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Sunday, December 03, 2017

First Impressions: Kenwood TH-D74

Sure, I could have posted a review on E-Ham, but rather do that here because I can include pictures and videos.
I have been looking for a new radio to use for satellite, portable and entertainment while enjoying time after a settling in to a camp site.
(The father of APRS, Bob WB4APR enroute somewhere during Thanksgiving)

For my reasons, the Kenwood TH-D74 fit those needs because, as a "current on the market" hand held radio it:
  • Provides up to 5W output on 144, 220 and 440 amateur bands in FM and N-FM.
  • Has 1,000 memory channels (Like the Yaesu FT-60r does)
  • Has built in APRS capability (Like my older Kenwood TH-D7A(g) and a few other radios)
  • Has a built in GPS (Only the Icom ID-51, Kenwood TH-D72, Yaesu FT-2DR have this currently)
  • Has audio recording capability (saves to an micro SD card)
  • Has all mode (SSB, CW, AM, FM) receiver from 100KHz to 500 MHz ( Only the Kenwood F6a has this)
  • Has FM broadcast band for music
  • Has bluetooth to avoid needing any sort of data cables getting in the way
  • Runs on a Lithium battery pack
  • Can receive two frequencies at the same time
This radio also is the only other non Icom radio that supports D-Star for digital voice, but at the $589 price tag this radio may push the limits for a ham grade HT and creates a high barrier to entry to new users wanting to try D-STAR.
Its the combination of everything this radio does is what makes it unique and justifies the price to me. Still, I do not know why Icom still treats D-Star as an accessory feature. They must not really believe in it. :) Kenwood really needed to jam a lot of stuff into this radio to sell a few at this price point.
If I wanted to carry multiple radios, I would have needed to purchase a combination of radios and other equipment to get the same functionality. Some of those to consider were the:
  • Kenwood TH-F6a at $289 because it has 144, 220 and 440 plus an all mode HF receiver
  • Kenwood TH-D72 at $350 because it is the best performing APRS function radio available
  • Yaesu FT-2DR not sure why, but I like it as a 144/400 and Fusion radio with APRS, but no all mode RX.
  • Icom ID 51 at $400 because it is 144/440 with D-Star and basic APRS functions and nice form factor.
  • Any DMR capable radio because I like DMR because there are many more repeaters where I intend to be in the US, Canada or elsewhere.
Add in digital recorder plus data and audio cables, software, its gets a little complicated (and more expensive), so does this purchase make sense now? We shall see.

(Programming radio over blue tooth. No wires) 

