Taking the Hiss out of QO-100

I’ve been on the QO-100 satellite for about 7 months now and I have to admit I love it!

Having a “Repeater In The Sky” that covers a third of the world really is a wonderful facility to have access to however, there is one thing that I find tiring and that is the high level of background noise that is always present.

Even though the signals are mostly 59-59+15dB the background “hiss” is very pronounced and gets very tiring after a while, especially if like me you have tinnitus.

Currently I’m using a NooElec Smart SDR for the receiver and GQRX SDR software on my Kubuntu Linux PC. This works great but, there is one short fall, there is no DSP Noise Reduction (NR) in the software or hardware.

To fix this I recently invested in a BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module. The unit itself is nicely put together and has a good combination of inputs and outputs making it easy to connect up to my MacBook Pro to record QSOs and connect my headphones at the same time.

M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module
M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module

At £189.95 plus postage from BHI direct it’s not cheap but, it is nicely put together and comes complete with a power lead and a couple of cheap audio cables. The quality of the knobs and mechanisms is good apart from the little grey DSP Filter Level knob that feels cheap and is very wobbly on the switch below. I’m not sure how long this is going to last with prolonged use and will most likely need replacing with something a little sturdier at some point in the future.

Overall noise reduction is good but, the audio amplifiers on the Audio Input Level and Line Out Level distort very early on in their range and you cannot get them much above level 5 before distortion starts to appear on the received signal. This is disappointing as my headphones are of reasonable quality and are let down by the distortion creeping in from the audio amplifier in the BHI unit.

I’ve tried altering the levels on the input from the IC-705 and no matter what I cannot get a good audio signal in my headphones without some distortion on the higher frequency ranges.

Overall the device does do what I want, it reduces the background “hash” considerably reducing the fatigue whilst chatting on the satellite. Below is a recording from a conversation on the satellite showing the noise reduction performance of the BHI module.

M0AWS Example BHI DSP NR Recording

The recording starts with the BHI DSP NR off, at 00:07 the DSP NR is switched on, you can clearly hear the difference. At 00:23 the DSP NR is turned off again and at 00:36 the DSP NR is turned on again. The BHI DSP NR Module is set with the DSP Filter Level set at 3 out of 8 which appears to be the best level to use. Switching to level 4 starts to introduce digital artefacts to the audio which only gets worse the higher the DSP Filter Level goes.

With a setting above level 3 there really isn’t much improvement in noise reduction and the audio becomes progressively more affected by the digital artefacts than it does from the background noise.

M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module with Icom IC-705 QO-100 Ground Station
M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module with Icom IC-705 QO-100 Ground Station

The only other problem I have with the BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module is that is comes in a plastic case. The case itself is solid and of good quality however, it offers no RF shielding whatsoever and the unit is extremely susceptible to RF getting into the audio chain and then being heard during transmit in the headphones and via the line out connections. For the money I would had expected the unit to come in a metal case that provides proper RF shielding. This is a real shame as it lets the unit down considerably.

As setup in the photo above I am using 300mW O/P on 144Mhz from the IC-705 into a perfect 1:1 SWR presented by the DX Patrol 2.4Ghz Upconverter via some very high quality LMR-400 Coaxial cable from Barenco but, I get terrible RF interference via the BHI unit during the transmit cycle. Considering I am only using 300mW I dread to think what it may be like if I was using a 100w HF radio. This is something I need to investigate further as it really is very annoying.

Moving the unit to a different location in the radio room does help a bit but, doesn’t solve the problem completely. At 300mW RF O/P I really didn’t expect there to be a problem with RF getting into the BHI unit.

Having a proper line-out facility on the BHI unit really is nice as it makes it very easy to connect to my MacBook Pro to obtain good quality recordings of signals on the QO-100 satellite as can be listened to above.

Overall I am happy with the BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module but, do wish that more care had been taken over using a metal case instead of a plastic case to protect the unit from RF ingress and better audio amplifiers within the unit that don’t distort/clip so early on in their O/P levels.

Is this the perfect noise reduction unit?

No but, overall it is better than nothing and does help to reduce the background noise to a more acceptable level reducing the overall fatigue during prolonged conversations on the QO-100 satellite.

UPDATE: I tried the BHI unit with my FTDX10 on the HF bands and the RF interference is horrendous, even when using QRP power levels! This device clearly hasn’t been designed to work in an RF environment and the total lack of shielding or isolation lets it down terribly. If you are an SWL then this unit is fine but, if like me you like to monitor your transmitted audio whilst on air through headphones then this isn’t the unit for you. To prove the problem isn’t in the radio shack I put the BHI unit in the house some 30m away powered by 12v battery with nothing connected but a pair of headphones and still the unit suffered from RF interference even at QRP levels.

More soon …

QO-100 Satellite Update

I’ve been active on QO-100 for a few days now and I have to admit that I’m really pleased with the way the ground station is performing. I’m getting a good strong, quality signal into the satellite along with excellent audio reports from my Icom IC-705 and the standard fist mic.

I’m very pleased with the performance of the NooElec v5 SDR receiver that I’m now using in place of the Funcube Dongle Pro+ SDR receiver. Being able to see the entire bandwidth of the satellite transponder on the waterfall in the GQRX SDR software is a huge plus too.

