Ham radio, again

Back in February I made the decision to jump back into amateur radio. I’ve had an extra class license for a number of years. So I have the maximum privileges. And I just renewed it for another ten.

I dropped a pretty good load of cash on a bunch of new gear. Probably the biggest piece of the expenditure is an HF setup that I haven’t even used yet.

This is partly due to laziness. It’s also partly due to being so entertained with the other gear that I bought that I haven’t really been wanting for more to keep me busy.

The HF setup I have uses an outdoor portable-style antenna. I did this because we have antenna restrictions where we live. While I’m not allowed to have a permanent antenna outdoors, I can’t see that it would be a problem to have one that I setup and take down each time I use it.

So this is what I have. But that actually presents a bit of a barrier to actually using the thing. All my other gear is setup to where I can just sit down and use it any time I like. But the HF rig, I have to hassle with setting the antenna up each time. So I haven’t done it yet.

Another aspect is… I have never really understood how to operate on HF. And conditions aren’t good these days. I am really expecting that it will be a frustrating experience when I do get around to trying it. For many this is the most fun part of the hobby. For me… I haven’t spent enough time doing it to really get the hang of it yet.

On the other hand… virtually all of the other gear that I bought is oriented to digital communications via the internet. Yes, some will say that this isn’t “radio”. But the fact is, it has four things that are very much in the spirit of amateur radio.

First, I am talking into a radio on my end. And the person I’m talking to is typically talking into a radio on their end. So we still get to play with the cool gear. It’s really a minor technicality that it’s the internet that is connecting us.

Second, this form of digital communications has the aspect of enabling conversations with interesting people around the world. And for me, that has always been the most appealing aspect of ham radio. Good conversation!

Third, when using these digital modes there is really plenty of tinkering around to do. Sure, maybe there is more computer tech and less radio tech. But it’s still tinkering all the same.

Fourth, there is the aspect of a cohesive community. Hams helping hams has a long tradition. And with many internet groups dedicated to this digital communication tech, there is plenty of opportunity to learn and help others learn.

One major difference between these digital modes that use the internet vs HF, is that communicating via the internet is quite reliable. It is not dependent on solar conditions or propagation. Whereas operating HF is very hit and miss. In my experience, one can operate for hours without even making one contact. 

There is no doubt that I will be trying out my HF gear before too long. Maybe even today. I do know that I picked out some good gear. And it ought to be a lot of fun. My challenge will be learning the appropriate operating procedures for the mode. People do things differently on HF.

Regardless, so far my foray back into ham radio has been a lot of fun. There are so many things to learn that I think the process could go on for quite awhile.

Ham shack

I recently decided to jump back into amateur radio with both feet. This last weekend I picked up a bunch of gear. And I have a couple of radios still on their way. Our little home office (man cave) is now looking like an actual ham shack.

Previous to this, I was using a couple of raspberry pi VoIP nodes to do IRLP, AllStarLink, and echolink. I was using a handheld transceiver to utilize this. Well, I unplugged that stuff and decided I would try some new things.

 Here is a list of my new capabilities:

  • I now have a regular VHF/UHF dual-band dual-receive mobile rig as part of my shack. This is an improvement.
  • I now have HF. And a very capable radio at that. Unfortunately I am stuck with a definite compromise for an antenna in that I will be using something small, portable, and temporary. I will set it up outside when I want to use it. And take it down when I am not. I have very little choice about this due to neighborhood restrictions. Although the antenna situation may evolve into something better if I get creative.
  • I’ve added D-Star capability. I built a little D-Star hotspot using a raspberry pi with a DVAP. And I obtained a new handheld transceiver that has D-Star capability. 
  • I have also added WiRES-X capability. To do this right I went ahead and ordered the official WiRES-X interface box and a node radio. One downside is, this forces me to run Windows on my desktop computer system. This will be a big change. I’m not that happy about this aspect. Luckily I already had my Mac setup to dual boot. So it’s doable. 

