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SIGNAL REPORTS FROM HELL*

by James W. Nash, K4HMS**

First, let me say that the title is pure sensationalism. I just needed an eye-catcher. "Signal Reports Die a Thousand Deaths" might have been even better.

OK. The Shack. Late Summer. What is up on 20 CW, here in Texas in mid-evening? The band is fat with Europeans. Here come the Russians, probably via great circle path since itís early September.

Garth, the DX cat, is roaming around underfoot. Heís a gray tabby who smells DX better than most cats smell tuna. In fact, his other nickname is "Grayline." He has the square head and keen instincts of a real DXer.

I am busy tuning. Garth settles down to his usual job of relaxing. Then, at about 14.021, I hear a rapid CQ. Only thing is the signal is chirping. Itís also a bit rough, maybe a T7 or T8, and a little hard to tune with the filter on. Is he moving around?

I know this station probably isnít anything rare. Otherwise Garth would be on the table and trying to use the paddle. The cat is only missing P5 and YA at this point. There. The DX is signingóOK, itís a DX regular, a North African station Iíve worked before, more often on 15 than 20. I decide to say hello, and also wonder if he knows about his signal. I give him a burst of 100 watts into the G5RV (Garth calls the antenna "Reggie," after its creator, of course.)

As Iíve indicated, the signal probably isnít polar, because of all that daylight at the North Pole. Further, the K-index is currently K=1, which means itís not a Great Circle signal degraded by an ionospheric storm. Nor is the propagation anythin esoteric like transequatorial spread. (Propagation gurus, please allow this mere lay person to make such references in peace.)

So, back he comes and gives me a 569, which means he probably gives real signal reports. I respond with a 578C. The S7 does not relate to any meter. (More about that in the article to come on SSB reports.) It is instead based on the standard definitions first adopted in the 1930ís, i.e., a "moderately strong signal." I donít use an S-meter. Never have. Instead I use the standard definitions. Here they are once again:

READABILITY
1 -- Unreadable
2 -- Barely readable, occasional words distinguishable
3 -- Readable with considerable difficulty
4 -- Readable with practically no difficulty
5 -- Perfectly readable


SIGNAL STRENGTH
1 -- Faint signals, barely perceptible
2 -- Very weak signals
3 -- Weak signals
4 -- Fair signals
5 -- Fairly good signals
6 -- Good signals
7 -- Moderately strong signals
8 -- Strong signals
9 -- Extremely strong signals

TONE

1 -- Sixty cycle a.c. or less, very rough and broad
2 -- Very rough a.c. , very harsh and broad
3 -- Rough a.c. tone, rectified but not filtered
4 -- Rough note, some trace of filtering
5 -- Filtered rectified a.c., but strongly ripple-modulated
6 -- Filtered tone, definite trace of ripple modulation
7 -- Near pure tone, trace of ripple modulation
8 -- Near perfect tone, slight trace of modulation
9 -- Perfect tone, no trace of ripple or modulation of any kind

Now I should say that, as to tone, most CW operators today are very reluctant to give a report of anything less than T9. And it seems that many donít even know that the "C" means "chirp," that sound which results from an incremental change in frequency when the transmitter is keyed. ["K" is for key clicks, relatively rare today; the other possibility is the "X" at the end (crystal-quality stable) which is perhaps no longer needed.]

Itís not that tone-reports arenít useful. The fact is, if you listen enough on CW youíll hear plenty of rough signals, and not all of them come from foreign operators. I donít mean like in the 50ís when I started out, but quite a few. Also, I believe the real reason the T component is seldom used is that people receiving less than a T9 get testy. At least thatís my experience.

Iíve had people on the other end respond to a 579C by saying "what does 579C mean?" Iíve had people respond to a 578 by saying "you should check your filters."

And the reason they get upset is not only ego; to a great extent, itís this: once, long ago, an off-tone report probably meant that you needed to adjust the tank a little. However, now what it may mean is "your rig is not working right and you may have to ship it off for a very expensive repair, and you are probably screwed." Nobody wants to hear that.

But on this particular evening my friend in North Africa does not comment. QSOís with him are always short anyhow, which is good because now his signal is running up and down the frequency range like Garth chasing a bug out on the deck. No question thereís something wrong with his equipment.

Well, you wouldnít know that from the signal reports he gets from the other W/K/VE stations who work him after I do. Nobody gives him a "C." Nobody gives him anything other than a T9. Nobody. Are they afraid he wonít QSL if they give him an honest report?

But after four or five more contacts, in which he receives either "5NN" or 579, heís wandering so much that he has to QRT. My ears have not been deceived. He has a problem. In fact, I havenít heard him since and hope he didnít have to ship the rig off for repairs.

Now there is another reasonóthis one more understandableóthat operators seldom give out subpar tone reports to subpar signals. Itís that a lot of us arenít sure whether weíre hearing a transmitter problem or something caused by propagation. Actually, a not-elaborate knowledge of propagation and current conditions can dispense with this uncertainty. Signals will sound rough naturally during geomagnetic disturbances, and as a result of various types of scatter and multipath propagation. (I highly recommend the well known The New Shortwave Propagation Handbook, by George Jacobs, W3ASK, et al. , on this subject.)

Howeveróbig point hereóI believe these are cases where T reports should be used. I believe that "modulation" should include modulative effects caused by the ionosphere. Is that a matter of signal quality or what? Does the guy on the other end want to know whether his signal is being degraded by conditions? Of course he does. Itís just that we havenít expressly used T-report for this purpose in the past. I believe we should.

This all relates to the broad question of how signal reports actually are actually being used. Hereís a table with some modern examples of what CW signal reports used today may mean:

Report Actual Meaning

5NN -- Generic report. Doesnít mean much. Iím lazy, or else really cool.
599 -- Not a bad signal at all. I donít even have to strain to hear you.
599 -- Loud (Or "599 Plus.") Really is 599.
579 -- In reality, 549, but you are DX and I need your card.
519 -- I am an engineer. I have a meter. It says you are an S1.
479 -- I missed your name, but Iím blaming it on QRM.
579 -- QSB Ditto.
559 -- I can copy you now that I have on the hearing aid.
459 -- Your signal really sucks and this will be a short QSO.

One more thing: some of us sincerely want accurate signal reports. They are, of course, extremely useful to QRPers. I personally spend much of my time studying band propagation at a given moment. Consequently, I most often am using 100 watts into the Reggie. I have no expectation of getting 599 very often, and whatever report I hear back is useful. It would be great to get reports indicating the effect of propagation. (In this regard, I often give signals a report of, e.g., "599 polar" or "599 w/flutter.")

Folks, I submit that CW operators especially should be making better use of the RST system. We are not. Letís go back to the standard definitions and look at them again. We will see that they are quite sensible, do not require a meter, and could be really helpful, given a bit more effort. Also letís also try to develop a modified T-report system which will reflect the impact of propagation impact on CW signals.

So, there! SSB signal reports next time. That article will probably be called "Youíre 59 Plus, Plus, Plus."

-qrx-

*This is (theoretically) the first of a two-part article, the second which will be mainly about SSB signal reports.

**Jim Nash, K4HMS, nashcom@flash.net, first licensed in 1955, has published numerous articles in QST and the DX Magazine, and several here on hamradiomarket.com. He is a practicing attorney in Houston. (Polite) responses to his articles are greatly appreciated.