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Ten-Tec Orion Transceiver - contester’s review

Yuri Blanarovich, K3BU, VE3BMV, VE1BY

Copyright 2004

Warning to the casual ham reader or Ten-Tec “cult” follower: this is a review by a competitive contester who has high demands for the radios, has not found one commercially produced radio that would fully satisfy him or his requirements yet, opinions and suggestions for improvement are his with input from other contesters. Ten-Tec in its quest for the ultimate rig may implement some of the stuff or might not find it worthwhile for business or other reasons to implement. I will not go into describing all the features and detailed description of some of the function, all this is in the new, updated manual, available on the Ten-Tec web site. I will focus on what is different and what needs attention, quite often not seen by other reviews published in magazines.

In the past, every time I came close to Ten-Tec gear, I wasn’t too excited due to the “homebrewy” appearance, features or lack of them and packaging of the circuitry. Serious contesters demand Ferrari rather than a patched up Chevy. After reading the Ten-Tec reflector, seeing the praises for the Omni VI+ and others, I was curious what was inside of those Spartan looking boxes. My arsenal now includes Omni D, Omni VI+, Orion-AT and three Titans. Doing brief comparisons I found that “crummy” Omni D sometimes was hearing stuff that $3k imports could not, the VI+ was clearly a pleasure to use on CW with its DSP, and Titans are solid performers. But when compared to overall features, performance and suitability for heavy contest use, I ended up using other radios.

Ultra High-End HF Transceiver?

When I read the description of Orion - “Nothing tops ORION! ORION ULTRA HIGH-END HF TRANSCEIVER” on the Ten-Tec web site (http://www.tentec.com/TT565.htm) and technical articles extolling the virtues of Orion design (http://www.doug-smith.net/orion.htm) and programmable digital AGC (http://www.doug-smith.net/digitalagc.htm), and praises sung by the TT reflector faithfull, I figured it is worth trying to get the new one. So after a mandatory waiting period for the first run to be shipped I placed an order. Normally, I seldom buy a new radio, I usually buy a used one and then try to figure out how to modify and improve it (more bang for a buck). The Orion seemed to have a lot of stuff that we were craving for (good receiver, clean signal), while the imports flood us with zillions of memories and other stuff that is nice but mostly useless for the serious contester and DXer. We need radios with huge dynamic range, excellent selectivity, QRM fighting features, clean signals and friendly ergonomics. Orion is a transceiver with ham bands only transmitter and main receiver, with general coverage second sub receiver and a promise of good performance and flexibility via software updates.

I received notice about my Orion being shipped, and it arrived soon after. My Orion has the SN 0C310433. It was well packed, in a plain cardboard box (good for overseas customs) and the Tennessee gem was here without rattling components inside or broken knobs. Excellent packing job! It was put on the top of the JA heap and had to wait a while until I got a chance to get to it.

The first thing was to turn it on to see if it survived the football treatment by UPS. No problem there - the thing lit up, its welcome menu announced itself and demonstrated itself in control of the front panel, including meter lights. I purposely waited a few weeks for others to get the initial bugs out, and for T-T to issue a few program updates so I could play with a cleaner rig. After reading some horror stories of rigs quitting after the firmware update, I was leery to be a guinea pig and decided to wait a while with updates. Just before CQ WW CW I downloaded 1.367 version (http://www.rfsquared.com/index.html) as well as a new manual (http://www.tentec.com/565manual.PDF) which is significantly better than the one that came with the rig. Since the Orion is aimed at serious hams, contesters and has a handsome price tag of $3600 with built in antenna tuner, let’s see how it fulfills its mission of being Ultra High End Transceiver.

1. Ergonomics and Front panel

Invisible labels.

The first thing that hit me was the paper label over the two jacks on the front panel, warning not to use a mono headphones plug. Which one is the headphone jack? After querying manual and shining a light at an angle I discovered black on black raised lettering on the front panel showing PH and CW, plus all the other labels for VFOs A and B, MIC, POWER and ALC. Those important labels are almost invisible in the dim light of the shack!

Suggestion: put some white paint on these raised letters so they are visible even for the tired contester. For the headphones add STEREO PH and forget the paper label. It will be lost and sooner or later someone will plug the mono jack and may do damage to the audio circuitry. There should be prevention from blowing the audio output, maybe by having series capacitors going to the contacts to prevent damage. I can see some little pistol contester in a Multi-Multi situation, coming with his battle worn mono headphones and damaging the audio stage. What happens if you plug a key in the headphones jack by mistake (because you can’t see the lettering) and key down? They are the same jacks, right next to each other, begging to be confused. One key jack in the back and on the AUX connector should be fine. We can live with only PH and MIC connectors on the front panel.

