AB1DQ-QRP is on the air.

As I have previously blogged about in this space, my ham radio resolution for 2019 has been to get on the air and make contacts with the low-power or “QRP” kits – transmitters, receivers, transceivers, and accessories, that I have built.

Today I write to report that I have achieved my goal, having made my first two QRP contacts today with W1NVT in Vermont and N1QLL in Maine on 40 meters.

My station today consisted of:

AB1DQ QRP station on the air today.: The WA3RNC 40M transmitter is the yellow device on the left. Clockwise, above, is the MFJ 913 tuner, the 4S Antenna Tuner, and the VEC-201 CW keyer. To the right of all and behind the paddles is the speaker for the LM386 antenna. I built all equipment seen here excepting the wattmeter and the Vibroplex paddles.

QRP: What and why?

Operating QRP (ham radio slang for ‘low power’) is a distinct niche within the hobby. The generally accepted definition of what qualifies as QRP, is using a transmitter putting out 5 watts of radiated RF power, or less. By comparison, most commercial high frequency amateur radio transmitters today are capable of transmitting 100 watts. Many hams will use amplifiers to increase the 100 watts up to 1.5 kilo-watts. Operating high-power is known as QRO, as opposed to QRP.

QRP operations attracts tens of thousands of hams, including yours truly, but why? After all, conventional wisdom holds that more power = more contacts as a stronger single may be received further away and be easier to copy.

Speaking for myself, there are several factors that have attracted me to QRP. Here are the top five:

1.) Building and operating my own gear

Any regular reader of the AB1DQ.com blog will know that I love to melt solder, to build kits and home-brew projects, and to troubleshoot and repair vintage electronics.

It all began when as a child I would while away the hours in my grandfather’s workshop. As a younger man, Grampy had enrolled in the DeVry Institutes home radio & television repair course (originally known as the DeForest Course) and his workshop contained not only all of his text books and tools, but also a cornucopia of old radio an TV carcasses for me to ‘work’ on. (I let out more than my fair share of magic smoke in those days, and blew the house circuit breakers more than once!)

`This article from the July 1967 issue of Pop’Tronics, found in my grandfather’s workshop, first introduced me to the concept of QRP decades before I got my ham ticket.

Today when I am in my workshop, I feel a connection to my late grandfather, especially when I am using his vintage test equipment that I have restored and kept in service.

And, as magical as it is to have someone on the other side of the planet respond to a signal I transmitted using a commercial radio, it’s just that much more special when I hear my call sign coming back to me on a radio I built from scratch.

Amateur radio is the only citizen radio service sanctioned by the FCC that not only allows, but encourages, its licensees to build, modify and experiment with their own transmitters and QRP allows me to do just that.

2.) The challenge & satisfaction of using minimal power

Quoting the FCC rules §97.313 Transmitter power standards…
(a) An amateur station must use the minimum transmitter power necessary to carry out the desired communications.

Because the communications I desire is any communication with another station using a transmitter I built myself, 5 watts is more than enough power to get the job done – and its going to provide me with plenty of fun

One S-unit, the minimal change in signal strength that is noticeable, is equal to 6 db. For one S-unit increase in gain you would need to quadruple your power output. To gain one S-unit from 5 watts output, you would have to go to 20 watts to increase your signal strength by 6 db.

K3WWP, a co-founder of the North American QRP CW club NAQCC has provided this handy table on his excellent website addressing the matter:

This suggests that all other factors being equal, an operator could expect his signal report to go from a very good 579 report to a perfectly copy-able 559 when running 5 watts vs. 100 watts barefoot.

What I know from first hand experience is that I have on occasion logged successful contacts on SSB from Connecticut all across the US to the west coast running 5 watts on my Kenwood TS2000. If I can make transcontinental contacts running QRP phone, it should be that much easier to do so with the narrower bandwidth needed for CW.

3.) QRP is inexpensive

A lot of hams get their General class ticket giving them access to the HF bands but then discover that commercial gear, can be cost-prohibitive.

The popular basic Icom IC-7300 currently retails for $1,099 and the bare-bones IC-718 (the very first HF radio I purchased back in 2002 when I was first licensed) costs $599 new today.

Compare those prices to the cost of my QRP station above…

The WA3RNC transceiver base model without the digital dial, retails for $99, the 4S Tuner retails for $53, the VEC201 CW keyer is $30 and the MFJ-813 QRP wattmeter costs for $40 new. That comes to under $220 for everything (sans paddles, power supply and antenna—all of which you would need to get on the air with either basic Icom radio above).

