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Topband: ON4UN and the Ten-Tec Orion

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Subject: Topband: ON4UN and the Ten-Tec Orion
From: "john devoldere, ON4UN" <>
Date: Wed, 1 Oct 2003 19:00:05 -0000
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Hi friends DX-ers, contesters and low(top) band DX-ers!

I have been usings a Ten Tec ORION transceiver for several months. I thought
maybe you'd like to have my comments on this new radio. Here it is:

1/ looks
I first saw a prototype of the ORION at HamCom in Dallas in 2002. I liked
the looks. When I saw the specs I liked the radio even better. I picked up
my new ORION in mid-June 2003. My first impression has not changed: clean
layout, knobs and controls positioned just where they should be, good-sized
tuning knobs that feel very well. In one word  "it all fits my hands and
fingers". And it does not have the looks of the mass consumer electronic
gadgets, it's sober and very functional, which is what I like.

2/ software updates and response
Maybe the greatest innovation brought about by the ORION is the concept of a
top-notch radio with firmware updates via the Internet. This makes it
possible to provide continuous and free of charge improvements. That's the
technology of today. It also made it possible for TT to release a product
early 2003 that maybe was not 100% complete, but at the same time avoided
making us eager contesters and DX-ers wait another 6 months for the radio.
It also is undoubtedly the best way for TT to get live feedback from the
field. Some (very few) people seem to complain that Ten-Tec is regularly
improving the ORION.Those who don't like this idea do best to wait a little
longer until all wrinkles have been ironed out and all sensible and possible
suggestions of the customers have been implemented. I, for one, decided to
go ahead and get one of the earlier ORIONs, and decided to be part of this
improvement process, and add my 2 cents worth. Contacts with TT have been
excellent. Jack (K4JU), Doug (KF6DX), Gary (AC4DL) and Scott (W4PA), were
all one very responsive and all ears for comments, suggestions and even

Response to my suggestions was swift, and in a matter of weeks a great
number of the suggestions I made were implemented. I was happy to be an
informal Beta tester for their firmware updates, and I spent many hours
trying to make things go wrong. At the end the software became so thorough I
felt miserable trying to make things go wrong! I've heard of a few people
who did not like the concept of firmware updates; they obviously have not
yet understood the power of this advanced concept. My reaction: let them
come, the firmware upgrades, I know each time it is a further improvement to
the product.

Some ergonomic shortcomings, mainly in the radio control software, which
were part of the first few firmware releases have all been taken care of. I
did not return my ORION for these shortcomings, I decided to be part of the
ongoing improvement process for this product, and add my inputs. This way
the final ORION has a little bit of myself in it!

3/ manual
The original manual was not great (I am polite), I agree, but that's been
taken care of now, and since September 22nd, anyone can download the latest
manual from the TT website. Scott, W4PA, took care of that. The manual
covers just about every aspect of the radio. Of course, the radio is so
flexible there are literally hundreds of ways you can set it up to do
exactly what you want it to do. I assume that lots of these configurations
will be made available by the users on the TT reflector. As indicated in the
manual, the Orion is indeed a substantially different radio from what we
have known so far. It is no secret that the first thing that attracted me is
the excellent dynamic range (also at very close signal spacing), which
should be a real asset for Low Band DXing and contesting. Ten-Tec
implemented the DX-ers' and contesters' wishes that were published in the
3rd edition of my Low Band DX-ing book. Other non-US manufacturers largely
decided to ignore the inputs from DX-ers and contesters until now.