Satellite Operation
This is actually a short coming of this radio because it is not full duplex, meaning if I am talking on 144 MHz I can not listen to 440 MHz at the same time. The other receiver mutes when transmitting on the other. Operating full duplex via satellite is considered "polite" because you can monitor yourself on the down-link to ensure you are not "doubling" with another userm which often happens on repeaters if your not playing nice.
This is not to be confused with being able to listen to two different frequencies at the same time, even in the same band. The only current production radio that is true full duplex is the Kenwood TH-D72.
Some older popular radios that meet this full duplex criteria are the Yaesu FT-530 and Icom IC-W32 but I already have owned them and I wanted something new. There is the Wouxon UV9D that claims to have full duplex capability but the receiver is desensitized enough to make it borderline usable for satellite use.
As an experienced satellite operator, i can still operate satellite by being "predictive" during a satellite pass to be a good neighbor though. It is easy to program the TH-D74 into split mode so when I transmit on uplink, it will go back to the downlink when I unkey the PTT. I can also put the downlink on one VFO and the uplink on the other VFO.
This is not the same as "full duplex but is close and 100% if I use a second radio to access the FM only repeaters. One nice thing also is that when the TH-D74 is used as an all mode receiver, its perfect as a down-link receiver on the SSB transponder satellites. For up-link, the Yaesu FT_817 works perfect and I have one of those, so now I can work those satellites while portable too!
IMPORTANT: One quick note, I found a "birdie" on 435.160MHz, but its weak. This is where the AO-85 satellite can be found. The IF beat feature is not enough to knock it all the way out.
Clipped to a backpack or belt. NO WAY! 
While I do want to have just "one radio" while doing the aforementioned activities, this is an expensive radio and I want to treat it as such, so will store it in my pack when not in use on the trail, or to just beacon out via APRS where I do not need to press any buttons. A backup radio and for use when I want to operate full duplex on satellite comes in the form of either my Yaesu FT_60 (144/440) or the Radioddity GD-77, which is also a DMR radio. This is what will get clipped to a pack strap.
So, that's whats related to satellite operation. The TH-D74 does have built in audio recording capability so I set this to record on the down link and it logs my QSOs (Contacts) for easy playback or sharing later. This is a really good feature to have for those that do not think I made contact of "oops, I left my recorder at home" or, DAMN! the cable fell out and all I got was a buzz sound" sort of moments. If you are a true satellite operator, you know what I mean!
A word about the recorder feature
You can configure the recorder to automatically record anything on either A or B side of the radio. Not both. I leave this set to B which is the side that allows the all mode receiver to work on. A side only works for the ham bands only.
Perhaps if I hear an interesting HF or SW station, I can record that as well as 144, 220 or 440 activity in the ham bands as well as anything not in the ham bands such as aircraft communications. All recordings are time stamped. There are features to start recording upon voice (VOX) or carrier, which is nice too depending how the squelch is set or tone system in use.
This was another reason I purchased this instead of the TH-D72. Figure the built in recorder is like any of the premium digital pocket recorders on the market, but just for recording radio audio. I guess if I needed to record a note for myself, I could always transmit on a different radio into this one. Ok, maybe....
Recordings get logged to a micro SD card and you can play them back on the radio, or read them on a computer via USB cord or by taking the SD card out of the radio and plugging it into your mobile phone.

(FM scan mode. Can automatically mute when another transmission is heard on 2m or 70cm)

Equalizer & Volume Lock
I have not seen any other review talk about this feature, so I want to say "THIS IS AWESOME"! This is like one of those weird creature comfort settings a 1980's Cadillac would have that you would not need, but was nice to have.
The way this works by going to Menu 963 is where you set the volume (analog knob) to a listening level you like and then you activate this volume lock function. Regardless if you try to increase or decrease the volume, the radio will stay at the level you set until you deactivate the volume lock.
There is also a 6-band RX audio equalizer, a SSB high cut filter, CW filter and 4 band TX audio filter plus 3 stage mic gain. Yes, this is in a handheld radio! Cadillac features indeed! You can toggle the RX or TX EQ on or off, or both and each has its own settings. This makes a big difference when listening on AM or FM broadcast, 2m FM, SWL HF SSB, etc.
These are nice for a few reasons, but will let you discover why this could be helpful at times.
Menu System
Did you see that last section? Menu 963? What! Its well organized. Menu 1-9 are icons, Then you have a list of setting under each of the 9. Then you have sub menus. Its really easy to find stuff to fiddle with and tell someone else how to get there. No more twirling the knob (sorry, that sounded bad) and going past where you need and have to go back the other way. I am not going to look for the politically correct description to go back and edit the preceding sentence.

APRS Related Stuff
The instruction manual will share more about the basic details on certain features, as well as other reviews found all over, even on YouTube. I am going to focus on using the built in bluetooth feature allows you to pair the radio to a computer or smart phone and make use of the TNC as a KISS TNC.
This is nice so that you do not need any sort of data cable to get the APRS data to your computing device running software like UI-View, APRSISCE or others. Also, using this radio with WinLink is possible which could be of interest to EMCOMM/ARES/RACES people. Again, NO DATA CABLE NEEDED!.
Everything else related to APRS works as expected including the ability to append a QSY frequency (short for "can you change frequency?") on one side of the radio when operating APRS on the other side. This is like having the ability to message somewhere on APRS and the person on other end can click a button on his/her radio and bring them to the frequency (including tone and shift) easily. All done without speaking about it. (I thought you said 146.520, I was on 145.620)
All other APRS features work great. Messaging stations, sending location, viewing bearings, etc all fantastic! You can even view weather telemetry data easily.
(Local digipeater which is part of the Red Cross)

