Monday, November 13, 2017

Powersound Pickups -- the Ibanez pickups everyone loves to hate

I have never been a equipment snob.

I've never been particularly impressed with popular, name brand equipment, whether in my radio hobby, or in my music hobby. It's just not a part of who I am. I have always had the belief that you can make do with moderate equipment -- you just learn to work with it.

I've especially applied this notion to guitars.

I've heard a lot of crap music being made on Gibsons and Fenders, even ones equipped with name-brand aftermarket pickups like Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, and EMG. For example, half the mediocre hair bands from the 1980's used excellent, high tech, high dollar equipment, but not all of their music has stood the test of time. The good hair bands (and there were a few -- Ratt being one of them) used high tech guitars also... but that's beside the point. The high tech didn't make the music good -- the musicians playing the guitars did.

Eddie Van Halen revolutionised music with a throw-together guitar and there is a suspicion that the pickup installed in the guitar he used on the first Van Halen album was a Mighty Mite (apparently a budget aftermarket pickup company), albeit modified. I rest my case.

Another example is the blues guitar players from the 1930's through the 1950's, some of whom had cheaper guitars. Now that dry thump sound of plywood acoustics is sought after by some acoustic blues players. And famous slide guitarist Ry Cooder's favorite guitar is a Teisco (a cheap Japanese brand from the 1970's -- they weren't bad guitars; sometimes all they needed were minor modifications and they would play quite well).

My favorite guitar -- a Daimaru. Probably made at the same factory in Japan that made Teiscos. Rebuilt, Decca pickup covers removed, bobbins painted black.
It's just a fact that you can make good sounding music on second or third rate equipment -- it's just a matter of getting the best from it.

Recently I received a free guitar. An Ibanez Gio. Ibanez make good guitars, and the Gio series is their budget line. Evenso, it is well made. The neck is thin and easy to play, the frets are awesome and the fit and finish is good on the guitar. The tuners are a budget variety, but they hold tune well and I oil them about once a month with light oil, which helps them tune smoother and will probably extend their life by a decade or so. Some day I may put some Gotohs on it but that day is a long way off...

The guitar is a pleasant color -- a purplish shade of metallic red with maroon overtones that I believe Ibanez calls "Magenta Crush."
My Gio is a GRX40, a 'superstrat' copy with a volume and tone control, a 5 way switch, two single coil pickups and a humbucker in the bridge position. The pickups are Powersound pickups, which -- if you go by what is said on the internet -- are terrible pickups. I disagree.

From the first time I started to play the Gio, I had to adjust it to my playing. The low E bridge saddle needed to be filed shorter to intonate and resonate well on low D (I have the guitar tuned to D-standard). I filed the bottoms of the height adjustment screws flatter to give the saddles more positive contact with the bridge plate; I filed the tops of the adjustment screws down a little to keep them from digging into my hand while playing; I had to lower the slots on the nut to get the lower register chords to intonate better (I press rather hard on the strings). I tightened the tremolo springs all the way down to bring out the sustain of the guitar. It sings.

Then there were the pickups. The single coil Powersounds had a scooped quality -- they are very clear, with lots of treble, adequate bass, and have very high definition. Some guys on the 'net dislike Powersound single coils because they "don't have character." I've found they have their own sort of character, and it's a bright sort of neutral, but very usable and very musical sound.  I can get a close tone to 70's guitarist Robin Trower's strat tone with them (backing off the volume and treble a bit, and running it through a Boss phaser and Boss distortion), and I can get a good, clear, jazzy tone out of the single coils also -- which especially shines through when using effects boxes, like phaser, chorus, and echo.

Pinch harmonics work well with the pickups -- the definition and treble response brings them out easily. You can 'pinch' whole chords and they will ring and shimmer nicely.

When running the guitar through effects boxes the definition that the Powersound single coils exhibit works well -- sometimes with effects a guitar's sound can get muddied, but it isn't so with the pickups on my Gio. With the Powersounds, the almost transparent nature of the pickups -- even when distorted -- makes the effects really sing out, especially modulation and delay effects like chorus and phaser.
A close up of the Powersound humbucker in my GRX-40 Ibby Gio.
The Powersound humbucker is a different story. It is a Super Distortion clone with a ceramic magnet, and has fairly high output -- it breaks up very quickly and easily. It took a bit for me to get used to it, as my other humbucker equipped guitars are bluesy sounding rock guitars with moderately high output that have a different 'breaking up' point. The Powersound humbucker has more of an 80's metal sound. I found it works well through effects, and has definition and clarity, but it's anything but bluesy. It will roar, but it doesn't really 'sing' unless you really pick hard, or pick very softly.... It sounds great when you pick softly, and sounds good full-out -- but there is a very thin threshold between the two that takes getting used to.

I found that it mixed well with the other two pickups, not overpowering them. Backing it up from the strings cleared up the tone a lot. I have my Powersound humbucker about 4-5 mm from the strings. Any closer, it breaks up too quickly, making it less usable for anything but just full-out 80's metal sounds.

An old color pic I took of my Ibanez Gio GRX-40 -- it has a non-standard Magenta Crush color and was made in China in 2000, when Nu-Metal was king, Van Halen's sound was still sought after by everybody, and high output on bargain pickups was the way to go.

Still, even after backing the pickup away from the strings, the Powersound humbucker just wasn't something I wanted to use a lot. Then two things happened: I got into some of the chorus/echo guitar music of the 80's, where the guitars aren't so distorted, and I discovered a distorted guitar sound that this Powersound humbucker imitated quite well: that of a 70's Flying V.

