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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A Review of the Sony ICF-EX5MkII

I find that a lot of things I buy today have their roots deep in my past. Whether it be pocket knives, watches, or yes, radios, they can all be traced back to either a childhood desire or some other want that went unfulfilled at the time. This radio is no exception.

The Sony EX5 is a radio that’s intrigued me ever since I heard about it on Radio Netherlands Media Network. This radio, featuring an analog, linear AM dial and a synch detector, was reported to be a very hot performer on mediumwave, but it was also available only in the Japanese market. After toying with the idea of trying to get a friend of mine in Japan to pick one up, I resigned myself to the fact I would never get my paws on one.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago,  when I am looking at the many different  eBay options available for obtaining this radio, all promising to deliver withing 10 to 21 days. Before hitting the buy now though, I decide to do a quick check of Amazon to see if there are any available there. Not only do they carry them, they’re cheaper than eBay and are eligible for two day delivery! I quickly add the radio to the cart, and within a few days, I had a brand new Sony ICF-EX5 MkII sitting on my desk. Thank you, internet!

First Impressions

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The Sony ICF-EX5MkII, right after unboxing.

The radio comes ready to use, with a carrying strap, four C size batteries, and a manual and warranty card, both of which are written in Japanese. It should be noted that the radio does not come with an AC adapter, which is fine, as it wouldn’t fit an American outlet anyway. If if you want to use this radio with AC power though, you’ll need a 6v adapter to make it happen. FYI.

I did notice that my particular unit at least is that the tuning knob seemed to ‘catch’ as it turned. I do not know if this is common with all units or not (who knows, maybe it’s a feature that’s addressed in the manual?), but I solved the problem by gently pulling the tuning knob out about an 8th of an inch, which solved the problem with no other issues.

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The EX5MkII next to the SupeRadio II

One of the first things that grabbed me about this radio is that it is fairly compact, especially compared to some of the portables I’m used to. Measuring in about 10.5 inches long, 5.5 inches tall, and maybe 2.5 inches wide, I’d guess it’s a little smaller than a Sony 2010, quite a bit smaller than any of the SupeRadios, and downright minuscule when compared to the behemoth that is the Satellit 800. The C batteries, while not as common as their bigger D sized brothers, help to keep the size and weight down, making this radio a great choice for a quick DXpedition to the beach, your local park, or anywhere else that’s away from electrical interference.

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Cubs win! sounds good on any radio.  Note the small turntable the radio is on. 

Since the radio arrived, I’ve spent a lot of enjoyable evenings out on the patio with this radio exploring the AM dial, and putting it through its paces. Like most Sonys, this radio has very nice audio, with an upper and lower tone adjustment switch to tailor your listening preferences. Not as handy as separate bass and treble controls, but still a nice feature for a radio this compact.

The Linear Dial

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A close up of the linear dial on the Sony EX5 MkII.

Maybe my analog radio skills are rusty, but I am surprised at how long it’s taken me to get used to the linear dial on this radio. Unlike most analog dials, which stretch out the lower frequencies while crunching the higher ones closer together, this radio has uniform spacing from the left hand of the dial to the right. While it seems like an easy adjustment(it’s really no different than the Hammarlund or Collins in the shack), I’ve struggled with it. I continually find myself going back to known stations to get a bearing on where I’m really at, and then feeling my way up or down to my target station. This is something that one goes through with every new analog portable though regardless of how the dial is configured, it just seems like more of an adjustment with this radio than others. Your mileage may vary.

That Synch Detector!

My location is about fifty miles away from WHO radio and their 50 KW transmitters on 1040 kHz.  This makes 1030 AM a great test for any radio or antenna system, and it’s where I started with the EX5. Finding WHO on the dial, I slowly made my way down to 1030. I could hear a couple of different stations with the radio turned to null out the WHO transmitters, but I was still getting a fair amount of splatter from WHO’s lower sideband. It’s here where the synch detector on this radio shines! A flip of a switch, and 90% of the splatter disappears, revealing a couple of weak stations someone so fittingly described as “in the soup.” I recognized one of the voices in that jumbled up mess as that of Dan Rea, the host of WBZ’s Nightside program out of Boston. I performed a similar test on 650 AM, where I managed to hear Eddie Stubbs’ music program on WSM in spite of the local WOI on 640. Neither of these tests were much of a challenge for the Sony and it’s synch detector.

Unlike a lot of synch detectors I’ve experienced, which take a moment or two to lock and may have to reacquire the carrier from time to time, this one seems to lock on instantaneously and never lets go. That’s a great thing to have when you’re trying to get an ID on a weak, fluttery station coming in from who knows where. In these cases, the synch detector minimizes the flutter and washing of the signal, and gets you the clearest reception possible. Nicely done, Sony.

What else?

Did you notice the red light in the tuning indicator? That little light not only makes the indicator easier to see, but it also doubles as a tuning indicator. The brighter the light, the more in tune you are with the station, sort of reminiscent of the old Sony Earth Orbiter. It can also double as a signal strength meter of sorts as well, which comes in handy when you’re using a tuned loop, or some other external antenna that couples with the radio via the internal ferrite rod.  One thing that I do find missing though is a dial light. Yes, I know, that’s what they make flashlights for, but it would still be a nice addition to what is already a very fine radio.

I have no idea how this radio performs on FM as I’ve never bothered to give it a try. I have heard reports of the dial being off a few MHz on FM though, so if this is a concern to you, keep it in mind. I haven’t tried the Radio Nikkei reception just yet either, but that will definitely happen sooner or later. Once i get bored enough to hook this thing up to the SAL,  I’m sure I’ll hear both Nikkei 1 and 2 on 3925 and 3945 with no problem. And yes, I will definitely make a YouTube video of the occasion.

Final Thoughts

IMG_20160524_105644361 (2)I think it’s safe to say that this radio lives up to the hype. Its sensitive enough to hear KKDA out of Dallas on 730 kHz, but has a strong enough front end that I’m not swamped by a couple of strong, local stations. The synch detector is nothing short of remarkable, and it all comes in a relatively compact package. While the linear dial takes some getting used to, the tuning light is pretty handy, and you can pack your own flashlight to see where you’re tuning. Is it going to replace the perseus and the SAL-30? Of course not! But the SAL won’t fit in a small book bag either.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this radio the last few weeks, and I highly recommend picking one up.