I’ll be honest and say that I laughed when I saw the Yaesu FT-817 for the first time when it was released in 2001. “You’re not going to make any contact with that! It’s small and only 5 watts! No one is going to hear you!” I recall saying a lot. I like to note that I was brand new to amateur radio and had no HF experience. I thought it was silly to “talk” around the world with the same amount of power that my handheld VHF puts out. Well… 12 years later and they are still being produced and sold. I’ve seen the error of my ways and accept that QRP (low power) contacts are very possible. Now that I’ve been involved with HF for about 4 years now, I can see how rewarding QRP contacts are. Now that I’m more involved with SOTA (summits on the air), doing a bunch of VHF SOTA activations and watching my peers on HF, I decided to purchase a portable HF rig.
I ended up going with the Elecraft KX3.
I could have went with the much cheaper FT-817 and other QRP Xceivers but the features and technology of the KX3 far surpass what the FT-817 had to offer. Well… at least in writing. I just wanted something NEW for a change. Even though the KX3 is expensive, I cheaped out as much as possible and got the kit version of the KX3 with no options or extra accessories.
Hopefully the postal carrier didn’t notice me peeking through the windows with the excited look on my face as he approached.
There are already dozens, if not hundreds of videos, blogs, forum posts of assembling the KX3. I am not going to go into detail here. However I would like to share some notes and tips if you were to get the kit. Most are common sense.
- Spend time and make sure every nut, screw, standoff and part is in the kit! Use muffin tins or a tackle box to keep parts separate.
- Do not be surprised if your missing something. They include an extra parts bag and hopefully it’s in there.
- Read the assembly manual entirely before starting. Do not jump ahead!
- It’s not a contest, take your time and confirm each step
Besides a screw driver and other basic hand tools. I strongly suggest in using tweezers or a “Jewelers Pickup Tool”
This tool helped me out as the tiny 2-56 screws were a wee bit hard to handle.
The only issues I had were installing the plastic battery holders (which is noted in the manual) and having to deal with missing 4-40 screws. luckily I had anodized screws in my personal extra screw bin. Overall the assembly went okay and it took about 2 hours. Is it worth the extra $100 for an assembled kit? All depends on how you value your time. Think of it costing $50/hr for assembly. Are you worth more than that?
After turning it on, one of the first things I did was to compare the receivers of the KX3 to my FT-950 using a switch and the G5RV antenna. Since I don’t have any type of equipment that will give accurate readings, I am basing my findings from what I’ve seen and heard. On SSB, it seemed to receive similar with the DSP turned on in the 950 (No DNR). It has similar S-Unit readings. However the KX3 felt like it dealt with adjacent signals better than the 950. On CW, it seemed the KX3 was better at receiving.
Should Have Purchased Options
Like usual, I was being cheap and purchased the KX3 as a kit without any options. For some people that would work just fine. If you have a spare microphone and resonate antennas at the frequencies you want then you might not have a need for options like the ATU (Automatic Antenna Tuner) or microphone. But here I am with no microphones and no resonate antennas. I could have purchased an Emtech ZM2 or Hendricks SOTA tuner and a used microphone online that would have done just fine, but I didn’t want to lug around more equipment and didn’t want to modify the microphone. I ended up purchasing the ATU and Microphone from elecraft a short time later.
Issues with the KX3
I’ve held off writing this article for a long time because I had issues with my KX3. After assembly and before installing the ATU, I was hot to trot. I went on the air, started sending out CW to see what skimmers (bots) were picking up my signal. I couldn’t transmit at full power. Even with the KX3 powered using an External 5amp supply, I could not get past 7W. When using batteries, I saw 3watts max. Putting blame on my antenna at first I didn’t think much of it. At this point I decided it was best to order the ATU as I would end up using compromised antennas like an end fed or random wire where needing a “tuner” (match) would be important. When I received and installed the ATU, I noticed that I couldn’t tune correctly and it was still folding back power. After taking it out on it’s first SOTA activation, I knew something was wrong.
Dealing with Elecraft
I knew it had to be fixed. The first stop was the Elecraft KX3 Yahoo Group to see if anyone else had similar issue. None were found so after following the advice on Elecraft’s website, as requested, I contacted them VIA e-mail.
