Sunday, May 05, 2013

Mobile rig comparison: TS-850S, TS-590, and Tentec Eagle

If you read my mobile setup page you'll see that I have been using the TS850S with good results. I list there the reasons why I ended up using this excellent rig, as well as what its shortcomings are and what rigs I'd like to try, to see if I could redress those small points and perhaps even improve performance.


In January, I had the opportunity to put the Ten Tec Eagle through it's paces. The rig I had was fully loaded with the ATU, roofing filters for SSB and CW, and also the amp buffer for connecting up to the ALS500 in the back. It came with a Heil hand Mike specially for Ten Tec.

I have to say that I had really high hopes with the Eagle. Its a rig that in principle dealt with my main "gripes" about the 850 (heavy and big for the car, difficult to read display in sunlight). The receiver performance published by Sherwood engineering show the close-in dynamic range figures were up there with rigs costing twice and three times the cost of an Eagle. When I took the rig out of the box, it was certainly a nice size, perhaps slightly bigger than a Yaesu FT897, and with a nice uncluttered front panel. The display is nice, and connections were a breeze (I already had a powerpole connector made up for the car from when I had an Elecraft K2). The amp buffer comes with an RCA connector for connecting to the back of the rig for 12VDC power, no need for extra wiring. So, I switched on and made a few contacts.

The rig is pretty easy to use, on the whole. It has a few neat features, like the continuously variable bandwidth from the front panel, which is connected to the optional roofing filters. As soon as you dial the DSP controlled bandwith lower than an optional roofing filter, that optional filter is put in place automatically. For example, I am using the 2400KHz filter and have the final bandwidth set at 2100. If I get some strong adjacent interference, and dial down to 1750KHz, automatically the optional 1800KHz roofing filter kicks in, thereby increasing the rejection before the first mixer of all signals outside the 1800 KHz bandwidth and further reducing the offending interference. It works pretty well, and as is to be expected, even more so on CW. Another thing I was worried about was the quality of the transmit audio. Both the IC7000 and the TS850S have consistently netted me unsolicited reports of excellent audio. No need to worry with the Eagle, since I also received several reports of nice full bodied clear crisp audio, without asking. 

So what DIDN'T I like about the Eagle? Well, as others have already reported, if you aren't familiar with Ten Tec radios, the logic behind some of the functions isn't always straightforward. All the front panel buttons are marked with secondary functions which are accessed by pressing the F key first. However, there are some cases where it doesn't happen. For example, the BAN button has a secondary function which is MON. What happens when you press F+BAN? Does it switch on the Monitor? No! What it does is instead of scrolling bands upwards, it scrolls the bands downwards. I had to get the manual out to find out that to access the monitor function, you need to key the microphone while pressing F, then release the mic and press BAN. Also, there are times when one doesn't know if a function like for example the ATU is engaged or not, since there is no front panel indicator. If you press the ATU button momentarily, it will beep to tell you if it's on or off....if you can remember which beep means what! None of these things are show stoppers though, and no worse than trying to work Split with the TS850s whacky dual VFO system.

So did I want to keep the Eagle? Well, no. There was one important thing that I didn't like and that's something that I guess is personal to me, the tones of the receiver. I found that the RX quality was a bit bassy, and there is no way to change that. I found it difficult to read weak stations. I did an A/B test with the 850 to see if it was really the case, and after a couple of days, confirmed my thoughts. RX of weak signals on the TS850 was much easier for my ears. So, with a lot of sorrow, the rig went back to its owner and is now sitting happily on a shelf next to a big Kenwood TS990S!


Shortly afterwards, I got a chance to try out a TS-590, since a couple of the guys at the radio club had purchased them. This radio is a bit bigger than the Eagle and a bit heavier, but certainly no way near as big or heavy or the 850. The front panel has more knobs and buttons than the Eagle, but is not cluttered or difficult to find things. My last Kenwood rig in the car was the 480, and I had always marvelled about how they had managed to make a perfect front panel on that radio, it had everything I needed, where I needed it, and there was nothing missing, and also nothing superfluous that I didnt need. The 590 isn't quite that perfect, but it's not bad. It also redresses the shortcomings that I found on the Eagle, on this rig, everything is where you expect it to be, the display tells you everything you need to know without anything extra, the button sequences are all logical, and even the menú settings have a scrolling description of what they do, which means you do not have to get the manual out very often. Important things for when you are out on the road, or just have a few minutes to spare, and you want to make the most of your radio time making contacts and not trying to figure out why the radio isn't doing what you want it to do!

So much for ergonomics. How about performance? Well, RX audio good, IMD seemingly good, low noise floor, all the things they said were true about this rig. I didn't even notice much difference on the bands which are up-conversion (10. 12, 17m) instead of the theoretically superior down conversion. On transmit, as already noticed by most people and already briefly mentioned by me, the meter does not show 100w or anything near it on SSB. On CW however it does, and with only 30w output I am able to get over 400w out of my ALS500 linear.
How about audio? As I already said before, all other rigs tested have good TX audio. This is a Kenwood, so should be good. It has an equalizer with a high boost, so I just assumed it would be like the high boost on the 850, set it up and off I went. I made lots of contacts, no comments. day I had a long chat on 20m with VK3MO, and unbeknown to us, we were being recorded by my friend EA5DFV. Click here to watch

We both had similar signals but Ian was so much more readable than me. I was not impressed. Shortly afterwards, I spoke to my old friend George W4UWC. After an over from me, he simply said, "I don't know what you've done, but I can hardly understand what you're saying, that's not your normal signal". To know what I normally sound like with the TS850, check this video by my friend Derek MI0SDR (who it just so happens is a satisfied user of a TS590):

Pretty self explanatory.

I was pretty downhearted by this but thankfully my good friend José Ramón EA7KW, who also had some issues setting up his TS590, sent me a link on how to set up the audio, from the G3NRW website. This is a super and really complete page on the TS590 covering a huge amount of topics. I took the rig home one day and started following the step-by-step instructions, listening on the monitor, and lo and behold, things started looking up. After a lot of fiddling, I managed to find a setting that sounded pretty good. I did a couple of on air checks. Good too.

As in the past, the only way to find out which rig is "better" at this stage, is to do A/B testing. I tested with over 20 stations, almost all of whom coincided that setting A (TS590) was slightly better than setting B (TS850). I didn't tell people what changes I had done until after they'd given me the report in order to try to reduce bias to the mínimum.

Another interesting point that came out of this test that in spite of the 590 not showing 100w on the meter, signal reports were always identical between the two rigs.

Also interesting to note was that plugging in the 850 after a few weeks of using the 590, the initial sensation was that that the 850 receiver was a bit noisier. In practice and changing between the two rigs, it was only a very slight difference.

Finally, I changed the kenwood hand mic (MC43) for my heil Proset 5. The general comment is that the Heil gives a slightly higher tone, a majority prefer the heil, some prefer the mc43, and some notice no difference. Listening to it in the monitor, I prefer the Heil. I don't want to use my headset in the car, but it just so happens that a friend of MI0SDR has an HM10 dual mic for sale, so it's on its way!


The TS-850S continues to be a great option for those looking for a high-performance radio at a budget price.

The Ten Tec Eagle offers high performance in a small and simple box, although a bit quirky. Recommended for those who are already Tec Tec users.

The TS-590 requires time to get set up properly, but once set up, provides excellent performance in TX and RX, with a host of features, and at a really competitive price. I do not forsee that I will be changing this radio in the near future for everyday ragchewing and DXing, and the only reason I might not use it for contesting is that it doesn't have a second receiver. Well done Kenwood!