As for the first discovery, I found that by playing with the amp on a cleaner setting, the pickup has a good tone, especially through a chorus and delay. Pinch harmonics really sing and warble. The pickup responds to differences in attack quite well. You can get that 80's humbucker / chorus / delay sound fairly accurately. You can pick very lightly and the clean tones sing out really well, if you have a good amp with some compression built in.

The Powersound humbucker's more neutral sounding tone highlights the effects really well.

If you pick harder, you get an 80's metal/rock tone rather easily also.

The other discovery -- the Flying V imitation -- that happened by accident.

Now, Flying V's are cool looking guitars. But every recording I've heard of one sounded rather thin -- like a humbucker without much wood around it: which, actually is the case with a V. There isn't much wood around the pickups themselves. Compared to a Les Paul or even an SG, Flying V's sound kinda flat.

One of my favorite bands from the 1970's was a band most people haven't heard of: Ian Lloyd and the Stories. They had a hit song called Brother Louie, an R&B pop track, but their albums sounded like a different band entirely. They had songs that were almost baroque rock, and other songs that were progressive space rock. The guitar player for the Stories was a lesser known but accomplished player named Steve Love. He played in the Stories, and then left the Stories and played with Jobriath, an up and coming glam rocker from New York City who never quite made it. After his stint with Jobriath, Steve Love faded into obscurity.

Steve Love played a Flying V, apparently (at least according to a video I've seen of him) with a Super Distortion bridge pickup installed.

One day I was listening to the Stories' song "Please Please", one in which Steve Love has some key guitar parts. And there it was: that sound. A thinnish, but intense, steely tone. A sound that was ice-cold, but biting and snarly. Anything but bluesy, but still cool. Even though it wasn't a sound I would seek out, it was one I liked hearing.

I realised it sounded just like the humbucker on my Gio. I strapped on my guitar and played along with the CD. The tone was quite similar. Remarkably similar. It gave me a new appreciation for the "cheap" Powersound humbucker equipped on my guitar. It was a sound I probably wouldn't seek out, but it was still very usable. And different from my other guitars.

An Ibanez 882 with Matao Strat guts -- I built it myself. One of my best sounding guitars. Basically, a thrift store and Radio Shack parts special. Cheap can sound good.
I guess my purpose for writing this tome is that while some musos knock certain instruments, I think you can get a decent tone out of almost ANY instrument. Every instrument, just like every person, has a unique voice, and you just have to find it and work with it. It may not be your cup of tea -- the steelish snarl of a V isn't my favorite guitar voicing -- but it can be usable, and even something you can work with, and you can grow to like it enough to express yourself with it.

You can even write songs around it.

So whenever I want a thinnish, steely snarl like a 70's Flying V, I know where to go to get that sound: the Powersound humbucker on my Ibby Gio.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

How to quickly fix a SANGEAN PR-D5 Power Button malfunction -- and other easy fixes

The Sangean PR-D5, an excellent MW/AM and FM mini boombox radio.

About two years ago I bought a Sangean PR-D5, which I have mentioned several times on several posts here on this blog. I have a blog post about the radio, describing a slight modification I did to my PR-D5 to add a mono jack for better headphone volume, where I also describe the qualities of the radio.

It is an excellent radio -- my best overall performer on MW/AM, and it is very pleasant to use to listen to FM stereo. I use mine for several hours every night while creative writing.

About half a year ago or so, I noticed that sometimes when I hit the power button, the radio would not turn on as instantly as it used to. At first, I ignored it. Then, I tried changing the batteries, thinking perhaps lower voltage messed with the button function somehow -- lower voltage can cause the SiLabs DSP IF chip to not want to fire up, according to the SiLabs datasheet.

Switching to new batteries helped temporarily.

Then after a couple weeks the issue cropped up again. I squirted tuner cleaner down the sides of the power button. It seemed to help, but perhaps it was just me thinking that. The glitch would still happen now and then: I would hit the power button, and the radio would turn to the 'Alarm' setting function. I would hit the power button again, and the radio would turn on.

Finally, I did some research. There is one other guy who mentioned in a review that his STEP/BAND button will sometimes not switch bands but instead will switch stations in memory -- it is as if when he hits one button, the radio thinks he is hitting a different button in the lower row.

That was the same issue my radio had, except when I hit the Power button the radio thought I was hitting another button in the top row -- the 'Alarm' button.

The fact we both were having some button malfunctions -- but the buttons still actually worked -- pointed to a firmware issue, instead of a physical button issue.

The buttons themselves still feel solid -- just as solid as they did the day I bought my PR-D5.

As for the buttons, they are installed in a button plate, that is secured to the front panel of the radio, which you can see in this Sangean photo of the CLEAR PR-D5:
Here you can see the button plate, secured to the front of the radio. It appears to be one solid plate, with the buttons embedded in it. Clear PR-D5's sure look cool! (Sangean photo)

The button panel is that white plate in the front-center of the radio. It is fairly well secured to the front of the radio.

Naturally, whenever you press a button and something goes awry, you're going to think it's the button itself. But buttons on digital radios like the Sangean PR-D5 are little more than software toggles.

Because the buttons on the PR-D5 actually work, even when they act up, I don't think the issue is the buttons themselves. If they were to stop working, they would be completely dead. But that isn't the case. The buttons themselves are indeed working. When I hit the power button -- something happens. When the guy on that review hit the STEP/BAND button, something happened. The problem is that what happened wasn't what was supposed to happen.

Here you can see the series of buttons used by the PR-D5 (schematic provided by kind courtesy of Sangean). They work off of resistors. There is very little that can break. If a button breaks, it's not going to work, period. The fact that the buttons work indicates the firmware can glitch if powered up for months, and all it needs is a periodic reboot.
The front buttons on the PR-D5 are a series of switches, that work with resistors. The microprocessor 'reads' the resistance and then performs the function you want the radio to do. I recently was able to receive a schematic of the PR-D5 from Sangean, and as one can see, the 'Alarm' button is right next to the "Power" button. Unless the switch is actually broken (it isn't) or the resistor is broken (it isn't), the problem is the microprocessor's reading the resistance wrong. 

