Marty KN0CK developed a very interesting v1.0 HF converter based on surface mount technology that fits inside the casing of an RTLSDR tuner dongle. He’s recently sent me schematics for the revision, which should offer even better performance.
This new iteration has a few major upgrades from the previous – an ESD protection diode on the input, and an optional Mini-Circuits MAR 8+ RF preamplifier which should really draw out some weak signals. Nice weather is coming up soon and once I have some free time, I’ll string up my long antenna – this should really pick out the weak shortwave signals I love hunting for.
I’ll be offering KN0CK’s converters for sale soon, so if you’re interested, please click here and I’ll let you know when it’s available!
I’m trying to catalog all the different HF upconverters on the market for the RTLSDR. The RTLSDR stack, a combination of radio software such as GNUradio or SDR# with a Realtek RTL2383 + Elonics E4000-based DVB-T tuner using a modified driver, is getting to be very popular among amateur radio enthusiasts because it’s cheap and highly versatile to allow you to receive on a very wide frequency range. Unfortunately, the chip has some limitations – that wide range only goes from about 50-2200MHz with most in the 64-1700MHz range. That’s well above the HF bands where many ham radio operators and shortwave or AM stations are found.
Fortunately, the marketplace has taken care of that limitation, and quite a few choices for an HF converter / up-converter are now available which use a mixer and crystal oscillator to add around 100MHz to the incoming signals, shifting them into the tuner’s frequency range. There are several choices out there, including pre-built boards, partially built kits, and plans depending on your skill level and interest. An assembled board or a partially assembled kit will probably set you back about $50-100; if you’re savvy you can probably make it for $10-20 in parts – if you don’t mind winding your own coils. Your mileage may vary.
So, getting to it, these are your choices arranged with built boards near the top, partially built boards and kits near the middle, and plans and project logs near the end.
If you have any others I’ve missed, send me an e-mail!
1. There’s a new Ham It Up v1.2 HF upconverter for software defined radio produced by Opendous which has a large amount of documentation including layouts, and can be purchased mostly-assembled for only about $50. v1.2 makes some small improvements, including a 125MHz crystal instead of a 100MHz crystal to ensure there’s no interference from the U.S. FM Broadcast Band. It also features an input switch and an optional hardware noise source is an interesting, if possibly seldom used, feature. Ham Radio Science has a rather extensive review of the original revision and were pretty happy with it.
2. CT1FFU v4 HF converter is fairly new and features an antenna switch, solving the problem of the low-pass filters keeping interesting high frequency signals out of your system even if you do want them. You can avoid manually switching the upconverter in and out of the circuit with this feature. It offers some other design improvements over the previous revisions, which were themselves some of the first upconverters widely available. 68 Euro shipped worldwide with tracking. Offers optional 106.250MHz or 65.520MHz crystals to help mitigate interference from local FM stations.
It looks like 9A4QV built a model, the HF Upconverter SDR UP-100, which is for sale for 35 Euro + Shipping. There’s not much information that I can find on the site about it, but I think that’s a very attractive board. I especially like the neatly wound coils. Gone, but now he has an interesting Low Noise Amplifier for sale.
4. I’ve been using CT1FFU’s v3.1 dongle. German retailer Wimo sells completed kits, which have been in stock even when CT1FFU’s own kits have sold out. A no frills HF up-converter, mine came assembled except for the SMA connectors. It’s one of the early generation upconverters but still offers solid performance. V3.1 uses a 106.250MHz IF.
Wimo also sells the FunCube dongle, if you don’t already have an SDR.
5. JaniLab has started selling a derivative of the CT1FFU v2.0 on eBay for a bit lower of a price than some of the others. The older revisions work well, although with some more leakage than subsequent designs, and don’t have quite as fancy filtering or switching features.
6. Janilab also sells another DBM mixer-based converter, with an antenna switch to bypass the conversion.
8. If you’re looking for a more rugged commercial solution, High Sierra Microwave has an upconverter (FCD-1-55-UC) with a 133MHz IF frequency and BNC terminals with an integral amplifier. I’m a fan of converters whose LO frequency shifts the entire HF range above the FM broadcast band in general and the shielded enclosure will definitely cut down on noise. Looks like it’s suitable for mounting outside at your antenna’s feed point, and it also looks like you’re going to pay for those features. If anyone owns one and wants to share their experience with it, or if High Sierra Microwave wants to send me one to evaluate (*wink wink*) I’d
If you’re more ambitious, you can roll your own up-converter from parts. FAR Circuits appears to have manufactured PCBs for sale for many QST projects, including one upconverter. I’ve only recently discovered this site and there seems to be a lot of good stuff.