4.) QRP is portable

The small size of most QRP radios and equipment makes it ideal for portable operations, easily fitting in a backpack or suitcase. Many QRP operators enjoy taking their stations with them when they travel and operating from hilltops, campsites, or hotel rooms is very popular.

Although I have not yet done so, it is my desire and part of my 2019 radio resolution to go portable with my QRP station. This weekend I attended NEARfest in Deerfield NH as I do most years. The weather was a washout for the most part, but I did stop by the Quick Silver Radio table in the commercial building to address my need for portable power.

Proprietor John Bee, N1GNV, a good guy and fellow member of the Meriden Amateur Radio Club here in Connecticut, hooked me up with one of their new Hammo-PWR power boxes, which contains a 12 aH rechargeable battery in a compact water resistant ABS case and some PowerPole connectors.

The only piece I am now missing for my portable QRP operations is a very good portable antenna. In the coming weeks as the weather improves I plan to experiment first with my Buddi-Stick antenna as well as some wire antenna ideas including easily transported dipoles and end-fed wires – stay tuned to this space for updates!

5.) The QRP community is awesome

There are many excellent radio clubs dedicated exclusively to low power building and operating and I am a member of several of them.

QRP ARCI’s QRP Quarterly is one of the most fascinating and useful ham radio publications available today.

The QRP Amateur Radio Club International publishes my hands-down favorite ham radio magazine, the QRP Quarterly. I read every issues cover-to-cover as soon as it arrives as it is chock-full of excellent articles including technical pieces, equipment reviews, hints and kinks, and experiences of fellow QRPers.

The North American QRP CW Club is a dynamic club dedicated to the promotion of QRP operations. Each month the NAQCC operates a fun month-long on-air challenge and a sprint. There is no membership dues and the club also publishes an excellent online newsletter each month.

The QRP Club of New England is another fine local club to which I belong. The club holds a weekly CW net on 80 meters on Thursday nights and always presents well attended informational sessions and a buildathon at the Boxboro New England Hamfest each September. I really enjoy meeting other club members and melting some solder with them each year.

In conclusion…

For many years I have enjoyed building various QRP kits and feel I have learned a lot about radio fundamentals along the way.

Some of the many QRP transmitter and receiver kits I have assembled over the years.

This year I am finally venturing into going on the air with the radios and equipment I have built and the prospect of making contacts with homemade is very exciting.

I invite other QRP enthusiasts whether old timers, noobs like me, or prospective QRPers to write me at james@ab1dq.com to share their experiences.

Stay tuned for future blogs about my experiences and in the meantime,

72 de AB1DQ/QRP

©2019 JMSurprenant

Building the 4SQRP 4-S Tuner/Antenna Coupler

Following up on last week’s successful build of the Four State QRP Group TRF one transistor radio kit, The Murania, this Sunday I thought I would tackle the build of their 4S Antenna Tuner kit.

As I wrote in last week’s blog, I have been a long time fan of the great kits the 4SQRP Group develops and sells, so I was excited to tackle this project. My overall ham radio goal for the spring is to assemble and put a completely home-built portable QRP station on the air this spring, and the 4-S Tuner should prove to be an essential component of my station.

Like the Murania kit I built last week, the 4S Tuner was designed by NM0S, David Cripe, and both kits share several of the same features including “Pittsburgh construction” where the backside of the PCB doubles as the front panel, and a case that is cleverly assembled by soldering six pieces of PCB together.

Construction

The fist step in building the tuner is to construct the inductor which is mounted directly to the back of a rotary switch. For many folks, winding toroids can be a chore. I’ve messed them up myself several times in the past, but as a general rule, I don’t shy away from kits that require toroid windings.

I found that winding the 4S Tuner toroid was actually a pretty straight forward task. For one reason the toroid itself was large enough to manimpuate easily in my hands. Another factor that made the project easier was that the kit comes with BUSS wire instead of enameled wire which is difficult to create taps with as the insulation must completely removed at each tap… a fiddly prospect at best.

But best of all, because the toroid is mounted directly to the back of the rotary switch, “stitched together” if you will by the windings, the overall construction was very straight forward.

The instructions provide two options for the builder, whether to place maximum inductance at the first, “A” position on the rotary switch, or whether to place maximum inductance at the last, “L” lug. I chose the first method.

My completed inductor attached to rotary switch SW2 – building it was a piece of cake.

Once the inductor/switch assembly ws completed it was time to move on to attaching components to the PCB. The kit contains a nominal amount of parts – 6 resistors, 3 ceramic capacitors, 2 LEDs, 2 transistors, and 3 diodes.

