Sunday, 29 September 2013

Ham-It-Up vs SDR Up 100

RTL-SDR, shortwave, comparison, shootout, review, Ham-It-Up, SDR Up 100, adapter, SDRSharpThe Ham-It-Up and the Up 100 are the two cheapest shortwave adapters available: direct competitors at 50 USD (including shipping).
For this review, I purchased the Ham-It-Up and received the Up-100 for free for testing.

Shipping and customer service

The Ham-It-Up comes from the States with tracked shipping; you get emails where it is, but when the package leaves the US no more tracking info available. You can buy on Ebay, Amazon or via the manufacturer's website.
The Up-100 ships from Croatia (that's a country in Europe next to Italy) with no tracking. You pay when the item arrives, so no shipping worries. Available by sending an email to Adam:, remove the US capital to get his proper email.
Nooelec: Local postal service lost my first order, so after some Ebay hassle they sent a replacement one free of charge. Nooelec also included 3 adapters for free, to compensate for the inconvenience.
Adam: Upconverter arrived quickly, seller replies almost immediately, will help you with antennas, cables and power options. I requested a power lead to power the SDR-100 and received one free of charge.

Ham-It-Up First Impressions

Your 50 dollars from Nooelec arrives in an anti-static bag, protected by two bubble-wrap envelopes. The Ham-It-Up fits in your palm, looks and feels impressive; first thoughts were "This will get the job done, money well spent and just look at that beauty".
RTL-SDR, shortwave, comparison, shootout, review, Ham-It-Up, SDR Up 100, adapter, SDRSharp
Brain Game: SDR-Up 100 on left, Ham-It-Up on right
You get a piece of electronic component separately, the brain of the thing, which you have to push in; there are no written instructions in the envelope, a YouTube video shows assembly.
A chunky switch enables pass through mode, so if you use an outdoor (preferably discone) antenna you can use the same antenna for shortwave with a flick of a switch.
In comparison, the Up-100 works out of the box, no fitting or manual assembly required.
I want equipment that works when I get it: Adam's upconverter is better here.
Both upconverters add 125 MHz to the received frequency, so the only major difference is power options, usability and, ultimately, performance.

Power and size

The Ham-It-Up needs power between 4-6 Volts: the square USB-B cable used for printers and some external hard drives powers it.
Works with any of the following options:
1. Directly from laptop, USB port supplies power. Distance from computer limited by USB cable length.
2. Mains USB adapter, then USB cable powering the upconverter. Plug-in USB chargers work  fine for this purpose.
3. 12V from a car battery or similar supply, 12V to 5V adapter which is widely available (called 12V to USB adapter).
4. Four rechargeable or normal batteries supplying between 4.8 V and 6V, then power via USB-B cable.

Unless you power the Ham-It-Up from your laptop, a USB-B cable must be cut apart for power.
Connect the USB-B square bit into the Ham It UP, Red and Black to battery terminals and you're in business: green light comes on when it has power. This is better than the Up-100 which has no light to show it works.
The Up-100 will fit into an electrical junction box, the Ham-It-Up needs a bigger enclosure.
For marine use, without testing for performance, choose the Up-100, no power adapter nor special cable needed, smaller enclosure and works with boat or car-standard 12V.

Testing setup
RTL-SDR, shortwave, comparison, shootout, review, Ham-It-Up, SDR Up 100, adapter, SDRSharp

You need as much wire outdoors as possible for the frequency you're interested in; the lower the frequency the more wire you need.
If you have a discone antenna you're better off with a short wire than your discone, see results on your right. Higher peaks = better signal, more fun.
City centre location, 20 foot wire as antenna for testing, coax with ferrites to upconverters.
Laptop with 8GB Ram, Core i3 Processor running Windows 7 64-bit if you want to know.
During setup same antenna, RTL-SDR dongle, Gain at 0dB, same SDRSharp settings used throughout.
The two upconverters were set up side-by-side, only swapped antenna and signal cables.
Tested both day and night, sunshine and rain, strong and weak signals.
Offset: I do NOT use offset in SDRSharp, simply enter 125 MHz plus the desired frequency. Tune to 125 MHz, you'll see a huge spike, your real tuned frequency starts from there. 129 MHz becomes 129-125 = 4 MHz and so on. SDRSharp crashes or fails to start for me with - 125 offset, plus some mental arithmetics won't hurt.

RTL-SDR, shortwave, comparison, shootout, review, Ham-It-Up, SDR Up 100, adapter, SDRSharp

Update 2: More pictures with different gain settings at the bottom of the post

Update 4: Due to Nooelec's response I feel compelled to insert their observation here (full reply at the end of article)

There is no chance that the 'Ham It Up' could possibly perform as well as it should without any gain in front of it. It's not a fair performance comparison. If anything, you should certainly specify as much in the performance section of the article.

