Xiegu X1M Pro Ham Radio $359.95 from Importer
(note that the radio in the video has a PL-259 antenna jack and this is a BNC)
$319 from Greece (Ebay – 2 left) – PL-259
$407 from China (Make Offer) – PL-259
(I have been in touch with the importer, and apparently the only way to have the warranty work in the US is to buy from the top link.)
X1M Manual in English
X1M Yahoo Group
From what I have seen, budget is a huge issue when it comes to long distance communications. Cell phones have become ubiquitous for a reason. The technology allows all of us to call to each other and speak over vast distances, using very little bandwidth in the radio frequency. But when that network goes down, and it will go down, we’ll be back to having to rely on wired land lines, and most likely those will be down as well. That leaves individual radio to radio communications, and in the prepping and survival world, there is more disinformation about this topic than perhaps any other. We are talking exclusively about long distance Ham Radio, otherwise known as Amatuer Radio here, and anyone can set up a rocking Ham setup for $5,000. But what about $300, or $400? This is the first of a few articles I have been working on that will explore Ham Radio options on a budget. In this edition I am going to show you the Xiegu X1M Pro Ham Radio, as well as an interesting mobile prepper idea I put together using a single wire antenna, a lead fishing weight and a slingshot, for ~$400.
I feel like every time I cover communications, there is only one place to start. For those of you regular readers out there, you already know that the internet is full of bad information when it comes to radios, and it should all be ignored. Most prepper “experts” recommend the Boefeng UV-5R for survival communications, and often you’ll see ads for them right on the same page as the article you are reading. There apparently are plenty of kickbacks available to sell these glorified walkie talkies, but the advice itself is based on complete ignorance of real long distance off-grid communications. There is no such thing as a handheld VHF/UHF radio that will be able to communication more than 100 miles at the absolute maximum. And real distance? Usually not even a mile, unless the people communicating are on open ground, with a public high altitude repeater station between them. With a good repeater you can reliably use a VHF/UHF handheld for up to 40 miles, and on a good day 50 miles on each side of the repeater. That is why police, fire, and taxi cabs use them. But in a post collapse world, only a few solar powered repeaters might be left be up, if any. For the most part, VHF/UHF radios are a complete waste of time outside of your individual compound.
Because there are a bunch of licensed Hams who read this column, I will mention that the only exception to this rule is in the case of very experienced radio amatuers who have figured out how to bounce VHF signals off of meteor showers, the moon, and the international space station. All Ham Radio communication requires a license, and you can learn how to do this stuff as part of your licensing. But once you start to understand how Ham radio works, you’ll “get it” that to communicate reliably worldwide, everyone uses the High Frequency, or HF bands. The HF frequencies are comparatively long wavelengths compared to the handhelds, and those long wavelengths bounce off the ionosphere, which skips even low wattage radio signals all over the globe. These are frequencies below 30 megahertz, and to use these frequencies for anything but Morse Code communications, you need the second level of Ham license, called General Class.
The Ham test isn’t that hard to pass, but for those of us too busy, too stupid, too lazy or even too secretive to go learn the publicly available questions and take the test, the good news is you don’t have to get a license to listen to all communications, and you can get a radio right now with all of the frequencies available without having a license. After the collapse, you won’t need a license, but before that happens, license or not, there is a whole bunch of learning you should do if you hope to communication successfully.
Ham radio is much more complex than you would think, and believe it or not, even though you can get Ham radios from 1950s, the technology itself is still a work in progress. Every year at the Ham conventions there are new antenna designs, new approaches to the chips and crystals that make the radios work, and as you can see with the Xiegu X1M, hobby project idea sometimes become products for sale. The people who had these X1M radios built in China and who import them now are just a bunch of Hams. And this radio is really cool.
The video included this week will show you the X1M working, and it is also about an idea I had a while back to make an extremely mobile bag radio. I started with the X1M because it’s cheap, and it both receives and transmits at all frequencies between 100khz and 30mhz. To this I added a new antenna discovery (new to me only they have been around forever), called the “end fed dipole.” It is really just a length of wire, connected to an impedance transformer called a balun, or unun. And since you want to get one end of that wire up as high as possible, I came up with an idea to launch a fishing weight with a slingshot over a tree, and pull the wire up. It worked! A few things can be improved from my initial experiments though, so please watch the video and read below.
X1M Pro Ham HF Radio
There is a tradeoff in Ham Radios, and an interplay of factors determines how much and what you get for your money.
