Receiver Review: Drake R8A

R8A

Year Introduced & Discontinued: 1995-1997
Power: Mains, 12 VDC
Size: 334 x 134 x 330 mm
Weight: 5900g
Price: US$1060, CAN$1600, £995, A$2500
Coverage: 100 kHz - 30 MHz, AM/USB/LSB/CW/RTTY/FM (VHF converter 35-55 and 108-174 MHz optional)

Value Rating star starstarstarstarstar

The R8A follows on the successful R8 introduced in 1991. There are a host of improvements externally and internally.

Externally, notably the R8's carrousel selection of mode and bandwidth is replaced on the R8A with two arrays of keys for direct selection -- or an AUTO mode that links a default bandwidth to a mode. Five filters (6.0, 4.0, 2.3, 1.8 and 0.5 kHz) are included. On the rear apron, the power cord is detachable.

Internally, the number of memories has been expanded to 440 memories (up from 100 in the R8) and there is a new alpha-numeric name function. Up to seven characters may be programmed into each memory channel, and you can scan through the memory channels by the numbers or the names. In the VFO mode with the name function activated, when tuning across a frequency that is programmed into a memory, the name will be displayed. For example, program 6165 kHz into a memory with a name of "R NETH". Switch to the VFO and tune the 49m band. When the tuning crosses 6165, the display switches from the frequency and automatically displays R NETH.

Memories are now tuneable, as they are in the Drake SW8.

The computer control is much improved over the Drake R8. The removal of the RTS and CTS control lines makes it easier to communicate with the receiver. Unfortunately the rear-apron DB9 connector is a non-standard female connector, so we had to add a male gender changer to attach our standard serial cable. New commands include reading the s-meter, the naming of a memory channel and memory block read and store. We also note explanations of some of the command codes are missing from the manual, and it is left to the programmer to experiment. After-market software for the R8 will have to be upgraded in order to work on the R8A.

There are engineering improvements as well, with small increases on dynamic range values and other areas of receiver performance. The AGC action seems smooth, and the AM synchronous detector holds on the weaker signals. But the synchronous detector is not sideband selectable, and it takes some practice to learn how best to use the combination of the synchronous mode and passband tuning to the best advantage. An audio notch filter is included.

The utility listener will have to apply offset values to tune digital signals. The frequency readout on the green LCD panel displays an audio frequency, not the nominal carrier frequency listed in utility station guides. For RTTY, the difference is the mark tone of 2125 kHz. For CW, 700 or 800 Hz. For fax (tuned in the USB mode), 1.9 kHz.

We rate the receiver as a good value. In the US, the R8A is almost $300 less than the new Lowe HF-250E and offers more features and tuning controls.
Radio Netherlands Reciever Test Laboratory: Full Review

This review was compiled independently. The Medium Wave Circle and Radio Netherlands has no financial connection with R.L. Drake, the manufacturer of this receiver.

Reviewers: Jonathan Marks & Tom Sundstrom

 

Introduction

In 1991 the R.L. Drake Company of Miamisburg, Ohio, USA, re-entered the shortwave market with the USA-built R18 receiver. The receiver proved to be a popular seller. The success of the R8 led to the introduction of the R8A in the fourth quarter of 1995. We acquired a unit -- serial number 5J12930051 -- from a dealer in the USA in late October 1995.

At first glance the R8A does not seem all that different from the R8. The size and general appearance seem to be about the same as the R8. Upon closer inspection, there are significant changes. A new array of controls, internal engineering improvements, and attention to the physical structure of the receiver make this R8A a striking improvement over the R8.

 

The coverage

The R8A frequency coverage is 100 kHz to 30 MHz. The optional VHF converter adds coverage of 35-55 and 108-174 MHz frequency ranges. Modes are AM, LSB, USB, CW, RTTY and FM. Like the R8, all filters are included. Bandwidth filters are 6.0, 4.0, 2.3, 1.8 and 0.5 kHz. See the adjacent specifications table for the shape factor data.

 

The physical details

The R8A is packaged within a black sheet metal case of 334 mm wide, 134 mm high and 330 mm deep (13 1/8" x 5 1/4" x 13") and retains the characteristic black anodized front panel and a large green liquid crystal (LCD) display. The cabinet seems sturdier than the one on the R8. The receiver weighs 5.9 Kg (13 lb.). The AC power requirements are 100, 120, 200 or 240 VAC at 50 or 60 Hz, drawing 40 watts of power. A DC spring-connector is provided on the rear apron of the receiver. The DC requirements are 11 to 16 VDC at 2 amperes. The low current requirement allows one to easily run the receiver off a vehicle's cigarette lighter. The R8A has a metal bail to tilt the front up, instead of the separate plastic feet used on the R8.

