TEN-TEC Century 21
Since getting back into HAM radio with my focus now on CW and QRP I find that many of my contacts use old and/or homebrew equipment. Maybe it's because I often call CQ with my straight key rather than paddles that results in most answers to my CQ being operators using a straight key or a bug. It seems these operators tend to not use the latest piece of shiny gear, which made me an anomaly; sending with a straight key while using my SDR-in-a-box like the Elecraft KX3. Maybe for this reason I've found myself being drawn to less sophisticated types of equipment. I'm not talking about wanting to go back to spark gap and gravity batteries, but sometimes the KX3 is just too easy to use.
In the same way that I'd prefer to send CW using a Straight Key to a keyboard since it's a greater challenge, I think that the older, less sophisticated equipment can bring more satisfaction to the hobby.
Vintage... like bell bottom jeans and corduroys
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the only "real" radios are those with discreet components or tubes, nor am I saying no key but a straight key. I'm just moving through some stages of the hobby that I missed because I didn't grow up with this older equipment and I think the challenges can be fun to learn and operate.
I didn't get into Ham radio until 2006 and the commonly available used equipment of the time was microprocessor controlled rigs with digital displays, optical encoders, DSP filters and seemingly endless menus for configuration. I went through a few HF radios over a couple of years: a Yaesu FT-857, ICOM 730 and lastly, a ICOM 746 Pro, before I sold the radios and dropped out of the hobby. At the time none of those rigs held any "magic" for me, they were just tools with increasing levels of functionality and ease of use. However the ICOM 730 did hold copious amounts of stale cigarette smoke and nicotine from the previous operator that it would release into my room as it warmed up. Not really magic, more of a non-corporeal element let's say.
If you've read my earlier posts you may recall that although I like my Elecraft KX3 immensely I have some strange fondness for TEN-TEC equipment. Ten-Tec has made some quirky radios with legendary full break-in QSK and supposedly smooth, quiet receivers for CW operators for a few decades now. So when a Craigslist posting leaped into my browser window (I don't know how that happened) advertising a seemingly pristine late-70s rig that had supposedly been reworked to a perfection, all for $140, I just couldn't pass it up... well at least the price in the ad was accurate.
The Ten-Tec Century 21 is an interesting transceiver. In the simplest sense it was an ideal radio for the Novice Licensed HAM operator of the 1970s. It is a CW only transmitter. It doesn't require fiddling with a resonant tank circuit of the typical tube radios of the era to work out resonance. It has a built-in power supply that runs off 115-120v mains. It doesn't use a superheterodyne receiver but a direct conversion receiver (Ten-Tec called it a double direct conversion receiver). This resulted in a simplified design and good selectivity but without the IF there is no AGC so be ready to work those RF/AF gain knobs. It also has easy band changing and nice filtering. From web searches and reviews its most common problem is a PTO that has to be rebuilt every few years. The Ham I purchased mine from said it had been rebuilt. It doesn't slip (yet) but it's kinda stiff so I expect a PTO rebuild to be in my future. I spoke with a ham I work with who has rebuilt one and he said it's not difficult, simply time consuming (but he repairs electronics all day so YMMV).
Operation is relatively simple:
- Start with the radio off.
- Turn the Drive knob down (counter clockwise), select your band
- Turn the radio on by pushing in the RF Gain knob (it is the on-off switch).
- Find and open frequency (wait, listen, wait again, listen) and while holding the Set Drive button apply just enough power using the Drive knob to give you some RF out for matching your antenna. Better yet use a frequency analyzer to tune QRM free.
- After you're matched up you can bring the power up to where you want to operate. Unfortunately this can't necessarily be done into a dummy load unless you're match is near 1:1. The SWR will affect how much output drive you can use. If you're going to run QRP then no worries because you won't be running the power input up to a point that could trip the final, Maximum input power is marked by the thick line on the Input Power meter (about 70w). This results in differing output wattage dependent on antenna resistance and frequency. I found that into a 50ohm dummy load I could generate up to 40w output for 80m, 35w output for 40m, 30w output for 20m and so on, down to about 15w output on 10m. As I plan to use the rig for QRP this is mostly academic. It certainly can provide more than QRP output levels if conditions warrant.
To Tune a Station prior to the QSO
This seems more complicated than it should be but I'm guessing after I've done it a few dozen times it will become automatic.
The Offset Knob
The CW tone you hear is the difference between the current PTO tuning and the position of the Offset knob. The Offset knob can be an offset to either side of the current frequency (think of this as CWR depending on your band). In other words the zero position of the Offset knob applies zero audio offset to the currently tuned frequency so you wouldn't hear a tone from a signal with zero offset. You should have the Offset knob slightly to the left on 80m and 40m (LSB offset) and slightly to the right of zero for the USB bands.