“Pittsburgh” construction is sort of a large scale surface mount method where there are no holes and components are soldered directly to pads on the PCB. Pittsburgh native Joe Porter, W0MQY is credited with developing this construction method. and this is my second 4SQRP kit built in as many weeks using the Pittsburgh construction method. I have found it to be especially beneficial when removing components – desoldering is a snap and there is no need for a desolder pump or wick to remove solder from plated holes. In the case of the Murania last week, the ability to unsolder and swap out components made modifying and experimenting with the radio a true joy.

A minimum of components attached to the PCB using the Pittsburgh construction method made for easy assembly.

The next steps involved attaching the inductor, tuning caps, a FWD/REV DPDT switch and a pair of BNC connectors. The entire build took less than three hours and was a wonderful way to waste a blustery spring Sunday.

Theory of Operation

According to the documentation published on the 4SQRP website, “the circuit detects a mismatch of the antenna using a Wheatstone bridge-type detector.

“The transceiver drives R1, R2, and R3, three 47 ohm resistors, with the antenna forming the fourth leg of the bridge. If the antenna is 47 ohms the bridge is balanced, and the differential RF voltage between the two legs (between R1-R3 and R2-Antenna) is zero.

“The diode-capacitor circuit D1-C4 detects any differential RF voltage present and generates a negative DC voltage across the capacitor proportional to the amount of mismatch.

“The benefit of using a resistor bridge, as opposed to a more conventional transformer-type bridge, is that regardless of the impedance of the antenna, the worst VSWR ever seen by the transmitter while tuning up is 2:1. For QRP rigs without internal VSWR protection, this should prevent damage to the finals.

Schematic – another fine design by David Cripe, NM0S

How does it work?

You will need to stay tuned for my on air review. As I mentioned above, my overarching project for this spring/summer is to put a completely home build QRP station on the air and while several components have been built, I’m not quite there yet.

Future blog posts will describe some of the QRP transmitters, receivers and transceiver projects I have worked on.

Thanks for reading & 72 de AB1DQ!

©2019 JMSurprenantH

The Murania “One Transistor” Boy’s Radio Kit

INTRODUCTION & CONSTRUCTION

The Four State QRP Group (Oklahoma – Kansas – Arkansas – Missouri, in case you were wondering), founded in 2003, is one of the best developers and retailers of high quality and reasonably priced QRP (low power) ham radio and other do it yourself electronics kits.

I have a few of their kits over the past few years, most recently including the Bayou Jumper Paraset transceiver last year. I presently have the NM0S 4S-Tuner/Antenna Coupler kit on order.

Tonight I tackled one of their popular new non-ham radio kits, the Murania, a one transistor Tuned Radio Frequency (TRF) AM broadcast band receiver kit. The kit was designed by NM0S, David Cripe, who has engineered several of the 4SQRP kits.

The documentation for the Murania tells of the advent of transistor radios in the 1950s and how radios with 1 or 2 transistors were considered toys and therefore not taxed like radios containing more transistors. These 2 or less transistor “toy” radios became known as “Boy’s Radios” and are highly collectible today.

The designers of Boy’s Radios employed some creative design techniques to maximize the performance of these minimalist circuits, with sometimes amazing results. The Murania kit was inspired the design of those simple high performing transistor radios.

Unpacking the Murania kit.

My Murania kit arrived quickly within 2 days of placing my order online….WOW!

The Murania features a unique construction technique called “Pittsburgh Construction” developed by W0MQY , Joe Porter, in which components are soldered to the surface of pads on a silk screened double sided PCB.

Like other 4SQRP kits, the assembly manual needs to be downloaded from their website. Documentation is very good with clearly expressed step by step directions, but lacks pictures which might be helpful in illustrating potentially confusing steps for the newbie builder, such as the correct orientation of a polarized component such as an LED, diode or electrolytic cap.

The 4SQRP website suggest the kit can be built in about 2 hours time, and that was my experience. The radio is built in five stages… (1) wind the coil, (2) build the voltage regulator, (3) build the audio amp, (4) build the RF circuit, (5) final assembly.

1. Winding the Coil

The first task is to wind the coil which consists of 37 turns of No. 22 AWG enamel wire around a ferrite core. The instructions call for covering the core with a layer of masking tape first and using masking tape to hold the first and last winding in place.

My first attempt at
winding the coil.

I chose to use black electrical tape, and that was definitely a mistake – the electrical tape made it difficult to compress each winding snug against the previous winding and it didn’t do a very good job of holding the first and last winding in place.

I believe this may have also affected performance of my radio (see below). I am planning on modding the set and rewinding the coil with 61 turns (also, see below) and will use the recommended masking tape at that time.