Conclusion: the Up-100 is better. Much better.
Ham-It-Up: trying to understand speech, fading.
Up-100: the room is full of voice, more noise too, but Digital Noise Reduction takes care of that.
Weak signals are simply not there with the Ham-It-Up. I can hear them with the Up-100.
The difference is so huge that when changing upconverters I stopped double-checking which one is in use, as the Up-100 is so much louder.
The Ham-It-Up gave me the impression of a dusty, old shortwave handheld, which tunes the major stations with lots of noise and fading; and you're happy with it, 'cause at least you hear something.
With the SDR-100 the feel is more of a sensitive, cutting edge equipment, able to receive faraway stations.

Room for Improvement

- More power options. Thick Red and Black wires for 9-15 V power when I need them, standard USB extension cord connectors when I want Plug and Hear.
- LED for power. SDR-Up 100 needs an indicator to show all is fine; both need flashing LED to remind me to change batteries when the battery starts to die.
- Simple enclosure for an extra 5 euros.
- Two antenna sockets for HF and VHF work, big switch between the two. I don't want to change antennas.

Final thoughts
RTL-SDR, shortwave, comparison, shootout, review, Ham-It-Up, SDR Up 100, adapter, SDRSharp

At least, you can receive shortwave. 
The Ham-It-Up is an excellent product for listening to major broadcast stations with an outdoor discone; the pass-through switch enables simple and quick exploration of signals below 30 MHz without the need to change antennas. Powered with an USB cable, the package takes up little space and is easy to use: if you see a signal in SDRSharp chances are you'll hear something. 
Apart from that novel fact there's no reason to buy one.
Compared to the SDR-100, the Ham-It-Up is so deaf it needs a hearing aid. To put this into perspective, the Ham-It-Up with a 6m wire is about equal to an ICOM IC-R5 (small communications receiver) with an outdoor discone, and comparatively worse than a Grundig G3 with a built-in telescopic antenna. Simply put, the SDR-100 is light years ahead for weak signals, at the cost of noise pickup. At half the size a suitable enclosure is easier to find, and 9 and 12V power options are just the cherry on the cake.
If you are new to shortwave radio spend your 50 dollars on a second-hand portable from eBay.
For everyone else, I recommend the SDR-100 over the Ham-It-Up.

Update 1: Shielding, Aerials, Settings and Images

Due to an interesting comment on let me clear a few things... Regarding this post and in general my attitude to testing, usability and, ESPECIALLY, cost.

50 USD results in an upconverter from either manufacturers, so you can listen to shortwave signals. Both lets you do that, but due to the built-in amplifier the SDR-UP 100 lets you receive more signals.

Neither up-converters were placed in an metal box, so level field here. RTL stick in a metal box plus all the tricks I detailed in the noise suppression post.

The aerial question: the maximum I can or will put out is 20 foot wire. The results show a dramatic difference between the two.
Obviously, you can improve reception with more wire, as 20 foot wire is far from ideal. Or an UNUN. Or an antenna tuner. Or moving to the countryside, try 40m wire in an urban environment from a third-floor flat.

I am interested in utility and value for money out of the box, so a beginner can read understandable information on which one to choose to hear faraway radio stations - and the SDR Up 100 is better for this purpose.

The number-crunching game is pointless for beginners: the primary target audience for this blog are yachties without AIS moaning that a receiver is expensive, people on a budget, non radio people exploring the world of RTL-SDR.

Leave comments here please

Comments are much appreciated, especially if you leave them on this blog, so I can reply them here. Unfortunately, you have to have an account for that, with a name, maybe even a face like some of us do.

Update 2: Comparisons with different gain settings

Tested both upconverters on 5053, 5910, 6134, 7350 and 9419 kHz, with four and five different gain settings. Click on the frequency numbers to download printscreens below, one file is around 13-14 Mb. 
I consistently found the SDR UP 100 better. An example is 5053 kHz: extremely faint Portuguese voice with the SDR Up with lots of noise, short-wave info tells me possibly R Jornal a Critica FM on 5055kHz. Still, playing with Noise reduction and Gain at the same time results in understandable speech. With the Ham It Up, no matter how I tried I could not get the same results, since I have to increase gain in SDRSharp up to a point where noise swamps the signal. 

Update 3: Reply from Adam, the maker of SDR UP 100.

