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Softrock Software Defined Radio Kits

PostPosted: Mon Jan 17, 2011 1:24 am
by N6EV
I bought and completed two Softrock SDR kits over the Christmas break. I highly recommend these fun and inexpensive kits. Since I've had kit building experience in the past with quite a few QRP rigs.. I jumped right into the Softrock RX Ensemble II kit, and another RX Ensemble II for 6 meters.

Softrock (KB9YIG) currently offers three kits on his website ( http://www.kb9yig.com/ ).
  • The Softrock Lite II is a single band receiver which comes with all of the components to build on one of the following bands: 160m, 80m, 40m, 30m or 20m. At only $20, it's a fantastic bargan and a great beginner project for those not familiar with SDR, or soldering small SMT components (more on that later).
  • The Softrock Ensemble RX II is a multiband HF receiver that covers either LF, 180kHz through 3.0 MHz, operation or for HF, 1.8 MHz through 30 MHz operation in 4 selectable bands each. Again, all components for building either the LF or HF are included with the kit. At $57, it's another fantastic bargan. I found the construction very easy.. and with the great online instructions (more later), the kit could be easily tackled by a kit newcomer.
  • The Softrock RXTX Ensemble Transciever is a 1 watt SDR transceiver that can be built for one of the following four band groups: 160m, 80m/40m, 30m/20m/17m or 15m/12m/10m. Once again, all components are included to build any of the four band groups. At $74, this is a very popular kit. I don't have first hand knowledge of this kit, but judging by its popularity, I'd say it's a winner too.

As mentioned, each kit does have a handfull of surface mount technology (SMT) components. These kits were my first exposure to soldering such devices. However, the online builder instructions / notes provided by WB5RVZ ( http://www.wb5rvz.com/ ) have some excellent tutorials on soldering these devices, as well as every other aspect of these kits. His site is a must see if you're interested in these kits. Before you buy, you can read through the entire build with pictures to see what you're in for. In the end, you will probably want to get a pair of lighted magnifying glasses, and the thinest conical tip you can find for your soldering iron. Taking your time and examining your work under high magnification will prove well worth the effort in the end. In my case, each kit worked the first time with no troubleshooting or rework. One other thing to mention about the WB5RVZ website / build instructions.. it also provides section by section test checkout procedure.. so you check your work with resistance, current, voltage and received signal measurements as you proceed.

Honestly, prior to these kits I had little interest in SDR. My primary reason for diving into these was to activate a Reverse Beacon ( http://www.ReverseBeacon.net/ ) on 6 meters. I've achieved that goal.. and now have both HF and 6 meter reverse beacons active at various times. Aside from the Reverse Beacon software, the available software to run the Softrocks is varied, very high quality, and just about always free to download. It provides an interesting SWL perspective you won't get from a standard box radio. Am I ready to give up my box radios? No way. I still can't see using an SDR as my main or only rig. But, they have provided a lot of fun listening.. and intriguing monitoring of conditions across the entire band segment (96KHz at a time in my case). I"m sure the transciever RXTX version of the kit is just as fun allowing the full experience of making contacts.

So.. now the drawbacks. First, these kits are in very high demand because of their high quality and low price... and they are not constantly available for purchase. Tony, KB9YIG produces these kits as a side hobby. His efforts are astounding... sending thousands of these kits out over time. If you check his website, more often than not, it will say to check back soon as he only populates the site with a fixed number of kits at a time, based on how many he thinks he can ship in a week. The trick is to monitor the Softrock Yahoo Group ( http://groups.yahoo.com/group/softrock40/ ) where Tony will make announcements prior to his adding kits to the site. Once you know that trick.. just have patience and pounce when he makes the annoucement. I only had to wait a week before the window opened and I ordered.

Second drawback.. and probably the case with most SDR kits.. most times the difficulty isn't getting the kit hardware to work.. it's getting the software to work with your particular computer / operating system / sound card. I had little to no issues getting a program called HDSDR ( http://www.hdsdr.de/index.html ) it to work with my motherboard based sound card and Windows Vista. Be sure to read the WB5RVZ site regarding software setup before you attempt. The Softrock Yahoo Group also have every answer you will need through search. Some of the software available only works with Windows XP, so be careful what you choose. There are plenty of combinations available.. and I've never heard of anyone not getting it to play eventually.

So, that's about all I know. Again, these kits were a lot of fun to construct. The first one took about 4 days on and off. The second kit took a day after I caught on. Tony does offer occasionally built and tested rigs (these go quick!) that he does for quality control of the parts. He says he can whip one out in about 3 to 4 hours. Amazing for a 70something year old. I know my 47 year old eyes have a hard enough time keeping up with the component values in the kit. A 10x magnifier eye piece really came in handy.

Let me know if you'd like more info / help. If you'd like to play with an online SDR to get the 'feel' for how to operate one.. you can jump to http://www.websdr.org/ to tune around. Note: The available software for Softrock provides much much more flexibility than what you see with WebSDR. This will just introduce you to the waterfall / spectrum / tuning aspects of SDR and just touches capabilities.

Enjoy!