This hints at a firmware problem -- a glitch with the program in the microprocessor that runs the radio. Perhaps when the PR-D5 is powered up for a long time -- whether you have batteries in it for a while, or have the AC adaptor plugged in for a long time, the firmware can act up.
Re-setting the Sangean PR-D5 is as simple as pulling the AC adaptor plug and removing one battery, and letting it sit for maybe 30 seconds. This fixes button glitches -- at least, it has fixed my radio. The extra jack in the center-left of my PR-D5 is the mono headphone jack I installed -- there is a blog post on that minor modification elsewhere on this blog.

The other night, when the radio's power button lagged again, I RE-SET MY RADIO.

I unplugged the AC adaptor, and removed a battery, and I gave it about 30 seconds with no power available to the radio whatsoever. As soon as I plugged in the battery, the radio beeped, the readout went through its re-set phase, and then the clock went blank (it does this during a re-set).

Then I plugged the battery back in and tried the Power button.

The radio came on instantly. Just like the first time I fired it up when I got it at the store! And it has come on instantly the past four days since then (there still is a lag for the audio to come up, which is normal -- the SiLabs chip itself takes 110 milliseconds to initialise).

When you RE-SET the radio, it resets everything, except apparently the memories. My 10 memories are still the same after RE-SETTING it.

So far, my PR-D5 has no new power button issues. There is no lag before it fires up.  It doesn't show the 'alarm set' icon on the display.

My guess is that the radio needs to be RE-SET now and then. The 'brain' needs its registers cleared.

So, if you are one of the people whose PR-D5's (or PR-D15's, for that matter) have buttons that act up, try RE-SETTING your radio by pulling the AC adaptor plug from the side of the radio, and pulling out the batteries (or even one battery), and give it 30 seconds or more. This fix might work for other similar Sangean and Sangean-made radios with SiLabs chips inside.

I still think the PR-D5 is an excellent MW/AM and FM radio, and worth the money. It seems to be solidly built, and I use mine every night. I would recommend it to any MW/DXer or person who wants a good radio to listen to AM and FM stereo on, whether at work or at home.

We DXers and radio enthusiasts tend to leave batteries in our radios for long periods of time, or keep them plugged into the wall for a long time -- sometimes the radio is seeing power for months. I know my PR-D5 was. It's been plugged in, or had batteries in it for months. This last time around, it had batteries in it, or the AC adaptor plugged into it, continuously since the Solar Eclipse on August 21st, nearly two months to the day.

This means the radio's microprocessor / 'brain' chip is always working, because with these kinds of radios, the microprocessor has to be already working for the radio to be switched on.

The power button on these radios is always 'on', in a way. The brain of the radio is ON so long as the radio is seeing power, and when you press the Power button, the brain of the radio is reading it and then it actually switches the rest of the radio on when you hit the power button. The power function is a firmware function. All the Power button is, is a toggle which the firmware in the microprocessor 'sees' -- and when the microprocessor 'sees' the button pressed, the microprocessor turns the radio on.

It's possible that some radios just need to be RE-SET now and then, and the newer PR-D5's may be one of those radios. The brain, or the firmware needs a short respite, and a re-boot accomplishes that task.

I'm no expert but that's my guess. And so far this RE-SET fixed has worked with my radio.
The Sangean PR-D5 is a bit bassy at times through some headphones designed for extra bass response. I mostly use a cheap set of dollar store headphones that have a flat response. The station the radio is tuned to in this picture, 790 KJRB The Bear, is an active rock station out of Spokane, Washington that comes in very well most nights.
A pic of my mono headphone jack in use. I have another blog post on the easy installation of a mono jack onto a PR-D5, for easier MW/AM DXing -- but I never placed a pic of the jack in use. Here 'tis. :-)
The blog post on adding a mono headphone jack (along with an overview of the PR-D5) can be found here:

RE-SETTING / RE-BOOTING the radio may work with other Sangean and Sangean-built models that have similar button issues (the famous CCRadio is a Sangean-made model, and I've seen at least one review where a guy said the power button on his CCRadio was acting up).

Remember, we DXers usually have batteries in our radios 24/7, or have them plugged in 24/7. Perhaps re-booting the radios now and then help them act better. :-)

For those who run their PR-D5's just off of batteries, this malfunction may not happen at all, because I have found that with frequent use, a set of batteries in a PR-D5 lasts maybe 3 weeks at best. If you're only using batteries, every time you change them, you're resetting the radio. That would mean you are re-setting the radio every three weeks or so. This may explain why many PR-D5 users don't have such issues. For those of us who have our PR-D5's plugged in a lot, and also have batteries in the radio -- the microprocessor may be seeing power for months. Hence, a need to re-boot the radio now and then....

A picture of the two shims I cut out of a bottle lid (from a large bottle of protein powder) using a pair of small shrub cutting shears. The shims keep the C cells from moving around inside the battery compartment, which can cause crackles on the low MW band when you move the PR-D5 around, nulling out stations. I have the shims offset because the battery door closes better, without forcing it shut, and they still get the job done. :-)

The past few evenings I have used the PR-D5 for DXing the MW/AM band for an hour or so, and I've had two new loggings on the lower end of the band, during partially Auroral conditions (590 KSUB Cedar City, Utah; and 540 KVIP, Redding, California).

While turning the radio to null some stations and increase the signals of others I noticed some crackling during movement of the radio. I opened the battery box and found that a couple of the C cells had shifted.