Adam has to say about my suggestions:

"Regarding your notes for the improvement, they are all in place.
The guide line when constructing the upconverter is to have the unit with costs up to 50 USD.
I have plenty addons and improvements that can be included in the design but then, it will not cost the 50 USD but 100 USD and then we are entering another price level.

I agree, with a small investment, the various power connector system can be added.
The cost of the led diode is minor and all gadgets are not so expensive.

My first idea was to have a descent reception using the peace of wire, because this is the unit built for those users who will use a peace of wire, and the unit shoul be able to receive the signals with that antenna.
If the unit require full size resonant antenna, than this is not the product for everyday user.

If you compare this upconverter together with the stick against the expensive 800USD sdr receivers the difference is only that they have the dedicated bandpass filters, attenuator and a better AD converter."

Many thanks for the above. Adam can be reached at, remove the US capital to get his proper email.

Update 4: Reply from Nooelec, the maker of the Ham-It-Up.

Your review is thorough and well-written. I find it great that you covered aspects other than performance.

However, the performance review is not even close to apples to apples. As you are aware, there is no LNA on the 'Ham It Up' upconverter itself. There are quite a few reasons for that. 

1. An LNA on-board limits options as it would be fixed-gain. Variable-gain would be exceedingly expensive.
2. An LNA should really be placed near the antenna if the antenna run is long. That cannot be done if it is built into the upconverter.
3. The appropriate gain should be dependent on the frequency or frequencies of interest and antenna being used.

There is no chance that the 'Ham It Up' could possibly perform as well as it should without any gain in front of it. It's not a fair performance comparison. If anything, you should certainly specify as much in the performance section of the article. 

If you really wanted to do a better comparison, you would either insert the same amount of gain in front of the Ham It Up, or take the signal from after the LNA on the Up-100 and insert into the Ham It Up upconversion path. If you need assistance with this please contact us. 

You also fail to note that there are advantages to a socketed oscillator, as on the Ham It Up, insomuch as it can be very easily replaced with an even better clock-source for those who have one at their disposal. We ship the oscillators off-board so that it is more likely to survive international transit.

The Up-100 is a good upconverter, much better than other designs we've seen. We have one here at the lab that we have used to compare performance. The performance is very similar with the same amount of gain in front. This is not surprising, since the actual frequency mixing is done by the same ADE-1 and the Up-100 uses quality filtering components as does the Ham It Up. The only differences you should see when doing a legitimate comparison test is the differences between the filtering components used on the two upconverters.

Update 5: Thoughts after manufacturer's responses

Deep respect to both manufacturers for replying to this review; it shows that both truly care about their product. I added Nooelec's response to the performance section as suggested as it was a good idea.
The reason I did this review is to find out which upconverter is better for 50 USD; I define better as more enjoyable, easier to use, capable of providing a signal I can listen to, out of the box.
Some readers fail to grasp the fact that both upconverters cost 50 dollars, so they are competitors. LNA or no LNA. A friend asks me which one to buy: I point to the SDR Up 100. Ham It up for 30? Sure. Same price? SDR Up 100.
Out of the box, you hear more with the SDR UP 100. Even after playing with gain settings, I could not get the same performance out of the Ham It Up.
At the end of the day you pay your money and you take your chances: order both, enjoy both.

Ham-It-Up technical information and user Guide here:

If you enjoyed this article, or wish to support this blog, 

... go to Amazon and buy my book Tips and tricks in the book will save time and money, reduce frustration with computer settings and help you build the best antenna system from shortwave to microwave. Detailed and illustrated step-by-step descriptions on easy-to-do antennas, from shortwave to microwave.
Basically all you need to know to enjoy radio.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: SDR UP 100

What you need to know: for 50 USD you get the same performance as a dedicated shortwave receiver, easier to use with better sound quality. Recommended.
RTL-SDR, shortwave, Upconverter

HF Upconverter SDR Up 100

Available from the following website:
Works by adding 125 MHz to the signal received, so your RTL stick will understand signals below 30 Mhz. It also has a filter, so signals above 55 MHz will not bother your reception.
Costs 40 euros / 50 USD delivered to your door, delivery to Ireland took 5 days. You pay for the item via PayPal when it arrives, so no worries for shipping.
It is physically small, about the size of a Zippo lighter. Antenna IN and antenna OUT connectors are SMA female.
Amplification is built-in, automatically increases the received signal 63 times (18dB). It is so effective gain in SDRSharp must be set very precisely, even one move on the control panel will kill all received signals (called overload).
Power is supplied via two pins, in the bubble wrap envelope an A4 page shows schematics, so you can identify positive and negative. Soldering and antenna connectors are first-rate, looks and feels solid. In over six weeks of testing and after connecting antennas many times there is no play, no movement.
Works with 9 to 15 volts, so a brick 9V battery or a 12 V car battery works. Manufacturer says 50mA draw, real-life mobile performance is 7-8 hours from an unbranded 9V battery. There is no visual indicator, no LED to show if power is OK, battery dies = stops working.
At home I power it with a dedicated car 12V battery. No top-up charge for the last six weeks - still works OK.

