Yaesu's FT920 (HF+6m)A review from a SWL point of view
(Originally published in Numero Uno #1490, 9/1/98, an email DX bulletin & closed-membership organization of shortwave broadcast DXers. NU specializes in difficult and rare DX, especially on the "tropical bands" below 5 MHz. The NU bulletin has been published weekly since 1969.)
MINI-REVIEW: The Yaesu FT-920 as a SWBC DXer's Receiverby Guy Atkins, Bonney Lake, WA firstname.lastname@example.org
When the new JRC NRD-545's problems with abysmal ultimate selectivity became known, I was disappointed at the news, especially since JRC announced they have no further plans to improve the receiver. Many DXers had hoped this would be a blockbuster digital signal processing (DSP) rig in the US. $2000 price class. However, the NRD-545's 35 to 45dB ultimate rejection hardly qualifies as communications receiver quality (90db is theoretically possible with existing 16-bit DSP chips).
My second choice was AOR and I was close to buying another AR7030 receiver, the Plus version fully outfitted with options. However, I decided to investigate current ham radio *transceivers* in the $2000-and-under bracket, in case any of them have an excellent receiver section. So what if there also happens to be a transmitter under the hood? (g) Perhaps one of the Big Three (Yaesu, Kenwood, & ICOM) had a model suitable for SWBC and mediumwave DXers.
Many internet web, newsgroup, and magazine research hours later I concluded that the Yaesu FT-920 would make an excellent choice. According to many it approaches the receiving capability of its big brother, the highly regarded FT-1000MP/FT-1000 series ($2700 and $3400 street prices).
The transceiver was introduced in May 1997 at a list price of $2300; actual price was a few hundred dollars less throughout 1997 and early 1998. I purchased a new FT-920 for $1439 at Texas Towers, Inc. in July; the price has gone up slightly ($10) since then. It's my guess that competition from new ICOM models and Yaesu's own FT-847 has led to the FT-920's current attractive price. The FT-920's price falls within a broad range common to communications receivers currently popular with serious SWBC and mediumwave DXers such as the Drake R-8B, the AOR7030, and the Japan Radio NRD-535D.
As with most new electronics the FT-920 had a few bugs in its initial production run. Most of the glitches were related to transmitting functions. The units now available are being well received by the ham radio community.
The FT-920 has a lot to offer the serious SWBC DXer. The following are some features/specs that appealed to me:
- 150 kHz-30 MHz & 48-56 MHz general coverage receive range (the FT-920 also transmits on 160-10 meters, plus 6 meters)
- Automatic antenna tuner: matches 16-150 ohms (works on both receive and transmit; serves as extra bandpass filtering on receive)
- DSP voice recorder: digitally stores the last 16 seconds of incoming audio on a "first-in, first-out" basis. This is an *excellent* feature and useful for a quick check of a suspected ID, etc., without disturbing a tape recorder or MiniDisc device that may be running. For the active "contest" ham operator, the DSP recorder can transmit voice or CW.
- DSP audio filtering: separate highpass, lowpass, variable noise reduction, and auto notch controls. Although the DSP filtering works in the audio frequency range, it performs excellently. The DSP CPU is a powerful 33 MIPS chip which results in natural-sounding audio. The sharp highpass and lowpass cutoff frequencies are typical of well-designed DSP circuitry. The FT-920's DSP features are powerful controls when used with the IF shift (passband tuning), RF gain, and Noise Blanker functions. I found the Ft-920's DSP audio shaping to be as good as the Timewave's top-of-the-line DSP-599zx audio filter I previously owned.
- Antenna inputs: three 50-ohm inputs are switchable from the front panel. Very handy!
- Tuning Resolution: the high speed DDS circuit offers 1 Hz tuning. The normal *display* is to 10 Hz, but an easy to use bargraph aid permits quick measurement of a carrier frequency to 1 Hz (i.e. 5020.013 kHz)
- 127 Alpha-numeric memory channels: includes five special "Quick Memory Bank" memories which can store and recall stations very quickly and simply (a single button press).
- Sensitivity: on shortwave it is excellent, and definitely "hotter" than the AR7030. SSB sensitivity is reduced a small amount on mediumwave, but a recent Beverage DXpedition proved the FT-920 a capable performer on MW (Tahiti, Tonga, Australia, and Fiji heard). The radio has dual RF amplifers, and it is possible to switch between a MOSFET and a JFET type. The FT-920's sensitivity reduction on mediumwave is less than on many receivers.
- Front panel voltage display: useful for monitoring battery voltage during DXpeditions. A front panel ammeter is also a feature, but works only during transmit.
- Audio quality: a pleasant surprise is the clear, crisp audio. There is no synchronous detection in AM mode but the FT-920's clear AM audio reminds me of the Kenwood R-5000. SSB (ECSS) audio is also great. No JRC-like "wooly" audio here!
- Ergonomics: this is a large, well-built radio; it has mostly "traditional" single-functions controls, yet presents a streamlined contemporary look. The cabinet color is a very pleasing dark gray and has a cast-aluminum chassis.
A downside of the FT-920 is the single SSB bandwidth of 2.4 kHz. Right from the start I decided to add an AM bandwidth and substitute the SSB filter. International Radio (INRAD) in Oregon sells high quality 8-pole crystal filters for many radios, including the FT-920. For an additional expenditure of $210, I installed INRAD's 1.8 kHz SSB filter and their 6 kHz AM. Both have shape factors of 1 to 1.5 and ultimate rejection of 95db or greater. The INRAD filters were reported to be a "killer" filter arrangement for the FT-920, and I've found they indeed are top performers. In fact, I wouldn't have bought the FT-920 if the upgrade filters from INRAD were not available... they truly make the difference in tough DXing circumstances. INRAD also has a 2.1 kHz filter for the FT-920. The quality of INRAD's filters surpasses what Yaesu offers as optional filters.
The useful IF shift enables surprising recovery of bass frequencies with the narrow 1.8 kHz bandwidth. However, extended prgm listening is best done with the 6 kHz AM filter (whose tight shape factor gives very good adjacent channel rejection even though the passband is 6 kHz).
Many further details and comments (from an amateur radio operator viewpoint) can be found at the following helpful URL. It contains one ham's journal of experiences with the radio since June 1997, and links to other online FT-920 reviews: http://www.wm7d.net/hamradio/ft920.html
For general features and specifications, the Texas Towers website is better than Yaesu's official web presence:
International Radio's website is: http://www.qth.com/inrad/
There are a number of other attention-getting ham transceivers (check out ICOM's FT-756 with its computer-like LCD monitor panel) that at first glance might appeal to the SWBC DXer. I recommend caution--and much research--before taking the route I did when buying a ham transceiver for receive-only use. However, the FT-920 with INRAD filters installed merits serious consideration.
© Copyright 1998 - Mark A. Downing (WM7D)