Orion's face.

Overall, the front panel looks Spartan, just like previous Ten-Tecs, and has three dimensional look. It is seriously black and in size matches its JA cousins. There is plenty of room for fat fingers, except around the VFO A tuning knob.

Despite the lack of color, the centerpiece of the front panel – the LCD monochrome display layout - is well organized, except some items buried too deep when needed too often. The rim of the screen serves as a modifiable label for the buttons around it. You press the button and labels around the other buttons change according to their new functions and descriptions of variables are shown as a text. No need to go to the manual to decipher what is what. Buttons around the periphery of the screen, plus the rotary MULTI encoder and VFO knob take care of selection and adjustments of the radio’s parameters. The LCD screen shows important stuff and easy to read, though a color screen would have been fancier and easier on tired contesters’ eyes, but this is no big deal. If necessary, the computer can take over that and there is already software by N4PY to control the radio. This gives much more room and color to display what is happening inside of Orion. More on display later. This arrangement reduces the number of knobs and controls, the question is how well is the “substitution” thought out. In some situations you might prefer dedicated controls, that can be adjusted without disabling other controls, rather than this “multiplexed” arrangements. Suitability of the present arrangement will be tested as the Orion appears more in the contest shacks and the operators share their opinions.

In the top left corner.

“Invisible labels” -   MIC         PH        CW

In the top left corner we have the POWER switch, which is of rocker variety, cheap looking, in the TT tradition. Be ready to count about 11 Mississippi’s after you turn the power on - it takes that long, about 11 seconds, for the software to load and for the radio to come to life. This also happens when the Orion happens to lock up or go wild and you have to do the reset in the middle of the contest run (no way to defend your frequency, unless you have a second rig able to take the CQing position).

The Meter.

Next to it is an analog meter, which I prefer over the “brick” type LCD variety, it is beneficial for more precise adjustments and metering. Lamps illuminating the meter are LED yellowish type, providing warm glow reminiscent of old tube radios, under program control and come on when the program loads. They should last for a long time. The meter itself has only two scales, one for S-meter and one for power meter. I have not checked the S-meter scale calibration (it will be done under receivers review, ARRL lab has done the test), but it seems very generous in comparison to other rigs. The power meter scale calibration is linear (first time I’ve seen this on a power meter) from 0 to 100W. The transceiver’s maximum power is 100W. If you use full power and send CW, the poor needle is being banged against the stop and I wonder how long it will last. You need to drop the power to about 70W in order for the needle not to hit the stop. The scale should be made to show the full power at about ¾ of the full range, like it is done on just about all other radios. The calibration on the Orion’s power meter is off. The power setting via encoder is more accurate and reasonably agrees with the actual power output. For example when you set the power to 100W, power output is 100W and meter shows 100W, (bang!) full deflection. If you set the power to 70W, the power output is about 70W, but the meter shows 85W (lack of logarithmic scale), way off claimed +/- 5% accuracy. Also, the meter exhibits peculiar behaviors during transmit: it doesn’t fluctuate with dits and dahs; it just gets up there and sits there while you transmit CW, giving the impression of a solid carrier. I’m not sure why this was done. Looking at the list of software updates, it shows in Version 1.327
- "TX Meter hang increased from 200 mS to 300 mS", it is driving me nuts looking at it while transmitting or doing adjustments. You do something and meter waits 1/3 of a second to react to the change. Major annoyance. If you press key down and try to adjust the power level you will see erratic meter behavior, jumping up and down, rather than following the adjustment control. It looks like (improperly) software controlled meter.

If you are looking for SWR, speech compressor level indication, current drain or other parameters on the meter, they are not there. This is a serious omission; a rig of this caliber and price should have provision to monitor other parameters helpful for operation - especially when used on DX-peditions, when you prefer to limit the number of gadgets with you. If you have the antenna tuner option, the meter only indicates reduced power (about 25W) while the tuner is doing its tweaking, the SWR is displayed on the LCD screen. A more comfortable way would be to use the meter. Personally, I prefer analog meters for measuring or indicating values that need adjustment, tweaking. Using “bricks” or bars to light up on displays is too coarse. You have the meter, so use it wisely.

Connectors.

