Review of the Tecsun S-2000 Receiver for Ham Radio Listening

If you are starting out with the intention of listening in to Ham Radio users all around the world, this sturdy set is the business. Even for a beginner like me, it is simple and intuitive to use, as well as being very sensitive and able to pick up signals very clearly from all across Europe – and even (less clearly) from as far away as Southern Australia.

To begin with, I found it handy that this set has the option of working off batteries, so I can place it where I like (in my attic) to pick up the best signal. It works very well using its own telescopic aerial, although the addition of a simple clip-on external aerial (around £7) dangled near an open window can pull in even more signals.

The Tecsun S-2000 offers Single Side Band (SSB) on Short Wave and it is here that most Ham users can be heard. There is a control for SSB BFO  which enables the user to fine tune so that a distorted voice can be made audible, and a Squelch knob can be tuned to clear any extraneous noises, often resulting in very high quality listening. I find that when I am using the set’s own aerial the RF Gain controller is best set to automatic, but the addition of an external aerial brings in greater interference along with greater signals, and this control comes into its own in fading this out when picking up a weak or distant signal. Basically, it’s a case of twiddling around until you get the sound you want.

I have mostly used this receiver on High Frequency Bands, particularly 20 metres, to listen to Ham users from Europe and beyond, and also on 40 metres. If you want to pick up DXing (long distant calls) this receiver is ideal. One particular feature I have found useful for this purpose is the handles on the front, because I end up tilting the set as I fine tune in to signals – if you use this set as I have, you will soon see what I mean.

This receiver has a whole host of other options and features which I haven’t alluded to simply because I have not required them for my purposes. There are sockets for a whole range of aerials to be attached, which I have not found necessary. You can set a Sleep Timer, an Alarm, and Scan and Store numerous stations. If you are looking for any stations on Short Wave, this set is for you. Used on FM for a regular station, such as Classic FM, the sound quality is excellent. But if, like me, you are listening out for Ham operators, bear in mind that this receiver does not extend to the 2 metre and 70cm (VHF and UHF) Bands where you can listen in to Ham users in your immediate locality (more about which in a future post). And also remember that this set is a receiver only, not a transceiver, so if you have your licence and are looking to transmit as well as receive, the Tecsun S-2000 is not for you.

Finally – and you can decide for yourselves if this is important or not – the Tecsun S-2000 is aesthetically pleasing and gives the Ham Radio beginner a feeling of really entering into the hobby of Amateur Radio without demanding any technical expertise to enjoy using it.

At time of posting, the Tecsun S-2000 is available on Amazon for £299.95, although I was able to get it more cheaply on eBay, so worth looking there too.

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Oh, there’s an Exam! (Moving beyond Short Wave Listening)

At the moment I am a Short Wave Listener – and a novice one at that. But of course the more one listens on Ham Bands, the more tempted one is to join the fun. There is only one problem (well, it’s a problem for me) which is that you need to get a licence before you are allowed to do so. This makes complete sense, because Ham Radio users can only operate on specified frequencies for the purpose of communicating with other amateur users, they are not permitted to broadcast what they like where they like, or chaos on the airwaves would ensue. Also, as they may be using powerful transmitters, they need to know how to do so safely and considerately. So it’s no different than being expected to pass a driving theory and practical test before getting your licence to drive a vehicle on the roads.

For those of you who want to move ahead of where I am and get your Foundation Licence, the best place to start is by obtaining a copy of Foundation Licence Now! by Alan Betts, which details everything you need to know to go about getting your licence (and first Call Sign). You can also find out where a course is being run in your locality, along with other useful information for beginners, from The Radio Society of Great Britain (rsgb.org). Basically, there will be a practical training course/assessment and a short exam (multiple choice questions), and these can usually be undertaken at an Amateur Radio Club.

Well, I’ll admit to being totally intimidated by the exam because things technical are a closed book to me. But my more sensible friends point out that most of the technical basics are general knowledge and elementary science, and the fact that I have gone through life without learning enough to enable me to wire up a plug does me no credit – but there it is. I have never aspired to more than being able to ensure that I put the right cable in the right socket without melting anything.

So I am not here to advise anyone on how to get their Foundation Licence (there are also Intermediate and Full Licences which can be obtained), just to point out that it is required before you move from Short Wave Listening to being a Ham Radio Operator. But I would be very interested to hear from anyone who is setting about obtaining their licence, and wish them every success.

What to expect if you are new to Short Wave Listening (SWL)

If, like me, you are completely new to Short Wave Listening, there will be a few moments when the jargon you hear on Ham Bands is a bit bewildering. My first listening was on 40 metres (7000-7200 kHz) and 20 metres (14000-14350 kHz). Hearing a number of references to “Italy” I thought – Ah! I’m listening to someone from Italy – until they replaced that with “India” in their sequence and made me wonder. What I was hearing were Call Signs, spelled out using the Phonic Alphabet* for clarity. A Call Sign is a series of (usually five or six) letters and numbers which is the unique identity of the licensed caller. I soon worked out that the prefix of each Call Sign told me where the person was calling from. The “I” prefix did indeed tell me that the caller was in Italy, even if they used the phonetic “India”. All the Call Signs I have heard starting with “D” Delta have been from Germany, whilst “G” Golf (or, confusingly, Germany) invariably means that I am listening to someone from the UK. There are lists available online which detail which prefix denotes which country, and it’s helpful to have one pinned on the wall by your receiver so you can identify where the call you are listening to comes from.

