ATAS-120A vs comparably-priced alternatives

Discussion in 'Antennas, Feedlines, Towers & Rotors' started by N4VDI, Jun 8, 2021.

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  1. N4VDI

    N4VDI Ham Member QRZ Page

    At some point in the near future, I need to buy a transceiver and an antenna for it.

    At the moment, three radios are my top contenders, for fairly obvious reasons:
    • Icom IC-7300
    • Yaesu FT-991A
    • Yaesu FT-891
    I've never had the opportunity to lay hands upon or see any of the above radios in person (mostly, thanks to Covid), which definitely complicates matters... and the current discounted prices on all three are going away at the end of the month, so I have to make up my mind within the next few days.
    • Going entirely by what I've read online, it sounds like the 7300 has a nicer UI than Yaesu's radios. I've seen people gush enthusiastic praise for the 7300's UI, while it seems like people with the 991A say things like, "its UI isn't as bad as it's made out to be". Unfortunately, the remaining points seem to overwhelmingly favor the two Yaesu radios...

    • It sounds like the 891 and 991A have fully-automatic tuning when connected to an ATAS-120A. As in, you don't even have to remember to hit the 'tune' button when changing bands/frequencies... it just automatically and effortlessly tunes for you.
      • I remember at LEAST 2 or 3 occasions when using WSJT-X when I changed between FT4, FT8, or WSPR, and it seemed like it insidiously changed bands on me & I didn't notice until it started to transmit and the radio threw "HiSWR" warnings at me. Automatic continuous background tuning could potentially save me from accidentally frying the transceiver someday, so I view it as a hugely desirable feature.

      • From what I've read, at least one third-party company makes an interface that can make a non-ATAS120A "look" like an ATAS-120A to Yaesu radios... but I'm pretty sure it costs at least $150-250, which throws a huge monkey wrench into the alternative's economics.

      • AFAIK, the IC-7300 has no such automatic tuning feature with any screwdriver antenna. The closest it seems to have is the AH-740... whose $2,400+ price is so absurdly and outrageously expensive, I literally thought it was an April Fool's joke when I first heard about it ~2 months ago. That said... I've kind of gotten the impression that third-party screwdriver controllers interface with the 7300 the same way an ATU does, and official support from Icom or not, it ultimately ends up being as automatic as an ATAS-120A with a Yaesu radio anyway.
    • The 891 doesn't have a built-in ATU, which would normally disqualify it on the spot. By the time you add $150-250 to the 891's price to add a non-QRP ATU that can handle 100w with digimodes, you might as well just get a 7300 with built-in ATU for a little more. HOWEVER... when you consider that the price-difference between the FT-891 and IC-7300 is almost enough to PAY for an ATAS-120A... and that an 891 with an ATAS-120A doesn't need an ATU anyway (because a screwdriver antenna basically is an ATU)... well, that changes the equation a bit.

    • The 991A's killer feature is 70cm. I have fantasies about someday (2-5 years from now) developing a new digimode that combines OFDM and code-division with a WSPR-like "pilot light" to identify the sender & mode, communicate the spreading code, and assist with synchronization. At the moment, 70cm is the only mainstream band I could use to develop it on. It appears that radios capable of 70cm SSB aren't nearly as common or cheap as I originally thought they were... and even at eBay prices, they're substantially more expensive than the $129 difference between a FT-991A and IC-7300.
    After going through all the above, it looks like Yaesu has mostly made my decision for me simply by virtue of the ATAS120A not needing a separate controller... either a FT-891 with ATAS-120A from day one, or a FT-991A with assorted Hustler and hamstick-type mobile antennas for now (using its built-in ATU), and an ATAS-120A for Christmas or sometime next year.

    But... I'm still not quite sure.
    • ATAS-120A can't do 80m... and from what I've read, there's really nothing you can do to make it 80m-capable. The whip apparently has a nonstandard threading, and I've found nothing to suggest anyone has ever successfully hacked an ATAS-120 to do 80m, even poorly.

    • I've read quite a few horror stories that say the ATAS-120A is mechanically junk, and will probably die from mechanical breakdown or corrosion within 3-5 years. But I've read others that corrosion was only a problem with the first-gen model.