It turns out it was the batteries -- not all C batteries are the same size, and some can move around inside the radio's compartment. I added two small plastic shims inside the back of the battery compartment, and it eliminated the problem. To allow for the battery door to shut without forcing it I set them a little off center of each other. PROBLEM SOLVED.

Overall, this MW DX season has started oddly. I have heard some unusual stations here and there, but the band fades out way early.

The cold weather began to hit at night during the last week of September, but our Autumn here in the Seattle area hasn't started hitting until the last two weeks or so. September gave us some warm weather, with some days in the 70's F -- but the nights started getting cold, more around 45 or so F.

While the good weather held out, I finished up on some yard maintenance, trimming hedges and brush and cutting some tree limbs with an electric chainsaw. The leaves in the hills didn't start turning until about a week ago -- which is about 2 weeks late. But then, the trees greened out about a week late this Spring, so I guess in a way everything is on schedule. :-)

Here are a few pictures from September and early October. I will put more in another blog post later this week:

Earlier this year, in September, the weather was fine enough outside to do yardwork and listen to a football game on my Sony Sports Walkman, while out cutting brush and a few tree limbs. I had the Sony Sports boombox blasting the game on my front porch, also.
The leaves on an ornamental maple just outside the office I work in, in Seattle. Within a week they were gone, because of wind.

The Oregon Big Leaf maples alongside the Cedar River Trail were more colorful. I took this pic about a week ago. Fall has finally arrived, about a week or two late.
I put up my Mickey Mouse pumpkin early this year.

The leaves are beginning to turn on the trees alongside a muddy Cedar River. Photo taken one week ago, on a Canon digital snapshot camera.
A pumpkin from Halloween 2016.

I hope this article may help some Sangean PR-D5 owners, and I hope all you PR-D5 aficionados out there have a good DX season in the Northern Hemisphere. Also, hope all of you are having a good start of your holiday season. Here in the U.S., Halloween beckons!

Ball Cat says have a great Autumn!

CC 10-27-2017

Addendum, 10-29-2017.
So far the 'fix' for my PR-D5 is still holding -- my power button still works excellently. I am certain that the re-set/re-boot solved the Power button issue on my radio.

Addendum, 11-2-2017.
So far the fix is still working. The power button still goes instantly on.

Addendum, 11-7-2017.
So far the fix is still working. I'm 99% certain re-booting the PR-D5 solved the issue.

Addendum, 11-16-2017.
Fix is still working.... Hope all are having a good November.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A SONY XDR-S10HDiP HD RADIO: New Thrift Store Find!

I was recently out driving to and from a small city out in the south county (Buckley, in SE King County) when I passed my favorite thrift store, a Goodwill located out in the exurbs (an area that used to be waaaaay out in the sticks). This Goodwill is one where I've gotten great deals on Sony Walkmen before -- including my Sports Walkman (pictured in another article here).

I went in to check out their books and electronics. Imagine my surprise when I saw a Sony HD Radio for sale there for $12.99!

The radio itself looks like a rounded, plug-in boombox, or massive clock radio. It has stereo speakers and apparently pushes them at a maximum of 4 Watts. It has no provision for batteries, and comes with a long AC cord with a large wall-wart attached.

Just seeing the words "SONY" and "HD RADIO" -- along with the low price, made me want to buy it.

A local HD AM station, KFNQ 1090, which is a CBS Sports Radio station. The little 'HD' icon (in the upper left part of the LCD display) shows that the radio was decoding and playing the station in HD, which sounded very much like FM, or a clean online stream.

For those overseas who don't know about HD Radio, it is the version of digital radio broadcasting in the U.S. Overseas, DAB is the digital broadcasting method, and it is fairly popular in some countries (Norway, Denmark, and the UK being examples). In other countries DAB is still in the building stages. No one knows if it will truly replace FM in those countries.

Here in the U.S. DAB was considered but rejected as a digital radio delivery system. There are just too many commercial broadcasters for DAB to work fairly. So they came up with HD Radio instead, a digital means of broadcasting using FM and AM analog subchannels -- the digital signals would share the same channel as the analog broadcast. It is also known as IBOC: In Band On Channel.

It seemed at the time to be the 'best of both worlds' -- Digital Radio would be available, but the regular analog FM and AM broadcasts would be mostly unaffected.

I have been curious about HD radio for a while, as I see it as the ultimate future of over the air radio here in the U.S. The main problem with HD Radio, when it started, was that there weren't many radios available, and the few I saw in the early 2000's were very expensive. Recently Sangean has come out with an affordable model, the HDR-16, which seems to be a decent performer. I've held off on buying one, because, frankly, I need another radio like I need another hole in the head.

The top of the Sony XDR-S10HDiP, showing the control buttons. The power button is underneath the remote that is still taped to the radio. In the very center of the top of the radio is a dock for IPods (remember those?) and IPhones.

Even though I have enough radios, when I saw a SONY HD radio for $12 at the local thrift store, I couldn't pass that by!

At the store, I plugged it in, and it worked. Of course, inside the store, there wasn't much FM or AM reception -- the radio needs an external antenna for both bands, and there wasn't any with the radio. But it worked, and that was enough reason for me to go ahead and buy it.

When I got it home, I set it on my makeshift workstand on the sunny front porch and plugged it in. The model number for this Sony is a long one: XDR-S10HDiP. According to the manual I found online, it is a radio Sony made in 2008.

So, now that we're in the second decade of the 21st Century, I have joined the first one, technologically.

As soon as the XDR radio switched on I tuned the FM band. Even without an external antenna, the XDR-S10HDiP received most of the local FM stations in standard FM -- I needed to rig up an antenna for it to get them better... Touching a 2 meter wire to the center conductor of the FM jack helped a lot. Then I switched over the AM band.

