Lab599 TX-500 & CGJ-100Q Automatic Tuner Review

Discussion in 'Amateur Radio Equipment Reviews' started by N9EWB, Jan 20, 2021.

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  1. N9EWB

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    Over the holidays I finally received my order for the Lab599 Discovery TX-500. What can I say about this radio that hasn't already been said by OH8STN or K4SWL. Their assessments are dead on...

    • This radio is built like a tank!
    • It fits nicely into Nintendo Switch soft case (in case anyone was wondering what to keep it in)
    • Does have a soft audible TX relay
    • Has excellent filtering and noise reduction capabilities (almost sounds as good as my Yaesu 891's DNR)
    • The pan is real-time, has a fast response, and I don't really feel like I'm missing the waterfall
    • The speaker mic is mono ONLY, but sounds good and loud
    • I use the included stereo mic, headphone, PTT switch adapter most of the time (just like cans better)
    • The included USB CAT/Firmware update cable is NOT FTDI, but has driverless compatibility with Windows 10
    The TX-500 is a great little rig. All of the issues I had, where because I didn't read the manual. I'm a big fan of not reading manuals for new products. It gives the reviewer the opportunity to objectively judge how intuitive a product is with limited knowledge. My logic is thus, the more I can figure out how something works without reading, the more intuitive it is. The more I struggle, then I'm an idiot who needs to read the manual.

    One of the things that none of the reviewers have mentioned is that this radio comes with the added fun of making some interface cables. If you want to do digital modes, you need to complete the provided cable to terminate the audio in/out. I decided to fashion a single wire computer interface cable, for use with digital modes. I opted to use a single-jack TRRS USB soundcard, that is in-line with the radio input and output. My cable goes from GX12 to USB, passing mic and mono audio in a pre-wired cross connected fashion. I highly recommend this, if you get this radio. It makes for less wires and there is no way to mess up which wire goes where.
    The other cable you will need to fashion is the power cable. The Lab599 team provide a pre-wired GX12 connector with bare red and black leads that you will want to throw Andersons on. (as if we don't already do this with every new radio already)

    This being my first QRP radio, I wanted to change up my portable field power options and take advantage of the radio's 3A draw. I decided to use some new-school tech, and it worked out really well. I opted to use a Power Delivery 3.0 power bank to power the TX-500. I wired a USB-C decoy module and a very small buck into a small plastic housing and made a cable that requests 20v and drops it down to 13v. This configuration produces no discernable noise and works very well. $49.00 is not bad for a 20000mah battery that can run your radio and charge your cell phone, or run a raspberry pi, at the same time.

    Here is the power bank, decoy, and buck I am using and an image of the PD decoy/buck cable I made:

    (The housing is an old, gen1, repurposed Amazon FireTV stick case)

    The TX-500 also has numerous protections built-in. Reverse polarity, SWR, heat, and power input protections keep the rig safe. I managed to trigger the input power protection when messing with my buck. It works! Speaking of heat, the TX-500's billet aluminum case is basically a giant heatsink. I've never felt this radio get hot or even warm above room temperature. There's also a battery protected real-time clock that keeps on ticking, even when the rig is powered off. The included instructions outline how to change the battery, when the need arises.

    I've only spent indoor, hands-on, time with this radio since the Holidays, but it's been a lot of fun. It makes WSJTX contacts, gets me checked into nets, and has great ears. In my short time with this radio, I discovered a single minor inconvenience. I reached out to the manufacturer by email, and within 1 day I had a response that my issue would be addressed in the next firmware update.

    The TX-500 may seem like risky purchase from a relatively new and un-unknown Russian startup, but based on the communications, firmware update history, and manufacturer email responses I have received; I think these guys are on the right track. If the TX-500's quality control and fit-n-finish are any indication, this company will be around for a while. The TX is a solid-feeling piece of equipment that feels good in the hand and looks even cooler in person. The retail packaging was impressive and the product documentation is excellent and well written. I feel obligated to let people know about this radio. I want this company to stick around and they can only do that if they sell their product. (one that costs $500-600$ less than an IC-705)

    I drooled over the IC-705 when it came out and was torn between which radio to get. After playing with the TX-500, I don't think they should be compared. There's a lot of innovation in both radios, and in my humble opinion places where they both fall short. The IC-705 can only do 5w on internal battery, the TX-500 doesn't have one. The 705 has a silly micro-USB port when it should have had a USB-C port. Micro-USB ports fail more quickly than any other USB interface type and I predict this will be the #1 failure point on this radio. The connection wafer is just too small to handle repetitive connection and the retaining pins often get bent or damaged and fail to retain the incoming cable. I've seen this on numerous consumer devices where micro-USB connectors have been employed.