In the other bottom left corner, we have connectors MIC, PH, CW with their "invisible" markings. The MIC connector is of 4-pin variety. Just about all other radios nowadays use 8 pin connectors, with availability of control lines for tuning, PTT, +V and microphone connections. I wonder what is the strategy here? To force Ten-Tecians to use only TT microphones? I would rather see the compatibility with say Icom mikes and wiring, to eliminate confusion with adapters. The wiring diagram in the manual is still confusing. Fig. 2-4 is way off and it was already corrected (not to use it) in the update notes. Fig 2-5 still shows wiring between pins 2 and 1 (mike and gnd) transposed between the mike and the transceiver. Ten-Tec recommends to use the shell of the connectors as a ground or shield connection, which is a poor practice. There are no solder terminals for this connection. You have to rely on the clamping contact between the shield and the connector body. When trying to trace the wiring in the schematics, there is discrepancy: the ground connections are not shown, and it is very difficult to trace the wiring between the boards, cables and schematics (they are available on the web in PDF format). There is no service manual such as we are used to from other top line radios, no RX/TX signal path indication, and no circuit description. I had a hard time to trace the signals between the schematics pages. There were some problems reported with RF getting into the radio, causing shut offs or putting the radio into the “never-never land mode” requiring power off reset. A radio of this caliber should have no problem in the kW RF environment and should be RF proof. Using an 8-pin microphone connector, with proper grounding and connections for mike and control signals should be implemented in the next hardware version.

No PTT on CW!

Then there is the “PTT problem” or lack of it in CW mode. The PTT signal on the mike connector does not function as PTT in CW mode. PTT pin (used in SSB mode) in CW mode becomes a CW KEYING line, just like the CW connector right next to it. This is a major problem for contesters. We use contest logging and control software, which allows us to set PRECISE timing between RX and TX. The majority of the contesters do not need and do not use QSK. For one, it wears out relays, and there is no need for QSK while sending call sign or report. What is needed is quick turnover from TX to RX when done. Using QSK mode and programmed delay to substitute for that is a no-no, it covers up the first dits or dahs from the caller’s callsign and causes unnecessary repeats due to delayed switching back to RX mode. Besides, it is silly to use PTT line for “keying” in CW mode. Why? There are plenty of connections for keying on the front and rear panels. The rest of the world is using PTT as “PTT” and I can’t see any reason for PTT to become a keying line in CW (other than to send CW with left foot switch or microphone button?) It is not just a matter of switching the radio into transmit mode, but also to control other devices like amplifiers, antenna switches or filters in multi radio setups. Also, it is to be able to mute the receiver without transmitting if needed. This should be addressed in the next hardware version, or a fix provided for those who want this “feature” to be modified. Apparently it is not that simple according to TT and I was not able to trace it in the schematics to figure out the fix yet.

The latest word is that Ten-Tec bowed to our concerns and agreed to implement the CW PTT line in the upcoming update.

Example of the schematic showing microphone connector connections. No connections to the body of the connector, missing dots.

The stereo headphones plug into the PH jack on the front panel. The menu allows to configure various combinations of main and sub receiver audio. Initially, there were some complaints about the steady audio tone and clicks when using headphones. The recommendation by TT is to use 32 ohm or higher stereo headphones, but this does not eliminate the problem of clicksing. Old higher impedance headphones were all in mono style. Most of the older stereo Hi-Fi headphones are of 8 ohms standard, newer stereo headphones (Koss) are of 32 ohm variety, my Heil set has 200 ohm impedance and I do not hear the steady tone. Check your headphones with ohmmeter before you plug them in.  On CW, when using monitor, you can adjust the side tone level by S-TONE setting. But that is also dependent on the main audio volume setting. There is no provision to set the side tone to particular level and have it stay there during the transmit. It will fluctuate with main volume setting. Most contesters prefer independent side tone setting for comfortable level setting during the transmit, especially when using two radios. Some compromise is achievable by fine tuning the AGC settings and side tone level for the most used operating settings. The AGC function is very good and typically does not need much tweaking during receive. One big plus of Orion for weak signal digging in QRM is the ability to set the side tone and corresponding offset all the way down to 100 Hz tone.

TT recommended a fix for steady tone leakage during receive is to insert resistors in the leads. That is more of a masking of the problem rather than a fix. It seems weird that a $3.6k radio can’t have audio circuits feeding “normal” headphones and speakers, without burning out the circuits if you happen to use non-stereo headphones. Maybe two coupling capacitors would take care of that “problem”. Inserting resistors in the headphones path seems to make audio a bit “mushy” and I noticed that for normal audio levels in the headphones I have to run the audio gain at about 80%, while when using the speaker it runs at about 40% and the audio seems crisper. Good audio amplifier circuits are not a rocket science - most cheap radios and amplifiers have them. DSP filtering implemented in the IF chain is nice, but I miss some of the old fashioned audio peak – filtering, either analog (Datong style) or DSP (DSP-599ZX). It is another weapon in the arsenal for QRM/noise fighting and it would be nice to have that also in order to filter out some hiss and growl that passes by IF DSP.