- Transmit/Receive – My prior article on RTL-SDR radios explains that with an “up converter,” even a cheap computer radio can be connected to a very good antenna or antennas (for the different bands) and receive pretty much any radio signal in the world. The ability to transmit is where high costs come in, and I believe this is intentional, and not actually tied to the costs of the components themselves. Ham Radio enthusiasts are usually the principles in the radio companies, and they know that once someone has a radio, it is impossible to keep them from broadcasting. Most radios can be cracked to be able to send on all frequencies in fact (on the X1M this is a menu setting), and by making the radios somewhat cost prohibitive, they are limiting the technology to those who will be more likely to respect the power in that little box.
All frequencies are officially owned by the government, then they license frequency blocks to broadcast and communications companies. Cell phone companies, Direct TV, XM Radio, and even satellite internet have all been able to take one large block frequency and combine it with computers to allow a lot of people to communicate over one piece of bandwidth. A Ham radio uses a frequency block to transmit one signal to the entire world, and how far that signal goes is a product of how much power it is pushing, how high up it is, and what frequency it is pushing.
- Frequency Range – Ham Radio wasn’t supposed to be as much of an anomaly as it is today. The frequency bands were split up a long long time ago, and when that happened, the slivers of frequencies reserved for “amatuer” were mostly in what were considered at the time to be mostly useless High Frequency (HF) bands. The long, lumbering wavelengths of HF don’t penetrate structures as easily as their Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) counterparts. Late it was discovered that these long wavelengths, under 30 megahertz, had a unique quality in that they could be reliably bounced around the globe off of the ionosphere during different periods of the day. So even though these frequencies were of great value after that discovery, the radio amateurs managed to hold onto some of them, and we are able to use them with the proper license today.
The cheap Ham radios only cover the VHF and UHF Ham bands. Most common radios use these frequencies, and some VHF/UHF radios are expensive, because they link and isolate a group of radios on a shared frequency. Cabs all use the same frequency block, so each company needs its own system to link and isolate just their signals. So don’t let price be your guide when it comes to radios. You are looking for HF radios, below 30 mhz.
To distill this even further, from a very low cost comparison, you also need to see how many of the HF bands the radio can handle. There are inexpensive single frequency radios you an buy or make for under $50 that I covered in a previous article. From there you can go up to the $200 or so level and find small radios that transmit and receive several bands. I’m trying to test some of these from MFJ for a future installment, but none seem to be as good a buy as this X1M.
- Bandwidth – The least expensive multi-band radios transmit and receive only CW, otherwise known as Morse Code signals. If you and your family want to practice Morse Code, they are a pretty inexpensive option, when weighed against how many bands you can use. But if you want to use voice, you need a radio that transmits Upper Sideband and Lower Sideband, collectively known as Single Sideband, or SSB. This interplay between price, bands, and CW-only (Morse Code) vs. voice is very common.
- Computer Compatibility – Almost all of the young Ham hobbiests like to drive the digital packet modes, because it is like being on the internet with no internet. You can send text message, photos and videos, purely over the airwaves. From a survival perspective, you are better off with an older form of text messages, Morse Code and a physical keyer, than you are by relying on an external computer (or even smartphone) to communicate. Therefore, a lot of the older radios that don’t have the easy to use computer connections are all at a bargain out there, many from estates as a whole generation of Baby Boomer Hams dies off.
I hope to put together an article and video soon on some old tube radios from the 1970s and 80s that cover all or most of the HF bands with full bandwidth. These radios are heavy beasts, but the interesting thing is, they were actually made to be used mobile, so they are durable, and most of them can be adapted for use with 12 volt systems.
- Size and Weight – For a little more money than the tube radios you can step up a hundred bucks or so to early analog solid state radios. Before cheap chips from China that we see in all of the new radios with digital tuning and digital memories, the switching and most tuning on Ham Radios was still being done with discreet components. The chassis were still big and heavy, even though they didn’t have a high voltage transformer in them like the tube radios, but they are somewhat smaller and lighter, and so far in my tests they seem to be durable. All of them were built to run on 12 volt systems, as are most Ham radios today. Modern 100 watt radios, like the Yeasu 857D that I used in my last backpack radio article, are comparatively tiny, and they do a whole lot more, but they are also two to three times as expensive.