9. W9RAN put together a “Cheap and Easy” RANverter SDR 2.0 Converter Kit with 2 MHz wide bandwidth and 125 MHz oscillator frequency. There aren’t very many parts in this kit and they’re all through-hole so this should be an easy HF converter to assemble. Somewhat less of a commitment than building any of the of the ones just from plans, but more than a commercial board above. The kit is available for $31.95 + S&H and it looks like Far Circuits sells a bare board for you to populate yourself for a few dollars based on these plans.
10. If you’re comfortable speaking Dutch, or just with Google Translate, you can buy the Kit RF Converter for RTL SDR Sticks DC – 65 MHz. Unlike most other models, this one HF up-converter takes a BNC 50 Ohm antenna input and has an SMA 50 Ohm output with a 100 MHz oscillator frequency and built-in protection. This one also looks like a great starter kit with through-hole components and large coils and looks easy to build. You can also purchase the completed assembled kit in an enclosure, which also includes a power cable and SMA-MCX adapter cable. Looks interesting.
11. Kalle over at DGK Electronics has a great looking compact 100MHz HF converter designed to fit inside of a pre-made RF shielding box. It uses the ADE-1 mixer and an ASEM oscillator. It has some of the most complex filters and great filtering on the incoming power line, it probably performs very well. He describes the filters on his page, and there’s also a full schematic available. There’s a photo of a pile of boards, and he says there’s still some available, one might be left! DGK Electronics
12. Marty KN0CK built this incredible SMD SA612-based HF upconverter which fits inside the dongle housing itself and steals power directly from the USB cable. This is an incredible piece of work with very few moving parts. Read here to see some more photos and the full schematic. He’s also developing a Rev B to improve performance – check out the teaser!
13. David Forsman, WA7JHZ, sent me a photo and plans of his 125MHz HF up-converter with a diode limiter, attenuator, and amplifier all in one from plans featured in Jan ’13 QST magazine. Click through there to the article for a schematic and explanation for more details and a full schematic. Thanks, David!
14. Matt Dawson GW0VNR has a very interesting HF converter using more discrete parts than some of the other ones I’ve seen. It uses hand-wound transformers, an actual discrete diode mixer, and a Saronix oscillator running at 106.25 MHz. It uses a total of 23 parts and looks like it would be pretty easy to build. He doesn’t have any photos of the completed board, but does have a full schematic, overlay, transfer mask and Gerber files for the PCB. I’m pretty sure I have all the parts to build this one in my box as well. It looks interesting and simple. Check it out.
15. Radio amateur Paulino Sato has posted schematics and specifications for using the TA7358AP FM Front-End as an HF up-converter you can build yourself, using small coils wound on your own forms. It’s a bit of a commitment, but only has about 40 parts. The instructions are in PDF format. Download from me directly or the original is available on DropBox. The PDF contains PCB masks and silk screen layouts and a full schematic.
16. Over in the UK at the George Smart Wiki, we see homebrew plans by M1GEO using hand-wound coils with an SBL-1 mixer and 100MHz crystal oscillator. It has around 20 parts to assemble. These coils look like they could be hand wound on a dowel coil form, and the crystal and mixer are very large parts, so you could probably build this on perfboard without any trouble.
17. Bryce Salmi KB1LQC built a very rugged-looking clone of George Smart’s above with some modfiications dead bug style.
18. Romanian amateur Alexandru YO2LDK built a simple HF upconverter circuit using an NE602. This has an amplifier, limiter, regulated supply and 100MHz frequency like several of the ones pictured, but the circuit itself looks quite different. The amplifier stage is ahead of the limiter, which looks like this one is offering a constant gain versus the adjustable gain some of the others have offered. It looks like this one has more tunable components, which means a little more work to dial it in. I didn’t see any photos of the completed product.
19. Nick G0CWA built an interesting switchable upconverter design, complete with instructions and board layout PDFs.
There are plenty of options to build or buy for getting HF signals into the VHF range for your RTLSDR. With these choices, there are plenty of options for getting HF signals into the VHF ranges for use with the RTLSDR. It’s not difficult to modify these plans for even higher fidelity and accuracy, such as by increasing filtering on the power lines, building a shielded enclosure, improved antenna systems, and more.
I’ve been using my v3.1 Converter from Wimo for a few months, and have been very happy with its performance so far – there’s little noise and leakage, and I use it to pull in shortwave broadcasts from all over the world including the BBC, China, Cuba, Japan, Russia and more from my home in Seattle with only an 80″ long wire and a string of adapters – I highly recommend that model, or any of the models in this family, for great performance. I’m looking forward to trying out some of these other ones.