The front panel CW connector requires stereo 1/4” plug for either straight key, keying line from the computer, or paddle for internal keyer. Again, the jack should have white on black CW marking and could have been omitted from the front panel. I use mainly TRlog for CW keying and control. It serves as a keyer and the paddle is attached via computer, so only one keying connection is needed to the Orion. It is nice to have an internal keyer in case the computer or keyer dies. There are some concerns about shortening and varying length of characters, but this will be addressed later in the next part of the review. Again the lack of PTT line control in CW mode is a major deficiency for the serious contester wishing to have more control over his contest setup.

Antenna and VFO selection.

The middle of the left side (between the meter and connectors) is filled with Antenna and VFO selection pushbuttons. I find the buttons to be “mushy” without tactile feedback confirming when the button contact makes (membrane switches?). They are kind of wobbly and I would have expected a bit better quality buttons on this caliber of radio. I like the (even smaller) pushbuttons on other, cheaper radios (e.g. Omni VI) better. They have better feel and more positive tactile feedback - something to improve on the next hardware version. The layout of the buttons is fine. The function of 3 antennas selection is welcome, but it could use more flexibility in automatically selecting TX and RX antenna combinations – like transmit on ANT1 (vertical), receive on ANT2 or ANT3 (Beverages). VFO selection and assignment between the two receivers and transmitter seems fine, but there are some limitations of using VFO B for main receiver and using RIT/XIT.

 

Display and menus.

The center portion of the Orion’s front panel is dominated by a large monochrome LCD multifunction display. A color screen would have been nicer, but is not essential since 3rd party computer and software control software is available. More important is, to be able to see the display in the daylight and the Orion’s display is perfectly visible during day and night, with either white or black background. It has adjustable contrast that can be tailored to individual taste. I found the best setting to be around 40%, anything else is just about useless. Using anything higher you will see letters interfere with each other while changing, slow dissolution.

All four sides of the display are flanked by the multi function buttons with their legends displayed on the screen according to mode. Menus and functions are well organized, they simplify the controls and are intuitive and well explained in the manual. Movement between the various menu items is controlled by the VFO knob and changes of values are made by using the MULTI rotary knob/encoder. The upper part of the display shows VFO information, Mode, SWR indication, filter settings and offsets. Size of displayed frequencies does not change with VFO selection. Not sure what the A and B on the side signify, "A" seems to be on all the time. 

The bottom part displays information about settings and sweep display of a portion of the band on the main receiver. The RIT/XIT offset display is “hidden” among the filter offsets. It is easy to overlook, and it happened a few times that after using the RIT, I overlooked the offset and called a few stations with too much offset. A better place for it would be directly next to the VFO frequency displays. To make room for them, the main VFO numbers could be made a bit smaller and RIT/XIT numbers a bit bigger, next to or below the main VFO frequency display. I would rather see the the VFO A and B frequency displays side by side, corresponding to the position of their respective tuning knobs, with RIT/XIT directly below. Clearly, display layout could use some better ergonomics.

Band Sweep.

Bottom part of the LCD display is dedicated to some messages during program upload, memory operations and SWEEP display. When Orion comes to life and you want to see sweep display, you have to push the SWEEP button. Sweep display is quite coarse but it gives some indication of band activity and can be set from 4.5 kHz width (stations look like bricks) to maximum of 72 kHz segment of the band. You have to mentally compensate for the BFO frequency offset from 0 kHz center. There were some problems reported with some functions while using SWEEP. Sweep only works with main receiver and is not available for the SUB receiver. The "unreleased" update 1.368  - Modified tuning code to reduce the tuning stutter at high encoder rotations, but it made sweep even more jerky (tradeoff). Sweep display does not represent signals on the band by curves, but by "bricks". With less frequent scanning rate it just very coarse indication of band activity. Far from scan displays we are used to on Icom radios.

Message Memories.

There are three memories for storing voice or CW messages. Two of the memories SEND1, SEND2, hold 4.5 seconds, the third one, SEND3 holds 28.1 seconds worth of recording. It takes over 20 seconds to save the first two in the memory. The third one can not be saved and is always lost with power off, it has to be reprogrammed at each power up.

User profile settings with all the selections and menus can be saved in USER1 and USER2 memories and with combination of RECALL button additional three profiles can be saved.

 

The steering wheels.

