An Evening With the Drake SPR-4

IMG_20180508_192729Outdoor listening sessions are nothing new for me. My Facebook feed has several shots of the Drake R8, HQ-145, and even a Racal 6790 sitting on the deck of my old house, an adult beverage nearby, and a strand of speaker wire for an antenna. These listening sessions never provided any exotic DX catches, but they were a lot of fun.

Now that winter has finally surrendered its grip on Central Iowa, my radios have again found themselves outside on the patio for an enjoyable evening of listening under the night time sky. It gives me a chance to get away from my beloved Perseus and my trusty fleet of portables, and get re-acquainted with some old favorites.

Last night, I dug out an old war horse that hadn’t been fired up in a few years: the Drake SPR-4. Now for those who are not familiar with this radio, all I can really say about its operation is that it is a dial turner’s dream come true. Not only is the HF spectrum broken up into crystal controlled segments, there is also a preselector that needs to be adjusted with every turn of the tuning dial. In case you’re still not clear on how it all works, here’s a demo video someone put up on YouTube to give you a better idea.

Don’t let these ‘quirks’ fool you though, this is a real gem of a radio. Drake understood both the benefits and limitations of late 60s solid state technology, and designed a radio to maximize those strengths while minimizing the downsides. The result is a radio that is well regarded in DXing circles to this day. From my experience, I’d say it hears about as well as anything in the shack, and it has that beautiful blue dial to boot.

The beautiful blue dial of the SPR-4.
The beautiful blue dial of the SPR-4.

IMG_20180508_192745This particular SPR-4 had a couple of aftermarket modifications performed on it by the original vendor, which give it a couple of nice features that never made it into the stock versions. One of these is a gain control switch that allows it to be turned off when needed. That’s usually not a big deal, but it can mean the difference between hearing a weak signal and never pulling it out of the mud.  The other mod present on this radio is a  BFO injector, which basically allows you to use the USB and LSB settings as a secondary bandwidth filter without the noise of a squealing heterodyne.  Handy indeed!

The frequency counter on top, with the VFO below it.
The frequency counter on top, with the VFO below it.

This radio also came with another super handy accessory: a frequency counter. While I wouldn’t say it’s completely necessary, it can be very helpful, especially if it’s the first time you’ve turned the rig on in over a year. It certainly answered my immediate question of  ‘where in the world am I on the dial?‘ All I had to do was flip it on, take a look, and I was good to go. The display does generate a little bit of noise on the dial though. Normally it’s 100% inaudible, but since my Quantum Loop antenna was sitting right next to it, I never left it on for very long. I have bought an aftermarket VFO for this rig, but I prefer using the crystals.

Because the SPR-4 didn't have enough dials already... The Hi-Q Quantum Loop made for a great MW antenna.
Because the SPR-4 didn’t have enough dials already… The Hi-Q Quantum Loop made for a great MW antenna.

This radio is especially well regarded among mediumwave DXers, and it doesn’t take long to realize why this radio has the reputation that it does. The first thing I picked up was a station with Washington Nationals baseball, WRVA 1140 out of Richmond, VA. Not exactly a difficult catch here, but still a very nice signal. I then moved down the dial to the Cardinals on KMOX St Louis, and managed to just about null them out with the Quantum Loop. I then headed further down the dial to 1030, just on the outskirts of my local clear channel flamethrower WHO Des Moines. Some adjustments to the loop helped to reduce the interference, but it was still pretty “crunchy”. A quick switch over to the lower sideband setting and a little fiddling of the notch filter though quickly revealed WCTS, the 1 kW religious station out of Maplewood, MN. Not the WBZ I was hoping for, but still a good test.

I continued my cruise down the dial, thoroughly enjoying everything about the night. One of the beauties about the AM broadcast band is that no two listening sessions are ever the same. What is coming in like gangbusters tonight may be gone without a trace tomorrow, and vice versa. Tonight was no exception, as I nulled out my beloved Chicago Cubs on 670 and listened as KGHZ and Cuba battled for supremacy on the frequency. Later, I watched a shooting star shoot across the sky as WSM played Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy by the great Lefty Frizzell.

How freaking cool is that, people?

I ended up the night by playing detective on 620 AM. Milwaukee was dominant, but KEXB out of Plano, TX was mixing with a couple of others. WRJZ out of Knoxville, TN was one (they were nice enough to come up just as they gave an ID, something that usually never happens), but I could also hear the hockey game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators. After eliminating a couple of possibilities through internet live streams, I figured out from a commercial mentioning Florida  that it was sports station WDAE out of Tampa. With the mystery solved, it was time to wrap up another great “Propagation on the Patio” session and go to bed.

There are a lot of worse ways to spend an evening than spinning the dials on the Drake SPR-4. While it may not win any beauty contests, or awards for ergonomics, this radio has it where it counts. When I said this radio could hear as well as anything in the shack, I really do mean anything. It’s as good as the R-388, the Perseus, the Elad… you name it. When you can take a quality radio like this outside though, and enjoy it under the night time sky, that’s something very special.  If you get the opportunity, take advantage of these cool late spring nights and do a little listening outside.  It’s well worth the effort.

In fact, I may have another date with the Drake set for tonight.

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Author: Timbo

Just another guy exposed to too a lethal dose of bank account draining RF at a tender age.

One thought on “An Evening With the Drake SPR-4”

  1. Thanks for this great piece. The SPR-4 was my second “major” receiver after the HQ-180A
    way back in the 70’s . I actually carried one with me in a shoe case all the way to South Africa
    in 1974 when I was an exchange student in Swaziland, and was able to DX the heck out of Asia
    from that location. I ended up bringing the same SPR-4 to Africa with me in the 1980’s when I
    was a VOA correspondent, and again to Thailand for 5 years when I was bureau chief in Bangkok.
    Then — I sold the radio. Stupid. In the last few years, I obtained a NIB (that’s right, NIB) SPR-4
    and then about 2 months ago, located one with the BFO modification, so I now have two of them.
    The SPR-4 is a simple radio, but sensitive (except for the 2 mhz range where it famously lacked
    in sensitivity). It runs cool, and you can shut off the dial lamps (mine have blue LED’s replacing
    the original GE 47 bulbs). I decided not to mess around with a FS-4, and simply use both with
    their crystal ranges. Again, thanks for this great piece on a great radio!

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