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The AOR AR-7030 Tested Against the Drake R8A

by John Plimmer, November 1996

I feel a little intimidated doing this test, as the AR7030 must be the MOST tested radio in the hobbies history. Every major magazine and authority has tested and commented on it exhaustively, Radio Nederland has done a most comprehensive technical test using no less than US$80,000 of test equipment, and there are umpteen pages on the Internet and other mediums with comments. Some have queried why the extreme HYPE over this radio?

Having had it for four weeks, courtesy of Noel Waddoup, I have to say that it is a most impressive performer in all respects. It comes in a very small casing, which puts old Dxers like myself, used to huge boxes, off a little. How can such a tiny box of tricks perform so well? Yet it does, and performs right up there with the best, a performance equal to the Japan Radio NRD-535D, Rohde & Schwartz EK890 and the Drake R8A.

As neither of these radio’s are stocked locally, one would have to purchase them overseas; the AR7030 in the UK at about British Pounds 620 before local VAT and the Drake R8A in the US for less than US$1,100. This means before any other charges for landing the radio’s in SA, the Rand price would be R5,170 for the R8A and R4,840 for the AR7030. The AR is thus several hundred Rand cheaper and therefore represents very good value for money in terms of what you get.

Before I get into detailed comparisons of the sets performance, I must say that in listening for many days to the most remote DX stations, Indonesia, South America, MW and Tropical band, I can find no difference in performance between these two top performers. In all cases, if the one set gets the station readable then so does the other. If one cant get the station then neither can the other. It was a little like testing top brands of whisky blindfolded; if you closed your eyes and had someone else operate the two sets, you would not be able to tell the difference; to all intents and purposes, the radio DX performance is identical and by that I mean superlative.

The major differences lie in the Drake’s one touch operation and one single view of all operating parameters. The R8A is two and a quarter times larger than the face of the AR. The AR, being so small, operates on a system of cascading menu’s with multiple functions for each of the few knobs and buttons. The viewing LCD screen is also so small that it does not show all the operating parameters, so you keep forgetting your position and have to resort to menu manipulation to see where you are with your filter settings, AGC, gain, and so on. I found this a bit disconcerting.

The AR has been tested to have considerably higher dynamic range than other competing radio’s. In other words it is supposed to reject powerful signals interfering with weak signals better than other sets. In practice I was unable to say that the AR was able to render intelligible any more stations than the R8A, despite comprehensive comparisons of this factor.

The two sets were connected to a 17 meter Windom antenna via a FS Electronics splitter and the Audio was played out through a common Icom SP-20 speaker to ensure an exact comparison both of the incoming signal and the sound.

Sensitivity

The ability of the radio to pick up very weak signals and render them intelligible.

R8A

This radio is very sensitive indeed, and there is an impression that on some stations the R8A is marginally more sensitive and renders very weak stations slightly more intelligible. This despite the fact that the R8A is said to have a higher noise floor. This is an overrated lab statistic as the noise received by the radio from a large antenna usually exceeds the noise floor of even a noisy receiver by several dB.

AR7030
Very sensitive and capable of receiving the weakest stations.

Selectivity

This is the most important factor relating to a successful DX receiver and falls into two parts:
* The quality of the filters
* The dynamic range and third order intercept point of the receiver.

These factors enable the radio to reject adjacent channel signals and render the desired station readable with the least amount of interference.

My test method for filters is to select a medium powered station of about S10 and note the offset before the filter starts falling off and then the reading when it has completed the filtering. For the dynamic range, I then take a very powerful station of S10+50 and see how far the signal extends beyond the centre before it will pick up a weak signal.

R8A Filters: Narrow 2.4/3.2 Khz wide also 4, 1.8 and 0.5 Khz AM 6 - 5.8/9.0 Khz wide

In practice the R8A filters are very good and perform well. These are unusual electronic filters unique to Drake and work on a High-Q principle at an IF frequency of 50 Khz.

Dynamic Range:
In general, testing these two radio’s against the most powerful local S10+50 stations I found no difference, but occasionally the R8A appeared to be slightly better at rejecting a station such as 6100 Khz, when the R8A was able to do a better job of making both 6110 and 6115 intelligible.