Moving to right hand side, there are the two large VFO knobs. When I received the Orion, the resistance on the knobs was too much. I like an almost freewheeling feel - easy to turn, with flywheel effect to make quick frequency change faster by spinning the knob. Orion knobs are of Omni variety and I had a rough time to loosen their resistance. Looking in the manual, I found that you need to hold the metal skirt and turn the knob counter clockwise. The way the skirt is embedded in the front panel “fender,” it is very difficult to hold the smooth, slipping skirt still, while rotating the knob to loosen up the friction. After this was done (with some fight), I found that when turning the knobs while doing fine tuning at slow speeds, the knobs have a jerky feel to them (this is when set to around 2/3 of the range). When I tried to remove the knobs and set them for freewheeling, by pulling them slightly away from the “fender,” I found that they are not balanced and in some positions the knob would move on its own. You have to either maintain some friction between the little felt pads on the knob’s skirt and the “fender” or try to balance the knob by drilling out some metal from the knob. I would have expected a bit better tuning knobs. Other radios have a better feel for a lot less money. VFO A’s knob is very close to the long encoder knobs above it. If you have normal size fingers you will find that you will be scraping them on the smaller knobs above. The workaround is to use VFO B as a main one, where there is nothing obstructing the perimeter there. If you decide to use VFO B for the main receiver, the frequency display doesn’t swap, RIT/XIT doesn’t change frequency. If you use VFO B with SUB receiver, RIT works, but there is no XIT for SUB RX.

The tuning rate on both VFO knobs is way too slow. You almost have to use the fastest speed and 10 Hz steps to achieve a comfortable rate. With SLOW setting of the encoder rate and 1 Hz STEP selected, you get 60 Hz per revolution, with 10 Hz STEP you get 600 Hz per revolution. With FAST setting and 1 Hz STEP you get about 250 Hz per revolution and with 10 Hz STEP you get a maximum of 2.5 kHz, which you most likely end up using. I find (on other radios) that about 5 kHz per revolution is the most comfortable (contest) rate while having 1 Hz steps for smooth tuning. This should be the center default with option of setting faster and slower rates (10 kHz – 1 kHz per revolution). For $3.6k, I would like to see smoother tuning, with more comfortable kHz/revolution and nicer, weighted knobs for less tiring operation. Main VFO is the centerpiece of the radio, the most used knob and doubly important for a contester. Most operators will probably find the maximum setting of FAST and 10Hz steps most practical, and simply accept some tone jumping in 10 Hz steps when tuning slowly across the CW signals. The stepped tuning does take some getting used to it. Apparently the processor handling the tuning knobs has hard time following the VFO tuning encoders and this is causing jumpy tone while tuning across CW signals, which gets more pronounced and skipping with the higher rate of tuning. Smooth tuning should be the primary concern of designers, it is the most important part of the radio’s interface with the operator. (This has been corrected in update 1.369 on the account of SWEEP speed.)

Other knobs.

Another concern is when you change the PBT/BW step to be 50 Hz because you find the 10 Hz steps to be too slow to adjust, this change also affects the step rate of the RIT.  It jumps 50 Hz at a time.  Unfortunately, they seem to be coupled.
The encoder resolutions on Orion are rather poor:
  * VFO encoder ~64/256 steps per revolution, compared to ~250/1000 on F1000MP
  * RIT encoder ~10/40 steps per revolution, compared to ~25/100 on F1000MP
Linked with slow synthesizer update, this makes Orion a poor choice for band scanning during contests.

Suggestions by Bill, W4ZV on workaround the tuning rate problem:

   10 Hz is what I use for S&P, and I have not noticed problems. I've been thinking about this issue and suspect it is because I use very wide BW settings (>1 kHz) when dong S&P.  If you try to use 100 Hz BW, 10 Hz steps and attempt to tune rapidly, you will surely have problems!  ;-)  Here is what works for me in RUN and S&P modes for CW (note for SSB, I use 10 Hz for Run and toggle X10 to 100 Hz at nominal 2000 Hz BW when doing S&P):

Mode            BW              Step            Enc Rate
RUN             500-1000        1-10            Fast
S&P             1000-2000       10              Fast

1.  I seldom adjust VFO much in RUN (for 1 Hz Step, 1/2 knob turn = 125 Hz) and I use my brain's DSP to separate signals.
2.  To switch to S&P mode, I simply toggle VFO A for X10 mode (10 Hz steps) and widen BW significantly.  I find I can scan rapidly and do not feel I'm tuning past signals.
3.  To go back to RUN, I toggle VFO A again (1 Hz steps) and narrow BW back to <1000 Hz.

I feel the key here is to consider BW in addition to Step size and Enc Rate.  I personally cannot imagine trying to rapidly scan across a band with any less than 1000 Hz bandwidth in CW.

 

One note on using benefits of Orion's AGC and front end selectivity. It allows to open up the B/W on CW thanks to AGC action and use your brain's DSP between the ears for selectively picking out the calls from the pileup, coming in at different tones. That tends to even out the signals without causing distortions or closing up the receiver by the strongest signal within the pass band. Less tweaking of RIT as is customary with narrower filters on other "inferior" receivers.