Most people reading this probably don’t know what these things are. Here is some explanation:

  • HF is a mode that uses radio frequencies to potentially communicate with other hams around the world. Signals bounce off the ionosphere. 
  • VHF/UHF is pretty much local only. It’s a line-of-sight mode that uses repeater systems located at high elevations to communicate with others. 
  • D-Star and WiRES-X are digital modes that are directly supported by radio manufacturers. These modes use UHF/VHF as described above. In addition, they use the internet to link repeaters (or private nodes) together. This facilitates long distance communications where one can talk to individuals and groups of users around the world. There are typically radios and repeaters on each end of the connection, with internet in between.

Audio nirvana

I like to play with audio gear. And I’ve been searching for a good setup in the office in our home where I sit in front of my computer most of the time. It’s basically the smallest room in the house. A small bedroom that I use as my man cave.

My last good audio system was comprised of a basic $500 stereo receiver and a $1,500 pair of speakers. That sounded very nice.

After getting married, my needs changed. I no longer needed a $2,000 sound system to listen to Fox News. So I gave away my speakers and downgraded to a Polk Audio soundbar. Actually, the Polk soundbar doesn’t sound half bad. But it’s in the bedroom with one of our TVs. We use a Yamaha soundbar in the living room with our other TV. (the Polk sounds better)

So then I’m left with the dilemma… what to use for audio in my man cave?

I’ve played with a number of solutions. I tried a set of highly-rated studio monitors. I also tried a highly-rated 2.1 setup. More recently I settled on a pair of Apple HomePods. They were pretty good. The HomePod is relatively new from Apple. It’s a “smart” speaker. We use them to control our lights and things. But they also sound really good. As a matter of fact, their quality sound is what sets them apart from other smart speakers.

Two of these were pretty good. But we recently traded in our smart phones and ended up stuck with a couple of Apple Store gift cards as a result. Not what we were hoping. So I was trying to think of what we could possibly use these gift cards for and boom. I have it!

I thought, why not add two more HomePods to the man cave mix? So I did. And I configured them as a second stereo pair. I keep up on the forums and things and I haven’t heard of anyone who has been crazy enough to put four of these together in a small room. However they sound pretty awesome.

I have them configured as two stereo pairs. One front, one rear. My seating position is roughly in the middle. One big selling point of these speakers is their omnidirectionality. They have seven main drivers that point out in all directions. And they have smart beam-forming tech that tunes the output to the room characteristics.

Tonight I gave this setup the Metallica black album test. And wow. This actually doesn’t seem that far from the quality of the old audio setup that I used to have with the two 90lb speakers.

The real thing about this is… these speakers are “omni-directional”. Meaning no matter where you are, you are in front of them. This makes for an “immersive” experience. Which is something that all audio buffs are after. With four of these bad boys I am basically surrounded with omni-directional sound.

My ears are still ringing. Seriously.

The reality is, the Apple HomePod totally scales. Get one if you like good sound. Add a second one if you want really good sound. And if you’re totally nuts, add two more. 

Value vs Value-to-me

I’ve been known to ramble on about tech device overload. That’s what I call it when I have too many gadgets that get too little use. I was avoiding selling them because of the loss that I would incur (new vs used price).

I had a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet, and a smart phone. The laptop and tablet saw very little use. Most of my time is spent at my desk at home in front of my desktop computer (when I’m not at work). And the times when I am out and about, the last thing I normally want to do is tote my larger tech devices around with me. I mean the idea is to get away from it right?… and be with actual people.

My wife and I recently upgraded our smart phones to Apple’s latest. As I was working out the details I had a thought. And the thought was, I am putting so much money into this device, perhaps it should be my only mobile device. After all, it’s very capable right?

That’s when I put my laptop and tablet up for sale on Swappa and cashed them out.

Now I have only two computing devices. My desktop computer and my smart phone. The items I sold had a fair amount of value. But they did not have very much value to me. And by no longer having them in my mobile device mix, I have increased my smart phone’s value to me. So getting rid of stuff for cash gave something else I had more value. And I will actually get more use out of it. I like that.

Cloud services

This last week was a real exercise in futility. Before this, I had been firmly planted in the Apple camp. Using iCloud for email and all my files. Using Numbers and Pages for my spreadsheets and documents. This worked pretty well.