4/ testing basic specs at W8JI
After I picked up my unit in the US early June, I drove to Tom, W8JI and we
tested the dynamic range and sensitivity (MDS) in his well-equipped lab.
What we found was within measurement error of what TT publishes, in other
words: excellent! We also had a really close look at the transmitted CW
waveform, and it is excellent as well. Now at least and at last I can be on
CW without having to fear someone calling me with a "you have key clicks"
I have been playing with the Orion in a few contests, where it gets really
crowded, especially on 40m. Amazing: in between signals, the band sounds
quiet. No blurps, beeps and other alien weak signals that sometimes sound
like CW using a different code. Nothing like that. What you hear is what's
there! The narrow front-end filters really do their job. My radio has got
all of them

5/ The AGC issue
The use of the AGC (the programmable setting) requires a good understanding
on how the radio works. Of course TT could have left out the programmable
settings, and could have fixed us up with just 3 or 4 "fixed" standard
settings.  After discussing this to a great length TT decided to make all
settings programmable: a sign of confidence that TT trusts that their
customers will take the time to understand the radio and use its
capabilities to its fullest extent!

TT has in their latest manual a section explaining how to set the AGC
variables (also available on their web site). Make sure you study this and
fully understand it before starting to play around with changing the 3
variables involved.

We have read on various reflectors that in the beginning apparently some
hams started experimenting with the AGC without knowing what they were
doing. And they were disappointed. They fooled themselves, I am afraid. I
must admit it's easy to be fooled, as the lowest setting of the AGG
threshold does -as a rule- not give you the best sensitivity! I found that
approx. 2.0 - 3.0 uV is a good starting point to experiment. It's not
because you hear more noise at 0.4 uV that you have a better S/N ratio! On
the same issue of sensitivity: I have done hundreds of A/B tests between my
old radio (the most popular brand with low-band DX-ers and contesters) and
the ORION (at the same time, not with 1 or 2 weeks in between!) and I have
never (whatever band) found the ORION not to hear a weak CW-signal that I
could hear on the "old radio". To the contrary! But I was listening to
CW-signals, not to carriers (I'm not really interested in "working" steady
carriers or broadcast harmonics).

6/ BW
One of the great assets of the ORION is the continuously variable IF
bandwidth. If the band is not too crowded or if there is not too much QRN
you may want to use 800 or 1000 Hz BW on CW, otherwise you can crank it down
all the way to 250 or 150 Hz. Great thing is that at 150 Hz  bandwidth there
still is not a trace of ringing. Noise content in such a small bandwidth
becomes very low, but you must be tuned right on the spot! On SSB it is a
joy sometimes to listen to good audio with 3 or 4 kHz bandwidth. Sounds much
like AM. With the PBT you can really adjust everything until it just sounds
right. Flexible, smooth and easy. The measured bandwidth and resulting shape
factor are:

Nominal BW (Hz)  -6dB BW (Hz) -60dB BW (Hz)  Shape factor
           100                    150                      440
           250                    240                      470
           500                   510                       820
         1000                   980                     1160
        1600                 1580                      1880
        2400                 2300                      2650
        3000                 2930                      3270
        4000                 3960                      4280

Although the shape factor at narrow bandwidths may not look spectacular, I
have found this set-up where CW ringing is totally absent, to be the
smoothest and most efficient way of obtaining the most suitable BW for every
individual situation. TT has informed me that they will change the display
so that the most narrow bandwidth displays 150 and not 100 Hz.

7/ NR
The noise reduction works extremely well, a dramatic change from what I had
in my previous radio.

8/ Notches
Another nice feature is that we have two notches: A DSP automatic notch for
carriers on SSB, and a hand-adjusted notch  (frequency and bandwidth are
adjustable) for use in CW! Yes also on CW a notch can be very handy

9/ Panoramic stereo receive
The Panoramic Stereo receive feature is great fun: when using stereo phones,
signals move from one side through center to the other side in your
headphones as you tune across the band. Help reducing fatigue when working
long hours on CW.  It should also be useful in quickly working multiple
callers in a pileup.