Above the VFO A there are six (wobbly) knobs, that are used as operating optical encoders. They have two functions: first to turn and operate encoders; second, they serve as push button switches to change selections or reset RIT/XIT. When turning them, they have a bit of a “grindy” feel, not a smooth rotary feel. I find the knobs too long, interfering with VFO A and covering the lettering below the knobs. They are of black knob with silver skirt variety, and they could be shorter, about half the size for comfortable operating and less interference (take the skirts off?). There are two knobs for audio volume MAIN AF and SUB AF, with their setting indicated by bar on the LCD display. The RIT XIT knob is common for both VFOs and is selectable by the pushbuttons next to the VFO tuning knobs. Perhaps it would have been better to have separate knobs, slightly larger for the RIT/XIT, next to their respective VFO knobs - less confusion and overlook in the heat of the contest. The MULTI knob is used for a variety of functions depending on selection via buttons around the screen. It is used together with the VFO A knob, to select the desired combinations. This arrangement saves lots of knobs and buttons and is easy to use, thanks to a clever combination of LCD screen, buttons and encoders. Again, there is a trade-off between the functionality and savings, time will tell how well is this arrangement accepted by contesters. There is already "movement" to simplify some more frequently used functions, reduce the number of pushes and turns to achieve particular setting. The remaining two knobs are used to control CUT H and L, PBT and BW, and are switchable by pushing the respective knobs. They control the DSP filtering. Some of the shortcuts allowed by depressing MULTI when in AGC Menu resets factory defaults, depressing PBT/BW resets PBT = 0, depressing RIT/XIT resets them to 0, depressing AF Gain knobs mutes audio of Main and Sub receivers, etc. 

No marker.

One thing I miss is the marker or calibrator signals. They are very helpful when setting and checking the performance of filters, notch and audio circuits. Now with some audio analyzing software it would be very beneficial to have marker signals to fine tune the DSP system.

Filters.

You can move the bandpass curve of the filters and DSP filter in relation to carrier oscillator frequency. The graphic display of carrier frequency and bandwidth of the filters is shown on the LCD screen and gives a good idea about the settings. Crystal roofing filters can be selected by the Orion automatically according to BW setting of DSP, or forced manually to particular filter installed and activated in the menu. The selection of filter, its bandwidth and a relative position to bandpass curve of filters is shown graphically on the LCD display. IF DSP, AGC, filtering, noise reduction and other QRM fighting features are nicely tied together for a superior QRM fighting arsenal and in order to take full advantage, it is necessary to understand the system. The operator should try different settings for different situations and band conditions and make note of it. Settings are accessed via the MENU and can be fine tuned. The Ten-Tec reflector (http://lists.contesting.com/_tentec/) is an excellent place to exchange ideas, settings and experiences. Sinisa Hristov, VA3TTN has provided closer look at the settings, did some measurements and made some comments about the filtering, DSP and AGC system in his article.

Keypad.

In the top right hand corner there is a keypad serving as band selector and numeric keypad for entering the frequency. The bands are marked in “meters”, like, 160, 80 etc. in Ten-Tec “tradition” rather than used by the other radio makers using the frequency, like 1.8, 3.5, etc. With digital displays, it makes more sense to use frequency to indicate the bands, especially with the new bands, one has to do mental gymnastics to convert meters to frequency. The keypad allows entering the frequency for VFO A or B and is handy for that quick QSY.  Behind the band buttons are the 4 band-stacking memories per band after each push of the same band button.  This is very useful for DX'ers to store favorite mode/frequency/BW settings per band, or an alternative (more friendly?) way for a contester to save pileup frequencies in contests (same modes but different frequencies). 

Could the buttons and knobs be organized in better layout? Most likely, but this better be left for the next hardware version after some twiddling and comments from contesters having more experience with the existing configuration.

The Rear End.

The rear panel has two antenna connectors for TX/RX operation and one for RX antenna only - handy for Beverages or other receiving antennas. There are also control connectors for two amplifiers and two connectors for BAND DATA with control signals for remote antenna switches, filters or other accessories requiring switching in sync with band or amplifier selection. The SERIAL DATA port DB9 connector is for computer control and downloading the latest software updates. The software that controls many aspects of the Orion’s operation can be downloaded from the web site and changes can be uploaded to Orion. There are jacks for external speaker and key, and a 9-pin DIN connectors (accepting 5-pin plugs) for AUX I/O and REMOTE. There are RCA jacks for XVRT, LINE OUT, KEY, +13.8 V and SPARE (for PTT modification?). There is a cadmium-plated lug and wing nut for GND connection - stainless steel hardware would have been more appropriate. DC IN 13.8V connection has a 2-pin connector (down from 4 pins used on the Omni) and a 25A automotive type fuse next to it. The PA module and heat sink appears to be of Omni variety providing 100W of output power. Connectors are provided for making cables to interface user gadgets to the Orion. An RS232 cable is also provided for computer interface. There is no ALC connection to amplifier, some solid state amplifiers would like to see some ALC.