    On the other hand, the TX-500 has unconventional connectors that stifle out-of-the-box connectivity in favor of weather resistance. And neither radio has a tuner..... One thing is clear to me, HAMs like information and lots of it. Large displays and visual waterfalls or scopes are here to stay. The more you can see the better, and the IC-705 and the TX-500 have that.

    Being a Flex user, I thought not having a waterfall would kill me. Waterfalls do make it easier to identify a signal compared to a simple scope, but a scope can do the same thing quite effectively with minimal adjustment. It's very easy to see where signals are on the band when they spike up. Admittedly, its not as nice as having a full waterfall, but it's very adequate and functional considering all the power savings you are getting from not having that battery eating color display.

    For those wishing the TX-500 was a little bit more, I will direct you to two things currently being developed independently, by the Lab599 team and a brilliant German HAM, DL4KA:

    • The Lab599 team has released design mockup images and intentions to make a bolt-on battery pack for the TX-500
    • [​IMG]
    • DL4KA has been developing an automatic tuner and 40-50W amp for the TX-500 for personal use
    • [​IMG]
    • [​IMG]
    • You can keep up with his development and find out where he will be selling them, or sharing designs, on his twitter page here:
    (My TX-500, I've playing QRP with a perfectly good Flex sitting right next to it.)

    As an additional review, I have been using the Chinese CGJ-100Q tuner with this radio and absolutely love it. The tuner design is based on N7DDC's ATU-100 design. They have an internal connector for a 3.7v lipo battery, making them rechargeable and power-independent. They are also RF sensing. Shoot a low power tone through them and the relays will clatter until you see 1.3:1 or better. The range of tuning is extremely broad and the tuner is very small. (There's a diet pepsi can next to it for reference) For just under $100.00, they can't be beat. They come in QRP and 100W versions. In my testing, the 100w version requires about 8-9w to cause it to tune reliably, despite being advertised as only needing 5w. The QRP model will tune with as little as 1 to 4w of power.
    I have both models of these tuners and they both work great. They are inexpensive compared to other options and the RF sensing tuning is a really nice feature. Not having to mess with accessory tuner cables is a blessing. The TX-500 has a "Tone" feature that can be accessed from the menu. It drops the radio power to <5w and emits a carrier that the tuner will pickup on and start tuning. I have no reservations about taking one of these into the field, and indeed plan to.

    If you're in the market for a new QRP rig, give the TX-500 a shot. I took a gamble on this brand new radio from a brand new company and have zero regrets.

    Apologies for the length and wandering nature of this review. I love the TX-500 and wanted to help anyone who is on the fence.

    MW7OFS, N5AGY, OLDARCHER and 4 others like this.
  2. N9EWB

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    Update: Be sure to check Lab599s site regularly for firmware updates. The radio now supports CW memories, SSB voice memories, and as of today, they have implemented a useful SWR band scanner. I've been very impressed with the quality control and speed of the firmware updates form the Lab599 team. I've not regretted my decision to purchase this excellent radio for a single moment. It just keeps getting better and better.
  3. N9EWB

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    Update: When operating digital modes you will want to invest in a beefy snap-on ferrite bead for the USB CAT control cable. I had to wrap my cord about 4-5 times before the RF would stop going into my computer and stopping the PTT in digital mode applications. Definitely follow the TX-500 cable diagrams when making the audio interface cable. I originally omitted the suggested 10uf isolation cap in my cable and quickly learned that I needed it. After learning the hard way, I am now happily running digital modes on the TX-500 like a pro. Go buy this radio. These Lab599 team put out an innovative quality product. Lets keep them in business. 73 and good luck.

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