink and snap-on cover, Elecraft paddles, the AX-1 antenna with the 40 meter coil and tripod mount, assorted Elecraft connector cables, and a LowePro carry pouch. The only thing missing was the owners manual. For once I didn't hesitate or ruminate - I shot the seller an email and told him I'd take it if it was still available. I really didn't think I had a chance at the radio - surely someone else had already beat me to the punch. But to my surprise he wrote right back and told me I was first in what was quickly becoming a very long line of interested buyers. The radio was mine. 

If you have spent any time reading this blog you are probably asking, "But don't you already have multiple QRP rigs?" Umm, yeah. So what's your point? I've had an interest in the Elecraft KX line for some time. My interest was actually heightened by my purchase of the Icom IC-705. Last year I thought surely - surely - the IC-705 would punch a deep hole in the KX line's sales. The KX3 and KX2 are 'old' technology (as ancient at 2016 - when the KX2 was released). The IC-705 is new, modern, stuffed full of bleeding edge QRP rig technology. Who wouldn't pick the 705 over the KX2 for portable operations?

Well, it turns out lots of people are picking the KX2 over the IC-705. The demand for the KX2 is so strong that Elecraft reports delays of over 5 weeks on shipping. Just what is it about the KX2 that keeps demand high? I know the IC-705 pretty well, and I understand its strengths and weaknesses. It is a very, very good rig (with some annoying shortcomings), and it points the way to the future of feature-laden SDR QRP radios. But the heavy demand and overwhelmingly positive reviews of the KX2 had my interest piqued. Why were hams choosing the KX2 over the 705? What was it about the KX2 that made it a compelling radio? Inquiring minds wanted to know.

After playing with the KX2 for a few weeks I'm beginning to understand why the KX2 has such a strong following. It's not just about the radio, it's also about Elecraft, the company's philosophy, and their approach to service.

First, the radio. I'm comparing the KX2 to a number of other QRP radios I've worked with over the past few years: the Yaesu FT-818, the Icom IC-705, the CommRadio CTX-10. 

Let's start with the CTX-10. Feature-for-feature, the KX2's closest competition is this all-mode 80 - 6 meter QRP rig with built-in batteries and an antenna tuner. But the KX2 is smaller, has a much better user interface, has real, responsive, customer support, and comes without the embarrassing microphone drama that damned near killed the CTX-10 in the market. I fear that the CTX-10 will quickly fade into obscurity in the ham radio world, always the radio that could have been a serious QRP contender if the manufacturer had just paid more attention to customer requests, and addressed some of its very evident shortcomings. Owning a CTX-10 is like buying a new Ferrari that came off the factory floor with a faulty gearbox and no driver seat, and being told by Enzo himself that there's nothing wrong with the car.

Now the IC-705. In a feature-by-feature comparison, the KX2 loses out to the IC-705. It's really no contest. The 705 is a mash-up of all the functionality of the IC-7300, most of the IC-9700, with a dash of new features like Bluetooth, wi-fi, and GPS. The radio is a technological tour-de-force, and in typical Icom fashion, everything works. With the exception of a serious RFI over USB issue, all the functions and features are well implemented. But all of that wizardry comes with a penalty when considering QRP rigs - the 705 is chunky and awkward; it doesn't sit well in use. Icom flubbed the case design and should have built it with a better viewing angle. But Icom did get one thing right in this area - they incorporated a standard 1/4 x 20 threaded socked in the radio's case, making it easy to mount it on things like camera tripods. I suspect that the release of the IC-705 triggered a minor run on table-top tripods at Amazon. The 705 provides an unparalleled operating experience. It does everything very, very well and many things excellently. I particularly like the radio because it's a digital mode beast - it will operate on full duty cycle digital modes like JS8CALL for hours without breaking a sweat. The 705 is, in my mind, the reigning general purpose QRP field ops champ. But it's a big field ops champ in terms of picnic bench footprint, mainly because the radio lacks a built-in tuner and the Icom AH-705 tuner is almost as big as the radio itself. The AH-705 is a very capable tuner, but the overall footprint for a complete IC-705 station can be quite large for a QRP rig.   

Next up, the Yaesu FT-818. The 818 is the (effectively unchanged) descendant of the Yaesu FT-817. The 817 was designed in the late 1990s and released in 2001, is still in production, and is still a strong seller. Why? Well, a feature-for-feature count of the 818 as compared to the KX2 tells the story. While the 818 lacks any real filtering, has a weak battery and power management system, only puts out 6 watts max, lacks an internal tuner, it is more of a 'shack-in-a-box' than the KX2 will ever be. It offers 160 - 6 meter HF coverage, plus 2 meter and 70 cm band coverage on all modes. Also, having been in the market for so long it enjoys excellent after-market support. Perhaps most important, a brand new FT-818 sells for $650, while a stripped (no tuner, no internal clock) KX2 sells for $900. That $250 price difference alone is the reason the FT-818 continues to sell well. Plus, the 817 and the 818 are proven performers in the field. For over a decade before the KX2 hit the market, hikers and SOTA operators were carrying their FT-817s to peaks all around the world and logging thousands of contacts with this capable little rig.

