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Initial review - MFJ-9296 (MFJ-9200)

Discussion in 'Survival Communications' started by DKR, Jun 8, 2015.

  1. DKR

    DKR Interesting ideas, interesting stories

    Review for a "Trail-Friendly" radio – MFJ-9296 (9200)
    MFJ 92XX (AKA 9296) price point $229/with all 6 band modules. Not a bad price point.

    Reminds me of the early ATS series (and a couple of the NorCal kits, like the Cascade SSB xciver) with plug in band modules. At this price point I can live with the module swapping. The next choice would have been the Mountain Topper (a KD1JV rig) with 40-30-20 meter bands only and no chance to listen to SSB. These are, mostly, CW only with very tight RX bandwidths – as they should be.

    This B/W thing matters to me - several nets here in Alaska are a mix of SSB and CW check-ins, so someone showing up on the net with a CW signal is no big. The ability to change the B/W on the 92XX will allow me to monitor/check in on the net(s). The module bandpass in the MFJ 9200 RX are wide allow enough to cover several SW bands as well.

    The main trouble I see with the Mt Topper, the ATS Sprint series and even the PFR 3 (another KD1JV designed rig at Pacific kits) is that they are all but impossible to find and all cost as much - or more - than the MFJ – as kits. Kits are fun, I built an HW-8 back in the day and other, more recent kits. But if you haven't assembled any SMD kits, you are in for some real fun

    I don't like that I can't zero beat to the distant station, but this is a portable transceiver after all. I'll initially use my Z series tuner and BALUN to run a EFHW, and then 'upgrade' to a L match tuner a bit later.

    I went ahead and ordered one of these from HRO – and got good customer service.

    Frequency Control: DDS, with a 60-MHz reference frequency
    Tuning Step: 100-Hz, 1-kHz, and 100-kHz
    RIT Step: 10-Hz
    VFO Memories: 8 per band
    VFO Display: LCD, 802-pixel, switched backlight (3 lines)
    VFO Display Frequency Resolution: 100-Hz, 10-Hz with RIT activated
    Operating Modes: Transmit - A1 (CW), Receive - A1, A3J SSB – the radio shows USB/LSB depending on the band installed.
    CW Offset: ~700 Hz
    T/R Switching: Full QSK

    Frequency Coverage, MHz:
    Receive: 3.2-4.9
    Transmit: 3.5-4.0

    Receive: 5.9-7.5
    Transmit: 7.0-7.3

    Receive: 9.4-12.1
    Transmit: 10.1-10.15

    Receive: 13.5-15.8
    Transmit: 14.0-14.35

    Receive: 17.4-19.1
    Transmit: 18.068-18.168

    Receive: 18.5-22.0
    Transmit: 21.0-21.45

    Receiver Min Detectable Signal (MDS) : 0.1-uV, all bands
    Threshold: 3 to 5-uV, all bands – yes this rig has AGC.
    Bandwidth: Selectable, 600-Hz CW, 2.5-Hz SSB
    Audio Output: 100-mW, 8-Ohm load, stereo plug
    Receiver Current Drain: ~40-mA no backlight, ~80 mA with backlight
    Transmitter Keying: Iambic automatic, straight-key sensing, CQ memory
    Speed Range: 3-45 WPM
    Transmitter Power: 5-W or better, all bands, at 12.6 Volts...mine put out 9 watts at 12.3 VDC on 20M!

    Harmonic and spur suppression: -50 dB or better, all operating voltages
    Typical Transmit Current: 0.9-A at 10-V, 1.2-A at 14-V
    Supply Voltage: 8-15 VDC at 1.5A
    Dimensions: 4.8"x3.15"x1.34", 120x80x34-mm
    Weight: 7.4 oz, 200 gm

    NOTE 1 - It doesn't come with --
    A manual - print your own.
    OK, saves them money and I get an English vice Chinglish document.

    No power cord/connector.
    OK, it's a 2.1 mm coaxial connector, real common, saves them money and I have one already. Be nice if this was noted in the ads, but, hey, this age of the Internet – so check for yourself.