If you have a design you’d like to see featured here, let me know!
Edit 10/29/2012: NooElec offers “Ham It Up v1.0″ upconverter which looks to be based on a different design, and seems very high quality. Check it out!
Edit 2/2/2013: Better info about the Opendous Upconverter, KB1LQC’s DIY Upconverter, and WA7JHZ’s upconverter.
Edit 2/3/2013:Added 9A4QV HF Upconverter SDR UP-100, G0CWA 2012 upconverter, YO2LDK upconverter.
Edit 2/13/2013: Added Vandijken Elektronica upconverter and W9RAN RANVerter 2.0.
Edit 2/19/2013: Added KN0CK SMD HF Upconverter
Edit 4/13/2013: Added JaniLab converters, High Sierra Microwave converter.
Edit 4/25/2013: Informed 9A4QV Out of Stock – Thanks Adam!
Edit 5/14/2013: Ham It Up v1.0 > v1.2, Now Ships with 125MHz Crystal
I bought and did a quick setup on my RTLSDR dongle using SDR# a few weeks ago, where I used it to listen to FM radio stations around my area and a few public safety frequencies. That’s all well and good, but I’m much more interested in shortwave listening – when the weather is good, I can pick up a fair number of stations on my Hallicrafters receiver and there’s even more out there that I can’t tune in with that old equipment.
The RTLSDR tunes from around 64MHz up through around 1800MHz, but shortwave frequencies are much lower – only up to around 30MHz. Using an RF mixer, it’s possible to shift the signal into the RTL’s tuning range. Portuguese designer CT1FFU developed a mixing upconverter which adds 106.25MHz to the incoming signals, shifting them up into the correct receiving range and filtering out signals about 50MHz to prevent interference. His version comes as a kit which requires surface-mount soldering, but German retailer Wimo offers mostly-assembled versions of the kit which only need the antenna terminals and power connector soldered.
Finding those adapters was a bit challenging – I have a helical antenna which terminates in that alligator clip, feeding into a coax break-out, with an SMA-Coax converter. On the other end is an SMA gender-changer and an SMA to MCX adapter. Ultimately I ordered them from eBay and they work as intended. The USB port provides the +5V power supply for the converter’s operation but otherwise isn’t connected.
Reception is acceptable. With the aid of the SDR software, I can see where signals are more readily, but issues with my antenna setup and local interference are keeping it from performing as well as the Hallicrafters. I can identify human voices on more stations, but it seems there are fewer I can actually listen to with this equipment. I’ll probably try building a tuned loop antenna similar to this one, and see what I can do with better noise rejection and directionality. I might also add a low noise amplifier after whichever better antenna I end up using.
If anyone has a favorite, easy-to-build loop antenna for 10-160M I’d love to hear about it.
Back in May, I dug up a Hallicrafters 8R40 from one of Seattle’s local electronics recyclers, 3R Technologies. It looked like it had been stored very well, had all the tubes, the dial strings intact, no rust to speak of and not even very much dust.
This one is a bit different from the others I’ve worked on, it’s a general coverage communications receiver as opposed to being a consumer/entertainment receiver. It’s built more sturdily, designed to be serviced more easily (down to the flip-up metal top for easy access to the tubes) and was designed with an eye for sensitivity and performance to receive ham radio signals. It receives the standard AM Broadcast Band + three shortwave bands covering most of the amateur frequencies from the 160M band (1.8MHz) down to slightly longer than 8M (44MHz). It uses 8 tubes, has a tuned RF amplifier stage and two IF stages (instead of one commonly found on consumer radios) and a device called a Beat Frequency Oscillator that means it can be used to receive Morse code, not just audio signals.
It’s really interesting to think about how capable of a device this is, given that its circuitry is of the same order of complexity of maybe a dozen transistors…about the same number a modern children’s noisemaker would have and nothing compared to the 731,000,000 transistors employed in a modern Intel Core i7 CPU.
An action shot of the underside, recapping in progress, starting from the right and working left. This radio was either built from bucket parts (unlikely, given it’s from a decent brand and wasn’t their cheapest model) or was repaired several times over its life, but always well. There were 6 different brands of paper capacitors: Aerovox, Micamold, Standard Condenser Co., Micamold, Cornell-Doublier, and El-Menco. I’ve replaced all paper capacitors with film capacitors with a uniform 630V rating ignoring the varying lower voltage ratings of the original capacitors. The small values were either replaced with 500V Mica or 1000V Disc capacitors of the appropriate capacitance.
