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Jim Garland, W8ZR:

Great assessment of the Orion, and much appreciated. I took delivery of my Orion about four days ago and agree with everything you've said. I've been keeping a list of quibbles, and in addition to the issues you've already identified offer the following:

(1) AM Detector: I notice that the sub receiver seems to lock in on AM stations, in the same way that FM radios with AFC lock in on stations. In other words, when slowly tuning across an AM station, the station will suddenly snap into audibility, as if it was suddenly moved to the center of the bandpass. Even a  1 Hz change in frequency can cause this to happen. I haven't noticed this effect when tuning AM on the main RX, though I haven't investigated it thoroughly. Is it possible the Orion is using a synchronous detector on AM for the sub-RX, which is what this sounds like to me?  When tuning across an AM SW broadcast band, I hear popping noises as each
station snaps in and out of range. I find this disconcerting.

de K3BU: Yes, it looks like sub receiver is using SYNCHRO (or some kind of locking) detector.
The main receiver behaves as with normal AM detector. I can't find reference in the manual as to what is causing this "locking" type of tuning.


(2)  The volume encoders work with a linear rather an audio taper. Thus a 180 degree rotation of the AF gain causes practically no change in volume, whereas the second 180 degree change increases the volume very rapidly.  I hope that in a future SW revision, the audio controls are given a simulated audio taper, so they will have the "feel" of a true volume control.

(2) When muting the receivers by pushing the AF encoders, rotating the encoders toggles RXs out of the mute mode. This is a convenient feature, except that it only takes a microscopic rotation to un-mute the radio. It's not easy to push the button without slightly turning the encoder, which often gives the impression that the mute button isn't working right. I hope it's clear what I'm talking about. Decreasing the sensitivity of the rotation un-mute feature would be desirable.

(3)  The Tune control is a nice feature, but it's useless when the internal tuner is enabled. It would be better to have a brief push of the Tune button toggle on the TX at reduced power, and an extended push start the auto tuner feature.

(4) The September version of the manual is an improvement, but still needs a lot of work. There is too much duplication of language and descriptions, some features aren't described at all, and others (such as the microphone wiring explanation) are confusing. The manual still needs some organizational improvement, and some additional sections (such as a table of default menu settings.)  The AGC explanation rambles and is hard to follow.

(5) The reverse video mode isn't usable, because the display can't be adjusted to give enough contrast. I'd suggest they just delete this option from the menu.

de K3BU: I find about 40% setting to be the only usable in both modes. The white background seems more natural and pleasing.

(6)  A built-in UTC clock would be nice.

Two items which you also noted:

(7) The tuning step selections are obviously not optimal.  10 Hz is too slow and 100 Hz is too fast. A 50 Hz step would be very desirable. Better still would be a user-defined step size. My Watkins-Johnson HF-1000 had this feature and it was very nice.

(8) The synthesizer seems to lock slowly, making rapid frequency excursions sound steppy. The Collins KWM-380 behaves this way, but then it is a 25 year old design. Most other modern rigs have fast enough synthesizers that the tuning seems analog. Too bad the Orion can't do this as well.

de K3BU: When Bob, 5B4AGN questioned this, he got reply from Ten-Tec:

(TT)  The tuning is limited by the amount of overhead in the
microprocessor, not the synthesizer lock time.

(TT)  Tuning in the Orion was patterned after the Jupiter, which was
quite acceptable. However, the Orion microprocessor controls many more
operations and features. The encoder outputs 512 pulses. When tuning
rapidly, if the microprocessor cannot immediately act upon the tuning
pulse, the pulses are counted and when there is a break, it updates the
frequency. That's why rapid tuning sounds different. I understand that
there are those who would prefer smoother and faster tuning. It is on
our "wish list" but we have been working on items that we feel are of
greater interest to more hams.



On balance, I see the Orion as a work in progress.  It has the potential to be a great rig, but it's not there yet. Although it is attractive enough, and while the circuit layout seems less "homebrewy"  (I like your word, here.)  as earlier Ten-Tec rigs, the designers don't seem to have paid enough attention to "fit and finish" and ergonomic features.  Too many functions require more than one button press (changing from LCW to UCW, for instance), and while the menu system is clear enough I think more selections could be made by just pushing in and holding the relevant button for a half second.

I hope Ten-Tec stays on top of the software revisions and doesn't let them lag. Hardware revisions are much tougher, of course, especially with a new radio. I'm sure Ten-Tec doesn't  want to get in the business of having users mail back their radios for upgrades. Thus I think we'll have to live with the mushy pushbuttons, etc.

Again, thanks for taking the time to write up your review.