    NOTE 2 - not mentioned anywhere in the radio "User manual" is the need to "align" the individual band modules for best RX MDS performance. There is a one-page instruction, found (separately on the MFJ site) with the modules (like the BM-40) -- print it and put it with the User manual.

    NOTE 3 - no user serviceable parts inside because there is no schematic. I believe this radio to be the announced but unseen in North America HS-1A (or B model) model briefly seen mentioned on some QRP sites. The photos sure look the same...
    The MFJ 92XX is the evolution of the HS1A or so it would seem. From what I could find, the HS1A was sold as a single-band kit in Asia for a brief period - a less expensive HB-1A.


    The band modules I received are different from the ones in this HS1A image. This would also explain the seeming "error" in the 92XX manual on captive screws for the installing the modules. The band modules in the 92XX are not captive, in the HS1A the modules are (or seem to be) held by a screw as shown.


    The band modules seems to have been redesigned to use cheaper parts - the coils on some of my modules are not all enclosed as seen in the photos.

    HS1A photos Source (from JA land)
    (Google Translate from 2010.

    BTW - A nice review from a French radio magazine.

    The only issue that I have run into is a lack of a system schematic or any data on the programming....
    I was able, in between everything else, to do a detailed examination and perform a basic burn in test/freq test. I went ahead and transmitted into a dummy load as well.
    Results of basic exam:

    Seems I was right to be upset about how the unit was packed for shipment. The box from MFJ (China) had the radio and the six band modules, all in separate plastic bags. The MFJ box was then placed in a shipping box by the vendor, with a single layer wrap of bubble pack and a handful of packing 'peanuts'. This arrangement allowed the radio to slam back and forth within the box holding the modules during transit in the USPS. So, I place any blame for damage on both MFJ and the Vendor for the situation. I called the Vendor to alert them to the possibility of damage, dunno if they will do anything about it.

    Fortunately, the only damage was to one band module which had the header pins bent. I was able to straighten them out with a pin tool I happen to have left over from my days installing telephone/network equipment. I could have easily broken the header pins, so then it would have been on me.

    NOTE – If you decide to purchase one of these, ask the vendor shipping to either separate the modules & radio and ship in separate boxes or open the MFJ box, fill it with peanuts & pack any outer box full to stop any movement. USPS to Alaska is the least cost and they do a pretty good job, other than using small packages for football practice...

    I plugged in a power cord – after confirming the polarity, even though the input is diode protected. The battery was reading right at 13 VDC – fully charged. The headphones used were a no-name set leftover from a CD player. The antenna was terminated at the unit with a 50 ohm dummy load. I installed the 20 Meter band module. I left the volume control all of the way 'off' and applied power. More on this in a bit.
    Hoo-ray, no smoke.

    If you look at this photo set (HS1A above, MFJ9200 below)
    (This image may be found on various MFJ sites - compare with the HS1A above)
    You'll see the module mounts 'upside-down' or solder side out. What isn't really visible (I'll post some images later) is the bottom of the module sits right at the level of the back panel. I was uncomfortable enough with the situation that I added a strip of heavy plastic shipping tape to the back cover. This was done to insulate the area under (or over, depending on your viewpoint) for when, not if, I don't get a module fully seated and apply power.... Having performed radio repair for over two decades, smoke prevention is always a good first step...

    The display lit up, nice and bright and the text was easy to read. Owners of FT-817s will enjoy the display being 'on top' and large enough to read without a magnifying glass : D

    The radio gave a MORSE charter of "A" letting me know the radio was in iambic keyer mode. When I powered off, then on again, this time with a non-stereo plug in the KEY jack, the radio gave me a "M" indicating it was set for a manual key.

    Using my old J-37 key, it had no problem with high-speed keying. Later I'll check for clicks on a second receiver, but reviews to date have not indicated clicks (keying waveform issue) to be a problem. The power out @ 12.8 VDC indicated was 9 watts! This is one hot rig. After heating my dummy load, I'll have to figure out how to set the sidetone level – I suspect a headphone set with an in-line 'volume' control will be needed...and a PITA. Otherwise, I'll just use the rig's volume control, since this isn't going to be a main station rig, I can live with this while in the field.

