QRZ.COM
ad: ProAudio-1
ad: L-HROutlet
ad: l-rl
ad: L-MFJ
ad: Left-2
ad: abrind-2
ad: Left-3
Latest Awards
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued

Short Takes #26: Cables, Coax, Connectors and Kooks

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

I've been down the road a bit on the topic of cables and connections. Not just for my amateur radio life, but for my interests in audio equipment as well. Determining the cables and connectors we use in our hobby or in musical reproduction can involve engineering, but it is also an aspect of fine-tuning that can attract the fussiest of people. You know who I am talking about . . . those who love to "sweat the small stuff."  It was the same way during my years in the audio industry. I'll share an historical analogy with you from the world of High-Fidelity.

Before a too-close explosion took away much of my high-frequency hearing, I considered myself an "audiophile" (a person deeply into the music listening experience). What a wonderful thing it can be to sit in front of a pair of awesome loudspeakers and hear a symphony orchestra reproduced as if you were three rows back and center-stage. At the time, I worked for cool little companies: Audio-Technica (microphones, headphones, cables) and Telarc Records (the first recording company to move exclusively to a digital format). To me, my work life was the equivalent of working at a Flex Radio or Yaesu/ICOM. I got to play with my hobby a great deal under the banner of a day-to-day marketing job for these employers.

We were constantly engaging with our factories in Japan to get them to understand the nature of our "audiophile" customer base. Japan had become, during the Vietnam War days, a marketplace filled with appliance operators. Their customers wanted to plug in a nice receiver, attach a couple of speakers (with the obligatory big woofers), add a turntable and cartridge and listen to their record collection -- generally, at very LOUD levels. Brand names like Kenwood, JVC, Pioneer and Yamaha were battling it out for the hearts and minds of those shoppers, all of whom wanted to plug stuff in and have it sound great when they got it back to the States or Europe.

As more and more sophistication entered the market, many of these same consumers started to play with the configuration of their systems to see what improvements they could make by fine-tuning. Small companies emerged to bring these ideas to the public.

Here's where the analogy holds up well to our ham shacks -- as you know, there are a lot of things that one can do to improve the performance of our stations, right? Whether it's to improve our signal going out or to improve the receive sound quality, one of the first things we all consider is whether or not we are using the right cables, coax and inter-connections.

My title for this Short Takes issue reflects my sarcastic view of a somewhat wacky element that comes into the market when enthusiasts go bonkers and open their wallets. Over the years I've seen these "Kooky" companies come out regularly. As an example, one rep for a very fast-growing company pulled me aside and leveled with me that their "Godzilla Cables" (not the real name, but you'll guess it correctly) simply had "gold colored connectors" on the ends and a thicker rubber coating on the same guage copper wire that everyone else was selling. Except he could sell his for twice the price because he had tapped into this craze that new audiophiles were going through to improve their systems. To me, that was a sham. (I've seen some antenna ads over the years that seemed to fit the sham category pretty nicely on the Ham side.)

At audio fairs I attended all over the country, avid audiophiles would flock to the booths of small manufacturers who found better and better ways to get them to spend their money. New speaker cables came out, some of them nearly as thick as a garden hose, costing hundreds of dollars. Turntable platters hit the market with suction pumps to hold the LP record completely flat against the deck, minimizing vibrations to the stylus.  Was there truly a difference? Some professed to hear it as improvements in the dynamic range of the sound. Audio engineers for the companies would, in many cases, simply stand there in stunned silence. They were amazed that the marketing guys were right . . . there was indeed a market for smoke and mirrors. Most of the time their lab equipment failed to recognize any sound differences (and yet those special ears were hearing something, but we could never prove it via apparatus).

To be clear, I wouldn't label those who could hear a difference as kooks. The kooks were the sham artists sellilng the gold-colored cables which simply took advantage of those open wallets. For the two cables photographed below, one had actual gold plated connectors and very heavy guage wire and shielding. Our factory estimated a pair of these would have to retail for over $100, and as a result we never brought them to market. The standard quality cable next to them was a $9.95 product at the time and worked just fine.