    • I've read plenty of reviews that describe the ATAS-120A's performance as "piss poor" (to put it nicely)... but I have to question the relevance of most of them, because the people who put it down the hardest are rarely comparing it to other screwdriver antennas, and are usually people who'd accuse almost anything that wouldn't require 5 acres and a crane of being a "glorified dummy load". If anybody has ever done an objective round-up comparing antennas like the ATAS-120A, SD330, and Little Tarheel side-by-side on objectively-equal terms... I haven't found it yet.

    • The biggest complaints I've read seem to be that the ATAS-120A's 2m performance is poor, and its 70cm performance is downright awful. That's OK... to use the ATAS-120A for 70cm, I'd have to buy Yaesu's expensive ATAS-compatible diplexer. Unlike HF antennas, 2m/70cm antennas are small and discreet enough that I could just give those two bands their own antenna up on the roof with minimal risk of upsetting the HOA for less than what I'd probably have to pay for Yaesu's diplexer anyway.

    • The Diamond SD330 can do 80m, use extra-long whips for better performance on 20m and below, and basically costs the same amount as an ATAS-120A... but I'd need a $150-250 controller on top to make it usable. 80m isn't a band I want to write off entirely, but I'd seriously have to question my own sanity if I spent $150-250+ extra on a solution that's still going to suck and work poorly anyway just to technically gain 80m capabilities.

    • Little Tarheel has all the drawbacks of the SD330, plus it costs more. A lot more. As in, by the time I bought a Little Tarheel PLUS the controller I'd need, it would be almost double the cost of an ATAS-120. I have no doubt that it's better than an ATAS-120A... but I'm not convinced it's "better enough" to justify spending that much extra money for one.

    • I've contemplated trying to build a screwdriver antenna... then the cold reality that I utterly and completely suck at building anything that requires mechanical dexterity or skill sinks in, and I know that my odds of successfully building anything capable of not only working the day I put it outside up on the roof, but 2-5 years later, are depressingly low. I'm good at prototyping "things that mostly work", but terrible at implementing things permanently that can keep working when I'm not personally there to babysit and fix them.
    If ATAS-120A could use a longer whip to get 80m and better performance on lower bands, I'd get one of the Yaesu radios, no contest (not even a fair fight), just due to sheer economics, and my only quandary would be between an 891+ATAS now, or a 991A with kludgy antennas for 6-30 months and an ATAS later.

    Likewise, if a thirdparty controller to make a SD330 or Little Tarheel work like an ATAS+Yaesu with either the Yaesu radios or a 7300 was fairly cheap (or something I could make myself with an Arduino, and still get fully automatic transparent integration with the radio instead of being permanently-kludgy), I'd have to think long and hard about the other alternatives. I don't value 80m enough to spend $250+ extra to get it, but $100 is within my "window of sanity", especially if I had a chance to try both the 7300 and 991A in person & ended up overwhelmingly preferring the 7300.

    At this point, I'd either love some affirmation that a 891+ATAS or 991A + eventual-ATAS is the obvious smart option, or compelling arguments that the ATAS-120A is so overwhelmingly flawed compared to alternatives like the SD330 or Little Tarheel, I'd probably end up preferring to just wait instead of pulling the trigger and ending up with something I'd deeply regret for years to come.


    Note: the purpose of this thread is to discern whether a Yaesu radio with ATAS-120A is really the clear slam-dunk winner it appears to be, or whether there are additional considerations I ought to be aware of before pulling the trigger. To be honest, this kind of feels like one of those times when I've gone to a restaurant & ended up being almost forced to buy something besides what I really wanted, just because their "value menu" pricing warped the value equation so badly, it was almost impossible to justify getting anything else.

    Before suggesting a non-screwdriver antenna, please view my past thread history. That topic has already been debated into the ground. My best viable antenna option is literally a screwdriver antenna on a tilt mount up on my roof. The only remaining question is which one to choose... and as noted above, it seems like Yaesu's pricing has mostly made the decision for me, unless the ATAS-120A has fundamental flaws that comparable alternatives don't.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2021
    1 person likes this.
  2. WA4SIX

    WA4SIX Ham Member QRZ Page

    I state this with all honesty & am not trying to be rude.
    The ATAS antenna is not worth it at all. I got better performance with hamsticks & they are much cheaper.
    I would never do any form of tilt mount.