    On the receive side, I hooked up a resonate vertical antenna and set the VFO for 15.0 MHz to check against WWV. I was able to hear WWV and WWV-H both, not bad. The rig is close enough to being on frequency for this check, I'm happy.

    I need to align all the modules – well, peak them anyway, for the band segment of most interest to me. Tuning is easy to figure out, but you will quickly learn to appreciate the 8 memory locations and how easy it is to add/read memory. The one thing I see on this rig as a potential issue is the encoder – which is also a push button. I suspect that the encoder is likely going to be the first thing to fail – IF you tend to be a dial twirler.

    To be fair, if you use an FT-817, it has an encoder that also makes me nervous. What can I say, I was brought up on a Collins KWM-1 and later, a KWM-2A. If you use the rig to establish a contact then QSY a few Khz, this won't be an issue. The RIT allows enough spilt to work those pesky high-volume stations – or at least try. With 8 or 9 watts, you aren't going to bust any pileups.

    What's left? I need to go to the local e-store and pick up a new set of alignment tools, mine seem to have evaporated. Once I have those in hand, I can do a detailed RX evaluation. I'll also check frequency stability (drift) over time.

    One last note. The band modules fit a 35mm plastic film can as if they were made for such. A bit of foam at each end and you'll have a pretty bomb-proof storage/transport container. Address labels on the film cans will make ID'ing the modules in the field/dark much easier.

    Glue a good quality magnet to your station log clipboard – you'll need it to keep track of the cover screws. Once those become available, I'm buying a dozen or so. I suspect these screws will be the first thing you lose in the field. I've wrapped the rig in a Sham-wow, so when I do any band changing in the field, it will be while sitting on a large blue 'cloth' and that way I'll hopefully catch anything falling – before it gets lost in the weeds.

    This week I'll be heading for Exit Glacier, outside of Seward AK – It will be interesting to see how much traffic I can attract. I won't be QRP (5 watts) until the battery drops a bit, but it should be great fun.

    I'll post images of my field trip and rig pics at the same itme.

    Any questions?

    EDIT to add
    I've written a technical guide for the radio, with the kind help of the folks at MFJ. Drop me a email or QSL (KL7KN is good on QRZ database) and I'll send you a .PDF copy of the manual.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2015
    Marck, kellory, Georgia_Boy and 3 others like this.
  2. DKR

    DKR Interesting ideas, interesting stories

    Update. (6/18)

    I opened a ticket with MFJ to see of I could obtain a schematic or other technical material. The company replied quickly (good for them) - next day in fact. Impressive..

    Bad news - they have no technical data, other than the manual found on-line to share as the radio is "Imported".

    I'm now changing my Final review for the MFJ 9200 to : Be very, very careful if you buy one - as you will be on your own after the warranty period. See my full review (below) for the entire story...

    Brand new hams with a limited technical background may be better off by spending more and getting a LNRprecision.com rig -- if you are looking for a QRP rig.


    MFJ 9200 // 9296 Final Review

    IMO, the MFJ 9200 QRP radio isn't something I would recommend for the new ham or one that has limited technical skills. Let me explain the why behind this statement.

    1. Low power AND CW only. With rare exception, not something a new ham is going to enjoy. I suspect that a lot of radios like this (Not just this make/model) will wind up on a dusty shelf.

    1A. Lack of any real technical data!
    There is NO schematic or parts list. I see this as an absolute killer for someone new to the hobby. I've been licensed since 1977 and I'm none too happy about the lack of data as well. I have some leads on this, so I'm hopeful I'll get something useful... The rig has a downloadable operator manual, but it is all but worthless for troubleshooting....