I’ve heard that Elecraft support was AMAZING!! However I felt the opposite. Just to get a reply from Elecraft took me well over a week. I ended up finding e-mail addresses to some of the staff/support members for Elecraft and after contacting them, my issue was finally looked at. It felt like I had to be pushy and demanding to get stuff done which is not a part of who I am so it was uncomfortable. However I just spent a lot of money, for some it may be nothing but it was a lot of saving on my part so I felt cheated a bit even though Elecraft did absolutely nothing wrong.
Once the RMA process started, it was fast and easy. Elecraft sent me a confirmation once the item was received but I didn’t hear anything else until the day it was shipping out almost a week later. Since I’ve never dealt with returning a radio before, I felt that I had no idea what was going on or even if the radio has been touched by service. When Elecraft got back to me, it was shown that the PA Driver chips were replaced. I wished for a little more detail into what could possibly caused the replacement as to avoid it from happening again.
Months later and with very LITTLE use, the plastic knobs started to crack. After contacting Elecraft, they moved quick and got the replacements I need. Even though it appears this was a common issue, I was a little more impressed with their service this time around.
Amplifier over 2M module
When the KX3 first rolled out, a 2M module was incorporated into the design but wasn’t available. Due to the fact that I enjoy doing SOTA on VHF, I was excited that there was going to be a 2M option at some point. That means less equipment that I’d have to carry and something better than the Chinese radios that I’ve been using. However I was very disappointed when they decided to design an amplifier for a radio that was designed to be a QRP portable rig. I get why they did it. Not many people really care about QRP SSB on 2m or 2M in general when it comes to portable operations. They would rather have something that would allow for 100W while mobile or at the home while taking advantage of a really good receiver. It turns the KX3 into a dual purpose rig. I would have rather seen the 2M module first.
Even though at times, it may seem I’m very critical of Elecraft, It’s because I want them to succeed. They make good products, they’re very interactive with the community and they’re based in the United States. I just want them to improve so they can be on the same production level as the “Big Three”. I honestly think it’s possible.
Using the KX3 on top of Mt. Tom, Holyoke MA
When I decided to purchase the KX3, I thought I would be taking up adventures like climbing mountains, hiking, going to parks and testing the limits of QRP. It didn’t really happen. Those times I got to get out and played radio, the KX3 performed very well. The very low current draw allowed me to use full power (approx 10W) using a Hobby battery (Turnigy 2200mAh 3S 20C Li-Po 11.1v) that lasted for at least an hour before turning back the wattage (to 5W) when the battery voltage dipped below the 11vdc threshold (time will vary depending on duty, temp and mode). The radio is easy to pack and deploy. If there are trees tall enough in the area, I can hang a dipole and get on the air within 10-15 minutes.
Even though there are cheaper alternatives, I think I’ve made a wise choice. If I ever decide to go portable, It’s there and ready to go and it just works.
SOTA Pack consisting of KX3, G5RV Jr and End Fed
I would recommend this radio to others under certain circumstances. If you’re just getting into the hobby, I wouldn’t suggest it unless you have the money for radio and amplifier or you live in a restricted area where a base antenna setup is just not possible and would have to go portable/mobile. QRP is a rewarding challenge but frustration will set in when your in a pile up with a 5W signal and a compromised antenna.
Hopefully the 2M module doesn’t cost as much as the K3’s module.
Thanks for reading!
10 thoughts on “Elecraft KX3 – What Did I Just Do?”
I was considering this radio.
Now that I’ve read your article I will get one in the future, but not yet. Still working on my base station setup. Nice write up.
The KX3 is certainly a cool radio that’s for sure. However it can be hugely frustrating when attempting to play with the big boys as any QRP is. And to use them on SDR is a PITA. Audio level I/Q is old old old in the technogy. I’m not sure why Elecraft when this route. I sold mine and recently came across another fairly below its value. That one will be going out the door soon also. The coolness factor doesn’t make it a keeper for me.