    If you are going to do HF mobile, please do yourself a favor & do it good.
    I have an IC-7000, Better RF screwdriver controller (Press the Tune button & it tunes automatically), High Sierra HS-1800 & a Metron MA1000 amp.
    While I do have fun on HF mobile, it can be difficult, even with a good setup.

    Good luck on your journey,
    AK5B likes this.
  3. AK5B

    AK5B Ham Member QRZ Page

    If I was buying a new rig between those choices I'd probably go with the Icom 7300; lot's of bang for the buck there (I don't have one but do have its sibling, the 9700).
    But I much prefer Elecraft over any of the Icoms and Yaesus I've had (I do miss my FT-1000MP, that was a good rig)---and I have kept my Icom 746 for 2m sideband work.

    You also might want to look into a Yaesu FTDX-10 which is currently near the top of the Sherwood chart, too---but like it's bigger brother the 101D, has some bugs to work out in the firmware before it'll be close to perfection.

    I'd also suggest avoiding the ATAS junk (read for the full story there) and either go with a set of RadCom hamsticks from MTC OR save up as long as necessary for the very best screwdriver made; the Scorpion SA-680. Last time I checked it's $849 plus tax and shipping but comes with a lifetime warranty. Has the highest Q coil of all screwdrivers out there, too. I like mine so much I've considered getting two more to make a remotely tuned dipole for all bands 10-80 meters, they're that good and extremely well-made by Ron, NI7J.

    73 (and always remember it is wide to put more effort into your antenna system than any rig---that's really what makes the difference in the long run)

  4. N4VDI

    N4VDI Ham Member QRZ Page

    A tilt mount is absolutely required to get it past the HOA. There's always a small risk the HOA could gripe about it even with a tilt-mount, but if I dared to put a 6-foot+ antenna up on the roof without a tilt mount, I guarantee I'd be getting a certified letter from the HOA within 3 business days demanding its removal.

    That said, my roof is actually a pretty good location. It's 2 stories high and flat, surrounded by a sea of other identical houses that are exactly the same height. Using copper tape with a coat of elastomeric paint on top to seal it in place, I can actually lay a pretty dense radial field around it. I could even conceivably embed 18 x 18 feet of aluminum screen fabric under a layer of elastomeric paint if it would make things better. Hell, if it weren't for long-term concerns about adhesion and the cost of enough elastomeric paint to coat a ~400 square foot area twice, I could probably even embed a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil around the antenna.

    I totally agree that the Scorpion SA-680 is the best of the best (or at least, one of the best). I'd even say that it (or its successor, or one that's comparably good and expensive) would be an aspirational goal for my next antenna 8-12 years from now. But I can't even fantasize about affording that one now.

    The other problem with the SA-680 is its sheer weight. At 18 pounds, I'm not even sure whether Tarheel's (expensive) motorized tilt-mount could lift one that heavy (or who knows... maybe it can, and that's why it costs $500 instead of the $180 or so that would be sane & reasonable for something like a geared-down K9000 made to handle 2.5-pound antennas).

    The main thing I like about the SD330 and Tarheel antennas is their theoretical (if officially-unblessed) ability to use longer whips and cap hats. As we go into the next sunspot max, I could use it with a ~5-foot whip to do 10-80m... then when the sunspots metaphorically start to dry up and 10m becomes useless again a few years from now, I could replace the whip with one that's 102-108" with a cap hat on top (sacrificing my ability to use it for 10m, but ~doubling its performance on the lower bands). From what I've read, the only reason Tarheel claims the Little Tarheel can't use cap hats is because of wind-load concerns on moving vehicles (since, effectively, it would be subjected to literal hurricane-force winds every time you drove onto a freeway).

    As far as K0BG goes, I think his points are probably valid if you're talking about a mobile antenna being used on an actual vehicle, but it's hard to say how directly-applicable they are to an antenna that will sit on a non-moving roof... especially one with good radials underneath.