    2. The VFO and volume controls are crazy delicate – and likely to be damaged unless the operator uses some serious care with packing and movement of the radio. No harsh, just the nature of the components used. These sit on a double sided board filled with SMD, not a robust situation. Real care must be exercised with the band modules – for storage, transport and when swapping them out. The headers can be damaged, and unless you recognize this need for care, you may be disappointed.

    3. The VFO is flaky.
    Multiple other reviewers have noted this. When you turn the control, the VFO jumps, goes both up and down or fails to change the frequency. The VFO control is also a push button used to change the VFO steps. Good engineering to reduce parts count, but as a former (20+ years) maintenance guy, I'll tell you now, this is IMO a bad choice. I'll wind up replacing this at some time, and knew that going it, so – no big.

    4. Overall Quality – or lack thereof.
    No worse than the average "China radio" and better than a lot on the market now. Just ensure you buy from a dealer that has a published return policy.

    5. Service after the sale.
    It's from MFJ – I'm not holding my breath. To be fair, expecting real technical/repair support from any ham dealer is, for the most part, expecting too much. This is a low budget, low volume hobby market. Take that into consideration before you harsh on anyone...

    6. Technical stuff.
    No RF gain. No variable B/W and the list could go on. This is a basic radio, CW only that offers a chance to listen to SSB. The only really annoying issue is that at every Mhz - 7.0, 12,0 15.0 and so on for the entire range of the radio - there is a loud birdie. Every Mhz. I suspect it's from the DDS scheme, I'll keep digging to see if this can be cleared.

    Bottom line – I'm not sending mine back for a refund.

    Kits similar to this radio, with only 2 or 3 bands start at $200 and up – for a kit. It works, puts out a good, clean signal and the quirks - well, I think I can live with those.
    Be warned, this rig is not for everyone, but it offers me a compact (not miniature) low current draw radio that enables me to use most of the HF hams bands.
    Do I wish for a rig that fits into a mint tin, has a tuner and does both CW/sideband, runs off of AAA batteries and... Yeah, and the Communicator fell out of Capt. Kirk's pocket last week as well.

    This is a sort of expensive toy for an expensive hobby and I fully expect to have a lot of fun working on and playing with it.

    Hope this is of some help.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2015
    stg58, kellory, techsar and 1 other person like this.
  3. DKR

    DKR Interesting ideas, interesting stories

    **07/09 Update**

    I sent my -9200 back to MFJ for warranty repair, followed up on the shipment by posting a copy of the letter (that went into the shipping box) to the trouble ticket opened earlier.

    Then, that next week (the radio had been confirmed delivered by the USPS on the Monday before) I called to see if any progress made in made. I was hoping that my -9200 at least was in a technician queue, given that it had been a holiday (short) week. The person who answered the phone checked and said they had already checked the radio out & would ship me a replacement this week (week ending July 10) .

    Pretty impressive.

    I got a call this morning, (07/09/15) that the replacement had been shipped yesterday, priority mail. BOB - I assume this to be the 'Robert' on the ticket, was very polite. I was surprised at the call, but the personal touch is hard to beat.

    I was polite and complete with my documentation, MFJ reciprocated by being prompt and keeping me "in the loop".

    I'll post a follow-up when it arrives and I get the rig checked out.

    Overall - so far the customer service from MFJ has been very good.
    kellory, ghrit and Tobit like this.
  4. DKR

    DKR Interesting ideas, interesting stories


    End of the saga.

    Got the radio back in the mail today - and imagine my shock when MFJ used the same (hand-made) foam carrier I had used to ship the original -9200 to them for warranty work.
    I had asked, politely, if they would use the carrier - and they did.

    Radio arrived, well packed and checked out good on my bench.

    END of story.
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2015
    kellory likes this.
  5. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    Congrats. Hope it serves you well. What is the significance of the date shown?
  6. DKR

    DKR Interesting ideas, interesting stories

    The thread runs over several days, I put the dates so folks can see how things transpired...
  7. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    The date is for two months from now.....:rolleyes:
  8. DKR

    DKR Interesting ideas, interesting stories

    LOL - fixed it - been up since 3 AM.
    kellory likes this.
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