- Output Power – To some degree output power is a function of weight, because big output can only be done two ways. One is with tubes, and as I said, that will require big heavy transformers, just like tube guitar amps (which I build as a hobby). The other option for high output power is the use of large mostly Mosfet transistors, and they produce an enormous amount of heat, requiring big heavy heatsinks. So either way, output power is going to be proportional to weight and size to some degree. For cost, I have yet to find a truly good buy on a linear amp. They are expensive, plain and simple, but you don’t need a lot of watts to work contacts world wide at the right times of day with some experimentation and experience with good antenna designs.
- Built in Advanced Features – I’m going to include this even though it isn’t so much a survival/prepper issue. Most preppers don’t have the time to get into any one of these subjects too deeply, and that includes me, so things like patterning wave forms and designing perfect notch filters just aren’t part of our world. I do have one high end Yaesu radio that I have no idea how to use yet, but I was able to figure out a half a dozen more simple radios and get contacts all over the world. The expensive radios have a lot of advanced memory features, mostly useless in a survival situation, and again, they are easy to hook to a computer program to monitor large blocks of bandwidth. There are also built in filters that for other radios you would have to install yourself, but I haven’t had the time to sit down and understand how all of those details work. Most high end features are to help you transmit further and clearer, as opposed to listen with more sensitivity. In a survival situation you aren’t going to want to transmit unless you have to, and I personally would only transmit mobile, not near where you live. It is extremely easy to triangulate any radio signal, and the military has satellites that process every radio signal on the planet for instant identification and location.
That brings me to the tiny Xiegu X1M. It only has a 4.5 watt output power, so it is considered a QRP radio, which requires some fine tuning and really good physical band strength to reach out, or to “listen out” as the case may be. Generally the rule is, “if you can hear ’em you can work ’em.” So just in my very basic test here you can see that from Pennsylvania I was able to pick up a conversation from Texas to New Mexico. I also got several foreign language hits, which are invariably other countries, on other continents. At the end of the video I hooked up the radio again in New York a few days later, and happened upon a pileup of people on a long distance contest. You’ll hear that in the short time I was on, contacts came in from the eastern seaboard to the midwest, using a wire antenna hung out the window.
The X1M is built by Xiegu. I mistakenly said in the video that it part of the Boefeng company, and it is not.
Out of the box it is set up to transmit in five of the Ham bands:
- Band 1: 3.5 ~ 4.0 MHz
- Band 2: 7.0 ~ 7.3 MHz
- Band 3: 14.0 ~ 14.350 MHz
- Band 4: 21.0 ~ 21.45 MHz
- Band 5: 28.0 ~ 29.7 MHz
But it will send and receive at all frequencies between 100khz and 30mhz. What does that mean? I’m not going to get into the math, so what it basically means is that the radio has filters built into that will “notch” the input and output and block out the surrounding frequencies, except for those in the band for which you are tuning. If you read the manual, you will see that it says you should use external bandpass filters for outside the Ham bands. If you leave the radio as it is shipped to you, it will protect you from inadvertently broadcasting on bands for which you are not licensed if you have a General Class license. A simple menu setting will freeband the radio entirely, so you will have to monitor your own usage.
For the money, from a survival perspective, using all of those factors I explained above, you are getting a ton of radio in the X1M for a modest investment, in a tiny package. The power consumption is also perfect for grab ‘n go, using a golf cart battery like you see in my video. In receive mode it only burns 500 milliamps of power at 12v. That’s like a 6 watt LED lightbulb. As you can see from my video, switching the radio between the modes and the bands is easy, and I have yet to experiment with its internal filtering.
The only downside to the radio that I have found is the press to talk microphone. It is absolute junk, and the tip, ring, sleeve are not wired the way a standard PTT headset mic is wired. The pinout is in the manual, so it isn’t a hard job to replace the mic. Of the 4 X1M radios I have bought, 3 of them have had mic issues. I’m actually going to contact MFJ to see if they can make me a replacement.
The End Fed Dipole Antenna
As I have explained in my prior communications articles, the most important thing in an a Ham radio HF setup is the antenna. That little X1M will pull in the same signals as the most expensive full blown rig, using the same antenna. But when it comes to antennas that are small, light, and transportable, your choices are limited, especially if you want to work more than one band. I have several of what are called “screwdriver” antennas, but I have yet to see one that brings in the contacts like this bare wire with a 9:1 balun. And they are cheap cheap, like, $50.
One of the misconceptions about Ham radios when you come into it is that you have to do everything right, or nothing works. The opposite is true. You can actually stick a bare wire into the back of your radio, tie the other end to a fence in your backyard, and you’ll get signals, from all over the world most likely. Any improvement you make from there is just an improvement. You will get more contacts. You’ll make more contacts. Your signal will be stronger and clearer on the other end. You’ll be less sensitive to the band propagation variables that control where your signal goes. Everything is connected, and everything counts, but even if you are doing everything wrong, as long as you have an antenna plugged into your radio, you’ll get something.