    His observations about ATAS-120A not working well when it's extremely hot (or cold) are concerning... but then again, I'll rarely be using it during daylight (partly, to avoid antagonizing the HOA, and partly because during the week I'd be working). It would unquestionably be exposed to hundred+ degree afternoon temperatures, but it would almost never be operated when temperatures are significantly above 90 degrees. And in the ~13 years since I bought my house, I think the temperature outside has gone below freezing a grand total of 5 or 6 times, and never for more than a few hours at a time (I've literally tried leaving foam bowls with a thin layer of water outside on the front porch overnight, just to see whether I could get it to visibly freeze overnight. I've never succeeded).

    We also don't really have huge day-night temperature swings here. That said, we do unfortunately get lots and lots of rain... in August and September in particular, there are times when it'll rain for so long, for so many days in a row, you don't just start to feel like it's never going to stop... you start to seriously doubt your own memories that it has ever been truly dry outside.

    Anyway, I really do wish that the antenna K0BG replaced his ATAS-120 with had been a little lower-end for the sake of comparing apples to apples. Comparing an ATAS-120 to a SA-680 is kind of like comparing a Hyundai Elantra to a Range Rover. ;)
  5. WE4E

    WE4E Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    That's a lot to cover.

    The ATAS-120 is only as good as it's mount. Too many people stick one on a K400 screwed to their trunk lid and do nothing else and wonder why it doesn't work. I've worked mobiles using them and was beaten in a pile up to Italy once by one. It's possible to do it right. If you're going to use it as a stationary roof-mounted antenna, radials, radials, radials.

    I have an SD-330 and it's a nice antenna. A better choice than the ATAS just for sheer size of the coil. It comes with a 47" whip. I changed mine to a 64". I can work 80m out of my truck, but sometimes its a struggle. It doesn't handle vibration well, but in your case, there won't be any. It needs just as many radials as the ATAS. It does not require any sort of controller. You can use the rocker switch that comes with it and tune it by hand. Same with the Tarheel. The Little Tarheel is essentially the same antenna for twice the money, although it's arguably slightly better made. I'm probably going to upgrade to the Tarheel 75A sometime over the summer. My F350 just shakes the daylights out of the Diamond.

    You might consider using the 17" telescoping whip MFJ makes with a remote tuner on the roof. It should do better on the lower bands. You'll have to fab up a mount, but it's 3/8"-24 stud, so nothing elaborate. I've done that (on a tripod) with an SGC-237 and it works fine. If you get an MFJ tuner, they power up the coax, so no additional wires needed. No controller either. But here's that word again - radials. If 17' is too much, you can do the same thing with a 102" steel CB whip.

    I own an FT-991A and an FT-891. If you're all about the UI, get the 7300. The 991A is a lot of radio in a small package. Sounds good on the air, one USB connection if you want digital modes or want to operate it remotely. Very capable receiver, noise reduction is outstanding. Adds V and U, which you indicated interested you.

    I really like the 891. The receiver is splendid, lovely to listen to, noise reduction is remarkable. The UI was apparently finished up late Friday afternoon and they did a couple of weird things. Necessary evil I guess to pack that many functions in such a little box. My two biggest beefs center around changing modes. Every other adjustment you'll do will be on the multi knob. The mode change is a long press on the band button and use the VFO knob to select. And you can't select the opposite sideband from the mode screen. It just says "SSB" and is selected by traditional convention. If you want to change to the opposite sideband, you go into the menu and change the SSB select from "auto" to the sideband you want. There's room on the mode screen for LSB and USB, but nooooooo. Doesn't come up in routine use, and the other oddities fade away pretty quickly. It's an OK tradeoff for the form factor. They reputedly have horrendous phase noise on transmit, so amplifiers are generally disadvised. I don't know whether that's been addressed.
    AK5B likes this.
  6. N4VDI

    N4VDI Ham Member QRZ Page

    If you're using CAT with apps like WSJT and FLdigi, how often do you genuinely NEED to deal with the FT-891's front-panel UI? Truth be told, 99.999% of my interests lie with digimodes. If most of the UI issues are moot when using a program like WSJT or FLdigi (because it's capable of automatically changing everything FOR you when you switch modes), that eliminates a major potential pain point.