AR7030 Filters: Narrow 2.6/3.1 Khz also 7 and 9.5 Khz AM 6 6.0/7.8 Khz

These are ceramic filters and work better than some expensive crystal filters that I have used. They appear to have steep skirts as claimed by the manufacturer. They are very good. The AR is a superb performer but most of the time it is almost impossible to detect a difference between the two sets of any significance.

Testing radio’s in a lab with ideal constant conditions is very different from testing with a long antenna with a lot of summer thunder storms about creating heavy static and much local electrical interference.

Other factors such as audio and AGC also influence readability, which I discuss later.

AGC Automatic Gain Control

Much highly technical discussion has been written about AGC characteristics, often confusing the uninitiated completely. Quite simply, it boils down to whether you can hear your chosen station easily with good readability under heavy static conditions.

R8A The AGC of the Drake is very smooth and allows quite easy listening in heavy static and gives good readability of a weak station.

AR7030 The characteristics of this radio is “spiky”. This means that under heavy static conditions such as listening to the Tropical Bands in summer, the audio sound tends to be very sharp. This renders listening more difficult and tiresome and a little heavy going on the ears. It can also render a station less readable than a radio with a smoother AGC characteristic.

Audio

This is often a matter of personal preference, but in radio, audio has a different function to what you may want to listen to in a hi-fi system. If the sound from a radio is too “bright”, DXing will become tiresome. If on the other hand it is too “deep or dull”, then you may not be able to distinguish weak DX voice signals.

R8A This audio is typical American, favouring the bass and being somewhat on the dull side.
This can be controlled to a certain extent by the judicious use of the Passband Offset, which will increase the treble in the signal. Also turning the tone control to increase the treble increases the brilliance of the sound. So you can listen comfortably in heavy static for hours on this radio.

AR7030 The audio is typically British, quite on the bright side. This can be pleasant when listening to powerful stations free of static and the audio response is obviously very good. However, when DXing in static, and coupled with the AGC characteristic, the resultant noise on the ears is quite tiresome. Background “hiss” becomes quite noxious. Turning the AGC off or adjusting the separate tone control does not help much. Something like listening to an old scratched 78 rpm record.

Synchronous Detector

This facility locks onto the signal and stabilises it in conditions of fade. Neither of the radio’s weak signal DX is particularly helped by the use of this function. I personally find this feature a little overrated on receivers of this high calibre. This is because if the going gets tough, I am going to switch to sideband. SSB reception of difficult AM broadcast stations gives a much better result than listening in AM with synchronous detection on.

R8A Works very well and, used with the Passband Offset, can be positioned anywhere in the Passband.
AR7030 Also works very well and can be positioned anywhere in the Passband. Holds lock on weak signals marginally better than the R8A. Has to be centred on the frequency, but does this itself automatically.

Micro-processor and PC Computer Control

Modern radio’s are more and more operated via their internal computer micro-processors to a greater or lesser degree. This allows many advantages but can also have the drawback of creating radio interference noise. Both of these radio’s are certified to the American FCC and European CE standards and are thus well shielded.

R8A Whilst this radio has a high degree of computer internal control, functions such as volume, squelch, tone, passband offset and RF gain are by traditional rotary controls. Computer control of the radio is possible (with the exception of the manual rotary functions mentioned above) via a built in RS232 interface. Unfortunately Drake do not supply PC operating software and I know of no good one available from third party vendors.

AR7030 Every single function on the AR is fully computerised and can thus be retained in the memories or VFO’s. So in addition to all the things traditionally retained, now also are kept the volume, passband offset, gain and tone. These things are also remembered when moving from mode to mode. This is generally a great advantage but can also be a curse if you forget where your settings are (as they are not displayed). AR have recognised this and to help you they have three special memories that retain your favourite settings. Still it is all quite complicated and a little confusing for the older generation. The set can be operated by PC computer but so far no operating software is available.

Visual Operating Display

R8A large display that shows all of the sets operating parameters at one glance. Nice!

AR7030 Very small display with small difficult to read figures in a cluttered screen. Only a few operating parameters shown at any one time. Seeing what settings you have requires quite a bit of toggling the menu buttons to see where you are. I found this to be tedious and distracting.
When DXing you can lose track of what your settings are and it is a bit off-putting to have to manipulate various controls to see what they are.

Ease of Operation

Whilst ease of operation may not get you any more DX catches, it will make life easier for you if the layout and general operation suit your personal style. My own preference is for one touch operation and the ability to see all operating parameters displayed on the screen at once.