On the AM side a wire connected to the terminals on the back of the radio brought in all the local stations.
A picture of the back of the Sony HD radio. The radio is upside down in this picture. The FM antenna jack is a UHF one at the top; the AM antenna jack has a short piece of wire clipped to it (which I later replaced with 2 meters of hookup wire). I clipped the short length of wire just to see how the AM side works. There is apparently no internal antenna for the MW/AM band. The fan is to keep the radio cool -- the main chips apparently run a bit hot.

No sooner than I tuned to KKDZ 1250, which I knew broadcast in HD, it faded from mono analog AM to HD, and it sounded like an FM station! Then the call letters appeared on the display.

I was trying to figure out how to get HD on the radio when I tuned to one of the local two AM stations that have it, 1250 KKDZ, a station that plays South Asian programming from India and Pakistan mainly. KKDZ 1250 came in well. As I was photographing the radio on my front porch all of a sudden the sound of the station went from AM's boomy mono to an FM-like, high fidelity sound!

I was amazed. It doesn't sound 100 percent like FM -- you can tell there is some digital compression. But I was very impressed. The switch from analog to HD was like a quick fade, like fading from an AM station to an FM station.

Then I tuned the Sony to the other local HD AM station, 1090 KFNQ, which is CBS sports.

Once again, the radio was in standard AM mono for about 10 seconds, then all of a sudden it faded into high fidelity, FM-like sound. There wasn't any loss of programming, it was a clean fade. It was quite amazing to hear, at first. Whoever programmed the chips on this Sony knew what they were doing.

A couple nights ago, I tuned around on the Sony, with just a six foot (two meters) wire off the back of the antenna terminal, and heard most of the regional AM stations I can get on most of my radios, including stations from Oregon, California, Canada, and the graveyard channels. I didn't have a chance to try to truly DX with it, saving that for the next night.

The next night I tuned across the entire AM band with the XDR. To my surprise, with just the 2 meter wire connected to the AM antenna jack the XDR brought in DX stations like XERF and KCVR on 1570. 1570, like most of the X-band, is a DX test frequency here in the PNW U.S., as it is usually empty except for XERF down on the Mexican border.

To my surprise, XERF's oldies-ranchero music was audible on the Sony XDR, and some Spanish speech from KCVR Lodi, California's Deportes programming was also audible.

At night the XDR detected HD from stations like KSL 1160, Salt Lake City (causing the 'HD' indicator on the display to blink) -- but the signals weren't strong enough for the XDR to actually decode the HD. The Sony XDR has very good selectivity -- there was minimal splash from strong adjacent channels, and good, full sound.
A picture of the Sony XDR-S10HDiP bringing in KBRE 1660 Merced, California during the late afternoon, August 9th. It was just before 7 p.m., but the sun was still in the sky for another hour and a half. You can see one bar of signal in the upper left corner of the LCD readout. This was on six feet (two meters) of wire. The XDR series are very good on MW/AM.

Finally, just this morning I did a quick, short side-by-side test between the Sony XDR-S10HDiP and my Sangean PR-D5. The antenna I used with the Sony was the 6 ft. / 2 meter wire. The PR-D5 was using its own 200 mm internal antenna. It was a poor DX night with typical summer conditions. 1660 KBRE Merced, California (the station is about 850 miles away from here) came in S1-S2 with some peaks of S3 on the Sony. It was S1 to S2 with some peaks at about S2 on the PR-D5. I think much of the difference is the sound: the Sony has a slightly wider bandwidth.

And this test was with the Sony using merely 6 feet of wire.

When I looped the 2 meters of wire and connected each end to the terminals on the back of the radio, the XDR pulled in even more signals, with a lower noise level. The chipset inside this radio is remarkable on MW/AM.

I'm amazed that more MW DXers don't use the Sony XDR series of radios!

I had a chance to tune through the FM band earlier during the afternoon, and the Sony XDR pulls in all the stations my best FM radios will pull in, including three stations from Victoria, Canada, which aren't audible daily -- Victoria is about 100 air miles away, with some hills and other terrain in between them and my location.

With no external antenna only the strongest local FM stations came in. Then I pulled the 2 meter wire from the AM antenna terminal and pushed it into the center conductor of the FM antenna jack.

Bingo! The FM band was full of stations, including HD channels!

I got HD FM on many FM stations... Including 15 extra channels that aren't on the regular FM band. Kidz Bop radio, Radio Saigon, Radio Disney, an Oldies channel, a Jazz/Blues channel, a CBC channel (a Seattle station's HD-2), two extra Classical music channels, a Classic Country channel, and FMHD broadcasts of 5 Seattle area AM stations.

Overall I'm impressed with the Sony's performance.

When you tune into an FM station with HD, there is a 5-10 second lag as the radio tells you it is "Linking" -- then it comes in either in analog or HD. Sometimes the radio brings in the analog signal and then about 5 more seconds into hearing the station you hear a subtle difference in sound as the radio switches from analog FM to HD FM. The display changes from just showing the frequency to showing the call letters, as well as the HD channel number.

As you tune up and down the band on the Sony XDR you tune through the HD channels as well as analog. Tuning upwards you'll go through the station, then HD-2, then HD-3... and tuning downwards the radio will tune down through HD-3, HD-2, and then HD-1. HD-1 is always the FM station's main channel.

Unlike what I've read on the internet about some car radios that have HD, the transition from analog to HD on the Sony XDR is almost non-noticeable (except on HD AM, where there is a distinct change in sound, similar to switching from AM to FM). In fact, you have to listen for the transition to actually hear it.

Perhaps with car radios you can have dropouts, and the buffering causes a silence as the radio re-catches the HD signal. But with a stationary radio like the Sony XDR, there are no dropouts.