 

The front panel

The front panel controls are laid out in a pattern similar to the R8, but with the notable addition of two separate keypads dedicated to bandwidth selection and mode. These new sets of keys are placed side by side in two 2-by-3 arrays marked off on the panel by white boundary lines, placed to the right of the LCD panel. The bothersome carrousel selection of mode and filters of the R8 has been eliminated. One may directly select any mode or filter, or opt to use the "AUTO" bandwidth setting. The defaults may be changed.

Dividing the front panel horizontally into two segments, the top half contains the S-meter , the LCD panel and the sets of bandwidth and mode keys. The LCD panel readouts include the frequency, the memory channel, bandwidth and mode. Like the R8, the bottom of the LCD panel labels six dual-purpose horizontally-arranged buttons set just under the panel display.

The bottom half of the front panel has a headphone jack and three concentric controls: notch and tone, passband offset and squelch, volume and RF gain concentric control. The last two controls are to the right of a smallish multi-function keypad for entering frequencies and setting receiver functions, tune up- and down-arrow keys and a tuning knob. Unfortunately there are no "dimples" to assist a visually handicapped person in navigating the keypads.

 

The rear apron

The notable difference between the R8A and the R8 is the detachable power cord. The user need only acquire a new power cord and dial in the correct line voltage to use the receiver elsewhere. Otherwise the connections are clearly labeled.

There are connections for high- and low-impedance antennas, and a separate antenna connection for the VHF converter. We like the two line-out phono jacks for connecting digital decoding and tape recording equipment. Timer controls are through a 5-pin DIN plug, but no DIN plug is provided. We wonder why? We also note the output speaker impedance is 4 ohms, rather than the typical 8 ohms found on most other speakers. We did not have the companion MS-8 speaker to test, and opted to attach an 8-ohm speaker instead without ill affects.

The RS-232C serial port connections are made through a DB-9 female connector. As a standard modem cable terminates in a female DB-9 connector, we had to make a trip out to the local computer store to pick up a male-to-male gender changer before we could attach the R8A to our computer. We wonder why the standard convention was not followed here.

 

Memories and more

The Drake R8A has 440 memories, up from 100 memories in the R8. Nine settings may be stored in each memory.

* Frequency
* Mode
* Bandwidth
* AGC setting
* Preamplifier or attenuation setting
* Antenna
* Notch on/off
* Noise blanker setting
* Synchronous detector on/off

New to the R8A is an alpha-numeric display. Memory channels can be given names up to 7 characters long. Memories may be scrolled by name instead of frequency if desired. When tuning in the VFO mode, stored memory channel names can be selected to appear as one tunes over the stored frequency. This is a useful reminder of favorite stations. The name is very easy to enter when storing to a memory channel. The name is entered by a combination of by rotating the tuning knob to select the letters and pressing the tuning control up- and down-arrow keys to scroll right and left. We found the process quite easy to grasp. The name function can be turned off at any time.

Recalling a memory is accomplished through pressing the MEM key, then selecting the memory by direct keypad entry, turning the tuning knob or by pressing the tuning control up- and down-arrow keys. Additionally, memory tuning -- akin to the Drake SW8 -- allows the user to recall a memory and change the frequency by the tuning knob. In either R8A memory mode the up- and down-arrows increment through memory channels.

 

Computer control

The R8A computer interface is significantly improved over the R8. The R8A allows control of all radio features except those controlled by the front panel potentiometers. In addition, it allows customized reports of frequency, mode, memory channel, name and signal strength.

The R8A does not require RTS/CTS handshaking as did the R8. The changes to the serial port make it much easier to communicate with the R8A receiver. R.L. Drake offered software for the R8, but has opted not to produce software for the R8A. There are a number of after-market receiver control software for the R8, and it appears that most (if not all) products will require new version upgrades due to the changes in the serial port wiring.

New to the command functions is the reporting of signal strength, the "naming" of a memory channel and block read and store commands. According to the company, the block commands, using hexadecimal notation, allow the uploading and downloading of the memories in 8 seconds. There are additional clock and timer commands as well.