I have a ham radio friend who is an absolute nut for low SWR. He reminds me of the guy with the $500 turntable suction mat and the garden hose speaker cables. Everything he does is to make his SWR totally and completely flat. He is not satisfied as I would be with a ratio of 1.3 to 1.  Nope -- he will fuss with his cables and connectors, doing everything he can down to trimming the last half inch off of a wire antenna. Yes, this ham sweats the small stuff, for sure. To me, I just want to be on the air. When I sit down to play radio, it's to make QSO's. It doesn't matter to me whether it is a 30 second POTA connection or a 30-minute chat fest, I just like being "on the air." 

The Importance of "Build Quality"

I really do care a great deal about the cables, coax, and connectors that I use. But instead of sweating out an issue with an SWR that isn't perfect, I choose to get on the radio. That said, the exception to this is that I am extremely fussy about build quality. Nothing, even the most humble accessory, will get into my shack with an obviously poor build quality. I am ruthless when it comes to seeking quality products for my shack, and this goes from radios down to each and every connector I've ever plugged onto the back of my gear. The ham version of the kooky sham cable sellers are those Chinese goods you find on eBay or Amazon. I've had my fill of PL-259's with shorts and cables that fall apart in Arizona's sun after one season.

When I was relicensed a number of years ago, I rebuilt my station using a lot of Chinese RG-8 coax. Then, a year later I had to replace it with LMR-400, which at the time was the best available choice for a direct-buried, long outdoor run. While I was happy with the results, it wasn't anything that was super remarkable on the performance side. (I think the differences might have been a bit like those who spent hundreds for the higher guage speaker wire I mentioned above.) While a testing lab might have clearly shown me the advantage in graph form for RF power reaching my antenna, my ears and my station's signal reports didn't note a major difference. But I felt good buying that coax because I got it from a top brand (DXE) and it was exceptionally well made. It's still hanging in there, baking every summer six inches under the dirt.

Recently I ordered a length of cable to use for my upcoming summer "Arizona high country" POTA activations. I thought that I would try a supplier that I've heard good things about but which I have never tried personally. I ordered from Messi & Paoloni this time. I've got to tell you, this kind of quality is rare in a cable. I'd have to consider them now for any future coax needs, as even their hardware (the PL-259's) appears to be much better than our norm.

One of the problems I have in temporary POTA installations is that I'm often draping coax across a trail which either bikes or other humans cross regularly. And sometimes that black coax has led to problems -- once, with a Park Ranger who discovered my activation after she almost broke her neck (more than a bit embarassing). It's far better to have the brightly colored yellow M&P coax in those situations. The other benefit is that the connectors used by M&P (their new 'EVO' connector) are built so much better than the standard PL-259. In the latter, the center conductor is always filled with solder, which can spill out and cause an issue. With the M&P design, the center post is sealed. The heft and build of the EVO connector feels like it's going to last a long, long time. 

I was surprised to find a reel in the box, a gift from M&P for QRZ.com (I get few treats - this was one of them). I would definitely consider adding this reel to any order for coax to be used on portable installations. It is so much easier to reel in and store the coax that way! I'm spoiled now because all you do is grab the handle and roll it in. The reel even includes a nice carry bag with handle. You can get a 50' or a 100' run with the reel. For me, the shorter length is all that I will ever need in a portable installation. While M&P is not an inexpensive investment, it is darn fine cable and noticeably better made than many others.

I gave some consideration to taking a length of my new M&P cable and shredding it to check the build quality, when I noted that they have done this already on their website. I also appreciated the lab results done on my cable -- the batch I ordered -- because their graphing showed me how my specific cable performs. I've never seen this kind of QC testing. It shows the care that the supplier takes to make you comfortable with what you've purchased. I rate my new cables as a 5 for performance, and a 5 for build (on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the best).

73 for now! Be sure to add your comments about kooky products and sham suppliers in the forum linked at the bottom.

Dave, W7DGJ

Have a comment? See what others are saying now in our Forum discussion! CLICK HERE and JUMP INTO THE CONVERSATION

 

 

 

 

 


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 29, 2024 20:58