After doing some research, I learned a bit about how the Sony XDR works. It apparently is a cousin of the famous FM/AM tuner XDR-F1HD, which is popular with FM DXers all over the world. I haven't taken apart my radio, but from looking in through the fan hole I can tell that the XDR-S10HDiP has basically the same guts as the XDR-F1HD, except it is in a different box, with a 4 Watt amplifier and two speakers attached. As several radios in the XDR series are reported to have the same circuitry, and my XDR came out the same year as the XDR-F1HD, it's certain that the chips used are probably the same.

A view of the inside of the Sony XDR S10HDiP. It's very similar to the board layout in the other Sony XDR inside-pictures found on the internet. The two large metal enclosed modules (left center of the pic) are the small boards containing the radio chips: one has the TEF6330 / SAF7730 RF DSP chips, and the other one has the HD Radio chips. The heat sinks (right center, sticking upwards) are large because the radio is capable of 4 watts output.

The heart of the tuner section of the XDR series of radios is the TEF6730 DSP IF chip, made by NXP. It is a very sensitive and selective chip, and it tunes itself to whatever antenna you have attached to the radio -- not unlike the famous SiLab's series of DSP IF chips in other radios, which also do this.

There is a large chip that works with it, which also has DSP. Apparently that chip, the SAF7730,  further demodulates the stereo. Another tuner block in the XDR series of radios contains the HD Radio decoder. Both sets of chips apparently generate a lot of heat: hence, the fan in the back of my radio.

I can attest to the fact that the XDR series are DX radios: this XDR Just before posting this, I pulled in KBRE 1660 The Bear when the sun was still up (about 7:30 p.m.), during summer.

Like its XDR cousins, the Sony XDR-S10HDiP has 20 presets for each radio band, which are easy to program: you press the 'Enter' key for a couple seconds after tuning into your station. The radio beeps, a memory location will blink on the display, and you press 'Enter' again.

Tuning the radio is easy -- just use the up and down buttons. On AM you can hear the channels momentarily as it tunes up or down across the band. The volume is switched using the up and down Volume buttons. There are other buttons that are for IPod and IPhone users -- they are easy to ignore if needed. There also is an AUX IN (called "Audio In" on this Sony) that I haven't used yet, but like with the Sangean radios you can plug in a tablet or whatever using a mini stereo headphone jack.

The tone is adjustable, using the "Menu" button. I haven't messed with that yet.

There is a remote that came with the radio. It works. It has come in handy a couple times when I'm sitting at my writing desk and want to quickly adjust volume without getting up, going over to the radio, etc.
A view of the back of the XDR with the new mono jack installed. You can also see the MW single loop antenna (green wire -- both ends of a 2 meter loop of wire) and a stiff piece of wire shoved into the center terminal of the FM antenna jack (it still works well -- brings in all FM HD channels as well as regular analog FM).

There are no major 'quirks' to this radio I've noticed yet, aside from what appears to be a microprocessor glitch, or perhaps it is over-reactive noise reduction: the sound cuts out completely from time to time for a second or two, at least on the MW/AM band. When this happens, the LCD readout still shows operation as per normal, but the "HD" icon blinks. It does this on frequencies that have no HD at all. I think that there is some RFI or noise that must be tricking the radio into thinking there is HD when there really isn't. I haven't had the radio on FM for extended periods of time to see if it happens on FM also.

An online search revealed that at least one Sony XDR-F1HD user experienced dropouts on FM, but he never mentioned whether it was also occurring on AM also.

The smart electric meter to my place sometimes puts out a short burst of hash. On the PR-D5 it's reduced in volume -- the Sony XDR cuts it out completely. Whether the dropouts on my XDR were related to that or not, I just don't know.

So far, nothing else quirky has occurred with this radio.
I normally don't listen to KEXP, but this particular morning they were playing a huge block of 90's grunge-era and other 90's alternative music, celebrating the playlists of other major college alternative stations of the late 1980's-early 1990's, when rock music was very active with all kinds of alternative rock artists. It was like a blast from the past. As you can tell from the readout, the Smashing Pumpkins were playing when I took this photograph.

OVERSEAS DXers? Sony XDR's have 10 kHz Steps on MW 
For those overseas, the Sony XDR series would make great FM and AM DX radios, but the main weakness of using a Sony XDR overseas on MW is that the MW/AM band is set to 10 kHz steps only. There doesn't appear to be any way of changing it to 9 kHz.

Of course, the HD Radio features overseas would be useless, as no overseas country that I'm aware of has HD Radio -- overseas digital radio is DAB or DRM.

There are quite a few overseas FM DXers that use the Sony XDR-F1HD, my radio's cousin, which has the same basic circuitry.
A pic of the XDR-S10HDiP with a mono headphone jack installed for MW/AM band DXing and FM-mono listening (I don't listen to FM through headphones much). It was easy to do once I figured out how to get the wires around the speaker baffles, so that the case would close properly (I drilled tiny holes for the wires, as can be seen here). I used terminals off of each speaker because it was easier to get my solder gun/iron in there without messing up other wiring. As with my Sangean PR-D5 mono jack installation, I used silicone glue (and a tiny bit of super glue) to hold the mono jack in place.

NO HEADPHONE JACK -- So I Wired A Mono Jack for AM Only
One minor quirk with these radios is that there is no headphone jack. I remedied this for the AM band by wiring up a mono jack the same way I did with my Sangean PR-D5 -- I wired it in parallel with one of the speakers. In this case, I took the negative side off one speaker and the positive side off of the other (it was easier soldering that way without risking messing something up). For mono AM, there should be no difference. I never intend to use the headphone jack for FM stereo -- the speakers work perfectly fine for that. But for MW/AM DXing, sometimes headphones help.