On your own. The manual does not provide an explanation of some of the command codes. For example, it is left to the programmer to determine the mode selection commands (M1=USB, M2=LSB, M3=RTTY, M4=CW, M5=AM and M6=FM). Another instance is the output controls OO and OF. Experimentation shows that this translates to "output on" that causes a report from the receiver whenever any receiver setting is changed -- but there is no explanation of the output formats -- and "output off". Further, the S-meter output -- a measure of the AGC voltage -- is in hexadecimal notation. This is an unusual approach to say the least.

 

Other changes

The additional changes and improvements within the R8A compared to the R8 follow. These values are supplied by the company.

Dynamic range. The R8A is 99 dB, whereas the R8 was 90 dB. Both are measured at 20 kHz spacing in the 2.3 kHz bandwidth with the preamplifier off. The R8A is 95 dB measured under the same conditions except with the preamplifier turned on.

Third order intercept point. The R8A is +20 dBm, whereas the R8 was +5 dBm. Both are measured at 20 kHz spacing, preamplifier off. With the preamplifier on, the R8A is +10 dBm.

Improved front end protection. The R8A has improved protection to prevent damage to front end components when operated close to a nearby transmitter.

Frequency stability. The R8A is +/-5 ppm versus the R8's +/- 10 ppm. Both are measured over the same -10 to +50 degree C range.

Faster scanning. The R8A has faster (40 channels/second) memory channel and list scanning compared to the R8 (8 channels/second).

Display and entry of frequency. The R8A can be set to either kHz or MHz entry and display of frequency to suit the user's taste. The R8 was in MHz only.

Event timers/clocks. The R8A has two timers. The R8 had one timer. Both units provide dual time zone clocks. The R8A provides for permanent display of time, if selected by the press of a key, the R8 did not. But there is no simultaneous display of the frequency and time. As with the R8, the time is displayed when the receiver is turned off.

Up/down arrow tuning. In the R8A the arrows tune in 5 kHz increments (9 or 10 kHz within the MW band) for station by station tuning. This is similar to the SW8. The R8 tuned in 100 kHz steps for fast frequency change only. The R8A can also tune in 100 kHz steps by using a "F" "arrow" entry. In other words, the R8A can do both station by station tuning or fast frequency changes with the arrow up and down keys.

Improved AGC. The R8A AGC has a smoother attack for better sounding SSB operation as compared to the RS. The R8A can handle stronger signals before overloading compared to the R8. These are small but noticeable improvements.

 

The receiver test bench

We compared the R8A with other receivers on the table: a Japan Radio Company NRD-535D, a Lowe HF-150 with a PR-150 preselector and a Sony SW-100S. Identical Radio Shack PRO-7 A/V shielded speakers are attached to the R8A, NRD-535D and HF-150. An RF Systems SP-2 2-way Antenna Splitter allowed us to connect the R8A and the NRD-535D to the same set of random wire antennas for side-by-side comparisons.

 

Idiosyncrasies

We checked for birdies -- spurious signals internally generated by the R8A's digital circuitry -- and found seven in all. The signal strength (using the S-meter) follows the frequency in kHz: 306 (S2), 500 (S1), 6074.3 (S1), 12148.5 (S5), 18223 (S1), 20248 (S3) and 24298 (S2). The 12148.5 birdie is sufficiently strong as to preclude reception of weak signals on 12150 in the AM mode, but it can be worked around by switching to the USB mode.

We also noted a mild digital "hash" -- perhaps best described as a kind of chirp -- centered on thirteen frequencies. Around these frequencies, the "noise" could be heard for one or two kHz as the receiver stepped each 100 Hz. Once tuning stopped, the receiver was quiet and there was no impediment to hearing a station on the affected frequencies. The frequencies noted were 1963, 1994, 2094, 2198, 3979, 10050, 10360, 13365, 14244, 20316, 22096, 22200, and 29951 kHz.

Some MW stations may make it through the receiver circuitry to the 2 and 3 MHz range. A local 50 kW on 1210 kHz at 50 dB/s9 was heard with a s5 signal on 2420, but there was no sign of it on 3630 kHz. (On the NRD-535D the signal on 2420 minimally changed the background noise level compared to frequencies on either side of the harmonic frequency, and the PR-150 completely eliminated the signal on the HF-150.) Using the RF Systems SP-2 to switch in attenuation, the 2420 kHz signal disappeared from the R8A when we switched in 20 dB.