One very handy website is QRZ.COM (QRZ “Who is calling me”). Whenever I have logged a particularly interesting caller I can enter the Call Sign into “Search” on QRZ.COM and if that Call Sign is registered there I will see all sorts of information about the person. Often this includes a photograph of the transceiver and other equipment being used, some impressive aerials, along with the name and location of the caller. To begin with, it is exciting to see just how far away the caller I have picked up and listened to is. Searching a Call Sign beginning with VK I discovered that the person I had been listening to was in Southern Australia. It is a matter of some satisfaction to me that although my internet is so slow as to be virtually unusable, and my mobile signal only works occasionally if I hang my phone out of an attic window at a peculiar angle, I can apparently pick up the radio transmissions of individuals in distant places whilst I am sitting in a comfortable chair with my radio receiver on a coffee table.

Whilst it is nice to listen in to a good old chat between two Ham Radio users and learn a bit about where they are living, something else that a new SWL will hear a lot of are just brief contacts between individuals Calling CQ DX (long distance) or DXing. The gist of this seems to be that the user wants to see just how far away their transmissions are being picked up and how effective their Ham Radio set-up is, sometimes as part of a competition. For me, as a SWL, this can mean listening in to a contact between two people in very far flung places, although depending on their signals, I will sometimes only hear one end of the exchange and only know where the second person is from the first repeating their Call Sign.

And there is always something worth listening to. For example, this weekend it will be Mills on the Air Weekend (13-14 May 2017) when amateur radio users will set up at various mills to coincide with National Mills Weekend, and I will be listening out to see how many UK mills I can hear from, as well as any participating mills in the Netherlands.

Update 14/05/2017 – Heard calls from Ham Radio operators at these windmills:

GB1 BWM – Bursledon Windmill, Southampton

GB6 CW – Cromer Windmill

GB6 MW – Meopham Windmill

GB8 OMB – The Old Mill, Coventry

*A  Alpha, B Bravo, C Charlie, D Delta, E Echo, F Foxtrot, G Golf, H Hotel, I India, J Juliet, K Kilo, L Lima, M Mike, N November, O Oscar, P Papa, Q Quebec, R Romeo, S Sierra, T Tango, U Uniform, V Victor, W Whisky, X X-Ray, Y Yankee, Z Zulu. (Expect a few variations such as I Italy, G German, Q Queen)

A Soft Start to Short Wave Listening

My image of a Ham Radio user always focused on someone seated in front of phalanx of wartime-style radios with lots of dials to twiddle and heavy earphones, frantically tapping out an indecipherable message in Morse code. Either that or someone who had constructed their own radio equipment with fiendish ingenuity. The need for enormous aerials also featured in my vision. For this reason I always assumed that there was no easy entry for me into the hobby. But of course my image was wrong, or at least wildly outdated. These days a would-be Short Wave Listener (SWL), and even someone who wants to transmit communications, can do so with a compact receiver or even a handheld device, available online from places like Amazon or eBay.

To transmit using Ham Radio you need to obtain a licence (more of which in a future post) but to start listening you just need the right kind of radio receiver. My regular radio tunes into favourite stations, such as Classic FM, but it is not set up to receive Amateur Radio users. What I needed was a receiver which incorporated Single Side Band (SSB) as well as AM and FM. Also, Ham Radio users are only permitted to transmit on certain wavebands. I guess this is because they don’t want major broadcasters continually interrupted by amateur users trying to connect with each other, and vice-versa. So there are rules about where you can transmit in the same way that there are rules about how and where we can cycle on roads. We cannot ride a bicycle willy-nilly down a motorway or chaos would ensue. So you will find amateur users on allocated bands, such as 40 metres, rather like cyclists on a dedicated cycle path.

The nice thing about buying a radio which picks up SSB is that if you buy one and find that SWL is not for you, you are not left with a redundant piece of kit – you have a high quality little radio on which you can listen to your favourite regular stations. My first receiver was the compact Tecsun PL-660 Short Wave World Band Radio with SSB. At the time of writing you can pick one up for £78 on eBay or £110.80 on Amazon. And then you can have your first shot at listening to the Ham Bands. For starters, select SW (Short Wave) and then press the SSB button until LSB (Lower Side Band) shows on the display and tune the radio to 7100 kHz (40m). Gently tune up and down between 7100 and 7200. Chances are you’ll hear someone from Germany or Italy calling CQ (more or less translated as seek-you) and looking for a contact. If the voice is distorted, twiddle the SSB BFO (Beat Frequency Oscillator*) tuner on the side of the radio to fine tune. The people you can hear will probably exchange call signs (more about which in a future post) and you might hear references such as “You are 5 and 9” – indicating that they are receiving a clear and strong signal from their contact. A contact might end with “73” as a goodbye. And that’s where you start. Soon you will be exploring other Bands and hearing callers from as far away as Russia, Kazakhstan and even Australia, and listening in on chats about the places where the radio amateurs are living.

*Don’t know what terms like BFO, SSB, LSB etc. mean? Nope, me neither – don’t worry, you don’t need to know how or why it works, you just get used to what it does in practice.

Dabbling my toes in the shallow end of Ham Radio

This blog is intended to encourage and inform people like me, who have no background in electronics or technology of any kind but want to dabble their toes in the shallow end of the Ham Radio Hobby, starting with SWL (Short Wave Listening) and perhaps progressing to greater things. My problem on first taking an interest (I read lots of Post-Apocalypse-type books and having a form of communication which can last after everything else has gone down is appealing) is that all the books I picked up seemed to assume an understanding of the very basics, which are so obvious to serious Ham Radio enthusiasts that they take it for granted that we were all awake in our school physics lessons (I wasn’t). And, most of all, even in the age of Twitter, which connects us to people all over the globe, I want to share the fun of discovering that you can listen directly to people, independently of a sophisticated modern communications network.