Size comparison of old and new capacitors together.
All the old caps replaced, including the across-the-line cap (blue, top left) and the electrolytic filters (middle). I mounted a new terminal strip using a #6-32 screw through an existing hole in the chassis for two of the capacitors, and used an empty grounded lug from an existing terminal strip for the third. Some would remove the can capacitor, cut it open and re-stuff but I don’t find that to be a good use of my time.
A perspective shot showing the different components. It’s pretty busy down there!
All the replaced components. Four mica caps, one molded paper cap, 18 wax paper caps and two resistors.
So, flipping it back over for the first power-up:
First thing I noticed, the dial light is out. That’ll need to be replaced. The radio does crackle to life, though, and once I get the positions to life does weakly receive KIXI 880 in perfect alignment. But it has an overpowering volume-dependent hum and low sensitivity, missing many stations I know to exist there. We’re about six hours of hands-on labor to this point. Time for troubleshooting:
The hum is volume-dependent, which means it’s (almost certainly) not an issue with the power supply. Power supply wiring errors, like insufficient filtering due to a failed or missing filter cap, usually shows up as volume-independent hum. I’ll check the third filter capacitor, though, as it’s on a different ground lug. The radio has a Radio/Phono switch on the front which changes the audio source from the detector output (radio position) to the phono input on the back (phono position). When set to the phono position the hum disappears entirely. This indicates the problem lies in the RF section. I suspect the 6SG7 tuned RF amplifier has an internal heater-to-cathode short, which will put AC hum from the AC-powered tube heater into the DC cathode circuit. It could also be a short circuit to ground around one of the other RF tubes (converter, an IF amplifier or the detector) but I doubt this, a short around a functional tube would likely take it out entirely versus a leaking short internally.
Testing the tubes revealed they were all good. Several tested nearly new. All were identically branded Hallicrafters tubes to match the set which was even more interesting, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the originals included when the set was sold. I relocated the ground from the above foreground electrolytic from the terminal strip to an unused solder lug but this didn’t correct the problem. Poking around, I discovered that the problem seemed to change with vibration and motion and the easiest place to see this effect was changing the position of the speaker. I initially suspected an intermittent in the output transformer (seen to the left of the black EPCOS capacitor):
but several tweaks around the transformer, including substituting another speaker, eliminated it from consideration. I desoldered the speaker leads and replaced with a bench speaker:
This didn’t fix the problem, so I reversed the modification and worked backwards from the output stage to discover that I’d missed a solder connection on the detector output. While there, I replaced two 200pF mica capacitors that were looking a little ragged for good measure.
With that repair made, I powered it up and it worked very nicely. AM comes on very well aligned with good tone and all the controls function. On the first shortwave band I picked up 5 stations but two of them are broadcast in Seattle. On the second, I picked up two copies of the BBC World Service and a news station in Spanish. On the highest shortwave band I picked up what I suspect are data signals and location beacons but no voice transmissions. These additional troubleshooting steps took about 2 hours, bringing the running total up to 8 hours of repairs.
I peaked up the IF transformers, but the RF alignment was “good enough” for me so I didn’t do a full RF alignment. This was built like a tank originally, and I didn’t need to replace any of the components in the RF sections, so it should be fine for quite a while. After reassembly, I put it up on my shelf:
Now I have a working general-coverage communication receiver. It’s right near my desk, so hopefully I’ll be able to spend some time cruising the dial and seeing what else is out there. Shortwave reception is heavily influenced by atmospheric conditions, it’s different every time!
Total project time for this one was about nine hours and consumed around $20 of on-hand consumable parts. For a parts list, see the service manual.
My Stromberg-Carlson 520-PG (previous parts 1 2) is finally finished! The radio came out ahead of my expectations, even, and was delivered to its new home yesterday where I expect it will continue to serve for years to come. See these in-progress photos, or jump to the bottom for the “after” picture!
The radio was fairly beat up when I found it – dirty, scratches, missing the speaker cloth, and completely original electrically.
After assessing the condition of the coils and transformers, it was time to mount the chassis to the bench and start the real work.
After replacing pretty much everything that needed replaced or probably would soon, the radio was back to full electrical integrity and ready for alignment:
Alignment completed, it was time to work on the cabinet:
And, at last, time to re-cover the speaker and reinstall! The final results:
It plays beautifully on line input, and picked up distant AM and Shortwave broadcasts (including Radio Australia, a Russian CW and an Entertainment station, Japanese music, English-language religious programming, and a Cuban broadcast. Now, it’s on to the next project!