Enter the thought, that Numbers is maybe sort of lame. Google Sheets is much better they said. So I moved my email over to Gmail. I moved all my cloud stuff over to Google Drive. And I converted all my documents over to Google Sheets and Google Docs.

Gmail has a big advantage over iCloud email if you have your own custom domain. Because it lets you send email from an address at that domain. This something that iCloud does not allow. This is all great and everything.

It was around this time that I realized… I’m basically doing the ChromeBook thing again. That’s the thing where all my stuff is using Google and it all sits in the cloud. At that point it makes no difference WHICH operating system I’m running. So I setup both of my Macs to dual-boot Windows 10.

A little background on this… I have frequented a Mac chat channel on IRC for quite some time. Those guys are very knowledgeable about the Mac. But they bash it a lot! I had grown quite weary of hearing very technical people who were also very clearly Apple fans, bash macOS. Another reason why I figured FINE, I will run Windows 10 on my two Macs, and I will use Google for all my things, and life will be great!

Then I realized there were a few problems. One problem, is that many email clients (Apple’s included) do not have the ability to use that nice functionality in Gmail where you can send from an address at your own domain. So that cancels out that benefit. If your desired email client can’t deal with it, it’s of no use. Unless you want to be stuck using Gmail’s web interface, which I did not.

The second problem however, was by far the biggest. And that is the fact that when you are using Google Sheets and Google Docs, you essentially have ZERO ability to back up your documents. Yes, you can install Backup and Sync for Google Drive, but that does NOT give you local copies of these documents. It only gives you shortcuts that point to the web. Having an IT background means… I don’t do things without backups. I just don’t.

So then I figured… how bout MS Office 365? It understands native Excel and Word formats. And you get local copies of these documents so you can easily back them up. Perfect! So I subscribed to Office 365 and converted all my documents and cloud stuff over to OneDrive.

After finding out that my preferred email client didn’t support Gmail’s custom domains I figured great, with Office 365 I get Outlook! That will surely do the job right? No. It does email fine, but it FAILS to integrate with iCloud calendars and contacts. Yet another fail.

This is about the time where I started realizing how good I had things when I was in the Apple ecosystem. And so back I went. I moved everything back to Apple services. Email, spreadsheets, and documents, the whole bit.

Now I’m back to having ZERO integration problems. And Numbers does everything I need. I have experienced the other worlds first-hand, and found them lacking. Of course this means that the Windows 10 partitions on my two Macs are a bit useless. During the course of this whole escapade, I did end up having to spring for an additional Windows 10 license for about $120. I guess the lesson was worth that.

Speaker wars

Of course there is no war at all, except that which has been in my head over which speakers to use in our office. I have switched between having a HomePod in the office to having my Harman Kardons in there… and back and forth a number of times.

Most recently, we have one HomePod in the living room, one in the bedroom, and the Harman Kardons in the office. This has been working rather well. Shawna has been using the HomePods in the bedroom and living room and enjoying them.

So today I was doing some “audio tests” and came to another decision (a similar thing happened the last time I did audio tests). For those who don’t know, these audio tests are what we refer to around here as “music appreciation hour”. That happens on occasion when I am left unsupervised for more than an hour or two.

Anyway, my conclusion today was… while the Harmon Kardons might outcrank the HomePod… there are more things to consider.

Perhaps the Harman Kardons are superior. I don’t even really know for sure. I do know that all the feedback I’ve read about the HomePod talks about the excellent sound. Even the people who don’t like it say it sounds great. So I simply might be mistaken in thinking the Harman Kardons sound better. I honestly suspect that is true. I mean how could a $150 set of speakers outperform a $350 one that by all accounts is “great sounding for the price”?

So my decision… is to double-down. I am going to buy a third HomePod to use in the office. We will essentially have one in each room of the house. My OCD likes things being uniform. Three matching speakers. Yay! And Siri in every room to control our HomeKit devices.

So the Harman Kardons are back in the box in the garage where they will likely stay. If they are truly the better-sounding speakers… then oh well. Regardless of which speakers actually sound better, I am fully determined at this point that the HomePod will suffice. It may not be true hi-fi, but it’s “good-enough-fi”.