10/ Using it on CW
On CW-transmit the ORION is a real joy to use. Beautiful waveform, good
keying characteristics, and with the continuously variable bandwidth down to
150 Hz, a real delight. The built-in keyer works great as well, and the
legendary Ten-Tec QSK works as well as ever.
W8JI found out, and I can confirm this, that for weak signal CW reception
especially in presence of noise (QRN) it seems best to select the roofing
filter manually (250 Hz) and then set the DSP bandwidth to approx. 500-800

11/ using it on SSB
On SSB I have been receiving nothing but excellent audio reports, even from
the experts on 14178 kHz! The fact that you can adjust almost anything in
software makes it possible to obtain good audio with a very wide range of
microphones. There is digital audio enhancement (Low and High), you can
adjust the "transmit filter" bandwidth from 1000 Hz (yes!) to 3900 Hz, set
the Low end roll of (between 50 and 300 Hz) etc. If you have it set all
wrong the audio can indeed sound bad, but once you find the proper settings
success is guaranteed. And TT has published a list of settings for the most
common microphones in the manual, but I think they need to add Heil HC-4 and
HC-5 elements, as well as the Heil Pro Goldline microphone.

12/ using it on FSK
The ORION has true FSK capabilities (no need to mess with audio tones), and
in FSK the tones on reception are automatically set for the high tones. Copy
of RTTY is flawless with bandwidth down to 150 Hz!

13/ and on PSK31
If you are a PSK fan, you can look at 5 kHz of FSK signals, or narrow the
bandwidth down to 150 Hz, and just have one signal going to your sound card.
Ideal! And if you narrow the BW down to 150 Hz, you will also HEAR the PSK
signal. I've heard people saying that in FSK we can work signals we cannot
hear at all. This is not quite true, because the sound card uses very narrow
BW, and if we use ORION's "similar" BW we can definitely "hear" the FSK

14/ The audio
The sound from the (large!) built-in speaker is much better than from all
other transceivers I have had, and there is plenty of volume. Audio output
on the headphones jack is plenty as well, even if you use not so sensitive

15/ the second receiver
The Orion has two radios that sound identical (not like in another 2-radio
transceiver I had so far where one radio sounded like the "good" one and the
other like the "cheaper" one.). The 2nd receiver uses exactly the same DSP
IF, the only difference with the main RX is that it does NOT have the narrow
roofing filters, and that the higher 1st IF make it possible to be a general
coverage receiver.

Whereas the TT-manual suggests that diversity reception is possible with the
Orion, it really is not what I call true diversity reception. To me true
diversity reception is only possible if both receivers are phase locked and
that the phase delay through both receivers is nearly identical. This is not
the case in the ORION. Listen to the same signal through both receivers
using the same VFO, and you hear the warble (flutter, rapid fading) caused
by the phase difference. This warble is always there and in my eyes makes
real diversity impossible. This does not mean that under certain
circumstances you may not find a benefit in using different antennas on the
2 receivers on (almost) the same frequency. While TT doesn't claim that both
receivers are phase locked, they think that there are advantages when using
e.g. a vertical and horizontal antenna or two horizontal antennas separated
by at least a wavelength with the Orion using two radios in a single audio
amplifier and claim that some of their customers have found this form of
diversity with non phase-locked receivers useful.

16/ two transmitter outputs
With two transmitter outputs, you can almost configure the ORION for a
2-radio contest station, with two amplifiers. This does NOT mean the Orion
has 2 transmitters; you transmit either to output A or to output B. The
Orion has two band-data output connectors, one corresponding to each output
connector, and this make it possible to steer automatic antenna and
amplifier switching. Two TX-EN lines (one for each output) can be used to
inhibit the transmitter in full QSK or also when using a complex antenna
switching system where such an RX-inhibit line is used to prevent
transmitting on the wrong antenna or while antennas are being switched.