 

Chas Fulp, K3WW:

I have not found the 781 better for weak signal stuff.. I got my Orion in August... but your comments about fighting QRM are on the money.. I'm using the Orion for RUN radio and lots of 1 radio stuff...
I'm using the 781 for Mult radio.. I used to use the Mult station for CQ on 160/80 as well just as a matter of preference.. but think the Orion can handle it...
When the ORION crashes.. which it does ..and you may be right ..(I've added ferrite.. but not enough I guess...) POWER may be the problem.. running the band sweep may add to it. 
WRITELOG has a swap VFO FREQ feature which quickly puts the MULT station on the RUN freq for CQ/diddling the frequency.  No crashes in 10 hours of NAQP barefoot.. only 2 or 3 in the last few 48 hour HP events.. none critical..
 
It is easy to nit pick the Orion, because many of the problems can be fixed in software... so it makes sense to worry.  Hardware design features, we can only wish they had done differently.  I'm getting comfortable with the layout, and use the remote pod a LOT. I would like to see the RIT on the remote pod,  with a RIT clear button assigned to the pod as well.
The RIT/XIT works like no other... I explained how most folks use it to Scott.. he seemed to get the idea. If you have not played... I often use the rit to look around a DX stations freq to see if guys are off a few hundred Hz to maybe 1 kHz.. and when I find the station, hit XIT expecting the XIT to be on the RIT freq... you can do this with the 2nd VFO, but seems to be a hassle.. XIT would normally be used to set your transmit freq a little off to be noticed... Anyhow the XIT and RIT share an encoder but do not sync.. if you are in XIT at 0 and RIT at +200 Hz, then activate the XIT and tune.. the XIT and RIT stay 200 Hz apart.. no way to sync them.
I cant think of a serious use for XIT where not being to easily listen to the XIT frequency would not be desirable.
 
The CW PTT thing is of course the other thing that does not let the Orion Plug and Play in most SO2R setups... I usually have to remember to pull the mike after the first KEYDOWN when hitting an F key in full SO2R mode.. .then when I go to work phone.. no mike.. scramble to find it.   My solution will be to wire all stuff to the back of the radio.. and have a toggle switch on my control panel that lets me deactivate the PTT line when in CW mode... maybe a flashing LED to remind me . PTT control for true SO2R action is better I think. 
 
Lots of good things, and I am beginning to understand that the slow response to commands is a feature, not a bug... the LOW phase noise is appreciated, it definitely does less harm and receives less harm from the 2nd station than my Mk V MP did.. The MP is on the side chair at the moment.
 
I love band scopes.  the 756PRO series has the best I have seen.  I like to see that there is someone firing up just where I heard nothing when tuning the 2nd radio.  I may replace the 781 MULT station with a PRO..; however, should the Orion fail, I would not be able to have a real good Run radio as my back up, and should I have to dig stuff out on 80/160 with the Mult station.. the PRO falls short there.  But it is just fine for scanning the band for mults and Qs while running with the Orion.
 
I have played with N4PY software.  In general it does not fit my style.. the Point and click on signals on the sweep are nice, but the sweep probably should have its own processor ... it is not fast enough refreshing in his implementation or actually in the Orion itself. I will do more with this software as time goes by.
 

Andrew Roos, ZS1AN:

Many thanks for your detailed review of the ergonomics of the Orion. It is very nice to hear the truth from someone who is not afraid to tell it like it is. I agree with you about the PTT issue, and do not understand why Ten-Tec are so obstinate. (To what end? Like we really want to be able to send CW using a foot switch?) Even though I don't run SO2R (yet), I also prefer not to use QSK when the band is noisy as it is very tiring. I am new to contesting but learning, and still on the lookout for a good contest radio, so your review was most useful and I look forward to the remaining parts.

 

Don, from the 8-land:

I read about your Orion review on the Ten Tec email reflector.

Your information, finally, provides the detailed information that so many hams have been wanting (or needing) about this transceiver.

It has been nearly two years now and yet the reports from owners of this radio are vague and of little practical use. eHam is no good, the Ten Tec reflector is no good, and the ARRL review was of no real help either.

Now I know how long it takes for the rig to boot, how the meter works on RF output, and the the precise situation with the main tuning knobs and that spectrum display. I also know about the tactile feel of the buttons. Why has none of this been reported by anyone before now? !

Anyway, thank you and please report in detail about this AGC threshold issue. It seems to me that this is a critical adjustment to the receiver and it may also have an interaction with some of the other receiver controls. That would be OK, unless this control needs to be fussed with so often that you are forever going to it when something sounds rotten in the audio.

Please keep up the good work, even though I have decided that the complexity of this radio has outrun it's programmers so I will not have one.