2. Voltage Regulator

The first circuit constructed is the power supply/voltage regulator which consists of installing the volume control pot and attached power switch, one electrolytic capacitor, the battery connector, another capacitor and a resistor and the LED which serves three functions – power on lamp, signal strength indicator, and voltage regulator delivering 1.6 – 1.8 +VDC to power the radio.

I appreciated that the instructions called for testing the voltage regulator circuit before proceeding on to the audio amp stage. My Murania was putting out 1.792 VDC+ within the acceptable range of 1.6 – 1.8 volts.

3. Audio Amplifier

The Murania has a single stage of audio amplification based on the 2N3904 NPN transistor that drives the speaker through a matching transformer.

Other components in the stage included a pair of capacitors, a single resistor and of course, the transformer and speaker.

4. RF Stage

The bulk of the RF work is handled by a single IC, the TA7642, which has its origins in the late 1960s. Equivalent to the ZN914 and MK484, the TA7642 contains ten transistors and performs the task of RF amplification, audio detection, and automatic gain control. The documentation points out that with the TA7642, it is possible to construct a Tuned Radio Frequency receiver with useful sensitivity and selectivity, using only a handful of components and that this device served as the basis of many radio receivers that were the successors to the Boy’s Radios.

The 10 transistor equivalent circuit of the TA7642 per the datasheet.


Like the voltage regulator and audio amplification stages the RF stage went together without a hitch. All parts in the kit were properly identified and clearly referenced in the assembly manual. The etching on the circuit board made mis-installation pretty much an impossibility if you’re paying attention to what you’re doing.

The assembled Murania TRF radio ready for testing.

5. Final Assembly

After testing the radio to make sure it works (it did), the last step was to assemble the rest of the cabinet which is comprised of five additional pieces of yellow PCB material with pads strategically placed to match up for soldering to connect.

The pieces fit together perfectly, although I should have taken time as recommended in the directions to file off burs and rough spots so the pieces fit together more perfectly. Overall this is a pretty ingenious way to build a radio cabinet.

PERFORMANCE AND MODS

I was very pleased that the radio worked right away. I was able to pick up several AM stations with ease. Stations received were clear and the audio, while not as loud as I would have liked, was not distorted.

One problem I did encounter that is worth mentioning is that after I tested the radio on my bench I attached the back to the radio and brought it to my wife to show off my handiwork.

She was impressed, however when she turned the radio on, the LED lit up but there was no sound coming from the speaker – absolute silence – UGH!

I took the back off and quickly diagnosed the problem – the top of the 9V battery was shorting the speaker terminals – a problem easily fixed with a piece of electrical tape across the speaker terminals.

I did expect the radio to be a little more sensitive than it was initially and I realized that the radio’s performance might have been inhibited by my sloppy coil winding.

The unmodified Murania Schematic ©NM0S, 4SQRP Group

Online I found a list of three simple mods for the radio published by Jim Marco, WB2LHP in MI, the third of which that involves additional windings on the coil so I thought I’d give them a try.

Here are Jim’s mods…

1. Detector Gain Control…

FLOAT the wiper lug of R3 and place a jumper between the PADS for the R3 wiper and the high side of R3.

Lift the leg of R1 that intersects with R2 and R3 and connect a jumper between the floated leg of R1 and the wiper of R3.

According to Jim, this allows R3 to control the gain of the detector stage in the TA7642 acting similar to a regen control where there is both volume and gain reaction. The audio amp runs wide open and R3 should be adjusted for the best sounding audio.

2. Reduced audio distortion…

Changing R2 from 1K to 2.7K biases the output stage of the TA7642 for linear operation.

3.Frequency coverage and dial mapping…

Increasing L1 from 37 turns to 61 turns and removing C8 centers the frequency coverage and makes the dial tracking spot on…

The revised schematic based on WB2LHB’s mods

I am pleased to say that the mods were easy to accomplish and I had no difficulty with any of them. I did not have a 2.7K ohm resistor on hand so I tied a 2.2k and a 470 ohm resistor in series for R2. Using the recommended masking tape instead of rubbery electrical tape on the ferrite rod made a world of difference too – winding the 61 turns was a snap.

My modified Murania – notice the new ferrite coil, the replacement of R2, the removal of C8 on the right, and the jumper going from R1 over the speaker to the VR R3.

And how did it work? Even better than before – the radio seems to be more sensitive and is picking up more stations and the audio is definitely more crisp as promised. If you’re looking for a fun one-evening project that will take you back to your earlier days of melting solder – the Murania TRF receiver is worth building.