Well I hope you didn’t purchase the KX3 to play with the “big boys” because it’s not designed for it. I purchased it for those days where I feel like taking a hike up a hill, climbing a mountain or going to a park that I can take my radio with me and make some contacts. It wouldn’t be easy and fun to pack up a big bulky HF rig and a large battery to operate portable. I could have got away with a FT-817 or similar but I wanted something that will stay with me for years to come. As for SDR… Well… The KX3 is in simple terms an SDR with a physical control. So even when it’s not hooked up to a computer, it’s an SDR. I’m not sure what you mean by “old old old”. Is that it’s using an Audio I/Q out to use with your soundcard as a pan-adapter? Not sure how it’s a pain when it’s just an audio patch cable from the rig to your sound card, I think the PITA would be in the software. Sorry if I come off as insulting, just curious as to why you think that?
Hello, what kind of bag are you using, is everything fitting inside incl batt and mike ?
Thanks for repply.
Rudi / ON7CL
While the KX3 is a fine HF radio, it still can’t compete with the Yaesu FT-817nd in terms of ruggedness and versatility.
On paper, the KX3 has better HF RX specifications. It also does have more TX power. But in real life hiking & camping situations these things honestly do not help much, if at all.
Worried about current draw? Don’t. With today’s LiPo batteries and other options its become a non-issue when using the FT-817nd. I’ve carried my FT-817s on countless long-range wilderness hikes, mountain climbs, a few SOTA activations, and other activities and I’ve never run out of portable power. My FT-817nd has a 2500ma LiPo battery in the internal bay, and I carry (2) small, lightweight 2500ma external AA packs. I always have enough power for 3-4 days and I could easily add a small solar charger too.
The FT-817nd is also much more rugged then the KX3 and therefore a more serious expedition radio. And it covers modes and frequencies which the KX3 never, ever will. I’d MUCH rather have those extra capabilities in an emergency because it gives me that much more of a chance of getting a signal out, even if it has to be on 440mhz or something.
I too like to support companies on our own home front as much as possible, but in recent years I’ve actually found many American products to be overpriced and less capable than their long-standing Japanese counterparts. (This does not include the inferior quality Chinese products of late, only the long-standing, proven Japan products.)
Lastly, the FT-817 production numbers speak for themselves – 14 years in production and still going strong with about 250,000 units sold.
I do wish Elecraft great success, and I’ve owned & used a nice K2 in the past.
But for my money right now, the FT-817nd is simply a far better bang-for-the-buck and more useful to me.
I fully agree with your comments about the Yaesu FT-817. It’s an engineering masterpiece! I’ve had mine for over ten years, and it has never failed me. In my opinion, it’s still the most versatile QRP, portable transceiver on the market, with full band and mode coverage from 1.8 to 440 MHz. I should mention I’ve used my FT-817 at home in DX Contests with results one would expect from any larger transceiver. I still remember having a solid QSO with VK2GWK on 20m SSB Long Path with my FT-817. Now that is exciting! The receiver is superb, and unlike some DSP/SDR radios, the CW audio quality is much less fatiguing when operating for hours on end, thanks to a conventional receiver design with crystal filters. It’s also nice to have VHF/UHF features built-in to the FT-817, as this eliminates the need to carry an HT to cover those bands when out in the field. If you have never used an FT-817, try it and you will love it! THANK YOU YAESU!!!
I agree 100% with darell and darell forgot to say the kx3 is about 1,200.00 dolars vs 589.00 when this radio is on special sell
Hi Jeff, Now that you’ve had the KX-3 for a while. What mods or accessories have you added to it? Besides the tuner and mic that is?
Larry, nothing much really. I would like to make or get a key. I don’t do much digital so an upgraded heatsink doesn’t really appeal to me.
They do have a newer VFO encoder but I have no issues with what I have.
I have numerous QRP radios. I’ve owned an FT 817 and enjoyed it very much. The KX3 is not a cheap radio, but it sure is one of the best radios on the market. I use it in the shack as well as portable.
When I purchased the radio, I put it on the air post haste and worked 100 countries, with only 5 watts, in two months.
My antenna of choice, for portable operations, is a 40 meter off center fed antenna, model number, “OCF40QM”.
Barry G. Kery, KU3X