How does it sound?
I have never owned an HT that has a mic transmit equalizer (4 band) or a receive equalizer (6 band) Going back to that "Cadillac" comment, this is super nice to have. On transmit there is also a separate mic gain setting (H/M/L). Of the discussions I have had, all have given me positive reports on audio considering its an HT. Yes, with the built in mic.
All Mode Receiver
On HF, there is an internal ferrite bar antenna for the AM broadcast band and up to 10MHz. It works OK, nothing special, but is nice to have for listening to 1130 KHz Bloomberg for updates on economic reporting without needing a special antenna.
It is possible to bypass this internal antenna and use the SMA antenna port to hook in something more capable, especially for HF. When tuning around on 80M, 40M and the SWL bands, its amazing that this receiver does not get easily overloaded, which the Kenwood TH-F6a did as well as the Alinco DJ-X10, X20 and Yaesu- VR_500 HT receivers I have owned in the past. This wont be your every day HF receiver, but its a solid back up.
There is an attenuator to knock back signals 20 dB less and provisions for VFO tuning, fine tuning in 1Hz (yes!) steps. You can use the channel selector knob on the top of the radio or the up/down arrows for even smoother sounding tuning. (Pause for knob spinning laugh) The HF RX is well implemented on this radio and is a fun accessory to have. Another Cadillac comment? Yep.
Imagine being able to listen to the maritime net on 14.300MHz and talk on local 2m at the same time. Nice!

This is ALOT of radio, in a small package.
I set out thinking I would author a differentiated review and that is what I intend to do. After all, an HT is an HT. How much better could it be. Kenwood has done a great job on this radio and is not a mass market entry level radio, so it has a limited appeal to someone who knows exactly what they want. Specifics:
Bluetooth (Built In) 
I really think the bluetooth works well. I can pair it to the 3 different headsets I have and even my car audio system. You use the built in radio PTT to activate transmit if the headset you have does not support tap to PTT and that is ok. I have not used this on satellite operation yet, but not having a wire connecting a headset is something I am interested in trying.
What I do not like, and maybe I have not figured it out yet is not being able to pair two bluetooth devices at the same time. I was hoping to be able to pair to a headset for listening and my mobile phone for APRS mapping at the same time. No luck so far which is too bad.
Also Bluetooth is mono only (I think) not stereo. but thats ok...
Memory & Control
For almost $600 bucks, Kenwood could have charged for software, like Icom who tries to charge for every (damn) little thing. Even Yaesu at times also! Not with this, the software is free to download. I think Kenwood built this into the price of the radio, but hey, free is free. And its not alphaware stuff. Its really nice.
Sort of gimmicky, but Kenwood also has another free software package that allows full remote control of the radio via bluetooth and reminds me of the Alinco-DJ-X10 that has this also. Bluetooth only allows control, not audio pass through which is too bad, but I think its possible and I just cant get that to work. Otherwise, I need an appropriate cable for that!
Last Comments (D-STAR)
I gave D-Star a shot many years ago. Its age is apparent. It needs a major reboot. The server architecture is not good. GMSK, which is what D-Star is based on is not efficient for spectrum use at 6.25Khz wide, you can not put repeaters too close to each other. A single 12.5KHz DMR repeater can be more efficient sicne it is TDMA based. Anyway, I wish Kenwood rolled this out with DMR or could offer a firmware upgrade. I understand the reasons they did not, because the users of DMR are the actual innovators making what hams really want. I think its just a matter of time before a "Big 4" vendor jumps into DMR with a killer radio. Alinco, nice try, but not. :)
For how D-Star is implemented, its actually way easier to use than the Icom radios. Figure THAT ONE out!
Closing
I will post some videos and pictures of the radio in action when I find a real world example to show off this radio under real world conditions, so be sure to follow this review thread as I spend more time with this capable radio.

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