R8A In its latest incarnation, the R8A is the easiest of the top line communications receivers to operate. Everything is available at one touch of a knob or button and everything is displayed for you to see the operating parameters on the screen. This radio suits me very well and allows for many pleasant hours of DXing. A major feature of these two sets is their excellent passband offset facility. Unfortunately, on the R8A the setting can only be made roughly (it is not calibrated precisely like the AR’s) and then tuned for perfection by ear. Since the setting for upper or lower sideband is different, you have to do a lot of knob twiddling each time you change mode.
AR7030 This radio is complicated to operate, taking me over ten days to familiarise myself with all its complex possibilities and requiring constant reference to the user ‘s manual. However, once you have become familiar with its menu operating system I got along fine with it. The menu’s cascade down from the screen in a fairly logical sequence, very similar to the Rohde & Schwartz EK890, although that sets operation was more logical, simple and visible. What I really did like was the electronic digital storage of operating parameters such as the passband offset. I like to use +2 on USB and -2 on LSB. The AR holds this beautifully whereas on the Drake you have to struggle with the manual rotary knob each time you change mode.

Memories

I never used to be over impressed by the number of memories available in a set, but since the advent of up to 1000 memories onboard and extending it even further on a PC to over 10,000, and the use of alpha station/memory identifiers, I have revised my opinion on the usefulness of the memory function. Indeed, large numbers of alpha identified memories are useful to a serious Dxer

R8A This set has 440 memories that can be alpha identified. In addition, once a frequency is stored in memory, it will appear on the display screen when you are tuning through the bands.
For instance, I store every recognisable MW station; this then makes DXing through the MW band easier as when tuning through the band it displays the station in alpha each time I pass a stored station. Likewise on the Tropical band. Very useful and simple to use.

AR7030 The AR has just 100 memories and they do not have alpha identifiers. But they do store much more than a usual set as additional functions such as squelch level and passband offset. In addition to the usual items stored, this gives memory scanning on this receiver new possibilities.

Scanning

I must confess that I have yet to find a communications receiver that successfully scans the shortwave bands. The Sony portables do it well, but not the bigger tabletop receivers. These two sets are no exception.

R8A Has a variety of band scanning features, none of which work very well. However, with the VHF option installed the scanning comes into its own when scanning VHF airband memories.

AR7030 Has memory scanning only, and because of its ability to install individual memory squelch levels, it does have some possibilities for keeping tabs on the Beeb, VOA etc.

NOTCH FILTER
R8A Works well and useful for getting rid of heterodyne whistles. Also helps filter out annoying “mush” and makes DXing easier on the ears. AR7030 Not fitted

NOISE BLANKER
R8A Very useful for getting rid of the annoying electrical spikes in my area and inhibiting tropical band static. AR7030 Not fitted.

REMOTE CONTROL
AR7030 Included. Is rather small with small imprecise rubbery buttons. Cramped space and unclear markings make it rather difficult to use for the poor of sight. I preferred to use the facilities on the set itself. R8A remote not available.

TUNING
R8A Three well chosen tuning rates via an awful cheap plastic tuning knob. (Shame Drake!)
Fast in 1 Khz steps for moving through the AM band quickly,
Medium in 100 Hz steps for more precise tuning in AM
Slow in a well paced 10 Hz step for SSB. Nice!
Direct entry of frequency via onboard keypad.
AR7030 Two steps only:
A very fast rate for moving rapidly up and down the bands. I preferred this to using the direct frequency entry via the remote control. The only other rate is semi-fast in 10 Hz steps. Too fast and coarse for my liking in SSB. Direct entry of frequency via the remote.

BUILD QUALITY
R8A Not impressive, rubbery keypad, uninspiring metal casing and that terrible plastic tuning knob. Having been weaned on an Eddystone, I have a thing about big solid knurled tuning knobs.
AR7030 Excellent metal casing and engineering with nice sized solid tuning knob. Looks more like a piece of a Hi-Fi set rather than a serious communications receiver.

WHIP ANTENNA
In addition to the usual antenna inputs, the AR7030 has an extremely useful whip antenna facility. This allows a whip or a couple of meters of wire to be attached to the antenna socket and switch in an antenna amplifier for the short length. It works surprisingly well and is a boon in the summer thunderstorms when the main antennas have to be disconnected.