I did a similar thing when I shed my $2,000 front room stereo in favor of a sound bar. Being content with less is a good thing. And if I can’t crank the HomePod loud enough so the neighbors can hear it, well that’s ok. I probably shouldn’t be doing that anyway right?

to k-cup or not to k-cup, that is the question

For the past two years… at home, I have had my top-rated OXO coffee maker and Shawna has had her Keurig machine. We had been doing strictly Keurig before I bought the OXO. I went with my OXO coffee maker because the end result is better-tasting coffee.

When I first bought the OXO, I decided that I would not buy coffee beans, but would instead buy good-quality ground coffee. Of course grinding fresh from beans produces better coffee. But it requires a grinder on the counter and additional mess. I settle on Peet’s for my ground coffee, and the results were pretty good. Even without grinding my own beans, the OXO made considerably better coffee than the Keurig.

One of the aspects of switching to the OXO from a Keurig machine was an expected reduction in cost. I had thought that k-cups were probably the most expensive way to buy coffee. However this turned out not to be true. And that’s because my OXO calls for a pretty large amount of coffee each time I brew.

For example… one pot of coffee requires nine scoops of coffee (18 tablespoons). And yes, this makes it strong, as it should be. But because of the large amount of coffee that is called for, I don’t really think I was saving any money over using k-cups.

Based on $10 for a pound of decent coffee and .36 ounces per scoop. Ground coffee runs about $0.22 per scoop. It takes 2.5 scoops to make one cup of coffee using ground coffee ($0.55). Whereas a cheap k-cup is more like $0.35. So, cost is not a good reason to be using ground coffee over k-cups.

Even though the OXO clearly makes better coffee, at some point one might just be ok with “good enough”. If we go with good quality k-cups, the result will certainly be closer the level of the OXO. And honestly, a really good k-cup may well produce better coffee than what most people typically drink.

At work, we buy Starbuck’s k-cups because my boss is a shareholder. Those k-cups actually make a pretty decent cup of coffee. At home, we usually get Costco’s Kirkland brand. They are some of the cheapest we’ve found. And they are acceptable.

There is one aspect of using k-cups that I’ve thought would be nice to avoid. And that pertains to our morning coffee routine. We will typically run through 6 k-cups before leaving the house in the morning. But after thinking about that, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

While it is somewhat of a pain… 6 (actual drinkable sized cups) of coffee is more than a full pot in my OXO. So either way you look at it it’d be a fair amount of effort to get our morning coffee taken care of. I don’t know that brewing two pots of coffee using the OXO is any less hassle than running 6 k-cups through the Keurig.

So the Keurig wins.

More HomePod fun…

Get ready to laugh. This will undoubtedly cause you to chuckle.

So… bought the HomePod right? Had it for a few days. Liked it. Not sure it was better-sounding than my Harman Kardon speakers but figured I’d keep it anyway.

A couple nights later, had a few beers, and did a bunch of comparison testing between the two speaker systems.

That night, I initiated a return of the HomePod. The next day I took it to FedEx and shipped it back.

Then I came to some realizations (which I will detail below). Last weekend I happened to be near the Apple Store in Bridgeport Village. So I went and picked up another HomePod before the return on my first one had even processed.

So here are the realizations…

  • It’s probably better not to test out speaker systems while under the influence. Because anything with booming bass sounds good.
  • It’s probably better not to test with Metallica when my normal listening material is classical music.
  • Loud sound doesn’t equal good sound.
  • Bass-heavy sound doesn’t equal good sound either.

One of the reasons for some of these conclusions, was some research I was doing into “studio monitor” type speakers. I have a set of well-rated studio monitors that make good PC speakers. Come to find out my Harman Kardon 2.1 system is also well-rated. So I was trying to decide which to use (since I had returned my HomePod).

Studio monitor speakers attempt to reproduce recordings the way they were recorded without adding “color” to the sound. This can honestly result in some boring listening. Because there isn’t much bass and the sound is relatively flat. But it’s a more “honest” reproduction of the recording.

Then there are the 2.1 style systems. Which can produce some pretty good bass. But my feeling is… the 2.1 system definitely does color the sound. And while it sounds way better when cranking up Metallica after a few beers, it’s probably not “quality” sound.