Look inside.

There are two types of screws securing the cover, requiring two types of screwdrivers to remove it. The cover is held on the sides with regular Philips screws. The back perimeter of the cover is fastened to the back panel with self-tapping, star headed screws. A key is provided, but it is a pain in the fingers to use it as resistance is quite high and screws (18 of them) are quite long. Power screwdriver to the rescue! You are guaranteed to have “fun” on an expedition if you forget the key and need to take the covers off. There should be the same type of screws (heads) used all around.

 

ON4UN wasn’t kidding in his review when he said that you could pack a sandwich and shoes inside of the Orion. There is plenty of room. It could have easily accommodated a switching power supply. It makes you wonder why the circuitry wasn’t packed more closely to reduce the size of the radio - a welcome factor for those traveling contesters. I would guess that it could have been shrunk by one-third or even one-half the size. Quite a difference from the packed and filled up other radios. Modeling it after the Omni VI, with smaller, better feeling pushbuttons could have been one way of shrinking it.

Underneath the cover, the spacious interior has four chassis compartments in each half, with a midplane providing connections for circuit boards. Overall, it has a neat, clean layout, without the typical cable harness jungle. RF connections are provided by coax cables.

 

Looking at the top side of the Orion, from the front panel up, the top compartment has 7 bandpass filters switched by relays in one compartment.

 

Below that is the IF compartment with board and room for five 9 MHz IF crystal roofing filters. The original Orion filters have 4 crystals, the Omni VI filters have 8 crystals and they can be used in the Orion. INRAD filters have steeper skirts and are enclosed in the hermetic cans. In the RX part of the review we will have a look a various bandpass curves and performance of the filters. The 500 and 250 Hz positions apparently have some amplification added to compensate for the loss in the narrower filters. You have to be careful when filling those positions, there could be excessive noise. The sweep display circuitry module is on the side.

 

In the top right compartment there is the SUB receiver board (with components for SUB RX sweep missing).

 

Below, under the speaker there is the IF converter board.

 

Looking at the bottom side of Orion away from the front panel in similar way, the top left compartment has the RF converter board and below synthesizer compartment. The lonely power circuit regulator board is on the bottom right side and a compartment with the optional antenna tuner is above it.

 

The back panel has a connector board and a PA module.

 

Behind the front panel are the brains, LCD, DSP and interface to knobs and buttons. The chassis is made of brushed aluminum; the front bezel is made of plastic. Packaging could have been more “compressed” and the size of the radio reduced considerably, but instead, it seems to be in line with Ten-Tec’s tradition: give it “nice, homebrewy” guts and looks.

For contesting I clip the slowed down fan on the PA heat sink, just to play it safe. This is also available as an option by Ten-Tec and if 13.8 V fan is used, the back 13.8V RCA connector can be utilized.

This and That.

My first semi serious contest operation with the Orion was in CQ WW CW on 40m. When the band was opening up, with weak signals, I found myself using my modified IC-781, because the digging out of weak signals was more pleasing and the Orion was noisy (due to the lack of my DSP training?) I still have to get more familiar with the whole DSP – AGC – Filtering – NR system, play with it more and determine the best settings for particular situations that need their own special settings in order to take the full advantage of all the QRM fighting arsenal that Orion possesses. When things got busy, the Orion took over. Hands down, it handles loud signals and busy bands much better than the IC-781. I was pleased that the Orion now works with TRlog software and running Low Power, with no linear, I had no problems or shut downs. I did not get into diversity reception or using SUB receiver much.

TRlog (DOS OS) has the problem with following the band information from the Orion. Orion has a fixed baud rate of 57600. Programmable interface speed would be desirable to tailor the Orion with logging software in case of communications problems. Working with Windows logging software there are no problems. In CQ 160 SSB contest I have experienced three "wipe-outs", when I had to revive the dead Orion with Power Off-On jolt.

It seems that the processor chip in the Orion is underpowered for the tasks that is trying to serve. Demonstration is the latest fix for the jerky VFO tuning rate, which slowed down the performance of the Sweep display. There is also suspicion that Sweep is causing some wipe-outs and if not needed, it better be turned off.