The Zero Beat Knob
So with the information above in mind... Pressing the Zero Beat button defeats whatever the Offset knob is set to (effectively zeroing the offset). When you are exactly on frequency with a signal the audio from the signal nulls (goes silent). This null / silence is your indication that your transmitter frequency matches the other station.
However I've found that the Null or Zero Beat is quite broad, such that you could be up to 250Hz off frequency based on where you leave the PTO in the Null.
For my radio, on LSB bands, I press the Zero Beat button, find the null and then go past it (turning the knob to the left) and then just tweak it back into the null. At least for my radio that works. Maybe other Century 21s have a finer Q on the Null.
After you have zero beat the signal you can use the Offset knob like a RIT. The range on that knob is really broad. I think the manual said 5kHz so just a touch goes a long way unless you like to listen to CW with a ear piercing 2kHz, high pitched tone.
Here's a video demonstrating operating the rig...
Here's a video demonstrating operating the rig...
|TEN-TEC Century 21 -- Front Panel Controls|
The Century 21 has full break-in QSK on at all times. It is extremely clean with no discernable pops or artifacts. One complaint I have is that the pitch and tone of the sidetone itself is fixed. You can vary the volume through a little hole in the bottom cover to turn a thumb wheel, from very loud to just loud but you cannot change the pitch and it's a bit harsh sounding.
The headphone jack on my particular radio is broken. I need to open it up to resolve that before the wife uses a large heavy object on my beautiful new transceiver.
This video demonstrates the receiver selectivity of this old radio.
Where is the S-Meter?
This is a bare bones transceiver with just the basics necessary for CW communication. As far as information for the operator: Well there's an analog dial that gives you a rough indication (within 5kHz) of where you are transmitting, and an input wattage gauge for the drive and that's all. Notably missing is a Signal Strength meter so the signal reports you send will be based on your ear, or how generous you're feeling at the time.
It's a little funny to me that I'm enjoying using this radio given it's lack of... well just about everything compared to my Elecraft KX3 whose tiny display indicates Signal Strength, Signal Relative to Zero Beat, SWR, RIT Offset, VFO A/B (down to a 10Hz range) Time, PA Temp, etc. It just goes to show you how much modern rigs have that, when it comes down to it, isn't actually necessary for communication.
A bit of history about TenTec QRP radios and the C21 from a 1977 magazing article...
- Frequency Coverage: 3.5 to 4.0; 7.0 to 7.5; 14.0 to 14.5; 21.0 to 21.5; 28.0 to 28.5; 28.5 to 29.0 MHz. (Crystal not supplied for 28.5 to 29.0 MHz, but available as accessory, Model 273.) Note - Early models only included crystals for 3.5, 7, and 14 MHz bands. Crystals for 21 Mhz and 28 Mhz bands were available as optional Models numbers 271 and 272.
- VFO Frequency Stability: less than 20 Hz change per degree Fahrenheit, averaged over a 40o change from 70o to 110o, after 30 minute warmup. Less than 20 Hz change from 105 to 125 VAC line voltage.
- Direct Frequency Readout: Marked in 5 kHz increments from 0 - 500 kHz, MHz markings for each band displayed.
- Tuning Rate: Approximately 17 kHz per revolution of main tuning knob.
- Power Requirements: 105 - 125 VAC, 50-60 Hz. 10 watts receive, 100 watts transmit.
- Semiconductors: 25 transistors, 26 diodes, 5 integrated circuits.
- PC Boards: 4 plug-in types, 6 integral.
- Construction: Rigid aluminum chassis and sub-panels. Aluminum case. Grey front panel, black textured vinyl cover.
- Dimensions: HWD 6.125" x 12.5" x 12"
- Weight: 15.5 lbs
- Sensitivity: 1 uV or less for 10 dB S+N/N.
- Selectivity: Three position; 0.5, 1.0, and 2.5 kHz.
- VFO Frequency: 5.0 to 5.5 MHz. Double Direct Conversion.
- Antenna Input: 50 ohms, unbalanced.
- Audio Output: 1 watt @ 8 ohms, less than 2% harmonic distortion. Built-in speaker; PHONES jack.
- Offset Tuning: Approximately +/- 5 kHz, defeatable with ZERO BEAT switch.
- DC Input Power: 70 watts
- RF Output Power: 25-30 watts, typical.
- Output Impedance: 50 - 75 ohms, unbalanced.
- T/R Switching: Full break-in cw with PIN diode switch.
Sample QSO... Listen to the lovely receiver but the horrible sidetone.
Update: Here's another QSO I made a few months later into learning the Code.
And here's yet another from Straight Key Night 2017.
Some of this old beauty's insides...
As I use the rig more I'll try to make some recordings and post them in subsequent blogs but that's all for now.
So lower your power and raise your expectations
73 / 72
AA4OO (formerly N4PBQ)