Testing Setup

6 meter (20 foot) wire from a window, connected to coax cable - Upconverter - RTL stick. City center location, electrically very noisy.
Noise reduction as per the precious entry on this blog, ferrites on the coax going to the antenna wire.
Automatic Gain control turned off in SDRSharp, set in Configuration between 2-5.
Set the frequency at 125 MHz plus the frequency of interest, so 132 MHz displayed will be 7 MHz.
Sampling rate at 1.024 MSPS so I see 1 MHz chunk of the radio spectrum. Broadcasting signals are continuous, easily identifiable from the waterfall display.
Digital Noise Reduction is your friend with strong stations: click on a peak or line in the waterfall display, set pleasurable noise limit, get astonishing voice quality.

RTL-SDR, shortwave, Upconverter

No number crunching here; I go by my ears. All the usual players come in easily, propaganda from Radio China International, Voice of Russia / America / Korea etc are like FM broadcast. You do not have to turn a dial or remember a setting - save the frequency, set noise reduction and enjoy.
Tired of speech? Ethnic music from the Middle East, religious programming from the States, man hitting stuff with kitchen utensils from the Far East all booming in. I have the adapter for over six weeks, still every night I sit down with expectation and a "what tonight" attitude - the ease and accessibility, combined with easy station saving rekindled my interest in shortwave.
Filtering works, the strongest local FM station barely audible when tuned.
Looking for distant signals? With only a 6 meter wire I got understandable speech from the Caribbean, Caribbean Beacon from Anguilla on 6090 kHz.
Fun for a long time; Morse code and digital mode transmissions are a possibility, if you're into fiddling with software. For HF Fax I recommend JVComm32, thought the local fishermen and NOAA satellites at 137 MHz are more colorful.

Standalone vs software defined - price, usability, fun

Standalone: 80-100 USD for a good one, 200 is top-of-the-range, 5000+ USD for pro equipment. With bargain basement 20 USD wonders you buy frustration.
RTL stick advantages: huge screen to see signals, easier tuning, better speech quality.
Standalone radio advantages: compact and portable solution, works off cheap batteries, no learning curve. Turning dials instead of clicking a mouse, more intimate "what-comes-next" feel.
Buy a shortwave adapter if you're happy with computer-based solutions or you need to use capabilities for a goal, e.g. Weather charts or decoding digital modes.
Order a good shortwave receiver such as the Eton G3 for 100 USD if you need standalone capability, a backup or wish to listen to far-flung signals without a laptop or the hassle of mating radio and a laptop.
The best is both: get this upconverter for home, especially if you have suitable space for antennas, and enjoy your portable while out and about. For nature outings (I hate city electrical noise) I always have a laptop with the discone and the QFH taking up the back seat, so the upconverter and wire is not a factor. For a shorter period the portable soothes the withdrawal and good enough with the telescopic antenna. 


Direct competition is Nooelec's Ham-It-Up upconverter for the same price, thought the Nooelec one has a pass-through switch so you only have to connect a different antenna (or use an antenna switch) for frequencies above 30 MHz. Watch this space, I have one on order for a direct comparison.
Around 70 USD you'll get upconverters with two or three antenna inputs.
100 USD and up RTL stick and shortwave adaptor integrated into a USB stick, but I think at this point the primary advantage of software defined radio (Price) disappears.
200 USD buys a stick (Funcube Dongle Pro) for all signals this side of microwave, better performance then an RTL stick (at 15x cost)and no hassle with drivers.

Final thoughts

For half the price of a good shortwave receiver the same performance on your laptop - you give up buttons and tactile feel, and gain ease of use and accessibility.
The number of broadcasting stations, amateur operators and digital modes on shortwave is staggering; for the 50 USD admission fee you get an easy-to use adapter with good performance. On expensive and dedicated shortwave receivers the frequency display screen and the buttons are small; with this setup I can see 1 MHz worth of signals in Full HD on a 24" screen.

Further reading and useful websites

Shortwave background info if you're new to the topic (Wiki):

Available HF upconverters glossary here:

To know what you're hearing see Short-Wave Info.

English shortwave broadcasts are listed on Primetime Shortwave.