That’s when I concluded that the Apple HomePod is probably a great speaker for me and the type of music I typically listen to. Will the Harman Kardons outcrank it while playing bass-heavy rock? Sure. But the HomePod probably produces better quality and more accurate sound.

BTW, what you see in the picture is my HomePod elevated on a “yoga block”. I have no idea what yoga blocks are used for. But an audio guy said the HomePod sounds better when elevated a bit and recommended them.

HomePod impressions

The picture above shows my Apple HomePod that arrived yesterday. It is intended to replace the Harman Kardon SoundSticks shown below. The HomePod has no wired connections (except for power). It’s designed to respond to voice commands (via Siri). One can also stream to it from any Airplay-capable device.

The HomePod has very nice sound. Certainly it is a technological marvel for it’s small size. For years we’ve seen a number of small bluetooth speakers on the market that have significantly better sound output than their small size would suggest they should. I have a couple from Sony that I like pretty well. I also had an expensive one from Harman Kardon before I returned it and got my SoundSticks.

For years I have used a number of 2.1 systems like the Harman Kardon SoundSticks shown above connected to various things (usually a PC or a TV). A 2.1 system is a basically an amplified speaker system with two primary speakers and one sub-woofer. I’ve been pretty impressed with a number of these, and I think it’s a great budget solution for many folks.

I think that one cannot expect to match the sound volume or crankability of a decent 2.1 system with a single speaker like the HomePod. However the HomePod does have several things going for it. First, the sound quality is exceptional. Second, it’s entirely omnidirectional. There is no front or back and therefore no real “sweet spot” that one needs to be in. It literally tunes itself to your room and it’s placement in it. Third, it has an always-listening personal assistant (Siri). This is particularly nice since most of our lighting is HomeKit compatible. Controlling the lights with voice commands is kinda cool.

So while the HomePod doesn’t crank as loud as my other speakers… it looks cool, and it sounds cool. Plus I’m an Apple fan. So there is that. Being an Apple fan means I have a predisposition to liking/preferring Apple products. I make no apologies for that. And in the case of the HomePod, my decision whether or not to keep it might be more difficult if it were not a fancy new Apple product. That does kind of tilt the scales for me. I won’t lie, being an Apple fan is fun. And yes, I am keeping it.

I’m going to add this link to a really great reddit article/review on their audiophile subreddit. Seems that this guy thinks Apple totally nailed it. And he has the evidence to prove it.

I will also add a link to a great YouTube piece on the HomePod. This one is entertaining.

I should be a tech reviewer

I’ve been on the fence regarding the new Apple HomePod. For those who don’t know, it’s Apple’s new Siri-powered digital assistant speaker. It went on sale last Friday for pre-order. And will be delivered beginning Feb 9th.

One of the things I’ve started doing is watching a fair amount of tech reviewers on YouTube. It’s quite a niche for those guys. And it’s pretty high paying for a number of them. We’re talking about people that have to form companies and hire employees to get to the level of video production that is expected. It can be a good place to listen to reviews and things.

Today I was listening to a guy who’s YouTube channel I subscribe to. And he was saying how bad this new speaker sucks. Shortly after listening to his review (he hadn’t actually seen one yet)… I went ahead and ordered one. Just like any respectable Apple fan would do.

I commented on his video. And he responded. We both agreed that a small single speaker like this would most likely not have as good of sound quality as a good 2.1 setup. He says “you can’t skirt the laws of physics”. But from everything I hear, it’s the stand-out excellent sound quality that sets this speaker apart from it’s competition.

While people are comparing it to the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers, it’s really out of their league. It features like six separate tweeters each with their own dedicated amplifier. It is powered by the same powerful chip that runs their iPhones. And it essentially senses the proportions of the room it’s in… and it’s position in that room w/regard to walls… and adjusts it’s sound output accordingly. Bang and Olufsen has a speaker with similar smarts that retails for about $10,000.

So we’ll see how it does against my 2.1 setup I have in our office at home. Luckily Apple has a no-questions-asked return policy. So this is essentially a trial.