Even if they get control of the situation, there are times when they don't feel like addressing some important issue that they feel to be trivial. You are not alone with the QSK issue, there are many similar issues in Ten Tec's long history of things that are considered normal but which are obviously outside of spec.

I'll keep a lookout on your website for new reports. Thanks again.
 

Igor Sokolov, UA9CDC

Yuri, thanks for the review of the Orion.

You have pinpointed most of the problems the radio has got. Having no CW PTT is the major problem. I agree that Ten-Tec is loosing customers because of their being so stubborn and not listening to what contesters say. It is a pity to have good  contest radio spoiled by really easy to rectify problems. So far we had to make external box for PTT switching (otherwise it is impossible to work in mixed mode contests).

 I hope that the choice of tuning rates can be rectified in the firmware updates. What probably will not be fixed is underpowered processor. I often narrow DSP bandwidth when pulling out weak signal and then restore it to usually 500hz in CQ mode while radio transmits TU and next CQ. Turning the DSP BW control during sending CW makes CW choppy to the extend that it becomes difficult to understand.

One more item for the wish list which in my opinion should be easy to implement is to give us a choice of baud rates for RS232. TR log is much better off with 1200 or 2400 baud then with 56000 which is the only choice TT offers in ORION.

 

Richard Detweiler, K5SF wrote:

I think the PTT is a similar issue. I've heard of at least one contesting club move whole heartedly into the Orion, I've heard others shy away for lack of things important to them. There is more than one web site for contesting that has said a tactic for reducing fatigue is to switch to PTT during low activity. During High activity, the QSK is useful to catch the caller that hits just as you start to call CQ. So this is a little different than ice cream, there are points about it both sides. Does the PTT disqualify a rig? now that's an ice cream choice.

Scott Robbins, W4PA responded:

Richard, take this in the polite spirit intended:

This is what makes it hard to discuss these issues - because the way this is presented here is NOT the PTT issue that was being debated. You can defeat the QSK in the Orion, as-is and operate "PTT CW", just as you have described above. Switching back and forth from PTT to QSK when PTT -control- of CW is in place, is not an option. PTT -control- is used when other devices need the proper sequencing for switching, and/or the operator wants to precisely control the start and stop of MOX CW operation.

This is completely different from the issue of PTT -control- of CW transmit where it was suggested that Ten-Tec had no clue about engineering decisions vis-a-vis the ham community's needs and that I personally didn't know anything about the needs of the "serious" CW contest operator. Which led to me blowing up on the reflector about the issue - I should have kept my comments about what I think about the station engineering of other contest operators to myself. "PTT or semi-break in CW" is something I personally use fairly often in contests. PTT -control- of CW, is not.

Squeaky wheel gets the grease, though. I insisted that PTT -control- of CW was not something we were going to consider with the Orion AND that the engineering decision to do so was the correct one. It was still the correct engineering decision - but we'll look into adding MOX PTT control of CW transmit as a future firmware upgrade. Someone above me here at Ten-Tec put it to me very succinctly about this issue in the
last few weeks: It's not about right, in this case. Meaning, even though it may not be "right", why not go ahead and put it in there?

Good point. I'll leave it at that.
 

Ken Knopp, K7ZUM

....after reading all of the comments about all of the other radios he (K3BU) has tried, and none of them are up to his satisfaction, maybe he should design, manufacture, and market a radio to the Ham community that will be the "perfect radio", after all, he lives in the U.S. , he's "free" to  do these things.

(Thank you for the great idea, necessity is the mother of inventions, rather than arguing and helping (and being ignored) I rather spend the time to develop that perfect radio. de K3BU)
 

and in closing, "evaluation" of my Orion review from one of the "defenders":

Grant Youngman, NQ5T

Given the extensive list of bad things said about all of the controls (mushy), the "homebrew" build quality,  lack of a zillion meter scales on the meter, the fact that T-T has not incorporated all of this authors (and all of the other) herbal improvement in the soup, the lack of "normal" functions, lack of a built-in power supply, complaints about the material of the ground nut, and on and on, I'm surprised the author has kept his crummy radio .. heck, I'm surprised anyone who has bought one of these awful amateurish radios has kept it  :-)

Hey, I did find -- to be balanced -- one or two positive comments

Besides -- as the opening remark says, any one who is a "casual" ham or is a member of the Ten-Tec "cult" probably isn't qualified to fully understand all of the points contained in the review. 
 