 

Turning on and tuning in

Specifications are one thing, but using the receiver is quite another. Our comments are naturally subjective. We found the radio intuitive to use so far as basic operations are concerned: hooking it up, entering in some frequencies and setting the controls. But we had to review the manual's instructions to fully use the benefits of the memories. It took time to realize that to make the audio notch work we had to first push two buttons. The multi-function keypad is a bit smaller than we have liked and the buttons feel "rubbery" (akin to the R8); we left the reinforcing "beep" turned on for tactile feedback.

Impressions. The R8A audio is clean, and the tone control -- unlike the NRD-535D -- has a wide range of control, but it doesn't match the audio of the Lowe HF-150, particularly in the latter's synchronous AM "double sideband" (ASD) and synchronous AM "hi-fi" (ASF) modes. However we prefer the audio of the R8A over that of the unmodified NRD-535D. The passband tuning is quite effective for moving clutter away from the desired signal. The AM synchronous mode locks on and notably cleans up weaker signals. Test cases were stations such as New Zealand on 15115 kHz after 01 UT as the maximum useable frequency starts to drop, Alice Springs (Australia) on 2310 kHz around our sunrise, and Uganda on 4976 kHz more than 90 minutes before our sunset. We miss the pushbutton selection of sidebands when in the synchronous mode -- such as in the SW-100S, HF-150 and NRD-535D. The synchronous detection appears to take a few seconds to lock on, and temporarily turns off when the tuning knob is turned or the passband tuning is adjusted. It takes a bit of practice to optimize the combined use of synchronous reception and passband tuning. The 60 metre band with Africans and Latin American stations both present is an interesting training ground for learning to use the tuning controls to their full advantage.

 

Utility listeners beware

Unfortunately tuning digital signals is a bit disconcerting. The R8A does not compensate for the offset required to resolve data signals.

For example, using a DES decoder, we tuned in the Magreb Arab Press RTTY service on 18220.9 kHz. But to decode the signal we had to tune lower in frequency by 2125 kHz -- the mark tone -- to 18218.78 kHz. Tuning a CW station also requires one to tune 700 or 800 Hz -- the CW audio note -- lower than the actual transmitting frequency of the station. For example, to bring in the coastal station SPW, Poland, on 4930.5 kHz we had to tune to 4929.8 kHz.

The R8A has no fax mode. To receive fax signals, we had to use the USB mode and tune 1.9 kHz lower than the nominal frequency. For example, using the AEA Fax III decoder to display the US Navy weather maps from Cutler, Maine, USA, transmitting on 8080 kHz, we had to tune to 8078.1 kHz.

For those using utility station directories such as Gilfer's Confidential Frequency List or Klingenfuss' Guide to Utility Stations, you may want to keep a calculator and a reminder on the offsets handy. We assume the user gets used to the juggling of the numbers but we would like to see a software correction made for the offsets, and possibly add a FAX mode, to eliminate the confusion.

 

The bottom line

We believe the Drake R8A offers good value for the money. In the USA, the R8A street price is less than US$1090. The optional VHF converter is less than US$200, and the MS-8 speaker is less than US$50. Those seeking to purchase a reasonably-priced new table-top receiver with the latest in technology and features will no doubt compare it with the new Lowe HF-250 and the AOR-7030. Compared to the Lowe HF-250's feature set and base street price of US$1200 and options of synchronous AM , infrared keypad and FM totaling US $180, the R8A is a considerably more attractive package.

In Europe, prices for Drake receivers are considerably higher. In the UK, for instance, the price is over £900. Because other European-made receivers are not subject to import duties, you might consider other choices by weighing features against price.

R8A Specs

Image Rejection
Greater than 80 dB, 100-30,000 kHz

Dynamic Range
97 dB, 100-30,000 kHz @ 100 kHz spacing

IP3 - Intercept Point
+20 dBm @ (preamp off) 100 kHz spacing
-20 dBm @ 5 kHz spacing

1st IF
45 MHz

2nd IF
50 kHz

AGC
Threshold: 0.8 uV
Attack time: 1mS
Release time: SLOW: 2 Sec; FAST: 300mSec
Nominal 6 dB change in audio output for 100 dB input change above AGC threshold

Notch Filter Attenuation
AF type, 40 dB min. Depth (500-5000 Hz)

External Speaker Output
2.5 W, 4 Ohms @ less than 5% distortion

Line Outputs
300 mY, 4.7K Ohms

 

Postscript

The Drake R8A was discontinued in the 4th quarter of 1997 and replaced with the R8B.

This review first appeared on the Radio Netherlands website.