©2019 JMSurprenant

Cohiba Behike 56 Cigar Review

My dear wife Ellen returned from spring break in the Dominican Republic with her college girl friends last week with some wonderful gifts for me – a box of 25 Cohiba Siglo IV cigars – and – two Behike 56 cigars. No man ever married better than I, as last year she returned with some Cohiba sticks as well as a box of Romeo Y Julietta cigars.

I know that I should have kept both of the Behikes in my humidor to save for a special occasion, but I simply could not wait to try this, Cohiba’s most legendary ultra-luxury, highly rated and greatly desired cigar brand.

So yesterday afternoon found me at my favorite local cigar bar, The Owl Shop in New Haven, Behike in tow, to meet up with my good friend Carl J. Frano for a Sunday afternoon cigar and a whisky.

As the Behike is a good two notches above my typical smoke, I reckoned it was right to pair it with something a bit more upscale than my go-to double Jack on the rocks. I chose Laphroaig 10 year old single malt, and in retrospect, it was a good choice.

About the Behike

The Cohiba Behike BHK line was launched in early 2010 and is a limited production stick. It comes in three sizes – the BHK 52 is the smallest at 4 3/4 inches by 52 ring gauge, the BHK 54 is the middle child at 5 3/4 inches long by 54 ring and BHK 56 is the big boy Toro at 6 1/2 inches by 56 ring.

What places the Behike above the other Cohiba cigars is the medio tiempo leaf which comes from the two top leaves of the tobacco plant which gathers more sunlight and contributes significantly to the flavor and the limited quantities.

My Experience

The Behike 56 was beautifully crafted, featuring a very neat triple cap with pigtail, a noticeable spiral seam, some slight leaf veins throughout. The cigar was nicely packed and firm from foot to cap. It felt glorious in my hand.

I cut the cap and savored the delicious cold draw. The predominant note was earthy barnyard grass and cedar with a slight hint of cocoa. The cold draw was milder than I had anticipated, but very pleasant. I did not rush to light the cigar.

My Behike 56 and a double of Laphroaig 10 at the Owl Shop

First Third

I found the draw to be a little tighter than anticipated but not bad by any stretch. Flavor notes were mild earth and cedar and mild spice too. Not overwhelming but not underwhelming either. Many of the other reviews I read fault the 56 as being a little milder than the BHK 54 and 52, due to its size. While I haven’t sampled the 56’s little brothers and am not likely to anytime soon, I would say that the 56 was definitely mild.

The burn was excellent, very straight and the cigar produced a nice firm salt and pepper ash that hung on to about the inch and a half mark.

Towards the end of the first third, I picked up on some mild nuttiness.

A straight burn line and firm ash was consistent from the first third to the finish.

Second Third

The flavor notes of the second third did not change appreciably from the first, and that wasn’t a bad thing at all. Again there was a mild cedar or leather flavor, some mild spice (black pepper) and a hint of sweetness, perhaps cocoa. The flavor, though mild, was very pleasant and very smooth overall. I did pick up on some creaminess developing around the midpoint of the cigar.

The burn continued to be excellent and the draw, which I previously noted as a bit tight initially, was good throughout the middle third.

In to the second third – mild and flavorful

Final Third

In my experience, the flavor profile of the Cohiba Behike 56 was nothing if not consistent. I didn’t notice any new notes as I smoked my way through the final third – I would say the cigar was a bit creamier at the start of the last third.

I did note that the overall taste, which was pretty mild, got much more intense in the last half of the last third. It wan’t unpleasant, but the flavor intensity was increased and noticeable.

Burn and draw remained excellent right to the very end. Total smoking time was 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Delicious to the very end.

Overall

What can I say about this cigar that more experienced reviewers haven’t said before? Clearly this was the finest cigar I’ve ever had the privilege to smoke, and I totally get why it fetches such a premium price.

This cigar was simply delicious all the way through. The one word that would best summarize my overall impression would be ‘smooth.’

If you have the opportunity to smoke a BHK 56, I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed. Perhaps the 54 or 52 might be a better choice as they are purported to have a more intense flavor profile.

I look forward to saving my other Behike 56 in the humidor for a special occasion. Clearly a 10/10 smoke, anyway you slice it.

©2019 JMSurprenant

NEARC-NEVEC RADIO 50

This past weekend I attended the New England Antique Radio Club NEVEC “RADIO 50” Expo and flea market at the Courtyard by Marriott Nashua. As a member of NEARC, I have attended this, the premiere vintage radio show in the region for several years. It is easily the high point of my entire winter and once again this year it did not disappoint.

The event draws vendors from all over the northeast and every year I love seeing the elusive rare radios that I have long desired but are beyond my means. Rarities spotted this year included a couple of pioneering compact Bakelite AC/DC Kadette sets as well as a space age Philco Predicta Princess television.

