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Issue #17: The Best, But at What Cost?

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

 

This is a hobby, right? And, like most people who enjoy amateur radio, I have a hobby budget that allows me to indulge at times, but only through careful planning. As with anyone else who is married (I found my soul mate 46 years ago) there is also the XYL Factor. The XYL factor precludes random buying of stuff just for the heck of it, or whenever something new is announced by one of my favorite manufacturers. If I didn’t keep that XYL Factor in mind, there might be some unfortunate conversations. Either that or my credit card would see a sudden and excessive amount of salon and spa attendance with girlfriends.

 

So, with that in mind, as a writer I will assume that my readers face the same issues. When I look for items to review, I put a focus on the “value” aspect of the product being considered. There are products out there for the ham radio operator that represent some of the best investments you can make in terms of their performance and user satisfaction, and I hope to always be able to highlight those here in Trials and Errors – Ham Life with an Amateur. In the last six months, “value” and “the best” have converged on several occasions. An antenna, or a CW keyer, that just does what it is supposed to do while taking it easy on your wallet – products like these are out there, and it’s my job to bring them to your attention.

 

That said, there are also products that go into my wish list, and possibly yours, because they don’t fit the budget . . . ham gear that offers the very best you can find for your application, along with a “never mind the cost” price tag.  That’s understandable. I don’t care if you are buying a new car or buying something for your shack. If you want the absolute best, you’ve got to pay for it. There is only a small percentage of ham radio operators who can afford to say, “If it’s out there, and it’s better than what I have now, I’m going to buy it.”

 

I’ve never had that luxury. And the issue for those who DO have that luxury is that the jury is always out on just exactly what is "the best" in each category. Is it a big-name transceiver just reviewed by Sherwood Labs that has a hot receive capability? Or, is it a little known manufacturer with a transmitted signal that is as pure as you can get? If you allow yourself to get crazy, you could be six months with one hot radio (or antenna), four months with another, and the cycle would continue. To make it worse, hams are notoriously opinionated (says the opinion writer) about what is "the best." If I run a story here about the best wire antenna on the market, I'd get torn to shreds in the later discussion forum, as no group of hams will agree with whatever is labeled "the best." I remember watching what happened to the YouTuber ham reviewer who announced one Chinese ham stick antenna as the "ultimate IC-705 antenna." 

 

When I am lucky enough to have one of those rare top-shelf products in front of me, my job is not just to point out the benefits of what you get for your investment, but to show my readers the true differences between it and the “value” products below it in the marketplace. If you’re going to buy a $150K electric car from Mercedes, perhaps at least you should know what the real differences are between it and a Tesla Model 3 at one-third the price.

 

A Tale of Two Paddles

 

I began my column this week with a description of this value proposition because I’ve been loaned a high-end product that just begs for a screaming review. It’s literally the most beautiful thing I’ve ever set my eyes on as it sits on my shack desk. I keep going into the shack, looking at it and walking out. It's the UR5CDX Eridan MX two-paddle keyer. I don’t know if my average CW skills are good enough for this beauty. My thinking was, “This key is for 40+ WPM operators, right? What are you doing with it?”

 

The Eridan MX is an expensive key, one that would take a third of the cash I put out to buy my radio. As you know from previous reviews in Trials and Errors and our product review section Short Takes, I’m generally a cheapskate when it comes to CW.  There’s no reason why I should be so careful with my ham radio money when it comes to one mode over another. But let’s face it . . . there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the CW mode.

 

I wish I had kept the old Vibroplex bug I used as a kid, because if I had, I’d be using it today. Unlike radios and antennas, I don’t feel the “call of the wild” interfering with my happiness – day-to-day, the keys I have work just fine. They produce dits and dahs and I’ve never felt the need for a luxury upgrade. I interviewed Pietro and Bruna Begali for this column several months ago, and highly respect what they have done for the CW operator with their fine products. But, to date, at the end of the day my hand is still wrapped around a key at half the price of the average Begali.

 

That is, until last night, when I opened a package that came all the way from the war zone in the Ukraine. This somewhat funky-looking cardboard box arrived at my door via the US Postal Service. But when I opened that container, the bullet proof packaging revealed the finest craftsmanship I’ve seen in this product category. And yes, I think I’ve seen them all at Hamfests or friends’ shacks over the years. The Eridan MX key was screwed down to a plate that was attached to the inner cardboard and foam surround so that the post office could have played kickball with this thing if they’d wanted.