Gerry, GI0ZGB

Hi Yuri, congratulations on the new website, I'll be keeping an eye on that one. Great review on the Ten Tec Orion, I was poised to purchase but based on your comments I've decided to suspend that decision until the design flaws and oversights are corrected. I've been a Kenwood fan all my life and you review of the TS-870 and modifications thereof were most illuminating. I love the 870 but it's shortcomings are painfully obvious, and quite often I had to revert to the Inrad filtered TS-930 to continue sailing on a stormy sea. It is a matter of regret that you have decided to cease reviewing rigs, the petty, spoiled child comments flung at you should be ignored.

When you shine the light into the dark recesses of any rig you will find flaws of all sorts, and self evidently some individuals find embracing the truth a painful experience and react angrily killing the messenger. I think rig design is being restricted by economic and market considerations, and whilst this practice continues you'll never find a rig that delivers the goods when it's needed, we have too many "fair weather radios" that dash for the harbour when a storm approaches. I don't know if you should have accepted the challenge to build the "perfect radio", because the challengers have effectively succeeded in silencing you, why has the same challenge not been made to other reviewers? I think perhaps you are too ruthless with the truth, and you're hurting the wallet of vested interests, something that shall focus their attention.
In conclusion, thank you for your valuable contribution to Ham Radio, the vast majority of amateurs sincerely appreciate your efforts.

I was rather surprised at Ten Tec's "Mother Knows Best" attitude, I got the impression that their design philosophy is written in stone to some degree, and logical "common sense" suggestions and points of view such as your own are being resisted for reasons which escape me. Their implementation wouldn't break the bank and it is a self evident fact that these design shortcomings need to be addressed, but Ten Tec seem to have stubbornly painted themselves into a corner rather than acknowledge that there are problems which need addressing.

Regards es 73
 

Yuri Blanarovich, K3BU

More contest experience

Another test of Orion by contest fire as posted on 3830 reflector with NT1E log.
 
What drives me nuts is the "performance" of the power meter on the Orion. First the calibration is a joke, second, "wise" guys programmed it to have "hang time" which is insane to watch on transmit. It does not follow the power swings, it is confusing and utterly useless. I had to hook the wattmeter to have any meaningful indication. I usually keep the SWR meter in reverse to see if anything happens to the antenna. Meter kept me awake by banging its needle at its end stop.
 
I had Orion receiver go bunkers on me about 5 times during CQ WPX SSB contest. Had to do power reset and lose frequency. Try to tune the VFO B on sub receiver while you transmit on VFO A, like trying to set the sub receiver for different RX frequency when you operate split. Orion goes to La-La land. Few times when I tried to power up with last band used being 40m, I would get "blank stare" from the Orion - some weird noise coming from the radio, not reacting to VFO tuning. I found the "fix" - push the 80m button and than back to 40m and RX comes to life. (Synthesizer locking problem?)
 
"Software updatable" radio is fine in theory. But what you do when it has "features" that are annoying and there is no update coming up from TT? You can't program it yourself. Old hardwired radios you can change by soldering thing or two. This closed system software design - you are on the mercy of manufacturers, unless the software is open to users.
If we are not allowed to make changes, where is the flexibility? Where is CW PTT? What if software is deemed "done" and no more "updates"? You can't modify it, you are stuck!
 
I love the receiver strong signal handling, but I am not happy with ergonomics and other things in it. Definitely not the nutty contester's radio for $3.6k. I am not sure that I can value that over other stuff.
 
One other "feature" I discovered. If you exceed your message length in SSB message memory, you get echo at the end. I happened to program my NT1Echo call and got "nice" Echo-o-o vibrations :-)
Oh, quite often when pressed SEND3 button with longer CQ, nothing would come up, just like echo of nothing.

Audio switching for headphones in the split mode sucks, you have to go over cycling through the settings (main-sub-both), while you lose the weak caller on one of the channels you would like to concentrate on. It should have separate buttons just like VFO or ANT assignment.

Quite a few times wrong VFO "ended up" on transmit, "thanks" to confusing display screen. The large display letters should indicate TX VFO. Ergonomics on the screen are much to be desired. (What is the highlighted "A" that doesn't change ever?) If you try to use the sweep, you increase your chances of losing
the receiver.
 
Noise floor with weak signals is another annoying thing.

Tested my new "INVertical" antenna, works well.

Thanks for points and sorry if I "disappeared" on you due to Orion "taking break". I wish more Euros listened up above 7150 when they had no takers down there, below 7100.

Yuri, K3BU
 

p.s. with version 1.373b5 the operation of Orion has stabilized and seems to be the best for contesting. Now, just before the CQ 160m CW contest the transmitter quit, just about 3 W coming out on low bands, so trip back to TT mama for fixing. I tried to fix or find the problem myself, but the combination of software, hardware and documentation the way they are is at best tough, helloooo service dept!