After testing out the headphones, I found that the wiring makes FM come out through the headphones in FM Mono.

I'm sure that someone with more time to spare and the need could just as easily wire a stereo headphone jack using the speakers... Just make sure in all cases you keep the volume down.

As I mentioned before -- this radio can put out 4 Watts of audio.
A grasshopper has decided to live in my house this summer.
The river is lower than I've seen it in years.
The local trail at dawn.
A 747 in the morning sun. Probably arriving from somewhere far away. A lot of flights to Asia and Europe fly in and out of Sea-Tac.

HD RADIO -- Possibly the Future of AM (and FM) Radio In The U.S.
I realise that a lot of AM and FM radio enthusiasts in the United States HATE HD radio.

I am not one of those people.

I love DXing, but I don't despise hearing IBOC block a couple channels when HD may be the only remaining future for AM in a few years. AM radio is slowly fading in popularity, and HD may be the only thing keeping it alive in 20 years. A majority of modern car radios have HD AM capability, and after hearing the impressive sound of HD on AM I am more fully convinced that it may be the future of AM -- if AM really has any future aside from TIS Travellers information stations and government emergency broadcasts.

A local AM station north of Seattle ran a full-digital test a couple years ago, and apparently the results were promising. Any HD radio will also pull in full channel HD, even on AM. I can see where some day the only surviving broadcast stations on AM may be fully digital. Over-the-air radio and TV may ultimately disappear, but the fact that it is free is something that may keep over-the-air broadcasting alive.

A lot of FM DXers loathe HD radio, as it blocks some of their DX channels. What these guys forget is that HD Radio provides listeners with local programming that otherwise you wouldn't get on FM: Oldies, Blues, Jazz, etc. I know that the local FM stations here have Oldies, Blues, Radio Disney (which left the AM band two years ago), Jazz, and the BBC on their HD channels -- as well as a couple AM station's HDFM broadcasts, and even a 'dead' Seattle station still survives on HD ("Click 98.9", a decent alt-pop and rock station that flipped to Rock a year and a half ago).

HD isn't perfect, obviously, but it works. No radio is perfect: FM has terrain shadows, 'flip-flip' noises as you drive, dead spots, etc., and AM has lower fidelity than most people want, and there is always the coverage issue as well as RFI. HD radio has its issues, too.

But it's free. And overall, it sounds very good.
The moon at the end of August, 2017 (All pics taken on my Nikon L32 snapshot camera).
In closing -- once again, a chance trip to a thrift store paid off. I'd suggest that any reader who is interested in checking out HD radio do not overlook one of the used Sony models -- if this XDR-S10HDiP is any indication, Sony's HD radios are very good performers. Some of them may be available used on the internet at decent prices.

And for the MW DXers out there, don't overlook the Sony XDR series of radios!! If what I've seen is any indication, they are excellent performers on MW/AM, even with limited antennas.

I've included a few extra, non-radio photos in this post, most taken over the end of August.

Right now the nights are getting cold (49F) and Fall is in the air. Halloween will be here soon, as will MWDX season. Here's hoping you all are having a great September.
CC 8-2017 and 9-16-2017

Monday, September 11, 2017

Solar Eclipse, Eclipse DXing, Fire Haze, Blood Sun, and Indian Summer

A blood sun, due to haze in the air in August, from Canadian forest fires. Amazingly, I was able to balance it on the tip of my hedge without the hedge burning to the ground.
As I write this, it's early September, and the last few weeks of summer is upon us. August was warm and dry, yet we have had a lot of hazy and smoky conditions because of forest fires in Central and Eastern Washington, as well as the fires up in Canada.

The Canadian fires made the air so hazy that the nearby valley walls were bluish from the smoke, and the sun was a deep orange ball as it neared sunset.
The moon was a blood moon also. Ironically, the Apocalypse didn't happen! :-)
I was able to take a few pictures of the sun when it was setting on the haziest days.

More recently, the fires in the mountains east of here blew some ash in our direction, visible on our cars and even our garbage cans.

The past few days we've had temperatures in the 70's F, and high clouds with haze. Usually we'd be in that time of year called "Indian Summer", which is when September has really nice weather. But right now it's a warm, dry, and grey period. Still -- it's not bad for us here in the PNW, if you aren't near a wildfire. And it's not like the hurricanes they are dealing with in the SE US.
Seattle, before and after. The top view is on a normal, grey day. The bottom pic was the view of the Skyline obscured by forest fire smoke.
One of my best pics of the Solar Eclipse of August 12st, using a paper plate and a dark cardboard folder.
On August 21st we of course had the "Great American Eclipse", a solar eclipse that wasn't visible here in Seattle unless you had special glasses. Here are some pics of my attempts to see the Eclipse. It was fun, but I have to admit that Eclipse DXing the MW/AM band was a bit more productive:
My first 'pinhole Eclipse projector' was a paper plate on a paper plate -- which didn't work too well. The sun's "dot" on the plate should have had a chunk taken out of it. For some reason, the stars weren't aligned right, and it didn't work.
The sun's light was filtered, seeming like a small cloud had gone across it -- which was when I took this picture from my weight room. But as you can tell from this picture, 90% totality really doesn't make that much difference. Some people around here said it felt colder. I didn't notice a difference.
My cat really wasn't all that interested in the Eclipse. :-)
My best Eclipse shot using the pinhole Eclipse projector. Taken a few minutes after totality. A lot of people bought those 'Eclipse glasses', but I didn't necessarily trust them. I decided to try the pinhole method instead, and DX the AM band.
This shot was taken about 20-30 minutes after totality, just inside. I was trying to see if the partial Eclipse would still show up. Viewing a Solar Eclipse with a pinhole projector isn't all that dramatic, but it was still better than nothing. It was still fun.