The first impressions are that Orion, if you are willing to overlook some of the deficiencies (might be the redneck :-), and use it as CQing radio, where once set, it will be less cumbersome and suit your requirements. Some of the concerns described above might, or might not be important to some operators and you be the judge if the overall ergonomics, performance and features are worth your money. Elecraft K2 is very close or better in some (receiver front end) parameters and for a lot less money. JA big three pack a lot more stuff in friendlier packages for the money, but have some deficiencies in strong signal handling and clicksing departments. One of these days maybe manufacturers will listen to us, "race car drivers," and design and manufacture rigs that will be "perfect". In the mean time .... 

The Orion brings a lot of fresh air into ham transceiver design. The features and circuitry offer welcome changes and new possibilities for contesters. Ergonomics and packaging (for the price) seems to be lagging behind, as they did with the previous Ten-Tec radios. This seems to deter contesters from filling up their shacks with Ten-Tecs. We are starting to see some Orion bugs appear as people try various configurations and settings. As they are being reported, Ten-Tec is trying to accommodate the changes in the software (see the history of software version updates), but some things like “normal” PTT on CW and who knows what else, is off-limits with them. “They know better than you” so time will tell how the radio will be accepted by the contesting community and I hope that Ten-Tec will listen to our suggestions and accommodate them for the benefit of all. Otherwise it will look like “Einstein in Gandhi’s clothing”.

Ten-Tec is boasting its close relationship with its customers, listening to their concerns and suggestions. They sell and support customers directly and there has been a lot of praise for their prompt service and customer care. But my and other contesters suggestion and request for keeping PTT line on the microphone connector as PTT line in CW mode has met with some strange response from the Ten-Tec: “There is not going to be a change made - if you feel that this is a "must have" versus the other amazing aspects of the rig - then the Orion is not the transceiver you need to meet your needs for serious HF contesting.”   Hmmmm....  but thanks to my and your pressure (voting with your $$$) they might be willing to listen more closely to what we have to say and eventually implement some improvements.

Competition doesn't sleep. Icom just announced that IC7800 has been FCC certified and first few units were delivered to US customers. 7800 is claiming much better specs on both equal receivers, superb ergonomics, 200W DSPed transmitter, real life band sweep display and host of bell and whistles for about twice the cost of Orion. Hmmm... gotta have a closer look!

In the next installments I will look at the performance of transmitter, main and sub receivers, do some testing especially for weak signal detection and strong signal handling, look at the circuitry and try various settings for different situations to see how the circuitry and features can be used to their maximum potential. Possible modifications and improvements will be tracked and described as they evolve. With “software modifiable” radio, one must be careful with possible hardware modifications to insure they do not infringe on the software’s control turf. The software patches might not work and can even mess up the radio if it is not compatible with the original design. It looks like any major hardware design changes would have to be done by the manufacturer as a new version in order to preserve the compatibility. Time will tell how good and reliable it is going to be.

One note on the TenTec Reflector. It is a place for exchange of information, ideas, recipes for modifications. When I first brought up the need for the PTT on CW and presented this review, I was attacked by the TT Cult Worshippers (aka "Emperor has new clothes") and I had to leave the reflector due to personal attacks for bringing up the "naked" truth. The few vocal "defenders" can spoil the atmosphere and many knowledgeable participants rather stay off and resort to private correspondence.  Hardly open dialog between users/customers and the factory. If our review and comments help to improve the products, we all benefit. Saying that everything is fine, when it isn't, doesn't serve anybody, but few who blindly "worship". We hope that our review will help in your decision if the radio will fit your needs for your hard earned money.

I welcome any comments, additions, suggestions and this review should be a living document, changing with changes - hopefully for better for us users as well as for the manufacturer. Please email me at K3BU@optonline.net

Additional comments by other users will be either incorporated into the text or tacked at the user comments page, edited for clarity and to complement the main body of the review.

Software version.

It seems that the best software version for the serious DXer and contester is ver. 1.373b5. It is reasonably stable and has the best noise fighting ability and weak signal reception. Changes introduced in ver. 2.xxx were initially giving many problems, but looks like they might be slowly fixed, although, the new releases are coming out very slowly.

P.S.

In view of hostile comments from "TT cult worshipers" and a challenge by K7ZUM:

    "....after reading all of the comments about all of the other radios he [K3BU] has tried, and none of them are up to his satisfaction, maybe he should design, manufacture, and market a radio to the Ham community that will be the "perfect radio"..."

I have decided to discontinue the review "business" and take up the challenge that maybe I should design and manufacture the "perfect radio" that would satisfy contesters and Ham community. By doing this, I and my company Computeradio would be in competition with other companies and it would be not fair for me to review other's products. Rather than trying to influence other makers, which is often futile, I hope to produce rig that will have features and performance that we are craving for and that it will become your favorite rig. I will leave this review on for a while, until I get Computeradio web site up and running.

Thank you to all those who appreciated my efforts.