Shortwave antenna info at

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Reducing electrical noise

RTL-SDR, EMI, RFI, Noise reduction, noise suppression, SDRSharp,

- You can use alu foil, but make sure it touches the metal part of the USB plug.
- Remove the metal support from the USB extension cable on the end where you connect the RTL stick. This will eliminate noise picked up by the USB extension cable.
 - If you have a spare car battery, connect the metal part of USB plug to the negative terminal.
- Mobile operation or no car battery? Wrap the center conductor of coax around the metal part of the USB plug, then place the stick in the middle of coiled coax.

Testing setup

Your antenna receives noise and signal. Without an antenna any signal received is by the RTL stick and the cables, and you do not want that.
For this test: Nooelec RTL-SDR 820T stick, max gain, no antenna. Weak local FM radio station signal 5/5, clear and enjoyable. That is unwanted signal entering the reception chain.
On the images the middle signal is the radio station - that should not be there, smaller peak is better.
Also note the waterfall display for received signal strength.

RTL-SDR, EMI, RFI, Noise reduction, noise suppression, SDRSharp, Results

Direct vs USB cable connection: USB cable (76cm) increased noise by 13 dB.
USB plug metal connected to 1m coax: coax cable center conductor connected to the metal support of the USB plug. Decreased noise by 7db.
USB plug metal connected to 10m wire: further noise reduction by 5dB.
USB plug metal connected to 12V car battery negative (-) terminal: noise almost completely eliminated.
USB plug support connected to 10m coax, RTL stick nesting in the middle: noise completely eliminated.
Aluminum foil, metal cans, metal enclosures: aluminum foil NOT touching either the antenna jack or USB connector, half roll of aluminum foil: no effect. Metal from Seven 0.5 l cans wrapped on top of the alu foil: no effect. Metal enclosure: no effect. Note that if the alu foil/metal/enclosure is connected to the metal part of the USB plug, immediate noise reduction of 15-20 dB, station still heard, speech distinguishable.

USB connector mod
RTL-SDR, EMI, RFI, Noise reduction, noise suppression, SDRSharp,

A reduction of 10 dB, stick still safely connected.
Remove the USB metal part that keeps the RTL stick in place,  from the end of the USB extension lead where you connect the RTL stick. 
Only USB signal and power connectors remain. Mow  shielding in the cable is not connected to the signal chain.
Do not remove the other end of the USB extension lead, the one going into the computer USB port, no further reduction realized, but the extension cable will easily come out of the port.

Organize cables at home

If it has a plug or battery, it will radiate electrical noise, either the cable / power lead or the actual device itself.
A simple solution is to place cables and extension leads into a computer case or a similar metal enclosure.
In the following example, unmodified original RTL stick, no antenna so it only picks up noise, connected with 1.24m (5 foot) USB extension cable. Stick resting on the edge of the PC case where I keep cables/extension leads.
PC case panel off: Local station washed away in electrical noise, audibly louder noise.
PC case panel on: Relief from the loud noise, local station understandable.
If I'm after a distant signal: laptop unplugged, electricity turned off in the house, candles on. Optionally: LNA and shortwave upconverter running off batteries.
Best is no electricity: listen to a far-flung Caribbean station in candlelight with your significant other.


Ferrites are rings, beads or clip-on pieces of iron used to reduce noise.
Coil the USB cable around a ferrite ring, or use clamp-on ferrites.
Use ferrites at the terminations of your
- USB cable between computer and stick,
-  on the cable between stick and antenna.

6-7 dB reduction of noise visible, audible decrease of the FM station with 4 turns on a ferrite ring and ferrite beads on the USB cable (USB plug metal removed both ends).
Also did experiments with turns around ferrite rings - 8 turns made no difference.
Conclusion: invest in clamp-on ferrites, the bigger and more, the better.

Maximum noise reduction

Stick wrapped in alu foil, foil touching the metal part of the USB plug, connected by an USB extension cable with the metal removed. Stick inside a metal enclosure, in the middle of 10m coax coil.
Result: no signal whatsoever, FM band is clear, waterfall is uniform blue.
Optional: ferrites if you have them.

Closing thoughts

If you chase very weak signals, such as shortwave with an upconverter, or a weather satellite just on your horizon you need the best noise reduction solution.
In all of the above tests I had gain to the maximum, so any reduction is clearly visible.
Noise as called here (same thing, complicated words):  electromagnetic interference (EMI) or radio frequency interference (RFI).
You know a better option? Curious to hear from you, use the comment section here.

Note on Nooelec: As their customer support might recommend the hardware guide on this blog, Nooelec sent a free RTL-SDR stick to my former high school physics lab.
I like this attitude.