These end fed dipoles you see in the video, and linked above, are an easy next step up from a bare wire. They all come with a “matchbox” 9:1 impedance transformer, and that puts the bare wire into the range in which your radio is built to work. Microwatt signals get caught in your wire, and the radio amplifies them for you to hear. This is not rocket science. You can also transmit effectively up to the wattages you’ll be using mobile, under 200 watts. Just keep in mind that the contacts you hear in this video are on a little 5 watt radio. You are better to get an X1M now than wait for an 857D that you’ll never be able to buy once everything burns down.
In the video, I didn’t use an antenna tuner, and I’m not going to get into the details of what they do here. There are a number of tuners available from LDG and MFJ Enterprises both manual and automatic, for as little as $49. The X1M doesn’t seem to have any tuner included in the circuit at all, so this should be a big plus for this radio, and I’ll do a followup article at some point. There is a ton of conflicting information on what antenna tuners do, and how effective they are on both receive and transmit. I haven’t figured it out, and I haven’t had time to play with the ones I have, and again, blah blah blah, I have yet to get my Ham license, so I can’t transmit yet anyway.
I also didn’t use a “counterpoise,” and these single wires are generally thought to not need one. But they also suggest that you use 16-50 feet of coax between the matchbox and the radio, and the shield of the coax acts as a counterpoise. As you can see from the video, I used a tiny 1 foot piece of coax for my mobile kit, so I had no counterpoise whatsoever, and from what I have read, when you have some kind of counterpoise, the radio signals transmit much better, which I didn’t try anyway. For this setup I think a better choice would be a longer run of thinner coax, which I’m also going to try for a future article.
As you can see in the video, even with these potential improvements, I still had plenty of contacts coming through the radio. It was really cold in Pennsylvania so I didn’t hang out to see where they were from. The ones in New York would have gone on for hours, but I had other stuff to do and I figured few of you would stick around to listen anyway. If you subscribe to the Youtube channel I’ll be posting followup videos in the future as I work things out. I’d also like to compare the X1M to the Yeasu and ICOM QRP radios. This is an incredible mobile system and with a little work I think it has great potential.
Adding a Power Amp
One thing I really haven’t worked on much is the ability to transmit, mostly because I don’t have my license, so I really can only transmit into a dummy load, not an antenna. I’m hoping that after SHOT Show I can find the time to buff up my questions and take at least the General test, but I really don’t know how much time we have before the collapse, and if I were you I would get some communications in place now. Personally I did buy a couple external power amplifiers to test. For HF you want a “linear” amplifier, and there are several models made specifically for the HF Ham bands, both with and without their own bandpass filters built in. I cannot speak to wattage, RMS, PEP, or any of the other transmit terms, because I haven’t figured out how it all relates to each other. What I can tell you is that radios are a lot like guitar amps. You can power a 4×12 speaker cabinet with a 1 watt amp, and it’s pretty darn loud. A 100 watt amp is not that much incrementally louder actually. With radio, if you have your antenna tuned up well, and you aren’t wasting transmission power in your connecting cable, a 5 watt QRP radio is likewise, pretty darn loud, worldwide under the right conditions. 1000 watts is much louder, but not incrementally louder. Most Hams suffice with 100 watts PEP or under working SSB. It’s kind of like a .500 S&W vs. a .38 Special. You don’t really need it, but yea, it goes boom big.
A Fishing Weight and a Slingshot
Check out the video for my idea in getting the end of that wire up into the top of a tree. That’s a $5 slingshot you see there, and I used a $10 Walmart fishing reel to pull the antenna up. It actually worked really well and I was able to run what they call a “sloper” for the full length of the wire that came with this particular antenna. There is a lot of science you can read out there online about the best potential lengths for a multiband end fed dipole, so if you want to dig, go dig. I am forced to just buy what they have to sell and try it, and this guy sends his antenna with about 50′ of wire. So far, from a survival perspective, it works pretty good. If you watch the video to the end, I got a QSO pileup from a guy apparently calling from either Atlanta or Haiti, I couldn’t tell which because of so many contacts going on, and at the time I was in New York City with that wire antenna out the window. Microvolt signals from thousands of miles away come in clear enough to hear, and that is just the start of it. This X1M radio and wire antenna are really all you need for long distance survival communications, and at a great price.