    From what I've read, the 891 obviously isn't as pretty as the IC-7300, but as a radio, it's apparently just as good as it. I've gotten the impression that the FT-991A out-benchmarks both of them, but as a practical matter, all three are more or less in the same league (kind of like when you benchmark microSD cards, and when you're through, you look at the results and can't confidently conclude anything about their relative performance because the scores where they differ seem to be almost completely random).

    The other issue is that what I really want is a SDR... but unfortunately, right now it seems like every non-QRP SDR capable of 100w output with directly-exposed I/Q modulation (as opposed to merely exposing I/Q on the receiving end for panadapter purposes) costs twice as much as an IC-7300. I'm convinced that we're at most 2-3 years away from ham radio finally joining every other RF industry and embracing cheap class D amplification, and that when it finally happens, the price of new gear is going to come crashing down to something like $500-800 for a headless ethernet-connected SDR with 100w output.

    That's a major part of the FT-891+ATAS appeal... they're collectively cheap enough that if it did happen, I could buy a new radio & antenna 3-4 years from now without feeling too bad about it, instead of feeling like I had to live with whatever I had for the next 10-15 years because it was so expensive to begin with. But as noted, the 891 is really only viable for me when paired with the ATAS... otherwise, I'd need an ATU, at which point I might as well get a 7300 or 991A instead for just a little more.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2021
  7. N7WR

    N7WR Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    You've heard it from others and you will hear it from me. The ATAS 120A has issues and they are more extensive than just the type of mount and ground system. Spend a little more for a higher quality antenna. I have used the Little Tarheel II as a fixed (non mobile) antenna and with a decent ground system it works well in spite of its small size. Worked more than a few DX stations during the brief period of time that was my only fixed location antenna.
    AK5B likes this.
  8. KK9W

    KK9W Ham Member QRZ Page

    The ATAS is a pile of surprises. If you need a good rain gauge just leave it outside in the weather and disassemble for a level reading.
    WE4E and AK5B like this.
  9. N4VDI

    N4VDI Ham Member QRZ Page

    Does Diamond still make you buy a SD330, ship it to Japan, and wait weeks to get it back if you want them to install the position sensor, or did their US distributor eventually come to its senses & tell the factory in Japan to put one in ALL the SD330s made for the US market & just pass along the dollar or two the sensor adds so American buyers can get one without being subjected to $50 in postage and weeks of added delay? It just seems insane they'd harm the sd330's sales potential over something that's so cheap to add in the first place. Hell, even if only 1 in 10 people sent it in for the upgrade, the return Japan-to-US postage alone for that one unit would eat any savings from the other 9. I could see "send it back" upgrades making sense as a way to salvage a huge existing inventory if new ones had it right from the start, but intentionally pursuing that strategy to save a dollar or two on manufacturing day just seems crazy given how expensive postage is now, and how many sales they'd probably lose to Little Tarheel (since someone paying $50 more for LT could use it straight out of the box, instead of having weeks of added delay). And if it's the US distributor installing them, it would still make more sense to just pre-install them in a bunch up-front, then charge DxEngineering/etc a few dollars more for one that's already done.
  10. WB2WIK

    WB2WIK Platinum Subscriber Platinum Subscriber QRZ Page

    An ATAS-120 as a home station antenna?

    I think a terribly poor choice. It's a mobile whip, and not a great one. I have one sitting in my garage somewhere; bought it for mobile use but found Hamsticks do work better (although I have to get out of the car to change them).

    Can't you hide a wire antenna someplace outside so nobody will see it? Cheaper, and very likely greatly improved performance. Even a fairly short wire with a very good transmatch (manual antenna tuner) can load up on 80m if you want to use that band.

    For me, the ATAS has way too many limitations and when I used it mobile, the only bands where it worked "fairly well" were above the 20m band. Ironically, it didn't even work well on 6 meters, compared with a cheap 54" whip installed at the same location.
    K1XH, AK5B and K9UR like this.

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