M0AWS QO-100 Satellite Log map showing contacts as of 23/06/23
M0AWS QO-100 Satellite Log map showing contacts as of 23/06/23

As can be seen on the map of contacts above, I’ve worked some interesting stations on some of the small islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The signals from these stations are incredibly strong on the satellite and an easy armchair copy.

DX of note are ZD7GWM on St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, PP2RON and PY2WDX in Brazil, 8Q7QC on Naifaru Island in the Maldives, VU2DPN in Chennai India, 5H3SE/P in Tanzania Africa and 3B8BBI/P in Mauritius.

There are many EU stations on the satellite too and quite a few regular nets of German and French stations. I’ve not plucked up the courage to call into the nets yet, perhaps in the future.

There are a lot of very experienced satellite operators on QO-100 with a wealth of information to share. I’ve learnt a lot just from chatting with people with some conversations lasting well over 30mins, a rarity on the HAM bands today.

We also had our first Matrix QO-100 Net this week, an enjoyable hour of chat about all things radio and more. We have a growing community of Amateur Radio enthusiasts from around the world on the Matrix Chat Network with a broad spectrum of interests. If you fancy joining a dynamic community of radio enthusiasts then just click the link to download a chat client and join group.

More soon …

Replacement for the Funcube Dongle Pro+

For some time now I’ve been using my Funcube Dongle Pro+ (FCD) as my QO-100 downlink receiver. It’s worked fairly well and has given me the ability to listen to stations on the satellite over the last few months.

During this time I have noticed a couple of things about the FCD that has lead me to the final decision to change to a new SDR device.

The first of these ‘things’ is the fact that the FCD gets seriously overloaded when there are multiple large SSB signals within the receive pass band. The only way to manage this is to constantly keep changing the software based AGC, mix and LNA settings to reduce the levels of the incoming signals so that the overloading stops. This is great except when you tune to a quiet part of the satellite transponder you have to turn all the settings back up again to be able to hear the weaker signals. After a while this becomes tiresome.

The fact that there isn’t a hardware AGC in the FCD is a major drawback when being used for satellite reception especially when it’s on the end of a very high gain LNB and dish antenna.

The second of these ‘things’ is the fact that I can’t see the whole transponder bandwidth at one time with the FCD as it has a very small receive bandwidth capability. This means that I am constantly tuning up and down the transponder to see if there are any stations further up or down in frequency.

Funcube Dongle Pro+
Funcube Dongle Pro+

Talking to more experienced satellite operators in the Matrix Amateur Radio Satellites room they recommended replacing the FCD with a NooElec NESDR SMArt v5 that has hardware AGC and is capable of receiving and displaying a much wider bandwidth.

Looking on Amazon the NooElec NESDR SMArt v5 is only £33 so I decided to place an order for one and give it try.

In typical Amazon style the SDR receiver arrived the next day and I wasted no time getting it plugged in and connected to the QO-100 ground station.

The NESDR SMArt v5 is based on the well known RTL-SDR that came onto the market some time back but, has a number of improvements in it that take it to the next level.

The first thing that I was happy with was the fact that the GQRX SDR software I use recognised it immediately on startup, no configuration or drivers were required it just worked, straight out of the box. Since I use Kubuntu Linux on my radio room PC I did wonder if I would need to get into installing extra libraries etc but, thankfully none of that was required.

Looking at the signals from the QO-100 satellite initially they appeared to be nowhere near as strong as they were on with the FCD. Looking at the settings in GQRX I noticed that the hardware AGC was off and the LNA setting was back to it’s default very low level.

I switched on the AGC and then increased the LNA setting to 38.4dB and found that the signals were now plenty strong enough on the display but, not overloading the receiver.

I then went on to adjust the display so that I could see the whole satellite transponder bandwidth on the screen. This is great as it enables me to see the low, middle and high beacons that mark out the narrow band section of the transponder and at a glance see all the stations using the satellite. This was a massive improvement in itself and one that I am very pleased with.

Using the NooElec NESDR SMArt v5 SDR it very soon became clear that it copes with multiple large signals in the pass band so much better than the FCD did. There’s no more overloading of the receiver, no more ghost signals appearing on the waterfall due to the front end not being able to cope and no more having to constantly keep playing with the settings to get things under control. The hardware AGC built into the SDR device does a great job at keeping it all under control whilst receiving a much wider bandwidth than the FCD ever could.

The satellite beacons are now received at S9+15dB without the receiver being overloaded, the first time I have seen this since starting out on my QO-100 venture.

The other thing that became obvious very quickly is that frequency stability is much better than it was with the FCD, it doesn’t drift up and down the transponder now and stays tuned exactly where I put it. It’s also on frequency whereas, the FCD was always 1.7Khz off frequency.

GQRX showing QO-100 Transponder signals
GQRX showing QO-100 Transponder signals

The NooElec NESDR SMArt v5 is very well put together, it has an aluminium case that acts as a heatsink (it does get warm!) and overall the build quality is much better than the plastic cased FCD. When I think that I paid close to £100 for the FCD and the NooElec NESDR SMArt v5 only cost £33, I am amazed at the build quality.

Overall I’m extremely pleased with the purchase of the new SDR, it slotted in perfectly as a replacement for the FCD, works great with GQRX, my QO-100 Node Red Dashboard and performs considerably better than the FCD. Overall money well spent!

You can find the NooElec NESDR SMArt v5 spec sheet here.

More soon …