 

I unpacked it and sat it next to my Kent 2-Paddle keyer, the “standard” at my shack for a reliable, under $200 CW device. The Eridan MX sells for twice that when you consider the cost of shipping. Both are pictured here, and my only fear is that you won’t get a true gauge of the quality and heft of these things from my written analysis. The Kent is a handsome brass key with standard spring adjustments, weighed down well with a black metal base. Regardless of its heft, the Kent still slides across the surface of my desktop when I’m really going at it. The Eridan is rock solid, as it should be for its additional half-pound. It is three pounds of the most beautifully chromed surface that I’ve ever seen. Yury (UR5CDX) must have carved and polished this thing out of a 1957 Chevy bumper. Believe me, no one makes anything these days that has this kind of finish, certainly not the automakers and not the well-known CW key producers.

 

In operation, as expected, both the Kent and the Eridan both produce code flawlessly. Surprisingly, for a key with many fine adjustments, the factory setting that Yury put on the Eridan MX works perfect for me. I played with the adjustments on spacing and on the magnetic return, and found no substantial changes from the original. The Kent, on the other hand, has on a number of occasions required me to adjust the settings for maximum comfort. A couple of other features separate the two – primarily the number of ball bearings (the Eridan has four ball bearings and solid silver contact points, versus two ball bearings and plated contacts on the Kent). With regards to the feel of their operation, both are pleasurable to use, but the Eridan takes the prize in this aspect. My code seemed to flow so much more efficiently with less effort, and I could feel the difference that the magnetic tension makes in my keying ability. Operating it is a delight.

 

A Ham Products Manufacturer in the Middle of a War

 

Yury Shevchenko (UR5CDX) is 59 years old and he's spent the last 22 years building CW keys. He's clearly very talented at the machines and hand work required to build such precision instruments. Each one of his keys is a creation made for a ham in one part of the world or another. It's Yury's only business, so when the Russians invaded his country, he was initially very concerned for his livlihood (and much more). For Yury, talking about it is very difficult . . . tears interrupted the flow of words.

 

"Like so many others here, I did not want to believe that Russia would invade Ukraine. When this happened, on February 24, I didn't understand what I should do. I put the business on hold for a few weeks, but then realized that we must keep working here. And even harder, to keep contributing in ways that would help our Armed Forces defend the country," Yury told me.

 

Last month, I wrote a column about the great ham radio products coming out of this region, and Yury represents the best of them. Along with great companies like RigExpert, ACOM, and others. 

 

"We had supply issues and logistics issues, but things smoothed out as people went back to work, realizing that society had to move forward. My company like others started contributing to the Prytula Volunteer Fund, one of the organizations here that helps our Armed Forces. I am so grateful to the many worldwide hams who helped with positive messaging during those rocky days of resuming production," Yury stated. Business is back for Yury now. He's always had a strong Euro base of customers, many of whom would rather give their CW key business to a company in Ukraine than to a radio dealer in their local community. His products are available to USA and the World customers at a very reasonable shipping cost from Ukraine and I can testify to the fact that you should have no issues at all about shipping, as it was fast and efficient in my case.  Yury also sells some gorgeous paddles starting in the $149 price range.

 

Over the years that I've had my Kent keyer, I have been generally happy with it. It's a good product that you can't go wrong with, and it is sold through DX Engineering and others in the USA (sold unterminated). However, I might note that I have requested technical support from Kent directly on two occasions. Neither one of those inquiries produced a response. In the case of UR5CDX, Yury has been responsive either instantly or within 24 hours to any emailed question. Someday soon I hope to rate some other UR5CDX keys. I rate the Kent at a B+ for build quality and an A in user experience (my black base had paint drips on it). For the Eridan MX, it's a rare A+ in both build quality and user experience. 


The ultimate compliment came from my XYL. She wandered into the shack this morning, noted the gleaming chrome of the Eridan, and replied, "Honey, that thing is beautiful like a piece of jewelry. Whatever it is, I hope you've bought it. You deserve it." I wish the XYL Factor always worked that smoothly!

 

73 for now,

Dave

 

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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.


Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated May 3, 2023 00:21