Going to NEARC every March has become a tradition for me and part of the fun is seeing the same good friends who aren’t local to me anymore. These include my best friend, Alan, who first introduced me to the NEARC show about a dozen years ago when we were first getting to know each other, and Larry and Andre – two high school buddies (CCHS ’83) – who now on the cusp of old age like me, are taking comfort in the company of other ancient things.

I never travel to Nashua intending to spend (much) money as I have a basement chock full of ongoing (read: largely ignored and/or abandoned) projects, yet once again this year I still managed to part with about $100 of my dollars.

I spent the most of my dollars at WJOE’s table – again. WJOE is my go-to guy for capacitor kits and other radio restoration small parts. His website is also an excellent resource, but it’s always fun to transact business in person. This year, WJOE sold me:

  • a Realistic FM-AM Radio 8 Track Stereo Player Model 14-908A, restored, complete and functional,
  • a 300 piece box of ceramic capacitors, and
  • a Chinese 40M QRP PIXIE type XCVR kit (subject of a future blog post)
The Realistic FM-AM Radio 8 Track Stereo Player
MODEL 14-908A

I also picked up a nifty Admiral model YH302GP 8 transistor portable radio (1965) from Garysradios.com and three used LPs:

  • The Who, “Live at Leeds”
  • The Who, “Who by Numbers”
  • John Mayall, “The Turning Point”
The Admiral 8 Transistor Radio I bought from Garysradios.com

I wasn’t looking for new projects and was very happy that both the 8-Track player and the Admiral transistor radio were both sold fully functional, serviced and ready to enjoy. Of course that situation didn’t last long because I managed to drop and kill the Admiral 8 transistor before I even left the flea market!

Inexpensive 1960s era plastic housed electronic devices were never known for their durability. Both the plastic casing and the circuit boards were extremely brittle by today’s standards and one drop typically means serious damage or more likely, a dead radio. Fortunately the Admiral’s case survived my drop without any damage but the radio itself, which was previously playing perfectly, was now completely dead.

Last night I opened the Admiral up on the workbench to troubleshoot the problem. I was guessing I might find a cracked circuit board and with any luck I’d be able to bridge any broken traces to get the radio to play again.

I started by testing the two AA batteries that came with the radio and as suspected, they both checked out fine…

I next examined the circuit board looking for a crack or other obvious physical damage, and I immediately spotted the problem. There was a broken resistor located between the speaker magnet and the battery clip. Apparently the impact of the drop caused the battery to collide with the resistor and break it in half.

So this was going to be an easy fix. Because I could still read the color code from the busted resistor (Brown – Black – Brown = 100 Ohms) I didn’t even need to reference the schematic.

I soldered in a replacement 1/4 watt 100 ohm resistor from my on hand stock and the radio returned back to life. All told the diagnosis and repair took less than a half hour to complete.

It lives again!

More scenes from RADIO 50… see you next year!

©2019 JMSurprenant

CAO America Landmark

Today while my wife was having lunch with one of her best friends in Glastonbury, Connecticut, I stopped in the Fine Cigar and Tobacco shop to kill a little time and enjoy a smoke.

The Fine Cigar Shop is a fabulous retailer, with a well stocked walk in humidor and a nice selection of humidors, torches, cutters and other supplies. It is also one of the few local tobacco shops where you will find today’s stick, The CAO America, available. It was at Fine Cigar where I discovered this less popular stick in the CAO World cigar line. I had previously smoked and enjoyed several of the other cigars in the series including the Brazilla, the Colombia, and the Italia.

The red white and blue label and gold pinstriped double wrapper make this one attractive cigar.

The America is absolutely beautiful to behold with its distinctive pinstripe barber pole wrapper and its red, white and blue band and foot band. The double wrappers are a Connecticut broad leaf Maduro and a Connecticut Shade Capa which have a nice oily dark brown appearance with some small veins. The cigar is firm from foot to cap and well packed with fillers from Nicaragua, Italy, the Dominican Republic and the United States, bound with a Brazilian binder and capped with a somewhat sloppy looking double cap.

The Landmark is a 6 x 60 Gordo and the America is also available as a 6.2 x 54 Torpedo (The Monument) and a 5.0 x 56 Robusto (The Potomac).

The cold draw was flavorful with predominant notes of dried fruit and some spice. I enjoyed the flavor of the cold draw very much, but did feel it wasn’t as potent as it could have been.

Upon lighting the America, the initial flavor noted was mild pepper, cedar and some slight nuttiness as I worked my way through the first third. The one word that I would use to describe the experience of the first third overall would be “dry.”