I made a sort of pinhole projector and was able to view the eclipse after my workout. I also turned on my trusty Sangean PR-D5 and heard some Solar Eclipse AM-band DX. I concentrated on frequencies I new would be either dead or near dead during the daytime: 1660, 1650, 1700, 1670, and a few of the regional channels lower in the AM band.

The first Eclipse DX station I heard was KQMS 1670, Redding, California. Usually it fades out early in the morning in summer, about 7 a.m. at the latest. During the Eclipse it was audible with a talk show at 10:20 a.m. For those not in the U.S., Redding is in Northern California. It's the last major California city on the I-5 corridor before you hit the Oregon border.
My trusty Sangean PR-D5 in my workout room, picking up KQMS 1670 in Redding, California, about 700 or so miles away (around 1000 km?). I never hear it as late as 10 a.m. during the summer here. It was a definite Eclipse DX catch. Unfortunately, as the PR-D5 has no signal meter, you'll just have to take my word for it that I heard the station. :-)
Then 1660 KBRE The Bear faded up -- it is located further south, in Merced, California. They played "Limelight" by Rush.

Then I heard KBND, Bend, Oregon on 1110 kHz -- Usually they aren't audible late in the morning, so it was definitely a DX catch. So was KUMA 1290 from Pendleton in Eastern Oregon -- they usually aren't audible here during the day, even in Winter.

My best catch was KSL on 1160 kHz. Salt Lake City, Utah is about 900 miles / 1200 km away. I heard a talk show on that channel, and a mention of Utah.

All in all, it made up for not being able to actually see the Eclipse.

The following pictures are some I took over the past month, in no particular order:
Another pic of the blood moon during the hazy days of August.
A second shot I took of the blood sun balanced on top of a fir tree.
During August, we had many evenings where it was in the 70's F as late as 9 or 9:30 at night.
Haze covering the Cascade Mountain foothills, during a trip through SE King County, Washington.
A view northbound on State Highway 169 during the Canadian forest fire haze. As the air conditioning stopped working in my car, it was over 95 degrees F inside. Definitely summer!
Buckley, Washington, in early August. It used to be a railroad and lumbering town. It is located on what was the first Northern Pacific mainline across the Cascades -- the rails have long been torn up. Now Buckley is a distant bedroom community for workers in Tacoma and Seattle.
A view down the main street of Buckley. It has a very quiet atmosphere, and it is really a nice little town.
A cool looking older brick building in Buckley.
Some innertubers floating down the Cedar River in August, when the river is low and safe, and the water is warm.
Not my sentiments, of course, but somebody with a spray can was expressing themselves.
Then they added a smiley face to the wall -- you can see where other graffiti was painted over in grey, previously.
A couple kids made a sand castle at a popular river beach.
The sun glinting off the Columbia Tower in Seattle.

In other news, I got an electric chainsaw. It really helps with some of the brush cutting in my yard, and it's something I've needed for a while. I also got a better LED headlamp for doing some yardwork at night, which I actually enjoy doing sometimes. I'll take out one of my radios and listen to sports talk or a football game while working. I recently discovered that if I hold one of my radios up near the top rail of a chain-link fence, it acts like an antenna booster!
The haze down a suburban street during the Canadian forest fire smoke in mid-August. The hazy conditions kept the temperatures from reaching 100 degrees F, which was otherwise forecast. It only reached the mid 90's.
The haze from the forest fires made for some good sunsets after it started clearing.

I've added a few notes to my article in this blog about the Sangean PR-D5 -- the power button's concave shape makes it a bit funky at times, although it always works. Sometimes when I push it on my radio I get the "Alarm" function -- I think it isn't engaging 100% and the Alarm button is probably on the same rail. I may eventually modify my radio with a rounder power button, but until then it's something I'll live with as it is working well otherwise.

I still use the PR-D5 nearly every night while writing or doing stuff around the house.

I also found that an external loop antenna works well when set it in front of either of the PR-D5's speakers. The radio seems to respond very well with a loop set there. As I type this I have my Select-A-Tenna in front of my Sangean PR-D5's right speaker, and it's boosting some California and Nevada stations on 1270 (KVMI, Tulare and KBZZ, Reno).
A panorama view of the sun reflecting off the Columbia Tower in Seattle -- both of these pictures I took some time in July.
I've also included these notes (on my power button) in my PR-D5 article for future reference, as many of my blog readers seem to be MW/AM DX aficionados.

I also have an article I'm working on about my latest acquisition: a Sony HD Radio I found at a thrift store.
An old pic of me playing my Kingston acoustic guitar.

As I finish this blog post, it is now 9-11. For some reason, every 9-11 brings back memories of what happened in NYC when the planes went into the World Trade Center towers. Many 9-11's I'd watch the movie "World Trade Center", and "Flight 93", both of which were excellent movies on what happened that day. I am not sure I'll get a chance to watch either movie this evening, as I will be busy with work and a neighborhood meeting.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that September 11th, 2001 was truly 16 years ago. But there ya go. I've coincidentally been reading two books roughly related to 9-11: "American Sniper" by Chris Kyle, who makes several mentions of it, and was in the SEALs during that decade; and "WAR", by Sebastian Junger, a book on the experiences of the US soldiers serving in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan during the years just after 2001 when the US began military action over there. Both are very interesting books, and I especially recommend "WAR" to any American (or anyone) who is interested in what these soldiers go through. The book is a fascinating view of their lives.

Until later, dear readers, hope your September is enjoyable and safe -- especially anyone in Texas, Florida, and other areas of the Gulf region, who are suffering from the effects of two massive hurricanes.
CC 9-9-2017 and 9-11-2017.