Now, the KX2. The first thing that struck me, and this is something many have commented on, is that it's small. I mean, real small. You pick it up and say, "Really? There's a transceiver, an antenna tuner and a battery in here?" How small is it, really? Well, this picture says it all:

Elecraft KX2 perched atop an IC-705

Here's another perspective on size that will help you visualize just how small the KX2 is. If I removed the after-market side panels and re-installed the factory originals on this radio, it is small enough to comfortably slip into the cargo pocket of a set of Army BDU or ACU trousers, with space left over for a microphone and a Par EndFedz Trail Friendly long wire antenna. Think of that - a fully capable HF rig, microphone and long wire antenna in just one cargo pocket. 

Some would argue that the 705 looks bigger because of the front facing speaker. Yeah, OK, but you still have to make space for the VFO knob. And remember, there's an extremely capable antenna tuner and a battery inside the KX2 case, and the battery will power the rig at a full 10 watts longer than the 705's external snap-on battery pack will power it at the 5 watt level.

Another intangible that comes with the KX2 is support. I purchased a very early first year production rig, and Elecraft treats me like I bought a factory new radio just last week. I contacted Elecraft a few times with questions about programming software, ordering components and doing a MARS mod on the rig. Every question was swiftly and completely answered by their customer support staff. And speaking of components, you can buy almost an entire KX2, piece-by-piece, from the Elecraft website. Scratch  up the clear faceplate that covers the LCD display? Lose one of the screws that holds the battery cover in place? Need a replacement VFO knob? No problem. These components and lots more can be ordered off of the Elecraft website. I think the only KX2 components you can't order are the main board and the LCD display.

Elecraft's corporate culture encourages direct contact with its customer base. In fact, Wayne Burdick, N6KR, one of the founders of Elecraft and the principal designer of the KX series of rigs, regularly gives interactive talks on YouTube and actively participates in discussions on the Elecraft KX Groups.io reflector. Elecraft management is not shy about reaching out directly to their customer base and interacting with them. When was the last time you saw an Icom, Yaesu or Kenwood VP or product designer participate one-on-one with an end user? 

Drawbacks of the KX2? Sure, there's a few. 
  • The KX2 is nowhere near as good on digital modes as the 705 is. Not even close. Digital mode operations seem to be something of an afterthought in the KX2's design. You'll need an external sound card device (I use a Sbarent sound card dongle), and configuring the little rig for digital operations can be somewhat fiddly. Plus the KX2 can get hot - really hot - when running full duty cycle digital modes. By comparison, the 705 just loafs when running full duty cycle ops.
  • You have to physically open the back of the radio to remove the battery for charging. This was an intentional design choice by Elecraft - when the little radio was designed back in 2015 - 2016, lithium ion battery charging technology wasn't as advanced as it is today. Elecraft knew they needed lithium ion batteries to provide the needed power density in a package small enough to fit inside the case, but they were concerned about battery explosion and fire due to poorly implemented board-level charging circuits. So Elecraft wisely chose to have the battery charging take place outside of the radio. You open the radio up, remove the battery, hook it up to the external charger, reinstall and keep operating. Interestingly, word from Elecraft as of November of this year is that they are about to release an upgrade to the KX2 that allows for internally charging a battery. 
  • The KX2 (and the KX3) is about as moisture proof as a submarine with screen doors. True. The KX series case design is what you could generously call 'open', as in, there's lots of openings for moisture and dirt to get in. This is NOT a rig  you'd want to operate in the open during heavy weather events. There's lots of discussion on the KX forum on Groups.io about carrying the little rig around in a zip lock bag, or covering it with a clear shower cap, or putting it into a Tupperware box with holes cut in the side, or... OK, you get the idea - this is not a foul weather radio. But to be fair, neither is the 705. Icom makes no claim that the 705 is even remotely moisture resistant. Run it in the rain at  your own peril. But I tend to think that the 705 would survive a light shower better than the KX2.  
The last topic to address is the idea that the KX2 and the 705 compete with each other in the same market space. I honestly don't think so. There's enough elbow room between the feature sets of both radios that I could justify hanging on to both. The IC-705 is an outstanding portable rig that is a digital mode beast, but requires a few added bits & pieces (tuner, external battery) to reach its full potential, while the KX2 is an outstanding uber-small full featured rig that shines in the SSB and CW roles. If I'm going to hike the Appalachian Trail I'll take the KX2. If I'm going to the local park for a day of fun, I'll take the IC-705.

W8BYH out

No comments:

Post a Comment