It was not unpleasant at all, but the flavor, though good, did not seem to be as intense as it could have been. I also noted a very slight bitterness and that the draw was somewhat loose and the burn uneven initially, needing occasional touching up with my torch to prevent canoeing.

Into the second third and the predominant flavor continued to be a mild pepper and some wood. There was a very slight creaminess noted and some nuttiness in the second third.

A mighty ash!

In researching the CAO America, I had found another review online where the reviewer described the cigar as having a ‘cardboard’ taste – definitely not a word you often see in cigar reviews, and not a word that is complimentary.

I would have to say that while I would probably not have identified this flavor on my own, once I had read this, I definitely agree that there was a certain cardboard flavor particularly in the second third. The burn evened out in the second third and the draw seemed to have tightened up a bit and was good from here on out.

The final third was not significantly different than the second third. The flavor notes remained spice, wood some nuttiness and some cream – again the taste of the cigar was overall pleasant, but milder than I’d have liked or expected. Also worth noting, the CAO America produced a beautiful firm salt and pepper ash that got to nearly 2 inches before it broke off.

I enjoyed the CAO America Landmark right down to the nub.

Overall I’d rate this cigar about a 7 out of 10 – definitely pleasant, very mild – perhaps too mild – and definitely worth smoking again. The gorgeous red white and blue labeling and pin-striping would make this a fine choice for a Fourth of July cookout.

I had a great visit to the Fine Cigar and Tobacco shop in Glastonbury today where I enjoyed my CAO America Landmark in their lounge watching the first Spring Training game (Mets beat the Braves, 4-3 – yay!) with two locals, Art and Rick. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

©2019 JMSurprenant

My Funny Valentine

I have always been a big fan of the homemade Valentine – nothing says tradition to me than a handcrafted paper heart, embellished with lace, foil and/or glitter. I’ve made plenty of these paper hearts for my Valentine over the years, but for 2019 I wanted to take my game to the next level. In my experience, most anything can be improved by adding electronics – so why not the humble Valentine?

I started by building the Velleman MK101 Flashing LED Sweetheart Mini-Kit, a simple and fun build that took less an hour with only 9 resistors, 2 NPN transistors, 2 electrolytic capacitors and 28 red LEDs.

The trickiest part of the build was making sure that the polarity for each of the LEDs was correct. This wasn’t difficult as the cathode for all of the LEDs were oriented to the left side of the PCB, so it was just a matter of taking an extra moment for each LED to make a mindful check that the shorter lead was inserted on the left side of the board.

I attached the LEDs in four groups of seven each, again working slowly and double-checking each to make sure polarity was correct before applying solder.

When the moment of truth came to test the circuit, I was relieved that it worked. Despite working meticulously to install the LEDs with the correct polarity, it would be a real chore to identify any that were installed incorrectly after the excess leads were nipped off.

The “heart” of my valentine project!
Schematic diagram for flashing heart
© Vellemen, Inc.

Now that the flashing heart was done, the next question was, “How do I present it to my beloved?” The circuit board doesn’t fit well in a paper envelope so I’d need something three dimensional. Cigars to the rescue!

One of the many nice things about being a cigar smoker is that if you’re any good at it, you will eventually collect a surplus of nice wooden boxes which make for great project cases. I had just the thing in my collection – a small nearly square wooden box that originally contained Erin Go Bragh Irish Creme Cigarillos (a delicious quick smoke, btw).

The Velleman heart was a perfect fit – I could easily mount it inside the box and use a NC push button switch to power the circuit when the box was opened. This would be a snap and yet there was plenty of room left over. Maybe too much room? So I started wondering – how I might use the free space to make this project even better?

After more reflection and more research online, I came up with the idea of turning this valentine project into a music box that would play “our song” [Moon River, by Andy Williams] when the box was opened.

SparkFun had what appeared to have just the thing I needed – an all-in-one Arduino based MP3 trigger kit – the Qwiic MP3 trigger. The board comes complete with an on board 1.4W Class-D mono amplifier, and it can read from a micro SD card, and be triggered to play with a single switch closure. The price was right too – just $19.95 as of this writing – so I placed my order.

The SparkFUn Qwiic MP3 trigger microcontroller board.

The only problem I saw was the admonishment on the SparkFun website that the MP3 trigger board must NOT be powered by anything greater than 3.3 VDC. Yikes – the plot thickens!

There were two options for making the 3.3 volts for the MP3 board from the existing 9 volt battery. I could either use a linear regulator or a buck converter.

A buck converter is a little more sophisticated in design and it steps up current as it steps down voltage. A linear regulator is a simpler design and doesn’t reduce current but instead it dissipates as heat the voltage times the current drop.