FILTERS
The AR has four fitted filters, only two of which are useful for DXing. Is it necessary to fit an additional filter such as a 3.5 Khz to the AR? I think not, as most of my DXing is done with the 2.3 Khz filter in SSB mode and this arrangement is more than adequate. Likewise I would not fit a 1.8 Khz filter as the 3 Khz separation on the Maritime and Aero bands renders this unnecessary. The R8A has five well selected filters, all useful for DXing.

STEP TUNING
Using the handheld remote controller you can set any tuning step you like such as 1.5 Khz for CW, 3 Khz for maritime or aero bands, 5 Khz for AM and so on. A feature I love which should be mandatory on all serious DX radio’s.

Both sets are well equipped for the reception of data communications.
Both sets have quite good inboard speakers that perform well, but both improve greatly when connected to an outboard extension speaker. Both can be connected to a Hi-Fi set as well.

I am not mentioning many other small features of both sets. These have been well published elsewhere. My main concern in this comparison has been to highlight the sets serious DX capabilities and how close these sets come to the ultimate DX radio.

What of all the hype that has surrounded the AR7030? Many commentators have stated that the voice intelligibility of the AR7030 is far superior to that of the Drake R8A. I cannot make this finding at all, in every type of DX situation the R8A is absolutely equal in all respects to the AR7030. It makes me wonder if some Drake operators fully appreciate all the operating controls on the Drake and what they can do.
I can only understand the enthusiasm for the AR7030 in relation to the price of the radio in Europe, where it is considerably cheaper than anything that performs nearly as well as it does. In Europe it is some Rand 3,500 cheaper than the Drake R8A and many thousands of Rands less than the NRD 535D. In the USA the position is different though, the AR is more expensive than the Drake by some Rand 1,000.

Are these the ideal DX receivers? Yes I think so in relation to a price tag of around Rand 5,000. I don’t think the radio reception side gets much better even at a considerably higher price. The only addition that would be nice is DSP (digital sound processing) filtering, but this would add considerably to the price tag and put the receivers out of the range of budget conscious DXer’s.

CONCLUSIONS

Performance wise these two radios are virtually identical. Both will pick up the weakest and most challenging DX with ease. I can emphatically state that the AR in no way outperforms the R8A, and stress again that the two sets performance, after three weeks of careful testing on a wide variety of DX stations, is equal in all respects. They are both superb receivers.

The differences lie in the non reception issues.

* The R8A is very easy to use, the AR quite complicated and requiring many more operations per change.
* Not all operating parameters can be seen at the same time on the AR’s LCD screen, on the R8A you see it all.
* Filters, sensitivity, dynamic range and selectivity on both sets is excellent.
* The only area that the R8A is markedly better than the AR is the sound when DXing. The R8A gives a smooth easy sound, the AR a sharp bright spiky sound like listening to an old record. Quite unpleasant for DXing.
* The AR has 100 memories, the R8A has 440 with alpha identifiers.
* AR has a lovely amplified whip antenna feature and step tuning.
* R8A has essential notch filter and noise blanker. Also has band scanning facilities.
* Build quality on the AR is very good, but the R8A quite mediocre.

The AR company is said to be working on offering: Notch filter, Noise Blanker and more alpha identified memories.

What would I choose if my sets were redistributed? Without doubt the R8A for its ease of operation and excellent features. However, if I was buying in Europe the choice would have to be the AR7030 because of its much lower price.

1999 update for Drake R8B

For several months now, I have upgraded to the Drake R8B version.
My own observations are that radiowise, the R8A and R8B are identical. Drakes own user manuals and other published data confirm this observation.

The only differences are:

* R8B has 1000 memories
* R8B has a superlative sideband selectable synchronous detector. This allows easy listening of normally difficult fading stations and also has the effect of enhancing audio fidelity. It also helps reception of weak DX catches.

AR7030+ Plus version

This more expensive version is now available with more alpha identifiable memories, notch filter and noise blanker. The notch filter is automatic and does a great job of zapping offending heterodynes.

Further testing at this QTH with ERGO software control of the radio shows that it is VERY slow on computer control of the radio, as its internal control rate is only 1200 baud, compared to the Drake R8B’s of 9600 baud.

(published on DXing.info on April 22, 2005 - originally published in 1996)

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