17/ firmware upgrades
Upgrading firmware takes less than 5 minutes. The new upgrades are announced
on . You can download a small program (update.exe)
on this site, which you put in your ORION directory on the PC controlling
the ORION. The serial port interface from the ORION, connecting to your PC,
will not only take care of the communication with your contesting or logging
program, it will also talk to the Ten Tec Flash Update utility program
(Update.exe). When a new firmware update is available, save it in the same
directory where you saved update.exe. Follow the instructions from the
manual, and in a few minutes you have a new, latest model ORION! Great

18/ suggestions and shortcomings
On the negative side: the Voice memory keyer is much too slow in saving to
memory (not useful at all in a contest).

I also would like to see the possibility to see different external T/R
delays for SSB and CW. Now you can set one delay for output A (going to
amplifier A) and another one for output B (going to amplifier B). Having
separately adjustable delays for SSB and CW should only be a minor software
change, I think.

Suggestion: It would be nice if the user could, from his PC, upload HIS
frequency /mode / bandwidth definitions (a one time task to do, without
having to control the radio from a PC on a permanent basis). Doing so he
could just enter a frequency from the Orion keyboard and it would
selectively make a corresponding standard bandwidth, all this in accordance
to his frequency / mode / bandwidth chart. We understand this cannot be a
standard thing as band-planning differs in different IARU regions, and even
in accordance to individual operators.

I know TT has thought about these wishes, but not all of them can be on the
top of their priority change list at the same time. I know they do listen to
their customers and try to learn from them to make a better product. Wise
strategy! By the time you read this, some of these "wishes" are very likely
to have become true. Bill, W4ZV, eminent top-band DX-er worded it very well
on the Internet: "KUDOS to TenTec for LISTENING to actual users!  Japanese
manufacturers must surely be watching the success Elecraft and Ten-Tec are
having by incorporating real time user feedback into their  products.  If
they don't soon start doing the same, I believe they will all be history in
a few years."

Even as I write the final lines of this report I think I have found one or
two very minor control software glitches, which I know TT will correct in
one of their next firmware upgrades. It's great not having to be worried
about such issues, the people are there at TT to solve them, and the system
is in place to provide every customer with the solution almost in real time.
This is what I always dreamed about!

19/ Learning curve
In the beginning you may undoubtedly feel a little lost in the programming
screens, although they are laid out in a very logical way, and are easy to
understand, and they shows real words, no cryptic code you need to decipher!
But there are so many things you can adjust. This will go away after a few
weeks, and you will soon feel like a king on his throne being able to
control just about all the issues of this wonderful radio.

20/ hardware
When you open the ORION, your first reaction will likely be: is that all? It
indeed looks like an almost empty box. No 1-inch thick bundles or wires,
just a few (mostly coaxial) cables. The rest of connecting is done by
back-plane technology, where all the boards plug in. I always jokingly say
that I can pack my sandwiches and my shoes inside the ORION, and it would
still accommodate more. Another nice thing is its weight: 20 lbs (9 kg). A
25 A 13.7V power supply is required, as no PS is built in.

21/ conclusion
I have always dreamed of the ideal low band DX-er and contester machine, and
I must say that Ten Tec has come very close to my wildest dreams.
Congratulations to TT for a wonderful product for excellent service and
customer care. The way TT tries to satisfy the wishes of its customers is
more than exemplary. The Orion transceiver clearly scores very near maximum
on whatever scale you can imagine. My order for a second Orion for my
2-radio contesting station is out and I can't wait to get it! I will be
proud having a 2 radio contesting station with what seem to me like the best
radios at this time on the market. And don't forget that the sunspot cycle
is on its way down. As a result the low bands will become more and more
appealing. The ORION may well make the difference.

22/ The Orion in Europe.
At this time (early October 2003) the Ten Tec cannot be sold in the EC
market, as it has no CE label yet. I have been informed that procedure is
underway to obtain the CE label though, which will make if fully legal to
buy, possess and operate an Orion in the EC countries soon. I understand the
CE-certification may be a fact well before the end of this year, so European
potential customers can put the ORION on their X-mas shopping list.


John, ON4UN

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