Given my space constraints in the tiny cigar box and the overall simplicity of my project, I decided to use a linear regulator but first I needed to ‘do the math.’

The published documentation for the MP3 trigger states that the board has a current consumption of 40mA at standby and 150-300mA driving an 8 ohm speaker at full volume. The Velleman flashing heart kit documentation states it consumes 8mA and a Duracell 9 volt alkaline battery is rated for 500 mAH.

So, conservatively assuming the max current consumption of between 158 and 308 mA during full volume playback, the battery should last 1.62 – 3.16 hours. Since the Moon River MP3 is 2:44 long, I could expect at least 35 to 69 plays before the battery died. Ultimately as I did not change the stock volume setting of 10 (out of 32), the actual battery life should be much better than my conservative calculations.

Building the voltage regulator was a snap. The simple circuit calls for nothing more than adding a pair of capacitors to a TI 3.3V LM1117 voltage regulator chip.

Schematic of the simple voltage drop circuit using the TI LM1117. Output is 3.3V and 800 mA.

After I built and tested the voltage regulator circuit, I did not have to wait long for the Qwiic MP3 Trigger to arrive from SparkFun. It showed up just a couple of days later. along with the fresh microSD card and a USB C cable I also ordered.

According to the online documentation, when the No.1 pad on the board is shorted to ground, the Trigger will play the MP3 file saved to the SD card named T01.mp3. 

I inserted the new SD card into the board and plugged it into my PC via the USB-C cable and Windows 10 immediately recognized the device as external device “E:”  I was able to simply drag and drop a properly renamed copy of my Moon River MP3 from Google Music.  So far, so good.

But, when I first tried to test play the MP3, there was no joy.  The SparkFun website shows the device playing the T01.mp3 by shorting the proper contacts with a pair of tweezers, but this wasn’t working for me.

I studied the photo on the SparkFun website closely and then I realized my error.  The board needs to be powered but disconnected from the PC.  When I unplugged the board from the computer USB port and hooked it up to my voltage regulator circuit and shorted the number 1 contact to ground it worked perfectly!

Wiring up the voltage regulator to the MP3 Trigger for a test play – it worked!

My final concern was whether I would need to incorporate a second NC push button switch to trigger the MP3 after the board is powered up.  The online documentation stated that the board may take up to 1500 ms to power up.  I had hoped if I needed a second push button, I could place the first one closer to the front of the cigar box and the second closer to the hinge for adequate timing.

I wanted to see what happened if I applied power to the board with the No. 1. contact already shorted.   Would the MP3 begin playing when power was applied?

YES Indeed! The MP3 automatically started playing in this configuration just as I had hoped. The music also stopped when power was disconnected, and would immediately start again from the beginning when power was reapplied.  This would be absolutely perfect for my music box application as I could employ one NC push-button switch to provide power to both the heart circuit and the MP3 circuit causing the LEDs to flash and the music to play when the box was opened and stop whenever it was closed.

All that remained was mounting all into the cigar box. In determining the layout, I realized the biggest constraint was that changing the battery would be impossible if I used the built in battery clip on the back of the Velleman heart..

Laying out the music box parts – I moved the 9V battery away
from the flashing heart board to facilitate battery changes.

I thus opted for moving the battery to an easily accessible spot on the left side of the box, making a simple battery holder by gluing a dowel snugly up against the battery. I attached a second 9V battery clip with the polarity leads reversed (red to black and black to red) to supply power the heart.

Everything else was mounted inside the cigar box using hot glue – not elegant but very practical. The power on push button was placed in the top left corner on the hinged side of the lid, the voltage regulator is on the bottom of the box near the back on the right side, and the MP3 trigger is cemented to the front right side. The MP3 board has a 3.5mm stereo jack which remains accessible if anyone wanted to plug in a pair of earbuds to hear the music in glorious stereo.

The mini 8 ohm speaker was attached to the front of the box using the 2 sided adhesive provided with the speaker.

I decided I did not want to refinish the little cigar box to make it look like anything other than what it is – an electronic valentine made on my workbench – this thing screams “James.” For an added touch of workbench authenticity, I made a valentine greeting for the lid with my Dyno label maker…using red tape, of course!

THE FINISHED MUSIC BOX – ready for my sweetheart!

This was a great project and along the way I learned about voltage drop regulators. Working with the SparkFun micro controller board was fun easy and educational. I am aware that the board has many more features that I did not need for this project and that performance can be tweaked by editing the sketch in the Arduino IDE – something to consider for next time.

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

©2019 JMSurprenant